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On Sunday, nearly two years after CBS All Access announced that it would be bringing a new Star Trek series to its subscription VOD platform, the Alex Kurtzman-produced Discovery made its long-awaited TV debut.
Originally slated to premiere in January 2017, the drama starring The Walking Dead grad Sonequa Martin-Green was delayed to May. And then showrunner Bryan Fuller — who grew up as a Trekkie — exited the series to focus on his Starz show American Gods, with longtime collaborators Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts taking over after the Hannibal creator broke the season one outline. Recognizing the scope of the show, Kurtzman went to CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves with a big ask: to delay the massive undertaking a second time.
And now that Star Trek: Discovery has officially launched — with the show subtly addressing issues of race, class and the country’s political divide — Kurtzman is opening up about the complicated process of bringing such an ambitious show to the small screen, as well as plans for season two and more.
The show is visually impressive. How much time does it take to film one episode?
It’s a very complicated, elaborate process. We’re not kidding around with the visual effects. It’s four to five months just for the visual effects, per episode. Many people are waiting with arms crossed to see if it’s going to be worth the money. The way I always think is that no one ever complains about paying for Game of Thrones. We have to deliver that level of spectacle and experience so the audience feels that this isn’t something they could get on network television and it feels worth it [considering All Access comes with a monthly fee]. Then you go do the mix and that can usually go one or two days and we need four. We’re mixing a movie; every episode is huge.
What’s the turnaround per episode, from start to finish — breaking the story, VFX, filming, mixing, etc.?
It’s about three to four months, which is part of why we wanted to push the date. What we recognized was that CBS had never made a show of this scale before. I say that without judgment because very few people have. If you really want to bring a film experience — with all the requisite trappings — it was going take a lot more time. I would have been very scared to do a show in less time because having had production experience, you would not have been able to deliver something that felt worth the expectation. And the expectation on this show is very high.
How does the process compare to your Star Trek movies?
I would not take a different approach if I were directing a movie version of Star Trek; this has the same scale. We have not been limited by, “You can’t do this or you can’t do that.” With enough prep time and planning, we have been able to get away with tremendous amounts of things. You have more time in a film to shoot some of the sequences that we shoot — we are still a TV show — but we have come pretty close to a film schedule in terms of executing what we need to execute.
The second half of the season returns in January. How far along in production are you?
We are about to start shooting the finale. Part of the grand design of the season included the ending. We knew where we were going from the beginning and that was important in terms of a lot of the big ideas we set up in the first two episodes. It’s all leading to something. We are just finishing episode 14 and about to start 15. That’s in terms of production. In post, I start mixing episode five on Monday. That gives you a sense of how long it takes between shooting and post.
A lot has been written about the multiple production delays. Now that people have seen it, what caused those? Was it breaking story, the showrunner change, VFX …
Bryan and I walked into Les Moonves‘ office a year and a half ago and said that while we totally understood the mandate to put the show out, we recognize that the scope of the vision was never going to be achievable on that timeline. If you figure it’s going to be three to four months per episode, and start adding up 15 episodes, there was no way we’d be able to turn it around like that. To his credit, he really trusted us. Would he have liked it earlier? Sure. But I know he’s very proud of the show. Everything that he’s said to be and everything I’ve seen indicates that he feels that it was the right decision to have made. Because ultimately, we all want to protect Star Trek. There hasn’t been a Trek TV show in 12 years and we have to give people a reason to come back to it.
Looking back on the whole process, what’s been the most challenging piece?
Bryan and I had come up with the spine of the season — the big moves. And when Bryan left, Gretchen, Aaron, Akiva Goldsman and the writing staff came together and began to flush out how we’d get from A t -Z in great deal. They did unbelievable work under a tremendous amount of pressure — at a moment when everyone was second-guessing everything about it. The only compass that we could really use to keep ourselves focused and marching forward was in looking to our favorite shows — Westworld and Game of Thrones — and recognize that they all have big production delays for the same reasons. We had to say, “OK, we have to trust that the ideas here are cool enough that if we can actually execute to them at the level we want to execute them at, it will be worth the wait.” If people see and love the show, ultimately, they probably won’t remember the delays.
What about the showrunner change. What happened? Was this Fuller pulled in too many directions, juggling two hugely ambitious shows with Starz’s American Gods and Star Trek: Discovery?
I’m a huge fan of Bryan’s, I couldn’t respect him more and think Hannibal is a work of art. I was so excited with the idea of what he would do with Star Trek. If you look at the scope of that show and our show, how does one juggle both of those things without compromising either? I think Bryan’s love for Trek led to an understanding that he did not want to be responsible with having it go down on his watch in some fundamental way. I really respect him for that and think American Gods is incredible. The work that we did preliminarily really gave us what we needed to feel that we could still march forward with the vision that he and I had come to at the beginning. I miss him; I wish he were still with us; but I also respect his choice.
Time permitting, would you have him back to write an episode?
I’m open to anything. Gretchen and Aaron worked with Bryan for a long time. I have complete and total faith in them. They did a very tough thing and had to step up when everyone was doubting all of us. And they did an extraordinary job taking control and maintaining a vision and respecting the big ideas we set in place. They are first and foremost character writers and bring a lovely, emotional approach to what they do. We have a great dialogue about every episode; we don’t always agree — and that’s totally fine. They get the tiebreaker vote. I’m confident in what they’re doing and in how we’re moving forward.
In success, how long do you see this show running? It’s a serialized show set 10 years before the original series. With so much ground, do you have a larger vision for how long Discovery goes?
We have a larger picture for season two — if we’re lucky to get a season two order. As you’re breaking the season you get bunch of ideas you love and realize they won’t fit in this season, so you put them on index cards and up on the board. We have a bunch of those as well as a big idea that emerged mid- to late-season one for something we want to do for season two. That’s now become the spine of what we want to do for season two. We have an emotional compass pointing toward a big idea for a second season. But given the scope of this thing, we’re also focused on finishing strong. Hopefully we’ll get an order for season two. I don’t know that we’ll have a tremendous amount of downtime between seasons. There have been many iterations of Trek that have run for a very long time. I only want to keep it going for as long as it feels fresh and like we have stories to tell. One of the great things about streaming is that we’re not obligated to 22 episodes, which allows us to tell more stories. So as long as we feel we are not compromising quality or scope, I’m down for whatever Trek becomes.
Do you want a short-order every season?
I always like less. I’d never do 22, that’d be a big mistake. If we get a second season, I’d like us to agree on a number in advance so we can make sure we are planning accordingly.
Given the intensive production schedule for Discovery, is this a show that will air every year or is it going to be less frequent? The second half of this season comes out in January. If you were to get a quick season two order, when could you presumably have the first episode of season two ready to air?
There have been preliminary conversations about when and how [a second season could air] and we’ve been very consistent in our message, which is that rather than announce a date and have to push again, let’s take into consideration everything we’ve learned from this season. Now we know what we can do and where the sand traps are, so let’s give ourselves ample time to announce a date that makes sense to everybody — both the needs of production and CBS. Breaking story is, in some ways, the easier and faster thing; it’s the ability to execute on it that’s much harder. We want to take the right amount of time and don’t want to rush.
So ideally, season two could bow in 2019?
Ideally, on the early side of 2019.
Looking back on the road to getting to air, would you have done anything differently?
The obvious thing is to say that I wish we hadn’t announced that first [premiere] date. At the same time, a certain focus and pressure was curated as a result of that and that ended up bearing some really good fruit for us. Everyone was so on their toes that the level of focus was so high that decisions were deeply scrutinized by so many people and nobody wanted to make mistakes on this. It falls into the live and learn category. One interpretation is I wish we hadn’t announced but the other side is that we did and ended up having to promise everybody that it was going to be worth the wait and that forced all of us to really drill down on the highest quality possible. That was a moment where everyone had to trust each other. We all said it was going to be worth the extra year and all of the delays. Yes, it will cost more than we thought but you’re going to be happy when you see the product at the end of the day. And that’s a tough thing to tell a studio. My hat’s off to them for trusting us. A lot of people would not have done that.
Discovery has a lot of larger messages — us vs. them, allegories about politics and inclusion, etc. For a serialized show, why was it so important to lean so hard into those themes?
It’s the heart and soul of the franchise. Star Trek as a TV show has always been this wonderful morality play. Where the ethics of the characters and their decisions are tested. Going all the way back to the original series, that’s what made those episodes so beautiful and memorable. It was this wonderful reinforcement of our humanity due to these interesting trials. Trek‘s vision of an optimistic future really is at the core of everything that Gene Roddenberry envisioned. Even though we’re doing a season about war, it’s all about servicing that vision in a new way that’s relevant for what we’re all going through now. Trek has always been a mirror that holds itself up to the world around it and the time in which it is made. It raises questions that we are all asking. It’s showing us who we are and what we’re in the middle of. And it does it all through allegory and that’s what’s beautiful about Trek. We are living in very dark and complicated times where people could not be more divided and where our humanity is tested every day. I can’t think of a better time for Trek to come forward again remind us all that there is a reason to be hopeful but that we have to strive for it; that it’s not easy; and that it comes only in the face of adversity and great challenges. But that’s actually what makes that hope real. So our characters are going through those trials and hopefully when you watch the show, you’ll recognize that we’re dealing with many issues that are on the table for all of us today and we’re doing it in a way that all the best versions of the series have done — which is to present an allegory. But fundamentally Trek is about the belief that we can be better, that we can do better, that we live in a world where diversity is an assumption, not a question. And that’s the world I want to live in and the beauty of working on Star Trek is that you get to live in that world when you are making it and hopefully inspire other people to try and do the same in the real world.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access.
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