“Star Trek: Discovery” broke a new barrier for the franchise in Episode 5, “Choose Your Pain.” While prior to now, both “Star Trek” shows and films have lived in a very PG-13 space, “Discovery” featured a scene where not just one, but two characters said the word “fuck.”
According to Anthony Rapp, who plays Lt. Paul Stamets, getting to echo the F-bomb initially dropped by Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) wasn’t just fun, but very much in the spirit of scientific breakthrough — AKA the spirit of “Star Trek.”
“We were aware of it, and we embraced it, and we had a blast with it,” he said. “These people just put their brains to work in a really tough way and they had a breakthrough. And I imagine there’s scientists in their labs who might do that any time. We didn’t drop the F-bomb in ‘Star Trek’ by telling something to go fuck themselves. It’s like we did it by saying ‘this is fucking cool.'”
Rapp, whose casting on “Discovery” thrilled an entire generation of Broadway fans who knew him as one of the original cast members of “Rent,” describes himself as “a geeky, sci-fi fantasy, comic book absorber since I was reading anything. It’s always been a part of my conscious.”
But playing Stamets offers up a challenge beyond Rapp’s basic love of sci-fi, because the character is based on the real-life scientist of the same name, who several years ago gave a TED talk on how mushrooms might be able to save the world.
“He is an incredibly inspiring human being, and the work he’s doing could be life-changing,” Rapp said. “He had dedicated his life to understanding mycelium and fungus and mushrooms and spores, and they have so many implications and applications. He just scratched the surface in that 20 minute TED talk and I was mesmerized by it and deeply inspired by it.”
On the surface, it’s an odd topic, but Rapp is optimistic that people might dig in further after watching “Discovery.” “One of my greatest hopes from this show and whatever success we’re having and whatever attention we’re getting is that people will seek out the work he’s doing and support the work he’s doing and get curious about it. Because, literally, I believe his thesis that mushrooms could save the world,” he said.
Rapp is able to say this because he takes seriously the challenge of playing a science officer on “Star Trek,” working to ensure that when he has a monologue that’s heavy on what’s affectionately referred to as “technobabble,” he actually understands what he’s saying.
“In [Episode] 105, there’s a scene where it’s Burnham, Tilly, and myself, in front of the screen, trying to figure out how to solve this problem. And when I first saw the dialogue, it’s chunks of paragraphs of really technical stuff, but it does all make sense,” he said. “Really, it tracks. It makes sense… it’s grounded at least in part in real science and then taken to another level of speculative science. But it does hang together so it’s not so hard to wrap your head around. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the syntax or the rhythms of it, getting it inside our brains in a way that can roll off the tongue, but it does make sense.”
Stamets, as we saw at the end of Episode 5, is going to be engaging with mycelium on a whole new level after injecting himself with the DNA necessary to take over navigating the Discovery’s spore-driven drive. But his level of knowledge as to what’s to come is limited to what Stamets himself knows in the moment.
“I was curious to know some things, but at the same time I didn’t want to know everything because Stamets doesn’t know everything,” he said. “The analogy that I’ve used in the past is like if I were playing Snape, that apparently J.K. took Alan Rickman aside early in the process and said, ‘Okay. This is what you have to know.’ Because he had a secret. He had a secret that informed everything, but other than that, Stamets doesn’t have a secret that informs everything. Stamets, just like every other human alive, discovers what happens in their life on a daily basis.”
So, according to Rapp, here is what he was told by the show’s producers: “They gave me some insight into, ‘You’re working on this project and then there’s this creature that gets used and you wind up having to intervene on this path and that has some interesting implications.’ That’s cool. That’s enough for me.”
It helps that “Discovery” isn’t operating on an standalone episode basis, spooling out a serialized narrative week by week, which Rapp very much prefers. “From an acting perspective, it allows for growth and for things to have consequences and for seeds to get planted in one episode to bear fruit four episodes down the road and to have arcs,” he said. “The long-form storytelling potential of this medium is what’s most interesting to me as an actor. I understand the appeal for shows that are more self-contained, but from an acting standpoint that gets much less interesting to me as it goes on. As you sort of more or less do the same thing week after week, that’s not nearly as compelling for me.”
The character of Stamets is also notably the first TV “Trek” character to be openly gay and in a committed relationship with another man (Dr. Culber, played by Wilson Cruz). “The fan response has been incredibly supportive, the huge bulk of it. But the internet is a funny place,” Rapp said. “There are some people who were like, they used the line, ‘It’s ramming this down our throats.’ Well, why don’t you see how we do it before you make that declaration? Because if you think that presenting two people who are in a relationship is in and of itself ‘ramming something down your throat,’ then I think that says more about you than it does about us.
“But it’s really, really vitally important to me that we have representation of all the different colors and fabrics of the human experience and this is one of them that has been profoundly underrepresented in ‘Trek.'”
Another boundary crossed: The bathroom. In the final scene of “Choose Your Pain,” we see Stamets and Culber wearing matching pajamas, just before bedtime… brushing their teeth. Of course, these aren’t modern-day toothbrushes, which we see from the way they use them. “Our notion is that it probably emits some sort of sonic pulse or laser thing. You don’t have to brush the same way,” Rapp explained. “That it would just be you hold in your mouth and it just kind of cleans your teeth for you. That was the idea that we had with it. It was fun.”
New episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” stream Sundays at 8:30 p.m. EST on CBS All Access.