‘Starfleet Academy,’ ‘Section 31,’ Michelle Yeoh and Chris Pine

‘Starfleet Academy,’ ‘Section 31,’ Michelle Yeoh and Chris Pine

“I can’t believe I get to play the captain of the Enterprise.”

Anson Mount is sitting across from me on one of the Toronto soundstages for the Paramount+ series “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” which is set in the years when his character, Capt. Christopher Pike, led the legendary Federation starship with a young Spock and Uhura. We’re speaking on the sleek Enterprise bridge, and Mount is recounting the out-of-body experience he had the first time he sat in the iconic captain’s chair. “I had this immediate flashback to playing ‘Star Trek’ as a kid,” he says. “I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t at some point stop and think to myself, ‘I’m on fucking “Star Trek.”’”

‘Starfleet Academy,’ ‘Section 31,’ Michelle Yeoh and Chris Pine

Neil Jamieson for Variety

“Strange New Worlds” is the 12th “Star Trek” TV show since the original series debuted on NBC in 1966, introducing Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a hopeful future for humanity. In the 58 years since, the “Star Trek” galaxy has logged 900 television episodes and 13 feature films, amounting to 668 hours — nearly 28 days — of content to date. Even compared with “Star Wars” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Star Trek” stands as the only storytelling venture to deliver a single narrative experience for this long across TV and film.

In other words, “Star Trek” is not just a franchise. As Alex Kurtzman, who oversees all “Star Trek” TV production, puts it, “‘Star Trek’ is an institution.”

Without a steady infusion of new blood, though, institutions have a way of fading into oblivion (see soap operas, MySpace, Blockbuster Video). To keep “Star Trek” thriving has meant charting a precarious course to satisfy the fans who have fueled it for decades while also discovering innovative ways to get new audiences on board.

“Doing ‘Star Trek’ means that you have to deliver something that’s entirely familiar and entirely fresh at the same time,” Kurtzman says.

Fulfilling that mandate has never been more vital to Paramount Global, which needs the franchise to flourish while the company competes in a troubled streaming economy and burnishes its value for potential buyers. “We take it very seriously,” says David Stapf, president of CBS Studios. “‘Star Trek’ is one of the most valued, treasured and to-be-nurtured franchises in all of media.”

The franchise has certainly weathered its share of fallow periods, most recently after “Nemesis” bombed in theaters in 2002 and UPN canceled “Enterprise” in 2005. It took 12 years for “Star Trek” to return to television with the premiere of “Discovery” in 2017; since then, however, there has been more “Star Trek” on TV than ever: The adventure series “Strange New Worlds,” the animated comedy “Lower Decks” and the kids series “Prodigy” are all in various stages of production, and the serialized thriller “Picard” concluded last year, when it ranked, along with “Strange New Worlds,” among Nielsen’s 10 most-watched streaming original series for multiple weeks. Nearly one in five Paramount+ subscribers in the U.S. is watching at least one “Star Trek” series, according to the company, and more than 50% of fans watching one of the new “Trek” shows also watch at least two others. The new shows air in 200 international markets and are dubbed into 35 languages. As “Discovery” launches its fifth and final season in April, “Star Trek” is in many ways stronger than it’s ever been.

“’Star Trek’s fans have kept it alive more times than seems possible,” says Eugene Roddenberry, Jr., who executive produces the TV series through Roddenberry Entertainment. “While many shows rightfully thank their fans for supporting them, we literally wouldn’t be here without them.”

But the depth of fan devotion to “Star Trek” also belies a curious paradox about its enduring success: “It’s not the largest fan base,” says Akiva Goldsman, “Strange New Worlds” executive producer and co-showrunner. “It’s not ‘Star Wars.’ It’s certainly not Marvel.”

When J.J. Abrams rebooted “Star Trek” in 2009 — with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldaña playing Kirk, Spock and Uhura — the movie grossed more than any previous “Star Trek” film by a comfortable margin. But neither that film nor its two sequels broke $500 million in global grosses, a hurdle every other top-tier franchise can clear without breaking a sweat.

There’s also the fact that “Star Trek” fans are aging. I ask “The Next Generation” star Jonathan Frakes, who’s acted in or directed more versions of “Star Trek” than any other person alive, how often he meets fans for whom the new “Star Trek” shows are their first. “Of the fans who come to talk to me, I would say very, very few,” he says. “‘Star Trek’ fans, as we know, are very, very, very loyal — and not very young.”

As Stapf puts it: “There’s a tried and true ‘Trek’ fan that is probably going to come to every ‘Star Trek,’ no matter what it is — and we want to expand the universe.”

Neil Jamieson for Variety

While Paramount Pictures redoubles its efforts to get a “Star Trek” feature into theaters, Kurtzman and his production company Secret Hideout are pushing the boundaries of what “Star Trek” can look like on the small screen. Michelle Yeoh just wrapped filming the first “Star Trek” TV movie, “Section 31,” a spy thriller that the Oscar winner characterizes as “‘Mission: Impossible’ in space.” And this summer, the first “Star Trek” YA series, “Starfleet Academy,” will start production on the largest single set ever created for “Star Trek” on TV.

Every single person I spoke to for this story talked about “Star Trek” with a joyful earnestness as rare in the industry as (nerd alert) a Klingon pacifist.

“When I’m meeting fans, sometimes they’re coming to be confirmed, like I’m kind of a priest,” Ethan Peck says during a break in filming on the “Strange New Worlds” set. He’s in full Spock regalia — pointy ears, severe eyebrows, bowl haircut — and when asked about his earliest memories of “Star Trek,” he stares off into space in what looks like Vulcan contemplation. “I remember being on the playground in second or third grade and doing the Vulcan salute, not really knowing where it came from,” he says. “When I thought of ‘Star Trek,’ I thought of Spock. And now I’m him. It’s crazy.”

To love “Star Trek” is to love abstruse science and cowboy diplomacy, complex moral dilemmas and questions about the meaning of existence. “It’s ultimately a show with the most amazing vision of optimism, I think, ever put on-screen in science fiction,” says Kurtzman, who is 50. “All you need is two minutes on the news to feel hopeless now. ‘Star Trek’ is honestly the best balm you could ever hope for.”

I’m getting a tour of the USS Enterprise from Scotty — or, rather, “Strange New World” production designer Jonathan Lee, who is gushing in his native Scottish burr as we step into the starship’s transporter room. “I got such a buzzer from doing this, I can’t tell you,” he says. “I actually designed four versions of it.”

Lee is especially proud of the walkway he created to run behind the transporter pads — an innovation that allows the production to shoot the characters from a brand-new set of angles as they beam up from a far-flung planet. It’s one of the countless ways that this show has been engineered to be as cinematic as possible, part of Kurtzman’s overall vision to make “Star Trek” on TV feel like “a movie every week.”

Kurtzman’s tenure with “Star Trek” began with co-writing the screenplay for Abrams’ 2009 movie, which was suffused with a fast-paced visual style that was new to the franchise. When CBS Studios approached Kurtzman in the mid-2010s about bringing “Star Trek” back to TV, he knew instinctively that it needed to be just as exciting as that film.

“The scope was so much different than anything we had ever done on ‘Next Gen,’” says Frakes, who’s helmed two feature films with the “Next Generation” cast and directed episodes of almost every live-action “Trek” TV series, including “Discovery” and “Strange New Worlds.” “Every department has the resources to create.”

A new science lab set for Season 3, for example, boasts a transparent floor atop a four-foot pool of water that swirls underneath the central workbench, and the surrounding walls sport a half dozen viewscreens with live schematics custom designed by a six-person team. “I like being able to paint on a really big canvas,” Kurtzman says. “The biggest challenge is always making sure that no matter how big something gets, you’re never losing focus on that tiny little emotional story.”

Marni Grossman

To strike that balance, “Strange New Worlds” showrunners Goldsman and Henry Alonso Myers have rooted the series in a classic episodic structure while constantly experimenting with the fluidity of what “Star Trek” can be. In its first two seasons, “Strange New Worlds” hopped from monster horror to body-swap comedy to costume fantasy to courtroom drama to a full-blown musical featuring a Klingon boy band. For Season 3, debuting in 2025, Frakes directed an episode framed as a Hollywood murder mystery that he calls “the best episode of television I’ve ever done.”

At this point, is there a genre that “Strange New Worlds” can’t do? “As long as we’re in storytelling that is cogent and sure handed, I’m not sure there is,” Goldsman says with an impish smile. “Could it do Muppets? Sure. Could it do black and white, silent, slapstick? Maybe!”

This approach is also meant to appeal to people who might want to watch “Star Trek” but regard those 668 hours of backstory as an insurmountable burden. “You shouldn’t have to watch a ‘previously on’ to follow our show,” Myers says.

To achieve so many hairpin shifts in tone and setting while maintaining Kurtzman’s cinematic mandate, “Strange New Worlds” has embraced one of the newest innovations in visual effects: virtual production. First popularized on the “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian,” the technology — called the AR wall — involves a towering circular partition of LED screens projecting a highly detailed, computer-generated backdrop. Rather than act against a greenscreen, the actors can see whatever fantastical surroundings their characters are inhabiting, lending a richer level of verisimilitude to the show.

But there is a catch. While the technology is calibrated to maintain a proper sense of three-dimensional perspective through the camera lens, it can be a bit dizzying for anyone standing on the set. “The images on the walls start to move in a way that makes no sense,” says Mount. “You end up having to focus on something that’s right in front of you so you don’t fall down.”

And yet, even as he’s talking about it, Mount can’t help but break into a boyish grin. “Sometimes we call it the holodeck,” he says. In fact, the pathway to the AR wall on the set is dotted with posters of the virtual reality room from “The Next Generation” and the words “Enter Holodeck” in a classic “Trek” font.

“I want to take one of those home with me,” Peck says. Does the AR wall also affect him? “I don’t really get disoriented by it. Spock would not get ill, so I’m Method acting.”

I’m on the set of the “Star Trek” TV movie “Section 31,” seated in an opulent nightclub with a view of a brilliant, swirling nebula, watching Yeoh rehearse with director Olatunde Osunsanmi and her castmates. Originally, the project was announced as a TV series centered on Philippa Georgiou, the semi-reformed tyrant Yeoh originated on “Discovery.” But between COVID delays and the phenomenon of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” there wasn’t room in the veteran actress’s schedule to fit a season of television. Yeoh was undaunted.

“We’d never let go of her,” she says of her character. “I was just blown away by all the different things I could do with her. Honestly, it was like, ‘Let’s just get it done, because I believe in this.’”

A few minutes later, dozens of extras in all manner of outlandish eveningwear file into the club, several of them made up as classic “Star Trek” aliens that fans might be surprised to see in this kind of swanky establishment. But I’m far more distracted by a different discovery: Georgiou is standing with a young Rachel Garrett (Kacey Rohl), a character first introduced on “Next Generation” as the older fearless captain of the USS Enterprise-C.

If that means nothing to you, don’t worry: The enormity of the revelation that Garrett is being brought back is meant only for fans. If you don’t know who the character is, you’re not missing anything.

“It was always my goal to deliver an entertaining experience that is true to the universe but appeals to newcomers,” says screenwriter Craig Sweeny. “I wanted a low barrier of entry so that anybody could enjoy it.”

Nevertheless, including Garrett on the show is exactly the kind of gasp-worthy detail meant to flood “Star Trek” fans with geeky good feeling.

“You cannot create new fans to the exclusion of old fans,” Kurtzman says. “You must serve your primary fan base first and you must keep them happy. That is one of the most important steps to building new fans.”

Michelle Yeoh stars in “Section 31.”
Jan Thijs/Paramount+

On its face, that maxim would make “Section 31” a genuine risk. The titular black-ops organization has been controversial with “Star Trek” fans since it was introduced in the 1990s. “The concept is almost antagonistic to some of the values of ‘Star Trek,’” Sweeny says. But he still saw “Section 31” as an opportunity to broaden what a “Star Trek” project could be while embracing the radical inclusivity at the heart of the franchise’s appeal.

“Famously, there’s a spot for everybody in Roddenberry’s utopia, so I was like, ‘Well, who would be the people who don’t quite fit in?’” he says. “I didn’t want to make the John le Carré version, where you’re in the headquarters and it’s backbiting and shades of gray. I wanted to do the people who were at the edges, out in the field. These are not people who necessarily work together the way you would see on a ‘Star Trek’ bridge.”

For Osunsanmi, who grew up watching “The Next Generation” with his father, it boils down to a simple question: “Is it putting good into the world?” he asks. “Are these characters ultimately putting good into the world? And, taking a step back, are we putting good into the world? Are we inspiring humans watching this to be good? That’s for me what I’ve always admired about ‘Star Trek.’”

Should “Section 31” prove successful, Yeoh says she’s game for a sequel. And Kurtzman is already eyeing more opportunities for TV movies, including a possible follow-up to “Picard.” The franchise’s gung-ho sojourn into streaming movies, however, stands in awkward contrast to the persistent difficulty Paramount Pictures and Abrams’ production company Bad Robot have had making a feature film following 2016’s “Star Trek Beyond” — the longest theaters have gone without a “Star Trek” movie since Paramount started making them.

First, a movie reuniting Pine’s Capt. Kirk with his late father — played in the 2009 “Star Trek” by Chris Hemsworth — fell apart in 2018. Around the same time, Quentin Tarantino publicly flirted with, then walked away from, directing a “Star Trek” movie with a 1930s gangster backdrop. Noah Hawley was well into preproduction on a “Star Trek” movie with a brand-new cast, until then-studio chief Emma Watts abruptly shelved it in 2020. And four months after Abrams announced at Paramount’s 2022 shareholders meeting that his 2009 cast would return for a movie directed by Matt Shakman (“WandaVision”), Shakman left the project to make “The Fantastic Four” for Marvel. (It probably didn’t help that none of the cast had been approached before Abrams made his announcement.)

The studio still intends to make what it’s dubbed the “final chapter” for the Pine-Quinto-Saldaña cast, and Steve Yockey (“The Flight Attendant”) is writing a new draft of the script. Even further along is another prospective “Star Trek” film written by Seth Grahame-Smith (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) and to be directed by Toby Haynes (“Andor,” “Black Mirror: USS Callister”) that studio insiders say is on track to start preproduction by the end of the year. That project will serve as an origin story of sorts for the main timeline of the entire franchise. In both cases, the studio is said to be focused on rightsizing the budgets to fit within the clear box office ceiling for “Star Trek” feature films.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

That tension isn’t exclusive to the film studio. I lost count of the number of times someone made a point to note, with real pride, how one or the other of the “Star Trek” TV productions is saving money, whether it be “Section 31” repurposing sets from “Discovery” or “Strange New Worlds” redressing the same set to be everything from crew quarters to a sparring gym. No one will get specific about budgets, but Kurtzman says that “Section 31” costs “so much less than you’d ever make a ‘Star Trek’ movie for.”

Far from complaining, everyone seems to relish the challenge. Visual effects supervisor Jason Zimmerman says that “working with Alex, the references are always at least $100 million movies, if not more, so we just kind of reverse engineer how do we do that without having to spend the same amount of money and time.”

The workload doesn’t seem to faze him either. “Visual effects people are a big, big ‘Star Trek’ fandom,” he says. “You naturally just get all these people who go a little bit above and beyond, and you can’t trade that for anything.”

In one of Kurtzman’s several production offices in Toronto, he and production designer Matthew Davies are scrutinizing a series of concept drawings for the newest “Star Trek” show, “Starfleet Academy.” A bit earlier, they showed me their plans for the series’ central academic atrium, a sprawling, two-story structure that will include a mess hall, amphitheater, trees, catwalks, multiple classrooms and a striking view of the Golden Gate Bridge in a single, contiguous space. To fit it all, they plan to use every inch of Pinewood Toronto’s 45,900 square foot soundstage, the largest in Canada.

But this is a “Star Trek” show, so there do need to be starships, and Kurtzman is discussing with Davies about how one of them should look. The issue is that “Starfleet Academy” is set in the 32nd century, an era so far into the future Kurtzman and his team need to invent much of its design language.

“For me, this design is almost too Klingon,” Kurtzman says. “I want to see the outline and instinctively, on a blink, recognize it as a Federation ship.”

The time period was first introduced on Season 3 of “Discovery,” when the lead character, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), transported the namesake starship and its crew there from the 23rd century. “It was exciting, because every time we would make a decision, we would say, ‘And now that’s canon,’” says Martin-Green.

If Roddenberry’s conception of an egalitarian future is the foundation for “Star Trek,” then canon is its lumber, creating its expansive and elaborate narrative framework of alien species, theoretical technology and para-historical incident. As the word implies, for some fans, canon is no less than holy writ. Any perceived deviation or disruption — like deciding Burnham is Spock’s heretofore unmentioned adopted sister — is akin to blasphemy, and “Trek” fans have never been shy about expressing their displeasure.

Neil Jamieson for Variety

“We listened to a lot of it,” Kurtzman says. “I think I’ve been able to separate the toxic fandom from really true fans who love ‘Star Trek’ and want you to hear what they have to say about what they would like to see.”

By Season 2, the “Discovery” writers pivoted from its dour, war-torn first season and sent the show on its trajectory 900-plus years into the future. “We had to be very aware of making sure that Spock was in the right place and that Burnham’s existence was explained properly, because she was never mentioned in the original series,” says executive producer and showrunner Michelle Paradise. “What was fun about jumping into the future is that it was very much fresh snow.”

That freedom affords “Starfleet Academy” far more creative latitude while also dramatically reducing how much the show’s target audience of tweens and teens needs to know about “Star Trek” before watching — which puts them on the same footing as the students depicted in the show. “These are kids who’ve never had a red alert before,” Noga Landau, executive producer and co-showrunner, says. “They never had to operate a transporter or be in a phaser fight.”

In the “Starfleet Academy” writers’ room in Secret Hideout’s Santa Monica offices, Kurtzman tells the staff — a mix of “Star Trek” die-hards, part-time fans and total newbies — that he wants to take a 30,000-foot view for a moment. “I think we need to ground in science more throughout the show,” he says, a giant framed photograph of Spock ears just over his shoulder. “The kids need to use science more to solve problems.”

Immediately, one of the writers brightens. “Are you saying we can amp up the techno-babble?” she says. “I’m just excited I get to use my computer science degree.”

After they break for lunch, Kurtzman is asked how much longer he plans to keep making “Star Trek.” 

“The minute I fall out of love with it is the minute that it’s not for me anymore. I’m not there yet,” he says. “To be able to build in this universe to tell stories that are fundamentally about optimism and a better future at a time when the world seems to be falling apart — it’s a really powerful place to live every day.”

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