The author of acclaimed novels Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon is part of the writing staff for Star Trek: Picard, which returns Patrick Stewart to the role on TV in The Next Generation. The show will stream on CBS All Access in the US and internationally later this year. No release date has been set. (Disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company.)
Chabon joined the Picard team after working on a movie project withproducer Akiva Goldsman, and his first Trek work was a mini-episode in the online Short Treks series.
I spoke to Chabon on the phone to find out more about how he's nerding out in the Picard writer's room, how Calypso intriguingly abandoned the show's familiar elements and why Star Trek remains all too relevant in our turbulent times.
Disclosure: CNET earns commissions from the services featured on this page.
CNET: You're well known for your complex use of language in your novels. How do you approach the very different and very sparse form of screenwriting?
Chabon: You're right, it is very different. You have far fewer tools in your toolkit. You can only present dialogue, and description of action, and that's it. You have to stop and think, how do I show this, because I can't describe it. I can't take three pages to set the scene. I have to get the point across in an image and give the viewer everything they need to know with no words at all. It becomes a challenge like writing rhymes versed with meter or something like that, where there are restrictions that the form imposes. But then the creativity comes from working within those restrictions. Ultimately there's no greater spur to creativity than having restrictions to work under.
How important is Star Trek lore in the writer's room for the Captain Picard show? Is canon something you think about a lot?
Chabon: You have a responsibility. Any Star Trek writer, any writing room on any Star Trek show after, let's say, The Original Series had a responsibility to consider canon, to know your canon. Just speaking for me, that's an incredible pleasure -- to have a legitimate excuse, and get paid, to nerd out completely!
At the same time, and this is true when you're dealing with any kind of canon, there's always gaps. There are cracks. There are contradictions. There are mysteries that we never got to hear the explanation of, when people allude to things in canon and don't give any further explanation. Maybe the greatest example in all canon ever is the giant rat of Sumatra from Sherlock Holmes. Fans and writers ever since have tried to come up with possible explanations for that. So I think it's important not just to view canon as a barrier, as a perimeter beyond which you can't go, a kind of a grid that you're trapped on. You try to find the loopholes. You find the empty areas. You find the things the canon doesn't seem to have anything to say, and you say it.
And if you're really lucky and you get to be working on a Star Trek show then what you say becomes canon itself!
Your Short Trek mini-sode Calypso featured a character watching old movies and finding meaning in these relics of the past. With The Original Series now so many decades old, do you feel there are certain values in Star Trek that we've forgotten in modern times, and that's why it's still relevant?
Chabon: I absolutely do. Now that I'm working on the show and now that I'm part of Star Trek, I feel like it's my responsibility to make sure that the current model is true to the ideals of the original show, the ideas of tolerance and egalitarianism. Obviously, you look at the way women are represented on The Original Series, and that show fell far short of its stated ideals of egalitarianism, although at least they did have women in some positions of responsibility. But I think we have this responsibility to continue to articulate a hopeful, positive vision of the future. I think if anything that's more important now than it was when The Original Series came out. It was really important then, and it had a profound impact, socially, with Lieutenant Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise, and this message that we can think our way out of our most primitive violent instincts.
To me, dystopia has lost its bite. A, we're living in it, and B, it's such a complete crushing series of cliches at this point. The tropes have all been worked and reworked so many times. There was a period where a positive, optimistic, techno-future where mankind learns to live in harmony and goes out into the stars just to discover and not to conquer, that was an overworked trope. But that is no longer the case. A positive vision of the future articulated through principles of tolerance and egalitarianism and optimism and the quest for scientific knowledge, to me that's feels fresh nowadays.
So Captain Picard is the hero we need right now?
Chabon: Yes, Captain Picard is the hero we need right now. He exemplifies in some ways even more then James Kirk -- and I'm not gonna get into the Kirk versus Picard argument because I love Captain Kirk, he was my first captain -- but Picard is even more of an exemplar of everything that is best about Star Trek's vision for the future.
... And he wasn't such a hound dog as Captain Kirk.
Originally published in Nov. 7, 2018.
Update, May 23, 2019: Adds more on upcoming Picard show, including link to trailer.