On ‘Star Trek: Discovery,’ a Franchise Boldly Goes Into the Serial TV Era

On ‘Star Trek: Discovery,’ a Franchise Boldly Goes Into the Serial TV Era

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“The world got pretty horrible in the last couple of years,” Alex Kurtzman, the other co-creator, said. “More than ever, as the world as gotten darker, people need ‘Star Trek.’”

As he and his colleagues have worked on “Discovery,” Mr. Kurtzman said they have asked themselves: “How do you honor the optimism and hope of ‘Star Trek,’ while also reflecting a brutal time? That is a reason to make a television show.”

Mr. Kurtzman, a writer and producer of the 2009 “Star Trek” film reboot and its 2013 sequel “Star Trek Into Darkness,” was first approached by CBS a few years ago about creating a new “Star Trek” TV series.

Mr. Kurtzman, whose other TV credits include “Fringe,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “Hawaii Five-0,” was initially hesitant. To him and to millions of fans, “Star Trek” is a sacred institution, whose patient storytelling and progressive outlook have endured for more than 50 years while spawning numerous imitators.

“The only reason to do a new ‘Trek’ television show is if you have something really new to say,” Mr. Kurtzman said.

But Mr. Kurtzman became more intrigued by the idea of a series that could say and do more than even the big-budget movies — that could, as he put it, “live in the nuance and moral quandary that you don’t have time for in the films.”

A scene from “Star Trek: Discovery.”

Credit
Jan Thijs/CBS

About two and a half years ago, he began to work out the premise of a new show with Mr. Fuller, who developed TV’s “Hannibal” and is a showrunner of “American Gods,” and who previously wrote for the “Star Trek” series “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager.”

Mr. Kurtzman and Mr. Fuller set their story in an era when the United Federation of Planets has achieved a seeming utopia but remains fearful of the mysterious and belligerent Klingon race. The creators made their protagonist a Starfleet first officer — a more vulnerable, less certain character — rather than a captain, as past “Trek”s have done.

This character is highly regarded on her starship and throughout the Federation, but, in the earliest episodes of “Discovery,” she makes some fateful choices that fundamentally change how she is perceived, and that land her on a new vessel, surrounded by unfamiliar crewmates on an enigmatic mission. (To say much more would violate the prime directive of serial TV: no spoilers.)

As Mr. Kurtzman explained, “I tend to gravitate towards stories that surprise me, that set you up in a comfort zone and then pull the rug out, and now you’ve got a season’s worth of television to rectify that.”

CBS announced “Star Trek: Discovery” in November 2015, with Mr. Kurtzman as its executive producer. Mr. Fuller was named its showrunner in February 2016, and the debut of the series was planned for January 2017.

A larger producing team was assembled, including trusted franchise participants like Eugene (Rod) Roddenberry, the son of the “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, and Nicholas Meyer, the director of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and the writer-director of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”

This group also included the writing partners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts, who had previously worked with Mr. Fuller on shows like “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies.” Though they were not hard-core “Star Trek” fans, they saw “Discovery” as a fascinating character drama, and looked to Mr. Fuller to bring them up to speed on the deeper “Trek” lore.

“We were like, ‘Listen, we’re going to be listening to every word that comes out of your mouth,’” Ms. Berg recalled. “We knew it was going to be a crash course.”

In September 2016, CBS pushed the “Discovery” premiere date to May 2017, to give the show some breathing room. The first cast members were hired, including Michelle Yeoh as Captain Georgiou, Anthony Rapp as the dyspeptic science officer Lt. Stamets, and Doug Jones as the Kelpien alien crew member Lt. Saru.

After a far-reaching audition process, Mr. Fuller wanted Sonequa Martin-Green, a star of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” to play the central character, First Officer Michael Burnham.

But a problem arose: Ms. Martin-Green was not available for the start of production on “Discovery” because she still had a few remaining weeks on “The Walking Dead,” where her character was slated to be killed off.

A scene from the original “Star Trek” with, from left: DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, William Shatner, George Takei and James Doohan.

Credit
Paramount Pictures

The “Star Trek” role, Ms. Martin-Green said, “moved on from me, as it needed to.” When that decision was made, she said, “I was in such a place of peace.”

Behind the scenes, however, “Discovery” was falling behind schedule. Sets, costumes and special effects needed to be designed; budgets were growing to more than $6 million an episode; and Mr. Fuller disagreed with the TV veteran David Semel (“Madam Secretary”), who had been hired to direct its pilot episode.

Last October, CBS announced that Mr. Fuller would step away from “Star Trek: Discovery” to focus on “American Gods” and other projects. He declined to comment for this story.

Mr. Harberts and Ms. Berg were named the new showrunners, a decision they said was necessary to preserve Mr. Fuller’s fundamental vision of the show.

“We may not know what every single iteration of ‘Trek’ is, but we know what this iteration was supposed to be and what we all set out to do,” Mr. Harberts said. “Truthfully, that hasn’t changed a lot.”

Ms. Berg added, “We didn’t think it would survive if anybody new took over. Chances are, anybody new coming in would wipe the slate clean.”

The premiere of “Discovery” was pushed back to September, and this latest postponement allowed Ms. Martin-Green to come on board after all.

Recalling an update she received from the “Star Trek” staff, Ms. Martin-Green said, “They told me, ‘It’s you. We can’t find anybody else. We’ll make it work.’ That last delay made me available.”

With only days to go before “Discovery” finally makes its maiden voyage, no one is quite sure how it will be received by the “Trek” faithful or by a broader audience.

Akiva Goldsman, an executive producer of “Discovery” and a “Star Trek” fan since the 1970s, said the new series did not disguise the lessons and influences it took from contemporary shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead,” where actions have lasting consequences and characters’ lives are always at risk.

Mr. Goldsman, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “A Beautiful Mind,” said that the “Star Trek” TV franchise had gradually evolved toward long-form storytelling.

Chris Pine, left, and Zachary Quinto in the 2009 film “Star Trek,” directed by J.J. Abrams.

Credit
Industrial Light & Magic/Paramount Pictures

On a vintage “Star Trek” episode like “The City on the Edge of Forever,” in which Kirk must allow a character played by Joan Collins to die, Mr. Goldsman said, “He’s shattered. But he’s not allowed to carry those feelings to the next episode.”

Later “Star Trek” shows like “Deep Space Nine” and “Enterprise” have moved further away from stand-alone episodes and on “Discovery,” Mr. Goldsman said, “We don’t reset every week. Because serialization replicates life.”

There is no way to be sure, either, how many viewers will follow “Discovery” from their TV sets to a paid online service. (CBS, which hopes the show will drive more subscribers to CBS All Access, used a similar strategy to introduce “The Good Fight,” its spinoff of “The Good Wife.”)

Mr. Kurtzman said the decision to release “Discovery” this way was “far above my pay grade — it’s not for me to make and I don’t have any influence over how they choose to roll it out.”

He added, “What I do have control over is the quality of the show.” Once that decision was made, he said, “It put extra emphasis on my argument that we had to make it worth people’s money.”

As Mr. Kurtzman saw it, that called for better special effects and better production design, and even traveling to Jordan to shoot the opening scene of the pilot episode in order to keep pace with the shows that “Discovery” wants to be measured against.

“People have to pay for ‘Game of Thrones,’ too,” he said. “Nobody’s complaining about that. That becomes our standard now.”

What will ultimately make “Discovery” worthwhile, the people behind it say, are not the inspirations it draws from elsewhere, but the historical “Star Trek” values it carries forward and battle-tests in settings that a modern audience will recognize.

Mr. Jones, who has frequently appeared in fantasies like “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” said “Star Trek” was unique because “it takes place in a future that is idealistic and hopeful.”

“There is conflict, but we have ways of working it out that don’t involve archaic blood baths, hopefully,” Mr. Jones said. “Our adversaries may not, but we find a way, with intellect and reason and the human spirit, that will always win.

As Mr. Goldsman asked: “All those associations with ‘to boldly go’ — how do we maintain those under the greatest kinds of duress? They have to be put under pressure and they have to be earned.”

Looking ahead at the show he has helped to create, and back at the process it took to make it, Mr. Goldsman added, “Boy, that’s relevant today.”

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