LOS ANGELES — In a 1987 review of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” a New York Times TV critic wrote of the premiere, “On this initial voyage, the Enterprise and its new crew simply fail to take flight.”
This was a common sentiment through the show’s early days, one shared by many fans, critics and even some of those involved in the series. As the first version of “Star Trek” to not involve the beloved Kirk, Spock and McCoy from the original series and multiple films, “The Next Generation” had to overcome plenty of distrust and resentment before finding its footing.
Decades later, after a popular seven-season run and several movies, it’s hard to believe anyone ever doubted “The Next Generation.” Go to any convention panel featuring members of the cast, and fans will line up to say that Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) inspired them to become psychologists, or that Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) did the same for doctors. Or that Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) influenced a generation of engineers.
For years, such events were the only way to see the stoic and thoughtful Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Co. gathered together. But now much of the original “Next Generation” cast has been reunited in the new season of “Star Trek: Picard,” which premieres Thursday on Paramount+. While there is plenty of fan service to go around, the story lines offer a fresh take on familiar faces who have taken drastically different paths.
If not exactly a “Next Generation” revival, the story could function as another, perhaps better, send-off for some of the most beloved characters in the “Star Trek” universe, who were last all together onscreen two decades ago in the movie “Star Trek: Nemesis.” Panned by critics, fans and even some of the actors, the film seemed like the end of the road for the cast.
But the universe where their ship had once boldly gone had more in store.
When the core cast got together for an interview last week, the gathering had the atmosphere of a family reunion. Stewart broke into song with Jonathan Frakes, who plays Picard’s longtime No. 1, William Riker, while Michael Dorn (who plays the honorable Klingon Worf) cackled nearby. In the conversation that followed, they, along with Burton, McFadden and Brent Spiner (the android Data), talked about what it was like to revisit their most famous characters and work with one another again. (Sirtis was unavailable; Spiner joined by video.)
I was fascinated to learn that Jean-Luc Picard was originally based loosely on Horatio Hornblower, the fictional Royal Navy officer protagonist of the C.S. Forester novels. Patrick, you’ve obviously made the character your own since. What did you draw on for the Admiral Picard we see in the current series?
PATRICK STEWART Well, a lot of it is based on disappointment, frustration. I was promoted, which meant a bit of farewell. A goodbye. But the admiral job turned out to be an office trip, basically. It was not what he had known all his life, which was being on a ship. I’ve heard this from Navy people, that they have the same thing.
So he had gone back to France and was running his vineyard and then he encounters this profoundly troubled young woman and feels that he needs to do something. That’s where the engagement begins, and it is also the last time that, as an actor, I ran up a flight of stairs. You’ll never see me do that again.
I saw an interview where you said that sometimes you don’t know where Picard ends and Patrick Stewart begins. Do the rest of you feel that way about your characters?
MICHAEL DORN Not me.
JONATHAN FRAKES What about your new Worf?
DORN What about him?
FRAKES He’s a little more like Michael.
DORN Did I say no? I meant yes.
LEVAR BURTON I’ve tried to bring as much LeVar into Geordi as has made sense. I won’t say that there’s an absolute melding of the two, but there’s a little Geordi in me now, absolutely.
BRENT SPINER I’ve said this before, and it may be redundant, but I think there’s a little Data in every man. But since I Data, there’s more of it in me.
Who here needed the most convincing to reprise his or her character?
SPINER Dorn, I think. Right?
DORN Everything was fine except the makeup. That was the issue that I had: making sure the makeup was not three hours as it was before.
Was it better?
DORN Much better. Actually, the makeup was less than an hour.
FRAKES Never looked better, I’ve got to say. The beard was beautiful.
How challenging was it to play evolved versions of your characters?
FRAKES I thought Terry [the showrunner, Terry Matalas] wrote Riker better than he had ever been written.
FRAKES He had Patrick and me to lunch, and he said, “What I’d like to do is write conflict for you two guys who never really had any conflict.” To which we both said: “That’s great.” Roddenberry [Gene Roddenberry, the “Star Trek” creator] wanted our ship to exist in a bubble in which the family lived without conflict, which is unrealistic and uninteresting in many ways and is undramatic. So for Picard and Riker to be at loggerheads was great for us. To look at Patrick’s eyes and the characters disagree — it was so much different than bringing him reports. Our relationship was so gentle, and here we really had big issues, and that made the drama better. It made the story better.
Brent, there’s a running joke among fans about how every time there’s a new “Star Trek” story, there’s a new character for you to play. [Data has multiple clones and human quasi-ancestors.] Is there a part of you that wishes your original version of Data, who died in “Nemesis,” could be part of this rendition?
SPINER I don’t think so, because then I couldn’t have played those other things. You know, I was perfectly happy with the ending of “Nemesis,” even though I know that a lot of fans weren’t. And then I feel that was sort of redeemed, in a way, for the fans in the first season of “Picard.” I would hate to have missed both those moments.
So no, I’m perfectly happy with the way it’s gone. I can’t say much more. I haven’t really seen much of the show — they’ve kept it away from me because they know I’ll blow it.
How did the rest of you feel about where the “Next Generation” franchise was left after “Nemesis”?
BURTON I always felt it was a missed opportunity to create a story and play a story line that had a fitting and proper conclusion to it. None of us knew that was going to be our last outing. So there was always, at least for me, a sense of a missed opportunity, something unfulfilled.
FRAKES Which is what Season 3 of “Picard” has been, which we didn’t dare hope for.
BURTON That ship had sailed. Two decades have passed. I had long since given up on any hope of a conclusion as satisfying as this one is.
GATES McFADDEN I had given up hope. I felt that my character in the movies was practically nonexistent; it was just bizarre. In this one, I felt more like the way I felt in “All Good Things” [the series finale]. “All Good Things” was a brilliant end. We all had great story lines, and in this, I think, the same thing is true. You feel the past — I felt my past connection with each of these characters, and that was something I didn’t feel in the films. Then I felt like I was just filling a role of, “Well, we have to have Crusher in here because she’s part of the cast.” There wasn’t really a sense that I had a through-line or real character intention. So this was unexpected, and I’m very happy with it. I think it’s an incredible season.
DORN I didn’t have any idea that [“Nemesis”] was going to be the last one. I thought that there was going to be another shot at some point. After 10 years go by, you go, “I don’t know if it’s going to come back.”
Patrick, did you think you were saying goodbye to Jean-Luc after “Nemesis?”
STEWART Oh, yes, but with disappointment.
[To Spiner:] Brent, there had been a lot of conversation about you and John Logan [who co-wrote “Nemesis”] writing a new film script, and that appealed to me enormously. But of course that was dumped along with everything else. And I felt frustration and disappointment about that because what we went out with wasn’t good, I don’t think.
SPINER There are things about “Nemesis” that didn’t work. I think we went into it with the feeling that it was probably going to be our last film, which was why we let Data’s demise happen. We thought a great dramatic conclusion to one of the characters would be a fitting end to the series.
I don’t want to put the blame on anybody for why “Nemesis” didn’t work, but I think we could have come back and done another film. As we’ve seen, Data did come back in the first season of “Picard,” so there were ways of doing that.
McFADDEN The franchise is very different now, though. I think that we’ve had so many wonderful captains of new shows, and it’s gone on enough to be able to make fun of itself in “Lower Decks.” In particular, if I can speak for the role of women in the franchise, it’s just night and day from when Marina and I began. There’s a huge difference to me, and that view is manifest in this season.
You all have talked in the past about how fun the “Next Generation” set was. What was the dynamic like in working together again?
DORN It was different.
In what ways?
DORN I mean, for me, we weren’t all together all the time.
FRAKES We didn’t have the opportunity to get back into that weird rhythm. [With the original series,] we did 26 episodes a year, but we played on the bridge together for days on end. That’s when we got a reputation as being so rambunctious and unmanageable that the director had to yell action to get us to shut up.
McFADDEN There were times where we were all together as well.
SPINER For me, it was very similar to the way it used to be, except much slower.
What do you mean by that?
SPINER We’re old.
What is it about these characters that still resonates decades later?
McFADDEN People need role models; I don’t think I understood that when I first started doing the show. By doing the conventions, I have been introduced — we all have — to people whose lives have been changed by watching the show, or maybe that was the only thing on in the hospital room. And it is a show that is intelligent and has scientific basis to it but also has great humanity.
I think this season of “Picard,” our characters are the most human they’ve ever been, actually. We are expressing things in ways that we weren’t quite expressing them in any other show. The fans have taught me a lot and brought me to understanding how important it is to have a show that talks about a positive future, a future where people can collaborate, that’s inclusive.
SPINER I think it also has to do with our affection for each other as a family. It’s the connection we have with each other that they appreciate. They can then symbiotically be a part of the familial situation that we have onscreen and, frankly, offscreen as well.