A new captain, a new century, and a new final frontier. Those are the storytelling dilithium crystals powering the fourth season of Star Trek: Discovery. Season 3 dropped the time-displaced starship some 900 years into the future where the crew encountered a fractured Federation brought low, struggling to reunite and overcome the loss of warp drive travel. It ignited a hero's journey that ultimately led Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Greene) to meet her destiny, at last becoming Discovery's captain.
Now, executive producer and showrunner Michelle Paradise reveals to TV Guide what's on the horizon for the fourth season of Star Trek's current flagship series: a fresh new course that, along with all the new bells and whistles that come with Starfleet's 32nd Century relaunch, also brings things back to Rodenberryan basics as Discovery embarks on a mission of exploration and outreach, encountering new worlds cultures as they rehab the Federation's now-tarnished reputation.
And while Klingon Empires and Mirror Universe adversaries are now literally ancient history, the crew will themselves facing a season-arcing Bad Bad unlike any other they confronted before: a cataclysmic scientific phenomenon that destroys without logic, reason, or motive — which, of course, will test the character and resolve of that newly minted commanding officer in particular.
Given that you had a bit of a fresh slate by the end of last season, tell me what the thought process was about this new status quo. We've got Burnham as captain. We've got a new mission for Discovery, and we've really now very firmly established the show in the 32nd century. Tell me about what you wanted to do with all these juicy ingredients.
Michelle Paradise: Well, obviously one of the most exciting things is that we now have Burnham as captain, so that's something that going into the writing Season 4, we were all incredibly excited about. We have been waiting for that for three seasons, and so to finally get to see Burnham as captain, it's wonderful and opens up a lot of new storytelling opportunities for us.
So that's something that we definitely explore in Season 4: now that she's captain, who is she as captain, what kind of captain is she? And being captain is a very different thing, and there's a bit of a learning curve to that. And obviously, she's the best person for that chair and of course, way overqualified to be there. But what is she going to learn while she's in that chair over the course of the season, that was something we were really excited to explore.
And then, in terms of the fresh snow of the world itself, there were still some elements from Season 3 that are not quite tied up at the end. We know that the Federation is coming back together at the end of Season 3, but it's not a done deal yet. There's still work to be done. So we were excited to continue that into Season 4 and explore what that meant for our heroes to continue that work and continue making the Federation as strong as it can be. So there were just a lot of exciting new places to play.
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What was fun about envisioning where Michael was going to stand with her crewmates? She's been one of them and now she's their leader, and that is going to alter their dynamics a bit.
Paradise: Yeah, it's a different thing for sure. The big question that we asked ourselves for her this season is what does it mean for her to be captain, and in terms of her arc over the course of the season, it's really about that: who is she as captain, and how does she sit in that chair — what kind of journey is that for her?
We went into every episode asking ourselves what is Burnham's captain's journey for this episode. And along with that is how she stands beside her colleagues in a different way. How the different kinds of responsibilities that she now has as captain. And obviously, it's very different being a captain than being a commander or a Number One or anything like that. Everything is falling on your shoulders. And we'll see to what degree it falls on her shoulders very early in season.
Let's talk about some of the other shifting dynamics we're going to see.
Paradise: What I can say is, thematically, one of the big places that we were playing this season is in uncertainty. And how do we deal with that as individuals? How does that impact us in relation to one another as a community, as Federation and non Federation worlds? When you expand it beyond, how do we all deal with that?
And so I think with Tilly in particular, there's going to be quite an interesting journey for her this season, with respect to that and how she responds to that, and the kinds of questions she asks of herself as a result. I think to a degree...All of our characters will be experiencing uncertainty, but they'll respond to it in different ways. And it will cause them to go in sometimes unexpected directions and it'll affect them emotionally in different ways. To a degree, that's kind of what we are all as a global community living in right now, and so exploring that through our characters felt very rich from the storytelling perspective.
And in Season 3 we really kind of established a family dynamic with Stamets and Culber and Adira and Gray, as Gray came more into the picture. And yeah, we're excited to continue that this season and see what that means for Stamets as a character as well, and how can we take what we established in Season 3 in terms of family dynamic and continue to grow that, and continue to see how these characters grow and change, both in that dynamic and then separately outside of it.
It sounds like you've got a really fresh and unique concept for what this season's overarching Big Bad is. Can you tease a little bit about that and how you kind of arrived at that approach?
Paradise: The thing that we are dealing with as a global community right now is it's the thing that is bigger than us all. And something that as a global community we've been struggling to understand, and there was a lot of unknown and a lot of uncertainty with that. And taking that reality and placing it in a sci-fi realm and exploring what that does to our characters, what it does to them emotionally, how do we take those ideas thematically and play them through our season? It felt like something that Star Trek is kind of uniquely built to do. It's in the DNA of this show that it can reflect the world around it.
And in many ways, of course, it doesn't have to — there's always the adventure and wherever — but reflecting what's happening in the world around us is the great opportunity of Star Trek, and so we took that and we're exploring that via our characters. I thought it felt just like a very rich place to explore. And very resonant given where we all are as a global community.
How did making that shift to the future free you up in terms of your storytelling — not being kind of stuck in this one somewhat undefined zone of Star Trek, but where we always kind of knew a certain degree of what the future held. Now we don't — how did that change your dynamics working on the show?
Paradise: Oh, wow! It was freeing in many ways, and hugely challenging in many ways. I mean, with Season 2, we sort of knew where the guardrails were, if you will. Because we knew where Pike needed to land. We knew where Spock needed to go. And it was our job to tell a backstory for them that would fit nicely into what we know of them from their own futures. So that had its creative challenges, and it was also really fulfilling to get to tell some of those stories and see those characters in new ways.
It was a lot of fun, but when we jumped into the future, of course, then you've got just all kinds of fresh territory, and with that comes really cool creative opportunities to explore different species. How are these species different in this new future? What are the relationships like? What are the alliances like? Who are the Andorians and Orions, and who are they now versus who were they then? All of that is a lot of fun. And then it's also very creatively challenging: what is the technology of this new future? What does it visually look like? What do our ships look like?
All of that stuff that we really dug into in Season 3, we continue in Season 4. And we're always looking for ways to continue to push the world itself forward and continue to push forward the kinds of things that our heroes are interacting with: new technologies, new worlds, new kinds of ships, new relationships, all of that. There's still so much fresh snow ahead of us. We're continuing to try and build up that world and see what else we do.
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And the universe of Star Trek continues, as ever, to expand, and it's such a really rich and exciting place right at this moment. Four seasons in with Discovery, do you have a sense in your mind of what that show's very distinguishing place in the franchise is?
Paradise: We've got serialized storytelling of course. We've got our specific episodes. But, I think we've got basically 13 episodes of a big mystery, or a Big Bad, or some big idea that's at the heart of it, and it's going to take us the season to figure that out. That kind of serialized storytelling, I think is pretty specific to us. Along with the idea of a movie every week — that's what we're trying to do.
Alex [Kurtzman] has said that from the very beginnings of the show that we're trying to create a movie every week — not that the other shows are not doing the same because I mean, you watch Picard or Strange New Worlds coming out soon, and they look just incredible, so I think that's true of all of these shows. But for us in particular, I think it's the heavily serialized sort of nature of storytelling and the action-adventure and the effects and fun. It's also a focus on our family of Discovery and this is our new pattern, with Burnham at the head of it.
But it is, when you talk about it being a universe, it really is! And we do keep that in mind as we're going through and figuring out the stories. We very much want Discovery to have its unique place and its unique feel, but it's also very important to us that it feel part of the larger universe. Even though we're so far ahead time-wise than all of the other shows, we are always looking for opportunities to connect back. Whether it's via references and dialogue or whatever it may be; species that were big hits on one show, we can see them in a new way on our show.
We're always looking for those ways that creatively we can ensure that Discovery feels part of this larger universe, because it is the universe. It's this incredible universe with all these different characters and shows in various times along the way. And we really work hard to make sure that, even though Discovery is so far ahead, we feel a part of that.
With that connective tissue in mind, is there anything sort of further down the road in Season 4, especially things that are going to appeal to fans of Discovery from the beginning, or perhaps long-term fans of Star Trek in general, that you can tantalize them with? Upcoming connections, references, characters that you can tease ahead of time?
Paradise: Oh, gosh. I must say if I tease anything, I'll give something away inadvertently. You'll see a tribble this season. How about that? That's one of my favorites. It won't be taking over a ship or anything like that, but it's just something that makes me happy, getting to put a tribble in there somewhere.
I know your actors were pretty happy with their new uniforms, and you did also got to kind of reset the look of the show by upgrading Discovery for the future. Tell me what was fun about having yet another chance to kind of reimagine what Starfleet looks like in its next iteration?
Paradise: It's just really fun to get to put Discovery's stamp on what things might look like. And we have such an incredibly talented team. You mentioned the uniforms: that's Gersha [Phillips] and her team. And they are so incredibly creative and talented and we're so fortunate to get to work with them. And when you set them loose on something like that, you're going to get back amazing, amazing designs.
And being in this new future and having the opportunity to sort of explore that via things like costumes and props and the look and feel of the sets. All of that is just, it feels of a piece with this new time. And it's also just a lot of fun to get to do that and to have our actors play in those spaces. And it's another way of telling the story of this crew in this new future, even as the new future becomes less new to them. It continues to be new to us as an audience. And there [are] always more things to explore, so what we see visually is such a huge part of that.
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You guys did put a guidepost to even further in the future with the "Calypso" episode of Short Trek, which the fans just adored. Do you have a vision to kind of keep bridging Discovery to that particular future? Are there some fun plans ahead to do that?
Paradise: Possibly. So, again, we really need all of these things to connect, and we want — whether it's the shows that are currently going, Picard, Strange New Worlds, Lower Decks, us, Prodigy — All of these shows are part of the same universe, and the Short Treks that have been done are all part of the same universe. And ultimately it needs to feel like a big universe, that it's all of a piece. And so I would imagine that whenever that happens, it will... All of these things will connect. I don't mean "connect" — Picard's not coming on our show, you know what I mean? We're not going to be The Avengers.
Although that's not the worst idea for a show!
Paradise: "The next Star Trek show's just all the captains from all the shows." [Laughs] Yeah, I guess just the idea is that, yes, if something is in the Star Trek universe, we need to make sure that whether the connection feels gentle and referential if you will. Or whether it feels baked into some storytelling, it all does need to feel at peace.