EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: “STAR TREK: DISCOVERY” CO-SHOW RUNNER/CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER MICHELLE PARADISE
By Abbie Bernstein
STAR TREK: DISCOVERY premieres Season 1 on September 24 on regular CBS
Good news for fans of CBS All-Access’s STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Shooting on the third season wrapped in February, so Season 3 should be streaming later this year as scheduled.
STAR TREK: DISCOVERY is set ten years prior to the events of STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES. The main character is human Starfleet Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), adopted as a child by the Vulcan Sarek (James Frain) and his human wife Amanda Grayson (Mia Kirschner) and raised alongside their son Spock.
Much of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY’s second season is devoted to the search for Spock (Ethan Peck) by the U.S.S. Discovery crew and the starship’s temporary captain, Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), on loan from the U.S. S. Enterprise. Other plot elements include the attempts of an artificial intelligence to wipe out all biological life in the galaxy. Season 2 ends with Michael and the Discovery heading into the future to thwart the A.I.’s plans.
Michelle Paradise joined STAR TREK: DISCOVERY in its second season as a co-executive producer. For Season 3, she is the show runner alongside series co-creator Alex Kurtzman. Paradise was previously a producer and writer on THE ORIGINALS.
Paradise takes part in a panel on “Impact Storytelling” with three other creators/show runners: Michelle King of EVIL, THE GOOD WIFE, and THE GOOD FIGHT, Liz Feldman of DEAD TO ME, and Corinne Kingsbury of IN THE DARK. This is held on the CBS Radford Studios lot in Studio City, California, for the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour. After the panel, Paradise takes time for a one on one follow-up conversation. This interview combines both her responses on the panel and the private discussion.
Paradise came aboard STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, she says, halfway through second season. “And then toward the end of the season, Alex asked me to help run it with him for this season.”
Season 3 will continue in the arced vein of Seasons 1 and 2, Paradise relates. “It is heavily serialized. It also has its episodic elements, but I think it’s wonderful that people can binge it. What that lets us do is think in the very beginning about our mythology, and then really plan out where we want it to go, so that every episode becomes a breadcrumb trail to the end. It’s also fun because it lets you plant something in a certain episode, or look at a storyline, and then you can drop it for an episode or so and come back to it. You never want someone who is not watching it continuously to lose the plot. So it is a bit of a balance, but I think it’s really fun.”
What else, if anything, can Paradise tell us about Season 3? “At the end of Season 2, we have the cliffhanger of Burnham in the Red Angel suit leading our heroes in the ship through the wormhole, and we leave on the wormhole closing and the question of what happened to them. At the beginning of Season 3, we owe the answer to the question of what happened on the other side of the wormhole. So we will answer that question, I promise.”
Burnham and Discovery were planning to arrive 930 years in the future. Do they get there? “We’ve said we’re going nine hundred and thirty years in the future. So we’re going nine hundred and thirty years in the future.”
This probably means there won’t be any crossover with CBS All-Access’s STAR TREK: PICARD, Paradise adds. “That’s long past PICARD. So we don’t presently have any plans.”
Can Paradise tease any new Season 3 actors/characters? “Yes, absolutely. At Comic-Con , we announced David Ajala has joined us. He plays a character called Book, Cleveland Booker. He’s someone who, when we meet him, we think he’s a bit of a rogue, we’re not sure how much we can trust him, and then you find that there are other sides to him. David and Sonequa as actors have wonderful chemistry together. So we’re really excited about him and his character. As for anyone else, you’ll have to stay tuned.” She laughs. “I actually said ‘stay tuned’.”
With the first two seasons taking place before STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES, DISCOVERY has so far been bound by TREK canon. Jumping forward almost a thousand years, canon will not be as much of a consideration in Season 3. Is this something of a relief? “It was an interesting challenge to embrace canon in the way that we did in Season 2, and build story around critical characters like Pike and of course Spock. It’s been a different challenge to be beyond that. I love getting to do both. It’s a different way of thinking. Each is a different way of thinking about story, and it’s been a lot of fun to embrace all kinds of ideas.”
Even though STAR TREK: DISCOVERY is a genre show, Paradise says, “In the room, we don’t start any episode by talking about genre. We always start with our characters. The genre stuff always feels like that’s the fun, and of course our audience expects that, so we want to make sure that we are delivering all the super-cool VFX that they want to see, and all of our teams that do that are absolutely incredible. But it always comes back to character and story, what does someone want, and what gets in their way. Those things transcend genre.”
Paradise feels that the STAR TREK brand speaks to the present moment. “STAR TREK has an incredible history. From the beginning, it has embraced optimism, it has embraced diversity, it has embraced the difference between us. Like a lot of sci-fi, the storytelling reflects what is happening in the world today, and with DISCOVERY, we are taking all of these things, and we are doing that for today. Today, it feels like we have quite a lot of divisiveness in the country. There are things going on that are very troubling. And the great thing about STAR TREK, and specifically STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, is that we can, through our characters and our storytelling, reflect that, even when the world is challenging, even when there are very difficult things that we must face, if we come together, if we embrace the difference between us, if we embrace our better selves, that we can overcome anything, and that we can see a better future for ourselves. And especially today, I think that kind of message is incredibly important. Also we have an incredible, very diverse cast, and we embrace that. We embrace that storytelling, and I think today that kind of storytelling is needed.”
Given that the STAR TREK universe currently has STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, STAR TREK: PICARD, the standalone SHORT TREKS, and the animated comedy STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS, is there a mechanism in place to make sure the shows are not duplicating stories or contradicting each other?
“Yes,” Paradise replies. “It’s a massive universe. We have a lot of canon discussions in the room, because anything that came before, we have to honor. Thankfully, Alex is involved in all of those things, and if we’re going down a road where we need to be aware of something that has happened in a different show, he’ll make us aware, and we will either go in a different direction or make sure we incorporate that canon into our own storytelling. We also have some people on staff who are experts at that, Kirsten Beyer being one of them. She wrote TREK novels for about twenty years before she went into television writing, and she in particular is a wealth of knowledge. We call her our ‘Trekspert.’ So whenever we’re going down any particular story road, she’s there to help us with that.”
What exactly does a show runner do? “It seems to change from week to week, and sometimes day to day. It depends on whatever fire is on your desk at that particular moment. It’s a wonderful job. We get to do amazing things. We get to go in and talk story all day. We get to start every day by saying, ‘What if?’ I love it so much.”
Paradise adds, “It’s also a very big job. There are a lot of things that need to be accomplished. It’s a lot of multi-tasking. There are a lot of people one is responsible for. Making sure that the writers’ room is a safe space to talk, that’s on us. And if we’re making interesting shows, we’re dealing with difficult topics. So if you’re bringing up religion or politics, you have to be certain that everyone is not only speaking what they believe, but also being respectful of everyone else. And that’s no easy thing. We want to make sure that every department head, every person within those departments, feels heard and recognized, and has the information and communication from us that they need to do their best work.
“On any given day, [there is] that element, plus the breaking of story, and keeping the story train on track so that we can have the scripts delivered on time, make sure that we’re addressing the notes from our studio and network friends, getting everything to production in the time that they need. On this show in particular, our lead times are extraordinary, because everything in TREK is space. You can’t just say, ‘We need a table for an episode,’ so someone’s going to run to IKEA or Pottery Barn and grab it. You have to build it. All of our costumes are built. It’s a wonderful privilege. It’s also a lot.”
How does the STAR TREK: DISCOVERY writers’ room work? What are the rules? “One of the things that’s very important,” Paradise says, “is to make sure that the room is a safe space, to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, so that as we are talking about tricky things or difficult subjects, subjects that might have multiple points of views, characters that could be perceived in a particular way, that we are hearing all voices and making sure that the messages that we are putting out are messages that we want to put out. If we talk about all those things, then it feels like that’s the pre-groundwork to the storytelling itself, and then we just let the characters do the work for us.”
Are there any characters that Paradise feels particular affinity for? “I’m not sure if there’s a specific character. I mean, I love all of our characters, they’re all so interesting in their different ways. I really love Burnham. I love this character who feels the weight of the world on her shoulders, and is always trying to do the right things, and struggles with what’s the right way to go about doing these things, and she’s so noble, and feels so much, and the push and pull between her human and her Vulcan sides is a fascinating dynamic to watch her play. Sonequa is incredibly gifted, and so I think that character in particular, but I really love all of them.”
Paradise continues, “I love Saru [played by Doug Jones], his journey from [his home planet] to where he is at the end of Season 2, standing on board that ship and leading our heroes into this battle. Stamets [played by Anthony Rapp] and Culber [played by Wilson Cruz] are wonderful together. Tilly [played by Mary Wiseman], just her brightness, and she’s so good at what she does, and she’s this ray of sunshine whenever she’s in a room. And our bridge crew, I should also mention them. They’re just fantastic. And Michelle Yeoh, who plays Georgiou so wonderfully. Every time she comes on screen, you’re just waiting to see what she’s going to say, and how the actress is going to play that moment. She’s great.”
There are a many key female characters on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY who pass the Bechdel Test – that is, they talk with one another about topics that have nothing to do with men. They also run a moral spectrum from heroic to villainous. Does Paradise enjoy that aspect of the series?
“Yeah, absolutely. It’s fun to just get to play them who they are, and in relation to one another, and not necessarily in relation to the male in the room, or whatever that storyline might be. We really strive to make sure that everyone, not just our female characters, have those individualized storylines, and individual opportunities to shine. But for the Bechdel test specifically, yeah, having two women in a room talking about whatever it is they need to talk about, their worlds, their mission, all of that, was especially fun. I wrote Episode 9 last season, where we sent the trio [Burnham, Bridge Officer Airiam played by Sara Mitich, and Security Officer Nhan, played by Rachael Ancheril] to board the space station. To send three women on a mission together was fantastic, and something we haven’t seen a lot of in TREK, but that’s the kind of thing that we try to do on this show as much as we can.”
Is there any TREK tech that Paradise is especially excited to write about? “The spore drive is really fun. I find it all fascinating. In my own life, I’m fascinated by technology. I really enjoy WIRED MAGAZINE and MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW. This season, we’re going so far into the future, getting to invent new technologies has been really fun, along with our amazing [production design] team in Toronto that comes up with all of these things for us. It’s a blast.”
What would Paradise most like people to know about STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Season 3? “Just that we’re very excited for people to see it. We’re going beyond canon. So it’s an opportunity for new technology, new look and feel, new characters. But most importantly, we are still holding onto the core of what TREK is. It’s really important to us that, however far in the future we may go, that we still embrace all that makes STAR TREK STAR TREK – the optimism, the hope, the diversity, the underlying feeling of community and camaraderie, and the feeling that if we work together, we can achieve anything. All of that stuff that is so important to TREK and to fans of TREK is all the stuff we’re maintaining in Season 3.”
CO-SHOW RUNNER/CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER