To Boldly Go: David Mack on “Star Trek: Discovery” and Desperate Hours


Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery. Photo © CBS Entertainment

If you’re a fan of the Star Trek expanded universe, then David Mack is probably a name you know well. If you haven’t delved into the wide world of stories outside the TV shows, Mack has written many different (and excellent) Star Trek novels. Now, he’s written the prequel novel to the newest TV series, Star Trek: Discovery, available exclusively on CBS All Access.

Star Trek: Discovery centers on Lieutenant Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) and takes place in the original universe (not J.J. Abrams’ movie universe). Timeline-wise, it takes place after Enterprise but before the events of The Original Series.

The series takes its name from the ship that’s its main setting, the USS Discovery, captained by Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), where Michael serves as first officer. Michael’s original ship, though, was the USS Shenzhou, with Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) serving as its captain, and it’s that ship that is the focus on the prequel novel Desperate Hours. Mack tackles Michael’s human heritage and Vulcan upbringing, her relationship with Spock, the relationships among the Shenzhou crew, and more in this exciting novel.

Unbound Worlds: You’ve written several Star Trek novels and co-written two Deep Space Nine episodes. What was it like being back in a Trek universe, especially with a crew and during a time period we haven’t really seen before?

David Mack: In a sense, we have seen this time period before. The pilot of Star Trek: Discovery is set in 2256, roughly two years after the events of the original Star Trek pilot “The Cage,” which starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike.

That created one of the challenges I faced when writing Desperate Hours: how do I reconcile the visual aesthetics and modern visual effects of Star Trek: Discovery with those of a television pilot produced in 1964?

I needed to be true in my descriptions of the ships, uniforms, and equipment to what is shown on-screen in Discovery, but I also wanted to honor the legacy of the series’ original pilot. I did my best to accomplish that by providing subtle explanations for the differences in the two crews’ uniforms, and by alluding to the reverence and awe the crew of the Shenzhou has for the new jewel in the crown of Starfleet, the Constitution-class Starship Enterprise — but without ever actually providing hard numbers or making an apples-to-apples comparison of the two ships.

By the time I sat down to write Desperate Hours I had been immersed in the Star Trek universe for several months, writing back-to-back novels for other Star Trek series. What made this project different was that I had to write it without ever having seen a single moment of the filmed show, and without having heard the actors’ voices.

The real trick for me was trying to bring to life a crew that I couldn’t see before writing the book. I did that by drafting detailed bios of all the supporting characters, giving them backstories, hobbies, quirks, etc. As a fun side note, some of those character names got picked up by the show, and my bios were given to the actors to help them round out their performances. So I feel like I got to give something back to the show.

You write a quite a bit of character development for Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery) in this novel. What did you experience when getting into her head?

As a character who is torn between her human impulses and the conditioning of a Vulcan education, Michael Burnham embodies an interesting dichotomy. She has never mastered the suppression of emotion in the manner that Vulcans do, but she is far more emotionally distant than most of her human shipmates. She also is not as rigidly steeped in the tradition of logic as are her Vulcan contemporaries, but her deductive skills and mental acuity are more advanced than those of many humans.

In some respects, Michael represents the “best of both worlds” balance of human and Vulcan traits to which Spock always aspired — but the bitter irony is that in spite of this she fails to win the approval of her mentor and foster father Sarek. This deepens her relationship with Captain Phillipa Georgiou, who becomes her second mentor, but Michael’s confidence in herself has for much of her adult life been undermined by her inability to understand why Sarek treats her as if she were a disappointment to him.

How much of the series/scripts/character treatments did you get to see before you wrote Desperate Hours? What was the writing process like?

I’ve had the privilege of being “in the loop” on Star Trek: Discovery since day one. In the early days I saw concept art and production sketches, and my friend Kirsten Beyer, who served as a staff writer on the show during its first season, kept me informed of developments concerning the series’ overall story, the backgrounds and story arcs of key characters, and similar details.

However, because of the very fluid nature of the television development process, I was not able to start drafting a story for Desperate Hours until the show was farther along. Even then, we had a few false starts as some of the show’s underlying premises evolved in the writers’ room, changes that necessitated I scrap some plans for my book and go back to the drawing board.

Once the pilot was closer to being locked down, it became possible to commit to a story idea for the first Star Trek: Discovery novel. Working from a request made by Bryan Fuller, I fleshed out a story idea during some phone calls with Kirsten Beyer, who also coordinates media tie-in projects (such as novels, comic books, games, etc.) connected to the new series. Once I had written up a plot that I felt satisfied Kirsten’s and Bryan’s requests, I sent it to The Powers That Be (my editors, CBS Television Licensing, and Kirsten) for approval. As a final step, my story was approved by the showrunners, Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts.

After that, the writing process was smooth sailing. I drafted my manuscript in about nine weeks, and it was approved for production with only a few minor adjustments. We made a few more tweaks during editing to keep the manuscript consistent with what was being developed on the show (which was being written at the same time as the novel), and in the writers’ room Kirsten did her best to keep the Discovery team from stepping on my story idea or accidentally blowing my novel out of continuity.

Writing Michael must have been a challenge, but we’re familiar with her biological and cultural heritage — human and Vulcan, respectively. But Saru is a Kelpien, a species we’ve never encountered before. Was he difficult to write?

Michael’s background is not as familiar as it might seem. Though fans have seen human-Vulcan hybrids before — most notably in the person of Spock — and many have been featured in the books and comics, that is not what Michael Burnham is. She is one hundred percent human from a biological standpoint, but from an educational and cultural standpoint, she identifies as Vulcan. In that respect, she serves as a way to examine the conflict between nature and nurture, between what a person feels they were born to be and who they were raised to be.

Saru, however, is something completely new to Star Trek. His species, the Kelpiens, were an intelligent race of humanoids who suddenly found themselves no longer at the top of their planet’s food chain. Reduced to prey, treated like cattle, they have developed keen instincts for sensing danger, hostility, and deception. If one could say there is a core driving force to the Kelpiens as a species, it would be fear.

But Saru is something different. For him, curiosity is stronger than fear. Although he is a new kind of alien, one that I’ve never seen or heard on-screen before writing his character in my novel, I felt as if I understood him perfectly thanks to the crystal-clear realization of his identity by the Discovery writing team. The more I wrote about Saru, the more I came to understand and to love him as a character. In many ways I empathize with his story arc in Star Trek: Discovery, and I could see even from just the early scripts that he is a complex being with many secrets and a deeply sensitive nature that he must guard jealously for his own sanity.

Saru is smart, dynamic, funny, and tragic all at the same time. I think that once fans get to see him brought to life by Doug Jones, Saru will become one of the most iconic and beloved characters in the Star Trek canon.

I was thrilled to see Spock make an appearance in the novel. Did you enjoy the chance to write his younger self?

I always enjoy getting a chance to write for Spock! I grew up watching syndicated reruns of Star Trek (before we had to call it The Original Series), so Spock was one of my childhood icons. Any opportunity to imagine a scene from his point of view and write using the filter of his experience is like revisiting my childhood wonder at the missions of the Starship Enterprise.

Are you excited for there to be a new Star Trek series in the world?

Of course I am! Star Trek has always been at its best on television, and the medium of television is presently enjoying what some in the industry call its “new golden age.” Television has embraced complex, long-form narratives, complicated characters, and stunning production values. It is time not only for a new Star Trek on television, but for a new kind of Star Trek on television, one created to take advantage of the evolution that the medium has experienced since 2005. Star Trek: Discovery is that next crucial step forward for the Star Trek universe.

I am especially jazzed to see the two-part premiere, because up until now I’ve had only the scripts, set photography, and concept art to inform my vision of what the show looks and sounds like. But I want to see and hear it in all its glory, with performances, music, effects, and all.

What’s one thing you learned about the Shenzhou crew that you want people to take away from this book?

The crew of the USS Shenzhou in 2255, when my novel’s story takes place, is a bit different from the crew seen in the series pilot. Some officers we’ll meet in the pilot aren’t on the bridge yet, or they are serving at other posts. The crew of this ship is what you’d expect of Starfleet: competent, brave, professional, ethical, and moral.

At the same time, they know they are not serving on the “finest” ship in the fleet. The Shenzhou is a workhorse of a vessel, several decades old, still in service after several refits but hardly top of the line. Its crew knows they aren’t the biggest superstars in Starfleet, but when a crisis occurs, they will get the job done.

Do you have any upcoming projects that we can look forward to?

For Star Trek fans who prefer the 24th century to the 23rd, I have a Star Trek Titan novel titled Fortune of War coming out on Tuesday, November 28, 2017.

Fortune of War follows up on a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “The Survivors.” Our heroes struggle to prevent the arsenal of an extinct warlike species called the Husnock from being plundered and abused by everyone from black-market smugglers to Nausicaan freedom-fighters to Breen commandos. It’s a rip-roaring adventure ride.

Even more exciting (for me) is the impending release of the first book in Dark Arts, my new original secret-history modern-fantasy series coming from Tor Books. The Midnight Front will published on January 30, 2018, and is now available for pre-order.