Not long into the first episode of the new Star Trek: Picard series, the titular character is asked in a televised interview why he attempted to save an alien species from certain doom. It was a mission the interviewer refers to as “a logistical feat more ambitious than the pyramids.”
But Jean-Luc Picard snaps back: “The pyramids were a symbol of colossal vanity. If you want to look for historical analogy … Dunkirk.”
Picard’s evocation of the scrappy Second World War rescue mission is not, as one might expect, a pop-culture nod to the recent film of the same name. Rather, it’s a personal point of pride for the actor behind the character, Sir Patrick Stewart – the son of one of the last British soldiers to be evacuated from the infamous French beach.
It’s also indicative of an appreciation for legacy that Stewart has recently developed. At 79, the actor best known as the Star Trek franchise’s moral compass has chosen to reframe two critical, yet often fraught, relationships in his life: that of his most popular role and, more surprisingly, the memory of his father, whom Stewart once recalled as “an angry, unhappy and frustrated man who was not able to control his emotions or his hands."
The two relationships have made odd bedfellows inside what one journalist dubbed “the most famous cranium in the world.” Yet, both have manifested clearly and provocatively in Stewart’s hefty portrayal of Picard, now a 93-year-old retired admiral in Star Trek: Picard.
On a recent morning, the actor’s booming voice rang out of a green room in downtown Toronto. Pleased to be given an opportunity, he explained his new enlightenment.
“My father came from a very poor, very deprived background and he ended his military career in 1945 as regimental sergeant-major of the parachute regiment. He was No. 1,” he exclaimed in his distinguished accent.
“Unfortunately, he then went back to the life that he had before [the war] … which almost ruined him. [Only recently] I think that I’ve begun to understand the influence that my father had on me for good: discipline, organization, ambition, storytelling and socialism. I can now embrace that and be proud of him.”
The latest and darkest chapter in the long-running science-fiction franchise, Picard picks up nearly 20 years from the character’s last on-screen appearance, in the poorly received Star Trek: Nemesis (the last film to feature the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the TV series that introduced the Picard character).
More than a decade removed from Starfleet, the elder Picard is disillusioned, tending to his ancestral vineyard in France until an unexpected guest sends him down a conspiratorial rabbit hole. “He’s haggard,” Stewart explains, pointing out he deliberately lost weight for the role. “[The audience can see] his distress, his guilt, his misjudgments in the years during which we were away from The Next Generation.”
The series, which airs on CTV Sci-Fi Channel in Canada beginning Thursday, wasn’t the first attempt at resurrecting the character. And Stewart, who often bemoaned the role as undermining his Shakespearean bona fides, admits he spent the past two decades ducking calls. “I felt that everything I wanted to say had been said about Star Trek, Jean-Luc Picard, the Enterprise and my fellow, much-beloved crew members.”
But something about this time felt different. For one, “the names on the invitation were extremely distinguished.”
Those names, which included Oscar-winning writer Akiva Goldsman, The Closer creator James Duff and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, brought Stewart to the table. And when they pitched him the idea of an elder, rogue Picard, Stewart, who had just come off box-office success in the Wolverine franchise, signed on.
Plus, it didn’t take much to rediscover Jean-Luc Picard. “I didn’t have to do anything,” Stewart said, smiling. “He was always there. I simply had to tap into him.”
As with all good science fiction, Picard works best when its 24th-century characters aim their insight into our 21st-century world. And the series is not shy in drawing parallels to the modern refugee crisis, artificial-intelligence paranoia and other current calamities.
For Stewart, it’s easy to see the origins of a dystopian future in the current Brexit situation. “I left Berlin yesterday morning and I got emotional – really, really mad – because I said to the immigration guy, ‘This is about the last time I will be here as a member of the EU.’ ”
Despite that frustration, Stewart emphasized he still believes in the principles that governed Picard, Starfleet and, ultimately, his father. In fact, it’s these virtues that ultimately played a key role in bringing him back. “I believe union is one of the most important words in our language,” he concluded, with typical gravitas. “Star Trek has always [been about] working together. It’s not one man leading and not one man doing this job on his own. You need a crew.”