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In 2021, during the filming of Star Trek: Picard season two, Jonathan Frakes was working behind the camera as a director, making sure Alison Pill’s transformation into a new kind of Borg Queen made sense. In between shots, showrunner Terry Matalas confronted Frakes with a jarring question: “Are you ready to play Riker?” Frakes was caught off guard. He was always ready to play Riker. In 2020, he returned as Will Riker in the first season of Picard and cameoed as the voice of Riker in Lower Decks. What was going on? “I didn’t know what he was talking about. I told him I’d be happy to,” Frakes tells Den of Geek magazine. “But then, Terry said, ‘No, are you really, really ready to play Riker? Are you ready to bring Riker back?’”
When fans see Star Trek: Picard season three, they will understand what Matalas meant. It’s not just Riker that has been brought back. It’s the whole bridge crew of Enterprise-D. And unlike the two previous seasons, Picard season three is such a Next Generation comeback that even calling the series “Star Trek: Picard,” for some, might scan as a misnomer. “In my mind, I would’ve called it ‘Star Trek Legacy,’” Terry Matalas says. “I mean, it is truly a Picard story. He is the focus. But the spirit of it is different than seasons one and two, just because of what it is.”
So what is Picard season three? A Next Generation reunion? A backdoor pilot to another Star Trek series? A 10-hour-long TNG feature film? A love letter to fans of ’90s Trek? The answer is all of these things, and something new, too. At New York Comic Con in 2022, Patrick Stewart said that the journey that concludes in season three has left him “fulfilled way beyond anything that I had imagined.” And when fans see it, they will almost certainly feel fulfilled in a way they may not have imagined, either.
Jean-Luc and Beverly, Re-attached
Without spoiling anything major, the first character we see in this season’s premiere is Gates McFadden’s Dr. Beverly Crusher. For fans who have seen the trailers, this isn’t a surprise, and Matalas has been teasing this fact for nearly a year. But, for McFadden herself, the idea that her character would open the new season was thrilling. “I loved the very first scene. I mean, to me, that was so much fun to get to do that. To be active and fighting. I loved it!”
Because Jean-Luc Picard and Beverly Crusher had an on-again/off-again tempered romance in The Next Generation, one significant aspect of the new season focuses on what happened between these two in the years since we last saw her. Although Matalas confirms that Picard season three is set “at least a year and a half to two years” after the second season and begins “in the 25th Century,” the amount of time that has passed in the real world since fans have seen Beverly and Jean-Luc together is pretty much the exact same amount of time that has gone by in the fiction. Nemesis came out on December 9, 2002, and Picard returns on Feb. 16, 2023. Twenty years and two months later, Dr. Crusher and Jean-Luc are speaking to each other again.
“As an actor, you can’t help but bring the changes in you into that performance,” McFadden explains. “We have all become closer over the years, and so to have a chance to act again together in the same roles…it was extraordinary to me that it could even happen. It was really quite wonderful to be looking into Patrick’s eyes or Jonathan’s and know that there’s so much love, as well as laughter and bonding, between all of us.”
Taking over the Center seat
Star Trek: Picard has, in a sense, had three captains. In its first season, the showrunner was one of the co-creators of the show, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon. In season two, Akiva Goldsman (who also worked on Discovery and currently works on Strange New Worlds) helped craft what Terry Matalas calls the second season’s “psychological, emotional story.” But, for season three, Matalas was handed the keys to the starship. And it was his vision and passion for The Next Generation that became the overall mission statement. “Terry Matalas is pretty great as far as I’m concerned,” McFadden says. “There was sort of a generational difference. He grew up watching [TNG], and he had a certain kind of respect for the characters who weren’t captains. He really listened to all of our ideas, and we absolutely felt encouraged to talk about everything.”
Previously a production associate on Voyager and Enterprise, Matalas is likely best-known to genre fans as the visionary behind SyFy’sTV version of 12 Monkeys. That critically-acclaimed series is both a cult fan favorite and an impressive showcase for Matalas’ unique writing skills. You may think you’re familiar with certain time travel tropes, but the way Matalas unpacked those ideas in 12 Monkeys was both refreshingly new and classic simultaneously. And his approach to the canon and tone of Star Trek is similar. For Matalas, if it’s not broken, then don’t fix it.
“I just felt like Picard season three needed to feel like it fit into this universe,” Matalas says. “It was very important to me, first and foremost, that it treads new ground, but [also feel] like a continuation of the stories and arcs set up 30 years ago. There’s a fine line between fan service and just honoring the universe that you’re in. So, I just went full tilt at the things that mattered to me.”
Starship Music to Steer By
Some of the things that matter to Terry Matalas matter to longtime Star Trek fans, too. This is why the new season will not only feel different but look and sound different from the earlier seasons of Picard. “I love the old Next Gen font. I’ve missed titles on episodes and seeing them and going, ‘hmm, I wonder what that means…?’ And the music was extraordinarily important to me.”
While the first two seasons utilized composer Jeff Russo, this one makes a sonic change by bringing in Stephen Barton, the composer on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, as well as the final two seasons of Matalas’ 12 Monkeys.
“If we were going to say this is the last Star Trek: The Next Generation film, or 10 of the last Star Trek: The Next Generation movies—because all the episodes are very different—then it needed to sound like that, too,” Matalas says. “And that required Stephen Barton. Then, later in the season, the score gets so massive as the story grows that we had to bring in some help from Frederik Wiedmann, who’s a brilliant composer as well. I grew up with legends [like] Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. Not to mention Dennis McCarthy and Cliff Eidelman. All those Trek composers have nods.”
A 25th-Century Odyssey
What Matalas does by talking about the new musical score for this season is reveal what the show feels like without spoiling it. When fans watch the first four episodes, this feeling will be apparent right away, but also, if everyone has done their jobs right, not jarring or noticeable at all. From the font to the music to the uniforms to the structure and the dialogue, what Matalas has accomplished is to make Picard season three feel like we’ve simply picked up with a Next Generation storyline already in progress.
“He really gets Next Gen,” Frakes says of Matalas’ writing in season three. “Without blowing too much smoke up Terry’s ass, he’s a wonderful writer. And the stuff he gave me to do was exciting. I know that Gates felt the same way, and I think LeVar [Burton] did, too.” That said, just because the entire crew is back, don’t expect this season to be one big prolonged TNG hug. Good writing comes from conflict, and Frakes points out that at a few points, “Terry wrote Riker in conflict with Picard, which I thought was quite exciting.”
Like all the TNG cast members, Frakes was part of the last group of Star Trek actors to be cast by the late Gene Roddenberry himself. But, Frakes’ association with the Trek franchise has extended way beyond the end of TNG in 1994. After directing eight episodes of TNG, Frakes famously directed the feature films First Contact (1996) and Insurrection (1998). Since then, Frakes’ work behind the camera on Star Trek has become perhaps even more influential than his acting. Counting Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Discovery, and Picard episodes, Frakes has directed over twenty Trek episodes. Frakes also directed the upcoming Strange New Worlds crossover episode with Lower Decks, which will air later in 2023, which he thinks could be a “proof of concept” for a live-action Star Trek comedy series, should such a thing ever happen.
For this season of Picard, Frakes directed two episodes, and those episodes are full of tense conflict between familiar characters, something that will take Trek fans on a fascinating and surprising journey. “Roddenberry was, for some reason, opposed to conflict,” Frakes recalls.“It was a peculiar ask back in the day, but he wanted everyone to get along. Not so much with Terry. He’s really stirred the pot. Conflict, which, as we know, is an absolute necessity in drama.”
The characters of TNG will be boldly taken where they’ve never been taken before, even if it just means speaking their minds to each other for a change. For Gates McFadden, this real sense of human drama is what made Picard season three so different. For her, the contrast between Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002 and Picard now is simply the amount of care and time spent on the entire cast. “What a world of difference,” McFadden says. “I felt all the characters were so honored in this season of Picard.”
But Matalas’ love of Star Trek lore isn’t solely connected to The Next Generation. The big news is, of course, the return of the cast from that beloved series, but Picard season three is also a sequel to Deep Space Nine. In fact, huge events from the story of Deep Space Nine play a big part in the plot, not just because Worf (Michael Dorn) has returned. “I think that it’s important to Deep Space Nine fans to feel seen,” Matalas says. “It’s a continuation of Voyager too, of course, with Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) in our show. If you’re going to be in this time period, there’s such a rich opportunity to honor what came before.”
The Next-Next Generation?
Although this has been billed as a “final” Next Generation adventure, none of the cast or Matalas are quite ready to say that this is really the end. Many fans have speculated that Picard could easily lead into a spinoff show set in the 25th Century, focused on Seven and Raffi (Michelle Hurd). “I would love nothing more,” Matalas says. “Please send your letters to Paramount+ and Secret Hideout.”
Frakes teases that the ending of Picard season three is also begging for more adventures set in this era of Star Trek. “As you’ll see by the end of the season, it’s ripe for a continuation of some version of what we’ve established in the show. Not more Picard, but certainly, Next Gen is alive and well.”
Is it possible then, in a few years, that we could get a new series, simply titled “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” with some of the classic TNG actors on board in a new and exciting format? To hear it from the cast, Picard season three doesn’t have to be a one-off reunion. It could be the beginning of a comeback. “We are obviously so ready to do it and in a really good place to do it,” McFadden enthuses. “We’re just getting started.”
Star Trek: Picard season 3 hits Paramount+ on Feb. 16.