‘Short Treks’ Creator Alex Kurtzman On His Mission With Expanding ‘Star Trek’ Universe: “Let’s Show People A Future That’s Better”

First venturing into the world of Star Trek with J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film of the same name, Alex Kurtzman offered up his latest expansion of an iconic sci-fi universe with the short-form series, Star Trek: Short Treks.

The CBS All Access series consists of live-action and animated shorts, which examine different corners of the ever-expanding Star Trek universe. Centered on characters and themes that have yet to be fully explored, the series has been an opportunity to experiment with story and tone, while bringing new directors into the fold.

At this year’s Emmys, Short Treks became the first Star Trek project to earn a nomination for Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series. Inspired in his work by Pixar’s skill in short-form storytelling, Kurtzman was of course pleased to see the series recognized by the TV Academy.

For the EP, the nomination only validates the mission he’s taken on in recent years, with Star Trek, one that he considers vitally important. “I think the mission is to make the world better. [Star Trek creator Gene] Roddenberry’s vision of this was, ‘I’m going to create something that can show us the best of who we are, and can act as a compass that we can follow toward a future that’s better than the one we’re living in now,’” Kurtzman says. “And we need that vision, now more than ever. I think it’s our responsibility to uphold it, and to allow future generations of kids, and past generations of adults who are long-term fans, to be reminded of how important it is to see the world through Gene Roddenberry’s eyes.

“So, that’s the mission, right?” he adds. “Let’s show people a future that’s better.”

DEADLINE: How did Short Treks come about? What excited you about making this short-form series?

ALEX KURTZMAN: [Star Trek:Discovery Season 1 taught us a lot of lessons about how long the turnaround for the shows takes, because it’s really more like making a long film than television shows, and we spend copious amounts of time on visual effects after we wrap.

That can take upwards of eight months, so they had wanted initially to drop Season 2 before we would be ready to deliver everything we needed to for Season 1, and I said, ” Okay, well how about this? If you delay the drop of Season 2, what we can do is some Short Treks. We’ll use our sets, and try this interesting experiment and see if it works, and it will buy us some time for Star Trek awareness to remain in the cultural conversation.” They said, “Sure, okay. Let’s try it,” and we started out doing five, and people really liked them.

The idea was, they should be their own self-contained stories. As a writer, it’s really challenging and a great way to figure out how to tell a story in between 5 and 15 minutes, that has a beginning, middle and end, and usually a twist at the end. We kept referring to O. Henry stories and how the fun is, you think you’re watching one thing, but then something else is revealed that changes your perspective on the story. There’s something about compressed storytelling that challenges you as a writer, in a way that’s really exciting, so they ended up being delightful for all of us.

We were really interested in exploring a variety of tones, to start seeing where the borders of Star Trek had been, and how much we could push them, without breaking them. So, we started into comedy, and very serious drama, and the added bonus was that some of the episodes are referencing storylines that played out in Season 2.

So, we actually used that window of time between Season 1 and Season 2, where we knew we wanted to delay the drop of the second season, to build some storylines into the Short Treks that we were able to follow through on in Season 2. So, if you watch the Short Treks and then you watch Season 2, you’ll see all the seeds planted for stories that come to fruition later.

DEADLINE: How have you figured out the themes, characters and stories you want to hone in on in Short Treks? Have you had any guiding inspirations, as you’ve gone about the process?

KURTZMAN: I really am astounded by the work that Pixar has been able to do, really across the board, but their shorts are so powerful, and I always marvel at the fact that they can make you feel so much in so little time. There’s something about the world of animation that when it works, when all cylinders are firing, you are completely transported to another place in your mind, so much so that you actually have to settle back into reality when it’s over, and I love the experience of being able to do that, in the context of what Star Trek does.

So with, for example, “Children of Mars,” which I wrote with Jenny Lumet and Kirsten Beyer, and was directed by Mark Pellington, we said, “Let’s do a silent film. Let’s see how much story we can tell with no dialogue, and let’s use this as a setup to a major storyline in Picard that would typically have felt like backstory.” By allowing the event to be experienced through the eyes of children in a totally surprising way, where you don’t actually realize what you’re watching until you get to the very end, and you see this extraordinary connection that emerges from people who, up until that moment, had really been enemies, I think it’s profoundly moving. But it also speaks to the core essence of what Star Trek is, which is about people overcoming their differences to come together, and recognizing that in the face of tragedy, and in the face of triumph, we really are all the same.

Certainly, when you think about analogies to what we’re experiencing now globally, with coronavirus, everyone’s realizing that nobody is immune, and therefore, we’re all in it together, and I think that’s something that Star Trek has been saying for a really long time. It’s been speaking to that very fact since its inception, and I think all of these shorts, in one way or another, look to capture the spirit of what Roddenberry was trying to express.

DEADLINE: Short Treks has allowed you to work with a lot of new directors, including Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, who helmed the animated short, “Ephraim and Dot.” What was it like working with him in this capacity?

KURTZMAN: Phenomenal. Michael and I have worked together since Alias. He used to score Alias, and then he did Mission: Impossible III, and he did both Star Trek movies that we all worked on together.

He is one of my favorite composers on the planet, and he has such an extraordinary background in animation, not only because he’s worked with the best animation directors in the world, but he used to own an animation company. So I learned a ton from him, in terms of the process of animation. But what’s so great about Michael is that he has such an intuitive sense of where the emotion lies, and where it lies rhythmically, as it relates to music.

So again, that’s another one that’s kind of like a silent film. Well, it’s not a silent film, but what we talked about there was, “Let’s do a Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoon.” Those short, animated cartoons where they’re chasing each other around kind of defined our childhoods, and the idea was, “Let’s do that in the context of Star Trek. So, what would that be?”

Then, we started talking about the tardigrade, and the robots that appear in Season 2 of Discovery on the ship, and the idea of saying, “Okay, what if we did a story in which we did a chase sequence through the ship?” But the idea that emerged as we started talking about it was, “Wouldn’t it be really fun if, in fact, there’s a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern quality to the idea that they’re running through all of these seminal moments in Star Trek history, specifically from TOS [The Original Series] all the way through one of the films? And that in fact, while they were having their decades-long chase sequence, all of these other things were going on around them that are entirely familiar to us, which makes it really a love letter to Star Trek.”

That was really exciting because it could function on its own completely, as a fun chase sequence, but it has the added context of informing the story of what was really going on in the background, in all of these scenes that you’ve already watched, and had been watching since The Original Series, which gave it an extra pop.

The thing that for me was personally wonderful was, I tend to work very closely with the composers on everything that we do. What was exciting was that Michael and I wanted to try out a bunch of new, young composers, and he helped me oversee the process of working with them, in the spirit of, “Let’s take these Short Treks and put them in the hands of people who might not otherwise be given this opportunity. Let’s see what we can do, and what kind of talent we can pull in.” We found some extraordinarily gifted composers, and that was really fun, too. So Michael was in charge of overseeing, and we ended up hiring one of the composers to score one of our shows.

DEADLINE: What have been the biggest challenges in putting the series together?

KURTZMAN: Even though they’re smaller and shorter, they’re no less difficult at production level, so they take up just as much time. In fact, you have less time to maintain the same level of quality that we bring to the television shows. So, it’s not easier in any way, and in some ways, it’s harder.

For me, the animation was a massive learning curve, and I’m glad I got to go through that before we did Lower Decks and Prodigy because it takes a full year of full-time work to get five minutes of animation on screen. In some ways, it’s much harder than live-action, so that was a real learning curve for me, just the amount of time that it takes, and the animation styles were very different.

But what was great about working with Michael was that because he had done this already, he was very prepared for the process, and gave me a headline up front about, “Okay, you’ve got about three or four off-ramps along the way, and then we can’t change it. So, let’s make sure that we have these regular check-ins that allow us to make sure we are agreeing, and heading down the right road, so that when we get to what will become an irreversible moment, we’re feeling great about it.” And that was awesome. That was really helpful for me to understand.

DEADLINE: There are a number of upcoming series, including Prodigy, which will further expand the Star Trek universe. What can you tell us about them?

KURTZMAN: There are quite a few, and I think the idea for us is that it isn’t just about expansion for the sake of expansion. It’s actually about exploring different corners of the universe, in the same way that the Short Treks explore different corners of the world of Star Trek, the idea being that each show should have its own unique identity, and you should not be thinking that you can get from one show, what you can get in another.

Everything has to feel different, unique, special and specific, and yet you want it all to be of a piece, and tie into the larger Trek universe. So, it’s been a very coordinated effort, on a lot of people’s parts, to make sure that the shows feel different, and are about different things, and are saying different things, and feel different, and look different, and sound different. So, that’s been really fun and really rewarding.

DEADLINE: What else are you working on at the moment?

KURTZMAN: We are working really hard every day on The Man Who Fell to Earth, which I’m so excited to bring to the world. It’s been, in some ways, the most challenging thing I’ve ever worked on, as a writer, and I love those kinds of challenges. It’s been an amazing experience, so we’re gearing up to go on that very soon.

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