Early on in the new season of Star Trek: Picard, Jean-Luc Picard is thrust into an alternate timeline where he’s a fascist, genocidal leader on a barbaric version of 24th-century Earth. One of the first voices he hears is Q, an omnipotent, all-powerful being (played by veteran character actor John de Lancie) who toyed with him throughout the entire run of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The two Trek veterans hadn’t been face-to-face since that show ended back in 1994.
“Oh dear, you’re a bit older than I imagined,” says Q, who — thanks to CGI — initially looks just as he did when we last saw him. “Let me catch up.” He snaps his fingers and instantly ages 30 years. “There now,” he says. “We’re even.”
It’s a stark reminder that original world of Star Trek: The Next Generation is long behind us, recreated but never to be revisited, and that the passage of time impacts everything, even supposedly ageless demigods. That was evident throughout the first season of Picard, where our frail hero — played, of course, by Patrick Stewart — reluctantly leaves retirement life in his French vineyard, days after learning he has a potentially lethal neurological condition, to save a young android very much like his former TNG colleague Data.
And it’s evident in the second season of the show, which debuts March 3 on Paramount Plus, where Picard and his new ragtag crew (which includes Star Trek: Voyager‘s Seven of Nine) travel back to Earth in 2024 to prevent the timeline from going hopelessly askew. “This was all challenging and exciting new stuff for Picard,” says Stewart. “I have the same name as before, but everything else, I think, is different.”
“Season One is about resurrection in a bunch of ways,” adds Star Trek: Picard showrunner Akiva Goldsman. “Season Two is about redemption.”
Part of that redemption involves a new look at Picard’s childhood, and his inability to find lasting love. “We wanted to tell a story about Picard’s heart,” says Goldsman, before adding, in a reference to the character receiving an artificial heart during his cadet years at Starfleet (and his consciousness being transferred into an android’s body in this series’ first season), “Or his spiritual heart, since God knows he’s had several versions of his actual heart. We found this space and we thought, ‘Wow, no one has shined a light on that.’ You always say, ‘What happened with him and Beverly [Crusher]? Why doesn’t any romantic relationship stick? He’s interesting, smart, and cool. He’s handsome. He runs a starship. What’s going on there?’ ”
Just a few years ago, Stewart couldn’t have imagined letting any creative team, no matter how inventive, attempt to answer such a question. He hadn’t played Jean-Luc Picard since 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis — a nearly unwatchable entry that caused Paramount to stop making Next Generation movies and turn back to the Captain Kirk crew in their last three Star Trek films. He truly thought he would never done the captain’s uniform again.
“I felt that after 176 hours of television, which is what the Next Generation was, and four feature films, that I had nothing more say,” says Stewart. “It would be best now to just let the thing become a part of history.”
That changed when he met with Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, and Michael Chabon, all of whom sold him on an idea for a show that was nothing like TNG. Picard would no longer be a part of Starfleet; he’d initially be living on Earth; and most of his old Enterprise buddies wouldn’t be a part of the action. “Because 20 years had passed, they wanted to approach Picard, and others in the series we may have met before, after they had been affected by those 20 years,” says Stewart. “It wasn’t just that Patrick Stewart was 20 years older. So was Jean-Luc.”
He’d just finished work on the X-Men movie Logan, where he played the once mighty Charles Xavier as a broken old man suffering from dementia. “I loved Logan, which will be perhaps dismaying to the X-Men fans, but it was my best experience with any of those movies,” says Stewart. “I said to them, ‘I don’t want to remake Logan, but I think we could take the approach to Logan as a concrete basis for taking a different approach, but with the same benefits, if we were to revive Jean-Luc.'”
One of his first rules was that he didn’t want to wear a Starfleet uniform at any point on the show. The producers were initially horrified, since it’s almost as iconic as Superman’s cape, but Stewart knew leaving it off would make very clear that this was a new Picard for a new time. “It was almost as if they felt nobody would would believe I was Jean-Luc unless I was wearing a communicator and four little pins, or however many pins an admiral has, but I stayed away from that,” says Stewart. “It was not what Star Trek: Picard was intending to be about. Not at all.”
The first season did feature appearances from Data (Brent Spiner), William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), but the focus was on a new team that Picard was forced to assemble, including android expert Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), former Starfleet officer Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd), former Starfleet Captain Chris Rios (Santiago Carbera), and young Romulan warrior Elnor (Evan Evagora).
From the very beginning, the producers had a three-season arc in mind. “But we didn’t know we were going to get three seasons,” says Goldsman. “We just knew we were going to get one. Had we face-planted, CBS would have been like, ‘Thanks so much for trying that little thing. Move along.'”
And although some fans and critics founds the plot of the first season a bit convoluted and confusing, the Picard team quickly received a renewal for seasons two and three. Once they decided to make the second season about Picard’s heart, they knew it would make sense to bring back Q and Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Guinan.
“If you think about it, two of Picard’s most abiding relationships, his two most longstanding ones, are his relationships are Q and Guinan,” says Goldsman. “They are deep, they are profound, and they are complex. Guinan has cross-temporal awareness. She doesn’t know what the divergences [in the timeline] are, but if you go back to [the classic Next Generation episode] ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise,’ she knows that Tasha [Yar] ain’t supposed to be there.” [The character died in the first season of TNG.]
“Q is a genie,” continues Goldsman. “Q can create an environment for us that is the canvas on which we can lay out the drama of Picard’s inner life, because Q is the closest thing that Star Trek has to magic. Their relational connectedness to Jean-Luc and their powers made them the ideal bookends for this story.”
Q’s role in the Star Trek universe goes all the way back to the pilot episode of The Next Generation, when he put all of mankind on trial and forced Picard to serve as its defender. “The character is basically a God,” says de Lancie. “When it started, I thought to myself, ‘OK, he’s a God. But then what does he do?’ So I thought, ‘I’m an omnipotent being that’s too stupid to know it. I’m a God with clay feet.'”
He played Q as both a playful clown and a figure of incredible menace and doom, often going back and forth with little warning. “My feeling was he couldn’t just be one thing,” says de Lancie. “I wanted to break it up. There’s the seltzer-down-your-pants stuff and then the dangerous stuff. That means you in the audience are never quite sure what you’re getting.”
Initially, de Lancie thought Q would never be seen again after the Next Generation pilot. He’d spent most of his career guesting on shows like The Six Million Dollar Man, Barnaby Jones, and MacGyver, and this seemed like another one-shot deal. But on the third day of shooting, he heard a voice from behind him while standing around the set. “It said, ‘You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into,” says de Lancie. “And it was [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry with a big smile on his face. I said, ‘Gene, what are you talking about?’ He said, ‘You will find out.'”
He was brought back to play Q in the ninth episode of The Next Generation and then again a single time in each of the next six seasons, including the series finale “All Good Things…” where he played a major role. He also played Q on three episodes of Star Trek: Voyager and one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
But the last call to play Q came in 2001. “They had done movies and nobody called,” says de Lancie. “They had done Picard [Season One] and nobody called. Without sounding disingenuous, this call kind of felt out of left field. When [Picard showrunner] Terry [Matalas] reached out and said, ‘I’m sure you were expecting this call.’ I said, ‘No. I wasn’t expecting this call. But I’m delighted to be here.'”
In the three episodes of Picard screened for the press, Q’s role is relatively minimal, though extremely important to the overall plot of the season. “I want to tamp down on expectations” says de Lancie. “I want fans to know that I’m a catalyst in this season. This is different from the Q episodes that I did in years past, where each one of them was kind of the Q show.”
Stewart had seen de Lancie at a number of Star Trek conventions over the past two decades, but this was their first time actually shooting together in nearly 30 years. “I’m very fond of John,” says Stewart. “He’s a dear man and a friend. When we played our final scene together, John went to make speeches, as did I, but we both ended up having to cut it short because we had tears in our eyes. It was a very, very deep relationship.”
He feels the same way about Whoopi Goldberg. Up until this season, she hadn’t played Guinan since the 1994 movie Star Trek: Generations. Stewart invited her back onto the show when he appeared on The View in January 2020. “I knew that it was very important to bring Guinan back,” says Stewart. “I think she’s living much much slower than everyone else is. One year for Jean-Luc Picard is like two days for Guinan. We had some very important scenes this season.
“When you have strong feelings about a person you’re acting with, so long as they’re positive feelings, it introduces a new element into the relationship and the interconnection of the two characters,” he continues. “That’s always what has happened when I’ve been in front of the camera with Whoopi. I wish it was happening more often.”
Much of the action this season takes place on Earth in 2024. At times, it feels somewhat similar to the 1986 movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where Kirk and his crew travel to Eighties San Francisco in order to save the future. “The Voyage Home spoke very much to this season,” says Goldsman. “There are a couple of very specific homages to it, which I will not tell you about.”
Like practically every show over the past couple of years, the pandemic made shooting very difficult. It forced them to start months later than they originally planned, and to start Season Three right after finishing Season Two. “We wrapped season two at 7 p.m. one night and we started the next season the following morning,” says Stewart. “It’s been, as you may be able to hear from my voice, an intense experience.”
When we spoke on Feb. 28, Stewart said he was just five working days away from wrapping Season Three after 13 solid months of shooting. He’s unwilling to even hint at where the story goes, but he does say that working with writers and directors that grew up with The Next Generation has been extremely rewarding.
“The head of the writing room and the man who is currently directing this episode I’m shooting has been a devoted enthusiast from the very beginning,” he says. “You can see in their faces what the franchise has meant to them. And then to be finding themselves directing an episode with Jean-Luc Picard and… who knows who else? I’m not allowed to mention who else, but it’s an extraordinary situation to be in. It’s one I have relished in these past few years.”
Stewart is willing to say even less about his possible role in the upcoming Marvel movie Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but his voice is clearly heard in the new trailer for it. Does that mean he’s returning as Professor Xavier? “This is a very delicate area,” he says. “All I can say to you is we’ll have to see. But bear in mind that Professor Xavier has already died twice. I think he must have some sort of Superman quality.”
Back in Star Trek land, Goldsman says that Season Three of Picard will likely be the final one, unless something “miraculous” happens, but Stewart is unwilling to be that definitive. “With something like this, I never say never,” he says. “I did for a long time, but my experience with filming Picard has shifted my prejudices a little. I don’t know. All I know right now is I need a break. In 10 days’ time I’m going to have one. Then we’ll see. I’ll think about it.”