Alex Moreland sits down with Patrick Stewart and Jeri Ryan to discuss Star Trek: Picard…
Captain Jean-Luc Picard is here. Not only in a new Star Trek television series, but he’s also sitting just across the table from me.
There’s something a little surreal about that. Technically, yes, it’s actually Patrick Stewart who’s sitting here in front of me – but in all ways except literal, Captain Picard is in the room, and we’re all captivated.
It’s not the sort of thing you ever really think is going to happen, and it’s clear Patrick Stewart didn’t expect to be here either.
“For many years, any suggestion that I might revive Picard,” he explains, “I passed on immediately, straight away, without hesitation. Not because I wasn’t proud of what we did on Next Generation. I was, and I loved all the people that I worked with very, very much. But I thought I had said and done everything that could be said and done about Jean-Luc and the Enterprise and his relationship with the crew and so forth.”
Which, well, makes a lot of sense. There’s a version of Star Trek: Picard out there – a half-written script on someone’s hard drive, a forum comment, the whisper of a dream – where nothing has really changed. Captain Picard, on the Enterprise (the Enterprise-F this time, of course), boldly going where no one has gone before. But we’ve seen that: we’ve seen a hundred and seventy-eight episodes of it, and they were often wonderful, but all good things must come to an end.
Except, of course, here we were. So what was it that convinced Patrick Stewart to reprise his most iconic role? “When I found myself sitting in front of Akiva, and Alex, and Kirsten, and James [Goldsman, Kurtzman, Beyer and Duff, the executive producers behind Star Trek: Picard] they at once began to talk about the new series in a way that was unexpected. All I did was listen – and then I made them a long speech as to why I was going to turn down that.”
“That was all, which I think took them a little by surprise. But then they talked some more, and they went into more detail about the storyline. When it was over, I asked my agent to contact them and have them put in writing all the things they’d said. Two days later I got 35 pages of pitch. It was undeniably interesting, and it was not going to be, I think, what either of us had experienced previously. A different world, which appealed to me, because the world is different in the last 19 years.”
Jeri Ryan agreed. “As Patrick said, I thought that [Seven’s] story was done, the same way. I thought we’d done it. The interesting part of her, for me, was her exploration of becoming human again, and we did that. So, I hadn’t really given it a whole lot of thought.”
“When the idea was first broached with me two years ago, once they started explaining what they saw as what she’s like now in the last 20 years, I was very intrigued. I mean, it was too interesting to pass up, because she’s been through a lot. She’s seen a lot of really dark, bad stuff over the last 20 years. So, she’s kind of hardened. She’s a bit more cynical.”
What really dark, bad stuff is that though? Star Trek: Picard picks up where J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) left off – Romulus has been destroyed, and a new refugee crisis has changed the galaxy. Of course, without giving anything away, Star Trek: Picard offers a few unique wrinkles of its own, with both Picard and Seven of Nine finding themselves in a strange new world.
That’s not to say they’ll entirely be on the same page though. “She’s been working with a sort of independent peacekeeping, or law-and-order group called the Fenris Rangers. I think I’m allowed to talk about that!” laughs Jeri Ryan as she explains what Seven of Nine is up to when we meet her again here. “[Seven is] trying to keep some semblance of order in the galaxy, which has gone to hell in a handbasket, for which she holds Starfleet and the Federation very much responsible, and Picard as an extension of that, I think.”
But then, it’s not the Federation as we remember it. “The Federation is not the Federation that it was in our day. Starfleet is certainly not the Starfleet of old. Things have changed, and it’s not good, either”, explains Patrick Stewart. It chimes with the real world, too, and that’s exactly what Stewart finds so compelling about Star Trek: Picard.
“I thought that [the scripts] were addressing not only a science-fiction story, but they were addressing the world and the condition that we’re in at the moment, because it’s bad. It’s really bad, and I’m all for [addressing that]. I’ve always been very active,” he says, referring to his own personal campaigning and activism.
“Star Trek has always done that, too”, chimes in Jeri Ryan. “Star Trek has always reflected society for its time. The Original Series, that’s how [Gene Roddenberry] created it. A Japanese character right after World War II, and a Russian character in the middle of the Cold War, all on the bridge. So, [Star Trek: Picard] is continuing a fine tradition, I think.”
Some people are going to be asking one big question, though: is this still the Picard everyone knows and loves? Well, yes and no. There’s a subtle, yet striking, moment in the first episode where a character talks about “Romulan lives” lost because of the Hobus supernova. Picard corrects them: not “Romulan lives”, but “lives”. He’s still recognisably the same man – but even so, Picard is haunted by the events of the past twenty years.
“When we first meet him, he is in poor shape. But even over the space of the first episode, that undergoes a change, because of his encounter with Isa Briones who plays Dahj”, explains Patrick Stewart – before then going on to reveal something about Dahj that you’ll have to wait a little while longer before finding out. “As the story goes on, and he is impacted by the story, we see more of the spirited believer in the benefits that can come from being socially conscious and aware of other people and other situations and so forth.”
It’s a process Patrick Stewart has been quite involved in – more than he was on The Next Generation, because he’s now serving as Executive Producer as well. “To be sitting in the writer’s room with Akiva Goldsman and Michael Chabon” – he paused for emphasis, still slightly awed Michael Chabon is working on Star Trek – “is an extraordinary experience. Brilliant people. Hearing the ideas flash backwards and forwards and then be abandoned, and then another one take its place, was thrilling.”
He’s aware, too, of the meaning Picard holds for so many. “The most affecting communication I ever had was from a police sergeant in the Las Vegas police force, who wrote me a quite long letter about his life as a policeman, how much he loved the job, and he had always wanted to be in the police. But he said, ‘there are days when I come home, when what I’ve seen and heard and witnessed is so unpleasant, I feel at times close to despair. When I feel that, I go to my shelf and I take down – it was a VCR in those days, a tape of Next Generation, and my hope returns.’ It was lovely.”
You can tell, quite clearly, how emotional this return is – for both Patrick Stewart, and for Jeri Ryan too. For all the emotion of the moment, though, make no mistake: they’re both genuinely thrilled to be back again, to be back as these characters. Jeri Ryan’s excitement is palpable, her enthusiasm for the glitz and glamour of Star Trek: Picard’s London premiere a far cry from the erstwhile Borg she plays on screen.
“I went to Picardilly Circus last night”, she says – not a typo on my part, but a special promotional event arranged by Amazon. Piccadilly Circus was redecorared and renamed and it was, as Jeri Ryan put it, “amazing. So fun! I was standing there being a big old nerd taking pictures and videos of all the stuff, and on the way out, this lady that works there goes – there’s a picture of you downstairs! It’s amazing.” You can tell she’s as excited to be back as we are that she is.
But then, is it really a return if they never really left? As Jeri Ryan explains, “I don’t think we ever really leave [Star Trek] because we’ve been going to conventions and talking with fans about these same characters and these same stories for the last 20 years. For the most part, it’s always pretty fresh in our minds.”
“Picard and Patrick became very close friends,” echoes Patrick, before going on to say “I think by halfway through the second season of Next Generation, I began to realise that I didn’t quite know where Patrick left off and Jean-Luc began, that we had merged.”
Like I said: Captain Jean-Luc Picard is here. Not only sitting across the table from me, but also in a brand-new Star Trek series.
Check back tomorrow for our interview with Michelle Hurd, Harry Treadaway and Evan Evagora, the second of four interviews with the cast and crew of Star Trek: Picard. Meanwhile, you can find the latest instalment of Ricky Church’s ‘The Essential Picard’ here.
The first episode of Star Trek: Picard will be available on Amazon Prime on Friday 24th January.