It takes almost no time at all when talking with Michael Chabon to realize that the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” is a die-hard “Star Trek” fan. Given that he’s the showrunner of the latest “Trek” iteration, “Star Trek: Picard,” the 56-year-old has found it particularly satisfying to engage with the vast “Trek” fandom as the first season of “Picard” heads into its finale on Thursday.
“To get people’s super nerdy and super technical questions about what kind of class of starship is meant to be in that one image that you can only see if you freeze frame, that’s been so fun,” Chabon says via Skype while sitting in his home office in Berkeley, where he’s been sheltering in place with his wife, author Ayelet Waldman, and two of their four children amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Picard” has been a major success for CBS All Access as the most-watched original title to date for the streaming service. Precisely how many viewers the show’s received remains a secret known only to ViacomCBS, but its popularity is no surprise considering “Picard” marks the return of Patrick Stewart’s revered Enterprise skipper, Jean-Luc Picard, to series television, after seven seasons on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987–1994) and four feature films spanning from 1994 to 2002.
But “Picard” hasn’t been a typical “Star Trek” show. Rather than reunite Jean-Luc with his old crew from “TNG,” Chabon and his collaborators — executive producers Alex Kurtzman, Kirsten Beyer and Akiva Goldsman — introduced the character to a brand-new cast, including Isa Briones as Soji, a highly advanced android; Alison Pill as Dr. Agnes Jurati, a high-strung cyberneticist; Michelle Hurd as Raffi Musiker, a former Starfleet colleague of Picard’s who has fallen on hard times; and Santiago Cabrera as Cristóbal Rios, the captain of the small starship Picard conscripts on a mission to find and protect Soji from a mysterious Romulan threat.
Even more unexpectedly, in the world of “Picard,” Starfleet has become gripped by fear and lost sight of its highest ideals, and large pockets of the galaxy have fallen into a kind of lawlessness unthinkable in the comforting quasi-utopia of “TNG.” It’s all in keeping with the mandate Chabon says Stewart gave him and his team, to make “Picard” as different from the actor’s first “Trek” series as possible.
In a candid and wide-ranging conversation with Variety — touching on everything from radically reimagining the Borg to the dearth of explicit queer characters so far in “Picard” — Chabon discussed the challenges, surprises, and rewards in boldly going where no “Trek” had gone before, and why he had to leave the captain’s chair behind for Season 2.
Warning: This story contains spoilers for “Star Trek: Picard.”
Now that Season 1 of “Picard” is almost done, how have you been feeling about the season and seeing the fan response to it?
It’s been pretty exciting. I think inevitably I spent a fair amount of time looking around on Twitter and Reddit, you know, trying to get a sense of people’s responses. Twitter’s kind of a horrible place, too, so I wasn’t really encouraged to spend too much time looking around. But then I came up with this forum, setting up an Instagram story once a week to take people’s questions. One of my children showed me how you could use Instagram in that way, and that’s been really fun for me. As someone who spent a fair amount of time over the years on Memory Alpha, looking on Reddit, enjoying the way people enjoy “Star Trek” online — it’s been so fun to see [the show] getting absorbed into the kind of greater corpus of “Star Trek.” What makes me feel good is when I see it being treated, in a sense, the same by fans as previous versions of the show.
That does cut both ways.
Right. Part of what you’re talking about is, for example, the way that I felt about “Star Trek: The Next Generation” when it premiered. I was sitting in front of my TV, watching “Encounter at Farpoint,” and I hated it. I kind of hate-watched it — although we didn’t have that term then — for most of the first season. At some point in the second season, I realized, oh, wow, that was a good episode. The show actually did get better. It takes a while to figure out what a show is.
As someone who’s watched a lot of “Star Trek,” you’re comparing something that you have now seen once with huge expectations, to something that in some cases you’ve seen hundreds of times. It takes a while for you to shed your expectations, your biases, your prejudices. I was prejudiced in favor of Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy. It took a long time to lose that.
So you’re familiar with the ways that “Trek” fans can respond to new iterations of “Trek.”
I actually went back and looked on Google Groups, which acquired Usenet, so you can look through the old Usenet groups and watch what people said about “Deep Space Nine” and then about “Voyager.” They f—ing hated it. They lacerated it. I mean, plenty of people liked it and loved it. But the criticisms that are being leveled against “Deep Space Nine,” and then against Janeway, female Captain, black Vulcan [Tim Russ’s Tuvok] — all of the things that were problematic for certain contingent of so called “Star Trek” fans back then, the way that they attack each other and the way they attack the show — it’s identical to now. They could just turn them into 140 characters or whatever it is now on Twitter and you could make tweets out of them and it would still work just as well for “Discovery” or “Picard.”
So were there things about “Picard” that you knew you wanted to do that you could sense would test some boundaries for fans?
Sure. To the extent that I was aware of the kind of toxic fandom, the anti-SJW, you know, sad little corner of fandom — you just disregard that. Sometimes you’re motivated to have things simply because it’s possibly going to piss off or provoke people who seem to have missed the memo about just what exactly “Star Trek” is and always has been all about.
In the course of this season, we show the death of Icheb, who was a recurring character on “Voyager,” and then the death of Hugh, who was a recurring character on “TNG.” When we talked about it, we definitely had a sense of like, there’s probably going to be some people who are upset that these characters have died. And we were okay with that, because we thought in both cases, neither death was gratuitous. The death of Icheb has now become part of the story of Seven of Nine. It felt completely called for and we couldn’t have told her story without it. I mean, the death of Icheb is upsetting partly because it’s fairly gruesome, which I understand, but also because, you know, he’s so powerless, he has no agency. He’s really a victim. But that isn’t the case with the death of Hugh. He dies trying to do what he’s been trying to do for his entire adult life, which is help former Borg. His death felt meaningful.
I will say, I don’t think I quite understood that there were going to be people who would be upset about a character’s death regardless of how that character died. That simply the fact of a character dying — that was not okay with them. Even if I had known that I would have ultimately dismissed it because it seems — I just don’t understand television in that way.
You spent so much of your career as a novelist, and this is the first time you’ve been in charge of a season of television where you’re watching the story unfold, and seeing the reaction, over many weeks.
It’s weird, yeah! I mean, one possible response that I could have had — and I think some of my partners on “Picard” do have — is to ignore it all completely. Or to just take a little glance, maybe look at Rotten Tomatoes, see what the kind of consensus of the reviews from the critics has been, which has been pretty darn favorable, and just sort of leave it at that.
Because I consider myself to be a part of “Star Trek” fandom, and I have been since I was 10 years old — I’ve read fanfiction, I’ve collected fanzines — I would never have denied myself the opportunity to participate in “Picard,” not just as the as a co-creator, showrunner, producer, but as a fan, too. And so I do want to be engaged. I’ve gone maybe half a dozen times since this season started to look on Reddit. I will say, the quality of comment and of criticism on Reddit is so much vastly higher than it is on Twitter, even some quite strongly negative criticism. It tends to be much better reasoned, much better supported with evidence, in a way that I can respect and engage with and listen to.
What has it been like to experience this kind of storytelling, where fans are reacting as things are still in progress?
You know, if you’re watching a one hour episode of [pre-2010s] “Star Trek,” all of them — except for long swaths of “Deep Space Nine” toward the end of its run — have been episodic. It could be a character having [makes air-quotes] “dark issues.” You could even introduce a certain “dystopian” element into an episode of “Star Trek.” You could introduce that in Act One, and any fan would be willing to tolerate that. They would be willing to tolerate a character having a substance abuse problem or not being nice to their fellow crew members — as long as it got put back to rights at the end of the episode.
When you do it in episode 1 or 2 of a 10-episode season, and that character’s problem doesn’t really get resolved until the last couple episodes — a lot of people can’t tolerate that. And that’s really interesting. Again, it’s a question of expectations, of biases. You come to “Star Trek,” I think, as a fan, especially if you’ve watched all the episodes many, many times, with this expectation that you won’t have to tolerate that kind of level of “darkness” for that long. And so that when a show in this era asks you to do what you are readily willing to do with a show like “Westworld” or “Breaking Bad” or whatever — somehow, the mere fact that it’s “Star Trek” makes it hard to accept.
And I actually get that. It’s a little weird for me, too. Both in conceiving this show, and sometimes, if I can give myself enough distance as I’m watching the episodes as they’re dropping, I can feel this deep wiring in my brain that wants “Star Trek” to be episodic. I can remember how odd it felt watching those serialized episodes of “Deep Space Nine.” I wasn’t entirely sure I liked it then, either. It was so far ahead of its time. I appreciated it because they were dealing with a very greatly disturbed moment in the history of the Federation with the Dominion war. It felt appropriate, I respected it, and I understood it — and it made me uncomfortable as a “Star Trek” fan.
So it’s been interesting for me, to get back to your original question, watching the response unfold in real time and being able to understand where a lot of this is coming from as a fan. It’s made it easier for me to accept when fans express their displeasure. But it’s human nature to focus on that stuff, and to kind of ignore the fact that the vast majority of fan response seems to be really positive. And, you know, I’ve also been gratified to see a lot of people who do like the show taking other people to task so that I don’t have to.
So all this fan feedback that you’ve been absorbing over the last few few months, has it informed on any level how Season 2 ended up being conceived?
No, not at all. We’re true to what my dear friend and collaborator and partner Akiva Goldsman calls the object. The object is “Star Trek: Picard.” It is a show with a nearly 80-year-old actor playing a 94-year-old man who is if not in the final stages of his career, in the latter stages of his career, who has a period of great dismay and disillusionment in his immediate rear view, who has allowed himself to let ties that were formerly very important to him slip or fade away, and who has now re-engaged with the greatly changed world in which he finds himself. That is the story we’re telling. And we’re telling that story because it feels both interesting and true, but also because it reflects the nature of our star and both his desires and his capabilities. It was not ever going to be “The Next Generation Part Two” in any way. It was never going to have a regular cast made up of LeVar Burton and Jonathan Frakes and Gates McFadden and Michael Dorn. It was never going to be set on the bridge of a starship in Starfleet. It was never going to be episodic in format. It was never going to be any of the things that “TNG” was. Not only couldn’t it be those things if it tried, but it wasn’t going to try. Because that’s not what we have to do.
So what does Season 2 look like?
It’s going to be different in some ways. It’s definitely going to go in directions that we didn’t see in Season 1. I think we’ve been emboldened in many ways by the popularity of the show. I’ve only done this once, but I would imagine it’s probably true for a lot of television shows especially in this era: Season 1 was in many respects about learning how to make “Star Trek: Picard.” Both in a production sense, but also in terms of storytelling and who our cast is, how these characters end up forming surprising links and attachments to each other.
It’s in a way that I think was probably true back with “TNG” and what I was talking about — everyone agrees, once Riker grew the beard, the show got better. It was because they learned what they had. Going forward, we’re only going to be doing more of what we did, with greater confidence and with a greater sense of what this show feels like when it’s firing on all engines.
So I want to ask about a couple specific episodes. First, “Nepenthe,” when Picard and Soji transport to the planet where Picard’s old colleagues from the Enterprise, Riker (Frakes) and Troi (Marina Sirtis), have built a home to raise their family. That episode felt like a turning point for the show to me. It wasn’t just because we got to see Riker and Troi and learn what became of them and their relationship with Picard. It’s that the show really let those characters just be with each other, and in subsequent episodes, I’ve felt there were more moments like that. How did you arrive at that episode?
I mean, there’s always going to be a tension — and this applies when you’re writing novels, too. It’s a tension that all writers experience when you’re trying to produce a sustained work of fiction, whether that’s on the page or on screen. I think a useful metaphor for thinking about it is an Etch A Sketch. If you remember, there are two dials on the Etch A Sketch, one is plot and one is character. What you’re trying to do, and it’s really hard, is to turn them exactly the same amount so that you’re getting a perfect 45 degree angle. But as soon as you commit to a plotted story, which we committed to from the opening scene of Episode 1, you’ve strapped yourself to a plot-driven engine that you’re going to have to push back against really hard to try to hold it into that 45 degree angle.
You know, personally speaking, my own tastes and inclination, I always said when we were in the earliest versions of the room for this show, if we could have just done a whole show about Picard and the dog on the vineyard in France, with no starships, no phasers, the only Romulans would be those two Romulans who work for him on the vineyard, and no politics — just, like, there’s a funfair down in the village and they all go, and maybe Picard solves a very low stakes mystery in the village, like, someone has stolen the antique bell out of the bell tower, or something like that? I would have loved to write that show. Um. I don’t think the world’s quite ready for a “Star Trek” show like that, and there’s probably maybe not that big of an audience for a “Star Trek” show like that.
In “Stardust City Rag,” there’s an implication that Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) and Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan) might have been lovers at one time. Given the history of the LGBTQ characters in your body of work, I wondered why there weren’t any more sort of explicitly queer characters this season?
Well, the way that people’s identity is constructed with sexuality as a component of it, in my experience, it emerges in a much more organic [way], and not like wearing a t-shirt that says, you know, Queer Power — or the equivalent in the 24th century. We get to know these characters the way we get to know real people. It emerges in conversation when it would emerge in conversation. Like their parentage, for example. It’s really important to me who my parents were. I’m sure it was really important to you for shaping your identity. We don’t know anything about Jurati’s parents except that her father read paper books and she used to interrupt him. We don’t know anything about Raffi’s parents. We don’t know that much about Picard’s parents — even if you’ve watched “TNG.” In terms of the show, it just doesn’t come up.
Well, on “Star Trek: Discovery,” it was a very big deal that Lt. Stamets, the character played by Anthony Rapp, is gay. So I think there’s a certain subset of “Trek” fandom that was excited about seeing that perpetuate on “Picard.”
We’re doing it in a different way. We’re doing it in an organic way — what feels organic to me. It emerged in that scene between Bjayzl and Seven. I think it’s pretty explicit, but it’s explicit in a way that feels real. Bjayzl doesn’t say, “We were lovers.” She doesn’t say, “We were a couple,” or anything like that. She says, “We were incredibly close.” It felt, to me, natural. It felt like how somebody would talk about many years later, a relationship that was in the past.
And it will continue to emerge. I think it’s a part of our understanding of Raffi’s character. In Raffi’s scene where she calls into Starfleet to try to get access for them to the Artifact, and calls that old friend of hers, I mean, to me, the implication is there too in their relationship. But she doesn’t ever say, “I’m going to call this woman that I used to go out with,” and she doesn’t say, “Hey, remember me. I used to be your girlfriend.”
You do have Jurati and Rios couple up at one point. Certain sexuality gets exercised on the show.
Only in that one scene, though. In that case, it’s about Jurati, and what she’s done [when she killed her former boyfriend convinced it was for the greater good]. It’s actually not about sex at all or sexuality, it’s about her devastation, her isolation, her guilt. She’s self-medicating, essentially, with sex. It’s not there to say, Hi, here’s two characters and they’re heterosexual. It’s there to say, here’s a fucked up person reaching out to the person that, with a limited range of candidates, not only does she find most attractive, but objectively speaking, he’s incredibly gorgeous and he’s not wearing a shirt.
Again, it’s about letting people’s identities emerge. I think we’ll have more time for that in the second season than we’ve had in the first season. We just had so many characters and so much story to tell in this first season, that a lot of the sort of more personal aspects of things — including again, like people’s families, and all that stuff — just all got sort of left [behind].
One of the biggest surprises for me was how “Picard” took the Borg, the biggest boogeymen of the “Trek” universe, and made them truly sympathetic. Where did that come from?
It really goes back to watching “Star Trek: First Contract” the first time in the theater, and being really upset by a moment in that movie where our heroes from the Enterprise are being menaced by the assimilated Starfleet personnel. And, roughly paraphrasing, Picard says, like, “You just have to kill them. They’re not your friend anymore. They’re no longer the person that you knew. They are just Borg.” And watching that scene — that is so patently false, right? We know that’s a lie, because you saw Picard get assimilated and then get restored back to himself. So that’s bulls–t.
So now, we have this clear mandate from Patrick for “Picard”: Anything we’re going to do on this show, whether it’s bringing back another legacy character or a key plot element from “TNG,” whatever it is, it can’t be the same as it was. So that meant if we ever were going to bring the Borg back, and we kind of wanted to bring the Borg back, we had to find a way to do it that felt different.
And as soon as I looked at that mandate, I remembered this idea of looking at assimilation as a form of trauma. We decided to really own that idea, and to really consider the former Borg’s claim on the same degree of treatment that we would bestow on any other sentient creatures in the “Star Trek” world. That felt like a really inevitable way to go.
You were going to step away as showrunner of “Picard” in order to make your Showtime series based on “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” with your wife Ayelet Waldman. Where are you with that?
Truthfully, you can’t really be the showrunner of a show and do anything else. It was all consuming. I loved every minute of it — the hard parts as much as the easy parts. But I recognized that I couldn’t do it again, and also finish a novel, and also develop “Kavalier & Clay” and ultimately co-showrun that with Ayelet. There’s just no way. So I’m still an executive producer on “Picard.” I’m writing two episodes. I was there breaking the second season, all the way through. I was engaged, I think, in exactly the same degree as I was on Season 1 up to the point where it’s time to start production — and at that point, I will not be doing the same thing at all. I’ll just be continuing to give notes and, and be involved as an EP.
Now you’ve run a season of TV, what have you learned that you didn’t know before you started, that you hope to apply to “Kavalier & Clay”?
I can think in terms of production in a way that I couldn’t when I started working on “Picard.” Just one example: the value of a bottle episode. If you can have an episode that takes place entirely on standing sets, that you don’t have to do any builds for, that you don’t have any locations for — that’s such a great thing. It’s creatively a challenge, but also in terms of production, it’s such a gift to your budget. That kind of thinking is something I couldn’t have possibly bought to “Kavalier & Clay” without having worked on Picard.
Finally, I want to ask the question we’re all asking right now: How are you doing amid everything with the pandemic?
I’m doing fine. You know, aside from the social disruption, and the people who are sick and the fatalities, I mean, these are kind of like ideal circumstances for me, personally. I don’t like to go anywhere or do anything or talk to anyone. I just like to stay home and work and read books and watch movies and TV shows and cook. I’m sure it will grow wearisome eventually, but right now, two of my four kids are home. They’re adults, or quasi-adults. So I’m not facing the problem faced by people who have little kids running around and don’t know what to do with them. As usual, I’m very lucky and privileged, and right now, since we’re all healthy, it’s okay.
It sounds like there’s not been as much of an adjustment period for you.
This interview has been edited and condensed.