With its third episode (now streaming on CBS All Access), Star Trek: Discovery finally revealed its true self.
Having spent its first hours establishing Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) as an (almost) exemplary First Officer aboard the Shenzhou, the series this Sunday night found the convicted mutineer hitching a ride aboard the U.S.S. Discovery, where her presence was perhaps not entirely happenstance. Rather, Captain Gabriel Lorca can’t help but wonder if the notorious commander who started a war with the long-dormant Klingons might want to lend her considerable skills to helping end it.
TVLIne invited Jason Isaacs to shed some light on Discovery’s crafty captain — and weigh in on the first salvos of nitpicking.
TVLINE | You and I last spoke during the Awake days.
It’s just come on Netflix actually. Really, I’m getting a whole bunch of feedback. People going, “I love this show!” I go, “Where were you?”
TVLINE | It was so good. On Discovery, even though you don’t show up until the third episode, had you seen the scripts for the first two? To get a sense of where Burnham was coming from, the world that your characters live in?
Oh God, yes. Back when I was first offered the job there were only three scripts written and they sent those to me. They said, “Just a few things: one, the show is not about the captain. Two, you’re not in the first two scripts. And three, ignore the third script, they’re going to rewrite it.” I went, “OK…. That’s really not a lot to go by,” but then I met them and chatted a couple of times, and decided to go for it.
TVLINE | What I found interesting about the third episode is that tonally it’s got some different things going on. There are lighter moments with, you know, Cadet Tilly (played by Mary Wiseman), and the occasional Tribble….
Is [Mary] not a comedy genius? She’s going to bust out big time, I think.
TVLINE | The episode also has some Alien-style horror, and you’ve got more than a dash of mystery and intrigue going on, which I liked.
That’s one of the great benefits of being able to tell a story over 15 hours. You can have essentially what’s a two-hour prologue, Episode 1 and 2. So Episode 3 really feels like the pilot, [because] for the very first time you meet the family and the ship that Burnham’s going to be on for a long time, and the story really gets under way. You could never do that if you were doing weekly episodes that have to return to zero every week. And secondly, you can be intriguing, and not have to answer the questions in what is 42 minutes and eight seconds of broadcast network hour-long drama. You can leave questions unanswered. You can leave motives unexplored. You can even have, over the course of 15 hours, people behaving inconsistently, which is what we all do in life but characters rarely do on television.
TVLINE | Even in the closing moments of the episode, Lorca is hanging out with the creature, amid this menagerie of alien skeletons. You’re like, “What kind of hobby does this guy have on the side?”
I mean, look, he’s got a tough gig, Lorca been tasked with trying to win the war, and the war’s going really badly. It’s been months since the end of Episode 2 and a lot of people died. They’re losing, and the Federation has no idea what to do. He’s good at war and he knows how to kill, and he’s been around death, so they go, “Do something. Here’s some technology we think it might lead to something.” But basically the kid gloves are off. “You have license here. We’re forgetting the Geneva Convention. All the normal rules of civil engagement are gone for you. Hire who you want, fire who you want, because if you lose this war with the Klingons, it’s the death of not just the crews, or the ships, but billions of people across many different planets.”
TVLINE | And that’s why he’s brought on Burnham, because he needs some wild cards.
Exactly right. He needs crew who are going to do what’s necessary, not hesitate. It’s a science vessel, it’s got a bunch of explorers on it. He’s completely hamstrung by who he’s surrounded by and he’s going to get all the good crew he can, and [Burnham] is someone who is not only clearly very smart and pragmatic, but she was at least once, previously, prepared to break all the rules to do what was necessary and save lives. Whether she’ll do it again… she’s a complicated creature. She’s clearly crippled by guilt. The moment I meet her, she feels like she’s never going to return a library book late.
TVLINE | It was hard seeing her like that. In the first two episodes she had been so strong and assertive, so confident, But now, she’s taken some punches.
She’s bruised, and again, that’s one of the great pros of having this long to tell a story — you have time to build a relationship between her and Georgiou, and then see what she was like when Georgiou died, and to feel the weight of that. One of the things about the original [Star Trek] series, which was my series, the one I watched growing up and loved so much, is there’d be episodes like one of my favorites, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” where one of the crewmates gets god-like powers. It’s Kirk’s closest, oldest friend… that we just met 10 seconds before, because that’s what happens on a weekly show. But for us, we have the time and the space to make relationships rich and real and surprising, to take twists and turns, and deepen.
TVLINE | What sort of distinct dynamics will we see between Lorca and other crewmembers?
Well, he’s unlike every other captain [save for Deep Space Nine‘s Sisko in later seasons] in that this is taking place in wartime, so he thinks it’s important to keep himself distant from them and not fraternize too much. He keeps them a bit scared of him so that when the s–t goes down and people are panicking, they’re all going to jump to his command and not allow the fear to get the best of them. To that extent, he reminds me a little of the guy I played in Blackhawk Down, Mike Steel, who had a similar attitude to the Rangers that the Delta people didn’t like or recognize. He felt he’d save his young boys lives if they were more scared of him than they were of the enemy. Also, Lorca has no patience for the Science Officer, poor Stamets who is just a f–king idiot who would run double blind tests forever….
TVLINE | That was a belly laugh in Episode 3 when you say to Stamets, “And he [Saru] knows you.”
Yeah — he might be brilliant at the science, but he’s a moron when it comes to recognizing the situation we’re in, why we’re in it, what needs to be done practically, and what new standards need to be set when someone’s actually shooting at your head. That’s why I feel like I’m dealing with idiots left, right and center, but I’m going to do my best to knock them in to shape, to try to literally save the world. It sounds megalomaniacal, but he is kind of tasked with saving the Federation and everybody in it, so he will do that scrupulously, or unscrupulously, any way he can.
TVLINE | Might we at some point going to get more detail on how he orchestrated Burnham’s arrival on Discovery?
Well, I’m curious why you’re asking questions about what’s going to happen in the future. You don’t really want me to tell you, do you? It’s just your curiosity manifesting itself in ways you can’t control, but when you ask, “Is this going to happen? Might we see this? Could this possibly happen?,” The only answer is to tell you, and that takes away from the joy of having the story unfold.
TVLINE | Fair enough. If I had one concern raised by Episode 3, it’s that this top-secret, spores-based “transportation” project is obviously doomed, since that technology doesn’t exist in any future Trek series. Convince me to be invested in that storyline.
Well, we’ve got 10 years. The fact that Kirk doesn’t know about it, or that it was buried somewhere in Area 51, or…. There are a lot of storylines to be played out. There are wars and peacetime adventures, characters’ lives and deaths, before you need to worry about where that technology is stored or what memories of it are kept. You know it’s no longer used, but trust me, they knew that before they wrote it. They’re very clear, in not a cop-out way, to both incorporate this stuff which is exciting and very visual, to make sure that it didn’t rankle canon.
TVLINE | What was it like for you to see—
Let me just expand on that slightly. I love engaging with the fans. I find it incredibly exhilarating because mostly it’s just people loving the fact that there’s a Star Trek around. But those people who are making a noise or being critical, although isn’t terribly welcome, I’m thrilled they’re around to display their passion for it. One thing they don’t need to worry about — and this is not to silence them, because they’re the most fun people to engage with, online at least — is that there’s nothing corporate going on here. The writers room is full of insane, diehard Trekkies, including the woman who’s written a number of the novels, and people who’ve worked on the films, and the TV shows — like Akiva [Goldsman], one of the head executive producers who was at the very, very first Star Trek conference in 1976. So anyone who thinks, “Why don’t they know the Star Trek Universe?,” believe me, you’d lose or at least draw in Trivial Pursuit against any of them.
TVLINE | One easy thing to pick on is the fact that Romulans famously invented cloaking technology, not Klingons.
Right. Right. But they spend half their day writing and half their day throwing things at each other arguing about which bits of canon are completely fixed and what’s not, what it does or doesn’t allow for. Where a canon has already contradicted itself, there might be a third way. None of this stuff goes by unnoticed. It’s terribly funny when I read some tweet or somebody goes, “Didn’t they realize that blah-blah-blah?” and you go, “Didn’t they realize?! They spent two weeks screaming at each other about this!” [Laughs]
TVLINE | Last question: Is Lorca’s eye actually wonky or is that some bit of subterfuge?
And my question to you, like my question to every fan that asks me in the streets or online, is: Why are you asking questions about how deliciously engaging the story is? Surely you don’t want an answer. Surely you want to see it played out through drama. I’m interested to know your theory. What do you think?