Disney has the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universes. Warner Bros. has its DC movies, and before long HBO may have an empire built on Game of Thrones. These days, franchises are everywhere, spread across movies, TV and more. And one of the oldest franchises in the business, Star Trek, is ready to take the spotlight.
CBS All Access is already airing Star Trek: Discovery, the latest show set in Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic utopia. But there’s more on the horizon, including an upcoming show starring Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard, the role he originated on Star Trek: The Next Generation. “[Stewart] did not want to come back,” Star Trek universe boss Alex Kurtzman told Vanity Fair. “He said he was never going to play that part again. So we entered into that knowing Patrick is going to have a major, major voice in whatever this becomes if we’re going to get him to say yes. He doesn’t want to repeat what he’s done already, which was by the way, the best bar he could have put forward. The show is inspired by Next Gen, and it’s written by people who grew up loving it but it is very much not Next Gen. It feels like a modern adult drama in the world of Star Trek, which has not actually really happened before. It’s also singularly about a man in his emeritus years and there are very few franchises that would allow you to have an almost 80 year old lead and tell his story.”
His constant refrain was: I don’t want to do what I’ve already done. Obviously it’s not a secret that the Borg were involved, and his first instinct was not to do the Borg. He was like, “I did that story. I don’t want to do that story.” And we couldn’t just say, “Yeah, but we loved you in it so much, we just want to do that again.” And what ended up emerging was actually as a result of that back and forth, a very unique and very different Borg story. Definitely not one that you could have told in Next Generation. And certainly not what I think anyone’s expecting.
The Borg were one of Picard’s greatest enemies on Next Generation, and although we don’t know exactly how the new show will approach them, we’ll be glad to see them back. We do know that Picard will feature Jeri Ryan as former Borg drone Seven of Nine, a character Picard never met on The Next Generation. That alone should suggest all kinds of storytelling possibilities.
Beyond Picard, fans can look forward to Section 31, a spinoff show starring Michelle Yeoh’s character from Discovery. “We are very excited about the Section 31 show and Michelle Yeoh is excited to do it,” said Julie McNamara, CBS All Access executive vice president of original content. “She is in the current season of Discovery so she’s working on that right now but we have scripts getting written, and Alex has a writer’s room. We love what we’ve heard so far. It’s yet another tonality of Trek. As Alex has mapped it all out, each show has its own unique sort of voice and vision.”
So what kind of tonality will Section 31 have, exactly? “What we don’t want is for you to watch one show and be like, well I don’t really need to watch that other Star Trek show cause I’ve already watched Discovery or whatever,” said Kurtzman. “So to me Section 31 is sort of like the black ops CIA division of Star Trek and it was established in Deep Space 9. Full credit goes to Michelle Yeoh for coming to me and saying in season one, before we even launched, ‘I want to do a spin off of my character!’ With Michelle Yeoh, it’s very hard to say no.”
It occupies an area of the Trek universe that’s never really been explored geographically. It has a new mythology to it, which is very interesting. And it puts Michelle’s character to the test in a lot of ways that Discovery can’t. In some ways it will be her Unforgiven, I would say.
So we’ve got one show with a 79-year-old actor in the lead role, and another led by an actor of Malaysian descent. Discovery, too, has a diverse cast, led by Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham. McNamara’s talked about CBS All Access’ commitment to diversity. “We certainly feel that it’s important to reflect the culture on our service. And that’s not just altruistic, although it is a good and important thing. It’s also good business. You really want to reach people in a way that feels specific in terms of characters and story telling.”
Kurtzman provided more detail, explaining the thought process that began at the early stages of development on Discovery:
About three years ago when, when CBS asked me to consider doing another Star Trek, my first instinct was: it’s got to be a woman and it’s got to be a woman of color. I’m not interested in having another male captain. We made that very clear and a condition of our involvement and Julie was immediately supportive of it. And one thing I remember very clearly was that we were still casting the morning Trump was elected and somehow in the casting conversation this question came up like, okay, do we have to reconsider this? And we doubled down and said, this is exactly why we have to do this right now.
Kurtzman continued, locating his commitment to diversity of casting in the origins of Star Trek itself, as originally conceived by Roddenberry:
The beauty of Star Trek and its vision—and I take no credit for this at all—is that it imagined a world where all of these things that we’re talking about now were not conversation pieces. Race, diversity, gender, sexual preference. Those are things we don’t talk about in the world of Star Trek. We’ve just moved past all that and it’s gorgeous. It’s the most amazing ideal and it’s part of why I think it’s survived for 50 plus years—because there’s people who would like to believe that our best selves will emerge in the future…..Star Trek was a pioneer in allowing people to see themselves on screen in a genre that they had never seen themselves before. This has never hit harder for me than when I got to spend an afternoon with Dr. Mae Jemison, who was the first female African American astronaut in space. I fell madly in love with her and I asked, why [become] an astronaut? And she said, “Uhura! I saw Uhura!” So I felt that responsibility… to create more Uhurus.
The story of how Uhura actor Nichelle Nichols partnered with NASA to get people of color interested in space exploration is pretty cool, incidentally. More Uhuras welcome.
Star Trek: Picard kicks off on January 23, while the third season of Discovery will arrive sometime in 2020.