Warning: Minor spoilers below.
A lot can happen in 20 years. In, Jean-Luc Picard is as compelling and authoritative as ever, but he's a changed man in a universe that's taken a dark turn.
The new show on CBS All Access sees Patrick Stewart's iconic character reckoning with choices he's made since the events of Star Trek: Nemesis (2002). The series delves into the real-world issues you'd expect from Star Trek, touching on themes of mass migration, and . But it's also the story of a man wrestling with the questions he faces as he approaches the end of his life. Now aged 94, Picard is retired from Starfleet and dealing with lasting trauma and regret. (Disclosure: CNET and CBS All Access are both owned by ViacomCBS.)
Stewart's career hasn't taken quite as many turns as Picard's -- he's still acting after 60 years in the business, for one thing. But in a roundtable interview in London on Jan. 16 he said he finds a lot to relate to in Picard's experiences.
"I mean, people have in recent years asked me about retirement," Stewart said. "And it's inconceivable to me that I should retire."
"I had a rather perilous childhood in some respects, and finding that safety on stage where I didn't have to be myself — I was being someone else in a different environment than the one that I was being brought up in — has never left me. My wife has even expressed concern about what should happen if I have to stop doing this job, because I think she's anxious that I should turn into a monster or something."
It's been nearly two decades since we last saw Stewart in a Starfleet uniform. He's taken time in the intervening years to play Charles Xavier in the X-Men movies ("it's my feeling you can't have too many franchises," he remarked) and star in acclaimed productions of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and No Man's Land alongside co-star Ian McKellen.
He's taking the idea of writing an autobiography "a lot more seriously" now and has been working on a series of essays. But he said he's all too aware that delving into his past would mean invoking difficult memories.
"I'm mostly terrified about writing about my early life, which wasn't very pleasant at times, and what that will do to me," he said. "It could make me deal with it much better or it could become worse, I don't know. But I have a wonderful wife and I know that she will hold me up if it becomes a little intense."
The last stage of a life
Picard isn't the only beloved Star Trek character returning to the screen, with former Enterprise crew members including Data (Brent Spiner), Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) making appearances in upcoming episodes. The actors played a part in building out their characters' backstories for the show, Executive Producer Akiva Goldsman said.
"They built decades of memories that we could use to talk about the last stage of a life," said Goldsman.
Seven of Nine is also back after a long absence: We haven't seen her on screen since the end of Star Trek: Voyager. Jeri Ryan, who plays the former Borg, says the growth of Seven's character was a big draw in bringing her back.
Seven of Nine appears more cynical than she was in her Delta quadrant days, tangling with Picard and questioning the Federation's role. Ryan admitted it was a challenge to find the character's voice when she first read the script.
"I was worried about how to make her the same character, not just a completely different character who happens to have the same prosthetics," Ryan said.
"But once I figured that out, and that was an acting thing ... I love who she's become. I love her backstory. I love what she's had to go through in the last 20 years, and what she's survived and what a badass she is."
Helping her along in that journey was Executive Producer Kirsten Beyer, who's previously written Voyager tie-in novels and is described as a Star Trek "encyclopedia" by cast members. What was it like to bring Seven back to our screens? "You imagine the characters in the books for so long and then to hear Jeri Ryan actually speaking these words," Beyer said. "Yeah, it's an absolute dream come true."
The producers indulged each other's impulses as fans, throwing around character suggestions from previous Star Trek incarnations in the writers' room. "We'd just say [a character's] name and everybody would sort of laugh," said author Michael Chabon, the series' co-creator and executive producer. "But every once in a while that would happen and we'd go, 'Actually, that could be really cool.'"
This was the process that led to the return of Hugh, the individual Borg played by Jonathan Del Arco. Bringing his character back to Star Trek: Picard made it possible toin a way the creators say we've never seen before.
The producers stressed that they only wanted to bring back characters they felt would add something to Picard's journey. Data is central to the pilot's plot, but after that it was a question of which characters could help tell a compelling story, not which would have the audience cheering.
"We could anticipate the fan reaction, say, to the return of Seven of Nine on screen," said Chabon, adding that the producers could anticipate fans' excitement but couldn't rely on it. "We needed to feel that someone who has no idea who Seven of Nine is [would say], 'Wow, she seems like an interesting character. What's her story? What's going on with her?'"
At this stage, one thing is clear: Whatever we think we know about these characters, we're going to learn a lot more.
Originally published Jan. 23, 6 a.m. PT.