TV and Movies

'Star Trek: Discovery' goes to war -- and not everyone survives

I spoke to the co-executive producers and several cast members of the first Star Trek show in 12 years. Here's what I learned.

Dalia Naber/CBS Interactive

One of Star Trek's central tenets is to "explore strange new worlds." Trekkies will have to embrace that ethos when it comes to "Star Trek: Discovery."

This won't be the Trek you're used to -- and that's the point.

It may not necessarily be a bad thing. The television franchise limped off the air with "Enterprise" back in 2005, capping off 18 consecutive years when a Star Trek show was on the air. "Discovery" promises to breathe new life into Star Trek with a more cinematic quality, continuing story arcs and more-complicated characters.

Pictured (l-r): Doug Jones as Lt. Saru; Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham; Michelle Yeoh as Capt. Philippa Georgiou.

Pictured (l-r): Doug Jones as Lt. Saru; Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham; Michelle Yeoh as Capt. Philippa Georgiou. 

Jan Thijs/CBS Interactive

That this is the first Star Trek series in 12 years, and that it's the flagship program for the CBS All Access streaming service, isn't lost on the cast. (Disclosure: CBS is the parent company of CNET.) After all, a lot of Trekkies are waiting with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

"It is indeed overwhelming," said Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays Michael Burnham, the face of "Discovery" (and the first Star Trek lead who isn't the commanding officer). 

I talked to Martin-Green, co-executive producer Aaron Harberts and other cast members about "Discovery" -- what sets it apart from the previous series and why you should tune in. I'll be discussing plot points and character details, so here's your SPOILER ALERT:

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"Discovery," set a decade before the original series, stands out by focusing on the war between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire.

Other Star Trek shows have dealt with conflict between different alien races, and "Deep Space Nine" notably devoted the latter part of its series to an epic war between multiple races. But generally Star Trek focuses on the core theme of exploration.

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"Discovery" throws you into the central conflict from the get-go. 

"We made it pretty clear we're taking some risks," Harberts said in an interview last month at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto, where the show is being filmed. "It's wartime; not everyone makes it."

Sonequa Martin-Green plays First Officer Michael Burnham of the USS Discovery.

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.  

CBS Interactive

That's right, you should get ready to see some potential fan favorites make an early departure.

The USS Shenzhou, the other Federation ship featured on "Discovery" and captained by Michelle Yeoh's Philippa Georgiou, figures into the conflict early on. Harberts describes it as an older warship versus the newer, more exploration-focused Discovery. Fan speculation is betting the ship sees an early demise, and Harberts teases it seeing a lot of action in the second episode.

If war's not your thing, don't fret. "Discovery" will wrap up the conflict by the end of its 15-episode first season.  

"We want to put to bed the Klingon-Federation war," Harberts said.

Here's more about the cast and what they had to say about the show.

Sonequa Martin-Green (Michael Burnham)
First off, what's with the unusual name? "Michael" came from the original showrunner of "Discovery," Bryan Fuller, who had the tendency to give his female leads male names. Martin-Green said she decided her character would be named after her biological father.

"It's a very quaint yet powerful symbol of the father-daughter dynamic," she said. In the future, she envisions, there'll be a lot more fluidity when it comes to gender roles, and that'll extend to names.

The father-daughter dynamic plays a big role in the show. Spock's father, Sarek, adopts Burnham at a young age, raising her on the Vulcan home world.

Martin-Green said she's impressed with the way Burnham has been integrated into the classic storyline.

"There's something that seems so organic and familiar about it once you see it," she said.

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Michelle Yeoh (Capt. Phippa Georgiou)
Georgiou is an accomplished veteran who's seen her share of war but isn't jaded by the experience.

"She's someone who has great compassion and hope for humanity," Yeoh said.

It's for that reason that Sarek brings Burnham to Georgiou. Burnham's upbringing led to her feeling more Vulcan than human, and Georgiou acts as a counter to that. When the series begins, Burnham will have been first officer to Georgiou for seven years.

Yeoh, who made her name in numerous martial arts films throughout the '80s and '90s, promises that she'll get to kick some serious butt.

Jason Isaacs (Capt. Gabriel Lorca)
Lorca, the captain of the Discovery, is a bit of an anomaly, since he's the first commanding officer that isn't the lead actor.

Capt. Gabriel Lorca, played by Jason Isaacs

Capt. Gabriel Lorca, played by Jason Isaacs, seems to be a complicated character. 

James Dimmock/CBS Interactive

Isaacs didn't offer up any plot details, but he described his relationship with Burnham as "interesting and complicated" with "changes over time." The continuing story arc lets more character details emerge over time, he added.

"We're telling a more nuanced story and an evolving story," he said.

Harberts called Lorca a mysterious character, which suggests that your opinion of him will change over the course of the show.

Isaacs said he chose to use a southern accent based on his time training with American soldiers for "Black Hawk Down," when he learned that a southern accent was prevalent in the armed forces despite where soldiers were from.

Linguists will appreciate the fact that he based his southern accent on an amalgam of dialects from different states, assuming that in the future, those borders will have faded.

"It's not a generic accent," he said.

Doug Jones (Lt. Saru)
Saru is a Kelpien, a never-before-seen alien race that's treated as food on his home planet.

"Think of a gazelle in the forest always on the lookout for a tiger," Jones said. "There's that over-the-shoulder feeling."

Saru is the first Kelpien to rise up and join Starfleet. Jones said the character feels he has a lot to prove. And while he fills the critical nonhuman role that's been a part of all Star Trek series (think Spock in the original series and Data from "The Next Generation"), he says he's more in touch with his emotions -- especially fear.

A closer look at Doug Jones as Lt. Saru.

A closer look at Doug Jones as Lt. Saru.

Jan Thijs/CBS Interactive

Jones, best known for bringing to life creatures like Abe Sapien from "Hellboy," said Saru is already among his favorite characters to play. It probably has something to do with the makeup -- it takes only about two hours to put his Saru mask and makeup on, versus the seven hours each day he spent in makeup for "Hellboy."

Anthony Rapp (Lt. Paul Stamets) and Wilson Cruz (Dr. Hugh Culber)
Stamets and Culber are the first gay couple to be featured in a Star Trek series. When the viewers first see them, they'll have already been together for years -- so there's no Ross and Rachel will-they-won't-they dynamic here.

Stamets is a science officer studying the field of "astromycology" (whatever that is), which has an impact on what Discovery is trying to do, Rapp said.

Rapp teases "rich" twists and turns on "Discovery," and said his character has to deal with an "intense" storyline that took its emotional toll.

Though the show doesn't make a big deal of their relationship, Cruz, who co-starred with Rapp in the musical "Rent," said it's important for the LGBT community that the romance is on display.

"What's important is the power of being seen," he said. "That's all any of us want."

Mary Chieffo (L'Rell)
L'Rell serves as the battle deck commander for T'Kuvma, a Klingon who's able to rally the bickering houses by pitting them against the Federation.

While T'Kuvma does a lot of the talking, Chieffo said L'Rell pulls a lot of the strings in the background, noting that the family on her mother's side specializes in deception and working in the shadows.

L'Rell

L'Rell pulls the strings within the Klingon Empire.

James Dimmock/CBS Interactive

"She's the one really running the show," Chieffo said.

Chieffo has heard the criticism of the different look of the Klingons, and said there's an explanation that fits with the broader continuity of Star Trek. She noted that the Klingons of "Discovery" don't have hair because their sensors are on the back and behind the ears.

Chieffo promised that you'll see a lot of scenes from the Klingon perspective, so there's no true villain in this show.

"You really get to see the nuance and vulnerability in Klingons that you haven't seen before," she said.

Shazad Latif (Lt. Ash Tyler)
Tyler's character is a prisoner of war, and he's "in an emotional dark place" when viewers first see him, Latif said.

He offered little detail on Tyler or the storyline, but described him as a "very dark, complex" character.

"Discovery" is coming to television at the right time, he said, noting the quality of programming that's out there. "It feels like a bit of a mini golden age," he said. This is enabling Star Trek to dig a little deeper and tell different stories.

And does he feel the heat from relaunching a massive franchise?

"I don't feel the pressure," he said. "I'm quite excited for everyone to see it."

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