'Star Trek: Discovery' is a journey toward optimism

Don't fret, producers say, over the darker tone and seemingly continuity-bending aspects like lead character Michael Burnham's upbringing.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
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Watch this: 'Star Trek: Discovery' dishes on favorite Trek tech

When the elevator doors closed on the cast of "Star Trek: Discovery," the giggles began.

Having just wrapped up their New York Comic Con panel inside the Madison Square Garden Theater, roughly a dozen actors and producers crammed into an elevator heading to a follow-up press conference Saturday night. They were all giddy from having wrapped up the hourlong talk -- complete with surprise appearance from actress Michelle Yeoh. The crowd gave them an enthusiastic send-off. 

Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays lead character Michael Burnham, hugged executive producer Gretchen Berg, who jokingly suggested they all escape to their hotel for pizza instead.

The lightness and easygoing chemistry among the "Discovery" cast present a stark contrast with the characters of "Discovery." In the first few episodes, the show has turned Burnham into a shunned mutineer, introduced a suspicious skipper in Capt. Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and given us an arrogant and snappy scientist in Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp).

"Star Trek: Discovery" presents nuanced, complex characters. 



It's the darkness of the characters and the background, which is set amid a war with the Klingons, as well as potentially continuity-bending aspects like Burnham being the adoptive daughter of Sarek, Spock's dad, that have some longtime Trekkies nervous.

If you're among those worried about the changes brought on by "Discovery," the producers have some advice for you: Just wait a little bit.

"We are canon," executive producer Alex Kurtzman said in an interview Saturday. "You'll have to be patient with us."

Kurtzman addressed the notion that the show would be grittier, assuring fans that the core themes of Star Trek remain.

"You can not make Star Trek without respecting and honoring the fact that the essential vision that [Gene] Roddenberry had was an optimistic one of the future," he said.

That said, what makes "Discovery" interesting will be how it tests that theme against conflict.

"It's very easy to be optimistic when everything is going well," he said. "It's much much harder when you are compromised in many different ways. We're saying it's sometimes hard to hang on to your morals and ideals. But when you do, it's personally more satisfying."

Fellow executive producer Akiva Goldsman also addressed the issue while on the panel, noting that the serialized structure of the show allows the writers to stretch out emotions over the course of a season.

"Ours is the origin of the feeling that is [Star Trek: The Original Series]," he said. "We don't start there. We get there. The name of the show is Discovery not by accident."

If you've been watching the show, which is now available on streaming service CBS All Access (disclosure: CNET is owned by CBS), you'll also know that the starship Discovery is working on a new form of transportation using spores. The idea is the organic material would allow the ship to move faster than warp speed, the conventional means of moving around the galaxy in the Star Trek universe.

Considering this show is set a decade before James T. Kirk's adventures aboard the original Enterprise, this development has fans scratching their heads.

'Star Trek: Discovery' brings Trekkies and cosplay together

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But Kurtzman again said it would be consistent with continuity.

"We're introducing a new idea," he said. "It doesn't negate the old ideas."

The producers also addressed the fact that "Discovery" is only available in the US through the subscription CBS Access service, noting that the show is different from other broadcast programs. 

"You can see the effects, time and care," said Aaron Harberts, co-executive producer of the show. "The type of stories and the way we're telling it -- you won't find it on broadcast television."

The crowd in the Madison Square Garden Theater may have made the most noise for Yeoh, who wore a mask and pretended to be a fan asking a question before revealing herself. After the unmasking, Yeoh went up on stage to even more applause. Yeoh played Captain Philippa Georgiou and was Burnham's original commanding officer in the series premiere before Klingon leader T'Kuvma killed her in a fight.

But Berg told the audience, "You will see more of this woman on the show."


Sonequa Martin-Green plays First Officer Michael Burnham of the USS Discovery. She's also the adopted daughter of Spock's parents, Sarek and Amanda.  


And while the Comic Con audience also cheered the fact that the lead character of "Discovery" is a black woman, others haven't been so kind. The show got a lot of early backlash for the decision to cast Martin-Green in the lead role, a reaction she said was hurtful. She's hopeful "Discovery" will be a force for change in society.

Fans who are upset by the diversity of the cast "can go fuck themselves," Isaacs said in the press conference, before settling into a more nuanced follow-up.

"Actually, I wish they would watch the show," he said. "It's aimed at them."

Updated at 12:48 p.m. PT: To include a comment from one of the producers.

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