[This episode contains spoilers for Star Trek: Picard, season one, episode seven.]
"It felt very sad to write it."
"It" being Hugh's gut punch of a death scene in Star Trek: Picard's latest episode, "Nepenthe," co-written by showrunner Michael Chabon. He scripted the scene where the former Borg — that Picard once helped liberate from the collective almost 30 years ago — died a less-than-heroic death at the hands of the villainous Narissa and one of her throwing knives.
Chabon, a devout Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, is well aware of how important the character of Hugh is to both audiences and the franchise. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the Pulitzer prize-winning author said he was very mindful of the Trek franchise being hit-or-miss when it comes to RIP-ing characters as beloved as Hugh (see Tasha Yar and Jim Kirk). And while it was not the easiest of scenes to write, it was one of necessity.
"I wouldn't say this was always the plan for the character, but when we started fleshing out and shaping Hugh's arc, it felt like the best — most emotionally honest — way to go," Chabon explained.
"The storyline for the season, as it first emerged, didn't originally include the character of Hugh," he revealed. The original story outline also did not include another former Borg, Star Trek: Voyager's Icheb, who died in a previous episode, "Stardust City Rag." But featuring those two characters proved essential to Chabon and his writers.
"The initial germ of having Hugh involved," Chabon explained, "and that he would die came from the natural discussions of, what does it mean to have been Borg? So once we sort of committed to a big part of our season being about the lives of former Borg — Ex Bs, as we call them — and exploring how their lives are traumatized [from that experience], how they have or have not dealt with that trauma, and how they remain these objects of fear and hatred even though they were victimized by the Borg, to put Hugh in the center of that lead to what felt like a dramatic way to service the character's end."
That end is preceded by the implication that Hugh is primed to lead another Borg uprising or revolution on the Artifact, much like he did in part in the TNG season seven premiere, "Descent, Part II." Bookending his life that way, while not originally intentional, was something Chabon was aware of when scripting the scene — "to give the character a certain trajectory," as he put it. Chabon also feels this arc carries an extra resonance for fans who have been invested in Hugh's storyline ever since he was introduced in 1992's season five episode, "I, Borg."
Two more legacy TNG characters who were just as important to Chabon as Hugh were William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and his wife, Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). "Nepenthe" pairs them with their old captain for the first time since 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis, and Chabon was determined to do for them what he and his fellow writers did for the show's titular character: "We wanted to show how they are real people, who have had lives and experiences beyond just those they shared on the Enterprise. And like Picard, they have been changed and affected by the state the Federation and Starfleet find themselves in."
One of those changes — a significant one — comes late in the episode when Troi sternly (but effectively) calls out Picard for showing a lack of mindfulness and sensitivity during a delicate interaction with the character of Soji (Isa Briones), who is struggling with the recent revelation that her life has largely been a lie. That she isn't human; she's an android — a superior form of "synthetic" at a time when synths are banned by the Federation. While Troi has always had her captain's ear, we've never quite seen her react this way to her friend. And, according to Chabon, that was the point.
"When you're in the scene," Chabon said, "and knowing who [Riker and Troi] are, and who they have been, and trying to project them forward into a narrative that feels believable — and incorporate some of the themes of this show, like reckoning with the past, if you're a fan of the show, this interaction — it's necessary. It's not expected, but it's important to the character of Picard to have this moment."
Moreover, for Chabon, the brief conflict between Picard and his former ship's counselor feels about as human and real as Trek can get. Or has ever gotten.
"When someone calls you out on your shit like that? On the things you're dealing with and not acknowledging that you should acknowledge? To me, that's the definition of a friend," he said.
Another friend of Picard's mentioned heavily throughout the episode is that of the late Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner). While versions of the character — wearing both movie and TNG uniforms — have appeared to Picard in dreams, Chabon was tight-lipped about whether or not Jean-Luc will reunite with his friend (or a version of him) by the season's end.
But given how vital Data has been to the story's arc, it seems that Riker and Troi are not the last TNG reunion of sorts that the series has in store.
Find out when new episodes of Picard stream Thursdays on CBS All Access.