Star Trek: Picard premieres next week as the second live-action Star Trek series produced exclusively for the CBS All Access streaming service, following the arrival of Star Trek: Discovery two years ago. But while Discovery featured an all-new cast in a prequel to the original show — with some of that cast playing remixed versions of familiar characters — the new series, as you can tell by the title, is centered on one of the most beloved names in Trek history: Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise-D and E.
Picard is played by, of course, Patrick Stewart, who originated the character on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 and last played him in the final TNG movie, Star Trek: Nemesis, in 2002. Stewart is now nearing 80, although far from retired, while Picard is 92 and has been retired from Starfleet for many years. As Picard opens, we find out that the steadfast and thoughtful Frenchman is haunted by two events in his past: the death of Commander Data (Brent Spiner) at the end of Nemesis and the explosion of the Romulan sun, a catastrophe that not only created the alternate Kelvin timeline of the more recent Trek films, but has had devastating repercussions for the original Prime timeline.
“There’s a consistency in the timeline obviously,” says executive producer Alex Kurtzman about the connection to both Nemesis and the Kelvin timeline films. “I think we first and foremost wanted to make sure that you didn’t have to see any of those to come into this and get it. But if you have seen those, it’s a richer experience because you’ll understand how the show exists in a continuum of those events. The assumption is that the Romulan diaspora was really just focused on the Romulans, but part of what we are doing now is showing the ripple effects that went out in all different directions and obviously impacted this series as well.”
Kurtzman is speaking with reporters at a roundtable discussion in Pasadena, California, less than two weeks before the show premieres on January 23. It’s clear right off the bat from watching the premiere that Jean-Luc Picard — while as commanding and principled as always — is in a far different place in his life, watching the days go by at his family’s vineyards in France while growing slowly more detached from the life of exploration and galactic statecraft he once led.
“I think what’s interesting is that you kind of assume a certain thing, like ‘Oh, Picard’s going to be the Admiral of Starfleet,’” concurs Kurtzman. “All that stuff has been changed and taken away from him in a way. I think that was what was most interesting to us. Certainly Patrick was insistent on not repeating himself and not repeating things that he had done in any of the other movies or television shows. So when we meet Picard, the circumstances of his life are very different than we would expect. But he is still very fundamentally Picard and that was the key for us — making sure that while circumstances have changed him, he’s still the great leader he was.”
Picard’s innate leadership — both morally and physically — will be tested in the show by the Federation itself, which is grappling with the problem of assisting millions of displaced Romulans as well as other crises that have reverberated throughout the vast league of planets and star systems. And it’s not just Picard who has his issues with the Federation; a number of new characters on the show do as well. But Kurtzman insists that the Federation itself is basically sound and not at odds with the incorruptible, nearly perfect alliance first envisioned by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry six decades ago.
“Star Trek has always been an amazing mirror that holds itself up to now, as does all the great science fiction,” says the producer/writer, who co-wrote the films Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). “Yes, it’s a Utopian vision of the future. Yes, it’s an optimistic vision of the future in which our best selves rise to the top, and all the things that divide us now are afterthoughts and not even considerations. But you can’t tell a political story that’s allegorical without hitting what we’re dealing with right now. So that’s where those two things collide a little bit. What we didn’t want to do was touch on things politically in a way that felt so safe that it didn’t feel honest or authentic.”
Kurtzman is quick to clarify that Picard is not a series about the “decline” of the Federation or Trek‘s Utopian ideals. “The Federation is the Federation and will be the Federation over the course of the series. But the circumstances of the supernova have made things extremely complicated for them and politically complicated for them. Very difficult choices had to be made in that moment. And as a result of everything that happened, the Federation is finding itself in a new place now with new challenges. And we debated quite a bit: do we do something like this? Are fans going to be angry? But I think we very quickly circled back to the idea that if we’re going to do it, the person to do it with is Jean-Luc Picard because one of Picard’s most amazing traits is his ability to remain a steadfast moral compass in complicated moral gray areas.”
Kurtzman adds that it’s Jean-Luc Picard in the show who reminds the Federation why the principles it was founded on are so important, but with perhaps one difference from the way he has done so in the past: “He also regrets, as you’ll come to see the decisions that he made about the Federation, that he didn’t fight harder for what he believed in, and now he’s living with that guilt.”
Luckily for Picard, he doesn’t necessarily have to bear the brunt of his journey alone over the course of the first season’s 10 episodes. In addition to the new characters played by actors like Alison Pill, Isa Briones, Evan Evagora and Michelle Hurd, Jean-Luc will encounter some old friends and indirect acquaintances: former Enterprise second-in-command Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Enterprise counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), fellow Borg victims Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco) from the classic TNG episode “I, Borg” and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) from Voyager, plus — at least in visions for now — Data, played once again by Brent Spiner.
“We had a rule from the beginning and it was a really clear and steadfast rule, which is we’re not just going to throw people into the show to throw them in,” says Kurtzman about how the creative team determined which characters to bring back from the previous shows. “We’re actually not going to make any decisions about which legacy cast we’re going to take until we all sit in a room and start breaking the story, see where the story takes us, and then the story will tell us who wants to show up.”
Kurtzman adds that each of the returning characters had different reasons for returning. “Once you begin to go, okay, we actually do want to tell a Borg story, characters like Seven and Hugh become very intuitive and very organic,” he explains. “But we didn’t set out to say, ‘Hey, let’s bring back Seven and Hugh.’ In fact, we were not really thinking of bringing back Riker and Troi until we got halfway through the season and realized that they were perfect for an episode that you’ll see later. If the character is necessary and the show can’t tell itself without the character — that was the threshold for us.”
Star Trek: Picard is the second Trek series created by Kurtzman following Discovery, and like that show is also co-executive produced with Kurtzman (and others, including Patrick Stewart himself) by Heather Kadin. Both Kadin and Kurtzman admit they learned things from Discovery that they’re applying to this show, while also stressing that they are two very different entities.
“I think first of all, it’s just even how to produce these shows because they’re huge and really challenging,” says Kadin. “But also story-wise, just based on our fans and fan reaction and our reaction, we wanted to learn how to tell this one differently…it looks different and feels different. It’s much more thoughtful and pensive and it’s not as big. There’s not huge space battles and, not to say there won’t be a space battle, but it’s not what we’re leading with.”
Kurtzman agrees: “We’re not leading with the same things. And yet our thesis is that for this universe to work well, the shows have to be wildly diverse, yet there has to be a throughline in a recognizable Star Trek show. But each show has to have its own style, its own tone, its own unique thing. You have to be able to say, I want to watch each show because each show is different and each show adds to the larger puzzle. And that’s what’s really fun.”
Star Trek: Picard premieres on CBS All Access next Thursday (January 23).
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