Star Trek Beyond: Emerging From the Darkness

We sit down with Simon Pegg and Doug Jung to talk about righting the Enterprise's course with the Star Trek Beyond script.

Back in May, there was what was described as a Star Trek “fan event” on the lot at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California. It consisted of a Q&A with stars Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), and Karl Urban (McCoy), along with a series of video testimonials from other cast members, appearances by former Trek director J.J. Abrams and current Trek helmer Justin Lin, and a moving tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy that included the naming of a street on the lot in his honor. Last, but far from least, they welcomed the premiere of a new trailer and several extra minutes of footage from Star Trek Beyond, the latest film in the franchise, arriving on July 22.

With the 50th anniversary of Trek coming up—Sept. 8, to be precise, the date in 1966 on which the original series made its NBC debut—Paramount clearly meant for the fan event to kick off a summer of celebration for its crown jewel, culminating with the opening of the new movie.

But there was another agenda at work as well, which was simply to reassure the Trek faithful that the film franchise was undergoing something of a course correction after 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness left fans bitterly divided.

Getting past the hard feelings and sometimes angry debates that marked the release of Into Darkness—with its half-baked reboot of a classic villain, the reworking of scenes from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and other canon-straining transgressions—must have been deemed a tough but necessary path to take. Thus with Abrams off directing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the studio recruited director Justin Lin, a huge Trek fan and a filmmaker known for both explosive action and his successful reset of the Fast & Furious series. Meanwhile, a script overseen by producer/writer Roberto Orci, who had hoped to direct the Into Darkness follow-up himself at one point, was jettisoned in favor of starting from scratch.

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In the realm of Star Trek, who do you call upon when something needs a bit of fixing? Why, Scotty, of course. Although he wasn’t at the fan event due to filming commitments elsewhere, British actor Simon Pegg (who played the U.S.S. Enterprise’s chief engineer in the previous two Star Trekfilms) was still a presence, and not just because of his always welcome appearance onscreen. For it was Pegg—a noted screenwriter in his own right—who was tasked with co-scripter Doug Jung to pen Star Trek Beyond, delivering a screenplay that was both continuous in tone with the previous two films while also respectful of the whole Trek universe.

What emerged is… still a closely kept secret. But here’s what we do know: The crew of the Enterprise is well into their first five-year mission as the film begins, with a little bit of ennui starting to creep in. Kirk is having doubts about why he signed up with Starfleet in the first place. Was it because he wanted to or because he needed to live up to the ideals of his late father? Nevertheless, the ship heads out on its next diplomatic assignment to recruit a new race to join the Federation when it is aggressively confronted, and then threatened, by an alien named Krall (Idris Elba) who wants nothing to do with that galactic governing body. In fact, he may want to bring about its utter destruction.

The idea of Pegg getting involved with writing the film was suggested to him by producer Bryan Burk.

“We were just sort of talking over ideas about where the story could go. It was this sort of hypothetical thing, really,” says Pegg when we reach him by phone in Budapest (he’s on location for a different movie). “And then Burk sort of sprung it on me… I actually can’t remember if it was on the set of Mission: Impossible or Star Wars. I think it was Star Wars, and he took me around the back. [Laughs] Like up the alleyway where Christopher Reeve pulled open his shirt in the original Superman. He said, ‘So, do you want to write it?’ I just sort of agreed, because saying no just seemed like the wrong thing to do.”

Pegg and Jung elected to start fresh and not look at the screenplay completed by Orci, Patrick McKay, and John D. Payne. “It was a frightening blank page,” Pegg admits. “I’ve looked at many blank pages in my life, and that one was particularly daunting.” But hitting it off with Jung, whom he had never met before, and consulting with both Lin and executive producer Lindsey Weber (from Abrams’ Bad Robot company), Pegg felt creatively supported. “It was just a case of kind of writing the Star Trek movie we wanted to write,” he continues. “We had the whole canon and 50 years of history. But also, at the same time, we had an alternative timeline in which we weren’t banned by the destinies of any of the [Star TrekPrime] cast. So we knew that we were able to do pretty much anything we wanted within the realms of Star Trek credibility.”

That surreal moment of realizing you’re boldly going to be penning the next adventure in the Trekuniverse is also a feeling Jung shared.

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“If you had said to me, ‘You are going to get to write a Star Trek movie,’ I would have said you’re crazy,” Jung says. “Like a lot of people, Star Trek has been a part of my life probably more than I even realized before the job.” Having grown up in New Jersey, Jung says he remembers catching late-night reruns of the original series on legendary New York City TV channel WPIX. “That was kind of my earliest memories of Star Trek, just having this thing that was waiting for you late at night, which was always great,” he recalls. “And then later, as you get older and smarter, and more capable of viewing things for other reasons than sort of the cool idea of these guys in a spaceship, the meaning of everything and what they tried to do in Star Trek, and what they accomplished just deepens.”

Following a number of meetings and conversations, in which Jung says the always-busy Pegg was a “disembodied voice on the phone,” the two writers finally met in a hotel room in London.

“Doug came over to stay with me in the UK for a little while,” Pegg says. “Our sort of daily routine would be to work about 12 hours… it was an intensive process. We were really up against it, time-wise. We were delivered a deadline schedule that was terrifying. It was like, ‘Can we have Act One by Friday, Act Two by Saturday, script by Sunday?’ [Laughs] It was crazy.”

“[Simon’s] a fantastic guy to work with,” says Jung. “He’s just a real creative person. He’s just as smart and funny as you would imagine him to be. The times that I enjoyed the most were when it was just he and I sort of geeking out as writers alone in a room. I so distinctly remember being in his guest house, and we would be working all day. It was great because we were pounding out pages without really editing ourselves, just riffing on what we thought would be fun and tense, and clever, and whatever it was. Those were the most fun for me.”

While neither man was interested in borrowing plot elements from the original series or films with the classic cast, as had been done with Into Darkness, they nevertheless found a way to tap into the mindset and flavor of the show while also unwinding at the same time. “When we felt like we really put the hours in and came up with good stuff, we’d treat ourselves to episodes of the original series,” Pegg says. “It was mostly out of recreation, but also we’d take our notepads and jot down names and places. It’s always good to have a sort of reference library, particularly for ancillary characters like redshirts or crew members, and tie those into the original series, because they are just as much part of the crew, even though we don’t follow their stories.”

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Pegg says that hardcore Trekkers might recognize names like Tomlinson, Martine, and Romaine among the crew members, although they might not have made the final cut.

“I don’t know how many times we were like, ‘We’ve got to get that name in there somehow or that redshirt’s name in there,’” Jung recalls. “Even if they didn’t survive, we were sort of pulling these little things out just to go, ‘Oh, that’d be great!’ We were always trying to work in Spock’s musical instrument and stuff. It didn’t happen, but that was kind of a really fun way to end the day.”

But even as they were watching the old show for fun, relaxation, and a little research, Pegg and Jung were also casting a somewhat critical eye on one of its core tenets as a way to create a dramatic new conflict for their film. “We wanted to challenge a bit the idea of this [Gene] Roddenberry universe,” Jung says. “The idea of the Federation, Starfleet, this utopia that’s presented in this world, and question a little bit of this idea of, ‘Well, how can that really exist and what’s the sort of price of that?’”

Pegg concurs with this sentiment about exploring the protagonists’ cultural morality.

“We definitely started to look at ideas of good guys and bad guys in terms of the good guys assuming that their way of doing things is the right way of doing things… this whole idea of integration, whether that wasn’t just colonization.” But Pegg is quick to add that the Federation is not painted with the brush of villainy as Starfleet was in Into Darkness: “It wasn’t a kind of way to darken Star Trek or to throw down. It was a way to reaffirm that the Federation was a force of good and it was about integration and not about assimilation. That’s a whole other species.”

Questioning the ideals and purpose of the Federation is not as shocking as it might sound: Episodes addressing that theme have popped up not just in the original series (“Errand of Mercy” and “A Private Little War” come to mind), but also in succeeding shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Still to that end, it was important for Pegg and Jung to create a wholly new and original adversary for this film, and not reactivate someone from the past as had been done—and not very well—in Star Trek Into Darkness.

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“I think one thing we learned from Into Darkness is that you can possibly try and please the fans too much, in a way, and end up doing the reverse,” admits Pegg. “I think a lot of people took issue with Into Darkness, because it essentially retread certain ideas from The Wrath of Khan. And maybe, and I’m sure certainly everyone involved would agree, slightly too early… It was very well meaning and I really liked Into Darkness. I’m proud of it, and it’s something I would defend. But, at the same time, I know what’s wrong with it and I think so does everyone else. We wanted to make sure we didn’t make that mistake again and be too sort of inside baseball.”

“Finding a villain is incredibly hard,” offers Jung. “So we wanted to capitalize on someone like Idris, who just has amazing acting chops and can do so many things. And we just wanted to infuse him with a lot of mystery. I don’t want to give away too much, but we had a villain that really slotted into kind of the larger things that we began with—the themes and issues that we wanted to talk about. I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. And hopefully, he’ll go down as a very memorable villain and a worthy adversary to Kirk, the Federation, and Starfleet, and a guy who challenges everything about those beliefs.”

Equally important to the writing team was examining more of the interpersonal relationships among the crew members themselves, beyond the Kirk-Spock dynamic and the Spock-Uhura romance that were established in the first two films of this new universe. “Doug and I both felt like the Kirk/Spock thing has been explored extensively, and perhaps prematurely,” Pegg says. “So we felt like, ‘Let’s refresh their relationship a little bit and separate them, and have them learn things about each other by the very fact that they’re not together.’ It felt like the obvious thing to put Bones and Spock together as the sort of angel and devil on Kirk’s shoulder. It was funny to see them hanging out with each other and getting to the bottom of what their relationship means, and what they really think of each other.”

Indeed, the footage screened at the Paramount fan event showcased a scene where Kirk confides in Dr. McCoy over drinks, which could have been right out of the classic canon while another sequence hinted that Spock and McCoy would be thrown together in a dangerous situation, as they have been many times before, with their logic versus emotion debate brought front and center.

“One of the first things I remember Simon and I talked about were adjustments, teaming up different characters,” says Jung. “The first two did lean so heavily on the sort of bromance between Kirk and Spock. In a way, by separating those two, we’re commenting on their relationship as a much more deepened connection. But it was just great fun to put them together with different characters. Spock and Bones, we could have written a whole movie just about those two, because it was just endlessly fun with those guys. Seeing the sort of two sides of Kirk, but without having to buffer between the balance of the two was great.”

The “holy trinity” of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy was a cornerstone of the original series, a template that was lightly tweaked in the last two films to incorporate a female viewpoint in Zoe Saldana’s Uhura. But the writers wanted to make sure that Star Trek Beyond was a full ensemble piece. “I remember one of the first discussions with Simon I had, we asked, ‘Have some of these characters ever had onscreen conversations with each other?’” remembers Jung. “A lot of them hadn’t in the last two movies. Like Chekov and Sulu. We just thought, ‘Have you ever heard them say anything to each other, other than sort of moving in tandem with the larger crew?’ You really hadn’t.”

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The different combinations of crew members find themselves stranded together on an alien planet after Krall stages a devastating attack—seen in the trailers for the film—that makes it pretty clear that the Enterprise is going to go down for the third time in its film history, following Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek: Generations. Pegg confesses to “raised voice fights” in the early stages of writing the film about scuttling the ship once again, but says that Justin Lin pushed for it, and he eventually came around to the idea.

“It became very apparent that in order to test the connectivity between all the crew, what keeps them together, we had to take away the thing that physically holds them together, which is the ship, and see if they stay together after that was gone,” says Pegg. “Plus Justin had this extraordinary idea, and Krall’s kind of method of attack is so, so devastating and not something we’ve ever seen before. So, I really came around to the idea. A few people have said to me, ‘Why did the Enterprise have to be destroyed again?’ I was like, ‘Yeah! I was exactly the same! I was asking the same thing of Justin.’ But as a symbolic kind of representation of what keeps that crew in one place, the film asks the question: If you take that all away, what do they do, and how strong is the connection between them all? It just felt like the right thing to do.”

How far does Star Trek Beyond go in testing those relationships, which have lasted in one form or another on television, in movies, and in print, for decades? It’s now only a matter of days until we know for sure. But with Star Trek celebrating 50 years of adventure and wondrous exploration, it seems reasonable to assume that the crew (and some version of the Enterprise) will return for a fourth big screen mission. Would Scotty be interested in building the engine (i.e. writing the script) for that one?

“Oh, I don’t know if I’ll be brought back as a writer,” Pegg says. “That’s not even been discussed. But obviously in the excitement of seeing the movie, because I’ve seen cuts of it, I’m obviously sort of pitching ideas [Laughs]. I hope we do make more. I really do. It’s such an enjoyable project whenever we do it. It’s a great team of people. And as long as people want to see it, I hope we get to do it.”

(Author’s note: the above interviews were conducted before the untimely and tragic death of cast member Anton Yelchin (Chekov), to whom this article is respectfully dedicated.)

A version of this story appeared in Den of Geek’s San Diego Comic-Con Special Edition magazine. To read the full digital edition, click below.

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