Inside How ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Transformed A Toronto University Library Into The Eternal Archive

Inside the Fisher Rare Book LIbrary - David Ajala - Star Trek: Discovery

Last week’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “Labyrinths,” featured an unusual location: the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. Star Trek fan Michael Cassabon, the Director of Advancement for the University of Toronto library system, assisted the production team on site and wrote about his experiences with the show and what makes the Fisher Library so unique.

David Ajala as Book, Elena Juatco as Hy’Rell, and Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery's "Labyrinths"

David Ajala as Book, Elena Juatco as Hy’Rell, and Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery‘s “Labyrinths” (photo: Paramount+)

When Star Trek came to the Fisher Library…

Melissa Warry-Smith, the location manager for Star Trek: Discovery (and most recently Section 31), and her team approached the University of Toronto in summer 2022 with a very big ask: to boldly film where no one has filmed before. As Canada’s largest keeper of ancient manuscripts and antiquarian books, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library holds powerful knowledge within its high, thick walls. It is a globally renowned rare book library, a gorgeous monument to human knowledge, but it is not known for being a filming location. Like, never.

But Warry-Smith’s thoughtful approach to the Fisher as the location for the Eternal Archive made a lot of sense. It wasn’t just that the Fisher’s brutalist architecture and vast interior space looked very sci-fi, but it also made sense because “Labyrinths” underlines the work of librarians and archivists in the preservation and pursuit of knowledge, intrinsic to the core values of Star Trek.

Fisher Rare Book Library at University of Toronto

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at University of Toronto (photo: Paramount+)

The Fisher’s (almost-eternal) collections

If Hy’Rell were here, she would tell you that the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is a marvel. Its collection spans millennia, from a Babylonian cuneiform tablet dated 1789 B.C.E. to original drafts by contemporary Canadian luminaries like Margaret Atwood. The library houses four of Shakespeare’s folios, over 800 bound manuscript volumes pre-dating the 15th century, and 40 Egyptian papyri from the 3rd century B.C.E.

The Shakespeare folios, among other real-life ancient texts, make a cameo appearance behind Burnham and Book in the display cases during the mindscape scenes. Shakespeare and Star Trek, of course, have been connected since the beginning.

You likely know Sir Patrick Stewart spent much of his career as a Shakespearean actor. What’s somewhat less known is that William Shatner also performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario—a two-hour drive from Toronto. At the 1956 festival, Shatner was Christopher Plummer’s understudy in Henry V. When Plummer fell ill, Shatner stepped in, leading to his big break. As fans of the Star Trek movies know, Plummer later played Klingon General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which itself takes the name of its title from Hamlet (act 3, scene 1).

Michael Burnham in front of Shakespeare's folios

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in front of Shakespeare’s folios (photo: P+)

Filming at the Fisher

The Fisher is at the heart of the university’s main campus, which lies at the heart of the city of Toronto, one of the most diverse cities on the planet.

Modern-day Toronto is part of Trek canon (SNW: “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow”); for those of you keeping track, the library complex is a few blocks away from where the child Khan Noonien-Singh — the notorious ancestor of La’an — lives, and where an alt-universe Captain Kirk was killed trying to restore the timeline.

It is almost unheard of for filming to take place at the Fisher Library, but a rare exception was made for Star Trek: Discovery. Our library’s leadership believed that this collaboration would be a wonderful opportunity to showcase the enduring relevance of libraries in the human quest for meaning. Libraries connect people to the information they seek in their quest for knowledge. The executive producers dedicated the episode with thanks “to librarians everywhere, dedicated to the preservation of artifacts, knowledge, and truth.”

It was also important that the library was not just a pretty face in the background but was playing the role of a key “character” essential to uncover “the greatest power in the known galaxy,” as Dr. Kovich tells Michael way back in the season’s first episode. Kovich, of course, is played by the legendary David Cronenberg, an alum of the University of Toronto—it makes one wonder if he knew where the final clue was all along!

Filming at the Fisher occurred over three nights to avoid disrupting students and researchers. The production crew was remarkably efficient and respectful, especially given the tight schedule due to the impending medieval manuscript exhibition—our first in-person event since COVID-19. Every precaution was made to avoid putting the real-life ancient manuscripts in danger. The production crew was quite impressive in their respect and care. They had experience filming in sensitive locations in Toronto in the past; for example, scenes of Vulcan earlier in the season are filmed at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

This isn’t the first time Star Trek has filmed at a library at the University of Toronto. U of T has a system of 40 libraries, and the Star Trek: Short Treks episode “Children of Mars”—the mini-prequel to Star Trek: Picard—was filmed at the library at U of T’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.

behind the scenes at the Fisher Library

Crew getting set up at the Fisher Library (photo: Michael Cassabon)

Behind the scenes

The mindscape scenes between Book and Michael were filmed on the Fisher’s mezzanine level. For the action-packed sequences, however, sets were constructed at Pinewood Studios to replicate the Fisher, prioritizing safety.

Highlights for me included chatting with David Ajala over burgers at a food truck just outside the set and meeting the legendary Jonathan Frakes, whom I addressed as “Captain Riker.” Frakes is a big fan of librarians’ work and was a producer and director on the TV series The Librarians.

The absolute highlight for me was meeting Sonequa Martin-Green. She is as amazing and magnetic and gracious as everyone says. After watching her interact with the cast and crew, it was clear how they became a family, largely due to her leadership on and off the camera. David Ajala introduced me to Sonequa in the green room, which was our library admin conference room across from my office. The first thing she said to me was “Thank you for lending me your name [Michael].”

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham behind the scenes of Star Trek: Discovery "Labyrinth"

Sonequa Martin-Green flashes the Vulcan salute (photo: Paramount+)

A sense of destiny

This season of Discovery focuses on the quest for meaning, and filming at the Fisher felt serendipitous. The library’s dedication to preserving and exploring knowledge through the application of new technology mirrors Star Trek’s themes of discovery and understanding. Fittingly, the University of Toronto is situated at the heart of the city’s Discovery District, an area renowned for its concentration of research institutions, hospitals, and tech startups dedicated to innovation and advancement. It is also appropriate that the filming took place in a university library, considering how many researchers, scholars, and leaders have been inspired to pursue their careers in part because of Star Trek.

Michael P. Cassabon is the Director of Advancement for the University of Toronto library system and a lifelong fan of Star Trek. 

The Fisher Library on The Ready Room

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My Favorite Location for a Trek series, EVER!

My faves Trek locations would be the campus used for OPERATION ANNIHILATE and the fort from ARENA.

Least favorite (by far): the brewery from 09. It would have cost them almost less than nothing to lay black garbage liner on the floor to cover up the bare cement, a solution we Super-8 filmmakers used going back to before STAR WARS. I asked the 09/ID production designer about that when I interviewed him for TOMORROWLAND and he had nothing to say about that one at all except the usual ‘we had to cut corners somewhere for the budget.’

I will say that this Toronto thing in these stills looks a ton better than the ENTERPRISE show’s library used at the start of season 2, a scene that looked completely like a bad cut scene from a CD-ROM video game and memorable (in a bad or badder way) because its appearance was the final straw that broke the camel’s back for me, as I gave up on the whole series while this scene was playing.

And yet the video posted here is geo blocked for Canadians!

TREKMOVIE how about providing/promoting a link that serves Canadians considering the video is about a location in Canada? I know your an American site but yeah just saying.

The video seems to be available outside of the US on the official Star Trek website.
I’m not sure why Paramount+ still enforces the geo-blocking on their own Youtube channel since the streaming service has expanded to countries outside North America.

I’ve always enjoyed reading and in the eighth grade I discovered that I could donate one period a week to work in the library as a student aide. By the time I got to twelth grade I was donating 12 periods a week to the library. I even got a job working in a university library when I went to college at a branch campus of the University of Pittsburgh. I became a software engineer but had things turned out just a little bit different I could very easily have been a librarian. I’ve been in Hillman library at the main campus of Pitt and it is quite an impressive location. But the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library blows away any library I’ve ever been in. I am impressed with its external architecture and it’s internal design. The University of Toronto is to be lauded for building this incredible building and repository of knowledge. I’m so glad that they allowed Discovery to be filmed there.

This was a fascinating read. Thank you.

Really enjoyed this, thanks for this essay.
Hope the bluray for this season has a feature on the Fisher.

Gorgeous location, put to outstanding use.

In contrast to may who have posted, the library scenes really took me out of the episode. To me at least, the interior was so obviously a 20th C library of the kind that you might find in a University setting, (digitally tweaked to make it look vast), that I found the location a distraction and the weakest part of an otherwise reasonable episode.

I was half-expecting the Merrill Collection.


I wonder if in the future if attendance will go up just so people can see “That Library from, Star Trek”. Is there any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise of attendance at a public place going up after it has been involved in a TV or, Film Production?

I’d bet more people travelling crosscountry sidestepped to make a pilgrimmage to Devil’s Tower after CLOSE ENCOUNTERS came out.