Patrick Stewart on ‘Star Trek: Picard’: Reviving iconic leader is 'fascinating challenge'
Jean-Luc Picard of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is back, but he’s in a much different place geographically, chronologically, emotionally — and no longer at the helm of the Starship Enterprise.
“That was a little weird,” says Patrick Stewart, who reprises his role as the iconic leader in “Star Trek: Picard,” the newest “Trek” offering from CBS All Access, which debuted Thursday.
“We do have a ship,” although it’s smaller than the Enterprise and definitely not a starship, Stewart explains. “There’s one moment when I sit in the captain’s chair and I have to acknowledge I don’t know how to drive the ship and I have to get out. New technology, you know.”
The 10-episode “Picard,” already renewed for Season 2, adds the familiar — Picard, “Next Generation” characters Data (Brent Spiner), William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) — to a changed universe, roughly 20 years after the adventures of “Next Generation” (1987-1994 in syndication, followed by four feature films from 1994 to 2002). Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), a character from "Star Trek: Voyager," appears, too.
As the series opens, Picard, in a dream, plays poker with android "synthetic" Data on the Enterprise, a callback to the “Next Generation” finale, when the reluctant captain finally joined his colleagues at the card table.
“It seemed like no time had passed when we sat across from each other,” Spiner says. “It took us longer to get into makeup than to get into these characters again.”
But Picard’s pleasant dream is ruined by the memory of a devastating attack on Mars that haunts the retired admiral, who feels useless living out his days at his French chateau winery.
Fortunately, that doesn’t last for long, as a mysterious young woman (Isa Briones) with ties to Data pulls him back into a new space adventure in a galaxy that has changed dramatically since his retirement.
After initially turning down a return to the role that made the British stage veteran and Shakespearean actor internationally famous but became an "albatross" that prevented him from getting new roles, Stewart changed his mind after producers sent him a 35-page description of the series.
“You want something that can transform and shift and move unexpectedly, and that's what they were pitching to me,” he says.
“Having thought that everything that I could say about Jean-Luc Picard had been said, they were now putting me in situations that I'd never anticipated, where I didn't know what he would do, how he would he behave. That was a fascinating challenge.”
While working on a young Picard story for CBS All Access' “Short Treks,” writers felt a yearning for the stalwart original, who embodied "Star Trek" can-do optimism, Kurtzman says.
“We are now living in a moment where we’re looking to our leaders to be the leaders that we need them to be, and they’re not,” he says. "And when you think about the great Starfleet captains, for me anyway, Picard rises to the top because in the hardest of times and the grayest of areas, he always found a way to be a beacon of hope and righteousness. Knowing that 'Star Trek' inspires people, it did feel it was time for him to come back.”
The reunion of Picard and crew was a kick for producers, as they hope it will be for viewers. "The day we shot the first scene with Brent and Patrick … was this moment," executive producer Heather Kadin remembers. "They're both in their Starfleet uniforms, because it's in a dream. It's incredible."
However, the older Picard is missing not only his starship, but the confidence that has defined the character.
“Seeing Picard under stress and not knowing if he’s doing the right thing or did the right thing (indicates) he feels very insecure. These were not challenges that had arisen in ‘Next Generation,’” says Stewart.
“Picard” reflects “Trek” canon, including the fallout from a failed refugee rescue effort following the destruction of Romulus, which resulted from a supernova in the 2009 “Star Trek” film.
“Because of the nature of ‘Star Trek,’ (‘Picard’) needed to reflect our own world and some of our problems. The most obvious one is refugees,” Stewart says.
"Picard" also explores the ramifications of the captain's experience with the Borg, a "Next Generation" foe, and the appearance of Spiner’s Data won’t conflict with the character’s demise in 2002's “Nemesis,” the final "Next Generation" film.
Attention to detail is crucial for a 53-year-old franchise with a staunchly committed fan base that scrutinizes everything. A mix of excitement and skepticism for each new project is ingrained in the “Star Trek” experience, Spiner says.
“I recall that when we started to make ‘Next Generation,’ there was a reluctance to accept the show. Little by little, people started to enjoy it. And the same thing happened with ‘Deep Space Nine,’ ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise’ and with the films,” he says. “I think it’s a matter of: 'Sit back, relax and go for the ride.'”