HE aftershock of the Harvey Weinstein scandal was felt in some unexpected places, including the furthest reaches of Federation space. Several weeks after the studio boss was unmasked as a serial sexual criminal, Anthony Rapp, a relatively obscure actor starring on Star Trek: Discovery, went public with details of an unwanted sexual advance he’d received as a 14-year-old from a then 26-year-old Kevin Spacey, Netflix star and doyen of high-class acting.
This brought to a crashing end Spacey’s 30-year career. It also plunged Netflix’s cash-cow drama House of Cards into crisis (Spacey is gone but House of Cards is to return for one final season). Though the point seemed lost amid the calumny, Spacey’s overnight descent into ignominy was, along with everything else, supremely ironic. While Star Trek: Discovery originated on CBS in the United States, in the rest of the world it is carried by Netflix.
“We’re so very proud of Anthony and what he had the courage to do,” says Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays the lead Discovery character of science specialist Michael Burnham. “We love him, we stand by him and with him.”
It was appropriate that Star Trek should be involved, however peripherally, in exposing the toxicity of Hollywood. As far back as its original 1960s iteration, Trek has wrapped itself in progressivism.
Famously, the first interracial kiss on American television was between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura. Later, under Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), the Next Generation would similarly champion diversity and predict an optimistic future for mankind (in addition to prophesying Irish renunciation in 2024).
Discovery is different, being darker, more a slow-burn and with the iconic Klingon alien race controversially re-imagined as grumpy ogres.
However, with Martin-Green given chief billing at Burnham, the conflicted daughter of contrasting human and Vulcan cultures, the sci-fi saga’s commitment to celebrating diversity endures. Rapp, for is part, plays the first openly gay Star Trek TV character (in the new JJ Abrams movies, Hikaru Sulu is gay).
“We like to believe our show can make change,” says producer Aaron Baiers. “Anthony Rapp’s courage has made change. I am so proud of him, because he has made change that we can see in this moment. Very few people can say that.”
Discovery, set several years before the original Captain Kirk Trek, furthermore arrives when American’s traditional of tolerance is under attack as never before. One year into the Trump presidency, the show’s message of universal peace and brotherhood feels increasingly like wish fulfilment.
“Every Star Trek has tackled its time,” says Martin-Green. The original was leading into the Civil Rights Movement. None of us expected to have a Civil Rights Movement 2.0 in America.”
Martin-Green, who initially achieved fame as Sasha on The Walking Dead, tries to look to the positives as Hollywood and America take the measure of themselves. In lifting the lid on the dark side of Tinsel Town, especially, an opportunity for reckoning – and healing – has presented itself.
“I like to say it is a time of enlightenment,” she says.”There is an awakening of these issues. We need to have a light shown on such things.”
When we first meet Lt Burnham, she is headstrong and narrow-minded. A human raised by Vulcans and step sister of Mr Spock, the character is initially encountered endangering her fellow-crew mates when she responds rashly to a Klingon face-off. This is fresh territory for Star Trek which, though capable of remarkable nuance, usually presents its chief protagonists as conventionally moral and courageous. Burnham is more grey than black and white, a sensibility which chimes with the mood of contemporary drama says, Baiers. He cites sword and sorcery blockbuster Game of Thrones as a major influence.
“I came late, very late, to Game of Thrones,” he says. “The goal for us with the new Star Trek was something that fans would love, but that was also for people who didn’t think they would like Star Trek. We have more hope than Game of Thrones, which is very bleak.”
Star Trek: Discovery, it should be acknowledged, is not universally beloved. A not insignificant number of Trek fans sees this gritty, often bleak saga as a repudiation of everything the original stood for. The old, shiny utopianism is gone, replaced by a murky sensibility that arguably has more in common with Das Boot or the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica.
“What was interesting about Star Trek in the past is that it often looked abroad for inspiration, towards the Cold War and what have you,” says Baiers. “Many of us are pained by what is happening politically in the United States at the moment. As writers on the show, it has been fascinating to look into our own backyard.”
This has itself caused controversy. Quick to anger and governed by a simple, almost childish, moral code, the Klingons have been perceived by some as embodying Donald Trump and his followers.
“Unfairly, some people have tried to say: ‘Oh, the Klingons represent Trump supporters,’” acknowledges Baiers. “They are just as importance to us this season as what happens to the Federation. The Klingon leader has a very Christlike philosophy. He wants to start a war of racial purity. And yet he accepts outcasts and strangers.”
The journey to screen was occasionally torturous. Bryan Fuller, a wunderkind show-runner behind Hannibal and American Gods, had been initially lined up to oversee the project.
However, he departed early on, with Baiers part of the team stepping in.
They’ve held true to Fuller’s original vision of a series headed by a strong female role-model. Baiers and company even stuck with the name Michael, a nod to Fuller’s tradition of giving his lead female characters a male handle.
“This is where I tear up a little,” says the chatty Martin-Green. “When I think about the younger generation of girls watching this and gleaning from it the possibilities [in their own lives and careers]. Because [Discovery] is serialised we are able to explore diversity in a way other Star Trek’s weren’t.
“I am this strong, bad-ass woman going through an identity crisis. To have a strong female character, who is also vulnerable. I am so grateful to be able to portray that on screen.”
- Star Trek: Discovery returns to Netflix today for the second half of season one