Interview: ‘Discovery’ Writer Eric J. Robbins On Efrosians And More Star Trek Connections In “Labyrinths”

The eighth episode (“Labyrinths“) of season 5 of Star Trek: Discovery was co-written by Eric J. Robbins who also happens to be a lifelong Trek fan. TrekMovie had a spoilery chat with the writer about how he worked with co-writer Lauren Wilkinson to mix Burnham’s emotional mindscape journey with the sci-fi action happening around the Eternal Archive.

Would it be fair to say you are the biggest fan in the writer’s room?

I don’t know, there are lots of fans who worked on the show. And I think we all come in from different directions. Like Carlos Cisco, who you talked to about episode 5, he is a more recent convert. He was big into Dungeons & Dragons and any major intense lore-building world, so for him it was important to understand what’s going on. But on the flip side of that, you have people like myself, or Kirsten Beyer, who is a producer on all these shows. We are people who grew up with Star Trek and loved it for a long time. What I really learned from working with a bunch of Star Trek fans is we can find an angle on anything and because this is the 916th episode of Star Trek, there are contradictions throughout the franchise, but what is really exciting about working on Star Trek is you could have two big fans arguing completely opposite points, and they both have the canon to back them up. That’s a long-winded way of saying I’m a huge fan, but it’s hard to be competitive about it.

You co-wrote this episode with Lauren Wilkinson. How does coming at things from different perspectives factor into your collaboration, like do you end up doing all the nerdier stuff?

First up, Lauren is an incredible writer. She is fiercely intelligent and has such an intense emotional insight into the characters. And she’s a big Deep Space Nine fan which we bonded over immediately. So Lauren and I really wanted to figure out: what did we want to talk about? It’s important to me that the episodes are somewhat reflective of our real world. Like for my season 4 episode “All Is Possible” where Tilly and the cadets are stranded on the planet while Burnham helps Ni’Var negotiate reentering the Federation, all the negotiation stuff on that was me looking at Brexit and finding an angle on what happened to the Federation. Why was this union broken up and what animosity exists? For “Labyrinths” one thing we talked about – and Lauren is a black woman – this is a show led by a black woman and we never really had many opportunities to dramatize the pressures that women of color face in positions of power in the real world. So Lauren talked about the internal pressure that especially women of color feel when they feel that their performance in the moment can be used to deny people opportunity in the future. So, everything with Burnham was revealing that for this character who’s in massive overachiever, what drives her? And revealing that there’s like a hidden internal fear that’s never really been addressed. And obviously, it’s very abstracted from our real world. So the breakdown, Lauren took a lot of the mindscape concepts and really drilled down on that and Burnham’s emotional journey, while I was primarily focused on aliens and spaceships shooting at each other, because I can I can write that stuff in my sleep. And then we would swap our scenes and we would do passes on them, and that’s kind of the process.

This is another episode for this season that seems to be reflecting back on the series, especially season 1. I know both of you joined the series later, but did you look back to season 1 to write this episode?

Definitely, Burnham’s journey from season 1 was very much on our minds. What drives her? When people are that driven, yes, there is an ambition, but sometimes there’s a hidden insecurity or a flaw, which is what we really, really wanted to dig into. Because Burnham is always portrayed as larger than life. And every Starfleet captain kind of fits into that mold. But everyone does have a little of a hidden wound. Picard talks about the pressures of being in command and having to make decisions, and he denied himself a family. And the inverse of that is Benjamin Sisko who lost his wife and it was this big thing that shaped him. So we really wanted to dig into the things that shaped Michael and I personally felt there were unanswered and unexplored elements of Burnham’s choices from seasons 1 and 2 that I wanted to see more fleshed out.

David Ajala as Book and Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham in “Labyrinths” (Marni Grossman /Paramount+)

Was there any discussion of who should be the Avatar? Perhaps bringing back some of those earlier characters, like maybe  Sarek? Or was it always Book?

We definitely went through several versions of what the Avatar was going to be. The initial very early pitch, Burnham touches the thing and it puts her in some sort of liminal space and Dr. Derex would show up, and we would have some guest star. The concept was while the battle rages outside, Dr. Derex was sitting at a coffee table with Burnham and saying, “You need to understand the scale and scope of what you are dealing with.” The problem with that is there wasn’t a lot of emotional realization, and the other issue was, how many scenes can you do have a character warning another character about technology that was going to be seen in a later episode? And then the third part was, is there something to be done with one of our actors? We had a lot of fun with Wilson Cruz being possessed by Jinaal in 503. At one point it was Tilly and we went back and forth on if it was Tilly or Book. At one point, we had a lot more characters showing up in the mindscape. The idea was the program was pulling from different parts of Burnham’s psyche. But in the end, Book was the best choice because David and Sonequa have wonderful chemistry, and their emotional arc through the season after the events of season 4 is: I love this person, but they did this thing that I’m having to reconcile and they’re having to rebuild a trust between them.

This episode evokes some Trek classics, especially “The Inner Light.” How much of bringing up older episodes is part of the discussion in the room?  

I feel like it is part of every episode that I worked on Discovery. It was always important for me to find reference episodes. There was a common joke during season four when we were working remotely and after we get back on Zoom after lunch I would be like, “I just watched this episode of Voyager!” So, yes, “Inner Light,” which I hesitate to say because, to me, it is arguably the best written episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That and “Family” in terms of emotional exploration of Jean-Luc Picard. “Tapestry” was also on my mind, having an opportunity to reflect on your life and the choices you’ve made. “Balance of Terror” as well, hiding and trying to suss out what your enemy was doing. There are also little inspirations in my episodes from the movies, so in this one trying to gauge shield frequencies and harmonic reference, that is me as a child watching Star Trek Generations in theaters and being like, “Just change the shield frequency!” as the Bird of Prey starts attacking the Enterprise. [laughs]

There was an even bigger movie reference with Hy’Rell…

Oh yeah, Star Trek VI, I love that movie. During the WGA strike last summer I had the opportunity to meet Nicholas Mayer. And I went up to him to talk about how much I loved The Undiscovered Country. And he was like, “Most people come at me with Wrath of Khan.” So yeah, I always loved the Efrosian, I thought he was such a cool design. I always forget there was another Efrosian in Star Trek IV, the helmsmen on the Saratoga. And when we were doing this episode I was like, what species do we want to see, but one that won’t be a production nightmare? I would love to do a Catian, but in live-action it could be expensive. So I went back to Efrosian and I thought we have only ever seen two of them, which is insane because one of them is the President. [laughs] So it was an opportunity to give one an actual name and also see one who has had a female presentation because the other two are very masculine presenting. So I sent the reference and the design team liked it and they thought they could do an updated version of the makeup.

I am sure some fans are going to come at me over the vision. In a deleted scene in Star Trek VI the President has a little eyepiece he uses and in Star Trek IV the Saratoga helmsman also has white contact lenses. So the deleted scene shows the President is blind and that may be a species characteristic. So do we lean into if they are blind or not? And I was like, it’s 800 years later than Geordi, who got his optical contacts, so maybe it has been addressed. I was just really excited to back to a species that has so little defined and add a new character to the mix, but being really cognizant of not defining them too much so writers and storytellers in the future have a real opportunity to dig into the Efrosians and say more about their culture.

Elena Juatco as Hy’Rell in “Labyrinths” (Marni Grossman /Paramount+)

A surprising reference comes from something much more recent when Reno made the joke about Hysperia, from Lower Decks. So are you guys on the lookout for ways you can connect to the new shows?

Sure. internally, we share a lot of material. On Discovery, we would assign certain writers to cover a show and then you get put into their script distribution. So, if we’re in contradiction with another show, we catch it. We are not just looking out for making sure we are not stepping on each other’s toes but also, for me, it’s really important to show a little love to the other series. I think that’s one thing that Star Trek has always done very well. I think it’s one thing the fans have always responded to. Now for the Hysperians, first, the original pass didn’t include Reno because we didn’t know we were going to have Tig [Notaro] and I was told very late Reno was going to be in my episode. So, we were talking about ideas and somebody wrote a rough version of a joke, “Oh I was repairing buoys out by Talaxia, and Talaxians really know how to party.” I was always very cognizant about not being the “canon cop,” but that’s where I was like, “Wait a minute, Talaxia is way deep in the Delta Quadrant, when did Jett Reno have an opportunity to do that?” We never saw Disco jump to the Delta Quadrant so maybe we should change that planet and that episode of Lower Decks just aired and I was like, “What about the Hysperians?” That episode is hysterical and if you put Jett Reno on a fantasy planet she would get up to some intense shenanigans. I just loved that mental image.

A big surprise for this episode is Moll killing the Primarch. Can you explain what motivates the Breen where she starts the episode as an unwelcome human and ends essentially in charge?

This episode, along with “Mirrors” and ”Erigah”, where we have privileged scenes in the Breen culture and see how they function. Going back to my love of Deep Space Nine, it breaks down the idea of species as monoliths, like they did with the Ferengi showing they weren’t simply greedy space capitalists. And also like how Cardassians started basically as space Nazis and by the end of it, you know, Damar especially, is so fleshed out and gives like real insight into their culture, how these people are formed and why they operate the way they do. So for this episode, to get to dig into the Breen was interesting and exciting because we’ve only really seen the Breen as like a very authoritarian wall. There’s a lot of abstraction and a lot of mystery with them. And having the opportunity to see that they’re not so homogenous internally. There are things important to them beyond just subjugating other species and being in control. For example, this whole aspect of ascension using L’ak and for Ruhn’s men it is really important that they honor him. And Ruhn is exploiting that. He doesn’t care. He’s all about political empowerment for himself. Getting to see that there are aspects of Breen culture that are still a little mysterious to us, but there’s like a reverence for them. The “Tergun” oath at the end is a good example of that. For Ruhn, it’s just words. He will say anything to get what he wants, but as you can see for those below him, that is not how they feel. It is a point of contention he goes back on his honor and how it reflects on them. But these are just glimmers into the Breen and there is still much more we don’t know and that is very exciting.

Eve Harlow as Moll in “Labyrinths” (Marni Grossman /Paramount+)

Looking to the future, you obviously have a passion for Trek, are you on the Academy show?

Not the moment. I would love to be a part if they would have me. I’m very excited to see what they’re working on over there. I know several people on that staff and they’re all very, very passionate fans. I’m especially excited to see what Starfleet Academy looks like because the first episode I ever wrote of television – let alone Star Trek – was the cadet episode in season 4. So I’m very excited to see the work we kind of planted there and like what it’s blossomed into. I would love to come back to the franchise in any capacity. I love it all, be it the 23rd, 24th, 25th, or 32nd century. But this is the end of my Star Trek journey, at the moment.

Eric J. Robbins on the WGA picket line with his Star Trek sign in 2023 (Instagram/Eric J. Robbins)

The fifth and final season of Discovery debuted with two episodes on Thursday, April 4 exclusively on Paramount+ in the U.S., the UK, Switzerland, South Korea, Latin America, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, and Austria. Discovery also premiered on April 4 on Paramount+ in Canada and will be broadcast on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel in Canada. The rest of the 10-episode final season is available to stream weekly on Thursdays. Season 5 debuted on SkyShowtime in select European countries on April 5.

Note: The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.  

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I don’t think an episode should be written to reflect a current event in history. First and foremost, it should be a good story. If this fits with a polarizing question in contemporary history, you can put the episode at the service of the general public and use it to enrich the discussion.

On the other hand, I think it’s good if you can look at a complete series and feel the time in which it was created. Overall, I would like to see fewer characters like Reno, who can do everything and then suddenly come with some exotic ability, or tools like Picard, who can do everything in order to ultimately minimize the narrative effort. Rather, the skills of the crew and the ship should be clear from the start and how they use them to solve unknown situations should be convincing.

And finally, Star Trek should stop wanting too much and start series with a solid social message in mind. TNG Picard changed my life because he always believed in the good and an alternative and chose what was morally right. And a Data, an android who wanted to become more human, showed where logic begins and must end. That shaped my character. But something like this cannot be created on the drawing board. This requires the right people, the right stories and the right freedom.

I agree first and foremost the story has to be good. But I don’t think reflecting on events in history or even current events is necessarily a bad thing. Heck, that was pretty much the mission statement of TOS if you think about it. The problem IMHO is when they get lazy with it. For example, Nazi stories. Like, enough already.


Roddenberry’s raison d’être was to reflect the issues of the time and he fought censors to make sure Star Trek was not neutered. I don’t know if he ever reflected on ways he might have failed. However, the way a single story format works, metaphors are a lot easier to translate in your mind – and then you move on with your life.

The challenge for the writers now is to figure out great stories in a universe trying to be too consistent, with consequences generally never seen. The stories cannot play out in your mind the same way.

Like, for example, the Vulcan criminal in Picard season 3 was a brilliant move, and that kind of diversity is truly IDIC.

When I read the synopsis of this ep in Anthony P’s review a few days ago, it confirmed my decision not to watch Discovery this season. What a mess. Can’t we get back to straight-forward and creative storytelling? Putting the characters in the service of the story rather than the story in service of the characters?

If you haven’t watched it, your criticisms are not really based on much. What an absurd waste of time to comment on something you’ve not seen. Silly. And to give advice to TV writers… when you just write in the comments on a site.. about things to haven’t even watched. Sad.

You haven’t seen it and are thus not informed enough to call it a mess, or to proclaim the storytelling non-creative, or to say the characters are in service of the story. If you’d seen it, then fine, those would be valid criticisms. But you’re speaking from a place of ignorance. All anyone has to do to debate you is say “You’ve not watched it.”

Straight up: this season is not a mess.

The main thing this episode did was remind me of why I thought the first two seasons were so much better.

Exactly right! Before Michelle Paradise destroyed the show

Lauren is a black woman – this is a show led by a black woman and we never really had many opportunities to dramatize the pressures that women of color face in positions of power in the real world.

This tells me exactly why the writing on this show is so bad, wow

So you would like to see shows without black women? Got it.

That is not at all what he said or implied.

But, should that be an issue 1167 years from now?

Showing it’s not an issue in the future is, I’d argue, as powerful as exploring problems now. Heck, it certainly was when Roddenberry did it back in the 60s.

I’m sorry, what? Are you saying you don’t think it’s appropriate for Trek to explore issues related to pressures faced by historically disadvantaged groups or coming to terms with your identity? What was Voyager “Lineage” or DS9 “Far Beyond the Stars” about then? Frankly DS9 was wall to wall with issues of race, justice, and the internal psychology of colonization and racism. Further, you even have some of these issues explored with Data, not only in “Measure of a Man,” but also directly in Data’s command in “Redemption.”

This was one of my favorite episodes of the entire series. It pays off so much of what makes the Burnham character exceptional. The dialogue and the pacing were also pitch-perfect. I’ve been a fan of Discovery from the jump (as it were), but sometimes the dialogue can get a little choppy. This season, and this episode in particular, shows that they’ve finally ironed that out, just in time for the show to wrap…

Have to admit I’m turning into a big fan of Eric because of this season. I’m sure it has much to do with the fact that he is a fan and obviously knows this universe incredibly well. He also know how to set the right tone and how to write these characters voices so they sound right. Star Trek is such a delicate thing to get right because it has such a unique language and a dense culture, fans often take it for granted until they feel something is missing. For the first time we aren’t missing that something and I’m loving it! Huge respect for Eric! And a big thank you!