How 'Picard' Showrunner Michael Chabon Honored 'Star Trek's Past While Writing Its Difficult Future

Star Trek: Picard showrunner and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) has a double challenge: returning to a beloved character—Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) of the starship Enterprise—while pushing Star Trek forward into the distant future after two decades of reboots and a series, Star Trek: Discovery, set in the relative "past." Taking place in 2399, Picard is the furthest forward Star Trek story yet told on TV.

In Star Trek: Picard, the Federation is faced with external and internal pressures different than the martial conflicts of its past. Still recovering from the Dominion War of the 2370s, the Federation was faced with a new crisis in 2385, when the Romulan sun approached supernova, endangering the Romulan Star Empire and creating a refugee crisis the Federation was barely able to handle. After an attack on the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards on Mars—apparently conducted by artificially intelligent "Synthetics," though Picard gives us plenty of reason for doubt—the Federation's Starfleet cut off their ongoing rescue operations and retrenched. Horrified by the abandonment of the Romulan refugee population, Jean-Luc Picard resigned from Starfleet and retreated from public life.

Picard and his dog Number One on the grounds of the family vineyard in 'Star Trek: Picard.' CBS All Access

While Star Trek is materially a series of series—seven TV shows (and 13 movies) have so far followed the 1967 original—for its viewers the model science fiction is read more like a future history. From Enterprise to Picard, Star Trek describes an aspirational path for humanity, from first contact with aliens in 2063 to the conflict over synthetic life in Jean-Luc's 2399—its centuries marked by each era's explorers, diplomats and scientists. If Star Trek: Picard were set in the present day, 2020, it would cap a sprawling continuity reaching back to 1684, the year Isaac Newton began writing his Principia, outlining the laws of motion and gravity that revolutionized astronomy and physics. This makes writing Star Trek as much a question of interpreting the past as writing new aspects of its fictional future. Just like real history, the arc of Star Trek's multi-century saga is always in dispute.

We spoke with Chabon about the difficult balance between honoring beloved characters from Star Trek's past and forging a new future, one that prompts questions about the nature of the United Federation of Planets itself.

Michael Chabon on Writing Star Trek: Picard

This Q&A has been lightly edited for form.

Star Trek: Picard has introduced so many new characters, but this week's episode "Nepenthe" features a reunion between Jean-Luc Picard, Deanna Troi and William Riker. What was it like writing dialogue between the three and working with these characters who have so much background and shared history?

It was a joy. For creative reasons, we felt an imperative to be judicious in our use of legacy characters, and not to over-indulge, because it would be so easy to over-indulge. As fans—truly, between me, Akiva Goldsman and Kirsten Beyer, we are pretty intense lovers of Star Trek and lovers of its history and its continuity. It would be so easy to allow yourself to liberally pepper the thing with Ferengi and Cardassians and Gorn and all kinds of elements from previous series, and there would be, on a certain level, such pleasure in doing that. But I think we all understood it was a kind of superficial pleasure, that wasn't going to help us tell a really powerful, enduring story, unless we used the few legacy characters we do for sound storytelling, thematic reasons. So that was the objective in this episode: finally have two authentically important, central, richly embroidered—over the course of many seasons of TNG and the films—characters, in the form of Riker and Troi. It was a summer rapture.

We had, up to this point, really, Picard and then Seven of Nine, and then other characters from earlier shows who were less embellished, less known, less written characters. So to finally be able to play with some TNG characters is deeply pleasurable. And on top of that, we had the challenge—the challenge from the first lines of the first episode of Star Trek: Picard—of presenting well known, deeply beloved characters who have not been seen for roughly 20 years, and to both convey a sense of the sweep of the passage of time in their lives, but also not get bogged down in that and get updated quickly to the moment when they were needed for the story we were trying to tell.

William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) reunite in the 'Star Trek: Picard' episode "Nepenthe." CBS All Access

So that was always a balancing act in the course of the season, between the necessary exposition to introduce characters to an audience who may not know as much as they need to know, and, at the same time, provide something that feels satisfying and fulfilling to someone who does know Star Trek really well. It was a challenge. But it was a really fun one, especially in this episode. It was the case when Patrick and Brent Spiner (Data) got together too, and it was very sweet to see Patrick and Jonathan Del Arco (the ex-Borg Hugh) meeting again and working together again. But with these two, with Marina and Jonathan, even though we knew they were getting back together, until they actually got on set and started acting with each other, to see and feel the extent of the depth of the love those three have for each other: the depth and extent of that friendship, the longevity of that friendship, the history underlying that friendship, that friendship among all three of them.

To have that—I mean, maybe you were unconsciously aware in writing that that was going to be a battery powering this engine of this episode—but we had no idea until we actually see them meeting and hugging each other, sequentially in this episode, first Marina hugging—Picard and Troi—and after Riker, those hugs are real hugs, they mean real love and real history and a real sense of looking at each other's faces, that time has passed for all of them. It ends up being a congruence of real life and fiction.

You've previously said that one of Patrick Stewart's conditions going into Star Trek: Picard was that you challenge him as an actor. Where did you see him most challenged by your writing? What were the boundaries you pushed with Patrick?

The scene that most readily comes to mind is in last week's episode "The Impossible Box"—bringing Picard back to a Borg cube for the first time since he underwent what he underwent. We were presenting two challenges at the same time: we were presenting a challenge to Jean-Luc Picard emotionally; to make him for the first time in his recent life reckon with what happened to him, and living with that trauma, and the lingering effects.

Picard's assimilation into the Borg has haunted the Starfleet captain for years. CBS Home Entertainment

You have a sense—you can see it in The Next Generation episode "Family"—that in the aftermath of the Locutus plotline he's not quite himself. And then you see it in the exchange he has with Seven in "Stardust City Rag,' our fifth episode this season, where he acknowledges that he doesn't feel that he got all of his humanity back. So put Picard on the Borg cube, with ex-Borg standing around calling him Locutus and the foreboding atmosphere, that's presenting a deep emotional challenge to Picard and presenting, thereby, an acting challenge (we hoped in the way that Patrick meant) to Patrick Stewart, and hopefully giving him something he can really sink his teeth into.

Jean-Luc Picard's pugnacious and bitter brother (Jeremy Kemp) helps draw the Starfleet captain out of his shell after his experience as Locutus in 'The Next Generation' episode "Family." CBS Home Entertainment

Also I think there's a certain amount of challenge involved with Patrick and the Borg themselves. In our initial conversations with Patrick, in terms of getting broad guidelines for the kind of series he was interested in participating in, we understood very clearly that he was not interested in doing the Borg if it was the Borg as we had seen them before.

At the end of Voyager, in the series finale, it strongly implies (I've had disagreements with fans about what we're meant to think) the Borg are now gone. Permanently—in their scary, true Borginess—are they gone forever, or could they still be out there? I think it was left an open question, personally. But there was enough of an indication at the end of Voyager that we really couldn't have the Borg come back in any form that we've seen before.

So in finding a new way to look at the Borg we reached what in hindsight seems almost like an obvious conclusion and an obvious storyline, which is reckoning with the after-effects of having been Borg and the inherent tragedy of that—both the trauma and tragic nature of that problem. There's a triple challenge there for Patrick, as a storytelling challenge, as an acting challenge, and as something that would be for Patrick a challenge in terms of the idea: "What kind of Star Trek do you want this to be?"

There's a scene, in "The Impossible Box" as well, where Raffi (Michelle Hurd) talks their way onto the Borg Cube, but doing so exacerbates her substance abuse. You get the sense that Picard can't quite close the gap between his authority and her pain, so instead Rios (Santiago Cabrera) fills that empathetic role. It reminded me of the very end of the last episode of The Next Generation, where Picard finally sits down to play poker with his crew, and it's a little like, "You've been with them for seven years and you're only now bridging this interpersonal gap?" So how did you explore Picard's weaknesses in this series?

I think you read that scene very much as intended, though I have to say that moment when he applauds and it feels inappropriate, I think it really ultimately emerged on-set from kind of a question from Patrick. That was great, because you can find a way to show that he's missing what this has meant to her, what this has cost her, and where she really is at this moment in time. He came up with this applause thing and it works perfectly.

Raffi (Michelle Hurd) talking their way on to the Borg cube in 'Star Trek: Picard' episode "The Impossible Box." CBS All Access

By intention of the writers and by ideas from the actor, little by little, starting from the first episode, we've built this idea of a character who—what's important about Picard is not that he lacks empathy, because that is not true. It's not that he misses people's cues or doesn't understand the emotional dynamics of a situation, or is not sensitive to them, because that's not what's important about Jean-Luc Picard. Instead it's that at this point in his life he has an understanding of himself, that he needs to work to overcome a certain reserve, a certain detachment—the kind of detachment that leads someone to become a commander in the first place, that would lead someone to a career that involves such a hierarchy, where you're either in command or being commanded. And that you are at a remove from the people you command. As we see in the series finale "All Good Things...," he recognizes his limitations in that regard and he works to overcome them. But he doesn't always succeed, and in the moment you're talking about, he missed.

An earlier miss is when he first approaches Raffi. First of all, he shows up at the house of somebody that presumably he knows has substance abuse problems of some kind (or he might at least have reason to wonder) and he brings a bottle of wine. Then, in the next episode, when she approaches him after he got in touch with her, he apologizes. He knows she's right, and he feels that and he acknowledges the validity of her feelings and he acknowledges his wrongdoing and he tries to make up for it. I think that's, to me at least, what's important.

Jean-Luc and Raffi verbally spar at the Vasquez Rocks, a far different conflict than Kirk's battle with a slow-moving alien lizard. CBS All Access

One of the things that's important about the Jean-Luc Picard we're meeting, at this point in his life, is that he is wise enough to understand his own limitations and he has the goodness of heart and strength of character to work to overcome those limitations. And to me that's really ultimately what makes somebody a hero. When you think of a hero, you think of people who are sort of superhuman and flawless and are everything we can't be. And I feel like that's a really destructive idea of what a hero is. I think it's part of what leads us to be so frequently disappointed and disillusioned. To me, ultimately a hero is someone who is flawed and is weak and is limited and somehow, by strength of effort and will and meeting circumstances head on, manages to overcome those weaknesses and then to overcome those limitations and to do something in spite of all those—that is truly heroic. That's what you're seeing at work with Jean-Luc Picard, who knows just what he is and just what he isn't, and isn't content with that and is always working to live up to a standard he's kept for himself, knowing he's going to be missing the mark at least some of the time.

The deep bench of Star Trek knowledge is evident in the show's writing, but when it comes to the opposite side of the coin... your complete Jack Vance hardcover collection is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. Could you tell me about the outside science fiction elements you wanted to bring into Star Trek?

Obviously, there is an homage, but I would also say a variation or a twist, in the Qowat Milat—who are introduced in Episode 104—on the Bene Gesserit from the Dune novels. But unlike the Bene Gesserit, who are very secretive and would actually fit very well into the Romulan ethos of secretiveness and conspiracy, the Qowat Milat are averse to all that. I'm a massive Dune fan and have been most of my life, and so there's a bit of homage.

You mentioned Jack Vance, and one of the many things I love about Jack Vance were the names he gives to planets. Planet names in Star Trek, not always but often, tend to be kind of workmanlike and tend to be—not maybe usually, but frequently—the name of the sun that they orbit and then a Roman numeral attached to it. Or the name of the planet refers to the constellation that it's part of. Or it's an invented word in the language of the inhabitants. But Jack Vance's planets tend to be more evocative and, if I dare say, a little more poetic in their inspiration. He often chooses interesting words that are actual words in English, but are kind of unusual or lesser known words.

So I tried to accommodate some of that into our naming of planets, like in Episode 105 there's a planet called Vergessen, which is actually a Yiddish word that means 'forgotten.' In the latest episode we have Nepenthe, which is a Greek word, which comes from classical mythology. It's actually something I've admired in science fiction writers over the years. In George R.R. Martin's early science fiction he often had some quite beautiful planet names. Larry Niven often had quite creative and interesting and unique planets. So I think there were certain—both conscious and unconscious—ways we'd operate by a different standard in naming planets.

Something I've really enjoyed in Star Trek: Picard is that there's a lot of effort put into diversifying these big Star Trek monocultures, like with the Qowat Milat or the Zhat Vash faction of the Tal Shiar. That seems like it would be a very complex writing challenge: how do you convey these nested cultures within alien cultures?

That's so much of the fun part of it for me, is trying to do that. Even as a kid, watching Star Trek and later watching TNG, I would go off and be struck that people from a planet all speak one language and all have one haircut and one style of clothing that they wear. There can be a charm to it, but it also doesn't feel right, doesn't feel natural, doesn't feel true. So there's an impulse to try to diversify what we'd previously identify as a monoculture, in particular the Romulans. We're confronted by this potential continuity problem that when we first saw them on The Original series they're made up exactly like Vulcans and then eventually they acquire these forehead ridges in the era in which the forehead was the most frequently employed site of creating alien features (by doing something to someone's nose bridge or forehead). So then you're like, well, what is the deal with those other Romulans who didn't have those ridges? You're sort of fighting against that, or ignoring it, but why not take the opportunity to incorporate it and say Romulans aren't all alike?

Elnor (Evan Evagora) binds himself to Picard, becoming the captain's Qalankhkai in "Absolute Candor." CBS All Access

We're not the first to be doing this. With the introduction of the character Tuvok on Voyager, we got our first brown-skinned Vulcan, played by an African American actor. I remember very well that caused all kinds of controversy, most of it either offensive or just silly. But there's something ultimately to me much more plausible about that than implausible, because all we have to do is look at the diversity of our population, not just in terms of skin color, but languages and culture and fashion. It inspires in me a wish that Romulans, for example, were more diverse and portrayed in a more diverse way, and I don't just mean by skin color, though that is an important and interesting way of doing it.

Part of the pleasure of writing science fiction is you get to create a planet. If you're Jack Vance, the reason you're creating a planet is so you can create the languages, so you can create the cultures, so you can create the races and subraces, the different forms of government, on different continents, all on the same planet. It is an opportunity to flex your powers of invention. So to get back to your original question, we are thinking, well, maybe this will make Romulans seem more interesting, maybe this will make them seem more natural and more realistic, more plausible. This species, at least in their diversity, having this diversity of aspect and culture and language and so forth—it can be fun.

You've spoken a lot about perspectives on the Star Trek utopia, often in response to people unhappy with the dark tone of Star Trek: Picard. I've always thought of The Next Generation as this loosely socialist model for the future, but it struck me, thinking back on it, that it was less ideologically socialist, but instead reflected this belief that a future without want was an aspiration possible within the liberal, capitalist framework of the 1990s—a proposition that is less believed and even less often assumed today. My question in that is: during the writing process, what are the axes that these discussions take place along? Are you discussing in the room competing political ideologies, or philosophies or current events? What are the modes of discussion that go into these writing decisions?

We're always really trying hard to have the stories we are telling emerge plausibly, logically, from previous continuity. Because we are sitting around talking about this for day after day, week after week, month after month, in breaking this first season, we're looking at aspects of canon—I won't say that have not been looked at before, because that's almost certainly not the case—but looking at areas where a lot of fans may not have given a lot of thought necessarily.

Take for example the use of currency in Star Trek; of money. Yes, we absolutely understand what has been more or less a given in Star Trek, pretty much from the beginning, that there's no money in the Federation, and we come to understand much more fully on TNG: that we live in the Federation and in a post-scarcity economy, where there's essentially limitless energy and therefore everything else becomes essentially free, whether that's food or housing or transport. So there's no more want, there's no more poverty, there's no more illness and so on and so forth—yeah, that's obvious, we understand that.

But, consistently, if intermittently, throughout the history of previous Star Treks, there is also constant reminders that if you don't live in the Federation, or if you live at the edges of the Federation, or just beyond the edges of the Federation, or if you make your living and ply your trade back and forth across the borders of Federation and non-Federation states, then money is a big part of your life.

It depends on the currency, whether it's the strips of pressed latinum that the Ferengi are so fond of (that they worship in fact), or whether it's the very mysterious credits that they begin to refer to in The Original Series that have never really been fully examined or explained just exactly what Federation credits are. It seems pretty clear we are meant to understand they are employed in transactions that take place outside the boundaries, or back and forth across the boundaries of the Federation. Which leads you to the question: well, if you live in the Federation and you need credits to go outside the Federation, how do you acquire them? Who gives them to you? What do they represent? Those are questions, in canon, that have never been answered—they've definitely been written about and there have been books published.

So for us that's just one aspect that, for some fans and viewers who are knowledgeable and have been watching Star Trek for a very long time, it gets their backs up right away. They say, 'Wait a minute, why are all these people from the Federation talking about getting paid?' And the answer is well, look again. Look again and put on your canon hat and see that actually nobody who is talking that way is on a beautiful apartment building on Earth or Alpha Centauri or on Vulcan or any other established part of the Federation. These are all people who are either on the other side or moving back and forth, and it absolutely is canonical for them to be looking at money in this way.

I think it's kind of a long-winded answer, but everything we said and showed and did was talked about and thought through and weighed and sometimes the answers—if we had a storytelling question—to get an answer we might look at canon. We might look at our own life experience and things that have happened to us that felt relevant or similar. We might look to a situation in the world we live in now, for analogs, for certain situations that seem similar. So for example, when we are looking at the example of traumatized ex-Borg and their lives and the way they are viewed by other nations, other species around them, or other political entities, we might look around at current analogs to that, whether that means looking at refugees or the way immigrants are treated at the U.S. border and the dehumanization and the efforts to depict them as subhuman, or less than human, or vermin, and then allow our real experience of something to help us write about it in a way that is actually true to what we know.

It's a combination of various elements, but always a question of what's been said in Star Trek before: How has this character been shown before? What haven't we seen of them before? Why haven't we seen that before? The canonicity of things is always first and foremost among the ways we look for answers to storytelling challenges.

Star Trek: Picard is streaming now on CBS All Access.