The sixth episode of Star Trek: Discovery “Lethe” (which aired October 22nd) sparked a good amount of fan discussion. TrekMovie had a chance to talk to the episode’s co-writer Ted Sullivan to get some clarity and dig a bit deeper.
Playing Felix to Menosky’s Oscar
You talked about how honored you were to work with Trek vet Joe Menosky as your co-writer for “Lethe,” can you talk a bit about your process and how you two collaborated on this episode?
Aaron and Gretchen had been trying to get me to come on Star Trek for months, but I was doing a show with Jason Katims and wasn’t available. When my schedule finally did open up, I didn’t know Joe was on the staff. So when I met him, I was wholly unprepared and immediately star struck – which is horribly embarrassing. I stammered and generally avoided eye contact with him for the first few weeks. I’m sure he was wondering who the hell this weird new guy was who’d break out in flop sweat whenever we were in the break room together.
The truth is he’s one the most influential TV writers in my life. I put him in the same category as Dorothy Fontana, Walon Green, Vince Gilligan and David Chase – writers who profoundly impacted my creative and artistic sensibility and taste.
It was intimidating for me, because Joe would sit silently on the couch away from everyone else and then, out of the blue, pitch the wildest, weirdest idea that was totally awesome. Stuff like “what if the storm was sentient?” And it was always exactly the right kind of special sauce we needed to make the episode wholly Star Trek – which is hardly surprising considering how much Trek he’s written.
After awhile, I’d pitch ideas and he’d say in his patented sing-song-y-mumble, “Yeah… I think that’s right.” That broke the ice for me. And then he and I did some polishes on scripts together and we really enjoyed passing drafts back and forth. So when he suggested we write episode six together, I jumped at the opportunity.
The room broke “Lethe” together – like we do with all the episodes. It’s a truly joint effort. When you have a team as talented as the one Aaron and Gretchen have assembled, it’d be foolish to do it any other way. It’s only when you go off to outline and script that it becomes more solitary and intense. But working with Joe was really spectacular. Nothing phases him. He just rolls with the punches and never gets riled up. I’m completely the opposite. Everything is a national disaster and I’m always in crisis mode.
But somehow that combination worked. I kept us on pace and he kept us from spinning out. We were like The Odd Couple. Joe’s definitely Oscar and I’m absolutely Felix. I mean, Joe writes his scripts on his phone in a Korean restaurant, which is insane to me but totally Joe. And I have to write in total silence in my office at the studio. I’d often stay at work until 3am, which is also insane but so totally me. I’d turn in my pages to him in the middle of the night and then he’d wake up and work on them as I slept and then we’d meet at 10am to go over them.
The nice thing is we both have strong opinions, but we always checked our egos at the door. The best idea or line of dialogue would always win. Writing can often be a lonely experience. But this was a beautiful and supportive one. And I learned more from him than I have from anyone since working with Walon Green back in my Law & Order days. Joe is so compassionate and worldly and insightful and kind. He’s also weird, which I love, because I’m weird, too. I feel like I’ve gained a lifelong friend.
Discovery characters aren’t fully baked
“Lethe” felt the very self-contained, was that part of the intent or was that just a function that we are getting deeper into the mid-way point of the season?
Aaron and Gretchen always envisioned some episodes to feel more stand alone than others. But there’s also a lot of serialized elements in “Lethe.” The drama between Lorca and Cornwell is a direct result of their face off in episode five, which in turn is a direct result of the Discovery’s successful battle in four. And obviously, now poor Kat is in the hands of General Kol, which is something that will definitely have repercussions down the line. So the serialized story is still a major component of the episode.
I think the reason why the episode feels closed ended is because of Sarek and Burnham. There’s a clear father/daughter story with a beginning, middle and end. It’s a profound journey for Michael. For the first time in her life, she sees her foster father as flawed. It’s a big deal when you see your parents through adult eyes and realize they aren’t perfect.
It was really important to us to tell that story. It moves Michael forward and helps focus her character. It’s taken some audience members time to get used to this. Normally characters in Star Trek are fully realized. Kirk is Kirk. Riker is Riker. No one in Discovery is fully realized yet. You can see characters changing as a direct result of the events of each episode. They’re “discovering” who they are. And so is the Federation and Starfleet. They all thought they knew who they were, but that confidence is tested by the war.
We’re still ten years away from TOS. So there’s a lot of time to grow and change. I think people will start to see more and more glimpses of the Starfleet they know the deeper into the series we get. But we’re not there yet.
As we get into these middle episodes for the season, were the revelations about Sarek a major pivot point in Michael’s rehabilitation/redemption?
That would be telling! But as many have started to see, we’re not doing what previous Trek shows have done. We’re moving stories at warp speed. And everything you see is impacting story, character and theme. We don’t waste any time. Even Tilly and Michael jogging at the top of “Lethe” ties into the Sarek/Burnham story. Michael is initially pushing Tilly just like Sarek pushed her on Vulcan. But at the end, she tries to course correct and tell Tilly to find her own way. Those bookend scenes show some personal growth and insight already.
Stamets and Lorca’s unresolved issues
It played for comic relief in this episode, but what exactly has Stamets done to himself and is this “groovy” phase just the beginning? Is he going to end up like a Guild Navigator?
So… you’re trying to get me fired, is that it?
I will say that while Stamets is definitely comic relief in this episode, it’s colored by the moment in the mirror from the previous episode. So there’s an edge to it. It’s unresolved. A lot of people expected to see it play out here. But the truth is, we didn’t have time for it. And there’s something cool about letting it linger. We know it’s there swimming under the surface of the water like a leviathan. Is it a friendly whale? Or a killer shark?
Again – this is a testament to the kind of storytelling that Aaron and Gretchen do. They have patience. They use characters that work for the story and they don’t jam plot points in just to track plot. I love that about them and Discovery.
One thing that has sparked debate is Lorca’s motivation for recommending Cornwell to replace Sarek on his mission. Is making Lorca’s motivation ambiguous and possibly quite dark part of your intention?
Of course. At the end he parrots Cornwell’s own line – “Discovery is bigger than any of us.” Saru doesn’t know that, but we the audience does. That’s on purpose.
Lorca is damaged. Jason Isaacs hasn’t been shy talking about that aspect of him to the press. He’s seen a lot of pain and death. And he’s got a lot of blood on his hands. It would be impossible not to be affected by that. And his choices are going to be impacted by them.
Not a holodeck
The holographic shooting gallery has spurred a lot of fan discussion, can you explain how the Discovery holographic gallery differs from a TNG era holodeck?
Look, they never physically interact with the Klingons. Yes, Tyler “hits a virtual button,” but you do the same thing playing Star Trek: Bridge Crew on the PS4. What you’re seeing here is a step toward the development of holodecks. It’s not a fully realized holodeck.
We talked about this a lot in the room. It’s honestly not that far removed from today’s VR experience. Are we supposed to pretend that technology just disappeared or stopped evolving? This is basically a high tech laser tag. And honestly – it was in The Animated Series. So I don’t get what the big controversy is.
Technology doesn’t just suddenly materialize overnight. You evolve slowly from punchcard machines to desktop computers to laptops to smartphones. What you’re seeing here is a step in the journey of the development of holodecks. That’s all.
Yes, and Mudd
I know you were also on set in your capacity as a co-executive producer for the most recent episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” what was that experience like?
Dave Barrett directed a helluva epic episode under crazy circumstances. I’ve made a time travel movie, so I know first hand how difficult it is to tell this kind of story. Plus, it has our first Discovery party scene. I’ve done a million party scenes on Revenge and Supergirl and let me tell you, they’re not easy on Earth, let alone in the final frontier. But it turned out really awesome.
Obviously Rainn Wilson makes another appearance as Harry Mudd. It was such a thrill working with him. He is the perfect mix of comedic and threatening. And he’s a wickedly smart actor who loves to “yes and” everything. He always added lines or action that made the scenes infinitely better.
Star Trek: Discovery is available on CBS All Access on in the US and airs in Canada on the Space Channel. It is available on Netflix outside the USA and Canada.
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