Interview: Ted Sullivan Talks Star Trek: Discovery’s Not-Holodeck, Lorca’s Damage, And More

(Photo: Ted Sullivan)

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.

Mia Kirshner, Sonequa Martin-Green and James Frain in “Lethe”

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.

Ted Sullivan on set of Star Trek: Discovery talking to actor Doug Jones (Photo: Ted Sullivan)

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.

Burnham leaves Sarek in sickbay in “Lethe”

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.

Cornwell questions Lorca in “Lethe”

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.

This is not a holodeck

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.

Sullivan with Rainn Wilson in his Andorian helmet from episode 7 (Photo: Ted Sullivan)


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.

Keep up with all the Star TrekDiscovery news at TrekMovie.

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65 Comments on "Interview: Ted Sullivan Talks Star Trek: Discovery’s Not-Holodeck, Lorca’s Damage, And More"

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STD needs to be centered and should be following the principles of Star Fleet Command. As is it’s lazily floating adrift between the past and future ambitions of Star Trek.
If left set aside this series will be cancelled for its lack of focus.

Whose “principles of Star Fleet Command” would those be? Jean-Luc Picard’s, James Kirk’s, or Ron Tracy’s?

It might be a good idea to, you know, actually read the article before posting your thoughts about it.

Principles are principles. It’s up to people to follow them, and interpret them as they were intended. Not everyone succeeds. It’s called human nature, and I think Discovery does a good job of exploring that.

Sticking to Starfleet principles is a nice, quaint idea but Discovery is showing (just as previous Trek series have done so) that war tends to leave those principles in the dirt, especially when somebody is backed into a corner, or feels as though they are. Let’s have a look at some examples shall we? 1) Captain Sisko deliberately lies to and then lets Garak murder a high ranking Romulan Senator to ensure that the Romulans join the Federation and the Klingon Empire in fighting the Dominion. 2) Section 31 agents deliberately infect Odo with a disease that will lead the extinction of the Founders. 3) Captain Archer launches an unprovoked attack on a damaged starship in order to steal a warp core. 4) Captain Erik Pressman creates an illegal phase cloaking device in violation of the Treaty of Algeron just so the Federation can gain an advantage over the Romulan Empire. 5) Members of Starfleet conspire with Klingons to assasinate Chancellor Gorkon in order to prevent a peace treaty. Lieutenant Valeris kills two officers in cold blood once they carry out the assassination. They even attempt to murder the Federation president. 6) The Federation Council agrees to violate the Prime Directive and move the Bak’u from their homeward- and ally themselves with a race of aliens we later find out are a) related to the Bak’u and b) manufacture Ketracel White in vast quantities for the Dominion. 7) The Maquis: Federation citizens who renounce their government and start a war… Read more »

Thank you for typing all that for me ;) The OP’s point is moot.

Didn’t most or all of that happen post-Roddenberry? The principles began being altered after he passed. A few bad apples doesn’t ruin Star Fleet Command. As for Section 31, it may be canon because of DS9, but it’s hard to believe it could actually exist in the face of telepathic races, the Organians, the Melkot, the Metrons and other beings Kirk encountered — not to mention it makes Kirk a liar and a puppet, and puts his life in danger, and his entire crew, by having him espouse phony principles in negotiations. Let’s not even talk about Q grilling Picard about 31.

The STVI conspiracy happened during Roddenberry’s tenure, but he officially complained about that one.

Excellent points!

Nitpick: Tenets. Tenants pay rent, tenets are principles/beliefs. Both come from the same Latin root, tenere (to hold). Tenants hold the lease to property, whereas a tenet is something that “is held” to be true.

What a strange comment. Discovery is laser focused.

Look, you can’t have a (good) show if everything is perfect/ wonderful, if there’s no conflict, if tech can do anything and if humanity has solved every single problem.

I’m not even sure what show you’ve been watching. Discovery continues to tie up its plot points and top itself.

The show was just renewed, yet there will always be a random internet commenter saying that “they know best” and that “it will be cancelled”. LOL

Ffs, there wasn’t even a prime directive until halfway through tos. Get off your high horse.

I’ve been a (rapidly aging) fan since TOS. I’ve seen this comment and attitude for every single new entry.
Sidebar: I disliked the concept of “Q”. Still do, but was there a wink that way from Mudd?
Those who complain the worse about the “tenets and principals of Starfleet” forget one teensy thing-
Every series and most of the movies have blown those off. TOS was actually the most egregious with the Prime Directive” that was tossed out at every opportunity. Or when Kirk needed help. Otherwise, when scripts tried to follow them, tedium happened.
I present as evidence: Star Trek The Motion Picture. Old fogeys like me we’re on fire when opening day approached. We got in line days early to get the best seats and when we saw it? Yes! It was boring as hell and just a big budget repeat of 2 episodes.
We did like the new Klingon look and understood that it was due to having the budget to use more than bronzing powder.
Every one of the series started off weak then gained momentum. This is the one series that started on a string note and seems to be gaining strength.
If you don’t like it, don’t watch.
Your a bit premature on the whole cancellation thing anyhow.

I think you guys have deliberately shot down what is an important point that the original poster is making: that the Discovery does not really feel like it is part of Starfleet and the federation. More recent episodes have helped to make the series feel more like Star Trek, and this is good, but the original poster is ultimately right. Star Trek is supposed to be a vision of what we (humanity) can achieve if we all work together and the Federation’s values reflect that. However this has largely been ignored during Discovery and more is the pity. Here’s hoping we see more of this creeping into the series on later episodes. And a list of bullet points of various characters acting against the principles of the federation doesn’t change that there are principles and we would like to see them acted upon (and occasionally broken for dramatic effect). The start point is the principles, then they can be broken. Discovery is a good series and I personally hope it becomes more and more ‘trekky’ as it goes along :-)

I appreciate the callout to TAS; it’s nice that they’re bringing that into canon as I always thought it had some interesting ideas to it. Maybe we’ll get a Lt. Arex cameo one of these days….

@TonyD — Roddenberry always wanted a holodeck in TOS, but budget limited them. There’s even an ambiguous scene in “Is There In Truth No Beauty” where Kirk takes Dr. Jones to his “favorite place — Earth”. Though the room appears to be some kind of nursery, the original intent was that it was supposed to be a holographic representation.

One could argue that what the Talosians created for Pike in ‘The Cage’ was essentially a gigantic holodeck.

The idea of vitual reality or that a sufficiently-advanced culture could create an illusion representing reality was with Gene Roddenberry from the very beginning.

That would be incorrect; they literally invade people’s minds to do things and make people see what they want (they are clearly a race of psychics that required other creature’s emotions).

I never understood why people think TAS is not canon. It is called Star Trek, it bears Gene Roddenberry’s name, it aired on TV, and its content has been repeatedly used as source of canon in other iterations of trek (namely DS9, ENT and the remastered TOS).

I’m pretty sure that around the time TNG first launched, Roddenberry decreed that TAS was no longer canon. Even though that has subsequently changed, some people stick to Roddenberry’s decree.

It was de-canonized at some point, I think in the 80s? But it had to do with rights and control over the TV series, it was ‘politics’.

CBS Re-canonized it around 10 years ago, and is even listed as canon on startrek.com

The problem with TAS was that is created too many insurmountable plot holes if you wanted to continue the franchise in the same continuity. Remember, when it was made in the 70s they thought this would be the last Star Trek that would ever get made. When the movies rolled around, it became apparent that a lot of the stories from TAS would get in the way for the movies and/or Phase 2, so the decision was made to decanonize it.

CBS Re-canonized TAS almost 10 years ago.

It’s considered b-canon or soft canon. You can pretend it exists, but the show writers are free to ignore elements from it as they please. Personal force field EV suits anyone?

To be fair, the shows can ignore or change any canon lol But I agree, with something seen on film or live action TV, to alter it should be done with careful thought and logic. With TAS, if they wanted to completely change something, they could.

But its good they try to preserve TAS. Its pseudo canon.

One cool thing about this show is that, unlike previous Trek shows, particularly in the Berman-era, there’s a bit more freedom for the actors to ad lib, which is great when you have an actor like Rainn Wilson. Even just having permission to fail with lines that would never make the episode, puts an experienced improviser like him at ease.

Anyone else get a Donnie Darko vibe from that helmet?

At first I didn’t get what it was supposed to be, but I gather it is an Andorian EV suit.
They KEEP teasing Andorians on the show, I just finally want to see one!

Amazing show…absolutely love it.

Funny. I used that EXACT comparison of current VR and laser tag in defending the use of holograms in that episode. These guys get it. Its looking through a lens of common sense.

Agreed. Like all tech, holodeck technology evolves; Riker wasn’t surprised to see a holodeck on TNG, he was just surprised at how advanced it was. Since even the rec deck in The Animated Series had holographic technology (giving us the first ‘holodeck malfunction’ episode to boot), this holographic laser tag in Discovery seemed totally appropriate to me.

We don’t have holodecks but even today there are such things astactical simulations, it was no big deal at all.

Agreed. Perhaps Riker’s surprise was just that star ships had the latest and most advanced holodecks. It was amazing tech. Surely Riker was aware of holographic tech, just not that advanced and readily available for fun.

But its a problem only if we let it be one. In 2017, creating Star Trek, they cant pretend OUR tech never evolved from the 60’s or the 80’s. If its such a problem, it means throwing out 50 years of Trek and starting over.

If we value the canon and the lore, we have to appreciate the writers’ efforts to update Trek’s sensibilities and fit it into the lore. Occasionally, its a clunky fit. I’d rather accept that then to throw it all away.

I seem to recall that Riker had some line about how the Hood had one — but nothing as real as the Enterprise’s.

Nah I disagree. There was no mention anywhere in the episode that this merely a ‘holographic tag’ game. The impression I got was that it was a fully fledged holodeck and that the writers don’t care about the timeline (which is why the sporedrive is so much more advanced than the warp drive, there are holograms everywhere, etc, etc).

I mean you can disagree with the choices they might make from time to time (and I certainly have been quizzical about some of the choices) but you can’t argue that they haven’t had real discussions and thought things out with great respect to canon balanced against the desire to do something new. It’s not like the JJ movies where they took canon and were like “fuck it, make him Khan, the fans will eat it up” and didn’t respect the thing. The writers here clearly respect the material, even if they digress from it. They back up their digressions with real reasoning.

The holo-simulation-thingy fits perfectly with existing canon. If you take ENT holo technology and develop it for almost 100 years, this makes perfect sense.

You guys should check this video for context.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ewjh0lPRQGI

Yup. makes perfect sense. Especially seeing a similar set up on Enterprise where they are doing shooting drills. Extrapolate that out and what have you got?

Plus, it wasnt a holodeck. It looked to me in that brief clip that when it ended, there were the same walls/door ways etc that had been covered in a holo image. The walls werent created by holograms.

‘Discovery’ is mostly an episodic show, not as serialized as they have claimed. With the exception of the first two episodes, the rest were stand alone with plots that were resolved by the end of the episodes.

Except every episode has continuity and generally dovetails with the others. That’s pretty much in line with how most serialized TV is done is it not? This most recent one being the only exception so far though it does carry through a thread from an earlier episode.

Yes. Its serialized. The original poster doesnt watch the show.

The central theme of the show is serialized. Michael’s growth, the Klingon war, the Discovery. That is what is serialized. And it is as they have claimed. Whereas TOS was episodic except for a couple of episodes. DS9 in the last couple of years with the Founders and Dominion war was serialized but as a whole, the show was episodic. ENT was a bit of both especially for their Xindi arc.

TOS was very episodic.
So much so that they joked about it in Beyond.

So was TNG. It was following the 80s TV model at the time. DS9 came around the time TV was becoming more serialized in general in shows like ER and NYPD Blue. Today nearly every 1 hour drama is serialized.

Thats not true. Its possible you dont understand what serialized means.

Never considered the animated series canon. Is there a quote somewhere from gene to say otherwise?

I’ve always assumed TAS is not canon until shown otherwise on screen. Things like Robert April showing up on a display in Discovery.

It isn’t considered pure canon, but ideas from it can easily be pulled as it wasn’t a third party production or something, but written by the TOS writers and Gene Roddenberry. It was just not as serious a show as the real versions, so maybe something like a 50ft tall Vulcan should be easily ignored (but then some TOS ideas like women can’t be in charge should also be ignored).

I recently rewatched Turnabout Intruder and I choose to read it as Kirk’s ex (sorry name escapes me) is making that up as an excuse why she was washed out of Starfleet (when it clearly was because of her mental issues). When Kirk agrees with her, as far as he knows she’s dying, so instead of picking a fight and set her straight he placates her. Done, problem solved. No need for that stupid explanation from the Federation history books that it was a necessary concession to get the Tellarites to go along with joining the Federation.

Yes, most everyone interprets it that way now. It was stupid even then. Gene had a female first officer but was ready to accept women couldnt be Captain’s just because they were women? Thats really stupid.

The other way to take it is when she said your world of Starship Captains, she meant Kirk specifically had no room for women. Regardless, its a pretty easy “mistake” to over-look.

Yeah I think the idea was it IS canon but probably its best to think of it as pseudo canon. Whereas the novels are not canon unless seen on screen, much of TAS is probably canon unless something otherwise is seen on screen.

TAS is not canon. But DSC is. Deal with it.

Will Stamets mutate into a type of Guild Navigator? I hope not.

Anybody who has seen Lynch’s Dune film will note that the transformation of a human into a Guild Navigator is a grotesque, unpleasant and highly unsettling mutation…

The controversy is that TOS never had “laser tag” or holograms or holodecks. These are supposed to be prequels to Captain Kirk, not Captain Picard. This almost proves my theory that these creators never saw anything TOS related. :)

So everything that ever existed was on Kirk’s enterprise? You’re saying a ship newer than Kirk’s Enterprise (which Discovery is) couldn’t have holo-battle simulations or whatever?

The Enterprise (no bloody A, B, C, or D) had in TAS a holographic recreation room.
Case closed.

We never saw a toilet either ;)

Um …. a lot of tech did stop evolving in the Trek world at a certain point. It was called WW3. 600 million dead. Most major cities and governments whipped out. Yes, tech would continue to evolve. Tech would continue to advance. But money grubbing corporations would be all but gone. Social Media would be all but gone. Lazer tag would probably be gone. Apple and iPhones and Google and all of that would most likely be gone. That’s why TOS always worked for me. TOS doesn’t show an evolution from now to then. It shows what things look like after we started over collectively as a race. You can still video call and or FaceTime and or text anyone from a computer like you can today with an iPhone. It just isn’t so up in your face and integrated into every facet of your life. In TOS, in Trek, people were still just people. The technology was an extension of their lives, but it wasn’t an augmentation of it like it is today. Because of WW3, the ideas, evolution, and even inspiration / motivation of all the future tech of Prime Star Trek would be radically different to that of what is going on in the world today in the real 2017. I think this is extremely lost on the writers and producers of STD.

…and to most of the commentators on here as well, it seems, who just want to project what we have today into the future without thinking much deeper about it.

“Are we supposed to pretend that technology just disappeared or stopped evolving?”

Yawn. This “argument” again. Should’ve set it in the post-VOY era and dozens of these kinds of questions would never have to be asked. Also, I don’t think that scene was essential to the story, so this technology did not have to appear at all.

The funny thing is that the technology, in our life times, did effectively disappear. VR was everywhere in the 1990s and then reappeared in the 2010s in a more advanced form. So yes, VR (and really any technology) can just vanish for a while, we’ve seen it happen. And we haven’t had anything major like a world war knocking us back.

Exactly. Where the vehement objectors go awry is assuming a straight-line increase (“monotonic”) in technology between the shows, when instead progress might be interrupted by any number of factors the audience isn’t privy to — fashion, late-breaking vulnerabilities and retractions (“networked ships are vulnerable to Cylon intrusion? force-field belts fail too often?”), staged rollouts across the fleet, cul-de-sacs in doctrine, revisiting once kinks have been resolved elsewhere. This happens to be more “realistic” but that’s not really the point — as fiction, the capabilities should ideally be *designed* with a dramatic purpose; but it’s more likely that the daily exigencies of TV production will create inconsistencies that can either be *interpreted as* mistakes, or accepted and explained away with the plausible excuse that “reality can be complicated.” History and drama don’t follow Occam’s Razor, so you can expect a few epicycles to sneak into the trendline.

Yeah it really should’ve been a post Voyager show. Whats crazy is while there have been plenty of things that makes it out of place in a pre-TOS era, there has been nothing so far that would feel out of place in a post-Voyager one. Tech wise I mean. It kind goes to the point I have always said writers are going to want to make tech as advance as possible regardless of the era it takes place in and would make their jobs easier if they just set it to a later era.

That said it is what it is and it seems like many Trek fans are accepting the changes. So as long as people like it I’m not complaining especially since this was what I wanted all along. It just feels distracting trying to jive this with TOS when in reality it simply doesn’t.

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