Live long and prosper: “The most ‘Star Trek’-y thing in town is the Mahanay Tower,” says Aaron Harberts, executive producer of “Star Trek: Discovery,” the first new “Trek” series in more than a decade. Harberts, whose parents live in Jefferson, recently had some fun by dropping Jefferson, Iowa, into the show, which takes place in the 23rd century. Coincidentally, both “Star Trek” and the Bell Tower originated in the same year, 1966. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALDJason Isaacs (left) stars as Capt. Gabriel Lorca, and Sonequa Martin-Green is First Officer Michael Burnham on “Star Trek: Discovery,” the flagship program of CBS All Access, the network’s subscription streaming service. JAN THIJS | CBSLt. Saru (left) on “Star Trek: Discovery” is from a new alien species known as Kelpiens that can genetically sense threats. Season one of the series debuted Sept. 24 on CBS All Access and will air in two chapters, with the final episode of chapter one airing Nov. 12. The series resumes in January. JAN THIJS | CBSShowrunner Aaron Harberts has deep roots in Jefferson as the grandson of the late Don Coon. He’s now making a contribution to the “Star Trek” franchise, of which there are more than 750 hours of TV shows and movies. “We’ve added 15 hours to that,” he says. JAN THIJS | CBS


How Jefferson ended up being named on ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ actually makes perfect sense


Over the course of five decades, the “Star Trek” franchise has introduced its share of exotic locales.

Some are inviting, others inhospitable (especially to anyone beaming down in a red Starfleet uniform), but they’re all out there, we’re told to believe, sprinkled throughout that final frontier known as space.

They bear names like Ceti Alpha V, Tycho IV, Qo’noS, Cestus III and, of course, Vulcan.

On Oct. 15 — stardate 71254.1 — another strange place became a part of “Star Trek” canon.

That place?

Jefferson, Iowa.

Admit it. You always sort of suspected that a few members of the county board of supervisors might be Klingons.

In all seriousness, an unexpected reference to Jefferson, Iowa, on the Oct. 15 episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” both delighted and confused local fans.

As a result, Jefferson now has its own entry in the official database — an online encyclopedia of characters, aliens, places, ships and more — as “a town on the planet Earth.”

Surely, though, for a reference that specific, there just has to be some kind of connection between “Star Trek” and J-town, right?

To quote Spock, “Affirmative.”

The new series — the flagship program of CBS All Access, the network’s premium online streaming service — is under the creative control of executive producer Aaron Harberts, grandson of the late Don Coon and the son of Jefferson grads Denise and Steven Harberts, who returned to town in retirement in 2012.

Aaron Harberts, 44, has a history of working family into his TV scripts, including a character on both “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies” named for aunt Marianne Carlson, a Jefferson resident who in real life is known for dominating the cooking contests each summer at the Iowa State Fair.

The character Marianne Marie Beattle, played by actress Beth Grant, just happened to be a competitive baker, too.

So when Harberts signed on to be showrunner of “Star Trek: Discovery,” the first new “Trek” series in more than a decade, it wasn’t a question of when he would try slipping family into the show.

It was how.

After all, “Star Trek: Discovery” is set in the 23rd century aboard the Starfleet starship USS Discovery — 10 years before Capt. James T. Kirk and the USS Enterprise would embark on that famous five-year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations and to boldly go, yeah, you know the rest.

Would there be a new species of aliens called the Shahans, in honor of aunt Teresa? Might the crew come across a root beer stand of sorts in deep space operated by a Ferengi named Harrington? Harberts’ uncle and aunt, Tom and Gina Harrington, own the Jefferson A&W.

As it turns out, Iowa is already long established in “Star Trek” lore.

“Kirk is from Iowa,” Harberts explained last week during a visit to Jefferson to visit his parents. “There’s a tradition of Iowa in ‘Star Trek.’ ”

It wasn’t a stretch, then, when he picked Jefferson, Iowa, as the location of a classified Starfleet production facility that built (or, rather, will build) organic-propulsion units for starships.

It’s unclear how many jobs the facility will create or if the state of Iowa will be giving tax incentives to Starfleet Command to locate here.

“I knew it was well within the realm of possibility,” Harberts said of locating the facility in Jefferson. “That’s where I have fun.”

It’s long been known to fans of the “Star Trek” franchise — Trekkers is now actually the preferred term for Trekkies — that Kirk will be born in Riverside, Iowa, about 216 years from now.

A plaque in that eastern Iowa town, 15 miles south of Iowa City, marks the future birthplace of James T. Kirk on March 22, 2233.

So where in Jefferson does Harberts envision this classified facility that makes experimental “spore drives” for ships?

“I picture it being out by my grandparents’ farm. Hidden just a little outside of town,” he said. “I don’t know, though, the most ‘Star Trek’-y thing in town is the Mahanay Tower.”

Summertime in Greene County on the Coon farm is where Harberts first became aware of “Star Trek” as a kid.

“They got two or three channels out there,” he recalled. “It just so happened ‘Star Trek’ would be on in the middle of the afternoon.”

That, however, was about as deep into “Star Trek” as Harberts got.

In fact, at first glance, Harberts is to “Star Trek” what Gene Roddenberry might have been to “Friends” — a pairing that can only be described as highly illogical.

The showrunner is the executive producer with the most control over the show’s direction.

To put it in “Trek” terms, Harberts is the Kirk or Picard of “Star Trek: Discovery.”

Harberts and Gretchen Berg, the writing/producing partner he met while attending Northwestern University, have worked often with “Discovery” co-creator Bryan Fuller on other shows.

For his part, Fuller boasts bona-fide “Trek” credentials, having been a writer on “Star Trek:  Voyager” and crediting the original “Star Trek” with inspiring him to be a television writer.

It was Fuller who came up with the idea for the USS Discovery’s experimental organic power source — the spore drive — which has roots in the real-life research of mycologist Paul Stamets, author of the 2005 book “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.”

Harberts, on the other hand, grew up as a fan of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and was totally geeked out when his first writing gig in television turned out to be the last two seasons of the original “90210” from 1998 to 2000.

“We signed on to work with our friend Bryan,” said Harberts, the son of a Presbyterian minister who was born in Waterloo and raised in Indiana and Florida. “This is not the type of show that’s on our resume.

“We signed on to get out of our comfort zone.”

Harberts was fresh from writing and producing The CW’s “Reign,” a historical romance series chronicling the rise to power of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the 1500s.

Fuller, however, wanted “Star Trek: Discovery” to be a more serialized version of “Star Trek.”

“He wanted character writers,” Harberts said.

Little did Harberts know, however, that Fuller would end up exiting “Star Trek: Discovery” due to other commitments.

CBS looked to Harberts to take Fuller’s place in the captain’s chair.

“We knew a job needed to be done,” he explained. “It was that Iowa work ethic.”

The series premiered on Sept. 24, and differs from previous incarnations of “Star Trek” in that its main character isn’t a captain.

Series star Sonequa Martin-Green — previously known to TV fans as Sasha on “The Walking Dead” — is First Officer Michael Burnham, a human raised on Vulcan. (Coincidentally, she was adopted by Sarek, Spock’s father, making her Spock’s adoptive sister.)

It’s also a time of war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire (the two sides at one time representing the Western world and the Soviet Union).

Fuller had already determined the show’s timeline before exiting, choosing to set “Discovery” 10 years before the iconic original series starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy that ran on NBC from 1966-69.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done, hands down,” Harberts said. “So many moving parts. The legacy of it. It’s so big.”

To prepare, Harberts did what anybody else might do.

“Thank God for Netflix,” he said.

With just three weeks to spare before work on “Discovery” was to commence, he binged the original series.

Considering the original “Star Trek” series was made back when an hour-long show would actually run 55 minutes, he made it through all three seasons “by the skin of my teeth.”

While Harberts can now hold his own with the best of them — he faced off against fans in July at a panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego — he has a writing staff deeply versed in all things “Trek,” including the author of the “Voyager” novels.

Longtime fans are no doubt reveling in Easter eggs hidden throughout “Discovery,” including a menagerie aboard the ship that includes a dissected Tribble and a Gorn skeleton.

All along, Harberts has found it best not to think about the sheer magnitude of “Star Trek.”

“If you thought at all about the pressure,” he confessed, “you could easily crumble.”

“This is the show,” he added, “that launched the whole idea of a fan convention.”

He also decided to stay off social media (and has mostly stayed off throughout this first season), calling it a “treacherous place to be.”

“There wasn’t time for self-doubt to creep in,” Harberts said.

“It’s the show that it is,” he explained, “in part because of the way we came to it.”

CBS All Access on Oct. 23 renewed the series for a second season.

The network clearly knew what it was doing, according to Harberts, by choosing to use a new “Star Trek” series to beef up its on-demand subscription service. After all, if any segment of the population is going to pony up an extra $5.99 a month for CBS All Access when they already probably have Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, it ain’t fans of “NCIS.”

CBS knew that “Star Trek” was the one property “that could drive people to a new place,” he said.

In other words, “Star Trek: Discovery” is boldly going where the franchise has never gone before.

“It’s a fascinating time in entertainment,” Harberts said.

Harberts is confident in predicting, “The future of entertainment is going to be delivered this way.”

That means the future of TV isn’t cable — it’s a la carte streaming.

“It’s still that Wild West period,” he said.

In the world of streaming, writers have unprecedented freedom to pace their stories better and to create fuller characters.

“We can use language. We can do nudity,” Harberts said.

Don’t worry, though — “Star Trek” isn’t about to suddenly go all “Game of Thrones.”

“‘Star Trek’ just doesn’t lend itself to that,” Harberts said. “It’s like an heirloom piece that people hand down.

“Families consume this show.”

Still, he approved a franchise first — the dropping of a couple of f-bombs on a recent episode of “Discovery” — that outraged some more conservative fans.

“It felt so natural,” Harberts reasoned. “I stand behind the choice.”

Even as streaming becomes a flood of original programming, some people with cable still bristle at having to pay to access the additional content.

The streaming services themselves are notoriously cagey about their viewership numbers.

Other people, like Harberts’ parents in Jefferson, still can’t figure out how to work their smart TV or Roku box in the first place.

“We’re not techies,” his mom, Denise Harberts, cautioned Friday.

One of Aaron Harberts’ jobs during his visit to Jefferson was to get his folks — both 1964 graduates of Jefferson High School — up and running with CBS All Access so they can actually watch his show.

His father, Steven Harberts, retired from the ministry in 2012.

“We’re proud of him,” Steven Harberts said.

As it so happens, the showrunner of the original “Star Trek” series in the ’60s was a guy with the uncommon last name of Coon, his mother’s maiden name.

Gene Coon, the late writer and producer credited with creating the Klingons, grew up just a few hours to the west in Beatrice, Neb.

Aaron Harberts now wonders if they might have been related, which would make his current role as a “Star Trek” showrunner himself one of cosmic significance.

Denise Harberts said her son’s work in TV is a perfect fit for him, even though it’s not what she originally envisioned for her only child.

“I thought he should have been a doctor,” she said.

To that, you can only paraphrase Bones from the original “Star Trek” series: “Dammit, Mom, he’s a screenwriter, not a doctor.”

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