Star Trek: Discovery #1: Interview with Mike Johnson & Kirsten Beyer

We talked to the writers of the new Star Trek: Discovery tie-in comic about crafting a compelling story within the constraints of canon.

If you’re anything like me, you’re counting down the days until Star Trek: Discovery  returns from its midseason hiatus in January. Luckily, the holiday weeks aren’t completely devoid of new Discovery material to, um, discover.

IDW just published “The Light of Kahless,” the first in a four-part Discovery comic book tie-in series set before the events of the series. The story follows the character of T’Kuvma, the Klingon leader set on uniting the houses of the crumbling empire in the TV show’s two-part premiere.

Den of Geek chatted with the comic’s authors, Mike Johnson and Kirsten Beyer (who is also a writer on the TV series), about how the prequel story fits into Discovery canon, why T’Kuvma is such an interesting character, and their favorite Star Trek stories ever…

Den of Geek: How was the decision made to make this comic about the Klingons and T’Kuvma specifically? Were there other narratives discussed?

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KB: As soon as we knew that the Klingons were going to play a major part in the series, it was clear to us that a deeper exploration of their motivations and the history of these specific individuals was both fertile ground for story and essential to Discovery.

With the majority of the conflict presented from the point of view of the Starfleet characters, we wanted to make sure that the Klingon story was as fleshed out as possible and the comics always seemed like the perfect place to do that.

What do you think makes T’Kuvma an interesting character?

KB: Where to begin? We meet this character as a warrior who is determined to unite the Klingons against the Federation by starting a war. He travels on a ship covered with the sarcophagi of his ancestors (something we’ve never seen in Klingon culture) and is obsessed with the idea of ending the homogenization of alien cultures by the Federation.

Understanding how T’Kuvma came to be and where his beliefs came from as well as the internal workings of the Klingon Empire during this period are essential questions that the series can’t delve into as deeply as we can. Everything about T’Kuvma is fascinating, both in how he resembles traditional Klingons and where he clearly departs from them. Beginning to answer those questions was both a challenge and a thrill.

MJ: I think T’Kuvma subverts the audience’s expectations of what a Klingon is, how a Klingon speaks and acts, what they stand for, and that starts with his first words in the show, the “We come in peace” speech. Right away we see that there is much more to this character than simply the aggression and bluster we’ve seen from other Klingons.

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How much of this story comes from conversations had in the Discovery writers room and how much of it is new story that you two were able to create yourselves? Was any of this originally in Discovery?

KB: We develop all of our story independent from the room, but since I’m in the room on a daily basis, we always know exactly where the writers are in terms of their development of the ever evolving Klingon story.

Although this is rare in the development of tie-in media, in the case of the Klingon story developed for T’Kuvma, our work actually informed the work in the room and over time many of our ideas were integrated into the series. Usually, the reverse is true, but this time we were far enough ahead of the process that our history became critical to the understanding of the writers and eventually the actors.

MJ: We’re really lucky in that the people running the show are open to and interested in the stories that can be told across media, whether in novels or comics. That’s not always the case with tie-in novels and comics.

Tell me about finding the balance between telling a new story, having it fit within the canon established by the show, and surprising the reader.

KB: Have you ever walked through a mine field? That’s what it feels like every day. Creating story for well-established areas of canon is challenging enough. Doing it while new story is being created every day that can impact and change what we are doing is just hard.

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It’s also incredibly exciting and rewarding. We are fortunate in that the producers are dedicated to the idea that our stories should shake hands with theirs and there is a constant flow of information both ways.

Obviously, the show always takes precedence, but so far, we have managed to carve out small pockets of story that will allow us maximum creative potential and minimal impact. Mostly.

Tell me about your partnership in writing this.

KB: This has been one of the best parts of creating these comics. I came to this having never developed story for comics. Mike is obviously a veteran. From the beginning, however, we realized that we both come to story in a similar way and have common interests and processes.

Early story is created in conversation, a simple dialogue from which the best ideas are obvious to both of us and we build from there. I usually write the outlines of the stories and then Mike digs in and turns those outlines into the comic scripts.

Once the story is in the hands of the artists, both of us continue to suggest changes so that the final product is something that pleases us and our editor. It has been a fabulous working relationship and one that serves the show and the comics well.

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MJ: Kirsten and I hit it off right away both as writers and fellow Star Trek fans. I think the best writing partnerships are those where there’s a clear division of labor. Kirsten knows how to make the stories tie in to the show in the best way, and I’ll script based on that, and then give the scripts back to her for fine-tuning. It’s a very reciprocal and collaborative process throughout.

There has been some criticism of Discovery that the Klingon representation is not as nuanced and fleshed out as may have been intended. Was that something you were thinking about when shaping this comic book story?

KB: Our initial instinct that, despite everyone’s best intentions, the Klingon story was likely to end up getting less attention than the Starfleet story led us to determine that the first story we told should be one that fleshed out the Klingons and T’Kuvma in particular as much as possible.

We understood that a great deal of work was going into the reimagining of the Klingons and their culture for the series. But, having watched seven hundred plus hours of Star Trek, we also knew that, ultimately, this was going to be the story of how Starfleet and the Federation handles this threat. The comics were perfectly suited to fleshing out areas that the show would have to shorthand, not for lack of interest, but simply for lack of time.

MJ: I think by now fans of the show have come to see that the Klingons in Discovery are, in fact, more nuanced than almost any others we’ve seen in the past, particularly when it comes to L’Rell and her journey. We hope the comics add even more detail and resonance to the Klingons’ portrayal, and that the comics will enhance fans’ future viewings of both current and future episodes.

Is there anything you can tease about upcoming installments of the “Discovery” comic book series?

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MJ: Not without getting jettisoned out of the airlock.

Mike, the “IDIC” comic is wonderful. You’ve written a lot of Star Trek stories within this comic book world. For you, what makes for a good Star Trek story? Are there elements that you try to include in every Star Trek story you tell? How did the idea for “IDIC” come about?

MJ: I’m so glad you’re enjoying it. “IDIC” came about because we were looking to do a big six-issue arc like “The Q Gambit”. I had a blast writing the Mirror Universe versions of the Kelvin crew, and started to think about what other alternate versions we could show. That evolved into what you see in “IDIC”.

I think the best Star Trek stories combine the speculative imagination of the best science fiction with the kind of character-driven emotion that the best stories in any medium have.

Kirsten, you wrote my favorite Discovery episode so far, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum.” (So, thank you!) For you, what makes a good Star Trek story? Why did you think it was necessary or interesting to tell this story amidst the larger Discovery narrative so far? What was it like for you to see the finished product, with performances, visual effects, etc.?

KB: Thank you! That’s very kind of you to say. For me, a good Star Trek story is first, simply a good story, one in which interesting characters confront obstacles that push them to new understandings of themselves and the universe they inhabit.

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In the case of “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” it seemed the time had come to get a slightly different perspective on our war, and the potential repercussions for those who don’t necessarily have a stake in it but will be affected nonetheless. Creating an alien species that would have a direct and powerful impact on our characters and bring new insights to them about themselves and their relationships was a great deal of fun. And a huge challenge.

I learned so much about the process of creating story for television in writing and producing this episode. It was my first step into a new world. I couldn’t have asked for more talented partners in our producers, our actors, our director, or our production team. It was a joy from beginning to end and I can’t wait to do it again.

Last question! What are your favorite Star Trek stories of ALL time? This could be an episode, an arc, a comic book, a movie, a novelization, whatever.

KB: It’s so hard to choose as there have been so many stories that fired my imagination and moved me deeply. Among the episodes I would mention “Living Witness” and “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” For the films, “Wrath of Khan.” Among the novels, “The Final Reflection” by John M. Ford and David Mack’s “Destiny” trilogy.

MJ: My favorite episode is “Measure of a Man,” favorite novel is “Spock’s World,” favorite movie is a tie between “Voyage Home” and the 2009 film.