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'Picard' director Lea Thompson on the making of one of Star Trek's scariest scenes
The Back to the Future star-turned-director reveals how she took Captain Picard on a very scary trip back in time.
Comedy and horror are, tonally, hard to pull off in any hour of television. And that's especially true if it's on Star Trek. But, with her recent episode of Star Trek: Picard, Lea Thompson makes it look effortless.
"Assimilation", directed by Thompson (Back to the Future), is the third episode of Picard's very entertaining second season and it takes audiences on a slingshot around the sun, Star Trek IV-style, on a mission through time back to 2024 Los Angeles. Once there, Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) and Raffi (Michelle Hurd) engage in a comical, fish-out-of-water, "who's on first?"-esque routine with a dim security guard, while Patrick Stewart's Picard and Allison Pill's Jurati struggle to steal vital information from the mind of the scariest villain in Trek history: The Borg Queen (Annie Wersching, the third actor to play the iconic baddie). That tonal tightrope requires navigating both the demands of a complex narrative and the even more complicated canon of Star Trek, but Thompson was more than game for the challenge. Ironically, she wasn’t even supposed to have time travel in her episode.
“Originally, when I first got the script [for the third episode], I didn’t get to take them back in time. It was all supposed to happen in episode two,” Thompson tells SYFY WIRE. “But due to rewrites or whatever, I got to do the part when they go back in time. Which made me so happy, because I was like: ‘I did Back to the Future. I’m a time travel expert!”
Her first trip through time by way of Star Trek required her to find a way to make what is a very tried-and-true trope of the franchise look unique visually and also feel emotionally resonate. Lucky for us, Thompson found a way to do it in post, resulting in one of the most beautiful visuals Trek has ever done: Sparks rain down from the ceiling of the La Sirena, only to start moving backwards once the crew break the laws of physics.
“I can definitely say I came up with that” Thompson says. The tear rolling backwards up Jurati’s cheek was also Thompson’s addition to the scene.
“Time travel is such a big part of the Star Trek canon," Thompson adds. "There are so many different ways of taking them back in time, and I was really grateful to [Executive Producer] Akiva [Goldsman] and [showrunner and Executive Producer] Terry [Matalas] because they do have respect for the director, and they were like: ‘Do the way you think you want to do it.’ But I was really happy that they kept my ideas there.”
Another noteworthy moment in the episode is where the scary stuff comes in to play, when Jurati infiltrates the Borg Queen’s mind. It’s just the two of them, and a worried Picard, in a dark room with the Borg Queen’s signature green hue. Which adds to the scene’s very unsettling tone. Thankfully, the show never takes on a CG tour of whatever brain vault Jurati is raiding, or a more economically viable alternative, like Pill running around a maze of hallways choked with smoke machine fog. The script’s minimalist approach creates a surplus of tension, one that hangs over both the characters and the audience.
Part of the big draw for Thompson in helming this sequence was joining the handful of directors lucky enough to have a scene with Borg royalty: Locutus (Stewart) and the woman that wanted him to be her counterpart in the Collective.
“I was so excited to work with the Borg Queen,” Thompson says, “specifically with Annie, who was just trying to figure it all out still when I started working with her, trying to find how to be that character, which is really difficult. This is a big character, and I think she created such a big character so subtly, she is great. And the way Akiva and Terry and Alex have come up with such a beautiful way into this character, and her relationship with [Jurati], who is just drawn to the Queen. They are just drawn to each other. And the fact that, Patrick, who was Locutus, is also drawn to her — it’s emotional. It’s not just a plot device.”
With Wersching being the third actor to play the Queen, albeit in a new iteration, and this being the first time Thompson ever worked with the character, both actor and director relied on each other to shape this tricky scene. It’s the big set piece of the episode, one that culminates with a leg-less Borg Queen scurrying on the floor while staring down a pensive (but also somewhat enamored) Jurati.
“It’s a really, really creepy scene. I can’t wait to see it, I haven’t seen the final episode yet, so I’m really excited to see what the incredible visual effects team has done.”
The scene, according to Thompson, was also really difficult to light and conceive.
“Crescenzo Notarile, the DP, we had such long discussions about the lighting of the episode, which for that set, is extreme. That set is huge, and we had to go through all these lightning changes — for when they whip around the sun and go back in time — we really took a lot of time, and a lot of thought, and a lot of effort on the part of the grip and electric crews, to figure all that out. The flashing lights, and the sparks, and the strobes… it took a very long time. When you come [to set] and see on your call sheet that you’re gonna [shoot] like one-eighth of a page [of script] all day, when you’re normally doing like six or seven, you’re like: ‘Good. Because we have a lot to do.’”
And there’s even more for Thompson to do in the fourth episode of this season, which airs next week. If it’s even half as good as “Assimilation,” fans are in for another great hour of Trek.
New episodes of Star Trek Picard drop Thursdays on Paramount+.