[This story contains spoilers from the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.]
After the two-episode premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, it’s clear that the status of space is that of utter chaos. The first two hours of the CBS All Access drama introduced a new starship and its Starfleet officers, including the woman at the core of the drama, First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green).
A human raised by Spock’s father, Vulcan Ambassador Sarek (James Frain), Burnham is unlike any previous Star Trek character. Her point of view shifts between the logical mentality of her surrogate home planet and human emotions, which ultimately in the first two episodes leads her down a dark path.
After Klingon leader T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) calls to unite all 24 houses in a war against the Federation, Burnham — in a bid to do the right thing for her ship — carries out a mutiny against her mentor, Capt. Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). She attacks a Klingon vessel and her plan fails, prompting a fully fledged Klingon attack that cripples several Starfleet ships. Georgiou winds up dead and Burnham, filled with rage after seeing her human mentor die before her eyes, retaliates and kills T’Kuvma.
It ignites the show’s central conflict between the human Federation and the Klingons, setting the stage for the 13 remaining episodes to come in Discovery. The events leave Burnham’s life in shambles: her mentor is dead, ship destroyed and she is striped of her rank and sentenced to life in prison for mutiny. This is where the true story of Star Trek: Discovery begins.
To break down the events of the first two hours and preview what’s to come from the rest of Discovery, THR spoke with showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts about where Burnham goes from here as well as how the loss of her mentor and her guilt over igniting the war will guide her going forward.
The premiere introduces this world and a number of characters but by the end of episode two, much of it is blown up to propel the story to what Discovery will be about. Building from those ashes, where does the series go?
Gretchen J. Berg: The first two episodes is where we get to see her backstory. We get to see what launches her into the rest of the series and a lot of times, certainly on more traditional television series, you’d see that through flashback or hear about that through conversation. But we showed it.
Aaron Harberts: It enables the audience to see in two episodes who she was, who she is in that moment and who she thinks she’s going to be. She’s convinced she’s going to be a captain, her captain tells her as much. To be able to show the audience who Michael Burnham is and how she’s functioning in walking down a path she’s convinced she knows where it leads, what it allows us to do in episode three is show you everything she’s lost.
When we talk about Discovery, it’s not only discovery in terms of the cosmos and what Star Trek means, voyages of discovery externally. But it’s also so much a story about Michael Burnham discovering who she is as a human being. To watch her fall allows us to then have the audience invest in how she’s going to rebuild herself. And does she really want to rebuild herself in the same image as the person who came before?
It seemed really vital to the character and to the journey we’re setting forth to really allow the audience to get a great two-hour glimpse of that. I think the other very important thing was to show the audience that war is a horrible, terrible thing. As Georgiou says, it’s filled with blood and screams and funerals. When you end this, you’re not cheering. You’re not cheering at the end of all of these battles. You’re left with this pit in your stomach, left with this loss. You are left wondering how does this organization pick itself up and dust itself off and how does this lead character do the same?
As the show moves forward, she’s not only lost her ship — her home — but her human mentor as well. Why kill off Georgiou?
Harberts: That was always a piece of storytelling that [former showrunner] Bryan Fuller and [executive producer] Alex Kurtzman had as the architecture for the first two episodes. For us, it’s a very old way of telling the story. Getting people invested in these two characters, only to yank one away. It was sort of subliminally designed to say to the audience, “You think you know what kind of Star Trek you’re getting. You think you see who your Kirk and Spock are. But they’re not. This is not your everyday Star Trek.”
Not only was it important for Burnham’s emotional journey and the loss she’s going to carry the entire series but it was a really terrific way to announce that this show was going to defy certain expectations.
How does the human loss and responsibility for starting the war with the Klingons impact Burnham?
Berg: She’s carrying it with her every single step of the way through the series. And going back to the idea of Georgiou alone, and casting somebody like Michelle Yeoh, we needed to make sure we had a character and an actress that, even if you don’t see her physically on the screen, you’re going to feel her absence because she leaves that kind of impact on Burnham’s life and on the audience’s life.
It’s a constant reminder for Burnham. It puts her in a very vulnerable position. There’s this character who’s so sure of herself. Every choice in her life was made with a goal in mind and it’s all been ripped away from her. Now she’s starting from nothing. She thought she knew who she was and where she was going and the people around her were going to be constants. That’s all different now, it’s all gone. It’s literally discovery, somebody figuring out who they are and how they fit in with everybody else on the ship or around them. It’s a big part of the storytelling for us the first season.
Harberts: The other thing that happens with Michael Burnham when you pick up in chapter three, this is a human raised on Vulcan. Logic was a cornerstone of her education and then her seven years under Georgiou provided her with a certain amount of teaching about what it means to be a human leader and to use emotion when you lead. What happens in episodes one and two is Burnham makes a decision using logic based on advice from Sarek and it backfires. Then she makes an emotional choice, a very rash choose — one that’s made in microseconds and fueled by the heart due to the grief over her dying captain — to kill T’Kuvma, the very thing she said would make a Klingon a martyr and further the war.
She’s made decisions based on logic, she’s acted on emotion. Neither has worked, so where does she stand? Her entire worldview has crumbled and she’s got nothing to hold onto. That was interesting for all of the writers because everybody on Trek, in all the other iterations, one thing they do share is they’re super competent. They know what they’re there to do. They know how to solve problems. They’re brave and intelligent and capable. This is a character who was all of those things and now feels like everything she believed in or knew of or tried has been called into question. So we find a very shattered individual at the top of [episode] three.
There’s also the story of season one where we talk about Starfleet itself wondering who they are as an organization. War makes even the most idealistic organizations flirt with darkness. Burnham is also asking herself who am I and those stories are running parallel through the season.
It’s said in the premiere that nobody has seen a Klingon in 100 years. Now, the Federation is at war with them and Michael killed T’Kuvma, making him a martyr. How much of the war will the show cover this season?
Berg: The thing that’s interesting about that is how do you reach peace with an enemy or an other that you don’t know at all? What do they consider the compromise? Starfleet is so used to being able to extend the hand of “we come in peace.” What happens if the group you’re facing off against isn’t interested in the same outcome as you are? That’s something we thought was really interesting to explore. At the end of the day, Starfleet has to be Starfleet. We do have to hold onto optimism and hope. The war will last through the whole season. How do we stick to our ideals when the folks we are fighting with are not interested in our ideals and don’t share them?
Harberts: And we’re going to be tracking the war from the Klingon side as well. We’re going to find out that T’Kuvma’s plan of Klingon unity may not necessarily come to fruition. We’re watching this war take its toll on both sides. Not only from the standpoint of who’s winning and who’s losing, but from the standpoint of how far is T’Kuvma’s message going? At what point do the Klingons turn on each other? We find that this war ends up having an effect in that it splinters many people that thought they were actually allied from the start.
Georgiou’s relationship with Michael was parental in nature. How does that compare to Capt. Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and how he will relate to Michael on the USS Discovery?
Berg: They don’t share the history she had [with Georgiou]. You see in the flashback in episode two that we’re to assume it was very hard-earned for Georgiou and Burnham to get to that level of closeness that we see up top when they’re on their mission to get the well going again. It is a completely different relationship with Lorca and she’s getting to know a new individual with a very different point of view on how to face war and what is necessary to win.
Harberts: If Georgiou represents the absolute ideal version of a Starfleet captain, which is to say she has the moral authority given to her by Starfleet, Lorca represents the situational ethics that come into play during times of desperation and war. During times where sometimes the rules don’t apply when it comes to matters of life and death. He exists in a very gray area and he’s almost a captain that could only exist in this context. And, in fact, context if a very important thing for Lorca. He believes that context is what should decide actions.
You use flashbacks to a young Michael with Sarek and Georgiou. Will you continue to use flashbacks to explore both of those relationships? Have we seen the last of Yeoh?
Harberts: We’ll definitely be exploring the parental relationship between Burnham and Sarek further on in the series in flashbacks. Georgiou will always be present in Burnham’s life, in her consciousness. We won’t be doing as many flashbacks with Georgiou but we do definitely explain and explore what happened to young Burnham at the Vulcan learning center in that horrific bombing, when Sarek brings her back to life. We explore how that event really cemented the relationship between this little human child and this Vulcan ambassador.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS All Access.