The latest episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, “Subspace Rhapsody” was certainly something to sing about. Strange New Worlds fans have come to expect the unexpected as the series continues to tackle an expanding number storylines, social issues and genres. Even after the recent Jonathan Frakes directed episode, “Those Old Scientists” that brought the animated characters of Star Trek: Lower Decks to life in flesh and blood on the USS Enterprise, the ambitious series continues to aim to hit new high notes.
Star Trek; Strange New Worlds turned to director Dermott Downs to helm the first musical episode in the long history of Star Trek. Quelling any concerns the episode not only went all in on a full-on musical, it also delivered an episode that explored the complex character and relationships in way that left long lasting effects on several crew members.
Awards Radar sat down to with Downs to discuss the Star Trek episode that provided number after number of intergalactic musical delights performed by the full Enterprise crew and even some Klingons complete with choreograhy.
Steven Prusakowski: Let me start by saying I loved this episode. The grand finale gave me the chills. Actually, I had the chills many times. I was quite nervous going into the episode concerned you were going to cheat here. But the second I heard Spock sing I was overjoyed it was a full blown musical. How did you get involved?
Dermott Downs: I grew up on the original when was airing. Praise to Lucille Ball for helping make that pilot happen back in the day. But so, I had never been part of Discovery or Picard. And I wasn’t even part of season one. Actually, season one hadn’t dropped when I met with Secret Hideout (EP Alex Kurtzman’s production company). They were like, ‘We’ve got a three camera sitcom episode and we’ve got a musical.’ I got into business because of Oliver Twist and then I became a music video cinematographer. Then obviously, I’ve done a The Flash/Supergirl musical. I’ve also done a couple of episodes that deal with ballet or have had some song elements. But this is by far a career highlight. And like the best example of, I think, how you can blend drama and music that I’ve ever been a part of, because it’s still so grounded. The music just becomes a tool for exposition. So the virus of this infection compels them to express their vulnerabilities through song. Believe me, I thought, ‘A musical Star Trek’ are we jumping the shark? But, you know, great script from Dana Horgan & Bill Wolkoff. And, (showrunners) Henry Alonso Myers and Akiva Goldsman and Alex Kurtzman certainly put a great template together for a very grounded show.
That’s one of the best parts of Strange New Worlds is its risk taking. It takes all the barriers typically we associate with Star Trek and busting through without losing its identity.
Dermott Downs: Yeah, it’s a fine line. And they do it so well. I was up there for extra prep for like an extra two weeks – just me with the choreographer and the soundtrack on my headphones walking the stages and discovering the different tenor and tone of each song so I could try to visualize the singularity of each song and set them in their own visual kind of tone, but still be within the reality of the show.
You dabble in so many different areas of music and genres, as well as in the emotions of each songs; every one has a different feel. It’s not just the music that shifts, it’s the way you shoot it and the choreography, every piece is its own unique chapter. What is the collaboration like for you working with the music team and the choreography and the cinematography?
Dermott Downs: It was a blessing that they flew me up two weeks at a time with Roberto Campanella, who is quite an amazing choreographer with his own company and has also done like all of Guillermo de Toro’s movies, like The Shape of Water. He’s finding that creature kind of choreography. So we wanted to lean into the strengths of what the songs were. If the song was somber, like let’s say La’an (Christina Chong) song, she’s not going to be in her bedroom and sit for four minutes. We were trying to find the reason and this was a collaboration with her as well. It’s like, ‘How do we find that reflected moment at the window, and then get her to the bed and then in her mind, she goes into bed with Kirk in the other world flashback to that?’ In a way that she was never able to communicate and express herself in the real world. Trying to find that and distinguish each song in the cast was great. They came in on weekends to do dance rehearsals, they were also recording after work their version of the temp tracks – which I had been working from. I mean look like Celia (Celia Rose Gooding) and Chrissy (Christina Chong) are singers in their own right, but, Jess (Bush) and Rebecca (Romijn), Anson (Mount) and Paul (Wesley) all grounded it, but let the song take them away, because ultimately, what the song is doing is it gets inside them and makes them express what they would not normally express.
It’s kind of working in reverse of what music does to listeners, sometimes music can dig into you and connect with the listener emotionally. What happens in this episode, is they express with the songs they emotions already hidden inside them, allowing these characters to emote in ways that just reading dialogue cannot always capture. Music taps into a certain part of your soul. And at the same time you are also making us laugh, the Klingon song is hilarious. There’s just so much to enjoy here.
Dermott Downs: Anson’s (Anson Mount) country duet just goes off the rails. I mean, that scene would be so over the top if it was a conversation. This was a private conversation, but the fact that he’s compelled through music, and humiliated, then getting down on his hands and knees to profess his love. Oh my God, there’s so many beats in that and they were just great. Obviously, they know their characters so well, that with the choreography that we had discussed, they were just all game to explore that and go as far as they could, but still keep it grounded. I think we did a good job.
You also keep that balance where there’s still plenty of dramatic tension. This is not just them singing to sing, they’re in the middle of another crisis. At the same time, they don’t take themselves too seriously. There are those moments that kind of wink at the camera – we’re meant to enjoy this.
Dermott Downs: Yeah, like Nurse Chapel’s (Jess Bush) big number right out of Grease in the mess hall – the sadness of Spock watching or going, ‘There’s a bigger world out there that maybe doesn’t include me.’ Yeah, the sort of heartbreak and liberation at the same time. So yeah, really well rounded songs.
Were there any members of the cast that surprised you with their singing ability?
Dermott Downs: Well, I never worked with Celia before. I have done videos for a lot of big established stars and she’s got the chops as much as anyone I’ve ever been on a set with. I mean that was a power ballad that just ranks up there with any of them. And Chrissy, she’s actually got an album out this summer. But Ethan was like, “Look, you know, I’ve never done anything like this?” He’s got that long solo, and he tweaked it being a Vulcan and yet there’s still this humanity that’s trying to break through. That was a really new experience. He’s just so great. He explores that other side as he’s developing feelings for Nurse Chapel – there’s a lot of nuance to what he’s doing. He’s a he’s a real treat to work with.
Are there more musicals and or more Star Trek in your future?
Dermott Downs: I certainly hope so. I let everybody know that it was a career highlight because the material was so great. The cast, everybody was on board. I mean, in a way, it’s twice the work, but it was kind of painless, because it was one of my easiest executions. Not that every day was easy, but what I was imagining, and everybody was on board to do it. I would love to be able to go back to that world. Somebody had asked me what’s one genre that I haven’t done, because the show was great and it just opens up a new window and lands on something every week. So I was like, a Western would be really cool. Anson, I think he’s been on horse in the show already. But, you know, a full blown Western.
That’d be great. I’d love to see it. That’s what I love about the series, every week, even if it’s set on a spaceship, it taps into so many different genres. It touches different parts of humanity and the social fabric are being discussed while it’s still people with phasers and teleporters.
Dermott Downs: Yeah, when they invited me to be part of the show. At first I was like, ‘Well, why another one?’ Because what was great about the original was that every week was an ethical, moral, comedic… just a different take on the world. And they’re executing it so well. So yeah, I really hope I’m invited back.
I hope so too. Let me wrap up with a really quick one, three words to describe this episode.
Dermott Downs: Out. Of. Space.
I like it. A very different answer than expected. Thank you so much for your time. You packed so much creativity into it this episode, it is really impressive. I wish we had an hour or an hour to discuss it more, because there is so much to dig into. Also, I was looking over your career history and my gosh, the artists and projects you worked on – you’ve got stories to tell. So hopefully we will speak again in the future. Have a great day.
Dermott Downs: That would be great. Thank you and have a great day. Bye
Check out the trailer for “Subspace Rhapsody” below and be sure to watch all of seasons one and two of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds now streaming on Paramount+.