The Star Trek universe welcomes a new television show this year, simply yet unexpectedly titled Picard. To the glee of Trekkies everywhere, Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard was announced to return to the screen after a twenty-six-year absence; having originally starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation from 1987 to 1994, and last seen in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, the beloved Starfleet captain (later admiral) is back for at least another two seasons.
STARBURST had the pleasure of sitting down with Picard’s executive producers and creators, Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, and Kirsten Beyer; Star Trek alumni Jeri Ryan and Jonathan Del Arco, reprising their respective roles as Seven of Nine and Hugh the Borg; newcomers and stars Isa Briones, Michelle Hurd, Evan Evagora and Harry Treadaway; and of course, the man of the hour himself, the legendary Sir Patrick Stewart.
“Next Generation has its own fanbase, which almost goes deeper than the broader franchise,” says Akiva Goldsman, “and Jean-Luc Picard is a huge and iconic part of that. So, if one is revisiting Star Trek, one is likely to have a fantasy about it. And in truth, it was little more than a fantasy at first! We were chatting about making a Short Trek, and the pitch was that maybe a young man could be revealed to be a young Picard. And then Alex [Kurtzman] has this tendency to always push you and ask, ‘Why stop there?’.”
And so, the prospective showrunners approached Stewart, hoping he would reprise his role as the iconic Starfleet captain. “For many years, any suggestion that I might revive this role in different formats and contexts, I passed on immediately – straight away and without hesitation,” explains Patrick Stewart. “And not because I wasn't proud of what we did on Next Generation. I was, and I loved all the people that I worked with very, very much. But I thought I had said and done everything that could be said and done about Jean-Luc, and the Enterprise, and his relationship with the crew and so forth.
“But I found myself sitting in front of the producers one day, and they began to talk about the new series in a way that was unexpected. And all I did was listen… And then, I gave a bit of a long speech as to why I was going to turn them down,” he laughs. “That took them a little by surprise. But then they talked some more and went into more detail about the storyline. And when the meeting was over, I asked my agent to contact them, and ask if they could put in writing everything they’d said. Two days later, I got a 35-page pitch. It was undeniably interesting, and it was not going to be like what I had experienced previously. It would be different, a very different world… which appealed to me, because the real world too has changed in the last 19 years.”
Though Picard follows on from the deeply divisive Nemesis, executive producer Kirsten Beyer asserts that this is not course-correction. “It's not the motivation. Sometimes in the wider universe, the books and all the things like that, stories exist just for that purpose, to work on something that we were uncomfortable with and maybe try to fix it. In this case though, it’s all driven from the character of Picard and elements of his story that still resonate,” like dealing with the aftermath of Data’s (Brent Spiner) death. Interestingly, Picard also appears to follow the canon established by J.J. Abrams’ rebooted film series, in which the planet of Romulus was destroyed.
In the time since passed, these events have led to a dramatic rift between Picard and the Federation, but Michael Chabon is keen to emphasise that the Federation has not become the ‘bad guy’ of the show. “I think that, in spite of the fact that Picard says he can no longer stand behind the Federation, he means something very specific by that. And what has gone wrong with the Federation is exactly the same thing that has gone wrong with Picard: they both made promises which terrible – almost impossible – circumstances forced them to break. It's a tragic thing. It's a painful thing. It is something that a governmental entity like the Federation is bound to encounter many times in the course of its history, just like the United States have. Picard will come to reckon with the effects of his having failed to keep the promise that he made.”
The new world in which Picard is set draws parallels with the current political climate, says Stewart. “I thought that they were addressing not only a science fiction story, but the world in its current condition - because it's bad. It's really bad. And so, if we can give little nudges to what we all believe about what's going on…” he trails off. “What I liked about the proposal that Alex and the team made was that the world that we had inhabited, and the world of the Federation had changed. It was no longer the secure, trustworthy, reliable place that it had been. And that was one of the major things that convinced me that I should look seriously at reviving this, and I'm very glad that I did.”
The Federation is not the only thing to have dramatically changed, however. The man we reunite with is not the Picard of old. As Isa Briones, who stars as Dahj explains, “something I notice is that, in past iterations of Star Trek and in many sci-fi or superhero genres, we find ourselves looking at this wonderful leader, someone who is perfect. And of course, we do have a wonderful leader in Picard, but I think we’re done seeing stories of that perfect person who can solve everything. We want to see heroes as people, we want to see them be humans and make mistakes. And I think that is what we are bringing into this show. We are seeing the almighty Picard, but he's retired and he's unhappy.”
“When we first meet Jean-Luc, he is in poor shape,” says Stewart, but that does not mean that the character we know and love is gone. “Even over the space of the first episode, he undergoes change because of his encounter with Isa's character. And as the story goes on, we see more of the spirited believer in him, and the transformation that come from being socially conscious and aware of other people.”
Also returning to a well-loved role is Jeri Ryan as Voyager’s Seven of Nine. Similarly to her co-star’s initial reaction, Ryan thought her character’s story was done. “The most interesting part of her, I thought, was her exploration of becoming human again,” states the actress,“and we did that. So I hadn’t given the idea of returning a lot of thought… But when the idea was first broached with me two years ago, once they started explaining where they saw her being twenty years on, I was very intrigued! It was all too interesting to pass up, because she's been through a lot; she's seen a lot of really dark, bad stuff over the last two decades, and she's kind of hardened, she's a bit more cynical. She's been working with an independent law and order group, trying to keep some semblance of order in a galaxy that has gone to hell in a handbasket, something for which she holds Starfleet and the Federation very much responsible, and Picard as an extension of that.”
Picard will also reunite with another Borg alum, Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco). Del Arco hints that these last twenty years have not been easy for his character either and that Hugh “has had to make some difficult choices. He’s doing the best he can under the circumstances to keep his people safe and alive. But with that comes some really hard compromises for him that eat at him. He’s in a tough position, trying to figure out how to balance doing the most good at the worst time.”
Alongside Star Trek old-timers comes a slate of new characters, bringing new life and youthful optimism to the somewhat jaded returning characters. As mentioned, Isa Briones plays Dahj, “a really cool young woman who is wonderfully empathetic and caring for other people. She’s starting a new chapter in her life and everything is going great for her, until a tragic incident occurs. And suddenly, she has no idea who she can trust or even if she can trust herself.”
Fans will also meet Elnor, “a young Romulan boy who's an expert in hand to hand combat,” says Evan Evagora. “He's pretty good with the sword as well, and he was raised in an all-female sect of warrior nuns.” Harry Treadaway plays another Romulan, though one “from a very, very wealthy family, who is now living on the Borg cube and conducting research there. All is not what it seems,” Treadaway warns, cautious not to let slip too much. Though Star Trek has in the past been accused of embracing a monoculture approach to different species, this is far from the case with these two very different Romulans. “I think trying to apply normality and reality to a show which is intergalactic and bends time and space is a really important thing to do,” Treadaway muses. “Otherwise you lose all anchors. And so everyone's character, no matter which species they come from, their lives are their own.”
Rounding off the cast of newcomers is Michelle Hurd, who plays Raffi. “She’s a security analyst and a hacking genius. She has a very complicated relationship with the Federation and she worked with Picard back in the day, after Next Gen, and they had a bit of a falling out. She's haunted by decisions that she's made in the past and has crutches and vices that she leans on to get through the day.”
Picard’s cast was not short on praise for leading man Patrick Stewart, expressing that although joining such an influential franchise was intimidating, Stewart had made them all feel instantly welcome. Del Arco recalls that Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg (who has been invited to return to her role in Season 2) were “like Mum and Dad on the set of Next Gen. They could not have been lovelier, kinder, more gracious or more supportive. Patrick is still that to the cast today. We’re very, very lucky.”
“I would say that when you're on any kind of production,” says Hurd, “number one basically sets the tone for the entire set. And that man, Patrick Stewart, is just like Picard when he walks on set. He is our leader, and he is a fearless leader. He's a brave leader. He's a kind leader. He's a generous one. He is obsessed and focused on ensemble, he’s playful and self-deprecating, and cheeky and sassy. And sexy, I'm just gonna say it,” she laughs.
If Jean-Luc Picard is still sexy, surely Star Trek: Picard cannot be a complete tonal break from what came before? Some fans have expressed concern that Picard, in reflecting the current socio-political context, will succumb to cynicism and abandon the optimism that defined earlier series. Jeri Ryan reassures that “Star Trek has always reflected the society of its time. This series is continuing in a fine tradition.” Evagora echoes this, stating that “it’s always been Gene Roddenberry's vision to hold a mirror up to our society through every iteration of Star Trek. That’s what it's always been, and we just continue that legacy.”
“We can't help but be influenced by what's happening in our present day, from paintings to dance, to music and acting,” Hurd explains. “So we are absolutely tackling the discord and divisiveness, and the discomfort that we all feel in our respective countries right now. It's incredible that it's ever-present, that it's happening to all of us. What I love about our writers is that we're not preaching it; it’s not like sitting down and getting a lesson, but you absolutely are going to see a mirror being held up. And what's great about our story is that we're seeking a solution. We're trying to inject hope, optimism, and emphasising the sanctity, the vulnerability and the preciousness of life and love, and humanity.”
At the end of the day, all anyone appears to want is to preserve Star Trek’s legacy. As co-creator and executive producer Alex Kurtzman puts it, “What I learned from making the first film (Star Trek, 2009) is that the voices of the fans are essential to being a writer on Star Trek, and that processing and metabolising the information that they're giving us is critical. It's often uncomfortable, but I think the price of that is worth it. At the end of the day, the fans have kept this show alive for fifty-four years. It doesn't really belong to anyone except for the fans – and Gene Roddenberry.
“And of course, it's hard sometimes. But I also think that in equal measure, there's so much love for it and so much joy and so much ‘thank you for doing this’. I will get letters from people, or people come up to me and they will say ‘Star Trek literally saved my life. This thing that you did saved my life. I was alone. I didn't have anybody, and I happened to turn on the TV on the one night that I was thinking of killing myself. And it saved my life.’ And when you know that that's also happening, that any flack you get is really irrelevant because the legacy of the show goes so far beyond me! I'm just a piece of it along the way. This show not only changed people’s lives for the better, but it’s changed history itself. I've met astronauts who became astronauts because they love Star Trek, and artists and scientists and writers. This is so much bigger than any one of us. It's so much bigger. I think we all feel that our job is to protect it to the best of our ability.”
STAR TREK: PICARD airs from January 23rd in the UK on Amazon Prime Video, and CBS All Access in the States. For our review of episodes 1 - 3, read HERE.