Red alert: This post contains spoilers from the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. Boldly go forward at your own risk.
We’re only two episodes into Star Trek: Discovery… and we’re already down one captain.
Episode 2 of the highly anticipated Trek series — only available to CBS All Access subscribers — ended with Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou getting fatally stabbed by Klingon warrior T’Kuvma before Burnham shot him dead with a phaser. And things only got worse for Burnham: She pled guilty to mutiny for neck-pinching Georgiou in the premiere and was stripped of her Starfleet rank and (yikes) sentenced to life in prison.
We know Burnham eventually gets out and onto the bridge of the USS Discovery — a ship we still haven’t even seen yet! — but it’s still a bold beginning for the first Trek TV series in more than a decade. And after an endless string of delays, executive producer Alex Kurtzman is relieved that he can finally share Discovery with the Trek fandom: “I’ve been holding my breath for a year and a half,” he tells TVLine.
Kurtzman (who co-wrote the pilot with departed co-creator Bryan Fuller) weighs in on the decision to kill off Georgiou, Ned Stark-style; the show’s new take on the Klingon race; the decision to make fans pay a monthly fee to watch the rest of the season; and the possibility of more nods to the original Trek series. (Short answer: Yes, very possible.) Plus, he drops a few intriguingly vague hints about what’s on tap for the rest of the season. Readers… engage.
TVLINE | Captain Georgiou felt like a major character, but then she’s killed at the end of Episode 2. Was that always the plan, to have her just be in the very beginning of the series?
The first thing that I’ll reiterate, which was also said at Comic-Con, is: Have patience with us. Let’s wait and see what happens. But yes, this was always the plan. Going back a year and a half ago, when Bryan and I were first working on the story, part of that idea was to set up an incredibly complicated emotional situation for Burnham, to put her in a place at the beginning of the season where she was in real trouble, where anything that you had predicted going into the series would be rendered moot by the end of the second episode. In a way, the idea was: Set the audience up to believe it was going to be about one thing, and then pull the rug out from them by the end of the second [episode].
[Burnham] is Starfleet’s first mutineer, and she has just lost her dearest friend and surrogate mother, and is now carrying the weight of responsibility for having started a war with the Klingons, which she, and the audience, will have to evaluate over the course of the season. If she started the war, did she do the best that she could? Would the war have started anyway? These are all big questions that the series will wrestle with. And I think what I loved about the boldness of it was… once we started thinking in those terms, anything became possible. We knew from the very beginning that we wanted this season to be about how to hold onto your optimism in the face of great adversity. There’s been a lot of controversy among fans. A lot of articles said, “Oh, are they throwing away the core idea of Trek?” Which is Gene Roddenberry’s uniquely optimistic vision of the future, and that answer to that is: absolutely not. You can’t do that. That is what Star Trek is about. But sometimes the best way to reinforce that message is through adversity, and to really ask yourself, “How far are you willing to go to protect that ideal?” And that’s what the season’s going to be about. So all of those story elements came together and felt like the right launching pad for us.
TVLINE | How is Burnham welcomed onto her new ship, the Discovery? From the trailer, it looks like a lot of people blame her for starting this war.
Well, I would definitely not say she is “welcomed” onto the ship. [Laughs] Which is also dramatically very interesting. In some ways, we always looked at Episode 3 as a pilot reset, because now she’s in an entirely new ship. You’ll find some original crew members, but a whole new crew, composed of the core Discovery cast. And her placement on that ship and her relationship to that crew is going to be entirely defined by what happened to her [in the first two episodes]. She, and they, will have to struggle through that.
TVLINE | The Klingons have a drastically different look here. They’re almost more alien than we’ve seen in the past. Why the reinvention?
One of the core tenets of Star Trek is a fundamental understanding of “the other,” and “the other” tends to not look like we do. I think we wanted to exaggerate that, and bring that to the foreground, because one of the main objectives of our show is to understand their culture and, to use a strange word, humanize them and to see where they’re coming from. I’ve gone through a couple different design versions of Klingons, because we did a little bit of reinvention in the second movie, [Star Trek:] Into Darkness. And it’s a very controversial choice when you begin to play around with anything Star Trek-related [Laughs], let alone the look of the Klingons. There was a lot of early reaction: “Oh God, what are they doing? Are they destroying the Klingons?” But I think all Trek fans understand that if you are making decisions based on a genuine respect for canon and a love for story, and for the big themes and big ideas that Trek is about, you tend to get latitude.
TVLINE | We do see Sarek in the premiere, and we know Harry Mudd is coming, and Discovery is only set a decade before the original Trek series. Any chance we might see more familiar characters, or even just nods to the original series?
For sure. We’re operating in a time that has been referenced within canon, but not entirely elaborated on. So that gives us some freedom to invent certain details, as long as we’re consistent with the details that everybody knows about. Harry Mudd is a great example of that. Yes, we can, and should, meet characters who exist within the universe at the time, and the question is: How do you present them in a way that is consistent to the vision of the original characters, but also bring something new to the table? To me, it’s the hardest part about doing Trek, but it’s the most rewarding if you get it right.
TVLINE | Episode 1 ends on a huge cliffhanger. Did you deliberately craft that as a hook to send people to CBS All Access to see how it’s resolved?
Absolutely. There’s no question. We’re asking a lot of our audience. We’re asking them to go pay for the rest of the story, and we’re all very aware of that. And we’re aware that it’s been a controversial choice. I think the responsibility that we feel… is to make the money worth it. I’m very happy to pay for Game of Thrones. And if we can deliver something of that scope and scale, and of that visceral, emotional experience, and that long-term character investment… I know I can’t get something like Game of Thrones on network television, and that’s why I’m happy to pay for it. So our responsibility is to make sure that we deliver to our audience and fans a Star Trek that exceeds the boundaries of network TV.
TVLINE | Episode 2 ends on sort of a cliffhanger, too, with Burnham being stripped of her rank and sentenced to prison. Is the entire season set up like that: highly serialized, with each episode leading into the next?
There’s no doubt. Not every episode ends on a cliffhanger, but many do. And it’s because there is an evolving, serialized story, which has been incredibly liberating and exciting for us. Unlike the original series, which is more of a mission-of-the-week, this is a much longer-term arc, and what we love about it is the ability to live in the emotional lives of the characters, episode to episode. Whatever they experience, they carry with them into the next episode, and whatever storylines are set up are often long-term arcs that will require many episodes to play out. It’s a lot more fun to write, honestly.
TVLINE | So does the war between Starfleet and the Klingons span the entirety of Season 1, then?
Hmmm, that’s a tricky question you’re asking me. [Pause] I’m gonna say yes.
TVLINE | Is the series still planned to be an anthology, with a new timeline and characters each season?
There was early conversation about that. I know that was something that Bryan had really liked. But I think what we felt was that these characters are so interesting to us that we would not want to leave them at the end of this season.
TVLINE | Anything else you can tease that’s coming up later this season?
There’s just so much to spoil! I’m trying to figure out how not to spoil it. Well, I think Burnham is going to be tested in many ways, as is the rest of the crew. Old ghosts may come back to haunt her over the course of the season. The duality of her character, the line between human and Vulcan, is going to be a challenge for her. The war may not play out exactly as we think. And I think that’s all I can really tell you. [Laughs]