Alex Moreland interviews Michael Chabon, Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman and Kirsten Beyer about Star Trek: Picard, their emotional connection to the series, and more…
Between the four of them, Michael Chabon, Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman and Kirsten Beyer have written a lot of Star Trek: novels, comic books, films, and, of course, television. The series isn’t just that anymore – over fifty years after the original Star Trek was quietly moved to Friday nights and eventually cancelled, it’s now the jewel in the crown of CBS All Access, and a major international acquisition for Amazon Prime. That little television show has grown into an empire.
Or, put another way, it’s a franchise.
“It’s interesting this word ‘franchise’, right?” muses Kurtzman. “Because it feels like a very – Michael used an excellent word the other day – a very mercantile term, where everything is about ‘okay, we can sell this and we can sell that’. But I actually don’t think that’s what it’s about for any of us. I think that’s someone else’s job. Our job is to create great stories and figure out how to use all these different mediums to tell them in interesting ways.”
It’s the storytelling that brought Patrick Stewart back, after all. “I think he believed ultimately that we wanted what he wanted,” says Goldsman, of Stewart’s return, “which was to tell the story of a man at a very different phase of his life. To come back to Jean-Luc Picard, on the bridge of the Enterprise, next alphabet in line? [That] was not interesting: it should be relegated now to the material of fantasy and imagination because it is passed. [We were interested in] someone as life starts to approach its end.”
“That’s the kind of story that you don’t typically get to tell in television or movies,” continues Goldsman. “I think he wanted to, and I think finally he realised that we weren’t kidding when we said we do too, that that is equally important to us. I think it was just likemindedness in terms of sensibility [that convinced Stewart to reprise his role]. We’re pretty good, all of us including Patrick, we’re a pretty good playpen full of folks. We had a nice time together trying to make something, and I think that helped.”
The conversation about inviting Stewart to return hadn’t, originally, been with a full series in mind – rather, the hope was that he might have a cameo appearance in a Short Trek, another little facet of that wider Star Trek franchise.
“We were chatting about making one of the Short Treks, pitching that maybe a young man could be revealed at the end to be a young Picard,” explains Goldsman. “We were talking about [Stewart] for one scene, at which point Alex asked–”
“Why stop there?” interrupts Kurtzman, laughing.
“Alex has that ‘make things more possible, make things bigger, let’s reach farther than anybody here is talking about reaching’ mentality,” elaborates Chabon. “Why should we go to all the trouble of approaching Patrick Stewart to get him to be in one scene? When maybe, if we go to the trouble of approaching him, he may be in a whole series?”
In the end, of course, that’s exactly what happened: after months of, as Goldsman put it, “courting and wooing” Stewart, he finally agreed to return to the role. Earlier that same day – about half an hour beforehand, in fact – I interviewed Stewart about his return to Star Trek, and he spoke about how the new series touched on some of his anxieties about the present day, and how much he appreciated engaging with a version of Star Trek that reflected how the world had changed in the twenty years since he had last portrayed Picard.
It’s one of the key dramatic arcs of the series, as Chabon explains. “When Picard says [the Federation] is no longer the Federation, I think he means something very specific by that. What has gone wrong with the Federation is exactly the same thing as what has gone wrong with Picard: they both made promises that terrible circumstances, almost impossible circumstances, forced them to break. That’s a situation that any of us can find ourselves in at anytime. What do you do when you have made a solid promise to help someone in every way you possibly can – and then something happens that you feel, rightly or wrongly, makes it impossible for you to keep that promise?”
“It’s a painful thing. Those kinds of moments are something that a governmental entity like the Federation is bound to encounter many times in the course of its history. The United States certainly has, and Picard has too. Picard will come to reckon with the effects of his having failed to keep the promise that he made, over the course of the season” finishes Chabon.
With the franchise – with any franchise, but particularly this one – comes a certain weight of expectation. Fans, that ill-defined but passionate group, often have very specific ideas about Star Trek, about what it should be and what it can do, about just what those strange new worlds should look like. Sometimes, it’s a lot less about seeking out new life and new civilisations, and a lot more about boldly going where they’ve already gone before.
Is there a danger, perhaps, in hewing too closely to what ‘fans’ think they want? Insofar as you can ever really know what fans want, anyway.
“Sometimes in the wider universe, in books and all those things like that, stories exist just for that purpose: to retcon something we were uncomfortable with, and maybe try to fix it,” explains Kirsten Beyer, herself a long-time veteran of official Star Trek tie-in novels, and the architect of much of the franchise’s expanded universe.
“In this case, however, it’s all driven from the character of Picard, and those things that resonate with the character. For fans who might have been disappointed to see Data pass in Nemesis – not feeling sufficiently glorious or grandiose or whatever – if that had had absolutely no emotional resonance for Patrick or for the rest of us, that wouldn’t have been a thread that we would’ve picked up” explains Beyer. “It just so happened that – particularly for Patrick – that was something that was still quite meaningful to him. You begin to mine for those elements. It’s not the other way around.”
“You look at Star Trek and you look to it for sophisticated, thorough, interesting, complicated thinking. It’s just as much a philosophical show as it is an action space opera,” Kurtzman adds, describing Star Trek: Picard’s character-oriented focus.
“I would also like to add that you guys are in a weird spot, right?” cautions Goldsman. “It’s like watching the first act of the movie. You know? We’re giving you a ten-hour narrative. If our storytelling isn’t more complex than a two-hour narrative, we f***ed it up. Right?”
“This is serialised,” Goldsman continues. “This is not ‘and now Edith Keeler is dead’ one week, but we’re fine the next week. This is knock-on from episode to episode, both in terms of character and story. In the first act of anything, things are bad. Always remember that. Right? There is no redemption without adversity. There are times where we’ve had the opportunity to tell longer-form stories, but it’s still not common in Star Trek.”
Nonetheless, there’s an emotional component to the franchise, and to the fandom, which can manifest in different ways – and often proves quite intense.
“I think I learned from making the first film [Star Trek (2009), directed by JJ Abrams] that the voices of the fans are essential to being a writer on Star Trek, and processing and metabolising the information they’re giving you is critical. It’s often uncomfortable,” says Kurtzman. “But I think the price of that is worth it, because at the end of the day, the fans have kept this show alive for 54 years. It doesn’t really belong to anyone, except for the fans and Roddenberry” he goes on, offering a slightly nicer way of understanding Star Trek as a franchise.
“I guess the best way that I can put it is… I will get letters from people, or people come up to me and they will say, it literally saved my life. Star Trek saved my life. I was alone. I didn’t have anybody. I happened to turn on the TV on the one night that I was thinking of killing myself and it saved my life,” continues Kurtzman. “When you know that that’s also happening, then any flack you get over preconceived ideas about what Star Trek is or should be, before people have often even seen the thing, is really irrelevant.”
“The legacy of this show goes so far beyond me, I’m just a piece of it along the way. But in the legacy of this show, this show has changed and shaped, not only altered people’s lives for the better, but it’s changed history. I’ve met astronauts who became astronauts because they loved Star Trek, artists and scientists and writers and… This is so much bigger than any one of us. It’s so much bigger” finishes Kurtzman.
And he’s right, it is much bigger: Star Trek is much bigger now than it ever has been before. But it’s also, somewhere underneath it all, still that same little television show that so many people hold dear:
“We had the premiere in Los Angeles and I was with our wonderful director for the first three episodes, Hanelle M. Culpepper,” recalled Chabon. “We were sitting doing an interview together, and she said that her father was coming to the premiere, and that he was a big Star Trek fan and she was so excited to get to show him what we’d done.”
“I have to admit,” continued Chabon, whose own father died during the production of Star Trek: Picard. “I had a real pain at that moment. I sort of wish I could’ve had that same moment.”
You can find my interview with Patrick Stewart and Jeri Ryan here, my interview with Michelle Hurd, Harry Treadaway and Evan Evagora here, and my interview with Isa Briones and Jonathan Del Arco here.
The first episode of Star Trek: Picard will be available on Amazon Prime on Friday 24th January.