Each of the 178 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation began in the same way, with Patrick Stewart—now Sir Patrick Stewart—as Captain Jean-Luc Picard delivering the speech that outlines the starship Enterprise’s mission: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Now, more than 25 years after that series’ final episode aired, Stewart, Picard, and the Enterprise are going where seemingly everybody has already gone: the TV reboot.
There’s a certain reassuring comfort in seeing Stewart back in space and once again channeling Picard, the stately Starfleet captain so noble as to make it entirely believable that he could be a moral compass for an entire galaxy, and then some. Star Trek: Picard, which debuts Thursday on CBS All Access, revives the most successful iteration of the TV franchise for the first time since a string of four The Next Generation films ended with the maligned Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002.
The new take on the character boasts a striking elevation in visuals and production value from the original series, and with it an even more mature tone. Some overtly political messaging does a fine job quelling any skepticism as to whether a revival of this series is really necessary amid the hotbed of ho-hum reboots dominating today’s TV landscape.
“I would say that Star Trek probably has a more successful track record than most TV resurrections,” Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning writer of A Beautiful Mind and co-creator of Star Trek: Picard, says. His Picard co-creator Michael Chabon, as in the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, agrees. “I was going to say the same thing in a slightly different way, which is that Star Trek never really went away.”
Star Trek may not have gone away, but Patrick Stewart had. After Nemesis underperformed in 2002, he made a conscious decision to distance himself from his inimitable character and performance. There’s a story that he’s told several times before, about a meeting he had with a director who he was passionate about working with and who had a role in his next film that Stewart desperately wanted to play.
“He was very nice to me and saw me and said, ‘I think you do terrific work, but why would I want Jean-Luc Picard in my movie?’” Stewart recounted to journalists at the Television Critics Association press tour earlier this month. “That was a savage blow for quite a long time. And so I went out of my way to try to find as many diverse roles as possible, and that was fun.”
After J.J. Abrams’ hit Star Trek films proved there was appetite for sleek, modern spins on the classic property, CBS All Access greenlit Star Trek: Discovery, which now has aired two seasons and become a cornerstone of the streaming service’s programming. But despite many overtures through the years beckoning him to return to the franchise in some capacity, Stewart had always resisted. Then things changed.
A formative experience working with Hugh Jackman and director James Mangold on 2017’s Logan showed him the value and personal gratification of putting proper punctuation on a character arc and franchise—he had been playing Professor X in the X-Men films for 17 years by that point—with gravitas and spectacular flair. The middling quality of Nemesis, which ended his time as Picard with a murmur, never allowed him to do that.
So he took a meeting in 2017 with Goldsman, Chabon, and co-creator Alex Kurtzman and heard them out about where they thought Picard could go in a new series. He was still initially reluctant and turned them down. But almost instantly, he regretted it. He had his agent ask Kurtzman to put his ideas in writing, and ultimately was sold on the 30-page packet Kurtzman sent.
Their vision for Picard could also provide an outlet for his own anger and exasperation with the world. That appealed to the outspoken, outraged actor, who recently told Variety that when it comes to Brexit in the U.K. and Trump in the U.S., “I’m not sure which of us in the most trouble.”
“I think it’s actually the U.K.,” he continued. “I think we’re fucked, completely fucked.” In the U.S., he said, “There is a time limit to your fucked state, which is four years away.”
At the crux of the Picard premiere is a devastating monologue Stewart delivers recounting a catastrophic event that happened years before, triggering a refugee crisis and driving Picard to quit his position in the Starfleet, disgusted by what the organization and the Federation now stood for.
It might sound in the weeds if you’re not a Trekkie, but the basics of the plot are refreshingly simple.
A supernova blast threatened the planet Romulus. Despite their antagonistic relationship, the Federation agreed to rescue the Romulan people. But in the midst of the rescue mission, synthetic lifeforms like Data, who helped Picard pilot his ship, went rogue and destroyed the Federation’s base on Mars, killing over 90,000 people. In the wake of the incident, synthetic lifeforms were banned, a decision that appalled Picard and caused him to quit before he carried out his Romulan rescue mission.
“It has always been part of the content of Star Trek that it will be attempting to create a better future with the certain belief that a better future is possible if the right kind of work and the right kind of people are engaged in that,” Stewart told reporters. “And my feeling was, as I look all around our world today, 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,” he continued. “What we are making is entertainment, but that it should reflect perhaps in a subtle and gentle way the world that we are living in is what Star Trek has always done, and I think it’s important.”
That mission of the franchise and its ability to say something powerful is part of what made Chabon and Goldsman, lifetime fans of the series, so eager to participate in its reboot.
“Star Trek is a machine for telling stories that have relevance to the time in which they're being consumed in,” Chabon says. “And that has been true from the very first episode of the original series. So it didn’t require any violence to the nature of Star Trek to accommodate Patrick's wishes for this to feel relevant.”
He remembers watching the 1969 episode of the original series that guest starred Frank Gorshin, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” in which the Enterprise encounters two survivors of a war-torn country whose faces are white on one side and black on the other.
“I was 11 years old, but what that said to me is that the future can be a place in which we come to our senses and we figure out a way to talk to each other, to engage with each other, and to save each other,” he says. “Those guys in that episode came from a planet that was utterly destroyed and wiped out by presumably nuclear destruction, which was the reality that we were facing in that era as kids. Every day you woke up and you thought today could be the day when the button got pushed. So, you know, from my first consciousness of Star Trek, it was a consciousness of a show that was both about the future and about now.”
The first episode of Picard alone warns against the kind of fascism that can poison a republic—or, in this case, a Federation—when fear-mongering and reactionary marginalization begets isolationism.
“We live in a world where marginalization of the other is killing,” Goldsman says. “Our show reaches out and embraces that question: What is human? And how do we try on other skins in order to see commonality?”
“Star Trek is uniquely good at introducing itself into a society's difficulties and dressing up the answers in ways that feel just arm's length enough to maybe sneak into the consciousness of somebody who might think they know what they think and change their mind,” he continues, “and certainly to offer hope for those of us who believe it can be there.”