Tag Archives: Star Trek: Picard

The Trek goes on

Executive producer Alex Kurtzman reveals how one of television’s most storied franchises was brought back to the small screen in the shape of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard, and how the latter takes the sci-fi juggernaut in a new direction.

In a career spanning more than 20 years, Alex Kurtzman cut his writing and producing teeth on series such as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess and Alias. But it was his relationship with writer and director JJ Abrams, who created the latter show, that led Kurtzman to become one of the chief architects of the modern reboot of Star Trek.

Alex Kurtzman

Kurtzman co-wrote the eponymous 2009 feature film, which Abrams directed, and also co-wrote the sequel, 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness but missed out on the subsequent Star Trek: Beyond owing to the fact he was developing a new iteration of Star Trek for television alongside Bryan Fuller (Hannibal). Star Trek: Discovery launched on then-fledgling streamer CBS All Access in 2017, with Star Trek: Picard beginning in January this year.

The exec describes boarding the franchise, which began in 1966 with William Shatner’s James T Kirk captaining the USS Enterprise, as an “incredible ride” that is unexpected, delightful and surprising at every turn. “I never expected that, all these years later, I’d somehow be responsible for bringing Star Trek back to television and then building out this universe,” he tells DQ. “It’s been one of the true delights of my whole career.”

Kurtzman’s own love of Star Trek blossomed with the original series, which saw Shatner alongside Leonard Nimoy (first officer and scientist Spock) and DeForest Kelley (chief medical officer Leonard McCoy). It ran on NBC for just three seasons but became a cult hit in syndication, leading to the launch of four further series and 10 feature films until the reboot led by Kurtzman.

“When I was little, I had a friend whose dad worked in a jet propulsion laboratory here in LA and was building rockets,” he recalls. “He and his family would watch Star Trek and that was my first exposure to that show. People who work in the real world building things that go into space were inspired by Star Trek, and that seed was planted in a way I didn’t even understand at the time.

“The real big bang for me was The Wrath of Khan [1982], a very meaningful film – visceral and emotional and gorgeous and such an incredible character story. That was a big deal for me. And then I watched all of the films as they came out.

The original Star Trek initially aired on NBC for just three seasons

“I was very late to the party on The Next Generation [1987-1994]. A lot of my friends in high school were watching it and it wasn’t until I started doing a deep dive back into Star Trek for the 2009 movie in around 2006/07 that I started familiarising myself with The Next Generation and realising how much smarter my friends were in high school and what I’d been missing.”

Bringing the franchise back to television proved to be a “bumpy” path, most notably as Discovery co-creator Bryan Fuller left the project during development. That it would also serve as CBS All Access’s flagship show added further pressure on the series to be a success.

The story, set about 10 years before the original Star Trek series, sees the Klingon houses go to war with the United Federation of Planets and introduces the crew of the USS Discovery, featuring Sonequa Martin-Green as first officer Michael Burnham, alongside Doug Jones, Shazad Latif, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman and Jason Isaacs.

“They had asked me to be involved in it [after the films] and I had deferred the decision for several years because I didn’t really want to go back to it until I had clear enough reason to do it and a story I wanted to tell,” Kurtzman recalls. “Then they decided to not only launch it but launch it on a new network. So it wasn’t just carrying the weight of Star Trek’s return to television but also the success or failure of a brand new streaming service. It’s such a weird high-wire act I wasn’t really expecting, but there was a lot of support for it.

“We went through a lot of bumpy roads over the course of the first season and found that heat. When I look back now, I’ve met a lot of other people who have all done a lot of Star Trek shows and they unilaterally tell me that season one is always really hard. You undergo a lot of big changes but, in the end, it was a really gratifying experience because people liked the show. Some people like it, some people take issue with it but, on the whole, it’s been really successful and I’m really proud of it, of the cast and of the writers. It’s been amazing to see the show’s growth.”

Sir Patrick Stewart fronted The Next Generation

That growth now includes Star Trek: Picard, but it might not have happened at all had Sir Patrick Stewart not been persuaded to break his steadfast vow to never again step into the shoes of Jean-Luc Picard, the starship commander he played in seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and four feature films, culminating in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis.

Thankfully, the actor was won over by the plan to focus on an older, retired Picard in a new stage of his life 18 years on. “Patrick was insistent from the beginning that we not do anything that had been done before with the character. He wasn’t interested in playing Picard as he had already played him,” Kurtzman says.

“He wanted to see the next chapter. Our show gave us an enormous amount of room because he couldn’t possibly have been the same man [as in Nemesis]. And not only was there a new timeline for him, there were other iterations of Trek, including our 2009 film, that really radically changed the direction of his life in ways he didn’t expect.

“He’s very much the old Picard, but the circumstances of his life have changed him so much and it’s really interesting to see a character wrestling with his soul and look back on his life more than looking forward, to think about the sum total of his choices. He’s living with a lot of regrets, a lot of sadness, and so the show really becomes his second chance. To me, that was a really exciting place to start a new show from. It certainly felt like there was no version of Picard that existed like that because now enough time had passed.”

Stewart insisted Star Trek: Picard develop the character

With so many hit series and films across multiple decades, it’s no surprise that Star Trek has one of the most fervent, passionate and committed fan bases in pop culture. But as those behind the recent Star Wars films and the final seasons of Game of Thrones will attest, immense popularity doesn’t mean immunity from criticism.

“You have to keep in mind the fans are really the true owners of Star Trek,” Kurtzman notes. “Other than [original creator] Gene Roddenberry, the fans are the ones who have kept the show alive in so many different forms. It’s OK to be critical of things, it’s OK to debate things; that’s part of what Star Trek is all about. I feel like we’re doing OK if we’re at a 50/50 split [in terms of popularity among fans], because fans are often divided internally about what they like and don’t like.

“If you’re just retreading old ground in an unoriginal way, I don’t think that’s satisfying for fans. It’s terribly important to listen to that voice but it’s also important to listen to your own voice and to ask yourself what you would want to see or not see.”

On set, Discovery and Picard’s use of visual effects means making the shows is comparable to a theatrical blockbuster. In essence, his job is to “figure out how to bring both the largesse of what the cinema screen has to offer and the intimacy that 10 hours of television has to offer and bring them together,” Kurtzman says.

“We aim to shoot big, cinematic frames, which means a lot of prep and advanced work in building sets that are typically much bigger than television show sets and then augmenting them with tremendous visual effects.

Star Trek: Discovery debuted on CBS All Access in 2017

“No other show I’ve ever done has got 50-plus years of history and mythology of story to drop in, either. The challenge is keeping the timelines of the stories synchronised in the mind. But there are great armies of people who I work with who are there specifically to say you can do this or you can’t do this or, if you’re going to do this, you have to understand the residual effects it will have.”

With a second season of Picard already confirmed, a third season of Discovery is due to air later this year. Beyond those, Kurtzman says there are “infinite” stories to tell in the Star Trek universe that can lead to multiple seasons and more spin-offs, as long as each one can stand apart with its own identity.

“The great goal of building out a whole universe is feeling like you’re getting the same aspects of one show with another show. If that doesn’t happen, you’ve failed,” he says. “You have to feel like you’re getting different things from every show, yet the goal is to have each show like a different crayon in a box of crayons where a different colour is a different feeling but it’s recognisably Star Trek. From that point of view, we could tell so many stories as long as we really take the time to do them properly.”

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To boldly go… again

Alongside the cast and crew of Star Trek: Picard, Sir Patrick Stewart opens up about returning to the lead role after 18 years and explains why this series marks a new direction for the storied franchise.

As far as Sir Patrick Stewart was concerned, the Star Trek chapter of his heralded career was over. From his first appearance as Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship USS Enterprise, in Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, he appeared in all seven seasons of the sci-fi series, plus one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and four feature films, culminating in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis.

It took some persuading, but thanks to executive producers Alex Kurtzman, Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsman and supervising producer Kirsten Beyer, he has now returned to the role after an 18 year hiatus for Star Trek: Picard, the first series in the franchise to be named after a character rather than a starship or station.

“I’m on record as having said, ‘Nope, no more Star Trek. I said goodbye to that, I’m proud of everything we did but I’m done with it.’ Then Alex, Akiva, Michael and Kirsten began talking to me, and they talked and talked about Star Trek in a way I had never imagined before,” Stewart recalls.

“As I reflected and talked to my own team about this, at the end, I realised it was something I had to do – and what a smart decision that was! We wrapped filming our first season at the end of September and I was as happy with what we’d done with that as anything in my career.”

Set at the end of the 24th century, 14 years after Picard’s retirement from Starfleet, Star Trek: Picard opens with the lead character enjoying a quiet life with his dog, Number One, on his French vineyard, Chateau Picard. But when he is sought out by a mysterious young woman, Dahj (Isa Briones), in need of his help, he soon realises she may have personal connections to his own past.

Star Trek: Picard begins with the retired starship captain on his vineyard in France

“I feel I have been preparing to shoot Star Trek: Picard for over 30 years,” Stewart jokes, speaking on stage at the London premiere of the series. “There was a quality about him, a feeling I had about him from the very beginning, which was unlike any acting experience I had had before. When these people came to me and pitched an idea, I was all ready with my speech of refusal. Indeed, I insisted through my representative that I would meet them face to face and tell them why I was going to say no.

“I did my best, and then I do remember Alex saying, ‘Can we just talk to you a little about our idea?’ And he talked and talked. They all got my attention. When the meeting was over, I asked my agent to ask them if they could put on paper the things they said to me because I’d like to study them more closely. The last thing I felt I wanted or needed was to return to Star Trek.

“Two days later, 35 pages showed up. I read them and I was hooked, because what they were writing about was an image of the future of Jean-Luc and the world of Star Trek, which I have never envisioned before and thought could not be possible under the overriding rule of what Star Trek is and what it isn’t. These guys were breaking those rules again and again. That’s the kind of stuff that interests me and, with increasing excitement, I signed on.”

The fact that Star Trek: Picard would provide the next chapter of Jean-Luc’s life was what appealed so much to the actor.

“The world has changed since we finished The Next Generation,” he continues. “I was intrigued by that and the challenge it presents Jean-Luc when he was no longer an authority figure. Doing this again became irresistible because there were so many transformations in the character, his behaviour and what he believed in.”

Sir Patrick Stewart was initially reluctant to return to the character he last played in 2002

From the first episode, it’s easy to see why Stewart was drawn to his character’s new adventure, opening with Jean-Luc taking long strolls through the vineyards and haunted in his dreams by the mistakes of his past. A television interview forces him to face the reasons for his retirement head-on, while the arrival of Dahj causes him to shake off the dusty shackles of life after Spacefleet and throw himself into a new mission.

Kurtzman, who has been involved in rebooting the Star Trek franchise with two movies and another series, Star Trek: Discovery, says Stewart threw down the gauntlet to the producers and challenged them to do something that hadn’t been done before.

“I didn’t want to do just season eight of The Next Generation,” the exec producer says. “This is the next chapter of this man’s life. He’s living with regret and loss in a way that is profound. The idea he has this opportunity, in a very unexpected way, to right wrongs he feels he was a part of, it’s a second chance to make amends.

“It’s a beautiful story. You almost never get to tell that story. Jean-Luc is 92 years old in Starfleet years. How many shows allow you to tell the story from the point of view of someone who’s looking back on their life and giving them one last chance at hope? That’s really what we wanted to say.”

Goldsman, who has been involved in Star Trek: Discovery and the Short Trek companion series, agrees that the creative team were keen to respect the period of time that had passed since Jean-Luc was last seen on screen.

The series also sees the return of Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine

“We didn’t want to pick up right on the heels of The Next Generation, we wanted to acknowledge that for both Sir Patrick and the character, 20 years had passed,” he says. “The plans we make rarely line up with the outcome, so as much as Jean-Luc might have left Star Trek: Nemesis thinking he was going one way, life took a different set of choices. We felt that to restart him at his ancestral home gave us some grounding and a way to celebrate him for folks who knew him but also introduce him to those who didn’t.”

Stewart wasn’t the only one who didn’t think the series would materialise from those early conversations. “It was completely unexpected and nothing that even in my wildest fan boy dreams have I ever had the hutzpah to imagine might come to pass,” admits showrunner Chabon, who says he was “lured in” by Goldsman and joined the team when it was already in the early stages of trying to evolve the next Star Trek series following Discovery.

“There were so many dozens of times in the course of making this show that I said to myself or Akiva, Alex or Kirsten, ‘I can’t believe I get to do this’. I still can’t, but it’s true.

“We’re fans. We are steeped in Star Trek and we put everything we love most about the show, every iteration of the show all the way back to the original series, into our work on Picard. We also want people who don’t know the show at all, people who don’t like Star Trek or never watch Star Trek, so we’ve tried to make the show work for those people as well.”

Beyond Stewart, the cast brings together a blend of familiar faces and new arrivals. Returnees include Jeri Ryan, who reprises her Star Trek: Voyager role as Seven of Nine. Jonathan Del Arco is The Next Generation’s Hugh and Brent Spiner appears as android Data.

Stewart’s Picard finds his quiet life interrupted by Dahj (Isa Briones), who needs his help

Among the newcomers are Michelle Hurd as Raffi Musiker, who shares a “complicated history” with Jean-Luc and Starfleet, while Harry Treadaway and Evan Evagora play Romulans Narek and Elnor. Alison Pill is synthetics expert Dr Agnes Jurati.

Similarly to Stewart, Ryan says she thought she had said goodbye to her character 20 years ago, and initially didn’t think talk of a return would lead anywhere. “When I was approached about it two years ago, I thought it was a joke. I laughed – I thought it was really funny – and they said, ‘No, we’re serious,’” the actor recalls.

“They pitched the general direction the character was going to go in, which was surprisingly intriguing to me because I thought I was done. Then I thought nothing was going to come of it. People pitch ideas in Hollywood all the time and nothing ever happens.

“Then, cut to a year later, and I’m backstage at the Creative Arts Emmys with Alex getting ready to go on stage and he turns around and says, ‘We’re talking a lot about Seven of Nine in the writers room.’ I was like, ‘Oh, so it’s real? OK.’ It never occurred to me it would actually happen. I’m so thrilled and grateful that it did.”

In contrast, Treadaway was given a speedy introduction to the world of Star Trek. “I remember a phone call early on, lying on my back looking at the stars in Devon while Alex was talking me through what Star Trek was and what the world and this version was,” he remembers.

The Star Trek: Picard cast line up at the show’s premiere

“I was really coming at it from a very unknowing place and I decided to take that and use it to my advantage rather than anything else. I was fresh-eyed and it just blew me away. I was aware of the heritage and what this world has meant to so many people for so long. It’s an incredible thing.”

Airing on CBS All Access in the US, Bell Media and Crave in Canada and in more than 200 countries worldwide on Amazon Prime Video, Star Trek: Picard is produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Secret Hideout and Roddenberry Entertainment. Distribution is handled by CBS Studios International.

The weekly roll-out of episodes – the series debuted last week – means fans won’t be able to binge the entire season straightaway. But with a second season of Picard already commissioned, the good news is they won’t have to wait another 18 years to see Jean-Luc back on screen.

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