Published Aug 16, 2023
WARP FIVE: Dermott Downs on How Music in 'Subspace Rhapsody' Honors Each Character's Arc and Visual Style
The director gives us insight into Star Trek's first musical episode!
By Christine Dinh
SPOILER WARNING: Discussion for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2, Episode 9 "Subspace Rhapsody" to follow!
Welcome to Warp Five, StarTrek.com's five question post-mortem with your favorite featured talent from the latest Star Trek episodes.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds takes a big swing for Season 2. In addition to crossing over with the animated series, Star Trek: Lower Decks, the sophomore season makes franchise history with its very first musical-themed episode, “Subspace Rhapsody.”
The U.S.S. Enterprise encounters a strange yet naturally-occurring phenomenon — a subspace fold. Spock wants to use it to increase the speed of subspace communications in the sector; with a suggestion from Pelia, Nyota Uhura plays a recording from the Great American Songbook. Unexpectedly, a pulse ripples throughout the Enterprise, causing the crew to break out into song when their emotions are heightened. Unfortunately, the field expands and begins to impact other ships — allies and enemies alike.
Written by Dana Horgan and Bill Wolkoff, and directed by Dermott Downs, “Subspace Rhapsody” features 10 original songs, with music and lyrics by Kay Hanley (Letters to Cleo) and Tom Polce (Letters to Cleo, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend).
StarTrek.com had the opportunity to director Dermott Downs about his musical background, his history with Star Trek, what went into tackling a franchise first, and more!
“I'm of the age of the original, so I am grateful that Lucille Ball made sure that pilot happened,” reveals Dermott Downs. “I really enjoyed the uniqueness of every episode in the original series, being just so standalone and different.”
It just so happens that after a meeting, Downs was presented two opportunities with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. “When I had met with Henry [Alonso Myers] and Secret Hideout in general, just about what they were doing, they were talking about Strange New Worlds, which hadn't aired yet. And I was like, ‘Well, why another one,’” questioned Downs. “The original was so great because it was an ethical, moral comedy every week where everything was a standalone. They were like, ‘That's what we're doing!’ [They were planning] basically a sitcom episode and a musical."
“I pitched myself really hard,” Downs continued. “I'm in this business because I had memorized the songbook at seven to Oliver Twist, became an actor, and then became a cinematographer in the golden age of MTV's music video heyday. I was probably doing four to five a month, everybody from the Beastie Boys to Foo Fighters and Puff Daddy and Taylor Swift. But then I made my way into narrative television. I had the good fortune of being part of the Arrowverse for five years and did The Flash-Supergirl musical episode called ‘Duets.’”
Approaching “Subspace Rhapsody”
Downs recalls the creative team’s clear vision. “In the canon of Star Trek, it had never been done before,” notes Downs. “When I first met them, it was all about, ‘The show is really grounded.’ Then I got off the phone and I’m like, ‘It’s really grounded, but we’re talking about a musical in outer space. Are we jumping the shark?’ To their credit, they did not.”
“They found a way into a musical universe with that anomaly,” Downs adds. “Music is sort of a virus that pushes forward your biggest vulnerabilities through song. They did a great job at actually pushing character arcs further, in a way that music could really honor their arcs as individuals that just talking about it wouldn't.”
Embracing the Challenges
Despite the rigid set piece of a starship in space, Downs found opportunities to utilize the different sceneries because “they’re really designed in a way that gives you a lot of freedom.”
There was only one number that gave the director pause due to its tight set — the “How Would That Feel” scene. “I would say the one that worried me the most was La'An's,” states Downs. “After she witnesses James Kirk and Una singing, she's feeling all this emotion about her feelings for Kirk. She goes into her room for four minutes and sings a song. It's like, ‘oh my god, this just can't be a talking head going into the room and just singing.’”
Downs sat down with Christina Chong on how to approach the scene. “It was really working with her. She's such a great actress, finding these moments of introspection and moving to the window and looking at the galaxy out there, just thinking of her own life and all the possibilities, but also the limitations because she can't express her feelings. She goes to the bed and then begins the fantasy [timeline] in bed. That ended up being such a joyful collaboration. That's the smallest set we shot in, and yet it was a hugely emotional song. I just wanted to find a way to also just show her loneliness. I was really happy with that.”
“Obviously there were huge challenges,” recalls Downs, “the big finale that climaxes with the Klingons and K-pop. ‘Private Conversations’ was probably the one every day, I said, ‘I can't wait till we do that one because it's just such a mashup of humiliation and a love song.’ And Anson [Mount] was great. I never would've known he has such great comedic timing too.”
Connecting with the Cast and Creatives
Production for Season 2 was already underway when the first season began airing last summer. Downs remembers the energy being heightened, “Season 1 didn’t air until I was just about ready to go to picture, and I’m the penultimate episode of Season 2. Just as we started filming, everybody was riding the high of that, even though they were running on fumes from the season. They were also doing something they had never done before, and in Star Trek canon lore had never been done before by any of its shows. Everybody was just on their game and willing to go for it; coming in on the weekends and rehearsing.”
The episode proved to be a turning point for both Spock and Uhura. Commenting on it, Downs shares, “They’re both coming from very different places. Celia [Rose Gooding] has a musical theater background. She was on Broadway and checking in with her mom, who was finishing The Color Purple, when they would each end their play and hang out. She was coming into it with huge chops. Then someone like Ethan who has never sung before, yet that was as equally as powerful of a solo revelation. They know the arcs of those characters so well.”
It was important for Downs to be on the same page with the creative team as well as the talent. “I certainly discussed everything that I had talked with Henry [Alonso Myers] and writers Bill [Wolkoff] and Dana [Horgan], but it was also about trying to find ways to celebrate their stories in a way that cinematically didn't overwhelm them. And I had a great cinematographer who was on board and it was a pretty seamless production.”
Crafting a Cohesive Musical Episode
Despite the episode being the penultimate episode of the second season, Downs didn’t have the opportunity to see the final cuts of the first season nor see the audience’s reaction.
“It was interesting because like I said, Season 1 hadn't aired,” details Downs. “I had seen a handful of those episodes that weren't even finished with all their effects as I was prepping. I had two weeks of prep before my normal prep even started with the choreographer, Roberto Campanella, who's a super talented guy with his own company in Toronto. He's Guillermo del Toro's personal choreographer on his films, The Shape of Water and Nightmare Alley. And he's wonderful.”
“For two weeks, he and I had the temp tracks,” continues Downs. “We just walked the stages and we really leaned into trying to understand the tenor and the tone of each of those songs, because they were all very different. Anson's is a country western breakdown in front of his crew, and Jess's is a powerhouse like out of Grease. Celia's, that's a power ballad if there's ever been a power ballad. And we knew there that we were going to have her alone in that vast space and at times be overwhelmed in loneliness, but also let her push those notes out and let her push the camera back. It was trying to acknowledge each one of those stories and let that inform the visual style of it, because each one was shot very differently. It's all still within the show. So it's a little bit about a balancing act. Each story's different, each song is different, so we tried to tell it as uniquely as we could, still being in the universe of the world."