LOS ANGELES – Jean-Luc Picard is boldly going where no USS Enterprise captain has gone before: on a massive guilt trip.
In “Star Trek: Picard,” one of the year’s most highly anticipated TV voyages, the usually unflappable commander is wrestling with his conscience, failing to fully come to terms with how the Federation abandoned his highly controversial mission to rescue residents of the destroyed enemy planet Romulus two decades earlier.
He spends his days wandering his French vineyard, walking his dog, sipping decaffeinated tea and seething over his tainted legacy.
“I haven’t been living,” he says in the first episode, which drops Thursday on CBS All Access. “I’ve been waiting to die.”
Don’t panic, Trekkies. Picard eventually blasts into space. But the show’s writers were in no hurry to set the action on stun. Our hero doesn’t even utter the order “Engage” until the end of the third hour.
“This feels more grounded,” said creator Alex Kurtzman. “It’s very rare that you see a lot of time spent on the planet Earth in the world of ‘Star Trek,’ and we did not want to rush past that. We wanted to take the time to show the condition of Picard’s life, and to watch him evolve before taking off into the stars. We are always leading with character first. The look and the tone and the feel of the show is different by design.”
That approach suited actor Patrick Stewart, who returns to the title role more than 25 years after the conclusion of the TV series, “The Next Generation,” and 18 years after the feature film, “Star Trek: Nemesis.”
“I only appear very briefly in my uniform, and this was another one of the rather presumptuous conditions that I laid down, that I didn’t want to wear a uniform in this,” said the knighted actor last week at the Television Critics Association press tour. “I felt it very important that we put a lot of distance between ‘Next Generation’ and what we are seeking to do here in this. Picard’s life has changed. He’s troubled, disturbed, lonely and with feelings of strange, unnatural guilt.”
What hasn’t changed is the beloved franchise’s use of futuristic story lines to reflect modern-day issues. In this case, synthetic life-forms — the most famous of which was Data — have been banned, a clear reference to current anti-immigration sentiments and hate crimes.
“ ‘Star Trek’ stories have a tendency to reflect the fractures in our world,” said Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for writing “A Beautiful Mind” and is an executive producer on the new series. “The stratification of people and opportunity, when it comes to the marginalization of others, not being openhearted or seeing with empathetic eyes, these seem to be pervasive problems that we all saw as rife for healing, and ‘Star Trek’ does this small little bit in trying to heal social ills.”
Stewart never stopped appreciating the franchise’s lofty ambitions.
“As I look around the world today, there has never been a more important moment when entertainment and show business can address some of the issues that are potentially damaging our world,” he said. “Now, I’m not saying we are turning ‘Star Trek’ into a political show. Not remotely. What we are making is entertainment, but it should reflect, perhaps in a subtle and gentle way, the world that we are living in. That’s what “Star Trek” has always done, and I think it’s important.”
Still, there was a time when he harbored some resentment toward the character.
“I found quite soon after we wrapped the fourth of our movies, ‘Nemesis,’ that I had hung a kind of albatross around my neck,” Stewart said. “I got an interview with a director who I was passionate to meet with because there was a role in his next movie, a small role, I wanted to play. And he was very nice to me and saw me and said, ‘I think you do terrific work, but why would I want Jean-Luc Picard in my movie?’ That was a savage blow for quite a long time.”
Stewart quickly re-established his versatility, from playing Macbeth in a West End production to voicing a pile of feces in “The Emoji Movie.” The reprisal of X-Men mentor Charles Xavier, his other iconic role, in 2017’s “Logan,” deserved serious Oscar consideration.
But he never quite shook Picard. At some point, he didn’t want to.
“It has taken a while for me to truly absorb the impact of this work,” he said. “I’m not the leader, but in a sense, I’m a kind of symbol. I’m very content to be that because I think it’s all about the quality of the work. So there was actually nothing that strange to be stepping into ‘Star Trek: Picard,’ because he’s never actually left me. He has always been there, and it’s a relationship that I am happy to continue with. That’s an understatement. I’m absolutely thrilled to continue.”
Santiago Cabrera is just starting to comprehend the show’s popularity, both as a viewer and as one of the new actors to be invited into the “Star Trek” universe.
“I moved around a lot as a kid. So I feel like I missed it,” said Cabrera, who plays a former Starfleet pilot who is skeptical of Picard’s intentions when he decides to embark on one last mission. “Now that I got into it and have watched so many episodes, the first thing I did was ring my folks and go, ‘Why didn’t we ever watch this at home?’ It’s fantastic, and I immediately understood why it has that cultural impact and the phenomenon of it. And what I’ve loved in meeting the fans in the few Comic Cons we’ve done is their innate curiosity. We’re not only telling stories and reflecting the world today but also just, kind of, sparking their intellect.”
But few “Star Trek” fans whip up as much hysteria as Stewart.
Is he now comfortable with being the face of one of sci-fi’s most enduring franchises?
“No, it doesn’t bother me that I’m identified in that way, partly because there are some people who might take a little offense to that. I won’t name any names, but their initials are Bill Shatner,” he said, referring to the actor who’s known almost as much for his blowhard ego as he is for playing Captain Kirk. “But I am very content to stand in Bill’s shadow.”