Star Trek: Strange New Worlds makes a lot out of its return to a formula that has worked for generations of Star Trek shows, hewing more towards an episodic structure than its serialized siblings in the current crop of Trek series. But why has it taken contemporary Star Trek so long to return to this formula? For co-showrunner Henry Alonso Myers, it was a matter of realizing what’s worked about Star Trek for over half a century.
io9 recently spoke to Myers, who both co-showruns and executive produces the latest Star Trek series, to talk about what’s in store for the Enterprise and its new-old crew ahead of the series’ premiere on Paramount+ tomorrow. Read on for our interview below, including Alonso’s thoughts on episodic stories, why it was important to link even Strange New Worlds’ new characters into familiar Trek history, and what fans should take from this return to the franchise’s structural and aesthetic roots.
James Whitbrook, io9: When you came aboard the show, why did you think now was the time for Star Trek to begin re-exploring this more episodic format again?
Henry Alonso Myers: Well, the pilot was written by Alex [Kurtzman] and Jenny [Lumet] and Akiva [Goldsman], and that had been done before I came onboard—I came onboard after it had been written, but before we shot anything. They had an idea about the show, that it would be episodic and a throwback to Pike and Spock and Una and the other crew members on the Enterprise, but they were looking to fill that out. So, I came in having done serialized, episodic genre stuff and the goal, frankly, was to try to do it... well, the goal was, “let’s look at what we love about the original series, Next Gen, and Deep Space Nine.” The hallmark shows. I grew up watching TOS in reruns and then TNG in high school and college, and Deep Space Nine right after—those were the ones that sat in my head, so, we looked at those and Voyager and Enterprise. “What worked in those shows? What was it about that show that was exciting and fun?”
I think Voyager and Enterprise are kind of in that mode, too. The episodic structure, the single ship, the crew on it that is having different adventures of different sizes. And one of the things we borrowed from Next Gen that I really liked, is that we have this big cast—“let’s find a way to give everyone their own story.” So, we tried to iris in on different people for different parts of the season, so some people will be in it for a little bit and disappear, some episodes they’ll be up in the front, and the thing you get to do there is tell interesting, different character stories. That’s one of the things I think they did so beautifully in those shows. I’m trying to think of the original pitch document we sent out to the network for the first season, but we just said, “here’s our crazy idea: we want to do Trek again. We want to do it the way it was done. An episodic series.” One of the things that’s great about that original show, and the ones that come after is that it has this malleability. You can explore different genres in it. Some episodes are funny, some episodes—like “Devil in the Dark”—are scary. But they all come to this surprising character place where they reveal something, you know? We wanted to really push the boundaries of what we could do on that level, but we had an inkling it would work because there’s a very clear model of the series in the past. These were the things that worked about it and we kind of didn’t want to break it. The goal was, “let’s try to do that.”
The thing we’d say in the room was, “What would Gene Roddenberry’s writers do if they were doing it today?” They would probably try to make the crew look like the people of the day, they would probably try to tell the stories of the day— not the stories of the past—they would update people’s ideas about gender and sexuality and all those things to comport with how we think about those things with our audience. They would definitely do big special effects, because I bet if they could have done it, they’d make the fight choreography as amazing as possible. They would want to use the highest-standing visual technologies to make it look truly in space, and they’d probably try to tell social issue stories that were very different every week. That’s what they did already. So, our goal then was to just, you know... let’s make this for today.
io9: One of the characters that stood out to me most in what I’ve seen of the show so far is Christina Chong’s La’an Noonien-Singh. I wanted to ask about exploring that character, because we’ve got this fascinating idea where she’s a new character, and then suddenly, you have this bombshell of a surname attached to her. When you were ideating that character, what was it that made her stand out as a new character you wanted to introduce in this very particular period of Star Trek history?
Myers: We learn in the pilot La’an has this very traumatic past. We knew that was kind of crucial, and something we wanted to explore with her—both emotionally and for plot, in the series. One of the things you do on a show, obviously, I try to know where we’re going to go, always. Which I think is something I learned from working on a lot of TV shows—which is to say, a lot of people think you have to come in and know the ending. And I think that it’s good to have a notion of it? But it’s good to be open to new things! One of the things you discover is that if we don’t know how things are going to end, you probably don’t know how things are going to end. What you can do is give people emotion. Fill in moments that show people the humanity at the heart of things. So, to that extent you can set up little Easter eggs and ideas you hope will blossom later on, but you don’t necessarily know what it’s going to be. And that, I think, is where La’an’s name started.
It’s a piece of her, of the story we wanted to tell, ultimately. I think it’s safe to say we do deal with it. Sometimes it’s small, sometimes it’s big, but it’s a part of who she is as a character. And because we knew that, it affected how we build stories for her, how we’d build stories for her and the other characters—because it shapes who she is as a person. The goal was not to break canon, but to add to canon. It wasn’t meant to be a small world thing where we only see people connected to famous people, it was supposed to be like, “how can we give these people connections from the past that will bring out ideas and challenge them?” And that ultimately kind of blossoms into conflict and people’s evolution. That was sort of the goal with her. Really, the end goal of a writer is to come up with emotions for your actors to play. If you don’t give your actors something to play, we haven’t done our job. And that’s part of what that is.
io9: What is it you hope Trek fans take from Strange New Worlds they can’t get from Discovery, Picard, Prodigy, or Lower Decks?
Myers: Every one of the Trek shows tries to carve its own edge, you know, and when Discovery came out, I thought it was this really cool, bold idea to reinvent Trek for an era of streaming that was heavily serialized with new effects and new ideas—to not focus on the captain, at first, but a member of the crew. That was pretty bold, you know? Really cool. And they’re still trying big, interesting ideas. Picard has this completely different tone and sensibility. The goal [for Strange New Worlds] was really just to have a show that speaks to its specific voice. We wanted people to come to it and feel like, “this is the flavor we’re getting here.” For us, it was those episodic adventures.
And I dare say, we just wanted the show to deal with big issues and be fun and use episodic sci-fi to tell thoughtful stories about the world. In a one-off way, where we don’t necessarily have to do these big, complex, big arching villains [like Discovery and Picard]—it’s extremely, really difficult, super challenging and it’s hard, I admire their work a lot because it’s hard. For us, we were like, let’s tackle the other direction. We’re not telling a giant story we have to connect, we’re telling character stories from a comfortable place, but we also hope to make a show that anyone could watch. Someone who loves Trek and would watch and go, “Oh, there’s Easter eggs. All these things for me!” But, like, if they bring their friend in, the friend can watch it and be like, “Oh, I get this!” There’s no barrier for entry. That was one of the things about the original series, you know? And TNG—TNG was syndicated, you never knew what would air when, so you could watch any episode and it would tell you a story. And it would be a Trek story. Thoughtful and cool, and you could hop out. That was our mode. That’s what we’re trying to do, so it’s a little bit like in a video game. There are games that tell this really singular mission and journey, and then there are games that are open world, and you can go over here and explore a thing or go over there and explore a thing—like, that’s the version that we wanted to do. An open world version of Star Trek.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds arrives on Paramount+ May 5.
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