In just a couple of weeks, Star Trek will return to television for the first time in over a decade with the anticipated new series, Star Trek: Discovery. Set roughly a decade before The Original Series, the new series will explore the Federation’s growing influence in the galaxy as well as the difficult trials they have to face, particularly with the Klingon Empire.
At the Fan Expo convention in Toronto this past weekend, Sonequa Martin-Green, Jason Issacs, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Shazad Latif and Kenneth Mitchell of the cast sat down with writer/producer Ted Sullivan in a panel to discuss what led them to the new series and how it would honour the legacy of Gene Roddenberry and the franchise.
Martin-Green plays the lead role of Michael Burnham, the first officer of the USS Shenzhou before coming aboard the discovery. She revealed some surprising backstory into her character, revealing that she is actually of Vulcan upbringing thanks to Spock’s father, Sarek. “My parents were killed when I was very young and it happened at a Vulcan outpost,” said Martin-Green. “I was then committed to Sarek and Amanda so they became my surrogate parents and Spock my surrogate brother. It was quite the culture shock, that’s an understatement, in having to go from being human to assimilating to being Vulcan. There was a lot of pressure and there is an identity crisis.”
In this way, she’ll actually have a friendly rivalry with Doug Jones’ Lieutenant Saru. Like Michael, Saru is also a fish out of water as the first of his race, the Kelpians, to join Starfleet. Jones also gave a little more information and insight into what drives Saru, revealing some of the Kelpian’s backstory.
“I’m the first of my species to ever be seen on any Star Trek show or movie,” Jones revealed. “It’s kind of a fun thing to help develop as the actor of a brand new species. Kelpians are a prey species where I come from. We’re the hunted, we’re the farmed, we’re the herded and we’re the eaten. I’m the first of my kind to go through Starfleet Academy and to rise to a high-ranking position on a starship. It puts me in a brother-sister relationship with Sonequa here because she’s the first human to go to Vulcan Academy, I’m the first Kelpian to Starfleet Academy. We’re kind of competitive with each other, elbowing each other out of the way for the captain’s chair. We annoy each other, but we also have a deep, deep love and admiration for each other too.”
Jones is also famous for playing characters with extensive make-up, often covering his full face or even having someone else provide the character’s voice, such as in Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Batman Returns and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. How he approaches portraying these characters with so little of his own face or voice “starts with the design,” Jones said. “The design team, Neville Page and Glenn Hetcher, really knocked it out of the park. Saru is an alien, but he’s also very warm and friendly and connectable. The design helps me and the writers with the backstory to who he is, where he comes from and what his goal, needs, wants and loves are.”
As for the ship’s captain, Jason Issacs told the audience his Captain Lorca is a “very messed up character” (though he humourously said he used a different descriptive backstage) and that he wanted to play the role a little more straight. “There was no point trying to step into the gigantic boots of people who have captained starships before. I couldn’t even push the foothills above of what William Shatner did, but this wasn’t that. This was an interesting, complicated character, as they all are, on a long journey that felt like an acting job. It didn’t feel like ‘go be the hero of a starhsip’, it felt like a story for our times and that’s why I did it.”
Star Trek: Discovery also has a lifelong fan in its midst with Anthony Rapp, who said he couldn’t believe he got to hold a phaser and tricorder and say the words ‘beam me up’ in an actual scene. He is playing Paul Stamets, a science officer who studies astromycology and is actually based on a real mycologist of the same name. He told the audience that the one aspect he’s really excited for is the fact Stamets is the first openly gay character on a Star Trek show.
“In the great tradition of Star Trek, that’s not an issue in any way. It is what it is. It’s a fact of my character’s life just as it was a fact of Uhura’s life that she was a black woman and it wasn’t an issue. That’s another reason I’m proud of it, that it’s a vision of the future where that will not be the case.”
We also got a bit more information on Kenneth Mitchell’s K’ol. “He is the leader of the House of K’or. He’s a great warrior and a bit of an alpha Klingon amongst the Klingon leaders. We’re at war and the stakes are high. The series kind of explores 24 different houses and their different ideologies and we’re not always agreeing with each other, especially K’ol. He has a large conflict and disagreement with the T’Kuvma and then there’s the Federation who he doesn’t like.”
The panel also touched on the themes and style of the series. There’s been a lot of speculation about when exactly the series is placed and how it would be done, including the backstage drama of Bryan Fuller’s exit and how the show would be heavily serialized. When Fuller was onboard, he described each episode as one chapter of a book, and while the serialized aspect remains, Ted Sullivan cleared up some things.
“One thing that drives me a little crazy about serialized storytelling is that each episode doesn’t have a theme,” Sullivan explained. “It’s supposed to. They’re chapters, but they’re supposed to have a beginning, middle and end. We’re really endeavouring to do that and ask how are we reflecting the political times, the social times and the environmental times. What’s the point of these 40 – 50 minutes of television?”
That said, he did add that canon is important to the show, especially with one so large as Star Trek. “Canon is like arithmetic. You start the story and you check your math. If we tell this story, does it bump up against canon, would we run into a problem down the road? But where story really lives is in the calculus of storytelling, the themes and the characters. Canon is an important part of it and we do a final canon pass afterwards, but we tend to focus more on what is the best story we can tell and how do we use these characters. We’re also doing a version of Star Trek where people don’t do a hard re-set at the end of the episode. I think it’s a really interesting part, but it’s a challenging part because it’s essentially a 15-hour movie.”
The world and characters of Star Trek: Discovery do sound interesting, especially the new elements they’re bringing into and the time they’re exploring in the show. It certainly sounds a little different than most of the other Star Treks, but Sullivan also added that the main character they’ve brought over from the older shows is Gene Roddenberry. “In general what we’re doing is trying to live up to what he was trying to do, which was for Star Trek to be a mirror of what’s going on in the world right now. In essence, the core of the show is Gene Roddenberry.”
Star Trek: Discovery premieres with a 2-hour episode on September 24.