On the set of Star Trek Discovery: how Netflix’s new USS inspires a brighter future

We stepped aboard the latest Starfleet ship to hear a message of hope from Sonequa Martin-Green, Jason Isaacs and more

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On September 7th 1966, Martin Luther King stopped at an intersection. James Belk, a white gas station attendant, spotted him. He approached the car, pointed a gun at King’s head and told him he was going to blow his brains out. There was a pause. King looked up.

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“Brother,” he said, “I love you.”

The future used to look like this. A big spinny chair with buttons that say “red alert” and “open hailing frequencies”, screens flashing urgently about incoming enemy vessels. I’m standing on the bridge of the USS Discovery and it feels like it could jump to warp at any moment.

Despite Netflix’s new show being set ten years before the original Star Trek, the décor is a far cry from Kirk’s retro-chic, or the Next Generation’s airport-Hilton-beige. This is modern, utilitarian, built for a war with the Klingons: brushed gun metal, a bunker’s squatness. Executive producer Aaron Harberts says it takes cues from Brutalist architecture – Milton Keynes in Space – but stepping on-board feels as comforting as coming home. It’s the future, the one we were all promised, here at last.

Star Trek has defined our vision of the future for 50 years now, from its flip-phone communicators to its holodeck. On the day of my visit, the streets are full of people in visors that look like Geordi’s from The Next Generation. They’re getting ready to watch the solar eclipse later in the afternoon. News presenters keep calling it ‘the one thing bringing Americans together’ after white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier in the week.

It’s a tough time to be optimistic about the future.

Of course, when Star Trek hit American screens on September 8th 1966 – one day after Martin Luther King’s close call– its multicultural crew was as optimistic as the technology. It showed a future where everyone from aliens (Spock) to present-day enemies (Chekhov) worked together for the greater good. King himself once convinced Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt Uhura, to stay on the show as an inspiration.

“I just want to thank her for listening to Dr King,” says Sonequa Martin-Green, “She said I will be an activist through my art, I will be that image for people to see so they can know it’s possible. Because without her there is no me.”

Martin-Green stars in Star Trek: Discovery as First Officer Michael Burnham. She sees the show as emerging from the same problems as the original series.

“We are living through Civil Rights 2.0,” she argues. “Our political and social and racial climate is so ugly.”

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Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham

In that light, Discovery’s diverse cast is a clear political statement, just like it was in 1966.

“We’re staying true to Star Trek’s legacy, because it always has been a political show. But I think the beauty of Star Trek is it shows that political statement in its authenticity, because you see this diversity and it’s not even commented on. There’s no need. We’ve been victorious.” 

The Enterprise was progressive for the time, but straight white American men were firmly in charge. The dream needs widening. Discovery features Star Trek’s first gay couple in Science Officer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) – their home life serves as a domestic counterpoint to all the sci-fi. Burnham’s mentor Captain Georgiou is played by Michelle Yeoh, using her natural Malaysian accent. (We’ve come a long from Montgomery Scott’s ‘Aberdonian’ twang.) The supportive relationship between Burnham and Georgious, two women in power, is central to the series.

“I am a U.N Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador,” Yeoh says, “and one of our development goals is empowerment and gender equality. We’re showing what it looks like when we accomplish our goals, although hopefully it doesn’t take 200 years.”

Meanwhile the Klingons have had a startling redesign. “The females have bigger heads,” jokes Mary Chieffo, who plays Commander L’Rell, “because they have bigger brains.”

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Star Trek Discovery’s new Klingons

In fact if there’s one endangered species, it’s the Captain Kirks of the universe. Yeoh calls Kirk “the James Bond of Star Trek” – high praise from the star of Tomorrow Never Dies, but “very very of that time”. (In three episodes watched while writing this article, Kirk seduced: an alien; a subordinate; and a lawyer prosecuting him for unprofessionalism.)

Captain Gabriel Lorca is a man of action too. Jason Isaacs (known for playing Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter) plays the mysterious leader of the Discovery. After deciding against using his own British accent to avoid Patrick Stewart’s shadow (“although I suppose Lorca could have been the first Scouse captain”) he decided on a military inflection.

“I knew there was war and conflict in Discovery, and I previously trained at Fort Benning in Georgia for Blackhawk Down. All of the soldiers I’ve spent time with, whether they come from the south or not, have some kind of Southern echo, as so many of the bases are down there.”

On his first day Isaacs tried out a catchphrase – “get ‘er done” – but stopped when “it turned out to be the catchphrase of a famous redneck comedian”

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Jason Isaacs as Captain Lorca

Lorca has his own Kirk-like tics as well. “I didn’t sit in the chair for a long time,” he explains, instead choosing to pace around restlessly. “I conducted the bridge like an orchestra.” In his ready room, Lorca has a standing desk instead of the traditional conference table.(Yes, just like the berk in your office who won’t shut up about his posture.)

But the Kirkian certainty – the swaggering hero with all the answers– has gone. In his place is the psychological depth and moral ambiguity expected of modern television. “All the previous captains have been very benign, very warm-hearted leaders of the crew,” Isaacs explains. “This guy needs to knock people in to shape. It’s a war. You can’t fuck around.”

“It’s not easy to be in charge during war, and war throws up some very difficult ethical choices. And sometimes the characters make the wrong decision, which they never did in the original Star Trek.”

“It’s not as happy clappy as previous iterations.”

Isaacs sees the darker storyline as “a reflection of our troubled times” but like Martin-Green, sees Star Trek as a vision of inclusivity and diversity that we still need today. “These are buzzwords, but they mean something when you see the backlash to Sonequa being announced as the lead. She’s black! She’s a woman!”

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Incredibly, some fans have accused Lorca and his flaws of being evidence of an ‘emasculating culture’. Isaacs snorts. He points to Jodie Whitaker’s casting in Doctor Who as an example of this male rage. “She’s a very good friend of mine and is going to be utterly brilliant. I love the fact that all of the detractors are going to be eating seven tonnes of shit as soon as they see her.”

“As a man with daughters the notion that somehow men are losing their status in the world is laughably absurd.”

Indeed, despite the adult issues and darker tone, children come up a lot on set. Most of the cast giggled the first time they stood on a transporter pad and said “energise”. Aaron Harberts assured us you can still watch Discovery as a family, despite the occasional swear word, while Isaacs vividly recalled his childhood fear of a particular episode: “when you hit adolescence you got this kind of purple creeping plasticine on your arm that eventually killed you. Now, obviously, I see it’s an allegory for puberty.”

(Some of the later Discovery storylines look ridiculous in the best tradition of the original series. Remember, the same show that gave us ‘live long and prosper’ also gave us ‘Spock’s Brain’ – in which aliens steal Spock’s brain.)

Meanwhile, Sonequa Martin-Green hoped any little girls watching her “would see their value, and that they are powerful, and the sky is the limit for them,” just like Nichelle Nichols did for previous generations.

And perhaps it’s this, more than the phasers and photon torpedoes, that makes standing on that bridge so powerful. Star Trek was an optimistic response to the worst of times. 50 years later, the times haven’t got any better, but the dream is unsullied. In the depths of 2017 it might be naïve, even childish to imagine that one day we’ll all band together and travel around the stars, but the cast and crew of Discovery understand that it’s a future we want to see again.

The set visit over, we emerge back onto the streets just as the sky darkens. The Moon starts passing across the face of the Sun and, for a moment, everyone looks up.

Originally published on September 23rd 2017

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Star Trek: Discovery will be released on Netflix in the UK on Monday 25th September