Plus, Mary Chieffo, who plays Klingon L’Rell, talks about her character’s new challenges, and Emmy-award winning composer Jeff Russo shares his thrill in scoring the episode’s final scene.
SPOILER ALERT: THIS ARTICLE REVIEWS PLOT DETAILS OF STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE “WILL YOU TAKE MY HAND.”
In the season 1 finale, the ultimate Star Trek guest star showed up just before the credits: the Starship Enterprise — a huge development that promises big things for season 2. In that final scene, Captain Christopher Pike was name-checked, so that’s at least one other known Star Trek character to look forward to.
We asked Kurtzman if that meant film universe actor Bruce Greenwood would make an appearance or if Spock might show up, but the veteran writer and producer, who co-wrote feature films Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness, isn’t giving away a thing. Kurtzman does review some of the politics of the series, Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) new relationship with Klingons, the possibility of Discovery making it back to broadcast TV, and the phenomenon of toxic fandoms.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: The Enterprise showing up at the end of the finale — was that the plan all along?
Alex Kurtzman: Yes, it was. The whole season was reverse-engineered from an ending that we had when we broke the season. When you’re breaking a season of television, along the way, you hit a certain point where you realize that you need to start thinking about what’s going to happen in season 2. Having the Enterprise show up in season 2, was the result of a lot of things. Obviously, the fans have a lot of questions about how we tie into canon, how Burnham and her half-brother’s relationship will play out, and those are all questions that we know an answer to.
RT: I know that you’ve been asked this a million times before, but that means Spock will show up and you will be exploring that?
Kurtzman: Anything is possible.
RT: You know what we want: We want Spock. Will we get a surprise Bruce Greenwood appearance?
Kurtzman: What you’re really asking me is Captain Pike in season 2?
Kurtzman: Anything is possible.
RT: With that, is Discovery on The Original Series timeline? It’s not like a —
Alex Kurtzman: It’s 10 years before, but it is in the same timeline, yes.
RT: So it’s not some alt-universe, Romulan thing.
Alex Kurtzman: No. It’s not some Romulan thing.
RT: Burnham, at the end, says, “We have to be torchbearers.” Can you dig in on her use of that specific word?
Alex Kurtzman: Star Trek, at its best, has always been a mirror to the time in which its made. From the beginning, obviously, the Klingon mandate of torchbearer was to carry on the tradition of the Klingon hierarchy, of the Klingon race, the Klingon species, of their history, their traditions. Part of what the message of Star Trek is and has always been, is that despite our differences, we have major commonalities. If we can find ways to see those commonalities, maybe we can avoid war and learn to coexist, and that’s the vision of Star Trek. Star Trek is a future in which very, very different species with very different belief systems, can find a way to come together. Eventually, even Klingons and the Federation, although obviously much has been said about that in the past.
You want to find a word that means something to one species and something else to another species, and yet they are able to find common meaning in the idea of it. It’s no accident at all that Burnham is adopting Klingon language at the end, because in some ways, not only is she speaking to the need for everyone in the universe to coexist, she’s speaking to her personal connection to the Klingons, to her history with the Klingons. Obviously, we’ve referenced her history with the Klingons, but it isn’t until the finale that we fully understand her story. For her to be able to say, “The Klingons murdered my parents, but I find forgiveness in that, and I adopt their language and I adopt the meaning of this term, to say we must move forward into the future,” is a way of Burnham finding her grace. It’s a way of her finding forgiveness, both for what happened to her and for the choices that she made that started the war, or didn’t start the war, depending on how you see that, in the pilot.
RT: I also thought, after she said that, Well, this just sets it up for some Klingon faction to complain about cultural appropriation.
Alex Kurtzman: You got it. They certainly will, there’s no doubt. Of course they will. Look, here’s the thing, just because we found a way for a truce to happen, does not mean that the Klingons are now happy with it. Look, we say that all the houses are divided, and L’Rell, through her ingenuity and with the help of Starfleet, is able to figure out a way to basically out chess maneuver them into making a choice they don’t want to make. In the episode right before, she’s extremely clear about it. She says, “We’re never going to stop until everybody is dead.” That’s just the way of the Klingons. There is a détente, that’s forced by ingenuity, but it does not mean that the Klingons have decided that everything’s fine. That problem could flare up at any point.
RT: With that in mind, I also thought that I was seeing a parallel to real-life foreign policy: weaponizing a religious fanatic, and expecting that person to pacify and unify their people. If that’s the case, then I think we know where this is going.
Kurtzman: Look, as Cornwell said in 14, last week’s episode. She says, “We’re not trying to change you. We’re not trying to change the way you think. You attacked us and this is not a war that we started.” I think that the idea there is that how do you come up with a solution that doesn’t force them to become other than what they are, but that does stop the war? That’s really the challenge for Starfleet. They can’t turn the Klingons into what they are not. They wouldn’t want to, but they also need to find a way to survive. It comes down to the person who initiated the first part of the conflict, to figure out a way to solve that problem.
There were lots of conversations we had over the course of the season, and it was very interesting watching all the fan conversation online, because the big question was, “Wait a minute, are we totally obliterating the meaning of Starfleet in season 1 of Discovery? Are we denying the fundamental nature of what Starfleet is? Are we presenting a dark dystopian vision of Star Trek? What happened to Gene Roddenberry’s optimism?” Those are all great questions and they’re the right questions. They’re the questions that we asked ourselves every time we were in the writer’s room, every time we were breaking a story. Fundamentally, everyone understands that on this show. That is what Star Trek is, but optimism is easy when everything’s going well. It’s much, much harder to maintain that point of view when we face challenges that potentially forces us to compromise our ideals and our values.
What happens when it comes down to a literal matter of survival? If it’s us or them, where do we fall on our value system? Interestingly enough, Starfleet is pushed to the point of having to reckon with that choice. Burnham, because she’s Burnham, and because of everything she’s experienced in the first season and everything she’s learned, has realized that it’s in some ways fundamentally more important for us to lose and be gone, than it is to break with our value system. Once we do that, Starfleet is never going to be Starfleet again. Ultimately, Starfleet accepts that outcome. They agree with her. I think that was our way of reinforcing how much we, as the writing staff and as the producers of the show, fundamentally agree with the vision of optimism. Obviously, we are facing all the same questions in reality today, and we face them every day. That’s the beauty of what Star Trek is, we get to talk about that through allegory.
RT: It’s fine to have a sort of Utopian vision of where you want to go and who you want to be, but getting there is the messy part.
Kurtzman: One hundred percent, one hundred percent. Ultimately, that vision is restored at the end. When you asked me the first question, which was, did the Enterprise, — was that always the plan? It was always the plan because we need to restore order and balance at the end. That’s the point. Now I’m going into Star Wars language, I apologize. That’s the idea, is that at the end of the show, we will travel through a great darkness in order to emerge into the light and to reaffirm everything that Starfleet is about.
RT: We’ve read and heard a million times, people arguing that they want Discovery to be on TV, is there any chance that season 1 could air on CBS, maybe as a promotion, ahead of season 2?
Kurtzman: That’s actually above my pay grade. I don’t know. My suspicion is that I think Star Trek has become the crown jewel of All Access, which obviously we’re super proud of and I think they’re very protective of. We really have that sense. I don’t know. I don’t program the network.
RT: But maybe you could plant the bug that —
Kurtzman: I would be happy to plant the bug.
RT: It seems people are reaching maximum capacity, in terms of paying subscription fees.
Kurtzman: I totally understand that, and I get that argument. I get the argument that it’s annoying to have to shell out more money just for one show every month. I guess what I would say to that is, as frustrating as that is, I do believe it’s also where we are headed, not just at All Access, but with every channel there is. We’ve all seen this incredible shift in the way people are watching television in the last five years, and the way people are watching streaming services versus network. The truth is that we probably couldn’t produce Star Trek as you’ve seen it, on a network budget. It’s probably just not possible. Would the show be different? Yes. Would it be what you saw? Unlikely.
I think part of our goal in understanding that people might be frustrated in having to pay for it, is to get them to watch it and understand why they pay for it. I’ve said this before, but I always think nobody gets angry about paying for Game of Thrones, because Game of Thrones, you’re watching this incredible serialized, cinematic experience, that you would never get on network television, never. That’s why it’s worth it. I want to believe that Star Trek is in that category, whether we have succeeded or not is really up to the fans and the audience, but that’s certainly been what we have endeavored to do.
RT: I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about the fandom, specifically the toxic fandom that we’re seeing nowadays. As a creator, how do you view what’s going on in the fan world. Or are they fans at all? Are we just seeing campaigns by trolls?
Kurtzman: As I get older, I’ve come to accept that there are certain things I can control and certain things I can’t control. I have accepted that not everybody will like me. I have accepted that not everybody will like the work I do. I have accepted that not everybody will like the work that other people do. I have accepted that the internet has given everybody a voice, which is both wonderful and terrible, because obviously you want everybody to express their opinions, and when those opinions hurt other people, often with impunity, it’s very painful.
That being said, I think Sonequa really said it best when she said, “Our show is fundamentally about looking at the human race, and understanding what our strengths are, what are challenges are, what are flaws are, and reckoning with that, in order to become our best selves.” I think that is at the core of what Roddenberry’s vision of optimism is really all about.
I guess what I would say is that we want to talk about that. We want to speak to everybody, and if people don’t want to join us for that or accept that, then that’s entirely their right. They are entitled not to watch. It’s definitely not going to stop us from saying those things. That is our privilege, that is our right, and that is our joy. I can’t change the way people feel if they don’t like the color of someone’s skin, or if they don’t like the things that we believe in. We’re not telling people what to believe, but I certainly can’t stand by it, and I certainly won’t endorse it. I think they’re free to do what they want, but for those of us who recognize that the spirit of Star Trek is about inclusivity and togetherness and finding a way beyond our differences, then I hope you have really enjoyed the show, and I hope you feel that we’ve respected that idea.
Star Trek: Discovery season 1 is available to stream on CBS All Access.