Few things are surer to get applause at Comic-Con International than bringing the actor Patrick Stewart onto a stage. As both Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation (and movies) and Professor X from one of the X-Men movie timelines, Stewart is (as one panel moderator put it) the O Captain My Captain of a generation. When CBS announced last year that the network’s second new Star Trek series to run on its streaming network would center on Picard, well, that was like replicating red meat for the base. Bringing Stewart to Comic-Con’s Hall H to talk about boldly going back to playing Picard? That’s tectonic.
But it also shines a supernova-bright light onto Star Trek’s deeper challenge. Like any of the longest-lived genre names—Doctor Who, James Bond, even the now-adolescent Marvel Cinematic Universe—the weight of the past has to balance against creativity and the future. It’s a problem that any subscriber-based business will recognize: retention vs. acquisition. “People have perceived that Trek is limited in what it can be, and our thesis is that it has to be what it has already been to everybody,” said Alex Kurtzman, an executive producer of Trek shows, from the podium at Hall H. “But it can be more and has to expand.” Ironically, Kurtzman wasn’t even talking about the new show, Picard. He was talking about another new show, Star Trek: Lower Decks, an animated comedy run by one of the creators of Rick and Morty. So, yeah. The challenges are real.
Kurtzman and the rest of the production team insisted that they weren’t trying to make a sequel to Next Generation. The show will take place 20 years after Nemesis, the movie in which Stewart last played the character, and it’ll reference some of the backstory from the first J. J. Abrams reboot movie, when Picard is older, retired from Starfleet and the USS Enterprise, and has apparently had some reversals of fortune. If any actor has the chops to do The Space Lion in Winter-Space, it’s the Shakespeare-trained Stewart. When the show’s going to be run by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, that makes it even more of a yes-please.
But this is a hard wormhole to thread; Trekkies are gonna be Trekkies. They want Trekkie stuff. “There’s the entire universe to take into account when you’re making up these stories,” said Kristen Beyer, another Star Trek writer. “By dealing with a different time in his life, and really the life of any starship captain or lead character you’ve ever seen before, it’s an extraordinary opportunity to see the most unknown, unexperienced part of his journey.”
A new trailer released today at the con replicated enough red meat for an army of red-shirted security officers. The quest that brings Picard back into Starfleet’s orbit (gotcha) showed a Borg cube, the forbidding spacecraft of the alien collective that once absorbed Picard himself. It also hinted that reviving Data, a beloved android crew member of the TNG Enterprise, was in the cards—literally, since it showed Picard playing cards with Data, and Brent Spiner, the actor who played him, came out on stage to announce his return in the show. Jeri Ryan’s part-Borg character Seven of Nine, from the show Star Trek: Voyager, also makes an appearance, and the panel announced that first officer Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) were also to appear. This is some A-plus Star Trekking, and the room was into it. Even Stewart seemed more than game. “I read a line in a scene that comes up on Monday where I say, ‘We never know, do we, when our last moment will be?’ For me, I can twist that a little and say, we never know, do we, when our best moment will be?” Stewart said. “That is now.”
Captain Picard can still stick the dismount on a speech.
If CBS All Access, the streaming network that’s going to carry Picard as well as the third season of sibling show Star Trek: Discovery and the new animated show Lower Decks, is going to succeed, it has to reach beyond just Trek fans like me. Picard isn’t going to make me subscribe any harder than I already do. Discovery is time-jumping 1,000 years into the future next season, its panel announced, which means cutting it off from the fun classic-era Trek characters like Captain Pike who made Season 2 so lively. That’s bad, but it also means the show won’t have to find life in the interstices between episodes of television people have already seen. That’s good. It can become something new, for new viewers. Same goes for the cartoon, which will take place in the Star Trek “present,” if you know what I mean. If they work, the new shows can expand beyond the base, and maybe keep CBS All Access in business. Heather Kadin, a co-executive producer, said that all these different kinds of new shows—even more are in development—could be for “people who haven’t had an entry point into Star Trek yet.” Acquisition and retention, remember?
I’m all for it. The more, the merrier. Plus, Stewart says he wants to play the part again. I know I’m the core of the core audience, but I remember a line from TNG’s series finale, when Picard was jumping through time into his dotage. In the future-Picard timeline, his old crewmates are initially skeptical that Picard’s having a science fiction thing; they think he might just be delusional. Dr. Crusher, the Enterprise’s medical officer and by then Picard’s ex-wife, won’t hear it. “He’s Jean-Luc Picard,” Crusher says, “and if he wants to go on one more mission, that’s what we’re going to do.” Set course, y’all. We’re doing this.
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