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Inside ‘Star Trek Discovery’: The Franchise’s Answer to the Trump Era

How ‘Trek’ finally came back to TV – and why the new show is a response to our politically volatile moment.

Walk onto the soundstages at Toronto’s Pinewood Studios, a massive complex of airplane hangers jutting out into Lake Ontario, and you’ll see transporter rooms, engine rooms and lots of vaguely futuristic hallways. A producer is giving journalists an impromptu tour, pointing out small details like the Malaysian puppets hanging in an officer’s ready room and bragging about the creation processes of phasers, badges and alien races.

Walk a little further, and you’ll come to a gleaming bridge. A Starfleet commander’s seat sits in the middle. There are work stations on both sides, complete with seats and small displays showing wavy blue lines. Everything is in varying shades of gray, with the metal gleaming a shade brighter than the darker upholstery. The whole thing faces a giant hole, through which actors will see a green screen and viewers will eventually see the cosmos. Everything curves around the outside to the top, making it feel as if you’re inside an egg or a womb. This is where Captain Gabriel Lorca will lead the voyages of the starship Discovery – to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, and to boldly go where a TV show has not gone in a long, long while.

When Star Trek: Discovery premieres on September 25th (in Australia via Netflix, in the U.S. by the show’s developers, CBS), it will be the first time in over a decade that the universe Gene Rodenberry created will be back on the small screen. It’s not as if the franchise had disappeared entirely: J.J. Abrams semi-rebooted the movies starting in 2009, prompting a range of feelings among longtime fans (see this Reddit thread). But considering that prior to the previous series, Star Trek: Enterprise, going off the air in 2005, there was an 18-year run of Trek shows on TV, the absence was noticeable. In the interim, there have been countless rumours about possible new series: Michael Dorn (The Next Generation‘s Worf) was supposedly developing a version starring himself as a captain; the original Sulu, George Takei, was doing the same.

So when the Tiffany Network first announced it had begun working on Discovery in November of 2015, the show already had a lot to fight against: the beloved shows of the past; the imagined spin-offs, sequels, prequels and side trips that never came to fruition; and the new films that often left fans frustrated, underwhelmed and defensive.

“I sort of bent over under the weight of it in the beginning,” said Walking Dead veteran Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays one of Discovery‘s main characters, Michael Burnham. “I just felt taken over and crushed underneath it. But I realised that’s the complete wrong way of looking at this … I believe it’s a story that will incite positive change. And so I want to put all of my focus and energy and passion into that.”

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Jason Isaacs in ‘Star Trek: Discovery.’ Credit: CBS

Set roughly a decade before the timeline established by the original 1966 Star Trek, Discovery revolves largely around Burnham, a human raised by Vulcans and mentored by Captain Phillipa Georgiou, played by Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). She commands the starship Shenzhou; the Discovery, the show’s other primary vessel, is run by the mysterious, gruff, and possibly untrustworthy Lorca, played by Jason Isaacs. A war is brewing between the Federation and the Klingon empire. Veteran creature actor Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth) shows up as a Kelpien, a new alien species, while Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz break ground as the franchise’s first openly gay characters, as well as the first originally conceived of as a stable couple from the get-go. “Diversity has always been championed on Star Trek,” notes Martin-Green. “And we’re certainly taking that to the next level.”

When CBS executives initially decided to develop a new Star Trek show – partially to attract subscribers to what would become CBS All Access – the idea of emphasising the franchise’s long history of inclusion, diversity and multicultural respect was a no-brainer. What was less obvious, however, was what story they wanted to tell. They brought on a creative team headed by Alex Kurtzman, producer of the 2009 reboot, and Bryan Fuller, a showrunner who’d gotten his start in TV writing for Voyager and Deep Space Nine before creating beloved cult shows like Hannibal. The duo had imagined the new series as a prequel, setting it in the increasingly small window of Trek lore that hadn’t already been covered.

As they began to set up the parameters of what the new show would be like and sketch out ideas, however, the process began to drag on. A January 2016 premiere date was moved to May, then September; over that summer, Fuller soon brought on longtime collaborator Aaron Harberts and his writing partner Gretchen Berg as co-executive producers. Eventually, he left Discovery to focus on other projects like Starz’s American Gods, and Harberts and Berg soon found themselves running the show. (Variety reported, however, that Fuller and the network clashed over the delays and that he was “pushed out”; requests for comment from his production company and the network were not returned.) Handed the reigns, they started to envision a slightly darker version of the usual Trek stories. There’s a simple reason for that: Donald Trump.

The Trump phenomenon was “front and centre in our minds,” Harberts admits when talking about the post-Fuller production process. “We felt like it would be interesting to really look at what’s going on in the United States.” He mentions that among the show’s antagonists are an ultra-religious and violent Klingon faction whose rallying cry – “Remain Klingon” – is intentionally reminiscent of “Make America Great Again.”

“It’s a call to isolationism,” the showrunner says in reference to the slogan. “It’s about racial purity, and it’s about wanting to take care of yourself. And if anybody is reaching a hand out to help you, it’s about smacking it away… That was pretty provocative for us, and it wasn’t necessarily something that we wanted to completely lean into. But it was happening. We were hearing the stories.”

“We’re living in monstrous times, let’s not dance around it,” Jason Isaacs says, in a separate interview. “Hideous, divisive times, when all sorts of stuff we thought was long buried is coming to the surface, and being encouraged by the most powerful people on the planet. We’re living in disgusting times.

“I don’t think science fiction can solve any of these things,” he continues. “But we are holding up an optimistic vision of what the world could be – a better vision of ourselves.”

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Mary Chieffo, left, and Chris Obi in ‘Star Trek: Discovery.’ Credit: Jan Thijs/CBS

This mixture of dark and light is the picture that emerges of Discovery after extensive conversations with its cast and creators. The original Star Trek aired during some of America’s most tumultuous times; protests, riots, and assassinations all rocked the country during its run from 1966 to 1969. It acknowledged these problems, but didn’t feel the need to lecture; instead, the crew of the Enterprise modelled positive behaviour, showing the world that people of all races, genders and nationalities could work together to make a better world. The producers of Discovery hope to tap into this legacy. If later versions of Star Trek take place in a perfect future, Discovery is about the fight to build it.

“I think [viewers] instantly just think prestige drama – it’s dystopian, dark, antihero, grim, no hope at all,” Harberts says. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. This show is hopeful. The characters are always putting their best foot forward. To me, I just think we’ve had enough of the dystopian, dark science fiction.”

“Seeing people in a future – this is 2256 we’re talking about – be equal, and have a system based on that equality … it’s powerful,” Martin-Green says. “To see that, and to see the equality that stems from that, but it doesn’t need to be discussed, because it’s inherent. I think people need to see not just that we can fight together and be triumphant, but that we can get to a future where it’s a non-issue, where it’s not necessary to talk about that. People need to see that … that it is possible.”