'Star Trek: Discovery' fights for more than Trekkies' hearts

Following Star Trek's legacy, the new show reminds us about the power of inclusion and diversity at a time when Americans seem more divided than ever.
James Dimmock/CBS Interactive

There's Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Sisko, Kathryn Janeway, Jonathan Archer and now, for a brief moment, me.

I grew up watching Starfleet captains ponder deep thoughts from their personal offices, which is why it's amazing to find myself in the ready room of Gabriel Lorca, captain of the latest ship in the Star Trek universe, the USS Discovery. (Before you go getting worked up about my leaving out James T. Kirk, did you know he was the only Starfleet captain who didn't have a ready room?) In front of me is a glass desk propped up to standing height by a triangular bronze and black base. The gunmetal hull slopes down toward me, a not-so-subtle reminder that this room and the bridge directly outside sit atop the saucer section of a Federation starship.

I'm trying hard not to geek out.  

Along the right wall of the ready room is a bank of flat-panel monitors. One in particular catches my eye. It's a map of several planets with a red line dividing United Federation of Planets and Klingon Empire territories. Aaron Harberts, one of the showrunners of "Star Trek: Discovery" and our tour guide for the day, says the line will change from episode to episode — a detail most viewers may not even catch.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

At left, Capt. Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) of the USS Shenzhou prepares to leave the ship with First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Burnham spent seven years on the Shenzhou before transferring to the USS Discovery.  

Jan Thijs/CBS Interactive

The screen is a visual cue that "Discovery," which is set to premiere Sept. 24 on CBS before moving to the CBS All Access streaming service, is set amid a war between the Federation and Klingon Empire in the mid-23rd century, a decade before the original series. (Editors' note: CNET is owned by CBS.)

But talking to the cast and people behind the show, it's obvious they're looking to fight a far more important battle: one for acceptance.

"Discovery" arrives at a time when the US is more divided than ever. From the tragic protests last month in Charlottesville, Virginia, to claims by a Google engineer that women aren't suited to work in technology, the nation is wrestling with racism, sexism and questions about its identity.

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Enter Star Trek, based on a future universe envisioned by Gene Roddenberry where such issues were resolved long ago. "Discovery" picks up the original show's mantle of diversity and social commentary, which Roddenberry conceived of and aired during the civil rights battles of the 1960s. It focused on different peoples and races (human and alien) working together for the greater good.

The new show boasts a darker, more modern take on Star Trek, complete with complex characters who disagree, change and potentially die throughout an evolving serialized arc. But it preserves Roddenberry's core principle.

To many involved with "Discovery," that's exactly what we need right now.

"I'm excited for what this show represents and for what I truly hope it will do," says Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays First Officer Michael Burnham, the first black woman to headline a Star Trek series. "I just hope that we can incite change."

It's not easy being food. Starfleet Lt. Saru is a Kelpien whose species must constantly dodge being eaten on his home planet. 

Jan Thijs/CBS Interactive

Legacy of diversity

The casting of Martin-Green as the lead character in "Discovery" sparked a reaction of a different sort after the announcement was made in December.

Critics from across the internet derided "Discovery" as too diverse, even tossing around the concept of "white genocide."

"It surprised me — but it didn't," Martin-Green says in an interview at the Shangri La Hotel in Toronto, Canada, where the show is being filmed at Pinewood Studios. "In those first few encounters, I realized that the hypocrisy is real. You can be a part of something that has been a champion of diversity and still have naysayers."

As she points out, if you're criticizing the show's efforts to present a more diverse future, you've missed one of the central points of Star Trek. The original series, after all, cast a black woman, Nichelle Nichols, as Lt. Nyota Uhura, the Enterprise's communications officer, and a Japanese-American man, George Takei, as Lt. Hikaru Sulu, the ship's helmsman.

We may take such a diverse cast for granted now, but it was a wild concept when the show premiered in 1966.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

Why are the Klingons bald? That and other mysteries will be explained in future episodes. The Klingon on the right, known as T'Kuvma (Chris Obi), just wants Klingons to be Klingons. 

Jan Thijs/CBS Interactive

"To have people of color out in space is quite revolutionary," says Miki Turner, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. Roddenberry "did it during a time when it was not expected and wasn't accepted in some quarters of the world."

Star Trek also featured its first black commanding officer, Benjamin Sisko, in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" in 1993 and its first female captain, Kathryn Janeway, in "Star Trek: Voyager" in 1995.

"Discovery" goes further. The decision to revolve the series around Martin-Green's character, First Officer Burnham, gives it a different point of view than the typical captain-centric focus. 

The show also features a gay couple played by Anthony Rapp (Lt. Paul Stamets) and Wilson Cruz (Dr. Hugh Culber).

"Star Trek for 50 years has pushed so many boundaries, but this has been one blind spot," Rapp says. "There's a sizable LGBT contingent, and they've been hungry and clamoring for it."

Then there's Captain Lorca, played by British actor Jason Isaacs, best known for playing Lucius Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" film franchise, who says he chose a southern accent because he didn't want to try to follow Patrick Stewart. He worked with a dialogue coach to create an accent that was an amalgamation from different states, working off the assumption that those boundaries would fade in the future. 

When he was training for the film "Black Hawk Down," Isaacs noted that the southern accent was common in the military, even among soldiers who were from the north. 

"Something about it conveys something military about him," he says. 

Capt. Philippa Georgiou, played by action-film legend Michelle Yeoh, is another pivotal figure. Commander of the USS Shenzhou, Georgiou's ready room features shadow puppets called wayang kulit, a nod to Yeoh's Malaysian heritage.

And we haven't even gotten to the aliens yet.

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Klingon controversy

Co-showrunners Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg began production and casting for "Discovery" before the 2016 US presidential election and shot the pilot less than a week after President Donald Trump's inauguration in January. So don't be surprised to see some political influences bleed into the scripts. That's particularly the case with the Klingons.

The communicator is powered by an Apple iPod Nano display. 

Christine Cain/CNET

Here's how Harberts describes Klingon leader and chief antagonist T'Kuvma: He comes to power under the creed "Remain Klingon," promotes isolationism and rails against the Federation because its multicultural approach will erase what makes Klingons, Klingons. Mary Chieffo, who plays T'Kuvma's battle deck commander, L'Rell, describes the Klingon leader as someone who does a lot of talking.

That may sound familiar.

Harberts never mentions Trump by name but alludes to finding inspiration in real life.

"When you're distressed about things and you're a writer, you get to write about it," he says. "You try to create the reality you hope to happen.

"It's so important that we are dealing with some of these issues," Harberts adds, a reference to the recent events in Charlottesville.

If there's another controversy surrounding "Discovery," it's with the look of the Klingons themselves. The characters have different ridges on their foreheads and lack the long mane of hair seen in prior series, the kind of tweaks that drive minutia-obsessed Trekkies mad.

"Discovery" will have separate badge insignias for different fields such as in command, medical and operations. 

Christine Cain/CNET

The people behind the show promise the different look will somehow fit in with Star Trek's established canon, which, admittedly, is already pretty inconsistent when it comes to Klingons.

"It's not arbitrary," says Chieffo, who enjoys the hairless look. "So much can happen in 10 years."

Different, but familiar

The decision to create a prequel to the original series presents a unique challenge for the showrunners, who must balance an aesthetic that matches that of the 1960s series while adding modern flourishes.

I see their handiwork firsthand on the bridge of the Discovery, nicknamed the "Disco." Burnham's console has physical knobs and buttons next to touchscreens. Thin, see-through displays are placed around the outer ring of the room, providing splashes of colorful, high-definition technobabble amid a predominantly gray backdrop. These transparent displays also lend a sleek, futuristic look to the bridge, even though the screens will actually become commercially available in the coming months, Harberts says.

Creating props like the communicator was particularly tricky, especially when you consider the original communicator inspired flip phones decades later. The new version takes some of design cues from those early products without looking, well, cheesy.

The Discovery crew opted for a subtle update to the communicator using bits of gold and gray. They make it work by jamming Apple iPod Nanos inside of the flip-style communicators, says Sang Maier, who's in charge of props for the show. He says the screen allows for the playback of images or video appropriate to any scene.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

Executive producer Aaron Harberts visits with members of press on the set of "Star Trek: Discovery," including me right up at front.

Ben Mark Holzberg/CBS Interactive

Is he concerned Apple discontinued the iPod Nano this summer? "A little worried, yeah," Maier says. "There are only so many small screens we can use."

The uniform colors are consistent with those in the first series, although the red uniform that previously signified operations, engineering and security is now copper. "Watch out if you're a copper shirt," Harberts quips, a nod to the on-screen death toll of crew members wearing red uniforms.

The characters also have connections to the original version. Spoiler alert: Burnham is the adopted daughter of Sarek and Amanda, Spock's parents. Yes, that means Spock had a sister who wasn't previously mentioned. (We already knew about his secret half-brother, Sybok, who showed up in "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.")

Capt. Philippa Georgiou (left) has served as a mentor for First Officer Michael Burnham.

Dalia Naber/CBS Interactive

"This is everything you love, but everything you didn't know you were looking for," Martin-Green tells this nervous fan when asked to sum up the connections.  

Harberts promises to answer why you've never heard of Burnham or the Discovery before, but he declines to elaborate. Trust me, I tried.

Then there's Lt. Saru, a never-before-seen Kelpien who fills the character role analogous to Spock or to Lt. Commander Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

Unlike Data and Spock, Saru is in touch with his emotions, especially fear since his species is considered prey on his home planet. He's the first to rise up and become a Starfleet officer, according to actor Doug Jones, best known for playing Abe Sapien in "Hellboy" and the Silver Surfer in "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer."

Although the series deals with war, Harberts describes Discovery as a family show and promises it will deliver the same moments of comedy the previous series are known for.

So "Game of Thrones" this is not.

Ray of hope

There's been a lot of talk about the varied cast ethnicities and sexual orientations, but it's worth noting that's not the point the show is trying to make — just like in the original series.

"Diversity is inherent," Martin-Green says. "It's not something that needs to be discussed or something that has to be fought for."

Back in the ready room, I wonder how long it will take for First Officer Burnham to take over as captain.

"It's certainly a journey," Martin-Green says cryptically, before slapping her knees and letting out a laugh.

Where she ends up on the show is less important than the impact "Discovery" could have on society, like the Star Treks that came before it.

"Our iteration of Star Trek has come specifically, expertly and wholeheartedly for a time such as this," she says. "It's not just important, it's vital."

First published Sept. 10, 6 p.m. PT. 
Update, Sept. 24 at 5 a.m. PT: Adds material from interview with Jason Isaacs.