“It was important to me to do an episodic show because the engine of (Trek) is the big idea of the week… TV at its best, perhaps at its best performing, is when it functions as a metaphorical platform in which we can talk about (issues),” said Mount.
Along with fellow actors Rebecca Romijn (Cmdr. Una Chin-Riley, a.k.a. Number One), Ethan Peck (Spock), Jess Bush (Nurse Christine Chapel), Babs Olusanmokun (Dr. M’Benga), Christina Chong (La’an Noonien-Singh), Melissa Navia (Erica Ortegas), and Celia Rose Gooding (Cadet Nyota Uhura), Mount participated in a virtual press conference in late April to promote the new series.
SNW is the latest TV series in the 56-year-old franchise created by the late Gene Roddenberry. Debuting Thursday, May 5, on Paramount+, it is a spin-off of Star Trek: Discovery and serves as a prequel to 1966-69’s Star Trek: The Original Series.
In fact, the 1965 episode called “The Cage” was the first Trek pilot, which starred the late Jeffrey Hunter as Pike, the late Majel Barrett (Roddenberry’s wife) as Number One, and the late Leonard Nimoy as Spock. NBC executives called the pilot “too cerebral” and “too slow.” Rather than rejecting the series at the onset, NBC executives liked the concept and commissioned a second pilot – something unheard of – called “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Since Hunter decided to focus on his film career, Pike was replaced with William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk on TOS. Number One was dropped with Spock becoming the first officer (Barrett assumed the recurring role of Chapel).
Footage with Hunter from “The Cage” was seen in the 2-part TOS episode “The Menagerie” (“The Cage” was shown in its entirety for the first time in 1986). Pike was severely injured rescuing several cadets. Radiation rendered him paralyzed, unable to speak, badly scarred, and using a wheelchair for mobility. The disabled Pike was played by Sean Kenney. (In 2009’s Star Trek reboot, which occurs in an alternate reality, Bruce Greenwood played Pike).
SNW takes place in the 13 years between these two episodes, where Pike is aware of his fate. There are scenes when he sees his reflection and his scarred, mute incarnation looks back at him.
“We decided early on that we couldn’t get into the nitty-gritty of this show without dealing with the question: How does a person – particularly a leader – take the knowledge of their future… and consolidate it into their life and leadership style? We didn’t want to deal with that and move on. We wanted to integrate that into the development of the character and the show itself,” explained Mount. “It was a great exercise of the imagination because I don’t think anybody’s experienced that… in terms of knowing the exact time, place, and cause of your demise. Given the choice, most people would turn down the offer of that knowledge. The writers did an incredible job of incorporating that into (Pike’s) development.”
Mount spoke about Pike’s importance in Trek lore.
“It was very interesting being cast in this role,” he said. “I definitely had a sense of responsibility for a character that’s so venerated in (Trek) canon, but – strangely enough – there’s very little material to go on. There wasn’t a lot of Pike, so that had its pluses and its minuses. There was less I could dive into in terms of research, but it provided me a greater sense of freedom to bring my own thing to the role.”
He also spoke about how the previous actors who played Pike influenced his performance – or not.
“This will be a terribly boring answer, but not much at all. Not because I didn’t appreciate what (they) did – I’m a huge fan of (Greenwood), and (Hunter) was Pike to me growing up,” he said. “I come from the theater and you don’t go into a production of Hamlet, thinking, ‘Okay, I have to do (Laurence) Olivier’s Hamlet and I have to steer clear of Mel Gibson’s Hamlet.’ No, you just do Hamlet – do your Hamlet. Obviously, I’d watch them again to glean where the goal posts were, but I didn’t feel hindered… or the footprints were too deep.”
When Number One debuted in “The Cage,” she didn’t even have a name.
“We only saw her on-screen for 14 minutes in the original rejected pilot. We didn’t see much of the character; we just saw her working and being very good at her job,” explained Romijn. “Now we finally get this development, learn her name, and see why she is the way she is. I believe no one loves Starfleet more than Una. I believe no one loves the stars more than Una, and she’s very, very, very devoted to Starfleet, but she’s hiding this secret, which is a really interesting and fun (aspect) to play.”
That secret will be revealed in the third episode.
“(That’s) the reason she’s so good at what she does. She’s also a little intimidating and I believe she does that to keep her distance from people,” said Romijn. “Because we’re going for similar theme to (TOS), the funny bits are gonna be funny, the horrific bits are gonna be horrific, the sexy bits are gonna be sexy because (TOS) was all those things… It’s great to know Una as an actual character and not just someone who does her job. She’s got a personality as well. I’m embracing all of it.”
Romijn – who’s best known as shape-changing Mystique in the X-Men franchise – has been a Trekkie since her mother introduced her to TOS when she was 8.
“I understand that the fans of both of those franchises are very protective of these important characters. I consider myself a custodian, a caretaker – I don’t want to get it wrong,” she said. “The opportunity to play this legacy character who was a little bit of a blank slate was an incredible opportunity. There are a lot of familiar characters in (SNW) and we how protective of the canon and these characters (Trek) fans are. I’m a caretaker. I wanna get it right. I’m protective of this character as well. Here we are, developing her and it’s been a trip so far, it’s been a ride.”
The grandson of Hollywood legend Gregory Peck, being part of a legacy is nothing new for Ethan Peck. That’s not to say he feels any pressure as he takes on the role of Spock, arguably Trek’s most recognizable character. In the beginning, he felt frightened by the opportunity and the responsibility of playing Spock.
“I think there was a moment where I thought, ‘I’m not gonna get fired at this point,’” he said. “With each script I get, I am presented with new challenges that frighten me, that make me doubt myself, and leave a lot to be discovered on each day that I work. That’s ongoing. I think I feel security and can identify now with the portion of unknown. I have a certain amount of experience now and knowledge of the character. And then there’s a lot of space I keep in myself for the unknown and to be prepared for the unexpected – to be in a state of awareness and presence. That’s probably been the most difficult thing for me.”
One aspect of Spock that will be explored this season is Spock balancing the two halves of himself – his Vulcan half (his logical side) and his human half (his emotional side).
“He does that by being faced with certain situations and experimenting with certain behaviors in response to those situations,” said Peck. “(The writers have) put me in scenarios where I hope to behave in an authentic way as Spock. I think my familiarity with the entity and the spirit of Spock increases over time and becomes more detailed, more loving, and more rich.”
Comparisons to Nimoy are unavoidable. However, Peck doesn’t think about it.
“I’ve learned to focus on my experience in the moment in each scene I’m in as (Spock)…” he said. “In the beginning, I was definitely terrified by the comparison and that’s something so beyond my control. All I can do is be a conduit to the spirit of Spock that was birthed by Nimoy… Some people, I hope, will love my version of it and will think been done with great respect, love, and care for Nimoy’s version.”
Jess Bush and Babs Olusanmokun
Bush and Olusanmokun don’t have to walk the tightrope Peck does. While their characters may have been introduced in TOS, they had bit roles.
“Unfortunately for me, Booker Bradshaw, who was Dr. M’Benga, was just in two episodes of (TOS). I did watch it, but I (made) the decision to craft a new life, a new journey for him. He’s a work-in-progress right now, but it is exciting, and it is an honor to build on what he left back then,” said Olusanmokun.
Barrett was in all three seasons of TOS as Chapel. Bush watched all of Barrett’s performances and read nursing manuals to prepare for this role. She is the second actress to portray Chapel, which she found daunting and knew it was a big responsibility. It’s also an exciting challenge from a creative standpoint.
“She’s very sarcastic, a straight shooter, she has a lot of humor with the way she interacts with people,” said Bush. “Taking that essence and collaborating with (the writers), we’re really fleshing out who is the younger woman who exists underneath that. Who is she? There’s so much complexity to be found and relevance in the world today and the experience about being a young woman.”
She continued: “They trusted me a lot and had some idea about who she is and what’s going on with her internally, but also gave me direction and license to explore. It’s been such a pleasure to explore with her and continue to discover who she is… It’s been an honor to be only the second actor to ever bring this character to life as well – a huge honor! I feel like I’m coming from the best of both worlds.”
Celia Rose Gooding, Christina Chong, and Melissa Navia
Uhura is not only important to Trek lore, but also to the African-American community. Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in TOS, wanted to quit the show, but the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced her otherwise, telling her she’s playing a character of color who is an equal instead of someone subservient. Former President Barack Obama is also an Uhura fan.
Gooding was aware of this going into SNW. However, this Uhura is a cadet and not the commander seen on TOS and subsequent six movies. For Gooding, it was a matter of when to stop looking into what Nichols (and later Zoe Saldana) brought to this character and start making it her own.
“The cadet I’m playing has no idea what’s in store for her… The Uhura who is beloved in this franchise is the person she is today,” said Gooding. “The challenge for me is to remember I’m playing a character and not Celia because so much overlaps.”
While Chong’s character is new, she is related to an established character: Ricardo Montalbán’s Khan Noonien-Singh, the genetically enhanced madman from most prominently 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch played Khan in 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness).
“I immersed myself in (TOS) and Khan. I watched everything I could with him. Other than that, I did ask friends who were Trekkers (about him),” said Chong. “She’s a strong yet vulnerable person but she’s put this wall up… Playing with vulnerability and strength is something I found that came naturally to me.”
Ortegas is a brand new character with no connections to any existing characters.
“I was really happy to be auditioning for role of a Latina and to be able to go to space… can’t beat that,” said Navia. “Ortegas is a cooler version of me in the future. I’m excited to play a character who’s Latina. Stepping into this role, I was big on how to fly a starship. We put ourselves into the characters. We genuinely like each other… You’ll see different aspects of her as the season continues.”
Navia stated the bridge of the Enterprise “represents the rest of the world” as humans from all walks of life and aliens from other galaxies work together for a common cause. Trek is very inclusive. Bush agreed with Navia.
“Diversity has been such a pillar of what (Trek) has been since its beginning,” said Bush. “That is such a special part of what it is. I think they’ve been really intentional in the way they’ve continued that through and continue to make that relevant. Diversity today might mean something different to what diversity was back when (the show) was first conceived. From my experience, I find it very exciting that five (members) of the main cast are female. To me, that is awesome and the fact that it’s not a tokenistic plot point… We’re in positions of power. To me, that has been really fresh and awesome.”
A Strong and Vocal Fanbase
In 1968, TOS was cancelled at the end of its second season. However, in a passionate letter-writing campaign, devoted fans convinced NBC to renew it for a third season. While it was cancelled at the end of its third season, it found a new life in syndication in the early 1970s.
In 1971, George Christman, who was attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, reached out to other fans in an effort to revive Trek. He founded the Star Trek Association for Revival (STAR) at U-M and ran an ad to recruit fellow fans in The Ann Arbor News. As a result, he was inundated with phone calls. STAR’s membership reached 250,000 across 13 countries. Christman even became acquainted with Roddenberry and the cast of TOS.
Trek’s strong fanbase resulted in Trek’s strong resurgence with a vengeance, including 13 movies, 11 TV series, numerous video games, novels, comics, and countless other merchandise. To date, it’s grossed approximately $10.6 billion in revenue.
“I’ve never had a fan reaction to anything like that,” said Mount. “I was kinda taken aback by it. When there was this large fan movement to ask for a Pike-based show, I didn’t know what to do with it, but I appreciated it. I still appreciate it. It’s changed my life. It’s given me a job at a very difficult time for actors. It’s given me the freedom of choice to have a family. So I’m extraordinarily grateful and I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to do it as best I can to the degree that I can.”
Grosse Pointe native Charlie Carden is the fleet captain of the U.S.S. Grand Petoskey, which is a Grand Rapids-based chapter of the Starfleet International Fan Club. Founded in 2019, The U.S.S. Grand Petoskey is the third-largest chapter in the world. At this time, it boasts 100 members. Starfleet International has provided fans a way to make friends, give back to their communities, and demonstrate Roddenberry’s dream of people coming together.
“Trek may be all aliens and spaceships and such, but even the alien characters –like Spock, Data, or Odo, for a few – are mere reflections of humanity, turning the mirror around to put the camera back on us,” said Carden. “Trek stories focus back on our own foibles, set across the backdrop of ‘the final frontier,’ and its message of hope and togetherness will continue to keep the franchise in the zeitgeist for years to come.”
Carden met Mount at last month’s Star Trek: Mission Chicago and even cosplayed as Pike.
“(Mount) seemed very quiet, reserved. Yet he was still very charming,” said Carden. “I told him I was working with him as my inspiration for my hair game and fitness routine. I could tell he smiled when he said, ‘Aren’t we all?’”
Trek’s Long-Last Impact and Legacy
Bush spoke about Trek’s staying power.
“The thing that strikes me about (Trek) is that from its beginning, it’s had such a vast, cultural impact,” said Bush. “References to (Trek) are everywhere, it’s in everything. I think they’ve been really intentional about how they exert that power and to be able to contribute to that as an artist – there’s nothing else you can ask for than to able to lend your voice and your heart to spreading a positive message and having an impact that’s really aiming for better for people and the world.”
Olusanmokun agreed with Bush.
“That’s such an important part of (Trek’s) legacy and it’s a legacy that embraces…” he said. “Without that, it simply would not be (Trek). It’s (a legacy) we are extremely honored to be a part of. We’re so blessed to be picked to help tell these stories that could help bring something a little lighter to the world.”
Peck called being a part of Trek the “journey of a lifetime.”
“Who knows if anything else I do will be of this magnitude or be at this level of relevancy to popular culture? I feel enormously lucky and also enormously burdened with the responsibility of this character because it’s so important not just to (Trek) canon and lore, but I think to television history,” said Peck. “I can say that intellectually and I understand that, but the experience of that is really wild and weird to me and I’m still trying to make sense of it. I just feel insanely lucky to be a part of it, and I can’t believe it’s happening to me.”
He continued: “I pinch myself every day and I’m so grateful because not only is he an amazing character, but the show that I work on with the people I work with are spectacular and care so much about what they do. It feels like lightning in a bottle – at least from my perspective – and I hope that is communicated in our product when it’s revealed to the world soon.”