In “Star Trek Discovery,” which explores the Federation-Klingon war a decade before the original series, there’s a blending of old and new in the great tradition of creator Gene Roddenberry. This extends to the eye-popping world building as well, overseen by Tamara Deverell (“The Strain”), the franchise’s first female production designer.
For Deverell, it was an opportunity to visually re-imagine the CBS All Access series in a relatable way. This was in keeping with the emphasis on diversity and inclusion (Sonequa Martin-Green stars as Science Specialist Michael Burnham, a human raised by Vulcans).
The look is rich, lush, exotic, and very cinematic. But it was a rapid trial by fire for Deverell, who entered in the middle of Season One. She not only had to quickly get up to speed on “Star Trek” canon and work within the vast, concentric USS Discovery, but also design a planet for episode eight (“Si Vis Pacem”) in short order.
“The network wanted them to get off the ship and go to a planet, so the writers called us here in production to think about ways that were feasible,” Deverell said. “In 10 minutes I came up with the idea of a membrane structure like a yurt, which was something I thought we could build [quickly].Then we picked a place in a forest because it was supposed to be very idyllic. We ended up just VFXing our structure, which was built on stage, into a forest.”
However, the Pahvo creature proved to be too ethereal for a costume design, so the beings ended up being CG. The art department also built a transmitting tree that was augmented with VFX. They added more VFX to create more of an alien ambiance. In the end, there was more VFX than the production designer had intended, which was part of her learning curve.
In researching the membrane structure for Pahvo, Deverell looked at all sorts of natural forms and biomimicry. “There was a whole innate mass to the structure and we were basing it on a repeated mathematical form,” she added. “And then we tilted the whole mathematical dome that we created to make it not feel too perfect. It was all drawn in the computer in a 3D program, Rhino, and we made silicone membranes that would feel like the alien creature. It was like an organic Eden.”
Re-Imagining the Mirror Universe
One of the biggest challenges, though, was re-imagining the iconic Mirror Universe, a “Star Trek” staple (ruled by the tyrannical Terran Empire), which impacted the look of the second half of the season. “We took the Terran logo from the original series and did our own 3D version of it where it became multi-dimensional,” said Deverell.
“Back in TOS days, they just slapped a logo on the wall. We take that much further. We put the logo on the visual effects on the ship and on the floor of the different sets. Then, in terms of lighting, we added a lot of mirrored surfaces in the Discovery and in every other chance we got.”
In building the Terran ship, Deverell strove for something very different from the Discovery. It was a monolithic, Brutalist, concrete form, containing a high ceiling. The visual anguish was a great departure from the slick Federation look.
Take the mirrored lab run by Chief Engineer Stamets (Anthony Rapp), “Star Trek’s” first openly gay character. “Everything was black in it with no color palette,” Deverell said. “It was more about the absence of color. Then, on the rebel planet, Harlak, which is very dusty and rocky, we used a lot of ochre for ambient light. And in the middle of the tent, there was a stainless glass table to reflect all of the light.”
Creating the Klingon World
There is also more emphasis in mining the emotional depths of the combative Klingons, which is reflected in the look of the their world, particularly the Orion outpost in the finale (“Will You Take My Hand?”). “We created a series of illustrations for what a black market run by the Orions on the Klingon planet would be,” said Deverell.
“We had a Klingon drinking tent and we made all these different stalls. We were trying to use what we had because this was the last episode. We took one of the Klingon sets that we built for the sarcophagus ship, which was a graveyard chamber and rebuilt it as this Orion [sex] cabaret.”
For that, the production designer went back to the original series for some Orion architectural elements that serve as Easter Eggs. “We used Indian carved room dividers and Moroccan tapestry, and Far east fabrics,” she said. It was lush like a bordello in the 1800s. We were allowed to go crazy.”