How the 'Star Trek: Discovery' Finale Pulled Off the Franchise's Boldest Leap Yet

'Discovery' showrunner Alex Kurtzman talks about the shocking season two finale, and how the franchise is "building a new future."
Ben Mark Holzberg/CBS

[This story contains spoilers for season two, episode 14 of CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery, "Such Sweet Sorrow."]

"Let us see what the future holds," Ethan Peck's Spock says toward the end of Star Trek: Discovery's second season. It's a phrase that showrunner Alex Kurtzman takes to heart in the season finale, in which he sends Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the crew of the Discovery into a wormhole, off to face a great unknown centuries into the future.

The move is a radical shift in the CBS All Access' series status quo. Over the course of nearly 30 episodes, Discovery painstakingly tied its characters and stories to the original Star Trek series, including porting over Spock and Captain Pike (Anson Mount) as main characters for season two. Those ties are officially no more, thanks to Discovery disappearing into the void, part of a last-ditch plan to stop Control, the malicious AI behind the Starfleet organization Section 31 and the chief antagonists of the season, from achieving sentience and wiping out the universe. To prevent the scenario from happening again, Spock proposes that Starfleet erase all language about Discovery from their vocabularies — hence why Discovery is not mentioned in the original Star Trek canon.

The finale leaves the crew of the Enterprise to speed off on their own adventures, while Commander Burnham leads Discovery into a completely new time and setting — much further into the future than any previous Star Trek story, for what it's worth. For his part, as showrunner, Kurtzman hopes it's worth a lot. Ahead, he tells The Hollywood Reporter about what to expect from Discovery season three, how they chose to close up the series' largest plot holes in the finale, and updates from other corners of the Trek universe.

Discovery season two ends with the ship disappearing into the future. Is it safe to assume that season three will follow the ship away from the present timeline?

Yes. We are jumping 950 years into the future for season three.

What was the thinking behind that decision?

There was so much debate about how to tie up the loose ends with canon. We felt pretty strongly that replaying the Red Angel signals and revealing ultimately that Burnham had sent them would be particularly satisfying. Especially when they go full-circle to the premiere, where she sees the Red Angel and it's revealed that she's been looking at herself the whole time. That's the type of story that time travel stories do best if you get the math right. That finale was the sum total of months of work between writing it and conceptualizing it production-wise. It's the biggest thing we've ever done. We all felt like we were so excited about what we were doing that everybody just brought 100 percent every day. It was really satisfying.

The Discovery timeline is now completely separate from that of the original series. How does it feel to be approaching a brand-new time period with the show?

We love playing within canon. It's a delight and a privilege. It's fun to explore nooks and crannies of the universe that people haven't fully explored yet. That being said, we felt strongly that we wanted to give ourselves an entirely new energy for season three with a whole new set of problems. We're farther than any Trek show has ever gone. I also had experience working on the [J.J. Abrams] films where we were stuck with canonical problems. We knew how Kirk had died, and we wondered how we could put him in jeopardy to make it feel real. That's what led us to go with an alternate timeline; suddenly we could tell the story in a very unpredictable way. That's the same thought process that went into jumping 950 years into the future. We're now completely free of canon, and we have a whole new universe to explore.

Will there be any more crossover with characters from other Trek series?

There will be canonical references to everything that has happened in the various shows; we're not erasing that. But we're so far past that point that all of that is a very distant memory. We're very excited to see how you put the elements of Star Trek in an entirely new universe.

After Discovery goes through the wormhole, the action surprisingly stays in the present timeline with the Enterprise. What was your thinking behind that final act?

From the beginning, I had strong instincts that I wanted to start the season with a sister talking to a brother, and end with the brother talking to the sister. This season for me has been all about the relationship between Spock and Burnham. Everything culminates in the finale, and we come to understand that they've intended on spending eternity together. Once Discovery jumps through the wormhole and disappears, the suspense of not knowing what's on the other side will guide season three. Spock now has to deal with the aftermath and the emotional repercussions. The other thing that was very important to me was finding a way to tell this story so that fans and non-fans alike could understand that were it not for his sister, Spock could not fully actualize himself with Kirk. When they say goodbye, she says, "I want you to find the person who is least like you," and she's obviously talking about Kirk. Spock takes that advice, and she'll never know it.

You not only brought in Spock this season, but also Anson Mount, who garnered a lot of critical praise and even a fan petition to get a Pike spinoff. Is there a chance of that happening?

The fans have been heard. Anything is possible in the world of Trek. I would love to bring back that crew more than anything. It was a huge risk for us. One of the most gratifying things is to see how deeply the fans have embraced Pike, Spock, Number One and the Enterprise. The idea of getting to tell more stories with them would be a delight for all of us.

You spent season two building up Section 31 in the Discovery universe, and the finale ends with Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) being made Commander of the crumbling organization. What do fans have to look forward to with that story?

If you're a fan of Deep Space Nine, you've probably spent the past two years saying, "What the hell are they doing with Section 31? That's nothing like the Section 31 we know." That's exactly right. In Deep Space Nine, they did not have badges or ships. They're an underground organization. What you see on Discovery and our upcoming show with Michelle Yeoh is how Section 31 became that organization and why it was so underground by the time Deep Space Nine comes around.

Speaking of Section 31, Control seems to be neutralized in the finale, but Discovery is technically taking it into the future with them. Is there a chance it could resurrect in season three?

All I can tell you is that Control is officially neutralized, but there will be much bigger problems when they get to the other side of that wormhole.

Star Trek: Discovery has gone through a few captains so far, most recently in Doug Jones' Commander Saru. Will there be more power shifts come next season?

We will definitely be exploring who inherits that chair. Obviously, there's a very loaded look between Saru and Burnham. They're both qualified in very different ways, and that's something we'll explore.

Your second season had an episode focusing on Lieutenant Commander Airiam (Hannah Cheesman), who to that point had been a tertiary castmember. Are you planning to pen more episodes dedicated to other members of the bridge crew?

Absolutely. We've really just scratched the surface. Our bridge crew is so capable. Every single person is so wonderful and really rose to the occasion this year. What we discovered is we and the fans delight in stories being told about them. We're going to be using all of them much, much more. Especially because this crew has forfeited their lives for each other. They've jumped 950 years into the future for each other. If we didn't service them, we'd be doing something very wrong.

You told me after the premiere that season two would be focused around faith. How do you reflect on how it guided the past 14 episodes, and do you intend on carrying it forward?

I wanted to press on it, but not press on it too hard. It's something that can really backfire, especially for fans of Trek who know that religion is a polarizing issue. But faith was never about picking on religion as much as it was about faith in each other and in themselves. There was a grand design of some kind that is leading them forward. Burnham really wrestled with that. As someone who was not raised with faith, she had to decide if she was going to become somebody who could put her faith in some type of design. Ultimately, she's rewarded for her faith by finding out she's the one who set the signals. If you believe in yourself, ultimately, the best outcome presents itself.

You made an effort to showcase the Discovery crew as a family this season. What's the state of this interstellar household going into the future?

They're more a family than they've ever been. They were very, very close in season two. But now all they have is each other. Their families are 950 years in the past. It will be very interesting to see the consequences of the choice they made. Saru said, "We all signed up for this, and we knew what we were doing. We love each other, respect each other and need each other enough to know we're going to make this decision as a group, as a family." But it doesn't mean that it won't come with emotional consequences. That's something we'll explore in season three.

Before season two aired, you said you wanted to bring more of the vision of Star Trek into Discovery, which you indicated was "an essential vision of optimism." Is that something you want to keep inherent in the show now that it's making such a big jump?

We can never let that go. That's the core tenet of [creator Gene Roddenberry's] vision, and we feel very indebted and anchored to it. That being said, it can't be wine and roses all the time. What is dramatically interesting is the idea of exploring when that optimism is challenged, and what you do to preserve and protect it. In the writers room, we are constantly measuring tone, down to the inch. What feels like a violation of Star Trek? You can intellectualize something, but does it feel right or wrong? We're always asking, "How will fans feel about shaking things up?" I believe Star Trek has stayed so popular over the years because of the bold choices writers have made that challenge preconceived notions we have about the franchise. Star Trek is about optimism, hope and a brighter future. Even if the future turns out to be not as bright as we hope, we are always striving to protect and preserve the best version of it.

While Discovery has broken for season three, there are many other Trek series in the pipeline, including the upcoming Picard show starring Patrick Stewart. What is the state of that series as well as the franchise as a whole?

The intention is to have something Star Trek on the air all the time, but not necessarily on top of each other. These shows take a minimum of a year to develop, make, produce and post. We want to make sure we're never compromising our loyalty with both our aesthetic and storytelling. We're never going to rush anything out that isn't ready. In order to be ready, we have to put many things into development. We have to make sure each show is unique tonally, visually and from a story perspective. What we don't want to do is feel like, "Oh, I can just watch any one of these shows because they're all the same." A lot of work has been done to make sure they all feel very different from each other. And that's really exciting.

The idea is to always have something. Two years from now, a show will end, there will be a little breath and then another show will begin. But we want to do it right and do it thoughtfully. We want to explore parts of the world that haven't been explored, and find new ways to tell stories with very different tones. We're experimenting with new interesting directors and especially with comedy. It's been done, obviously, but I'd say in fairly limited amounts. The most important thing is that we're never laughing at Star Trek, we're laughing with it. I always think of Galaxy Quest as one of the best Star Trek films ever, because it was an absolute love letter. Bringing Star Trek into the future means honoring the past and what people love about it, and giving it to them while finding new and innovative ways to tell stories. We're building a new future; that is our dedicated task. The diversity of voices reflect what you see in front of the camera. I believe that's another essential way for Star Trek to survive.

[The Picard series] going amazingly. We start shooting soon. It will be really different from Discovery in tone, pace and story. I'm so excited with how our cast came together. Hanelle Culpepper, our director, is absolutely crushing it. We're so excited because it's so different. Yet, I think people who like The Next Generation will recognize that it's made by people who love it equally. It will be really interesting to see how people respond.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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