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INTERVIEW: Discovery Showrunner Aaron Harberts, Part 2

INTERVIEW: Discovery Showrunner Aaron Harberts, Part 2

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.

How different is it making a show for streaming vs. traditional television, and how will it alter what the viewer sees at home?

A couple of seasons ago, before streaming really took over, writers were flocking to it because you could tell darker stories and the protagonists that were awful and... You could do everything that you couldn't do in network television, or that they didn't want you to do in network TV. Things were grim. So, I think on a lot of streaming services you tend to find, unless they're comedies, a lot of dystopian stuff. That's not something we wanted to do. We wanted to make sure that this was a show that leaves you with a feeling of hope at the end. Even though there might be dark themes or tough times, a tough setting, we always wanted to make sure our characters were putting their best foot forward. We always wanted to make sure that at the end of the episode, you’d be like, "Wow!" rather than, "Aw." The other thing just slightly different from what I think has been happening in streaming is, our storytelling is really tight. I've noticed on a lot of the streaming shows that run times are often almost too long. The storytelling gets a little saggy in spots, so yes, we're streaming, but I also feel like we're making sure our stories feel like the right length for the story we're telling.

We do have the option, and it's super-compelling to use violence, language, nudity beyond what you can do (on traditional television), but I wouldn't say it works that great on Star Trek. It's really interesting. There's something about it. We can show a bat'leth going through somebody. We could show a mek'leth slicing someone's throat maybe a little bit more than we could on network TV, and that's cool. We don't tend to use a ton of language. When we do, it's got to be for a real reason. We aren't really doing a ton of nudity. It just doesn't quite feel right and, I don't know... I think if you're a fan of the show, you understand what I'm saying. It's just not quite right.

To answer your question... I think what makes us a streaming show is getting to tell stories about characters that you wouldn't necessarily get to see on network television. Getting to do some internal, emotional, darker, people confronting maybe darker sides of themselves or more complicated sides of themselves that you wouldn't necessarily get to do, or if you did it on network, you'd have to tie it up with a bow in one episode. We're allowed to stretch that out a little bit longer.

You have Star Trek's first fully explored gay couple on Discovery. Do you think that could be on traditional television?

Yes. That couple, yes. As a gay man myself, it was just important to me for the couple to be a couple. What's more interesting to me is that they've made a choice to work together and to be a couple, which is to me far more insane than being a couple. How do their work lives impact their personal lives? That's one of the big stories we're telling for them. Lt. Stamets makes a couple of choices that really put his partner in a tough situation. What happens in a time of war when your partner becomes a key to helping win the war? But what are the costs? The fact that Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) is a doctor only adds to that. The sexuality, obviously, is part of who they are, but the moments that are most special to me are the moments where they're downloading about their day while they're brushing their teeth. We're doing bathrooms in Star Trek.

They're still doing toothbrushes?

They're still doing the toothbrush.

Following up on your comments about streaming and shows running long in some cases. Will the running times of the Discovery episodes be uniform or vary?

We have a range. We definitely have a range. It really is more about how the episodes play. It really is about the rhythm of the story. Some will be high, high 40s, some into the 50s, and then some might be a little bit shorter than that. There's a nice, wide range, but it's got to be the story that dictates. It's different. One thing you asked about, what was it like taking on a show like this? Writing scripts, you might write, "They had a space battle." One sentence, and then suddenly that's five minutes, or, "They fight in the turbolift."

Millions of dollars...

Right, exactly. I'm still learning what kind of script produces what kind of episode. I don't think we're going to quite know yet for another couple of seasons, because it's still pretty amazing how they can expand or contract depending.

Is there one character you personally most relate to? And... why?

That's a really good question. I see myself in a lot of them. I think I relate most to Stamets. Stamets is this curmudgeonly, slightly sassy, slightly doesn't suffer fools gladly (guy), but right underneath the surface is somebody who would take the shirt off his back for his crew. His voice is sort of my voice. I also absolutely adore... If we talk about characters I love to write, Mary Wiseman's character Tilly is a joy to write for. She’s unbridled, she's optimistic, she's a nonstop talker. She's Burnham's roommate and Michael, who's so intense, and a woman of few words, when partnered with this young cadet, their scenes are really fun to write.

Why is Michael Burnham’s name… Michael?

All right, so here we go. We've worked on a number of Bryan Fuller shows… Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies. Many of his female protagonists have typically what you would call male names. Chuck was one. Jaye was another. When we all sat down, of course, the idea was going to be that she was going to have a male name, or typically male name. We were just pitching around the writers' room. We had a couple on the board and I said, "Well, how about Michael?" Because I had remembered a gossip columnist in Chicago. I used to work in Chicago in publicity, and Michael Sneed, she wrote for the Chicago Sun Times. Then, there was the bass player for The Bangles, a musician named Michael Steele. I'd always thought that the name Michael was just really cool and different. We pitched that to Bryan and he was like, "Let me think about that." That's how we seized on it, but I think it's a really cool name, and maybe we'll see some more women Michaels. Who knows?

Going back to Stamets and Culber, why do you think it’s taken so long to have the LGBTQ represented on Trek?

I don't know. I have no answer for that. Sometimes you try. In television, oftentimes there's nothing, there's not too much behind it. You may create a gay couple, and the actor who reads... Say it's a gay male couple, and none of the actors who come in are the part, and then suddenly you open it up and a woman comes in and reads the part and it's like, “OK, that part just changed.” The other thing about this particular iteration of Star Trek is that it was very important for us to have an out gay actor playing a gay character. That's hard to find. We still live in an age where actors, women or men, are closeted for one reason or another. It took us a long time to find two actors in Anthony (Rapp) and Wilson (Cruz), who were fine doing it. Also, back when Enterprise ended, I still don't think we were at a place where a lot of actors felt comfortable wanting to do it. I don't know why, because you’d think Trek would have tackled that in a certain way. I think sometimes it depends on the writing staff and if they feel... For me, I wouldn't want to do it just to do it. I think that's the other thing, too. I guess the time was right now. Again, I'm proud of Wilson and Anthony for being out actors and being willing to jump in and take it on. It's almost easier to find a straight man who wants to play gay, or who will. It takes a ton of courage, and they're incredible in the roles, and we'll do more, we'll do more.

Nichelle Nichols on TOS was groundbreaking. Now, more than 50 years later, you have two women as leads. You have an openly gay couple. Is it a victory for Discovery, and also for television in general?

Well, I think TV is exciting right now because you are, at least the streaming world, seeing lots of different portrayals of different types of characters. I think for Star Trek, and for launching CBS's streaming service, I'm super-proud that you see a bridge crew that reflects what the world looks like. Is it a victory? I hope not. I hope it's the norm. We can always do better.

How much fun are you having doing little throwbacks to TOS? And can we assume there will be Easter eggs for the eagle-eyed hardcore fans?

Akiva (Goldsman) wanted a Tribble. He's like, "We're having a tribble." "OK, we'll have a Tribble." Harry Mudd, huge throwback, but one that reaped huge dividends. We had met with Rainn Wilson about maybe playing a different part on the show, maybe one of the parts that was a little more prosthetic-heavy and that's a lot of work. Rainn was a huge fan, and he just wanted to come in and have a talk about what we were doing, which was terrific. We said, "Well, we'll keep in touch." He left, and we got into thinking about these little Easter eggs and someone said, "Oh, Harry Mudd has to make an appearance." That's when we said, "Oh my God, that's Rainn." Those two episodes were super-fun, because we'll nod to a couple things from Harry's life as well that will be tiny little Easter eggs. It's always a kick when we make them work.

It's always our wanting to make a show for two different tiers of viewers. One would be the huge Star Trek fans who will maybe get a little bit of the extra stuff out of it. Then, another version for the uninitiated, who can come to it and, I think, really watch it without needing to know a heck of a lot.

I'm sure you're busy enough with the show, but there are other legs of this, with the comic books and the novels. How mindful are you of the other spokes in the Discovery rollout?

I can't keep it all straight. Oftentimes, a lot of stuff we've discussed in the writers' room ends up being fodder for the books. Then, Kirsten (Beyer) goes away to the comic book writers and the book writers, and basically develops stories that are spoking off of (episodes). Then, she'll come back and say, "OK, this is what we're doing for here." Sometimes we'll pitch a story and she'll say, "Oh, we're actually doing that in the book." Sometimes we will say, like in the early phases of the book, "Sorry, we're stealing it back." The writers of the books and comic books are reading all of our scripts and Kirsten knows exactly what they're all doing, so I'm really hoping it's going to be a pretty cool, symbiotic, really synergistic (situation). The writers of those books, I think they're just brilliant, and some of the best feedback we've gotten has been from those authors. That is what warms my heart. When Kirsten comes back and one of her writers is like, "I did not see that coming and I have read every script. I can't believe you guys just did that." That's been pretty gratifying because they're hardcore.