When the newest offshoot of the Star Trek franchise finally makes its way to CBS: All Access on Sept. 24, it won't have arrived after the smoothest of flights. In fact, the show's takeoff was quite bumpy, losing a crucial component along the way. What's the deal with the Star Trek: Discovery controversy? Should fans be worried about the course of the new series?
Some potential audience members may have started to sweat when CBS released a statement that was printed in Variety in October 2016 announcing that co-creator Bryan Fuller was stepping down from showrunner duties at Star Trek Discovery. The statement cited Fuller's commitment to Starz's American Gods, and his inability to pursue both projects simultaneously. "Due to Bryan's other projects, he is no longer able to oversee the day-to-day of Star Trek, but he remains an executive producer, and will continue to map out the story arc for the entire season," the statement read.
Fans of Fuller — who had cut his teeth writing for Deep Space Nine and Voyager — were understandably upset he had to take a step back, but were relieved to know he would still be involved in the production in at least an advisory capacity, according to the network's statement.
But a few months later, Fuller seemed to contradict parts of CBS' statement, telling Newsweek that he was no longer involved in Discovery in any active capacity. "I'm not involved in production, or post-production, so I can only give them the material I've given them and hope that it is helpful for them," he said in December of last year. "I'm curious to see what they do with it."
Although Fuller still retains his Executive Producer credit thanks to his work developing the series — and although Fuller himself still cited to Newsweek his work on American Gods as the driving force behind his departure — the conflicting statements hinted that there might be more to the story.
Indeed, an article published by Entertainment Weekly in July claimed that tensions over the creative direction of Discovery had been simmering between Fuller and CBS before American Gods even materialized as an obstacle… and the biggest point of contention was the simple but crucial question of what kind of show the series would be.
According to comments Fuller made to EW, he wasn't envisioning a single ongoing series when he pitched Discovery to CBS. Rather, he was planning an anthology series where each season would tell a different story in eras throughout the Prime Universe, starting with a prequel to the original series, then dropping in on side adventures during the tenures of Captain Kirk and Captain Picard, and continuing on into time periods past the span of the seven existing Trek series.
"The original pitch was to do for science-fiction what American Horror Story had done for horror," Fuller told EW. "It would platform a universe of Star Trek shows." Fuller claimed that the networked asked that he focus on one serialized story instead — and so his idea for the prequel installment of his planned anthology became the permanent conceit of Discovery.
The writer and the network also clashed over more technical aspects of the production, including the studio's choice of director. While Fuller wanted to enlist a feature film visionary to helm the pilot episode — Baby Driver director Edgar Wright told EW that he had discussed the possibility with Fuller — CBS instead hired journeyman TV director David Semel (7th Heaven, Dawson's Creek, Heroes), which Fuller "objected" to. EW also claimed that Fuller and CBS had some budgetary issues, with Fuller going over the allotted $6 million per episode.
Per EW, Fuller made the decision in late 2016 to cast The Walking Dead star Sonequa Martin-Green as his protagonist, First Officer Michael Burnham. CBS had already delayed their high-profile series from its originally-announced January 2017 premiere date to a tentative debut in May, per Deadline, due to production running behind schedule. But Martin-Green's commitment to AMC's zombie series meant that she wouldn't be available to start filming a new project until May 2017, after her character Sasha was (spoiler alert!) killed off in the Season 7 finale and the actor's schedule cleared up.
Obviously, a show can't begin filming in May and also premiere in May, so CBS was required to again delay the show's debut. Fuller confirmed to EW that the studio asked that he step down as showrunner in October of last year. Alex Kurtzman, Gretchen Berg, and Aaron Harberts took over showrunning duties. (CBS did go on to comply with Fuller's desire to cast Martin-Green as Officer Burnham, and did go on to delay the series a second time, to its final Sept. 24 premiere date.)
Of course, it's not a surprise to learn that some of Fuller's original vision for the show was lost in the ensuing transition. Not only has the idea of an anthology series remained off the table, but EW reported that the new version of Discovery also jettisoned other details from Fuller's plan, both big (some of the more allegorical storylines he had outlined) and small (his choice of uniforms).
But other, arguably more important, aspects of Fuller's vision remain. "I couldn't stop thinking about how many black people were inspired by seeing Nichelle Nichols on the bridge of a ship [as Lt. Uhura in The Original Series]," Fuller told EW about why he wanted to tackle his own Trek series in the first place. "I couldn't stop thinking about how many Asian people were inspired by seeing George Takei [as Sulu] and feeling that gave them hope for their place in the future. I wanted to be part of that representation for a new era."
Under its new leadership, Discovery remains committed to Fuller's depiction of diversity: its two leads are both women of color (Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh as Captain Georgiou), and it will feature the first openly gay character in any Trek TV show (Anthony Rapp's science officer Stamets). Fuller's acolytes may still be bitter about his ousting from the series, but at least he left behind a legacy that will give audiences something to cheer for, as Discovery boldly goes where no Star Trek series has gone before.