SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched episodes 1 and 2 of “Star Trek: Discovery.”
“Star Trek” returned to TV on Sunday night after a 12-year absence with the premiere of “Star Trek: Discovery.” The first episode of the new series, which stars Sonequa Martin-Green as Cmdr. Michael Burnham, aired on CBS, with the second episode made available immediately after on CBS All Access, where all subsequent episodes will debut.
The first two episodes find Burnham, a human raised by Vulcans, caught up in — and arguably instigating — the beginning of a war between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. Akiva Goldsman, an executive producer on the show, spoke to Variety about Burnham and the season ahead.
As you were working on these first two episodes, how much did you want to reveal about Michael Burnham’s background?
It will sound facile to say that we wanted to reveal about as much as we revealed. What’s pretty exciting about this version of the object is that we can slow-play it. That’s the gift we got from being serialized. People often think “Ooh, you can show people having sex” or “Ooh, you can have violence.” For us, those are not really factors. For us, it’s serialized storytelling that’s really the revelatory component. So we play out Burnham’s backstory all the way through the season. And that is something that you typically don’t get to do in less serialized, more stand-alone versions of “Star Trek.”
She’s an interesting character in part because she’s human but has been raised by Vulcans and has traits of both. When writing her, how do you walk that line?
We asked what was she like as a child, what was she like after she had been on Vulcan for a long period of time, what was she like when she first arrived, which we see in episode two. Then what is she like at the end of episode two? What is she like at the beginning of episode three, and what is she like at the end of the first season? We played around. To find her voice was sort of a delightful adventure, because we knew that we wanted to hybridize those things that are often a dialectic in “Star Trek,” Vulcan culture and human culture, to do it in a way that was unique to this idea of a character that Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman came up with, which is a human raised by Vulcans — which is very different from Spock, who is half human, or Saavik who is a Vulcan who has affected a more typically human countenance, or somebody like Sarek who is Vulcan but clearly attracted to humans. We have the complications between humans going back to T’Pol and Jonathan Archer.
What is her relationship with Sarek?
The meat of that relationship, which is foster child to foster parent, is honestly one of the significant stories that we’re telling. As character stories go, it is one of the spines of the narrative. And like all parent-child relationships, evolving. I think that in [episodes] one and two we start to see that we’re going to be dealing with a period of external conflict and crisis, and how that motivates character decisions throughout the course of the show. It also creates intense strains-slash-enhancements in interpersonal relationships. How Sarek deals with his daughter is different in [episode] one than it is in two than it is in subsequent episodes. Burnham’s role has changed, so Sarek’s view of her continues to change.
Is Burnham’s relationship with Spock going to become a factor at any point?
Right now we are really trying to be very gentle about any kind of direct intersection with what we would consider hero components of “TOS” [the original series]. It’s certainly mentioned, but it’s not explored.
How did you want to portray her relationship with Philippa in these two episodes?
I think honestly what we were trying to say as the show begins was, “Hey, this is a little familiar.” There’s a somewhat more stoic character and a kind of jocular but wiser captain, and there they are on a planet doing good. I think what we wanted was a relationship that seemed like a relationship out of “Star Trek.” They really are going about the business of mentoring and being mentored, of doing good, of saving things and folks from harm. They’re explorers — kind, magnanimous, benevolent explorers. And as we start to see over the first two episodes, Philippa was chosen by Sarek in part to help Burnham regain some of her humanity, so Philippa becomes a bit of a surrogate mother.
What is the impact of her death going to be for Michael?
That’s sort of the engine for the series, really. In [episodes] one and two we’re sort of launching the show, then the show lands, really begins its journey, in three. And you can see that everything really is a result of Burnham’s decision at the end of two to do what she does.
A lot of time is invested in Philippa and T’kuvma, and both die at the end of the second episode. Did you have concerns about investing so much time into two characters who would then presumably not be onscreen in the third episode?
We didn’t. Maybe we were unwise not to. I think that, again, part of what we’re trying to do is tell stories that get to evolve. If Jim Kirk had been forced to deal with the death of Edith Keeler in “The City on the Edge of Forever,” or any of those devastating moments that happened in the original series or any of the subsequent series, in a real-time way, it would have lasted much more than an episode. Real losses, life and death, these aren’t done in an hour. If you like “Game of Thrones,” you couldn’t have been more startled when Ned Stark died. It was “What the f—?” And it wasn’t in any way exploitative. And “Walking Dead” has internalized it in its grammar. It’s appropriate. It’s an apocalyptic show — and how great, he says, that people die in an apocalyptic show. It makes it much more real. For us, it’s not death-of-the week, by any means, but it’s about how you portray war. And war has real losses. If you’re going to start with the proposition that the Federation is going to be exposed to the pressures of war, it should be real. It should be meaningful.