Star Trek: Picard certainly has plenty for nostalgic fans of previous Star Trek shows to feast on, starting with the return of Patrick Stewart as the legendary title character, along with other Star Trek: The Next Generation cast members like Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis and Brent Spiner. There’s even Jeri Ryan encoring as Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager, along with references to both those shows, the 2009 Star Trek film and other points of reference from the vast Trek mythology.
But there is also a new cast on the show as well, a diverse assortment of largely younger actors playing characters that are all-new to the Trek universe and each integral to the show’s storyline, which involves the resettlement of the Romulans after their sun goes supernova, an unexplainable uprising of synthetic beings that caused the deaths of tens of thousands on a Mars shipbuilding site, and Picard’s search for a young woman who may be one of two synthetic offspring of his late friend and officer, Data.
Isa Briones plays both women, Dahj and Soji, whose own narratives have already diverged quite starkly in the show’s premiere episode (you can find spoilers for this here). Speaking with reporters recently, Briones reflects on what it’s like to portray a new character, or in this case two, opposite one of the most beloved Trek icons of all.
“It’s honestly the best situation that you could have, I think,” she says. “Because it’s having someone who to all of us is the walking, living embodiment of what is so great about Star Trek, the fact that you get to work with him and learn from him. And it’s not like he was like, ‘This is how it is. This is how it has to be.’ But just (because of) who Patrick is as a person, you’re constantly learning by just watching him. I say this all the time, but truly he is the greatest captain and not just Picard, but Patrick himself.”
Briones adds that at first she didn’t even realize that she was playing two characters, both of whom are the linchpin for the entire storyline. “When I was auditioning, I didn’t know until finally one of the casting people was like, ‘So yeah, one of the things is really big for the characters, you know, the twin thing.’ And I was like, ‘I’m sorry, what?’ She’s like ‘Yeah, yeah you’re a twin.’ I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ So, that was kind of a ‘learn as you go’ situation because going into it, I didn’t know.”
For Briones and many of the other new cast members, working with Patrick Stewart and other famous faces from previous Star Trek shows on a new series is something they still can’t get their heads around. “It was exciting for us to see just how close the Next Generation cast is,” says Briones. “Because for all of us newcomers, we were just watching that dynamic play out and we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s going to be us.’ We’re going to hopefully have that same strong bond and I think we already do.”
Santiago Cabrera, who plays a former Starfleet officer turned rogue pilot for hire named Cristobal Rios, says that getting the chance to work with Stewart was an opportunity no actor would pass up. “He’s just such a great actor,” says the Venezuelan-born Cabrera, best known to genre fans as Isaac on Heroes. “I feel like the more you do this, you always want to be working with the best because it just makes you better…So he was a huge, if not the biggest, draw to do this show. Then you meet him and he’s just so down to earth and part of the group and just one of the gang. He makes it very easy to just be part of it. At least for me, he made me feel extremely welcome, as if you’ve been there forever from day one.”
In the case of actor Evan Evagora, who plays a young Romulan refugee and warrior named Elnor, the connection to Star Trek came through his mother. “She lost her mind when she found out that I got it,” the Australian actor recalls. “Then she lost her mind when she found out I was working with Jeri Ryan. I grew up watching the Original Series movies and some of the TNG series. My oldest memory of Star Trek is The Search for Spock. But I’ve been a big sci-fi and fantasy fan thanks to mum. Just years and years of reading and watching — I feel like this is where I’m at home the most is watching sci-fi and fantasy.”
Michelle Hurd, who portrays another ex-Starfleet officer named Raffi Musiker, says that her sister was the hardcore Trekker in the house but that her entire family was encouraged to watch the original show when it aired in syndication. “I’m biracial,” Hurd explains. “My father was a black actor and it was one of the only shows that we were encouraged to watch together because it had us, it was representing people who were not the same. So I’m ecstatic about doing this.”
Hurd says that she loves how Star Trek — and science fiction in general — can address problems in the world now by cloaking them in the trappings of the genre. “It’s make believe, so you can be green or red or blue or black or purple, and it’s okay. But they don’t realize that we’re telling our stories, we’re talking about immigration, we’re talking about other-ism, we’re talking about inclusion and exclusion. We’re talking about occupying and taking and hopefully I think with our 10-hour film, we talk about how we strive for solutions to that. We are holding onto hope, which I think is really important right now.”
Even if Star Trek: Picard features the general optimism about the future that has been a hallmark of so many previous iterations of Trek, the characters themselves are not all necessarily starting off in a good place. “Raffi and Picard worked together after (The Next Generation),” says Hurd about her character’s history. “But they had a falling out. She has a really complicated and challenging relationship with the Federation. She is a security analyst and a hacking genius. She’s really sarcastic. She also is haunted by some decisions that she made in the past. She has vices to help her get up and get through the day because of those things that haunt her and she’s perfectly imperfect.”
In fact, Hurd reveals that Raffi is essentially an addict — yes, people are still grappling with that even at the end of the 24th century. “Yes she is an addict, but there are reasons behind that as there always are for people who have that demon on their shoulders,” says Hurd. “I really appreciate to be able to tell that story because I think it affects a lot of us whether you’re talking about addiction to some substance or an addiction to other things, shopping, working out, a litany of other things that we do to hide or avoid the issues that we should face.”
Like Hurd’s Raffi — who is not exactly the model Starfleet officer — Evagora found out that Elnor is not precisely the kind of Romulan we’ve seen before. “My character kind of went against everything I’d learned or knew about Romulan culture,” he explains about the character, who was raised by an all-female sect of warrior nuns known as the Qowat Milat. “I’ve got five sisters and a mother, and I’m the youngest as well, so I know exactly what it’s like living with a household of women. It’s very much a matriarchy in my household.”
Much of the scientific exposition for the plot — the famous Trek “technobabble” — is handled by actress Alison Pill (American Horror Story: Cult), whose Dr. Agnes Jurati is a researcher into artificial life, and whose work has been hamstrung by a Federation ban on synthetic beings following the Mars disaster.
“The speechifying is more of the philosophical end of it versus the technological side,” she says about Jurati’s exchanges with Picard. “These are real philosophical discussions to be having, like the one now about synthetic viruses. Should we be allowing these to be studied and made? That’s a valid question because in the wrong hands that could be truly destructive.” But she adds, “At the same time I think it’s important to always have the pushback from the scientific community to say, ‘No, we will do whatever we can. We will discover whatever we can.’”
For Pill, the bigger moral questions that are the hallmark of Star Trek going back to the very beginning of the franchise are all filtered through Star Trek: Picard’s main character and the legendary star who plays him. “Patrick is somebody who can make those moral philosophical speeches work beautifully,” she says. “It’s not easy. It could so quickly turn treacly and eye-rolling, but it doesn’t. You’re just like, ‘Yes,’ because he’s fully committed and believes in it. And I do think that the message in so many of the best episodes is truly that we can do better. We should do better. Let’s do better.”
New episodes of Star Trek: Picard premiere Thursdays on CBS All Access.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye