In the vast universe of Star Trek, a new chapter emerged last year with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a captivating prequel to the iconic Star Trek: The Original Series. Set aboard the USS Enterprise, under the command of the charismatic Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), this thrilling series takes viewers on a journey through uncharted territories and unexplored galaxies.
What sets Strange New Worlds apart is not only its commitment to honoring the rich legacy of Star Trek but also its dedication to fostering diversity and inclusion both in front of and behind the camera. With its recent hiring practices that prioritize diverse talents, the show exemplifies the power of collaboration and representation in creating compelling storytelling. Award-winning filmmaker and scientist, Dr. Valerie Weiss, adds her expertise to this remarkable series, directing an episode that explores themes of human rights and social justice.
In our exclusive interview with Valerie, we dive into her creative process and the profound impact of telling inclusive stories in the Star Trek universe. Join us as we explore the visionary world of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and discover how its commitment to diversity contributes to its effectiveness as a groundbreaking series. Dr. Weiss spoke with Awards Radar writers and hosts, Norm Felker and Lucas Longacre, of our sci fi loving podcast The ‘Verse! about her work on the series.
Norm Felker: Hello Valerie. Lucas and I have been big fans of Strange New Worlds. We just finished discussing this episode on our podcast The ‘Verse not too long ago. I can’t say how much we loved it, so we’re actually very excited to talk to you today.
Valerie Weiss: Thank you so much.
Norm Felker: You have a long list of impressive television credits including The Bull, Scandal, The Librarians, how did you come to be a part of Strange New Worlds episode 202; also known as Ad Astra Per Aspera?
Valerie Weiss: Thanks for asking. A DP (Director of Photography) that I’d worked with Benji Bocce, who’s the alternating DP on season two, we had done The Prodigal Son and The Rookie together and had a blast. Like an instant connection. I feel like we went so deep on those episodes, and he called me up after he got hired for Strange New Worlds said they’re still looking for directors, might I be interested? First I was like, of course, I want to work with you again, Benji. But then Star Trek, oh, my God. Even though it wasn’t a franchise I was super familiar with from growing up. I used to be a scientist. And so I knew that it explored really deep, interesting issues in really provocative, novel ways. And so I instantly did a deep dive into the original series and loved it. And loved how far they take ethical and moral questions. They don’t just scratch the surface. And that’s what I’m all about as a filmmaker. And so when I met with Chris Fisher about the episode I was just so excited to learn that I was gonna get to do a courtroom episode. So I was really thrilled.
Lucas Longacre: And so what about at Astra Per Aspera really hooked you when you’ve read the script the first time?
Valerie Weiss: Oh, my gosh, I think there’s two things. One, obviously, the bigger issue of human rights and social justice, and how twisty and thorny it was to explore this within the Federation, a world that we love and revere. And just the intelligent argument that Neera (Yetide Badaki) has to make, in order to prove something that should just be so basic in terms of our how we treat each other. I thought it was just so brilliantly done. And as intellectual as it was, it had heart all the way through it. So that was the first thing. The second thing that’s really important to me as a filmmaker is, we have to tell stories about big ideas through character and emotion. And the fact that the linchpin of this episode was really this friendship between Una (Rebecca Romijn) and Neera (Yetide Badaki) that was fractured when they were young girls, due to no fault of their own, was just always going to be the emotional well that I would keep drawing from throughout it in terms of directing performance, but even just designing the visual language of the episode, because we can all relate to heartbreak like that.
Norm Felker: You said you went back and you did a deep dive into the original series. Were there any episodes that you looked at? Was there anything that you tried including?
Valerie Weiss: Yes. I also watched Measure of a Man and some of the later court martial episodes. Menagerie really influenced me. I think that’s maybe where they first established the hand on the lit up stand. I think the discs are from that. But as soon as I saw those two pieces, as much as you know, this feels like a fresh, modern revisiting to that genre. And I wanted to keep it fresh and modern. I really wanted to honor the history and origin of where this great subgenre of court martial episodes comes from. So those were two design elements. As soon as I saw that, I talked to our props person, Jim and our amazing production designer Jonathan Lee. I was like, ‘how can we incorporate this’? When Pathak is cross examining Una and he’s like, ‘I remind you, you’re under oath’, and we have that great visual moment where we can be tight on her hand, and she can think ‘oh my god, am I going to perjure myself?’ Which of course she would never do, but it just upped the stakes to have that idea of a potential lie detector there. Hold everybody accountable.
Lucas Longacre: We just mentioned some classic Star Trek episodes. But as a filmmaker, was there any film history that you revisited, like A Few Good Men, Witness for the Prosecution, 12 Angry Men?
Valerie Weiss: 12 Angry Men. I love that movie. So much of anything Sidney Lumet did. I’m trying to remember because it’s been over a year since I shot the episode. I wonder if Henry Alonza Meyers and I discussed A Few Good Men or was it Benji, I definitely revisited the climax of the courtroom scene for that, just to see how far you can go emotionally. And how strident you can be in a courtroom, but still be effective. So I definitely revisited those movies.
Norm Felker: This episode is being praised for its message of inclusion. And it’s beautifully done. Everyone from the cast and the crew, and everyone did is exceptional work. Probably my favorite episode. Is there something about the medium of sci-fi that allows us to tell these stories of inclusion, maybe a little bit easier than other genres?
Valerie Weiss: 100%? It’s a great question. And I love sci fi. I love it for the world building. And it’s not unlike doing science. And in science, you’re always creating models, right? Like, if you want to wrap your head around something, really a thought experiment that’s really hard to get into, we find ways to simplify or even oversimplify a system. So we can look at it and just study the part that we’re interested in. Like when you do a knockout mouse, there’s one gene you want to study that’s complicated, but you knock it out, and you look at the effects, right? So sci fi is kind of like that. And it’s much easier to look at human dynamics and social conscious issues, because you take the personal out of it, because everyone’s going to have so much attached to our society and their own feelings and things can be so triggering, but you want to take that out of it. And just look at the pure emotional issue when you’re discussing these kinds of things. And so I think this is the perfect format to explore these issues. And Star Trek is the master of it. This court martial subgenre, I think that’s why it’s so successful, is it gets at it so purely.
Lucas Longacre: Filmmaking is highly technical, yet it deals with emotions. So I imagine your background as a scientist has definitely given you certain skill sets that are translatable from one field to the other.
Valerie Weiss: 100%. And I feel so grateful that I got to do a PhD in biophysics at Harvard, not just because it taught me tenacity and not to quit, and to go where no one’s ever gone before. Because that’s really what you do as a scientist, boldly because you have to really trust those five years or more are going to amount to something because there’s no guarantee they will. And so it really prepared me for my life and profession as a director. But it also taught me to be so critical about logic. When I get a script, not just how do we get from A to B, but emotional logic. When I read a script, I have a bullshit meter. I have a veracity meter for whether an actor would truly do this, like, would they really leave the room at this point? Would they sit here when they say this, and I just and I used to act so I just I feel it as much as I think it. And so I’m able to go through a script in the first read and detect what’s working from that perspective or not, and then be able to have a conversation with our writers and showrunners. There really wasn’t much on this beautifully written episode to discuss from that perspective and an early draft but anything I wanted to talk to with Dana Horgan, who wrote this beautiful episode and Akiva Goldsman and Henry Alonso Meyers, who are unbelievable show runners, they were so open because it’s all in the pursuit of truth. And if I bump on something, then the audience is going to and so that has really helped me. Certainly the technical aspect doesn’t intimidate me whatsoever. I mean, I did my research at synchrotrons and did X ray crystallography.
Lucas Longacre: The technobabble flows off your tongue.
Valerie Weiss: I love it. I love it. Bring me more.
Lucas Longacre: Being a scientist, out of all the different Star Trek shows and movies, do you have a favorite character? And why is it Bones?
Valerie Weiss: I’m not even going to answer because I’ve been invited back for season three. And I would not have to pick somebody.
Norm Felker: Was Menagerie your favorite of the episodes that you watched? Or was there one that was like maybe that you love more, but maybe didn’t have the same relationship as what you were trying to do for this episode?
Valerie Weiss: I loved Menagerie. I think Menagerie and Measure of a Man, both of them. I mean, I just felt so much for Data. When you have a nonhuman character who you can feel that way about? I’ve mean, that’s incredible storytelling. So I would say they’re tied for me.
Norm Felker: I love Measure of Man. That’s probably my third favorite episode of the entire TNG run. We talked about on our podcast. The Outcast was my favorite. But those are both great episodes. And this was a great episode. And thank you very much for speaking with us because we really enjoyed it. And we hope you enjoyed making it and we really would like to see you come back for more.
Lucas Longacre: Maybe season three, you’ll get another opportunity.
Valerie Weiss: Yeah, I’ve been invited back and talk to you guys in the future about that. I love this interview. This was so much fun. Your questions were amazing. Thank you. Great well