In Star Trek: Discovery’s New Future, Franchise History Still Matters

We talked to director Hanelle Culpepper about returning to the Trill homeworld, first seen in Deep Space Nine, for Star Trek: Discovery.

Adira and Michael Enter the Caves of Mak'ala in Star Trek: Discovery
Photo: CBS

This Star Trek: Discovery article contains spoilers for “Forget Me Not.”

For back-to-back Star Trek projects, director Hanelle Culpepper has been given scripts that require filming on recreated versions of Trek sets that were last seen in the 1990s, more than 20 years ago. First, Culpepper filmed the Picard premiere’s opening scene on The Next Generation‘s iconic Ten Forward. And, now, in Discovery Season 3, Culpepper got the chance to shoot in the Trill Caves of Mak’ala, first and last seen on Deep Space Nine. Interestingly, in both Culpepper’s Picard episode “Remembrance” and in Discovery’s “Forget Me Not,” memories, dreams, and events that only take place within the mind literally take center stage. In other words, Culpepper is a director who is experienced with taking stories that occur inside a character’s heads, and then showing us what that might look like. Recently, Den of Geek caught up with Culpepper to discuss how she filmed the pivotal episode of Discovery, and why she thinks the Trill are so amazing.

We first visited Trill’s Caves of Mak’ala in the DS9 episode “Equilibrium,” when Sisko, Bashir, and Jadzia Dax visited looking for answers to a problem Jadzia was having with her symbiont. Twenty-five year later, Discovery rebuilt the Caves of Mak’ala for “Forget Me Not,” when Michael and Adira go on a similar mission, looking for answers on how to unlock the memories of Adira’s Senna Tal symbiont. The process of reconstructing the impressive Caves of Mak’ala set was largely underway before Culpepper arrived, but that’s mostly because “when you have a pool on a soundstage, there’s a lot of logistics that have to happen ahead of time,” she explains. For Culpepper, her more important role as director was not in overseeing every nook and cranny of the recreated Deep Space Nine environment, but instead, making sure the beauty and intricate story of Adira regaining their memories was fully explored. 

It’s difficult to make visual the workings of a character’s mind. In “Forget Me Not,” Burnham enters the Caves’ milky pools to save Adira and, in the process, enters Adira’s mind. But what does that mean exactly? Does she see what Adira sees? And what are the limits? In other words: which aspects of Adira’s memories was Burnham privy too? 

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“Once she entered that pool, she was kind of mind-joined with Adira,” Culpepper explains, but add as a caveat: “To me, I feel like Burnham saw everything except when Adira was fully in the memories. When Adira would process the memory, and we kind of saw something on that stage, Burnham would see that. And later, when all the hosts came, Burnham saw that, but when we were in the memory itself, that Burnham didn’t see that.”

What this means is that, from a literal point-of-view, Burnham wasn’t inside the memory in which Adira re-lives Grey’s death and the transfer of the symbiont. This moment remains private for Adira, and means that there are some limits to what Burnham was sharing or seeing. Considering Burnham’s experience with other kinds of mind-melds, these kinds of telepathic firewalls have a precedent in Trek canon. And, yet, for Culpepper, these decisions were more about making sure the story delivered the right amount of emotions and information in equal measure. And, she was also very clear that the intention from the outset was to make sure that Burnham did see all of the former Tal hosts, and to understand what the long history of this Trill symbiont represented. 

“I never considered not showing them all. That’s one thing that’s so cool about the Trill culture: they can be any ethnicity. I mean… of course, they’re all Trill, but that they come in a broad spectrum, and that some were officers, some are not,” Culpepper says. “I think the diversity of experience is what makes the Tal symbiont what it is, so I always wanted to show that.”

Showing and not telling is a huge part of Culpepper’s directorial style on all her Star Trek episodes. For “Forget Me Not,” this also meant shooting a scene which, in other Trek series, is something of a staple: A giant conversation around a big table. When the Discovery crew meets for a big dinner in Saru’s Ready Room, tensions flare-up, but, more specifically, the action was centered on the actors and the dialogue, not any special effects or camera tricks.

“When you find out you’re going to do a dinner scene, you worry that it’s going to be static or boring,” Culpepper says. “It’s all about where you actually put everyone at the table. The people with most powerful connections seated so they have the tightest eyelines. Sometimes, as a director, you feel like you have to compromise at a dinner table, but sometimes you don’t. But, in this case, the actors are all so great that it never got boring. It never got static. It’s just fascinating to see them. Sometimes you can let the camerawork take a back seat and let the actors shine.”

More than any other season, Star Trek: Discovery is living up to its subtitle insofar as the stories are all centered on the ship not only exploring the future, but also, the crew finding themselves. As a director, Culepper felt this theme, above everything, was what mattered to make “Forget Me Not” come together.

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“It’s also about family. Basically, it’s Thanksgiving!” she laughs. “There are all the stuff people should be talking about but no one’s talking about it because we’re all being protective of ourselves. And then, finally, something happens that allows things to come out in the open and explode. And, sometimes, we have to go through that process to heal and come back together.”

Culepper says her busy schedule prevents her from directing Star Trek: Discovery Season 4. But, she’s not ruling out Strange New Worlds just yet. “I miss my Star Trek family,” she says. “I hope I can come back.”

Star Trek: Discovery is streaming now on CBS All Access.