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Why Star Trek: Discovery’s New Showrunner Made Big Changes in Season Two

Say good-bye to bald Klingons.
Say good-bye to bald Klingons. Photo: Michael Gibson/CBS

To paraphrase the theme song of Star Trek: Enterprise, it’s been a long road getting from Discovery season one to Discovery season two.

The latest installment of the Trek franchise, which returns for its second season on CBS All Access today, has had quite a bumpy journey to the airwaves. After a mixed reaction from fans and critics to season one — Vulture recapper Daniel Ortberg called it “shaky as hell” — showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen Berg were fired amid complaints of verbal abuse and reports of a ballooning budget. Harberts and Berg had themselves taken over from Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller, who exited the series before it went into production.

Taking the reins of Discovery season two is Alex Kurtzman. A co-creator and executive producer of the series (and co-writer of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness), Kurtzman now serves as showrunner and directed Thursday’s premiere, “If Memory Serves.” More than that, he’s the man who’ll determine what Star Trek looks like for the foreseeable future, thanks to a $25 million deal to oversee a sprawling expanded universe for CBS, comprising an ever-growing cross-genre collection of shows, from an adult cartoon to a limited series featuring the return of Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Star Trek has for years been characterized by an essentially optimistic vision of the future,” Kurtzman told Vulture. “And that vision is more essential now than it’s ever been. To be able to create something that posits that our best selves will emerge in the future is really gratifying.”

That isn’t how some critics would describe Discovery’s first season, which boldly reimagined Trek as a streaming drama; call it Ozark in space. Set in the time just before 1967’s original Trek series, it tracked the United Federation of Planets’ much-discussed-but-never-seen war with the Klingons, which almost wiped out humanity. Its tone was dark and gritty, featuring murder, rape, mutilation, conspiracy, double-crosses, and the franchise’s first-ever nude sex scene. In the season finale, the Federation — an altruistic organization that dedicates itself to fairness and cooperation, the occasional alien takeover or changeling panic notwithstanding — decides to commit genocide, but backs down at the last second.

That tonal change, while jarring, was understandable: Discovery was the first Trek TV show in over a decade, coming well after the 2005 cancellation of Enterprise, a much-maligned (but actually not bad!) prequel series that ran for four seasons. That placed a lot of pressure on Discovery to function as a bridge between two very different eras of TV, not to mention the very different ways we watch TV today.

“We had to be new yet familiar while being hyper-serialized and digitally streamed, and grittier than any iteration that came before,” Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays Discovery’s central character, Michael Burnham, wrote over email. “We had to be raw yet still hopeful. We had to keep the spirit of Trek alive by painting a picture of the future, yet still fit within a previous timeline. It was a delicate balance.”

While critics would argue it didn’t quite strike that balance in season one, Kurtzman believes his focus on Trekkie optimism will push the show in a different direction this year. “It’s absolutely lighter than season one, but that’s because the nature of season one was all about war and the urgency of it,” he said. “And I think of that darkness as a way to get to the light.”

Dark or no, Discovery’s first season did take big creative swings: For the first time, Star Trek’s ostensible protagonist wasn’t a captain, but a first officer — Martin-Green’s Michael — who is demoted after accidentally murdering someone, starting a war, and mutinying against her captain, all within the first episode. (That captain is killed by Klingons who, we later learn, also eat her.) The show also foregrounded women and characters of color, and contained Star Trek’s first committed homosexual relationship. All of this, of course, raised hackles in misogynistic and homophobic corners of the internet, eliciting complaints that the show had “a contrived emphasis on social justice (i.e. crew diversity, feminism),” as fan Caol Mac Grainne Mhaol explained, responding on Facebook to a call for reasons fans dislike the show (though, he hastened to add, he didn’t feel that way himself).

But one of the show’s most divisive changes turned out to be much more superficial: the look of the Klingons. From Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 all the way through to Enterprise’s cancellation in 2005, Klingons were depicted as a kind of alien Vikings — jovial warriors with huge flowing heads of hair, pointed teeth, and brow ridges — but Discovery changed their appearance in several major ways. Makeup was no longer applied to the actors’ faces, instead replaced by full-face latex masks, which had the unfortunate effect of giving them puffy and unexpressive looks (and made them extremely hard to tell apart). It also, most controversially, made the Klingons bald.

“We did have #NotMyKlingon,” said Mary Chieffo, who played the Klingon L’Rell, of fan criticism. “I mean, people do get caught up in that.”

Team #NotMyKlingon can now breathe a sigh of relief: In season two, the hair is back, something Discovery has claimed it planned to do all along. Apparently, the Klingons had shaved their heads during a time of war, and now that that war has concluded, they let it regrow — an assumption the show had been operating off of but neglected to mention onscreen.

Still, was this change done in response to fan criticism?

“Absolutely,” Kurtzman admitted. “When you’re doing Trek and trying to keep track of the points that are meaningful and significant to people, some things are going to fall through the cracks […] I suppose we should have just explained it earlier.”

Explaining things wasn’t a strong suit in season one. Like an action movie (or the J.J. Abrams–directed reboot films, of which Kurtzman wrote two), its focus was often on moving its characters from one huge setpiece to another, leaving less time to focus on character-building that didn’t advance its season-spanning plot arch. This, too, Kurtzman plans to change. “The trick with Discovery,” he said, “is that you want to move fast and entertain while not compromising on what I believe people love in some ways most about Star Trek, which is the very quiet, intimate scenes. I think you’ll see in season two we have a lot more of that.”

Martin-Green agrees: “Now that Starfleet is at peace, our story slows down and takes a breath, akin to a sigh of relief. There’s much more room for reflection, growth, and even joy as we take a hard look at who we are now after all that’s happened.”

But despite that shift, Kurtzman doesn’t want to completely reinvent Discovery. After all, many fans love the new direction the show has taken, particularly its foregrounding of women in almost all the key roles. “A lot of the young fans who are from different races and creeds and genders who are finally seeing themselves seen by the show are really celebrating it,” Chieffo said. Indeed, when I asked the Facebook group Star Trek Shitposting — of which I am proud a member — what they hadn’t liked about the show, people of all races and genders replied with glowing compliments long before anyone had anything negative to say; one person, Dominic Stingl, went so far as to call it “finest Trek.”

When speaking about the future of Discovery, and indeed his entire Star Trek portfolio, Kurtzman pointed to the series of short Trek films he’s commissioned to “explore different corners of the universe that haven’t been explored.” A collection of sub-15-minute stories from a variety of writers and directors that aired between Discovery seasons, these “Short Treks” span genres from comedy to light horror, tackling everything from fan-favorite character Ensign Tilly (played by the effervescent Mary Wiseman) befriending an invisible princess, to a story penned by Pulitzer Prize–winner (and upcoming Picard show writer) Michael Chabon, set in the far future, where a man has to decide whether to stay on a ship that could meet his every need.

“People often think that there is such a narrow definition of what makes Star Trek Star Trek, and I really take issue with that,” Kurtzman said. “We can actually turn Star Trek into The Twilight Zone. We can broaden it and say, Why does it have to have a narrow vision? As long as the core values of Trek that everybody knows and loves aren’t being violated, why can’t we explore things in a different way? Why can’t we tell stories in a different way? Why can’t we introduce new characters you never heard of before and live in their emotional lives?”

Why Star Trek’s New Showrunner Made Big Changes in Season 2