After parlaying her science lectures at Star Trek and sci-fi conventions into becoming a science advisor for Star Trek: Discovery, Dr. Erin Macdonald has been living the dream. This superfan is now working full-time as a consultant on multiple Star Trek shows, and she is talking about how she is keeping it real… or as real as she can.
Different shows need different science
Dr. Macdonald was the guest on the latest episode of Star Trek: The Pod Directive (the official Trek podcast), where she talked about how she has expanded outward since her start on Discovery and built trust with the writers on the other Trek shows:
Some of these other shows were like, “Nah, we’re cool. We don’t need that.” It’s like, ‘Well, I’m here… The Internet can be mean, I can help you.’ And then it was like, ‘Okay, we’ll send you some scripts.’ And I’ll send notes. And then building that relationship where I have gone from this passive voice that’s like, ‘Fix this word, fix that word’ to going, ‘Well, maybe she can help solve that.’ And so, for shows that I know the rooms and I know the writers a little bit better, they’ll start pulling me in all the time. It’s from concept development to… like I probably just answered three e-mails today that were like, ‘What would this look like? I need a word for this.’
The physicist talked about how each show has a different approach. Here she talks about how Lower Decks—which brought her in for season two—gets a bit more science leeway:
Mike [McMahan] and I hit it off and had a chat. He was like, “Yeah, I’d like your help.” And they just kind of reached the point where they would just put “quantum” and then a random word as a code for “Erin, go fix this.”… It’s the types of stories they want to tell too. With Lower Decks and Mike and that team, they want to tell fun stories and they really achieve that. But for example, in season one when they have the bio-mess gets out and everything (“Moist Vessel”), at no point are they going to try to describe that and they don’t have to. And I will not try to defend that. Because it’s a funny episode, and that’s not what they are trying to do.
She then contrasts this approach to Discovery… and Prodigy:
[For] a show like Discovery that really wants to lean into that classic ‘We are scientists, we are problem solvers, we are faced with issues and we are going to science our way out of this.’ That is when they really want to lean into that a bit. And some of what I help out with as well is coming in with that perspective of a scientist. They will say, ‘Okay, well as a scientist, you’re faced with this data. What questions would you ask? What would you be interested in? What would be your tip-off that things are weird?’ And so we are able to do that as well.
And then even too with Prodigy—which is going to be coming out—they have that with a very young audience in mind. They are not necessarily trying to bake in really intense complex science into it. But you could have budding scientists watching that show. And so trying to find that balance. Every show has a slightly different tone with what they want to achieve and it is up to me to help them find where that line is in that big spectrum of science to fiction.
Finding a way to yes even when the science says no
Erin also revealed what she sees as the key to success working on the new shows:
The thing that I learned—and I think is what has made me successful and has been able to build so many great relationships with so many great and talented writers—is my existence as a fan as well. And the ability to “Yes, and…” what they’re coming up with. I think a lot of science consultants when they get those opportunities for the first time have a tendency to just be like, ‘Wouldn’t work like that. Nope. Don’t do that. No, you can’t do that.’ What I like to do is just be like, “Okay, cool idea. Let’s make that work.” And then I think from building those relationships, we’ve been able to get to the point where it does become more collaborative. Like, “We have a cool idea, but let’s throw it to Erin.”
She later clarified that in some cases, her only recommendation is to not try to use science to explain something:
It’s a really fun, collaborative work project. But don’t get me wrong, there are some times where— especially as stories are being broken and workshopped, and back and forth—you get the notes, that are just like, ‘We really want to do this.’ And I’m like, “Oh, science says no on every level here. Okay, let’s just not explain it. Like, don’t do any scans.” We’re just going to see it and it’s going to be fine.
Living the Trekkie dream working on six shows… yes six
One look at Erin makes it clear she is a huge Star Trek fan. As she explained in her 2020 TrekMovie interview, she was inspired to become a scientist through sci-fi and in particular Star Trek: Voyager and Captain Janeway. On the new podcast, she talks about how she still can’t believe this is her job now:
They have had science advisors before, but for me as a fan sometimes it is, “Oh, I get to write that!” It can be a little bit overwhelming. I think my unique position right now is science advisors in the past on Star Trek were working on one show, like maybe a second when TNG and DS9 overlapped. But they were hired by the room. It was a very specific job. For me, I am working across six shows. I always have scripts to read. I always have meetings to go to. And so I’ll get into the mode where I am like, “Oh my god, I just want a day off.” And my partner will be like, “From what? Reading Star Trek scripts. Tell me how your life is hard again?” And it’s good to get that perspective.
If she, as a scientist, was being precise when she said she was working on six shows, and if you are doing the math right now, there are five Star Trek shows currently in production: Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks, Prodigy, and Strange New Worlds. So – unless she is talking about Short Treks—Erin appears to be working on another Star Trek show in development. This could be referring to the officially announced (for development but not a series) Section 31 show, which has had scripts written for it already. Or she could be talking about one of the Trek shows CBS Studios and Secret Hideout are cooking up to be the next entry in the franchise.
For more discussion, analysis and speculation on what this sixth show could be, check out the latest episode of TrekMovie’s All Access Star Trek.
More news and analysis on the Star Trek TV Universe at TrekMovie.com.