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When Star Trek: Discovery showrunner Michelle Paradise texted the series' co-creator Alex Kurtzman about her idea for that big surprise cameo at the end of the Season 4 finale, she couldn't have predicted just how enthusiastic his response would be.
“I've never seen so many exclamation points in my life!” Paradise told SYFY WIRE.
Warning: There are spoilers for all of Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 beyond this point.
That cameo — the casting of Georgia politician, author, and noted genre super-fan Stacey Abrams as the President of Earth — was only one of the major developments in Discovery’s latest episode. SYFY WIRE had the chance to talk with Paradise about the entirety of Season 4, including how that big cameo came to be, what's going on with Saru and President T’Rina’s budding romance, and what went in to creating the look of the mysterious Species 10-C.
I loved Stacey Abrams as the guest star at the end of the finale and just have to ask — how did that happen?
I've seen the cut so many times and I still pinch myself in that moment. Stacey is a fan of the show, and we always knew when we started Season 3 that bringing the Federation back together again would be a two-season arc and, to a degree, Earth was going to be representative of the Federation coming back together again.
So when we see in Episode 303 [“People of Earth”] that Earth is not a member anymore, we always knew that we were driving toward Earth coming back in. As we got into Season 4 and started breaking the episodes, we realized that when we get to the finale, in order for that moment to land, we need a person to represent that moment.
And the question came up in the room, who is the person who should represent Earth? Stacey Abrams came to mind and I texted [Discovery co-creator and executive producer Alex Kurtzman] and said, “What do you think about Stacey Abrams as the President of Earth?” I've never seen so many exclamation points in my life in response!
And so we reached out and set up a call with her, where Alex and I pitched her about the season, about this character, about what it would mean, and we asked her if she would be interested. And she was! And then she did it and it was such an honor and a privilege to get to work with her, and such an amazing thing that she came to do that.
One of the things we saw this season was how grief impacts people and people's relationships, particularly Michael and Book’s relationship. How did you decide to center the season and everything that happens through that relationship?
Book is the character who's most directly affected by the DMA for obvious reasons that we find out in 401 [when his planet is destroyed]. At the very beginning of a season, we always talk about the season as a whole, what we want from the characters and their relationships, and how are we arcing them to the end. [Book's planet being destroyed] must impact his relationship with Michael. And so we knew that their relationship would have a really big arc over the course of the season and be tested in multiple ways.
The thing that we always kept an eye on is wanting to make sure that those tests, for each of them, was coming from a place of fully believing that they were doing the right thing for the greater good. I think that might be why it really resonates. It's not just both of them dealing with the thing itself, the DMA ,and the emotions of the impact that it's having — it’s also the way that grief and trauma can pull us from the people that we love.
But in the end, we also can find our way back, and there's something hopeful in that even though we leave them in a place of uncertainty at the end of the season. We know that they've come back together in the sense that they never stopped loving one another. They never fell apart — this thing just stretched them. And so now we need to see what's going to happen with that.
The moment in the finale when it looks like Book died teleporting back to Discovery was so heartwrenching and brutal. How did that idea come up to have Michael, and us, think Book might be gone?
We never wanted to go into the finale and kill Book, we're just not going to do that. But it felt like part of his turn toward the end of the season, of realizing how far in a different direction his grief has taken him. He has a well-intentioned effort to do the right thing, but also his grief, as Reno says, has blinded him a bit. He’s a man who would be willing to do anything to do the right thing. And so it felt like his connection with Tarka and pulling Tarka back from the brink — there had to be danger that would threaten him personally, and he doesn’t hesitate because he's a heroic character.
We wanted that to be clear from a storytelling perspective, and we were also very interested in this idea that these awful things happen and we have to move on. This season is also about Burnham’s captain's journey. Every episode we would go in asking the question, “What is Burnham's captain's journey in this episode?” And the finale is about her having to do this thing that is greater than anything she might need in that moment. And when [Sonequa Martin-Green who plays Michael Burnham] was on the bridge, she is so good when she pulls it in and refocuses after thinking Book is gone. To me that is what a captain is.
Another relationship that developed this season was between Saru and T’Rina. How did the decision to deepen that relationship come to pass?
That is one of the great magic mysteries of casting. So Tara [Rosling], who plays T’Rina, came in on Episode 307 [“Unification III”], which was the Ni’var episode. Back then, we were just envisioning this person to come in for an episode and then that's it. But her scenes with Doug [Jones], who plays Saru — the two of them just popped off the screen. From the time the dailies started coming in, we were just saying, “Oh my gosh, we love this actress and we love this pairing.” It was really lovely.
Coming into Season 4, we knew we wanted to bring T’Rina back. It made sense that in this season we would, and it just seemed like a really lovely thing. It's a side of Saru we haven't seen before and it's a wonderful thing to explore for him. We also knew that we wanted it to take the entire season — we wanted to be a really slow burn. So it was a matter of knowing where we wanted to go, and then breadcrumbing the relationship and build it slowly so that hand hold at the end felt very earned.
We also get our first really good view of species 10-C in the finale — what was the process for creating what they look like and how they came to be on screen?
That was a very long process that involved so many creative brains. I can't say enough about our entire creative team — we started with the idea that we've been dealing with something bigger than ourselves in the DMA, and we wanted the species to be physically and in every way bigger than ourselves, that felt overwhelming even just to look at it.
It also felt very important to us that it be a species where finding a connection wasn't obvious. We started in the beginning of the season knowing that we did not want the universal translator to work. We did not want it to be easy. We do not want them to have mouths or eyeballs or look like anything remotely similar to us. So we tasked the team with coming up with something very, very different. Something unlike anything that we had seen that communicates in ways that are very different. We wanted the barrier to be as high as possible, so that our heroes could overcome that and tell us, as an audience, well, if they can do that, what can we do here on Earth where we're all human.
Speaking of Earth, we end the season with everyone back there and safe. Is there anything you can tease about Season 5 or anything about the themes we might see?
I don't want to say too much. I will say we are well into Season 5 — we've got some scripts already and are working very hard in the writers’ room. I will say we're super excited about it.
I think it's going to be a lot of fun and we’re excited to be back with these characters and see how they grow and evolve from their experiences in Season 4.
The first four seasons of Star Trek: Discovery are now streaming on Paramount+. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.