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INTERVIEW: Discovery Showrunner Aaron Harberts

INTERVIEW: Discovery Showrunner Aaron Harberts

Aaron Harberts, you’ve written and produced for such shows as Roswell, John Doe, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, Revenge and Reign. What are you going to do next? The answer is Star Trek: Discovery. Harberts and his longtime writing-producing partner, Gretchen Berg, had collaborated often over the years with Discovery co-creator Bryan Fuller. They were already on board for Discovery when Fuller exited the series, and CBS All Access promptly tapped them to serve as showrunners. Harberts recently sat down with and a small contingent of journalists -- during a Discovery press day in Toronto -- for a roundtable conversation about Discovery, which will debut in just a couple of weeks. The interview clocked in at nearly 40 minutes and covered a wide variety of subjects. We’ve broken the chat in half, so please visit again tomorrow to read part two.

How big a responsibility is it to take on a Star Trek show?

Biggest job I've ever had in my life.

In what ways?

We've run others shows, and when you run other shows, smaller shows… No show is small. The job is hard no matter what, but when you run a typical network drama, there's a little more autonomy as the showrunner. You're making certain decisions, and you're able to pivot and move, and bob and weave, and get things done. When you come on to Star Trek, and I'm guessing this was true for anybody who ran any version of Trek, the thing I realized so early out of the gate is this show is bigger than any of us. When I say Star Trek is bigger than any one of us, it really is true. Not only do the fans have a part of it, but just the massive amount of people at the network and the studio and production; it's a team effort. A lot of considerations have to be taken before you make a lot of moves.

Everyone gets their opinion and that's actually really great because what it does is the pressure gets spread. It's not all on you. It's been one of the most-challenging experiences of my life, truly, truly, truly. We have a fantastic writing staff. We have fantastic editorial. Our team is in Los Angeles and they're great. I think ignorance was also helpful. I had watched Trek and knew a lot about it, but when they asked us to come in when Bryan left, I think if I had known how hard it would be, I may have said, "Next." I'm thrilled that we're here, I'm thrilled that it's getting close to airing, streaming.

How often do the constrictions of canon affect you, where someone in the writers’ room says, “That’s been done” or “You can’t do that”?

It happens all the time. We have, five members of the writing staff are hardcore Trek fans. One of them writes a lot of the novels and pretty much has seen every episode and knows tons about it.

That's Kirsten?

Kirsten Beyer. Have you met her? She's awesome.

But you were saying…

It's frustrating when you're pitching story and you hear, "Ah, that's not possible." When I hear that, you just say, "OK, got it, that's the rule.” The last thing we want to do is feel like we came into somebody else's house and took the plates out and moved them somewhere else. You want to make sure that you feel like you're taking good care of the show, and that you're respecting canon, but what's been fun about it is every time you bump up against a limitation, it's fun to be able to sometimes take it head on and say, "We're going to twist that, but we're going to come back around and land it in a way where the audience can say, 'OK, they actually did wedge of piece of Aaron's storytelling now into what I know.'" I've always said I want the fans to be patient with us because sometimes you'll see us do what seem like a violation, but we'll fix it in the next episode. There's an amazing ship named Discovery that has a fantastic way to fly that you've never seen before, and no one ever talks about it. As we look to future seasons, it's all about tying it up so that we can move ahead, and the rest of the Star Trek universe can maintain intact.

Enterprise was a Trek prequel as well. What's its impact on Discovery

Enterprise has been so tough because they tried to rack on several things and sometimes it will be like, "Oh, if Enterprise had just left that alone we wouldn't be like painted into that corner," but they did and that's fine. We just find a way. When it comes to the fans, Gretchen and I made a choice to go off of social media. I'll tweet a little bit, but we really stayed off of that and off Facebook. We don't read press about show. We aren't looking at that because the expectation can get so great that you can buckle. We need to just keep our heads down and know that our team is guiding us on the best path.

What I hope happens is, after this first season, second season, we'll start creating our own slice of it so that we're adding to canon in our way, and those questions come up less and less. It's been very important, and look, you can't be perfect all the time… Some things just slip through the crack. Maybe an actor just says the wrong line and you miss it and suddenly you're on a mix stage and you're like, "Oh my God, oh God. Did they just use that phrase?" We'll try to fix it, but nothing's perfect. There will be tiny little mistakes, but I'll tell you something, our intentions are nothing but good.

The show is called Discovery. What will we be discovering?

We will be discovering the Federation and Starfleet in a time of war, and how the Federation has to look at itself and make some decisions about how it needs to behave and act. You're going to find a character in Michael Burnham, who was basically ready to be promoted to the Captain's chair and makes some choices that change her life, and for that reason, what she thought she was going to get, who she thought she was, all of her time with Sarek training to be a captain… is now sort of a far-off vision, and she's going to be discovering who she really is. We're going to be discovering the Klingons from a point of view I don't think we've done before.

Mainly, when you cut away to Klingons (in previous Treks), they're screaming "Qapla!" and firing torpedoes. (And on Discovery) you're going to find a race of people who have their own philosophy, know it's a philosophy of isolationism and it's a philosophy of wanting to maintain their own unity in the face of their own... The Klingons have never been more fractured at this time, and they want to unite. They want to focus on themselves rather than focus on anything else outside that. We'll discover that, too. We'll discover how a war breaks out sort of by watching it happen on both sides.

Should we look for an analogy in Klingons, as they represented the Russians in previous Trek storytelling?

My take on the Klingons right now, and it's hard to say it's a perfect analogy because I believe too that things need to kind of move, but for me in the Klingons, I really look to the United States and the division that's happening within our own country.

That's a big change from the Russians?

That's a huge change. It's a huge change, but it felt apt. The Klingons want to unite, protect what they have. They don't want to let anybody else in. They're not interested in shaking Starfleet's hands. Then, you've got Starfleet, who is a little bit shoving their hands in their faces. Obviously, we've got division all around the world, but I just thought, we all thought as a writing staff, that what was happening in the States was pretty provocative, and it's almost like, “Well, we didn't have to look too far from home.” That will change and grow, and not everything is exactly analogous.

Please talk about the serialized storytelling elements of Discovery, and can we expect to have several Trek series in the future?

I think that would be great. You could pull stories from Next Gen, you could pull from TOS; there are tons of opportunities. I think that CBS needs to make sure that this is of the flagship, and that it's landed, and that people are getting behind it. And I think you slowly start introducing that. I think the other thing that's interesting is maybe you do three episodes, a three-episode movie about a chapter in one of the ship's histories that you haven't seen.

This season (of Discovery), these 15 episodes are, it's definitely a novel, serialized storytelling. Each episode is a chapter, but each of those chapters in a way is distinct enough that you'll be able to remember what happened. We always say like, when you write TV and you meet someone, "Oh, I'm a TV writer." "Oh, what do you write for?" "Star Trek." "Oh, what episode did you write?" This is one of those where you can say, "I wrote the one with Harry Mudd," and you'll be like, "Got it. I know exactly what happened." You will feel with each episode a contained storyline, and then a tug into the next one. The mythology will just continue to grow.

You and Gretchen are the showrunners at this point. Give us a sense of how you operate. What's a day in the life of the two of you?

A day in the life of the two of us. Well, we are the showrunners, but we have an amazing team with us. We have Akiva Goldsman, who's very actively involved, and Alex Kurtzman, who's also really actively involved. It's all about dividing and conquering. Alex may be meeting with Skywalker Sound to come up with the sound of the ships, because that's a music in and of itself. Alex may be working with our composer, Jeff Russo, and really locking down some of that stuff. Because Alex has got tons of other projects, but he's super-focused on Trek, we'll say, "Alex, there you go." Or, Alex is the guy who's calling the network and saying, "We need more money." He's awesome about that.

Then Akiva, super-duper Trek fan, and we can say to him, "The script needs a little help. Take it, run with it." He's directing a lot of our episodes. He directs (two) this year. In season two, knock wood, he'll do a lot more. For us, the two of us, a day in the life is waking up to some sort of production issue in Toronto that happened three hours before I woke up and realizing that you're already three hours behind. There is no such thing anymore as a quiet, peaceful morning. When we get into in the morning, we're bopping back and forth between the writers' room, where we're trying to break stories, reading scripts where we're giving notes, rewriting things ourselves, going into post, and then trying to get to Toronto as much as we can because we have a great group here that really is keeping the show in hand, but it's always nice to come in and talk to the actors about where the show is going. It's busy. We're at it from 9:00, 8:30 a.m. until about 10:00, 10:30 at night, is when we are typically trudging out of the office.

The story being set 10 years before Kirk and Spock, you mentioned there's some limitations with canon and so forth. But, are there things that it actually offers you that maybe fans don't recognize today, but will see as this unfolds?

Yes. Absolutely, yes. We are going to be doing a few things that shake hands with TOS in a way that I think are going to be so fun. I think people will be pretty excited about what's coming down the pike. I mentioned off the record at one point one of the storylines we're doing to another reporter, and he's a Star Trek fan, and he literally like put his fist in his mouth and was like, "You're making this very hard for me." There were lots of, there are several opportunities and things we wanted to take advantage of and say, "Hey, let's tell a prequel to a couple of these TOS stories."

You're doing a prequel to a show from 1966, and you’re making it in 2017. How hard is it in terms of technology, science and production values to reconcile that?

That's something that's always going to be an issue. It's impossible to get around it. I think when we all started talking about it, we just didn't think that it would be the best way to go, to just use toggles and just technology… It's funny now how iPads have caught up with Next Gen. All of that technology has now come to pass in a lot of ways. There is a certain analog quality. There's a certain analog quality to some of the ship's helm controls and things. It just feels tactile, but then there's also tons of monitors and graphics that they wouldn't have had in TOS. We had to strike a balance between not changing things that we thought were super-important, like the communicators and tricorder and phaser, but in terms of how graphics are done or how... We lean on holograms a lot, actually, instead of just going to the viewscreen. Just slightly different ways of making it feel a little more contemporary. But I don't think it's so in your face that you're going to say, "Wait, hold on a second." It was our plan to just sort of have a seamless integration. Some of those key props, we, Bryan… nobody wanted to really change those.

You mentioned Bryan. How much of his impact is still on the show?

I feel his impact every day. He left (when) we were about eight, nine months into working on the show. He and Alex really came up with the story, the arc of the show together. They are co-creators on the show, but Bryan had some... the Klingons, that's very much Bryan's legacy. A couple of the other things that I'm not at liberty to talk about now, but when you've seen a lot of the show, we can always go back and talk more about it and fill it out later. Some of the nods to TOS, some of those notions of stories or places to go also are straight from Bryan. He's with us all the time.