Star Trek: Discovery, debuting this weekend on CBS and CBS All Access, marks the first bit of Star Trek television since Enterprise was canceled in 2005. It also marks a number of milestones for the legendary sci-fi franchise — from prominent firsts like casting a woman of color in the lead role and featuring the first openly gay character in Star Trek history to more subtle tweaks, like having two different captains on the show and a fresh-faced Starfleet cadet in the main cast.
With Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) starring as First Officer Michael Burnham, a black woman Starfleet officer who’s poised to have her own command, and Anthony Rapp (the original cast of Rent on Broadway) playing Lt. Paul Stamets, an astromycologist and a gay man who is in a committed long-term relationship with another officer on the ship, Discovery is clearly making an effort to be the most representative Star Trek series in the franchise’s 50-year history. To discuss these landmark developments, Vox spoke to Discovery’s two showrunners, Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, as well as Rapp, about what to expect.
The following interviews have been combined and edited for length and clarity.
On developing the character of Paul Stamets, who is gay, and casting Rapp in the role
Because no Star Trek TV series has ever featured a gay character, Discovery’s writers devoted extra care to developing Stamets, whom Rapp describes as “caustic.”
[The character is] named after a real person. [The real Paul Stamets is] a mycologist, and our Paul is also an astromycologist, which means he studies mushrooms and fungi, but of the universe. It actually goes all the way back to [original Discovery showrunner] Bryan Fuller, who always leans into the sciences and sci-fi. ... The real Paul Stamets has a great TED talk that you can find online if you want to know more about the background of the inspiration for the character.
Actually, we [originally] had Anthony in a different role, and it was a smaller role. And I think when we [were casting that smaller role] we were like, "Oh, we're going to go after Anthony Rapp." And then we got Anthony Rapp. And then [when it was time to cast Stamets] we're like, "Wait a minute. We have Anthony Rapp!"
The thing that was always important was that an out gay actor played this part. Everybody just wanted to stick to their guns in that way. To tell you the truth, Anthony was that, [which made us realize] that he'd be great for Stamets. It's hard to find a lot of out gay male actors.
I got a late-night email. I actually went back and looked at it again just the other day because I was curious. I checked my email before I went to bed, and it was 11:30 New York time, pm. And it was from my manager saying, “Are you interested in being part of the new Star Trek?” And I didn't even know there was a new Star Trek. So that made my head explode. It was an offer, which almost never happens in my experience in television — at least for me. I was like, “Of course!” In that case, it was a small role, but I was like, “Yeah! I'll do anything! I'd love to be part of this. That'd be really exciting.”
So that was it. I was super thrilled. I had to sign an NDA [nondisclosure agreement] just to look at the material, and the material was also transmitted to me in an app that self-destructed within 24 to 48 hours. Not the app, but the material self-destructed.
And I couldn't tell anybody either. Obviously I could tell my boyfriend, but that was it.
Then it was another four weeks. [Then one day] my phone rings, and it's my agent, Sarah, and she's like, “They want to upgrade you and make you a regular.”
I never auditioned! It's so insane. And it was thrilling, but the whole thing dropped out of the sky. It has completely transformed my life already. I got a peak experience a little over 20 years ago with Rent. Truly, as an actor, it was everything I would've dreamed, everything I would've wanted to been a part of. And now this has come along, and it absolutely is rivaling it in all sorts of ways. And the fact that it came so unexpectedly feels kinda like a showbiz miracle.
Literally the second we started thinking about it, thinking, "We've got an out gay actor. Why not let him carry the torch for the gay community?" And then hiring Wilson [Cruz] to play [Stamets’s] partner was also really great for us because it allowed two gay men to do what many gay men aren't able to do, which is play a gay. Often those roles are given to straight guys.
On the importance of portraying Stamets as very “normal” and giving him a boyfriend who appears onscreen
Wilson Cruz plays the role of Dr. Hugh Culber, a medical officer on the Discovery who’s also in a romantic relationship with Stamets.
Well, for me, I'm a gay man, and I grew up on television during my coming-out period, which was actually high school, in the late '80s, early '90s. And I remember there was not a lot of visibility. Gay characters tended to be either dying of AIDS or were sort of a punchline, or were portrayed in a way that felt very sexually lascivious, perhaps. There wasn't a lot of visibility in terms of a stable relationship that, frankly, was boring. You know? And that changed a lot later into the '90s, but even in, like, 1995 or '96, before Will & Grace, there's still wasn't a lot of visibility. I remember when Ellen came out. That wasn't that long ago.
I guess, and I'm just speaking from my own experience, what has always been important to me when we do develop gay characters is that they feel like they are just as normal as anybody else. [Stamets and Culber are in] a long-term relationship. We think they've been together for at least three years when we find them. They cohabitate on the ship. We introduce them as people first, and then as a couple. There's not a big drop in terms of, "They're out. They're gay."
It's not some sort of defining characteristic of either of them. Just like many times in life, you're out in the world and you meet people in your sphere. Then as you get to know the personal details of their life, that's one of the things that comes out, pardon the pun. To me, what's nice about it is they're just so woven into the fabric of the community, the crew of the Starfleet ship. Aaron used the word "boring"; we use that in such a loving way, but it's true. They're just like everybody else.
What's fun is that we meet them the way you would meet any couple, which is brushing their teeth. That's how we establish they're a couple. They're living in the same quarters, and they're brushing their teeth. To me, who can't relate to that? They're just like anybody else. But where we take the relationship, it just transcends the boundaries of space and time. And I think for young gay kids who are looking for representation, I'm really proud by what we've pulled off. Because it's not anything more than just a gay relationship that has the same status as any other relationship.
So back in the day in Rent, I was the last of the principals to leave the original cast on Broadway. In the meantime, Wilson was in the second national tour, and I had met him then because I went out and I attended a rehearsal. I was already familiar with his work from my circle. But then toward the end of my run in Rent, he replaced Wilson Jermaine Heredia, the original Angel, who left three or four weeks before I left, so we shared the stage of Rent on Broadway for about two or three or four weeks, something like that.
The gift of being able to do scenes with Wilson — I've known him for 20 years, so we didn't have to do any homework to find a comfort with each other. It was just so easy to play these scenes with him.
On why there’s a cadet character in Star Trek: Discovery’s main cast, and how she serves as “the soul of [the] show”
Sylvia Tilly, played by Mary Wiseman, will be the first cadet character in Star Trek history to be part of the main cast. She’s also the first cadet to play a major role on a Star Trek series since Nog, a recurring character on Deep Space Nine.
Well, I think just going back to that whole idea of we really wanted to represent everybody on this show. This is somebody who is fresh out of graduating from Starfleet Academy, and she has stars in her eyes, and we wanted that person at the very bottom of this ladder to be represented. She also plays a part in the fact that we wanted somebody who will also play a protégé and really start them on their journey. One of her characteristics is that she's the most optimistic. She has the biggest heart, I think, of anybody that you'll meet on the series. We're never playing her as a dopey innocent. I think that's where she is in her life, and I think that's also who she will continue to be as a character and as a human being. Mary Wiseman, who plays her, is a delight.
The story for our main character, Michael Burnham, is that she thought her life was going one way and she makes a choice and her life is taken way off course. We also really like the idea that, ironically enough, this first officer in Starfleet has to get schooled in what it means to be a human. [Burnham is a human, but she was raised on Vulcan by Sarek, Spock’s father, after her parents died.] So we have this cadet character who you think Burnham will be teaching everything to, but Tilly — she's sort of the soul of our show in a lot of ways. She's got a lot to teach Burnham, and Burnham has a lot to teach her. It's a best friendship that is, I don't want to say they're different generations, but it's a great representation of a friendship, of two people who are in different stages of their lives.
On Star Trek: Discovery’s female friendships
In the past, Star Trek series have placed far greater emphasis on male friendships: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in The Original Series; Data and Geordi in The Next Generation; Bashir and O’Brien in Deep Space Nine; Harry and Tom in Voyager; and Trip and Archer in Enterprise. Berg and Harberts say that will be a change with Discovery.
At the core of the show there are many female friendships.
It's so important for us, the relationship between [Captain Philippa Georgiou, played by Michelle Yeoh], who would be at the top as a captain, Sonequa's character Michael, who's in the middle, and then Cadet Tilly, who's at the bottom. That is definitely a friendship structure that has always been important to us. They're great characters, and I think everybody is going to really enjoy watching them. I think anyone will enjoy the friendship. I don't think you have to be a woman to like it. But I think it's very cool that these female characters really have each other's backs.
On why Discovery’s lead character isn’t starting the show as a captain
While Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham will be the first woman of color to lead a Star Trek show, this will be the second time a Star Trek show has had its main character start as a commander instead of a captain. (Deep Space Nine’s Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks, in Deep Space Nine was the first.)
For us, it had to do with being a serialized show. In the past, we felt like when you met a lot of the people on the bridge, they were kinda fully baked and we know who they were right off the top. We wanted to take our lead character on a journey, and so in order to take her on a journey, she couldn't have already achieved all her goals and finished all the wants and needs in her life. We wanted everybody to go on a journey with her, quite frankly.
The Discovery title is really thematic for us. As we were saying earlier, Michael thought she knew what she wanted and what she was gonna get, and now she doesn't, and she has a place to go. As Gretchen was saying, having Discovery be serialized, you really get to watch that journey.
On why the Klingon character L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) may get more development than any other female Klingon in Star Trek history
One of the things we wanted to do was to not play the Klingons as the thugs of the universe. When you start watching, L'Rell goes on this fascinating journey from — I almost just blurted out her entire storyline. I'm not going to do that. But she is somebody to watch. The character is somebody that we're very, very proud of, and we wanted to show that there's a lot of duality that's going on. Both sides are represented. What it means to be proud in being in Starfleet and what it means to be proud in being a Klingon, L'Rell is the poster child for that.
You don't see a lot of development for female Klingons. She is really going to go on a journey. I feel like we've got such great actors and such great representation, as Gretchen was saying, on both sides. We dig as much into the Klingons as we do in Starfleet in a lot of ways.
On how Discovery's two different captains will embody humanity’s different reactions to war
When we first meet Burnham, she’s serving on a different ship, the Shenzhou, as first officer under Captain Georgiou. It’s unclear how she’ll ultimately end up serving aboard the Discovery under Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), or what Georgiou’s specific role will be on the show when that happens. But both captains will be major influences on Burnham’s life.
One of the backdrops of the show this season is war. And what we have in these two captains are two people who both have experienced war and know it and lived it firsthand and haven't just studied it in books. And they both have very different attitudes about it. Georgiou, for us, is a person who has seen all the atrocities in life, and she's made the decision that she's still going to see the sunshine and light and goodness in the universe.
Lorca, on the other hand, in the heat of battle, you'll see that he has a practicality of somebody who is able to have a little more of a black-and-white attitude: "In order to survive [war], we have to do drastic things."
War is horrible and it's awful. Our focus was that it's not that easy to handle a situation like this. And we're living in those times right now. [It was just in the news] that people in Japan were taking cover because there were missiles [being fired] from North Korea. It's terrifying. It brings out a different version of ourselves when you're staring in the face of that kind of world-changing event.
Not only are we taking our characters on a journey, but we're taking Starfleet on a journey of discovery. I think that Georgiou represents the Starfleet that we all know and love and are comfortable with. That is, as Gretchen said, hopeful and optimistic. And Lorca represents a more mysterious, complicated version of a Starfleet captain who can almost only exist during a time of war. So they're both allegories or metaphors for how people and institutions act in times of conflict and desperation.
Star Trek: Discovery debuts Sunday, September 24, on both CBS and the network’s subscription-based streaming service, CBS All Access. The show will then air exclusively on CBS All Access beginning October 1.