Jean-Luc Picard gives a damn.
In the decades since Patrick Stewart’s Starfleet captain debuted in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” on September 28, 1987, he’s become one of the most beloved TV heroes ever. Picard always had a rare combination of erudition and earnestness. He was someone who cared.
In an early episode, Picard stares down a frequent nemesis, the omnipotent alien trickster Q, and declares with the gravitas of a Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus: “What Hamlet might say with irony, I say with conviction: ‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason. How infinite in faculty…” Of course, he completes the quote, because Capt. Picard never leaves anything half-finished.
You may be startled to look back at how many TV critics gave “The Next Generation” middling reviews throughout its seven-season run, because the show is now considered a classic — by many, the finest incarnation of “Star Trek” ever. Years of “TNG” being on Netflix brought the show an astounding new level of recognition from a younger generation of fans. Stewart’s Picard retroactively became a meme machine (Google “Picard facepalm” or “Picard eating sandwich seductively”), with young fans loving to quote “The line must be drawn he-uh!” Picard’s passion for his principles resonated strongly with earnest Millennials looking for leaders who give a damn. (Especially since so many of our own leaders obviously don’t.)
It’s easy to imagine a parallel universe, then, where CBS All Access’s “Star Trek: Picard” was simply “The Next Generation” Season 8, with the complete cast of the previous show returning. That was not to be the case. Inspired by the “unexpected quality ‘Logan’ had,” Stewart wanted to make a show in which the passage of time was keenly felt. How do you evolve a classic character who’s existed for decades?
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“I had made it very clear from the beginning I wasn’t interested in climbing into the uniform again and sitting in the captain’s chair and saying ‘Make it so,’ and all of that,” Stewart said of “Picard,” which debuted its 10-episode first season in January. “It had to be a different world we were in.”
Talking to IndieWire in early May from his home in Los Angeles, Stewart expressed how important he felt it was to reflect not only the passage of time in the 24th Century setting of the franchise but also how much has changed in our own world in the 18 years since we last saw Picard onscreen. “I think it is entirely appropriate that there should be echoes of the world we’re living in today,” Stewart said. “Because the world we’re living in today is in a very sorry state and in a very frightening state, I believe.”
Stewart and Picard seem closer to merging than ever. The actor, who turns 80 in July, also serves as a co-executive producer on the show, and worked closely with the writers to develop where he thinks Picard would have ended up so many years after last being captain of the Enterprise: “I was very glad not to be cocooned inside my Starfleet uniform.” Stewart actually pushed back on story beats or dialogue that “felt too much like the earlier, old Picard was being referenced. I was drawn to this man who now was frustrated, angry, guilty.”
Frustrated? Angry? Guilty? Those aren’t three adjectives fans would have first associated with Picard in the past. Stewart says he even pushed back on Picard saying his “TNG” catchphrase “Engage!” to end the season, though he’s ultimately glad the writers held their ground to kept it in. The idea here was reinvention: Where does the passion of Picard go when it seems he’s lost his purpose? Where do those principles go when no else seems to care about them? The Federation in the year 2399 has become isolationist and xenophobic, turning its back on exploration and banning all artificial life, or Synthetics, from its borders.
This isn’t a story where Picard is going to swoop in in the Enterprise and make everything right. But it’s one that aligns strongly with how Stewart himself feels. You get the sense there’s very little to which he doesn’t bring thoughtfulness. At the simple question of “How are you?” at the start of our conversation he doesn’t give a perfunctory answer. Instead, he says, “This morning, I’m very good. I say this morning because I find that when I wake up, the days are very different, can be very different, when you wake up to where we all are. Sometimes it’s anxiety and depression, and at other times it’s a feeling of, ‘Oh, well, this [pandemic] will soon be over and we’re all going to be fine, we’re going to make it out.’ I can never anticipate what the morning is going to be. It always passes away, of course, often very quickly, but this morning has been a good one.” For Stewart, as with Picard, there’s no time for small talk.
Some fans have resisted the concept of “Star Trek: Picard” on principle. I mentioned to Stewart early on that the Picard of “Next Generation,” who always knows what to do, holds such appeal because “in our own world it feels like no one’s in the captain’s chair.” He replied with a simple “Yes.” In this new show, he often doesn’t know what to do. When Starfleet calls off a massive rescue operation to save the Romulan people from a supernova — a rescue masterminded by Picard — he resigns rather than standing his ground. Of course many who loved the Picard of “The Next Generation” would be put off by this. And to be fair, others laud the ambition of “Picard” but question how well executed the 10 episodes ultimately were in their writing and direction.
What’s beyond question are the care and consideration Stewart himself has given “Star Trek: Picard,” and what a serious bit of acting he’s doing with the character. Stewart does not shy away from calling 2002’s “Nemesis,” the last of his “Next Generation” movies, as “disappointingly, one of the weaker of the four films that we made,” and he wishes an idea cooked up by that film’s screenwriter, John Logan, and Brent Spiner could have tied things up more neatly in a subsequent film. That movie never happened, so when “Star Trek: Picard” was first pitched to him by franchise mastermind Alex Kurtzman and producers Akiva Goldsman and Michael Chabon, he saw it as an opportunity to do something wholly new. He’s hard at work now on story development for Season 2, for which several “magnificent” sets have already been designed. Stewart has such affection for Season 1 that he even paid CBS to buy the chair he sat in during the climactic “Picard” scene in which he’s reunited with Spiner’s android Data for a final farewell.
“That scene was so powerful an experience for Brent and myself,” Stewart said. “To the extent that when I began to walk through the door and then turned back and said, ‘Goodbye, Commander,’ we had to do it several times because the emotion overwhelmed me every time. And as you can probably hear, it is doing so right now. The chair faces my desk in my study, so I see it every day. At times like this conversation, I’m able to sit in it and enjoy the memory of playing what I think was one of the most important scenes that I’ve ever had to play on film or television.”
There it is — that earnestness. Fans who’ve looked up to Jean-Luc Picard as a pop culture role model can take comfort in knowing Patrick Stewart gives a damn too.