SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses major plot developments in “The Last Generation,” the series finale of “Star Trek: Picard,” currently streaming on Paramount+.
When Patrick Stewart first met with producers Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman in 2017 to discuss the possibility of returning to play Jean-Luc Picard again on a new “Star Trek” series, Stewart famously did so as a courtesy to explain that he had absolutely no interest in revisiting the world of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“I explained to them all those elements of ‘Next Generation’ which belong in ‘Next Generation,’ and why I didn’t want to go near them again,” Stewart told Variety in a January 2020 cover story. When the producers noted that the show could show a much different Picard, one who’d changed over the two decades since the events of the final “TNG” movie, 2002’s “Star Trek: Nemesis,” Stewart became intrigued, and signed on to do three seasons of “Star Trek: Picard” — but without the rest of the “TNG” cast.
While a few “Trek” alumni did pop up on “Picard,” however, it wasn’t until Season 3 that Stewart was finally convinced that it was time to bring back the full cast of “The Next Generation”: Jonathan Frakes’ Riker, Brent Spiner’s Data, LeVar Burton’s Geordi, Marina Sirtis’ Troi, Michael Dorn’s Worf, and — crucially — Gates McFadden’s Crusher, Picard’s on-again-off-again unrequited love.
Led by executive producer Terry Matalas, Season 3 of “Picard” painstakingly reunites the “TNG” cast around a story involving Picard and Crusher’s adult son, Jack (Ed Speleers), who was born with a strain of rogue Borg DNA his father unwittingly passed down to him. That DNA leads to an all-stops-out cinematic climax, in which the “TNG” crew is all that stands between the Borg and the total assimilation of Earth, the Federation and the rest of the galaxy.
They ultimately succeed, after boarding a reconstructed version of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D from “TNG,” in a deeply satisfying happy ending the cast had been denied after “Nemesis,” which cut short the “TNG” films after it flopped. Speaking this week with Variety, while Stewart remained steadfast in his conviction that “Picard” should have started without a “TNG” reunion, he was also clear he adored getting to act again with his old castmates and lifelong friends — and indicated that while “Picard” is over, he may not be done with “Star Trek” just yet.
You were clear at the outset that you weren’t interested in participating in a sentimental reunion show if you were going to come back to “Star Trek.” Now that you’ve finished a season where you did reunite with the original “Next Generation” cast, how do you feel about about the show now?
I feel very good about it. We all talked about “Picard” far more than we ever talked about “Next Generation.” You know, the scripts would just arrive on “Next Generation.” For this, from the very earliest meeting that I had with Alex and Akiva, it was always based on a new energy in the show, a different group of people. We were going to acknowledge the actual years that had passed. We were not going to try and pick it up where “Next Generation” had left off, or where our movies left off. Everyone had been affected by time that had passed, not just physically in appearance, but in one’s relationship situation, in what activities people were involved in, what had become of them, and so forth. I found that one of the best elements of the show, especially when we began to assemble again.
We were not just celebrating a reunion. Not remotely. It was absolutely vital that this group of people came together because of the contribution that they could make, and the necessity of their being there. I think that supported the whole of this three-season series. We could examine what has really happened to Riker, and so many things that happened to Data. That’s what gave it, I felt, in “Star Trek” terms, a very, very independent feeling. I hope that it will be seen as something which will stand alone, not just “Next Generation Part 2.”
The “Next Generation” cast has spent a lot of time together over the years and have remained good friends. But how did it feel for everyone to be together on the Enterprise D bridge set again?
Well, it’s produced a lot of comedy. I don’t think we are, as a group, sentimental about things like the bridge of the Enterprise in the way that maybe our fans are. Because, I mean, we were filming [“The Next Generation”], I spent more time on the bridge of the Enterprise than I did at home, and so it became a familiar workplace for us. That continued throughout “Picard,” even though they were not always the same ship. It gave a lot of freshness and energy to the show.
One of the greatest pleasures I got watching for the first time was that everyone had investigated what would have changed in their lives and their manner and their being. I found all that intriguing. It will be the one thing that might lure me back to do another season or other episodes, simply that it was so interesting. Everyone were such good and committed actors that we were able to bring this freshness to what we were doing. We were not really the same people.
Terry Matalas has talked about wanting to do a “Star Trek: Legacy” spinoff series. Ed Speleers told me he would love to continue playing Jack. And it sounds like you’d be interested in returning as well?
Yes. The circumstances, as it was with “Picard,” would be the important factor in all of that. But certainly, there is a wonderful future for Ed there, I’m sure of it. And if I can occasionally crop up to offer a little bit of comedy myself, then I shall be happy to do that.
Picard’s lack of a family and is disinterest in children was there from the very first episode of the series. So what did it mean for you to be able to explore Picard as a father in such a robust way?
I think that the relationship between Dr. Crusher and Picard was what mattered most in this. I read several accounts of parents who only learned that they were parents when the child was quite adult. What it produced in and Jean-Luc was fury with — I nearly said Gates — with Dr. Crusher, because she had not told him. He had not pursued family life as an essential part of his own life; nevertheless, when the thing happened, he was cut out of it. He was isolated. I think that was the toughest thing for him to swallow, that there had been 20-odd years in the life of his only son, and he had not known about it at all. Those 20 years were the years in which he had wandered through being promoted to an admiral, the desk job he had, retiring, becoming a lecturer and a winemaker — all of these things became irrelevant as he dealt with the critical situation that was building up around the people he cared about so deeply.
Why do you think Crusher’s relationship with Picard wasn’t a part of the “TNG” movies?
(Long pause) It’s hard to know. I think they wanted to keep question marks always hovering around Jean-Luc. Is he going to fall in love? Is he going to meet someone who he wants to marry? Will he have children? What will happen to his career? We didn’t know.
We’d had one idea for ending “Picard,” which I think now would have been a mistake. But it would have ended the show with a huge question mark. I liked that in terms of how it could have sent our viewers minds racing and questioning and puzzling about what was this question mark exactly and what did it mean? We didn’t do it.
What was the thing?
I can’t talk about it. I said I wouldn’t talk about it, because it was a complicated situation. I went with what the producers wanted. I was not comfortable with it, but watching the final episode the other night, I realized that what they had persuaded me we should do was absolutely the best thing that could have happened.
What was it like to watch the finale?
It made me so emotional watching the last two episodes. Not because we were saying goodbye. But because of the narrative itself, what was happening to these people, who they are — I mean, both the characters and the actors. I love them all. They are a very, very critical part of my life. And that’s the reason why we all continue to socialize and meet and have meals and drinks and laughter. Always laughter.
There’s a moment in the finale where it looked like Picard might actually die. Was that ever on the table?
Yes, but not for long. The mere fact that his name was the title of the series, we had to stay with it. But yeah, it was touch and go at times, wasn’t it? (Laughs) No, they would have had to work a lot harder to kill me off before the end of the show. I would have come back and haunted them all if that would’ve happened.
I loved Picard’s toast at Guinan’s bar at the end, when he quotes Brutus’ speech from “Julius Caesar.” How did that come about?
I can’t recall whose actual idea it was, that we should return to Picard and Shakespeare at the very end. But I had been looking at quite a lot of Shakespeare because it’s been, along with “Star Trek,” the most important creative force in my life, and I’d had some ideas about another Shakespeare involvement down the road. I had been remembering my most recent experiences, particularly, and it was then that “there is a tide in the affairs of men” suddenly hit me as being very pertinent to what we were shooting.
It felt like that was as much Patrick talking to his castmates as it was Picard talking to his crew mates.
Both. Yes. It had become that increasingly. All the way through “Picard,” it had that quality about it. We were communicating again, in our fictional world, and enjoying it immensely. Being cast back in 1987 was was the most significant thing that ever happened to me, professionally anyway, because it changed everything. Having the opportunity to experience something like this, and then to repeat it, has been beautiful. I want to get together again with them as soon as possible.
Finally, that concluding shot of you all playing poker through the credits — was that a real game?
Yeah, that was a real game.
So who won?
I think I won. I mean, we were being so relaxed about it. And but it was real round of cards.
This interview has been edited and condensed.