Discovery’ Transformed A Toronto University Library Into The Eternal Archive – TrekMovie.com

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Last week’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “Labyrinths,” featured an unusual location: the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. Star Trek fan Michael Cassabon, the Director of Advancement for the University of Toronto library system, assisted the production team on site and wrote about his experiences with the show and what makes the Fisher Library so unique.

David Ajala as Book, Elena Juatco as Hy’Rell, and Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery‘s “Labyrinths” (photo: Paramount+)

When Star Trek came to the Fisher Library…

Melissa Warry-Smith, the location manager for Star Trek: Discovery (and most recently Section 31), and her team approached the University of Toronto in summer 2022 with a very big ask: to boldly film where no one has filmed before. As Canada’s largest keeper of ancient manuscripts and antiquarian books, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library holds powerful knowledge within its high, thick walls. It is a globally renowned rare book library, a gorgeous monument to human knowledge, but it is not known for being a filming location. Like, never.

But Warry-Smith’s thoughtful approach to the Fisher as the location for the Eternal Archive made a lot of sense. It wasn’t just that the Fisher’s brutalist architecture and vast interior space looked very sci-fi, but it also made sense because “Labyrinths” underlines the work of librarians and archivists in the preservation and pursuit of knowledge, intrinsic to the core values of Star Trek.

Fisher Rare Book Library at University of Toronto

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at University of Toronto (photo: Paramount+)

The Fisher’s (almost-eternal) collections

If Hy’Rell were here, she would tell you that the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is a marvel. Its collection spans millennia, from a Babylonian cuneiform tablet dated 1789 B.C.E. to original drafts by contemporary Canadian luminaries like Margaret Atwood. The library houses four of Shakespeare’s folios, over 800 bound manuscript volumes pre-dating the 15th century, and 40 Egyptian papyri from the 3rd century B.C.E.

The Shakespeare folios, among other real-life ancient texts, make a cameo appearance behind Burnham and Book in the display cases during the mindscape scenes. Shakespeare and Star Trek, of course, have been connected since the beginning.

You likely know Sir Patrick Stewart spent much of his career as a Shakespearean actor. What’s somewhat less known is that William Shatner also performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario—a two-hour drive from Toronto. At the 1956 festival, Shatner was Christopher Plummer’s understudy in Henry V. When Plummer fell ill, Shatner stepped in, leading to his big break. As fans of the Star Trek movies know, Plummer later played Klingon General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which itself takes the name of its title from Hamlet (act 3, scene 1).

Michael Burnham in front of Shakespeare's folios

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in front of Shakespeare’s folios (photo: P+)

Filming at the Fisher

The Fisher is at the heart of the university’s main campus, which lies at the heart of the city of Toronto, one of the most diverse cities on the planet.

Modern-day Toronto is part of Trek canon (SNW: “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow”); for those of you keeping track, the library complex is a few blocks away from where the child Khan Noonien-Singh — the notorious ancestor of La’an — lives, and where an alt-universe Captain Kirk was killed trying to restore the timeline.

It is almost unheard of for filming to take place at the Fisher Library, but a rare exception was made for Star Trek: Discovery. Our library’s leadership believed that this collaboration would be a wonderful opportunity to showcase the enduring relevance of libraries in the human quest for meaning. Libraries connect people to the information they seek in their quest for knowledge. The executive producers dedicated the episode with thanks “to librarians everywhere, dedicated to the preservation of artifacts, knowledge, and truth.”

It was also important that the library was not just a pretty face in the background but was playing the role of a key “character” essential to uncover “the greatest power in the known galaxy,” as Dr. Kovich tells Michael way back in the season’s first episode. Kovich, of course, is played by the legendary David Cronenberg, an alum of the University of Toronto—it makes one wonder if he knew where the final clue was all along!

Filming at the Fisher occurred over three nights to avoid disrupting students and researchers. The production crew was remarkably efficient and respectful, especially given the tight schedule due to the impending medieval manuscript exhibition—our first in-person event since COVID-19. Every precaution was made to avoid putting the real-life ancient manuscripts in danger. The production crew was quite impressive in their respect and care. They had experience filming in sensitive locations in Toronto in the past; for example, scenes of Vulcan earlier in the season are filmed at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

This isn’t the first time Star Trek has filmed at a library at the University of Toronto. U of T has a system of 40 libraries, and the Star Trek: Short Treks episode “Children of Mars”—the mini-prequel to Star Trek: Picard—was filmed at the library at U of T’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.

behind the scenes at the Fisher Library

Crew getting set up at the Fisher Library (photo: Michael Cassabon)

Behind the scenes

The mindscape scenes between Book and Michael were filmed on the Fisher’s mezzanine level. For the action-packed sequences, however, sets were constructed at Pinewood Studios to replicate the Fisher, prioritizing safety.

Highlights for me included chatting with David Ajala over burgers at a food truck just outside the set and meeting the legendary Jonathan Frakes, whom I addressed as “Captain Riker.” Frakes is a big fan of librarians’ work and was a producer and director on the TV series The Librarians.

The absolute highlight for me was meeting Sonequa Martin-Green. She is as amazing and magnetic and gracious as everyone says. After watching her interact with the cast and crew, it was clear how they became a family, largely due to her leadership on and off the camera. David Ajala introduced me to Sonequa in the green room, which was our library admin conference room across from my office. The first thing she said to me was “Thank you for lending me your name [Michael].”

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham behind the scenes of Star Trek: Discovery "Labyrinth"

Sonequa Martin-Green flashes the Vulcan salute (photo: Paramount+)

A sense of destiny

This season of Discovery focuses on the quest for meaning, and filming at the Fisher felt serendipitous. The library’s dedication to preserving and exploring knowledge through the application of new technology mirrors Star Trek’s themes of discovery and understanding. Fittingly, the University of Toronto is situated at the heart of the city’s Discovery District, an area renowned for its concentration of research institutions, hospitals, and tech startups dedicated to innovation and advancement. It is also appropriate that the filming took place in a university library, considering how many researchers, scholars, and leaders have been inspired to pursue their careers in part because of Star Trek.

Michael P. Cassabon is the Director of Advancement for the University of Toronto library system and a lifelong fan of Star Trek. 

The Fisher Library on The Ready Room


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