Writer-producer Aaron Harberts, one of the principal executive producers behind Star Trek: Discovery, may be a newcomer to the Star Trek universe as but his long list of standout TV credits — including genre standouts like Roswell, beloved cult fare with his mentor Bryan Fuller including Pushing Daisies, and mainstream hits like Revenge — suggest that he’s more than ready for a stint in the captain’s chair.
Harberts and his longtime writing partner Gretchen J. Berg came aboard the newest installment of the venerable sci-fi franchise at the behest of Discovery’s original showrunner Bryan Fuller, and when Fuller had to depart to devote more attention to American Gods, the duo stayed at the helm alongside executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman.
As the series warps into its streaming debut on CBS All Access, Harberts shares some of the inside secrets of the show’s creation — including what to expect whenever a seeming violation of Trek canon rears its Gorn-like head.
CBR: The conflict between the Klingons and the Federation has been described as a Cold War. But it doesn’t look too cold.
Aaron Harberts: It isn’t so cold. I would say that the show starts in a place where the Klingons and the Federation have been hating. The last real large battle is the battle of Donatu V, 10 to 12 years before our show begins. That’s sort of the last big military incident battle between the two. So we’ve had a decade or so of no contact, where the Klingons have sort of retreated behind their space, and the Federation has been doing their own thing.
The pilot and the second episode really focus on what happens when these two cultures, who have been apart for quite some time, and have kept their distance, suddenly arrive on a collision course.
In those occasions where you guys appear to stray from established canon, do you plan to address those apparent deviations on a story level?
Absolutely. I wish we could watch it with them on the couch. When something looks like it is wildly divergent from what people know to be canon, I always want to say, “Hold on a second! Just wait — we know.”
Nine times out of 10, we know that we’re violating canon. We also know that two or three episodes later, we’re going to turn it. If people are patient, and sort of don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to what they’re seeing, the delight has been resolving it, tying it up, showing everybody that we’re in on it.
That’s something that we really are excited about in terms of the storytelling. So maybe the fans go a little bit crazy on the couch for a second, but either an act later, a scene later, or two episodes later, we hope that they’ll say, “Oh, I get it. I get what they were doing. Oh, they didn’t violate it. They weren’t wrong. They called it out and we move on.”
How would you describe how the protagonists fit into what we just described as far as the two cultures now?
Star Trek has always been a story of exploration and discovery. A physical exploration, an external exploration, through the galaxy, through space. This story is also an exploration that is internal. So the character Michael Burnham is going to make some choices that she never thought she would make, and she’s going to be put in a position she never thought she’d be in. And it really is the story of someone who has to start over and discover who they are, and find themselves.
In wartime, how does the Star Trek tradition of exploration fit into that context?
That has been a difficult thing, because you do want to do those episodes where they are exploring, where they’re going to other places. Our exploration is usually hinging on strategy. So if there’s a planet that could help us, if there’s an alien race that might have intelligence that we need, if there are alien beings, that can help us strategically, that’s where the exploration goes.
The first three, four, five episodes are all about, “What lengths would you go to to win a war? Would you compromise your morals? Would you say, ‘We’re doing this thing to this planet, or to this creature, in the hopes of winning a war and bringing peace to the universe, but at the expense of something?’”
At the end of the day, what’s the most important thing is the ideals of Starfleet, the ideas of the Federation, and it’s a dark period in the Federation’s history where they have to win a war, but they also have to stay true to themselves. It’s been a really fun balance in terms of the character stories about who’s on board with that? Who’s not? How can we resolve conflict and still maintain our morals, and our ethics, and our ideals?
Why is it important to have a female character at the center of your story? How was that dramatically more valuable?
It is so dramatically valuable because most of the captains in Trek are fully formed individuals. They might have flaws, they might have character quirks, they might have weaknesses, emotional soft spots, vulnerabilities. What’s so great about Sonequa’s character is that Michael Burnham thinks she knows who she is, thinks she knows what she deserves within the ranks of Starfleet, and that’s all upended.
So now we’re telling the story of an individual who thought she knew who she was, thought she knew where she was going, and she’s not that fully formed person anymore. She’s having an existential crisis. She’s having an identity crisis. A human raised on Vulcan, raised by Sarek to be humanity’s best hope, and suddenly, she finds herself at a place where she has no idea who she is. What’s really cool for us is to take the audience on a really relatable journey of self-discovery.
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