“When I sat down and watched the first episode of ‘The Next Generation’ the night it premiered, my first reaction was, ‘I don’t like this,’” Michael Chabon told IndieWire. “’What is this crap with the bald actor? And a counselor on the bridge? And why do you need this first officer — like, who’s the captain here? And this android’s just a knockoff Spock.’”
That sentiment reflects some of the current fan pushback to just how radically different the novelist and screenwriter turned showrunner’s own series, “Star Trek: Picard,” has been from what viewers were used to on “The Next Generation.” Of course, by “a certain point in the second season” Chabon had come around to “Next Gen.” These things take time, and the shock of the new can be very real.
The seventh episode of “Picard,” titled “Nepenthe,” is a welcome return to two old favorites from the previous series, and a heartbreaking wrap-up for another character’s journey. In a way, it’s the most nostalgia-fueled episode of this new series to date, and yet it still reflects Chabon’s belief that you can’t go home again and that “even the most sincere, especially the most sincere, committed, genuine attempt to recreate ‘Next Generation’ would fail miserably.”
Jonathan Frakes’ Riker and Marina Sirtis’ Troi returned in “Nepenthe.” Both have now left Starfleet, having moved to a rustic planet in an attempt to slow their late son’s degenerative illness. It’s a slow-paced, 58-minute character study, a languid hangout among three old friends reflecting on old wounds and what, despite it all, they still believe in. In other words, it’s pure “Trek,” even if almost none of the surface details are what fans are used to.
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Evolution has been the modus operandi for Chabon and his team of writers (he co-wrote “Nepenthe” with Samantha Humphrey). It’s a bold move for a time in pop culture when fan service is the order of the day. “We had a commitment to telling the story of how time changes people and how 20 years can put you into a completely different place that you never would have imagined,” Chabon said. That’s an artistic organizing principle of integrity, and, though not invoked by Chabon, it calls to mind another sci-fi tentpole that had a similar theme: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Not only have the circumstances of Riker and Troi’s lives changed, but their respective acting styles have too. For this writer’s money, Sirtis was the MVP of the episode, providing an exceptionally grounded Troi. Her scene discussing with the android Soji the value (or sometimes lack thereof) of so-called “real” things is one of the best of the series. And in Sirtis’s low-key style, we have a far cry from the Counselor Troi of “Next Generation” at her most floridly earnest.
Sirtis was occupied right until the day before the “Picard” shoot doing a play in London, but took to her old role like a natural. Frakes had some more jitters. “He was very charmingly, kind of adorably, expressing a lot of anxiety about doing this because it had been such a long time for him since he had acted — he’s been behind the camera for so long,” Chabon said. But the fact that he directed two episodes earlier in the season meant he had enough time to get back into Riker’s mindset.
Another “Next Gen” favorite met his end in “Nepenthe”: Jonathan Del Arco effectively manifested Chabon’s desire to evolve characters from “Trek” past in his portrayal of Hugh, last seen in 1993 in “The Descent Part II” with the entirety of his Borg implants still intact. A de-Borgified Hugh had been working to ease other former drones (“xBs”) out of assimilation and gently help them regain their individuality. He was killed by the Romulan Zhat Vash assassin Narissa (Peyton List) with a throwing dagger to the jugular. But though it’s a tragic end for Hugh, to Chabon and Del Arco it felt like the right one.
“There’s power in depicting a communal experience of shared trauma,” Del Arco said. “It’s much better for the character to end this way than with a holiday on Risa. He gets to be the hero. He’s liberated. I think he feels that in seeing Picard and Elnor, he has hope for the future.”
Hugh’s demise was resonant for Chabon because he wanted to tell “a macro story over the course of this season about the legacy of the Borg and of the lives of former Borg characters. I think we just understood immediately and intuitively that a lot of former Borg would find themselves in fairly tragic circumstances.”
Until the previous episode, “The Impossible Box,” Picard himself had not been sympathetic to former Borg, even though he was one himself. “They don’t change, they metastasize!” he shouted. In “Star Trek: First Contact” he even told his officers to shoot and kill any crewmen they see have been assimilated.
“We live in such a fractured world,” Del Arco said. “You have refugees treated not that differently from the xBs.”
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Hugh really does manage to change Picard’s mind, so that he finally realizes the drones who are in the Borg are not villains but victims. And having done that, Hugh feels hope even in death.
Now there are only three episodes of “Picard” left. But thankfully there’s a second season on the horizon, because it feels like this show has barely gotten started. Chabon seems to feel that way too. He and his writing staff have discussed a wish list of characters and elements from the “Trek” of old they’d like to see again, and apparently have come up with stories for where each of the legacy characters from “Next Gen” would be in the year “Picard” is set, 2399.
“’Oh, we can bring back this, we can bring back that, and we’ll have Ferengi,’ and we’ve mentioned Janeway and all these things that fans are continually asking me about now,” Chabon said. None of those things are confirmed to return in the future, but they have been discussed. The important thing for Chabon is that each returning character is given a meaningful story and that they’re not just handled “in the most perfunctory way — which would be satisfying to nobody.”
“As a fan, I share that desire to go back, and to have it be the same and to want more of what I already know I love,” the showrunner said. “That sort of inherent conservatism — not in a political sense — I just meant there’s a lower-case ‘c’ conservatism in a fan’s heart that says if you already know you love something, why would you want it to be different?”
Chabon’s approach to “Trek” past is much like those swelling notes of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Next Generation” theme we hear at the end of “Nepenthe,” otherwise surrounded by series composer Jeff Russo’s entirely new music. You have the thrill of the familiar there — repetition always summoning up emotion in music — but placed in an entirely new setting. It’s not a rejection of the past; it’s an evolution. So much has changed, but the emotion remains real.