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The Trek goes on

Executive producer Alex Kurtzman reveals how one of television’s most storied franchises was brought back to the small screen in the shape of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard, and how the latter takes the sci-fi juggernaut in a new direction.

In a career spanning more than 20 years, Alex Kurtzman cut his writing and producing teeth on series such as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess and Alias. But it was his relationship with writer and director JJ Abrams, who created the latter show, that led Kurtzman to become one of the chief architects of the modern reboot of Star Trek.

Alex Kurtzman

Kurtzman co-wrote the eponymous 2009 feature film, which Abrams directed, and also co-wrote the sequel, 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness but missed out on the subsequent Star Trek: Beyond owing to the fact he was developing a new iteration of Star Trek for television alongside Bryan Fuller (Hannibal). Star Trek: Discovery launched on then-fledgling streamer CBS All Access in 2017, with Star Trek: Picard beginning in January this year.

The exec describes boarding the franchise, which began in 1966 with William Shatner’s James T Kirk captaining the USS Enterprise, as an “incredible ride” that is unexpected, delightful and surprising at every turn. “I never expected that, all these years later, I’d somehow be responsible for bringing Star Trek back to television and then building out this universe,” he tells DQ. “It’s been one of the true delights of my whole career.”

Kurtzman’s own love of Star Trek blossomed with the original series, which saw Shatner alongside Leonard Nimoy (first officer and scientist Spock) and DeForest Kelley (chief medical officer Leonard McCoy). It ran on NBC for just three seasons but became a cult hit in syndication, leading to the launch of four further series and 10 feature films until the reboot led by Kurtzman.

“When I was little, I had a friend whose dad worked in a jet propulsion laboratory here in LA and was building rockets,” he recalls. “He and his family would watch Star Trek and that was my first exposure to that show. People who work in the real world building things that go into space were inspired by Star Trek, and that seed was planted in a way I didn’t even understand at the time.

“The real big bang for me was The Wrath of Khan [1982], a very meaningful film – visceral and emotional and gorgeous and such an incredible character story. That was a big deal for me. And then I watched all of the films as they came out.

The original Star Trek initially aired on NBC for just three seasons

“I was very late to the party on The Next Generation [1987-1994]. A lot of my friends in high school were watching it and it wasn’t until I started doing a deep dive back into Star Trek for the 2009 movie in around 2006/07 that I started familiarising myself with The Next Generation and realising how much smarter my friends were in high school and what I’d been missing.”

Bringing the franchise back to television proved to be a “bumpy” path, most notably as Discovery co-creator Bryan Fuller left the project during development. That it would also serve as CBS All Access’s flagship show added further pressure on the series to be a success.

The story, set about 10 years before the original Star Trek series, sees the Klingon houses go to war with the United Federation of Planets and introduces the crew of the USS Discovery, featuring Sonequa Martin-Green as first officer Michael Burnham, alongside Doug Jones, Shazad Latif, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman and Jason Isaacs.

“They had asked me to be involved in it [after the films] and I had deferred the decision for several years because I didn’t really want to go back to it until I had clear enough reason to do it and a story I wanted to tell,” Kurtzman recalls. “Then they decided to not only launch it but launch it on a new network. So it wasn’t just carrying the weight of Star Trek’s return to television but also the success or failure of a brand new streaming service. It’s such a weird high-wire act I wasn’t really expecting, but there was a lot of support for it.

“We went through a lot of bumpy roads over the course of the first season and found that heat. When I look back now, I’ve met a lot of other people who have all done a lot of Star Trek shows and they unilaterally tell me that season one is always really hard. You undergo a lot of big changes but, in the end, it was a really gratifying experience because people liked the show. Some people like it, some people take issue with it but, on the whole, it’s been really successful and I’m really proud of it, of the cast and of the writers. It’s been amazing to see the show’s growth.”

Sir Patrick Stewart fronted The Next Generation

That growth now includes Star Trek: Picard, but it might not have happened at all had Sir Patrick Stewart not been persuaded to break his steadfast vow to never again step into the shoes of Jean-Luc Picard, the starship commander he played in seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and four feature films, culminating in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis.

Thankfully, the actor was won over by the plan to focus on an older, retired Picard in a new stage of his life 18 years on. “Patrick was insistent from the beginning that we not do anything that had been done before with the character. He wasn’t interested in playing Picard as he had already played him,” Kurtzman says.

“He wanted to see the next chapter. Our show gave us an enormous amount of room because he couldn’t possibly have been the same man [as in Nemesis]. And not only was there a new timeline for him, there were other iterations of Trek, including our 2009 film, that really radically changed the direction of his life in ways he didn’t expect.

“He’s very much the old Picard, but the circumstances of his life have changed him so much and it’s really interesting to see a character wrestling with his soul and look back on his life more than looking forward, to think about the sum total of his choices. He’s living with a lot of regrets, a lot of sadness, and so the show really becomes his second chance. To me, that was a really exciting place to start a new show from. It certainly felt like there was no version of Picard that existed like that because now enough time had passed.”

Stewart insisted Star Trek: Picard develop the character

With so many hit series and films across multiple decades, it’s no surprise that Star Trek has one of the most fervent, passionate and committed fan bases in pop culture. But as those behind the recent Star Wars films and the final seasons of Game of Thrones will attest, immense popularity doesn’t mean immunity from criticism.

“You have to keep in mind the fans are really the true owners of Star Trek,” Kurtzman notes. “Other than [original creator] Gene Roddenberry, the fans are the ones who have kept the show alive in so many different forms. It’s OK to be critical of things, it’s OK to debate things; that’s part of what Star Trek is all about. I feel like we’re doing OK if we’re at a 50/50 split [in terms of popularity among fans], because fans are often divided internally about what they like and don’t like.

“If you’re just retreading old ground in an unoriginal way, I don’t think that’s satisfying for fans. It’s terribly important to listen to that voice but it’s also important to listen to your own voice and to ask yourself what you would want to see or not see.”

On set, Discovery and Picard’s use of visual effects means making the shows is comparable to a theatrical blockbuster. In essence, his job is to “figure out how to bring both the largesse of what the cinema screen has to offer and the intimacy that 10 hours of television has to offer and bring them together,” Kurtzman says.

“We aim to shoot big, cinematic frames, which means a lot of prep and advanced work in building sets that are typically much bigger than television show sets and then augmenting them with tremendous visual effects.

Star Trek: Discovery debuted on CBS All Access in 2017

“No other show I’ve ever done has got 50-plus years of history and mythology of story to drop in, either. The challenge is keeping the timelines of the stories synchronised in the mind. But there are great armies of people who I work with who are there specifically to say you can do this or you can’t do this or, if you’re going to do this, you have to understand the residual effects it will have.”

With a second season of Picard already confirmed, a third season of Discovery is due to air later this year. Beyond those, Kurtzman says there are “infinite” stories to tell in the Star Trek universe that can lead to multiple seasons and more spin-offs, as long as each one can stand apart with its own identity.

“The great goal of building out a whole universe is feeling like you’re getting the same aspects of one show with another show. If that doesn’t happen, you’ve failed,” he says. “You have to feel like you’re getting different things from every show, yet the goal is to have each show like a different crayon in a box of crayons where a different colour is a different feeling but it’s recognisably Star Trek. From that point of view, we could tell so many stories as long as we really take the time to do them properly.”

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Starz shines in Golden Globe nominations

Outlander
Outlander is based on novels by Diana Gabaldon

It’s very much in vogue to talk about the quality of scripted series coming out of HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, Netflix and Amazon. But this week let’s raise a glass to Starz, which has picked up Golden Globe nominations for two dramas: Outlander and Flesh and Bone.

When Starz made its first meaningful move into original production with Spartacus: Blood and Sand, it didn’t look like it would be a contender for industry gongs. But under the leadership of Chris Albrecht and Carmi Zlotnik, the US channel has really raised its game – delivering shows like Power, Black Sails and, coming in 2016, The Girlfriend Experience – as well as the above-mentioned series.

Outlander, based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon, is produced by Sony Pictures Television and Left Bank Pictures and was developed for TV by Ronald D Moore. Moore also heads a writing team that, in season one, included five credited writers (Moore, Toni Graphia, Ira Steven Behr, Anne Kenney and Matthew B Roberts).

Moore, who wrote the opening two episodes of season one, is still just 51. But his extensive writing credits include Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica and Syfy series Helix. He was also reported to be working on a TV reboot of movie A Knight’s Tale for ABC.

Flesh and Bone is a one-season-only drama
Flesh and Bone is a one-season-only drama written by Moira Walley-Beckett

Flesh and Bone, meanwhile, is an eight-part miniseries about the dysfunctional but glamorous world of ballet. Created by Moira Walley-Beckett, it started airing on Starz on November 8 and is currently five episodes through its one and only season. Walley-Beckett’s career to date has seen her win a Primetime Emmy for her work as a writer on AMC’s Breaking Bad. She was also a writer-producer on ABC’s short-lived period series Pan Am.

Elsewhere, fans of Fox thriller 24 will be delighted to hear that the show’s star Kiefer Sutherland is to headline a new ABC series entitled Designated Survivor. The drama, which has been ordered straight-to-series, focuses on a junior US cabinet member who is unexpectedly appointed president after a huge attack kills everyone above him in the line of succession. The production company behind the show is Mark Gordon Co Studios (Quantico) and the writer will be David Guggenheim.

Guggenheim’s major credits to date are movies – most notably the Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House. He is also working on a sequel to Safe House and a new instalment in the cult Bad Boys franchise. The drama is ABC’s first new scripted series for the 2016/17 and follows on from a decent showing for Quantico.

Kiefer Sutherland as 24's Jack Bauer
Kiefer Sutherland as 24’s Jack Bauer

If this is the golden age of TV drama, then one has to ask why so many old movies and TV series are being revived. Still, it’s good news for writers. The latest beneficiary is Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a former Lost writer (seasons one and two) who was been signed up to write a reboot of NBC’s cult series Xena: Warrior Princess.

The chances of Xena getting into production seem pretty good for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because of the current trend towards action-adventure shows with female leads. Secondly, because the show is popular internationally, suggesting a successful reboot could be a money-spinner for NBC’s distribution division.

Another show to secure a nomination at this year’s Golden Globes is Fox’s ratings hit Empire. Unsurprisingly, Fox has asked the show’s co-creator Lee Daniels to come up with a follow-up series. Daniels, who is currently casting the pilot, is co-writing the new series with Tom Donaghy.

Although the programme doesn’t yet have a title, it will follow the fortunes of a girl group hoping to make it in the music business. Donaghy started his career as a playwright but, like many of his peers, is now active in TV. Credits before now include The Whole Truth, Without a Trace and The Mentalist.

Could Xena: Warrior Princess be the latest show to see a revival?
Could Xena: Warrior Princess be the latest show to see a revival?

Another project in the news this month is Lookout Point’s Parisian fashion drama The Collection. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, the eight-hour show has been picked up by Amazon and will be written by Oliver Goldstick. Goldstick’s credits include Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty and, notably, Pretty Little Liars (PLL), for which he has written 30 episodes. He also co-created the short-lived PLL spin-off Ravenswood with I Marlene King and Joseph Dougherty.

One project in search of a writer is AMC’s new adaptation of Joe Hill horror novel NOS4A2. The story centres a young woman with an uncanny talent for finding lost things – a gift that is gradually destroying her mind. She encounters Charlie Manx, who abducts children in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith and sucks their souls to keep himself young. The licence plate on the Rolls (NOS4A2) gives you a clue as to what kind of character he is.

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On the up down under

Stateless marks Cate Blanchett's directorial debut
Stateless marks Cate Blanchett’s directorial debut
Dozens of Aussie screenwriters will be dusting off their computer keyboards following the news that Screen Australia has greenlit A$640,000 (US$474,241) of development funding for 23 films and television series.

The project that has caught the attention of the international media is Stateless, which will be directed by Oscar-winning actor Cate Blanchett. Described by Screen Australia as Blanchett’s “first venture into high-end TV,” it tells the true story of Cornelia Rau, a young German-Australian who escaped a frightening cult, only to be trapped in a bizarre labyrinth of psychiatric and legal systems.

NBCUniversal-owned production company Matchbox Pictures will produce Stateless, which is based on a screenplay written by Elise McCredie. McCredie has a long and varied track record as an actress, but her first big hit as a writer was Nowhere Boys, a teen series that was also produced by Matchbox.

First airing on ABC3 in 2013, the show was successful enough to secure a renewal and to be adapted as a feature film (Book of Shadows). Sold internationally by NBCUniversal, it has also aired in the UK and Canada.

The other projects backed by Screen Australia include works from Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward, Richard Roxburgh, Marieke Hardy, Jan Chapman, Stephan Elliott and Bondi Hipsters’ Nicholas Boshier. However, the only other high-end television drama to secure Screen Australia funding this month is Trust – a drama based on a journalist’s mission to expose a shadowy movement cloaked in conspiracy theories and deception.

Trust’s writing team consists of Sarah Lambert, Blake Ayshford and Kris Mrksa. Lambert’s standout credit to date is Love Child, a critical and ratings success for Channel 9 and Playmaker in 2014.

Sarah Lambert is part of a team of writers on Trust
Sarah Lambert is part of a team of writers on Trust

Ayshford has written episodes for a number of shows including The Beautiful Lie, Nowhere Boys, Devil’s Playground, The Code and Crownies, while Mrksa’s credits include Underbelly, The Slap and Glitch.

The latter is a six-parter that started airing on ABC1 this month. Pursuing a familiar theme, it focuses on a policeman who is called to his local cemetery in the middle of the night after six people have inexplicably risen from the dead in perfect health.

Nerida Moore, senior development executive at Screen Australia, said: “The titles we’ve announced reflect a really exciting slate of projects and associated talent. They’re very individual in approach and each will have its own unique creative journey ahead. The recent changes to our Story Development Guidelines reflect our appreciation for the individual creative process and the ongoing need for flexibility in the ways we offer support. We look forward to seeing more innovation and imagination as these projects flourish.”

Elsewhere, Endemol Shine Studios has acquired the English-language reversion rights to Follow the Money, a new thriller from Danmarks Radio (DR) that is set in the world of economic crime. The deal follows an earlier adaptation success for DR’s The Killing (aka Forbrydelsen) and comes despite the fact that Follow the Money doesn’t air in Denmark until January 2016.

The original series was created by Jeppe Gjervig Gram, one of the three writers on Borgen, writing a total of 14 out of the 30 episodes. His partners on Borgen were Adam Price, who recently co-founded production company SAM, and Tobias Lindholm.

“This is yet another compelling series from DR, and we’re looking forward to developing it for the American audience in partnership with the very talented team at Anonymous Content,” said Charlie Corwin, co-chairman and co-CEO of Endemol Shine North America.

The Wire's David Simon is working on Show Me a Hero for HBO
The Wire’s David Simon is working on Show Me a Hero for HBO

Meanwhile, HBO has announced that its upcoming miniseries Show Me a Hero will debut on August 16. Starring Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder, LaTanya Richardson-Jackson, Bob Balaban and Jim Belushi, the show is set in the 1980s and tells the story of a young mayor of a mid-sized American city who is faced with a federal court order that says he must build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighbourhoods of his town. His attempt to do so tears the entire city apart, paralyses the municipal government and, ultimately, destroys the mayor and his political future.

Written by David Simon (The Wire, Treme), Show Me a Hero is based on a non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin that explores the issue of racial segregation in Yonkers, in the state of New York.

Simon said: “The story appeals to me not merely as political history, but because the question in Yonkers in 1987 was the same one that we face today. Are all of us – those with and those without, white, black or brown – are we all sharing some portion of the same national experience? Or is the American Dream something other than that?”

The director is Paul Haggis (Crash), who says: “Frankly, I have long desired to be a part of anything David Simon does. If he had asked me to direct a history of footwear, that’s what we would be discussing now. Luckily, it was a part of our history that intrigued me, largely because it isn’t history at all, but an exploration of issues that remain at the core of the American narrative.”

In last week’s Hit & Miss, we looked at some of the titles that have garnered a high number of Emmy nominations. Today, we are giving a shout out to the writers nominated.

In Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, the contenders are Joshua Brand (The Americans), Gordon Smith (Better Call Saul), David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones), Matthew Weiner and Semi Chellas (Mad Men) and Weiner alone (for Mad Men again).

Jane Anderson's work on Olive Kitteridge has earned her an Emmy nomination
Jane Anderson’s work on Olive Kitteridge has earned her an Emmy nomination

The sentimentalist vote would surely favour Weiner, to mark the end of Mad Men. But he will be hard pushed to see off Game of Thrones, which is nominated for the final episode of season five (Mother’s Mercy).

In Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special, the nominees include John Ridley (American Crime), Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Glois and Horton Foote (Bessie), Stephen Merchant, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (Hello Ladies), Hugo Blick (The Honorable Woman), Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge) and Peter Straughan (Wolf Hall).

Despite the dearth of women in these two line-ups, Anderson has a good chance of winning. An industry veteran, she boasts credits ranging from The Wonder Years and How to Make an American Quilt to Mad Men.

She gave an interesting interview to HBO recently in which she discussed the challenges of adapting Olive Kitteridge from its source novel by Elizabeth Strout. “It took a long time for me to solve this as an adaptation,” she said. “Because HBO’s work is known for its edginess, we talked about how we make this very brilliant novel about older people in a small town in Maine sexy. What will make this different? What will give this edge?

“I tried an outline where we started backwards and we went back in time, and it didn’t work. Then I tried it starting with the suicide scene. It’s just three minutes of screen time that assure the audience that something really drastic is going to happen down the line. When you add stakes like that, everybody can just friggin’ relax and I can tell the story. I can just unwind it. You need that in television and you need that in a miniseries.”

Xena: Warrior Princess star Lucy Lawless has quashed speculation of a reboot
Xena: Warrior Princess star Lucy Lawless has quashed speculation of a reboot

At the other end of the spectrum with regard to female characterisation, actress Lucy Lawless has played down speculation that her iconic series Xena: Warrior Princess is undergoing a reboot at NBC. Sam Raimi was reported to be involved but Lawless later described it as a “rumour.”

She Tweeted: “Sorry, friends! News of a #Xena reboot is just a rumour. I’d love it to happen one day but it’s still in the wishful thinking stage.”

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