Alex Kurtzman Sheds Light on Star Trek Discovery’s Tough Road to Season 5

Exclusive: Star Trek: Discovery producer Alex Kurtzman reflects on the challenges of making five seasons of the groundbreaking series.

Alex Kurtzman
Photo: Nick Morgulis for Den of Geek

Alex Kurtzman looks exactly how you’d expect someone to look at the end of a five-year-mission for Starfleet: relaxed, confident, and ready to bring the ship home. At least, that’s the impression he gives when he, showrunner Michelle Paradise, and stars Sonequa Martin-Green and David Ajala talk with Den of Geek about the upcoming fifth and final season of Star Trek: Discovery during SXSW 2024. You almost can’t tell this show has faced many trials and tribulations across its seven years on the air.

“It’s been an incredible ride for us,” Kurtzman declares during our chat, but quickly adds, “It was an incredibly bumpy first year.” Only a calm man can use words like “incredibly bumpy” to describe Discovery‘s inaugural season in 2017, the first new Star Trek television series since Enterprise went off the air in 2005. As a new entry in a franchise with such an important pedigree, Discovery carried a lot of weight.

Whatever fans expected, it was quite a shock for some to be treated with a premiere that featured radically redesigned Klingons having long conversations in their native tongue, followed by the protagonist Michael Burnham (Martin-Green) starting a battle that results in the death of her Captain Philippa Georgiou, played by international star Michelle Yeoh. Throw in a spore drive, the Mirror Universe, and Klingon sex, and you’ve got a very different type of Star Trek show. And that’s just season one.

Behind the scenes, Discovery lost multiple showrunners, including the iconoclastic co-creator Bryan Fuller, through its first two seasons before bringing on Paradise, who oversaw the series’ jump from the 23rd to the 32nd century in season three. That jump allowed Discovery to move from its rather restrictive original timeline, where it originally served as a prequel set about 10 years before The Original Series.

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But even as it explored the future, Discovery never left behind the rest of Trek. In fact, it made more Trek possible. “There would be no Star Trek Universe without Star Trek: Discovery,” Kurtzman tells Den of Geek. “It was the first one in the door. It took all the knocks, but it also carved all this new ground.”

It did indeed take knocks. The show’s initial viewers didn’t know what to make of the new look, with blue uniforms and a sleek ship design, nor of Discovery‘s storytelling style, the first Trek series to truly abandon episodic structure for a fully serialized season-long narrative.

However, the reaction to Discovery‘s changes made way for the second Star Trek renaissance, with the most and best series in production since the 1990s. Without Discovery, there would not be the revival series Picard, the kids’ show Prodigy, the comedy of Lower Decks, or the unbridled imagination of Strange New Worlds. That last point is particularly true, as Strange New Worlds spins directly out of Discovery, as the latter introduced Ethan Peck’s Spock, Anson Mount’s Pike, and Rebecca Romijn’s Number One.

During our chat, Kurtzman explains that the beauty of the current Star Trek universe is that there’s something for every kind of fan, whether it’s Discovery or another series: “There are many subsets of the Trek fandom and many different things that different people like.” Kurtzman embraces the complexity of the franchise fan base as an opportunity for different forms of storytelling.

“The question that we always ask ourselves when we’re doing any Star Trek show is ‘Why are we putting it in that particular timeline?’ And the answer can’t ever just be ‘Because we haven’t done it before,” he says. “It has to be, ‘Well, there’s a very specific story that’s going to be suited to be told in that particular timeline.

“Our biggest thing has honestly been we don’t ever want our Star Trek shows to feel repetitive. We don’t want you to think that by watching Discovery, you shouldn’t watch any of the other shows because you’re getting everything from that one show. Each show is different,” Kurtzman continues. “So for us, it’s not about doing one show that pleases everybody because that’s the surefire way to please nobody. It’s more about doing a bunch of different shows that speak to specific sections of the demographic.”

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The experience filming and releasing Star Trek: Discovery has been just as varied. Kurtzman reminds viewers that “Discovery was at the start of the streaming era,” before most studios knew what the model could be. Initially, Discovery was used to launch CBS All Access, and then Paramount+, a weight not placed on any Trek series since Star Trek: Voyager debuted on UPN. In those early days of streaming, Discovery was really going where no one had gone before, which was its own sort of challenge. And then there are the other external factors that came up during production…

“Season four was written and produced in a time of COVID, which lent a certain weight to the storylines and to our characters journeys” adds showrunner Paradise during our chat. But season five promises more optimism. “Coming out of that we were interested in how can we shift [the tone] while being grounded in the world of Discovery and in the emotional resonances of the characters, the relationships, and the arcs.”

Actor David Ajala, whose roguish Book ended the fourth season on the outs with the rest of the crew, hints at an episode in which “Michael Burnham has to do some soul searching and character unpacking,” but even he talks about the final season with a sense of excitement. “Our heroes do go on a quest,” teases Paradise. “There is quite a lot of action and adventure and unexpected discoveries, both in the worlds that they visit and in the quest that they’re on and then discoveries of their own about themselves and with other people.”

According to Kurtzman, it’s stories such as those that made Paradise “the perfect partner to help get things on balance” after season two. However, both Kurtzman and Paradise point to another person who held the series together across five seasons and many changes. “Sonequa anchored the show in a way that was so extraordinary,” Kurtzman says of his captain.

It’s because of that support and connection that Kurtzman has a sense of joy and peace with the end of the series. “Looking back at it now, it’s true, there’s so much gratitude.”

Star Trek: Discovery Season Five premieres on April 4, 2024 on Paramount+.

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