Strange New Worlds Director On Making Season 2, Episode 2 An All-Time Great – TheFantasyTimes

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By Jitin Gambhir

Strange New Worlds Director On Making Season 2, Episode 2 An All-Time Great

Warning: Spoilers for the second episode of the second season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, titled “Ad Astra Per Aspera.” Dr. Valerie Weiss helmed this episode, which has been praised by fans as one of the greatest courtroom episodes in Star Trek history. Weiss, known for her work on shows like Outer Banks, Scandal, Suits, The Librarians, and How To Get Away With Murder, made her debut in the Star Trek franchise with “Ad Astra Per Aspera.”

In this episode, Number One, also known as Commander Una Chin-Riley (played by Rebecca Romijn), faces a court-martial within Starfleet. Her defense is led by Neera Ketoul (played by Yetide Badaki), a galactic civil rights lawyer and Una’s estranged childhood friend. The outcome of Una’s trial has significant implications for Captain Christopher Pike (played by Anson Mount) and the USS Enterprise crew. However, Number One’s victory reinstates her rank as First Officer.

Screen Rant had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Valerie Weiss, a scientist with a Ph.D., about her experience directing this captivating courtroom episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and her environmental work with the World Wildlife Fund, specifically the Panda Paddle.

Valerie Weiss on Directing Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Screen Rant: First of all, congratulations on your episode of Strange New Worlds. It has been hailed as one of the best Star Trek courtroom episodes ever, including by myself, and it’s truly one of the standout hours of Star Trek since the ’90s. How does it feel to receive such positive reception?

Valerie Weiss: It’s quite surreal. I was incredibly thrilled to be given the opportunity to direct this episode, and I had an absolute blast working on it. It has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career. I used to work as a scientist, and one of the reasons I transitioned into directing film and television was because I felt I had something important to say. Our world is in desperate need of repair, and I believe that if you’re not actively working to make it a better place, you’re just taking up space. Being able to tell a story that reaches so many people through an epic franchise like Star Trek, which delves into the fundamental aspects of humanity, such as connection and how we treat one another, is truly an honor. Working with an incredible crew, including my collaborator Benji Bakshi, who recommended me for this job, made the experience even more enjoyable. Seeing the positive response to the episode after its release was just the icing on the cake. You always feel a sense of nervousness, knowing that you’ll be compared to previous episodes, some of which are considered the best in Trek history. But to receive such praise, with many people calling it the best episode since the ’90s, is truly humbling. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to have directed this episode.

Courtroom dramas hold a special place within the Star Trek canon. They are highly regarded, despite being a relatively rare occurrence. When you were assigned the Una trial episode, did you feel a sense of pressure to live up to the previous courtroom episodes?

Valerie Weiss: Yes and no. To be completely honest, I wasn’t very familiar with Star Trek before taking on this project. During my interview and upon receiving this episode, I learned that courtroom dramas are a canonical subgenre within Star Trek, which excited me. I had prior experience directing courtroom shows like Suits, Bull, For The People, and How to Get Away with Murder, so I was familiar with this style of storytelling. However, watching episodes like “Measure of a Man” and “The Menagerie” and witnessing the depth at which they explore ethics and morality, and who should be the judge, made me realize the immense opportunity I had. I was thrilled to be able to work on an episode that combined these themes with character development, something I truly enjoy as a director. I didn’t necessarily feel pressure, other than the standard pressure any director feels to do their best. However, the support and accessibility of Henry Alonso Myers, Akiva Goldsman, Dana Horgan, who wrote the episode, and Chris Fisher, who hired me, made the experience much smoother. They were always available to answer questions and discuss what was important for this episode. I didn’t feel nervous; I simply felt a responsibility to deliver a stellar episode because I care deeply about this franchise and those involved in it. Fortunately, it seems that we succeeded in that regard.

Well, you certainly did succeed. You knocked it out of the park. I’m curious to know what challenges you encountered while directing this episode. With an incredible cast and a fantastic script by Dana Horgan, take us through the process of bringing this episode to life. What were some of the challenges you faced?

Valerie Weiss: Thank you for the kind words. Directing a courtroom episode always presents challenges, as there is a significant amount of coverage required in a single location. Despite the episode being dialogue-heavy, we had to ensure that it remained engaging and dynamic. We spent around six or seven days shooting in the courtroom, which is quite a long time to be in one location with everyone wearing the same costumes every day. It was essential to keep track of the story’s progression and emotional beats. Thankfully, we were able to shoot in sequence for the most part, which is something I prefer as it benefits the actors’ performances. To overcome the challenges, we approached it like a play. Before involving the actors, I worked with my director of photography to determine the best placement for the tables, judges, and potential observers in the room. We identified the angles that would provide interesting camera blocking opportunities. By establishing these positions, we were able to create a cinematic language that allowed us to play with the camera movement when Neera pushes the camera or when the camera retreats from her. I would love to share some of the visual rules we developed for this episode. Additionally, drawing from my background as an actor, I had a good understanding of beats, subtext, and how a character might move. During rehearsals and table reads, we had the luxury of time to discuss the beats and collaborate with the actors. I pitched ideas based on my pre-production work, which they were receptive to. For example, Rebecca’s character doesn’t have much mobility within the courtroom, primarily confined to her table and the witness stand. Yetide’s character, Neera, on the other hand, moves around a lot. I proposed some ideas for her movements, and she was on board with them. Overall, the challenges were overcome through thorough preparation, collaboration, and the support of an exceptional cast and crew.

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Warning: SPOILERS for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2, Episode 2 – “Ad Astra Per Aspera”Dr. Valerie Weiss directed Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2, episode 2, “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” which fans are hailing as one of the best Star Trek courtroom episodes ever. Weiss has directed episodes of Outer Banks on Netflix, Scandal, Suits, The Librarians, and How To Get Away With Murder. “Ad Astra Per Aspera” is her debut in the Star Trek franchise.

In Strange New Worlds season 2, episode 2, Number One AKA Commander Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) faces a Starfleet court-martial, and she is defended by her estranged childhood friend, galactic civil rights lawyer Neera Ketoul (Yetide Badaki). Una’s trial had serious implications for Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) and the crew of the USS Enterprise, but Number One’s victory restores her rank as First Officer.

Related Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2 Episode 2 Ending Explained

Screen Rant had the absolute pleasure to interview Dr. Valerie Weiss, who has a Ph.D and background as a scientist, about behind-the-scenes moments while directing her riveting Star Trek: Strange New Worlds courtroom episode and the Panda Paddle, Weiss’ environmental work with the World Wildlife Fund.

Valerie Weiss on Directing Star Trek: Strange New Worlds


Screen Rant: Let me start off with congratulations on your episode of Strange New Worlds. It’s being called one of the best Star Trek courtroom episodes ever, also by me, and it’s one of the best hours of Star Trek since the 1990s. What has that been like for you seeing that reception?

Valerie Weiss: It’s kind of surreal. I was so excited to be hired, and then had so much fun making it. I mean, literally, one of my most fun experiences. And it was great. I used to be a scientist. And so, part of why I left science to direct film and television was I felt like I had something to say. We live in a world that has so much repair we need to do that I feel like you’re taking up space on this Earth if you’re not trying to make it a better place. And so, for me, getting to tell a story that can reach so many people through such an epic franchise that is about something so essential to being human, ironically, because it’s about whether you’re human or not, but this idea of how we connect and how we treat each other.

Getting to do that, work with this phenomenal crew, work with Benji Bakshi, who’s a collaborator, the DP. [He and] I did two shows before this, and he’s the one who recommended me for the job. It was just a blast to make it and then have it come out and get that kind of response. Because you’re always nervous. Like, you know, you’re going to be compared to the other [courtroom] episodes, which are phenomenal, some of the best Trek work out there. And not just to be compared favorably to them but, like you said, many people have said what you said, which is ‘best episode since the 90s.’ I mean, it’s just icing on the cake, right? You don’t even think about that. And then it happens. I’m just so honored and thrilled that I got to do this episode.

The courtroom drama is a pretty revered subgenre within Star Trek. There aren’t that many, but they’re always so highly regarded. When you got the Una trial episode, were you like, “Whoa!” Did you feel pressure to live up to that?

Valerie Weiss: I mean, yes, and no. To be totally honest, I wasn’t very familiar with Star Trek before doing it. And I learned in my interview, and when I got this episode, that this was a canonical subgenre of Star Trek, which excited me. I’ve done courtroom shows before. Suits, and Bull, and For The People, and How to Get Away with Murder. And so I was familiar with that style of storytelling. But then to watch “Measure of a Man” and “The Menagerie” and see how deep they go into ethics and morality, and should be judging who… I was like, “Oh, my God, I get to do this?” I was so excited.

And for me, as a director, I feel like something I love doing is taking idea and theme and marrying it with character, and dramatizing it that way. So it was just the perfect match of what I love to do. And so, I don’t know that I felt pressure other than the pressure I always feel as a director to do my best. And Henry [Alonso Myers] and Akiva [Goldsman] and Dana [Horgan], who wrote the episode, and Chris Fisher, who hired me, they were so supportive the whole time, and accessible, and available for questions or to talk about what was really important in this episode that I don’t know that I felt nervous. I think I just felt like I have a job to do, and I’m going to knock it out of the park for you guys. Because I want to, and I care about you in this franchise.

Well, you did. You knocked it out of the park. I would love to know what challenges you faced directing this episode. You have an amazing cast, you have a great script by Dana Horgan, as you said, Take me through a little bit of the process of putting the episode together. What did you find challenging?

Valerie Weiss: Yeah, I think it’s always challenging. Any courtroom episode is challenging because there’s so much coverage in one location that you have to keep it interesting and moving, despite [it] being a very talky episode, right? And so, we were in our courtroom, I feel like we were in there [for] seven days, six or seven days. That’s a really long time to be in one location, where everyone’s wearing the same costume every single day. And tracking, “Okay, where are we in the story? Where are we emotionally?” I think for the most part, we got to shoot it in sequence, which I really like to do, because it’s just better for the actors, better for performance.

The way we overcame the challenges of that was, I rehearsed it like a play. So I went to the space with my DP before we even invited actors and just said, “Where do we want to set these tables that they’re at? Where do we want the judges? Do we want observers in the room? Where are the good angles? And how can we use the space?” And by putting them where we put them, we were able to allow Neera to have this opportunity that became our cinematic language of when she pushes the camera versus when the camera’s retreating from her. And I’ll talk about that in a second. I’d love to share some of the rules we came up with for the visual language. And so, we figured out roughly where the interesting camera blocking opportunities were. And then, I was an actor when I was young. And so, I have a really good feel for where the beats are, and subtext, and what a character might do. I sort of got a sense of where I might want to move if I were them.

And then we did a rehearsal. We talk. We do a table read first where we go through the pages and talk about the beats. We were so lucky to have time with our actors and bring them in, and get to rehearse with them. And so, I pitched some ideas I was thinking [about] based on this prep I did, and they were on board with it, which was great. You know, Rebecca doesn’t get to move that much in the courtroom. She’s physically at her table and then on the witness stand, but Yetide, Neera, obviously moves so much. And so, I pitched her some ideas for when she’s on this side of the courtroom, and you’ll notice in our opening arguments, she comes around the table. And then with Admiral April, I had her for the first time pushed to the judges, right.? And then we complete the circle at the end with the closing arguments going around the other way to the judges.

These were all very intentional ideas. And she was just so game to try them and make them hers and speak up about what worked for her and what didn’t. We were so fortunate to get that theater rehearsal before we ever shot. And then, of course, Benji and I [were] really determined. What were our shots and angles? When did we want to be over Batel’s shoulder and include her? When did we want to be clean on Rebecca? When did we want Neera and Una to be in the same frame or people to be alone? Every shot was thought about and intentional for emotional storytelling.

Spock Neera Strange New Worlds Trial

It was amazing. And this was an episode, as you said, with no action, no phasers, no space battles. It’s all people just talking to each other, arguing ideas and points of view. But to me, that’s what Star Trek is. That’s why it was so refreshing to see.

Valerie Weiss: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what was exciting to me as a scientist. You get at truth through debate, right? And when both sides are coming to it honestly, and not trying to manipulate but honest pursuit of knowledge and expressing what they know in the moment. And then it’s changed with new information. That’s how points of view change. [It’s] when you really have an honest argument. And so, for me, it just spoke to me as a person. And this is how I try to live my life. And so I was very excited to get something like this.

Did you have a favorite scene in the episode? Where you yelled, “Cut!” and you were like, “Yes, we nailed it. That was it.”

Valerie Weiss: I mean, I love so many of them. I love Yetide’s closing arguments where she comes around and confronts the judges. I just loved that. I really love the scene between Neera and La’an in Una’s quarters because, gosh, La’an is such a strong character and has to be strong all the time. She’s head of security. That’s what she does. She protects other people. But we all need protection of our own hearts. And for Neera to come in as an outsider who has mixed feelings about Starfleet in the first place, and [for her] to take care of La’an was just such a beautiful expression of humanity and sisterhood. And the acting is just off the charts and so subtle, but so full. So that was absolutely one of my favorite scenes. But I just rewatched it. There was no scene where I was like, “Oh, I would have wanted to do more.” Or, “I don’t like how that turned out.” I was thrilled with every single one. I cried watching it again. I mean, it really, really moved me.

That’s wonderful. Yetide Badaki owns every scene she’s in. She’s instantly one of the best Star Trek guest stars. I interviewed her last week, and we talked about the standing ovation she got at the end, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in Star Trek before. I’ve never seen the main cast applaud a guest star like that. It felt spontaneous, but she said it was scripted.

Valerie Weiss: I think I’d have to look back at my script. I take her word for it, of course. I think there was a lot of emotional new stuff that this episode allowed our cast to do, like the hug between Anson and Rebecca. I can’t remember, I think it might have been Anson who pitched it. It was not scripted. I believe Anson pitched it, or I had the idea. But maybe it was driven by him. And I loved it.

I said, “Has anyone done this before? Like, do they hug in Star Trek?” And he’s like, “No, and correct me if I’m wrong. I hope I’m not wrong, I think this would be an anomaly.” I was like, “I love it.” I think I ran it by Henry. I wanted to make sure. Because that’s a big moment, right? If you’re wrong, [then] you’re just breaking what you’re allowed to do on a series like this. And Henry loved it. And I was like, “Ah, great, because it’s the right choice and absolutely should happen.” Because the stakes of this trial were so high, not just for Una, but also for Pike. You know, once Pasalk calls him out, and you realize he’s on the hook, and his entire team is on the hook… This is everything. This is the pinnacle of threat to this group. So, of course, a hug is warranted.

I tweeted about that hug. That hug moved me so much. And you’re right. It is kind of an anomaly. That’s why it’s so striking to see Pike drop the Captain, hug his friend, and then snap back [to] the Captain with a little punch at the end.

Valerie Weiss: Yeah, even just the awkward vulnerability. And that’s what I love about these actors. They’re not just playing a moment, they’re playing the connective tissue between the moment. So he doesn’t just go from something emotional to a joke of like, “Hey, that was good.” He played the transition from them. And you can just see the vulnerability and the little bit of embarrassment in there. They’re so skilled, and just so wonderful to direct.

Pike Hug Una Strange New Worlds

Absolutely. Your episode also has really complex themes. Racial prejudice and persecution within the Federation. But I love that at its core, it was about two childhood friends who had a falling out, and one coming to rescue the other. And there was so much depth to Una and Neera’s relationship, even if we only got a few details. So let’s talk about that a little bit.

Valerie Weiss: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought that up. Because it’s its very hard to get people, rightfully so, on board with storytelling that’s just didactic and message-driven. And I like what I do to be about something because otherwise, what are we doing here, right? Let’s try to change people’s minds and hearts. The way in, as you said, and I just remembered it again watching it, was these two young girls with broken hearts reconnecting. I have two daughters, and I very much remember that age how much friendship means to you. And when you’re hurt, it can last a lifetime. There are so many great moments in this episode, where they’re in there in the prison cell, and they talk about, “Well, you weren’t the one left behind.” And they get at it. Even as an adult, as much as Neera is such a badass lawyer, the scariest thing is to let someone know they hurt you, right? It’s much easier to argue a case than [to] say, “You hurt me, and I’m still hurt. And I love you. And I’d like to be friends again.”

Anyway, that bubbles up repeatedly in the episode, and it does in the trial. And I remember, when Una’s on the stand towards the end of her monologue, I think my direction to them was,”It’s like you’re at a sleepover party, and it’s the middle of the night, and you’re telling each other these things.” Just constantly trying to reconnect them to that inner child that was hurt, that had a broken heart a long time ago. And they’re so wonderful. We, from the beginning of my time directing it, we spent a lot of time together. We had dinner, the three of us, and got to know each other and, and they both shared very personal things with me. And Rebecca shared things that I would say to her when we were actually shooting, “Rebecca, is it okay, if I remind you of this vulnerable thing for you to access?” And she was like, “Yes.” And so, they dug deep, and I think it really shows. I was proud to be part of that.

Every scene between Neera and Una was riveting in and outside the courtroom. And then there were also these two moments that really stood out for me that I love, which was Uhura standing up to La’an when she wanted the personal logs, and then Spock. The comedy of Ortegas and M’Benga watching Spock and then Spock apologizing for his “outburst.” Classic Spock. Really, really funny, and a standout little levity moment in a pretty serious episode.

Valerie Weiss: Yeah, I’m so happy we had both of those. And again, everything’s about notes. It’s a symphony, right? If you’re hitting everything the same, you don’t notice the drama if you don’t have something to contrast it with. And I love that the comedy was earned. It wasn’t just extraneous. It really was part of the story.

I’ll talk about the Uhura and La’an moment. What’s so wonderful about the way Strange New Worlds runs the show is that they give a director 20 minutes during prep with each actor. You can obviously have more, but they set up these meetings in my office with each one of them. And even though this was more heavily focused on Una and Neera, and a bit more on Pike and Batel and La’an, I got to meet with everybody. I would meet with them and talk about their individual arcs for the episode. And if they were in it less, I would talk about, What’s your character’s feelings about eugenics? And what’s your philosophy? And how do you feel about Una being on trial? I know you love her, but do you kind of think what she did was right or wrong?” I really wanted them to think about that. So that when we were in the ready room, and they were watching [the trial], they could have very specific reactions.

Great performances are all about arcs. Where do you start and where do you end and so on. Celia and I spent a lot of time talking about her relationship with La’an, and what does she think about Una? And I think we talked about… I hope I’m getting this right… that she felt a bit betrayed that Una had done this. And so, she was dealing with her own feelings about this, and how the Eugenics Wars affected her parents. And so there was a lot personally at stake for her character that she could latch on to. So in that one scene with her and La’an, I think it felt so rich because we’d really mined what were all her thoughts around this? Her getting to stand up to her superior because she had strong feelings about what was going on, I think, made it feel more complex and interesting than if we hadn’t had those conversations.

Totally. Now, I’ve only seen the first six episodes. Are you back to direct in season 2 or season 3?

Valerie Weiss: Yeah, I’ve been invited to direct an episode of season 3. I’m really excited.

That’s so great. Yeah. I mean, obviously, the writer strike has kind of pushed everything back. But I’m so glad to hear that you’re coming back.

Valerie Weiss: Thank you.

I can’t ask you what it’s about.

Valerie Weiss: I don’t even know. We would have shot it already, but the strike ended up pushing all the productions.

So it’s a fairly early episode in the season.

Valerie Weiss: It’s an early episode, yeah. And it sounds phenomenal. So I’m really, really excited.

Well, before I let you go, I’d love to ask you about your other pursuits outside of directing. You said, you just spoke to the WWF, not the pro wrestling company.

Valerie Weiss: No, we just made that joke, actually.

Please tell me about the Panda Paddle, the Water Bears, and what you’re doing.

Valerie Weiss: Yeah, thank you for asking. It’s funny, I talked about the show on this coffee chat we just did about the Panda Paddle that was open to the public to come hear about it. So basically, the World Wildlife Fund is a conservationist organization. It’s not just about saving animals. It’s about saving our Earth and protecting nature. And so, I’ve been involved for the past four years, and the Panda Paddle, is a fundraiser. You get out on the water, you can kayak, you can paddle board, you can canoe, you can even surf because you’re using your arms to get out there.

I have this team of probably about 20 people right now. And they’re all over the world. I have someone in Australia, and Luxembourg, all over the country, And you virtually paddle in August, during these certain days, because it started during COVID. And so, you could paddle wherever you lived and still be on this team. And we were the top fundraiser last year. We raised $7,000. And I won a beautiful custom paddle board that I’m very, very proud of. And we are back doing it again.

It’s kind of like what made me so thrilled to do that Star Trek episode. We don’t want to just take up space on this Earth, can we please do something good to replenish it? And so, I’m very proud to be part of this. And if anyone wants to join or donate, we’re called the Water Bears. And we’d love to have you. It’s a really special exciting team. And we share photos of the water and our paddles, and [we] have lawyers, actors, doctors, everybody on this team. So if you want to join John, we’d love to have you.

Are you aware of Star Trek’s link to the tardigrade?

Valerie Weiss: I am. Yes, I should talk about that. Yes, I forgot about that. And Ethan, who plays Spock, we’ve talked about that, too. Yes, yes. Thank you. So we named ourselves the Water Bears, which is an easier thing to think about than the tardigrades. It’s a less scientific name. But we did that because they’re the most resilient creatures on Earth, as you know, and they survive nuclear fission, the hottest temperatures, and the coldest temperatures. They’re found on the moon, even. As I mentioned, we started during COVID, and I was like, “We need something to believe in. We’re all resilient. We’re gonna get through this together.” And that’s why we became the tardigrades. And yes, so if you want to add to that about the Star Trek connection, but I remember that there was.

In Star Trek: Discovery season 1, there was a giant space tardigrade that became the navigator of the USS Discovery when they had the spore drive, their instantaneous teleportation device. And they couldn’t figure out how to make this thing work because the experiment would crash the ship into different objects wherever they tried to land. And they found that they needed a navigator, and it was this giant tardigrade that was able to communicate with the mycelial network that became their first navigator. But they were also abusing the tardigrade by doing it, so they had to let it go. And then Stamets, Anthony Rapp’s character, became the new navigator. But that’s Star Trek’s link to the tardigrade.

Valerie Weiss: I love it. See, everything’s connected. That’s why you’ve got to take care of every interaction and relationship because it all has a consequence. And I love that.

About Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2

key art for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 follows Captain Christopher Pike and the crew of the USS Enterprise in the 23rd century as they explore new worlds and carry out missions throughout the galaxy during the decade before Star Trek: The Original Series.

Check out our other Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 interviews here:

New episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2 air Thursdays on Paramount+.

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