Pasadena, Calif. • Sir Patrick Stewart is boldly going where he’s gone before — back to “Star Trek” and his role as Jean-Luc Picard. This, despite the fact that he had vowed he’d never put on a Starfleet uniform again.
Executive producer Alex Kurtzman approached him about a Picard-centric series two years ago.
“At first, I was a little reluctant,” Stewart said, “feeling that everything that I wanted to say about Jean-Luc had been said over 178 episodes and four feature films” — the last of which was released 17 years ago. “But then I began to listen to Alex and our extraordinary group of writers. … It has been far easier than I expected to make this transition nearly 20 years later.”
“We’re just trying to make it worthy of Patrick,” said showrunner Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” “Moonglow,” “Wonder Boys”). “He put his trust in us to do this thing he said he was never going to do.”
(The series starts streaming Thursday, Jan. 23, on CBS All Access. There are 10 episodes, which will premiere one per week on successive Thursdays.)
Chabon and the other writers listened to Stewart, who is a co-executive producer of “Star Trek: Picard.”
“Patrick was very clear,” Kurtzman said, “and he said he didn’t want to repeat ‘Next Generation,’” which aired from 1987-94.
Which is why fans should brace themselves. You won’t see Picard back on the bridge of a Federation starship issuing orders.
Actually, he doesn’t put on a Starfleet uniform at all — that happens only briefly in a couple of flashbacks and dream sequences — which was “one of the rather presumptuous conditions that I laid down — that I didn’t want to wear a uniform in this, because I felt it very important that we put a lot of distance between ‘Next Generation’ and what we are seeking to do here in this.”
(He also suggested that Picard have a pit bull, and he does. And the dog’s name is Number One. Which Trekkers can tell you is what Picard called his first officer.)
The first three episodes of “Picard” are a major departure for “Star Trek” — they take place primarily on Earth.
“The first chapter is really earthbound,” Kurtzman said. “It’s very rare that you see a lot of time spent on the planet Earth in the world of ‘Star Trek,’ and we did not want to rush that. We wanted to take the time to show the condition of Picard’s life, and to watch him evolve to taking off into the stars. And we were not in a hurry to do that.
“The look and the tone and the feel of the show is different by design.”
There’s plenty of action, but there’s even more dialogue and exposition. “This series is very much character-based and character-driven,” Chabon said.
No spoilers here, but “Picard” is a remarkably dark narrative involving Romulans, the Borg and trouble inside Starfleet and the Federation. Executive producer Akiva Goldsman said all the producers and writers are “Trek” fans and their primary goal was to “tell a good ‘Star Trek’ story about Jean-Luc Picard. And ‘Star Trek’ stories have a tendency to reflect the fractures in our world.”
Again, no spoilers, but the narrative reflects present-day headlines about immigration and racism and governmental authority. “I think the best sci-fi ... always tries to mirror what’s happening in the world,” said executive producer Heather Kadin, but “without hitting you over the head” with social commentary.
Stewart said he believes “there has never been a more important moment when entertainment and show business can address some of the issues that are potentially damaging our world today. Now, I’m not saying we are turning ‘Star Trek’ into a political show. Not remotely.”
But reflecting the world we live in today “in a subtle and gentle way ... is what ‘Star Trek’ has always done, and I think it’s important.”
Stewart insists “Picard” is an “ensemble and not a star-led series,” and he’s quick to credit a cast that includes Isa Briones, Santiago Cabrera, Michelle Hurd, Alison Pill, Harry Treadaway and Evan Evagora. For their part, cast members cited the 79-year-old actor’s presence as a primary reason to sign on.
“Even if it wasn’t ‘Star Trek,’ if you told me there’s a show produced by Michael Chabon and it’s got Patrick Stewart, I would have said yes,” said Cabrera. “I’m going to get to work with a great actor. And it’s about humanity and refugees and tackling immigration — these subjects matter. The fact that it’s ‘Star Trek’ just gives it extra appeal. It was a no-brainer.”
Several former “Next Generation” cast members appear in Season 1 — Brent Spiner (Data) and Jonathan Del Arco (who guest starred as Hugh) in the first three episodes; Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker) and Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) later on, along with former “Voyager” star Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine). And Stewart said he hopes that by the time “Picard” ends (it’s already renewed for a second season) “all of the principal actors from ‘Next Generation’ will have appeared.”
Make no mistake, Picard is the central figure in the show. The character is older (obviously); he quit Starfleet in anger and he’s tending his family vineyard in France. “Picard’s life has changed,” Stewart said. “He’s troubled, disturbed, lonely, and with feelings of strange, unnatural guilt.”
He’s also angry and bitter — which is not the case with Stewart. He said it “doesn’t bother me in any way” that he’s so closely identified with “Star Trek” and Picard, but admits that wasn’t always the case. “It has, at times, been a burden,” he said, even calling it “an albatross around my neck.”
He recalled a meeting he had with a film director about a “small role” Stewart was “passionate” about playing. The unnamed director was “very nice” but told him, “‘I think you do terrific work, but why would I want Jean-Luc Picard in my movie?’ And that was a savage blow for quite a long time.”
But he won a series of high-profile and disparate roles on stage and screen, from a flamboyantly gay man in “Jeffrey” to Dr. Charles Xavier in multiple “X-Men” movies. In 2010, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. And last year, he surprised fans when he announced he was returning to the role of Jean-Luc Picard — which he said didn’t seem strange at all, despite the 17-year hiatus.
“Halfway through Season 3 of ‘Next Generation,’ I no longer knew where Jean-Luc started and Patrick Stewart left off,” Stewart said. “He’s never actually left me. He has always been there, and it’s a relationship that I am happy to continue with. That’s an understatement — I’m absolutely thrilled to continue.”
Way back in 1994, on a set visit to “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as production neared an end, I listened as Stewart waxed nostalgic about his character and his castmates. And he looked forward to filming the first “TNG” movie — “Generations” — and other films to come.
But he clearly never thought he’d still be playing the role more than 30 years after he first put on a Starfleet uniform. “I didn’t think it would go on forever,” Stewart said. “It almost has.”