[Editor’s Note: Spoilers for “Star Trek: Discovery” Season 1 Episode 9, “Into the Forest I Go,” follow.]
“Star Trek: Discovery” fans thrown off guard by the midseason finale’s ending, guess what? That was the plan. According to showrunners Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, that’s exactly what they wanted.
“Every couple of episodes, right around the time the audience feels like, ‘Oh, I know what you’re doing,’ we switch it up,” Berg told IndieWire. “It became a natural rhythm for the show, and it makes it really fun for us, the writers, everybody, really. Because it’s a way to keep it lively.”
The final moments of Episode 9, “Into the Forest I Go,” find the Discovery lost in unknown territory following a massive malfunction with the ship’s spore drive. “It felt like a great place to end the first half of the season, too,” Harberts said. “We had a lot of fun tracking the debate that the fans are having about where they think storylines are going and where characters are going. And we thought it’d be a fun way to leave them for the next month and a half to really chew things over and debate and have fun until we come back.”
As you might expect, Berg and Harberts won’t answer any of the fandom’s biggest questions. But they were willing to tease what to expect from what CBS All Access is calling “Chapter 2,” premiering in January 2018. That includes acknowledging the “Star Trek: Voyager” connection, how hip-hop became a part of the show’s soundtrack, whether they read recaps, and if we’ll ever see the tardigrade again.
“Discovery” producers made it clear, in the lead-up to the show’s premiere, that the show would be far more serialized than previous “Trek” series. But Chapter 1 did feature some episodes which were more stand-alone than others, such as Episode 8, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” which revolved around an away mission exploring a new planet.
“It is about how we’re trying to end the war, and using that exploratory trip down to the planet with the goal being that this is so that we can end the fighting,” Berg said. “But it was a great break for all of us… and so we were really happy to do it. It felt natural.”
Harberts explained further: “What we like about the structure of the show, or what we’ve endeavored to do, is that each episode feel unique unto itself. And yet sort of leaned into some aspect of the serialization. So the episodes that we have coming in the back half of the season are really all leading us to this convergence of storylines and this collision of characters, in a way that we think is going to be really exciting and tragic and heroic and all of those great things.”
Harberts also said that based on the positive feedback they’ve received for episodes like “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” or time loop adventure “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” they’re excited for more exploration in Season 2. “That is something that we definitely want to continue doing.”
The Discovery may have found itself marooned in unfamiliar territory, but the showrunners aren’t worried about potential comparisons to “Star Trek: Voyager.”
The 1995-2001 spinoff starred Kate Mulgrew as the captain of a Federation ship catapulted into an entirely different quadrant. But Berg said that “You can’t help but tread into territory that some fans recognize, but I think that our characters are distinct. Our show is our show. And I think that the way that we’re going to handle the back half of the season is going to feel true to ‘Discovery.'”
For one thing, while the Discovery might be far from the front lines, Berg promised that “the war will continue in Chapter 2. It’ll be in there for sure. The Klingon war is this crisis where Burnham was there when it set off and she feels responsible for setting off. That is her arc for Season 1, and that is what will be paying off by the end of the season.”
Herberts added that “the war is always alive and always a motivator, but we also really wanted to try to tell some stories that stop down from the war. And I think that Chapter 2 will open in a place where as much as the war is weighing on our characters’ minds, they’ve got a bigger problem to solve.”
Perhaps the strongest episode of Chapter 1, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” featured a bold choice in prominently featuring the 1997 track “We Trying to Stay Alive” by Wyclef Jean — a music selection that came courtesy of executive producer Alex Kurtzman.
Originally, they’d been using a “a very nondescript kind of EDM kind of music” (Harberts’ words) to score the below decks party at the center of the time loop being relived over and over again by the crew.
But then “we were in the editing room, and [Kurtzman] was like, ‘Guys, I want you to hear this.’ And he put it in,” Berg said. “I don’t think I ever would have gone to a current pop culture sort of thing, just thinking a little insecure about even trying it out. It just played so perfectly, and it made everybody smile and laugh, and it … And the fact that there’s the ‘Staying Alive’ theme going on through … It was just awesome.”
Harberts echoed IndieWire’s own thoughts about the fact that the song choice worked in part because it drew from two different eras. “The fact that it takes a sample from the ’70s, but it’s a track that dropped in the ’90s… It’s spinning pop culture from two very different eras. And then we’re playing it in 2256. The fact that it also had that sample helped it even more.”
One of the more delightfully weird touches of Chapter 1 was the introduction of a bear-sized “water bear,” AKA a tardigrade. The CGI-rendered creature ended up helping the Discovery team find the secret to navigating their spore drive, until after it nearly died from the physical stress of the jumps, and Burnham set him free to drift through the cosmos.
The tardigrade was originally meant to be a full character on the show, as the showrunners have mentioned before. “His name was Ephraim, he had a Starfleet badge, and he was a member of Starfleet,” Berg said. “And it just became a beautiful dream that was unaffordable. We couldn’t do it.”
So the tardigrade’s appearance was thus curtailed, though Harberts noted that visual effects supervisor Jason Zimmerman and his team were able to execute something “miraculous. It was a wait-and-see kind of a thing, in terms of how the tardigrade would actually work,” he said. “And I think Jason proved that the tardigrade was an effective character on the show. The tardigrade is obviously alive and out there, and we love the tardigrade. If we can find the right storyline, there’s no reason why the tardigrade could not reappear.”
Because so much of the production on Season 1 took place before the show premiered, the “Discovery” team was creating it in a vacuum. “It was beautiful, because nothing was encroaching on that, and I think that’s how we managed to get 15 episodes done,” Harberts said. “Because if you peek outside of that and try to take stock of what other people think about it, you can sometimes second-guess yourself.”
Both Harberts and Berg have been trying to keep their engagement with online reaction minimal, stepping back from social media and reading limited reviews. That said, they’re no longer in a vacuum, and reactions have been coming through — sometimes against their will, as the actors have a different relationship with recap culture than the writers.
“We were recently out to dinner, and Sonequa [Martin-Green] had one of the recaps. And she was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna read this recap to you guys.’ And she’s reading it, and she was laughing and thinking it was great,” Harberts said. “And I’m like, ‘Sonequa, I’m not loving how this recap is shaping up, from my own perspective.’ She thought from her side it was really funny and great, and I thought from my side, I’m like, ‘Hey, this is hitting too close to home.’
“I think the best feedback that has been coming back though is the fact that people are embracing these characters, and more importantly are embracing this cast,” Harberts continued. “That is one of the hardest things to do with a new show, is to have an ensemble that just is really embraced by everyone.”
“People are really into the dynamics between characters,” Berg added.
“Yeah, that’s also been a great boost,” Harberts said. “We never had a doubt about this cast and these characters. We’ve loved them from the very beginning, and so to hear that people are also really picking their favorites and loving the dynamics has been also a great thing.
“Discovery” stands out in the “Trek” universe for its larger-than-usual emphasis on shipboard romance, from Captain Lorca and Admiral Cornwell casually hooking up, to the committed long-term relationship between Lieutenant Stamets and Dr. Culber, to the emerging connection between Burnham and Tyler.
“We had to make the version of ‘Star Trek’ that we knew we would want to watch,” Harberts said. “And it was very important for us, as people who were new to the ‘Star Trek’ franchise, to try to bring new people in, to try to bring in the uninitiated.”
But introducing romantic subplots isn’t just about Herbert’s belief that “all great series have comedy and drama and romance and tragedy and conflict.” It also was important for the team as a way to illustrate one aspect of Burnham as a character.
“She’s starting her life over. And her youth on Vulcan deprived her of many human signposts. And one of those is falling in love, and understanding what romantic love is,” Harberts said. “So we knew that in a story where this character was going to be discovering herself and forging a new version of herself and finding her humanity that romance and intimacy was going to be a key part of it.”
But Berg also noted that the Stamets/Culber relationship had perhaps even greater significance for “Discovery.” “I think as the show went on, I’m really glad that we’re meeting [Stamets] in the context of this relationship, that I think we’re holding up,” she said. “And I believe that to be the true romantic love relationship solid in our show. I love the way that they’re being played by the actors and the way they’re being presented.”
If you’re curious, production on the first season wrapped in mid-October, and the day after the Chapter 1 finale streams on CBS All Access, Berg and Harberts will be turning in their cut of the Chapter 2 finale to the network.
Following that, the writers’ room for Season 2 will begin in just a few weeks. “It’s been a whirlwind, and it will continue to be a whirlwind,” Harberts said. “But we’re excited.”
“Star Trek: Discovery” is streaming now on CBS All Access.