Doug Aarniokoski: Of Long Games and Short Treks…

EXCLUSIVE: Doug Aarniokoski discovered there’s only one way to direct and produce 'Star Trek'. Boldly.

(On the set of ‘Highlander: Endgame’)

While Doug Aarniokoski first made his name handling many second-unit direction duties for friend and colleague Robert Rodriguez (and subsequently made his own feature films such as Highlander: Endgame, grand-guignol romp Nurse 3D and the post-apocalyptic The Day), it’s his work on television that has seen him rapidly become a go-to director and executive producer. Look through the primetime schedules of the last five years and it’s hard to find a fan-favourite he hasn’t worked on:  The Flash, Green Arrow, Limitless, Criminal Minds and Bull to name but a few.

However his current ongoing mission is boldly going with several aspects of the Star Trek franchise.  Just a few years ago, the franchise seemed somewhat becalmed. For the first time in decades there wasn’t a regular Trek show on the airwaves and even the big-screen re-invention steered by J J Abrams was getting mixed reviews.

The launch of Star Trek: Discovery – which arrived in January 2018 after several delays and personnel changes behind the scenes – can now be seen for what it was: essentially the opening, scene-setting salvo for a new era of the Trek mythology. Alongside this story of an experimental vessel in the years  prior to Kirk’s original five year mission, has come the announcement of other projects. ‘Short Treks’ – self-contained mini-episodes have been debuting monthly in the run-up to Discovery’s second season. Patrick Stewart will return to the role of Jean-Luc Picard for a series that catches up with the iconic captain twenty years after All Good Things came to and end that looks set to broadcast before the end of 2019. There will be an animated series, Lower Decks. There’s also rumours of a dilithium-powered spin-off for Michelle Yeoh’s overthrown Emperor Georgiou. Essentially there’s suddenly more activity than a bachelor party for Tribbles.

It’s a good time to be involved with Star Trek and Doug acknowledges that half of the voyage home has been to create aspects of the bigger landscape that would appeal to die-hard fans and newcomers alike.

“It’s hard to try something new when you’re creating a show that’s got such a successful trademark and a fanbase attached to it already. People often aren’t open to change when it comes to something that has become so ingrained into their lives for so long. There’s such a canon behind that you have to navigate those waters carefully. With Star Trek, Star Wars and franchises like them, that’s often the reason they hadn’t been done in a while. But it was always the masterplan with Alex Kurtzman. Once you got Discovery up and running and you’d reopened the doors to space, if you will, then this bigger universe would start to be created. But they had to get the first show out of the gates. They did  and it’s become very successful. Once Season Two hits the air, I think it will become universally beloved once again.”

Being part of something like Star Trek carries a very specific gravity to it. Can you talk us through how you became involved?

“For Season One and Season Two of Discovery, I only came in as a guest director. I did one episode last year and I have two this year. I produced the shorts and directed the December entry which is called The Brightest Star. It wasn’t like I was… embedded, but there was a feeling of the gravitas and the weight that comes along with doing Star Trek. Certainly I felt the responsibility to the show and the fans. It’s not just another hour of television. Nothing should ever be considered ‘just another hour of television’, but this is something else. It’s fantastical and enormous in its scope. Everyone is aware of it. Whether they are super-fans or not, people know who the characters are, they know the world…. Multiple words, even, depending on what path they’ve travelled over the years.”

That’s the double-edged sword of long-established fandoms, the fact that there’s people who have been around for decades and those who have only discovered it more recently… and they all have to be catered for?

“Some of the younger kids ONLY know the J J (Abrams) movies and that’s their intro. So trying to direct the show that is opening up new doors  and welcoming people through familiar doors… yeah, that’s a big responsibility – even  for people like me who were only coming in for a few episodes.  I’ll be one of the executive Producers on ‘Picard’ and that’ll be my everyday gig. For that, I will be embedded in that world of Patrick Stewart and the character he created. Picking up that world where we left off  – or later within it   – is a huge responsibility.

My kids were never Star Trek fans but they had no reason to grow up with it. They just missed the J J movies, just a little too young. Now  they are in their teens there hasn’t been a Trek for them to latch on to until Discovery… and they really dig it.  I can also call my buddy  who’s 46 years old and he can tell me every beat about every Original Series episode.  Not everybody can say that they work on a show that spans so many different age-groups and fanbases.”

It’s tempting to think of Trek as the offer you cannot refuse, but was there ever a moment when that size, scope and the weight of expectations made you hesitate?

“I’ve never, ever said ‘Oh no’ to anything Star Trek. I’ve only ever said ‘Hell, yes!’ (laughs). You start to look around and go: ‘Alex Kurtzman, Michael Chabon… who, by the way, HAS A PULITZER… comic genius Mike McMahan who created Rick and Morty (the most genius  thing you’ll ever watch)… you have all these guys involved in the Short Treks because they soft-pedal(in a good way) into what becomes the next version of Star Trek.  Chabon is working on Picard, McMahon is creating the Lower Decks animation series which has been greenlit for two seasons. You realise that all these brilliant people, amazing creators and storytellers, are all giant Star Trek fans as well. Along with ‘Great Responsibility’ comes brilliant people and the rooms that are being created are just… insane.

And don’t ever think for one second that there isn’t ONE person who is the lynchpin for all this happening… it’s ALL Alex Kurtzman. It’s now his universe. He and CBS have said ‘We’re all in!’. He is the wizard. Everything moves around the nucleus of Alex Kurtzman. And that’s awesome because he’s the biggest Star Trek fan of all. It’ll open doors for a new audience…”

Discovery’s second run arrives in mid-January, but before that you’ve been a guiding hand on those ‘Short Trek’ standalones that have been released each month – including the December entry, The Brightest Star, that you directed as well.

“Yeah, the ‘Short Treks’ give you the chance to see some things Discovery hasn’t had the opportunity to address – at least as yet. What’s nice about The Brightest Star episode is that it gives you the opportunity to see details and aspects of Saru (Doug Jones) and his world that we haven’t seen so far and are fun to start to explore… But the talent that was involved in all of these nineteen minute standalones is amazing.”

Ethan Peck as Spock in Discovery’s Season Two…

Let’s talk about the second season of Discovery. If the first season laid some of the groundwork and left us with another game-changer – is it fair to say the second season is something of a different animal?

“The second season is its own animal, for sure. You are now familiar with the Discovery crew which is fun, you’ve delved into the Mirror Universe which  is a LOT of fun. Now you have  your own backstory emerging for these new characters and like, hate or like to hate… Season Two adds some very familiar faces from Star Trek canon. That’s no secret based on the publicity that’s been going around. You get to see that iteration and that world before Kirk and met those characters in the Discovery world. It’s pretty awesome, I have to say.”

And speaking of such original series characters, you have that rare opportunity to explore Captain Pike and direct your own ‘Spock’…

“Oh, SUCH a ‘Pinch me!’ moment. It’s crazy. Ethan Peck is just amazing as Spock. He’s so gracious, so good, SO knows the character.  He did SO much homework and yet brought his own unique take on the character. It’s kinda crazy! Again… diving in to Anson Mount’s character and learning about Pike and getting to find out who he was before we met him in J J’s movie and if you hadn’t already seen the character in the Original Series and The Menagerie. You really get to find out who this person was and what he went through and why he’s there. The synergy is phenomenal and the writing is so good.”

There’s not a lot you can say about the Picard series as yet?

“Well… if you had got ten people together who were giant Star Trek fans and said what’s the most iconic move Star Trek could make?  I guarantee people would say it had to involve Patrick Stewart. And guess what? (laughs). The writers’ room has been sequestered away and breaking the story ideas. I’ll be sitting down with them again shortly, but it’s fair to say we’re picking up Picard twenty years after we last saw him. Where  is that man? What does that man do? What are the repercussions of some of the things he did, to him and the people around him? There’s no doubt that the one man to speak to that most strongly is Patrick Stewart himself. I know he’s been very involved in the designing of the story that will be the first season of the show. What better resource to tap than the man himself? He’s been very gracious with his time. I know he’s been there in the Writers’ Room multiple times already and will be again. As he’s said ‘If I’m coming back to do it, we’re doing it right!’ It has to be a story he feels needs to be told and that was what we pitched to him…”

As someone who has worked in both features and television, what are the significant differences?

“I came up in the world of Robert Rodriguez… where it was rock’n’roll film-making. At the time, Robert was going from movie to movie to movie and we were just jamming. I liked the tempo of that. The feature world has changed….the landscape  has changed and the way that studios look at making certain types of films and the amount of films the make has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. But there’s something about television…. There’s something about the pace of it. I like the turnover, the creation of a production in three weeks as opposed to a year. Me, personally… I was built  for this, having come from Robert’s world. It just kinda clicked with me. I’m very good on the fly and quick decision-making. I like to work with people who are fast workers but crazy-talented as well. It’s unbelievable that you can make an hour’s worth of television in what basically equates to three weeks. It takes almost a year to make two hours’ worth of a movie. That’s not to say that tv rips through it and doesn’t care… they care just as much and sometimes even more because you have to have multiple visions at all times. Collaborating  with all sorts of people on an entire season – whether it’s ten episodes or twenty-two… you have to have a good team around you. When you find the team that has that kind of synchronicity  and work quickly to produce quality at the same time, there’s something special about that. I guess I’ve found my ‘happy place’. (laughs).”

Do you think there have been significant changes to the television industry in recent years?

“Listen, you couldn’t have made this kind of Star Trek ten years ago. It wasn’t ready – now it is. Networks and platforms are realising that you don’t HAVE to do twenty-two episodes to sustain interest. I just watched the BBC’s Bodyguard… SIX episodes. That’s it…. And I’m good with that and everyone connected with it is happy with that. There’s something for everyone. My mom loves to watch network television, but my brother just cut his cable cord and is only streaming now. Both are happy. That’s great. For storytellers like me, there’s a chance to dive in to so many different arenas. It’s a golden age of television.”

And will it be a case of all things Trek for your foreseeable future?

“It will take up a good amount of it. It will be at least three quarters of the next year, for sure. I think, at this point, I’m pretty embedded in the Star Trek world for as long as they’ll have me. And that’s only a good thing. I’m keeping busy – just trying to stay afloat like everyone is in this crazy business as it constantly changes. It’s all good, knock on wood.”

Star Trek: Discovery returns in January (on CBS All Access in the US and on Netflix in other territories…)