This past Sunday (May 20th), Vulture Festival New York hosted a Star Trek: Discovery panel called “The Future is Definitely Female.” It featured co-showrunner Gretchen J. Berg, along with actresses Sonequa Martin-Green (Michael Burnham), Michelle Yeoh (Philippa Georgiou), Mary Wiseman (Sylvia Tilly), and Mary Chieffo (L’Rell), who talked to an enthusiastic audience about the experience of working on such a female-centric sci-fi show.
We already covered Berg’s thoughts regarding canon and plans for season 2, but here are some of the highlights of the discussion around the roles of women both in front of and behind the camera, all of which included tremendous appreciation for the men who are also such an essential part of the picture. “Divided we fall,” said Martin-Green, as the group repeatedly spoke of how they all support each other in their risk-taking storytelling.
Respect and support define the women of Discovery
Sonequa Martin-Green spoke at length about the show’s strong female characters.
I love the dynamics of the women on the ship that are in positions of leadership. From the very beginning, something we were championing, and celebrating is that this female captain and female first officer are not at odds. They are in support of each other and they respect each other, there is that professional courtesy and also that deep, maternal love.
And then you have the relationship with Burnham and Tilly. Burnham is so uplifted by Tilly and Tilly doing everything she does out of love. And Mary [Wiseman] with her wondrous performance as Tilly, I think it’s amazing. You see these women, L’Rell, you see these women not denying their femininity, but realizing the power in it, and realizing that it’s their feminine tendencies to nurture and really, it’s their superpower to multitask. It is that attention to detail. It’s the automatic ability to improvise as well, you see how far that goes in a position of leadership. You can see how beneficial it is, and how effective it is. We see that with all the women on our show.
Mary Cheiffo got into more detail about L’Rell.
I feel that L’Rell suffered from lack of representation. She says [in the season one finale] “But I am no one.” That is part of it. It takes Burnham’s huge generosity of spirit to give me that detonator. Because, in a certain way, I caused the greatest heartbreak and instead of having a catfight, we created peace. My most successful human relationships have been with women on the show. I think there is something to that. There’s a collaboration.
Equality all the way down to the underwear
Mary Wiseman talked up the importance of female leadership behind the scenes after reminding the audience, to much laughter, that “there’s still, like, a lot of men.”
It’s how occupations break down, I don’t know why. There are still a lot of men on set. But the leader is a woman. And it is run by women, and a woman’s perspective is always at the forefront.
Because Gersha is our costume designer, women aren’t wearing short dresses on set. We are wearing the same thing as the men are. And that is a visual signal that I think is important and significant. She is painting our world and she is painting the equality of gender every day in costumes.
Sonequa couldn’t resist adding some inside info.
And we all wear the same undergarment, you guys. Men and women wear the same spanx.
Mary Wiseman brought up another aspect of Discovery‘s female roles.
One thing I really appreciate about the show is that, not all the women are 25. On average, best female Oscar winners are ten years younger than their male counterparts. Why is that? When we value women who are younger, what does that say about our idea of the prototypical woman? Cornwell and Georgiou, this is so important. And also, the strongest person I know is my mom. I want to see people like that in our world, and I think they did a really good job of representing that part of our world too.
Party episode helped the cast bond as a family
Sonequa Martin-Green teared up a little after describing the closeness within the team on the Star Trek: Discovery set, and spoke about how shooting repeated time loops of the party scene in the seventh episode (“Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad“) helped really bring the cast together:
It was really, really bonding for us as a company, as a cast and crew. We always aspired to be a family, from the very beginning I remember Aaron saying, “We want this to be run like a theater company, we want to be like a family.” I had come in with such strong views on that as well, and everybody came with that. Everybody made the decision together and it did have to happen that way … There is nothing but love, talent, passion, drive, appreciations and respect. Everybody comes together to do it and we are a family because everybody chose to be.
Chieffo embraces L’Rell’s sexuality
After the showing of a particularly powerful scene from “Despite Yourself,” Mary Chieffo talked about the intensity between L’Rell and Tyler, beginning by telling the crowd how grateful she was that Jonathan Frakes directed them. She dug deep into the relationship between the two characters and the challenge of the slow unraveling of the Voq/Tyler storyline.
Obviously, we knew the truth and we wanted to find that balance. We actually replicated a lot of physical moments that happened in episode 4 (“The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry“), particularly that scene at the end when I say, “Sacrifice everything.” But really finding that that was part of what I was trying to awaken is like these moments we had in the past. We very much approached it very much from a genuine place.
She also spoke about viewing the story through L’Rell’s eyes.
I’m just going to play her truth and I know it is going to be misconstrued, which is also very painful for me. I didn’t expect that, because in the moment everyone know all that stuff for me and then after episodes aired it was like “Aaaggh! Why didn’t you say anything?”
L’Rell’s relationship with her sensuality is so different from a typical human’s. And really leaning into that, leaning into what we interpret as very dominating sexual nature that we have been programmed to reject is actually–it’s her way of expressing herself. She is from a culture and society and species that has a different relationship with it. So that was something I leaned on a lot, not just in that scene, but in general with the character is that she has no way of knowing that this is inappropriate for a human. And that’s part of her tragedy and why she makes the choice in [episode] 12 (“Vaulting Ambition“), is that she does realize that she had more of her edification and seeing the pain that Tyler/Voq is in. She is too empathetic, actually. I think of her strengths as a character is her heart. It is one of her flaws as Klingon, I know. So, for me, it was letting it be about the heart. And the sensuality was just part of that because that is who she is as an alien.
Subverting norms with Voq/Tyler’s trauma
Gretchen J. Berg had more to say about the Voq/Tyler story,
There is trauma in that relationship. It’s based on misunderstanding, remembering things a different way, and his feelings are very real.
And Mary Wiseman expressed her awe of how it was handled.
It’s an allegory for how confusing trauma can be. If you’re assaulted, it might be confusing. You might be in love with the person. You might have kind of felt like you enjoyed it, but it’s still violating. That’s a beautiful allegory for me, I think you guys illustrated that so well.
“And it happened to be the man,” added Sonequa Martin-Green. Wiseman agreed. “It happens to men.” Martin-Green spoke about the power of that choice.
All the time. And they can’t, they won’t, they can’t, they feel like they can’t speak. And Shazad and I were really moved by that gender reversal, in a sense, because we associate that with women. But being able to flip that, and be the mirror, this happens to men too.
Emperor Georgiou even scares Michelle Yeoh
After showing a clip from the episode “Vaulting Ambition,” the panel’s moderator asked Yeoh about the challenges of playing both prime Georgiou and the mirror universe version, curious to know if she played her as two people, or different aspects of the same character. “I was just playing Michelle Yeoh there,” Yeoh joked, referring to the clip of her murdering most of her inner circle.
She then answered more directly.
We talked about this with Gretchen and Aaron–because they’re from this mirror universe, does that just mean they’re just evil? We thought that was too easy. There must be motivations–why do they do that, how, why, when, what motivates her, drives her. And I guess it’s also the environment. It is a dog-eat-dog world over there. You keep looking over your shoulder. You have to kill to be the top. And so it was a very different place.
Captain Phillipa Georgiou was such a kind and compassionate woman–sometimes that was even MORE hard to do. I think it was also the look. Gersha [Phillips] with the costume, and the makeup and the hair. You look at her and … “Whoah!” She scared me too.
There is also subtlety in her character because of Michael Burnham, and I think that was a bond that traveled the universe. It was just there, she couldn’t explain it … when it comes to love, it stays with you and there’s something you can’t really explain. It really moved the character along.
I think that we’re very vulnerable, but we always pretend that we’re strong. And everybody just thinks that you’re strong, which is not true. What I see in these amazing young actors, I’m so proud to be working with them. It’s such joy, just sitting and watching them every day.
The feeling was clearly mutual. Martin-Green told the crowd how she drove Yeoh crazy by constantly showing everyone on the set YouTube videos of Yeoh kicking ass. “We have a legend in our midst,” she’d tell them.
It’s not just the women
After all this talk of strong and powerful women, Gretchen J. Berg made a point of reminding everyone how important the men of the team to the entire dynamic.
I know today is a celebration of women in Star Trek and we are really proud of that, but we have partners in our lives on this show who are men and who think like we do. Aaron [Harberts], my writing partner for 20 years, Alex Kurtzman, and Bryan Fuller … and everybody across the board. There is nobody making a fuss or a stink about the fact that we have both men and women represented. Remember Stamets saved the multiverse and Culber was the smart person who figured out what was up with Tyler, and Tyler is wonderful and Saru … We know this, our partners, the men on the show and across the board, we love them too and they make us all successful.
Star Trek: Discovery is available exclusively in the USA on CBS All Access. It airs in Canada on Space and streams on CraveTV. It is available on Netflix everywhere else.
Keep up with all the Star Trek: Discovery news at TrekMovie.