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Showrunner Michael Chabon unpacks that 'bold,' course-changing Star Trek: Picard finale
With a burst of hope and a gutsy change to the Trekkie status quo, the Season 1 finale of Star Trek: Picard — “Et in Arcadia Ego Part 2” — has boldly taken Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) where no human has gone before. Literally.
Now that Picard has laid all of the cards on the table, the game hasn't so much ended as the rules of the Final Frontier have changed. As one of the stewards of the Star Trek franchise, award-winning novelist-turned-Trek showrunner Michael Chabon didn't take any the monumental shifts in Picard lightly. But he also tells SYFY WIRE that if the finale hadn't turned a certain plot corner, then the show would have betrayed the entire story. It seems everything was always leading to this, even since Star Trek: The Next Generation.
As one of the most dramatic, layered, and heartfelt installments of Star Trek comes to a close, SYFY WIRE caught up with Michael Chabon to dig into crafting Season 1, the purpose of secret Easter eggs, and the larger meaning of this brave, new, radical chapter in the life of Jean-Luc Picard.
**Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Season 1, especially Episodes 9 and 10, "Et in Arcadia Ego Parts 1 and 2."
By the final frame of Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard, the biggest and most obvious change is clearly that Jean-Luc Picard is technically no longer a human being. After dying of the brain abnormality that has been plaguing him since "All Good Things..." in The Next Generation, Jean-Luc Picard is reborn in an android body. Chabon and the writers of Picard aren't messing around either. This isn't Blade Runner. You don't have to unfold any tinfoil unicorns to understand what's going on. Picard is very clearly an android now. But was this concept ever deemed too risky? Were the writers nervous?
"I wasn’t personally nervous!" Michael Chabon says with a laugh. "I don’t think 'nervous' was the word. It felt bold. If we didn’t do, then that meant we were totally chickening out on one of our clear, stated theses of the series — that synthetic life is just as valuable as organic life. If Picard believes that premise, and by extension, we believe it, and the Federation and Starfleet believe it, then the ultimate test and the ultimate proof of that belief can be found in making Jean-Luc Picard a synthetic life form."
As Chabon points out, ethical parity between synthetic and organic life in Star Trek didn't start with Picard. It goes all the way back to the Melinda M. Snodgrass-penned Next Generation episode, "The Measure of a Man." In that episode, as Picard fights for Data's rights in a court of law, he famously points out that although Data is a machine, humans are, too, just "machines of a different type." Chabon says this 1989 episode, essentially, set into motion the radical conclusion we see at the end of Picard Season 1.
"That episode states a premise about Data, and by extension all sentient artificial life. It was one of the starting places thematically for this entire season. By making this decision, It felt like an opportunity to put our money where our mouth was, philosophically," Chabon explains. "I mean, he’s still Jean-Luc Picard, he’s sentient, he has the same memories. His mind, his consciousness is identical to when it was being held in an organic bag of meat and cells.
"But he’s now in this synthetic body and his consciousness is now being held in a synthetic substrate," he continues. "So, what does that mean? Is he still Jean-Luc Picard? Is he still a sentient life form who is entitled to the same rights and privileges? And has the same duties and responsibilities he did when he was organic? And we’re saying the answer is 'Yes.' It felt like we had to."
But the changes to Jean-Luc Picard's character aren't just about whether or not he's a human or an android. If we think like Picard or Soji, those distinctions are only skin-deep because the change in the character of Jean-Luc was underway well before he became an android.
From the very first episode of Star Trek: Picard to the Season 1 finale, the character has been both exactly who we remembered in The Next Generation and a starkly different man simultaneously. Picard actor Harry Treadaway compared this process to a film like Boyhood, in which the passage of time only works on film because that much time has passed in real life, too. And for Chabon, writing for the character of Jean-Luc Picard was a constant collaboration between the fictional former starship captain and the very real actor who plays him, Sir Patrick Stewart.
"I think there was a kind of alchemy that occurred between the writers and the actor," Chabon says. "We might have written the character of Picard moving in a certain direction, or in a certain scene, that might not have been likely for the character 30 years ago, when he was the captain of a starship. And Patrick would respond to that shift either by approving of it implicitly by performing it or by finding a way to do it that felt to him like Jean-Luc Picard. Or, he might flag it. And he might question it. And he might come to me or Akiva [Goldsman] and he might say, 'This doesn’t feel right. This doesn’t seem like something Picard would say.'
"And we would sit with him and pitch him lines until we had come up with something that fit his standards," he explains. "On the other hand, we might write things for Picard that was much more in keeping with the Picard we know from TNG and bring those to Patrick and have him say, 'You know, I would like to try going a little further with this. I feel like Picard could be more emotional, I think he could be more forthcoming. I think he would say something more clearly.'
"Patrick is both an intellectual actor who takes a very thoughtful approach to creating a character, but he’s also very intuitive and very instinctual. Maybe that’s true of all of our greatest actors."
For hardcore Star Trek fans, part of the fun of watching Star Trek: Picard is seeing delightful Easter eggs strewn throughout Season 1, some of which are extremely obscure. Chabon is a life-long fan of Star Trek and has previously said that he considers what he does on the Trek franchise right now to be akin to fanfiction. And like any true fan, Chabon is making big connections by dropping just one word or phrase.
In Episode 8 of Picard, "Broken Pieces," one of Rios' holograms mentions "Medusan Astrogation." This is a deep-cut Easter egg for the Medusians, a race of non-corporeal aliens from the classic 1969 Star Trek episode, "In Truth Is There No Beauty?" Fun reference, right? Well, the thing is, this Easter egg — and many other deep cuts — is actually slightly deeper than you might realize.
The Medusians, casually mentioned in "Broken Pieces," also were aliens who drove you insane if you looked at them, thus requiring Spock to wear some very memorable red sunglasses. But in "Broken Pieces," we also learn of Romulans going insane by touching something called "The Admonition," which just happens to be in the same episode as a throwaway reference to "Medusian Astrogation." Basically, Chabon's Easter eggs aren't throwaways, and very often, they echo the larger story.
Chabon acknowledges that all of these connections intentional, but he says the process is a little less deliberate than the result.
"It’s a little like using a thesaurus," he explains. "When young writers ask me ‘Should I use a thesaurus?’ and I always say, ‘Of course you should use a thesaurus.’ But the rule is: Never use a word from the thesaurus that you don’t actually know. It might have a different connotation, and [so] sometimes they aren’t actually synonyms. You have to actually know the word that you’re substituting. You can’t just throw anything in there because it's in the thesaurus."
Chabon says his use of Trekkie Easter eggs follows this exact rule.
"Let’s take the Medusans. I was examining the whole question about everything we know about navigation in Star Trek," he explains. "I’m asking myself, 'What’s in canon about astronavigation and star charts?' That leads to a whole menu of possibilities and things you can reference. So, on Memory Alpha [the Star Trek wiki] I would go looking for stuff about star charts, then the knowledge comes in when I see Medusan — and then I remember there’s this notion of something that can drive people mad — then it’s like 'Yes. I’ve found the perfect thing!'"
Chabon won't be the showrunner for Season 2 of Picard, mostly because he'll be focused on the upcoming TV version of his famous metafictional comic book novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. This isn't to say he won't be around in the Trek universe, though. Chabon will still be writing a few episodes of Picard Season 2, and says that maintaining a "connection with the fandom" has been the most important part of this journey, one that began in 2018 when Chabon very quietly made the USS Discovery entirely sentient in the Short Treks episode, "Calypso."
In just two short years, his impact on the Trek mythos has proved thoughtful, elegant, and most importantly, original.
That said, Chabon thinks that many of the successful themes within Star Trek have been there from the very start. In the finale, Jean-Luc Picard passes the torch to the next-next generation by empowering Soji to make a choice. It's a powerful moment of intergenerational thinking and a touching notion that each generation can learn something from the other one.
"That's what we're here for," Picard says, "To save each other." For Chabon, this concept has always been intrinsic to the core of Trek.
"For me, it was about thinking about this character, this protagonist, this hero, an acclaimed hero in his own time," Chabon says. "Now, he’s at a point in his life where all of that is behind him. This is looking at what he has accomplished and asking, 'What is left to do?' In a sense, I think the question that Picard is confronted with from the beginning of this season that he continues to confront — at first I think he’s confronted by it, and then, through the course of the season, I think he confronts it himself — and that question is: 'Of what further use can he be?' I think that’s the emotional structure of the arc of Picard over the season.
"I think it inevitably leads to notions of 'What do I leave behind? What is the torch I’m passing to the next generation?'" he muses. "If you’re part of that next-next generation, what are you to do with that torch that is being passed to you? So, I think when Seven says, 'Keep saving the galaxy Picard,' and he says, 'No, that’s all on you now,' that's that moment. But, the idea of generational thinking, in terms of a way of thinking about social progress, I can't take credit for that! That has been wired into the show from the very beginning."
Star Trek: Picard Season 1 is now streaming on CBS All-Access. For non-subscribers, CBS All-Access is currently offering one month entirely free.