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Thanks to the third season of Star Trek: Picard, good things continue to happen in threes for the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew.
Season three of TNG famously course-corrected the then-struggling syndicated series creatively, when executive producer Rick Berman brought on the late Michael Piller as showrunner. He and his writing staff worked to level set the show and find a narrative tone that more firmly established TNG’s identity, leading to some of the series — and Trek’s — finest hours. Now, more than 30 years later, for the second time, another pivotal third season centered on the Next Gen crew achieves a similar narrative feat – thanks to showrunner Terry Matalas.
The former co-creator of SYFY’s 12 Monkeys and his team reached back into what Piller did with Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D, while also deepening the characters and their relationships in ways that fans have never seen before. And, in the process, pulled off one of the biggest creative turnarounds in recent TV history.
The first two seasons of the popular series — which centers on Sir Patrick Stewart’s now-retired iconic sci-fi hero, Jean-Luc Picard — proved to be a mixed and somewhat underwhelming affair for Trekkers. Picard didn’t so much “boldly go where no one has gone before” as he played space pirate-ish and spent a lot of time terrestrial-bound. Matalas, a lifelong Star Trek fan and former Star Trek: Voyager PA, was driven to make the third and what’s billed as the final season of Star Trek: Picard feel like one worthy of the title.
“It was important to me to give these characters and the fans an adventure that felt not only like Star Trek, but also like the best Next Gen movie we never got to see. That they deserved to have,” Matalas tells The Hollywood Reporter in an interview prior to the Feb. 16 season three premiere, “The Next Generation.”
In the action-packed episode, Picard is forced to “get the band back together” and reunite his former shipmates when one of them – his former lover, Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) — is attacked by a mysterious alien threat outside Federation space. Once Crusher sends Picard an ominous S.O.S., warning him that he can’t trust Starfleet, the retiree and his former first officer-turned-Captain, William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) set out to “borrow” the U.S.S. Titan-A for a rescue mission that instantly puts our heroes on their backfoot and up against a ticking clock to save the galaxy.
Matalas and his collaborators looked at the best of the Berman era of TNG, as well as that of the Star Trek feature films starring The Original Series crew, to give Picard’s final mission its biggest stakes yet.
And it always started with Dr. Crusher.
“I always had this idea to meet her in a way that felt totally unexpected,” Matalas explains. “You’d see [Beverly] sort of waking up, popping into frame, but not being in a traditional Starfleet uniform,” Matalas explains. “She would be on a kind of older, rundown ship — having to grab a phaser rifle and defend her property.”
It was also important to Matalas to show that she’s still a doctor, albeit more of a “Doctors Without Borders”-type. She’s out there on the edge of the Final Frontier, without Starfleet’s protection, determined to help those struggling to help themselves as her oath to “do no harm” is sorely tested. Also tested was Matalas’ budgetary limits when it came to bringing Crusher’s opening phaser rifle battle to life. Much like his counterparts on TNG, he and his VFX crew were very mindful of how much each weapons blast costs to render on screen.
“We still count phaser shots. The visual effects industry is overwhelmed right now. There’s just so much content between feature films and television, and the demand is exactly the same for them as far as quality,” says Matalas. “So we’re all overwhelmed in terms of time and money, so, yeah, you’re counting each beam.”
What Matalas also counted on was having to meet with each of the main TNG cast members and pitch his take to give their characters what their final big-screen voyage, 2002’s disappointing Star Trek: Nemesis, could not: A compelling, character-driven sendoff.
“Beverly was the least explored character in all of the feature films, especially in Nemesis,” Matalas says. “And certainly [the writers and I] knew what the big overarching story was going to be this season, and it begins with her. So she would be the very first person you see this season.”
But the first person Matalas spoke to was the show’s lead actor.
“I had to sit down with Patrick, at his dining room table, and take him through the story I had in my head for the season. And I was lucky that he was one hundred percent onboard,” says the showrunner. “And then, one by one, I met with everyone else and, once again, I was lucky enough to have them onboard to help shape this story together.”
Frakes was the first person he spoke to after Stewart, with the actor-director at the time already working on Picard season two. “First thing I said to him: ‘It’s a lot of Riker. Get ready.’ I think he thought I was joking. But once Frakes received the first few scripts for season three, he was like, ‘I don’t think I’m prepared for this.’” (As evidenced by Frakes’ performance as Riker in the first six episodes screened for journalists, he definitely was prepared.)
The most emotional story conference occurred between Matalas and LeVar Burton, who plays the once-blind, former chief engineer Geordi LaForge.
“I had this vision of seeing Geordi as a family man. It’s a story that will pay off for him towards the end of the season that I thought was emotional and satisfying,” says Maltas. “And when I got to explaining that part to him, tears were running down his face. And, seeing that, triggered me to do the same exact thing.”
Burton has spoken about his hurt that Geordi did not have a real love interest in TNG, making this development all the more meaningful for him.
The emotional real estate devoted to everyone from Picard to LaForge gives each member of the cast more dramatic scenes to play than they had during all seven seasons of TNG and the four movies combined. That meant that the creatives and the actors had to be in lockstep with developing the season’s storyline.
“It was important to me that the entire cast feel comfortable and onboard with where their characters were. And where they were taking them,” Matalas says. “I didn’t want any of them doing anything they did not want to do, or did not feel would be right to do, for their character. They’ve been living with their characters for over 35 years, they know their characters better than I ever will. And it was an incredibly satisfying, collaborative experience.”
Also satisfying was putting his own stamp on a classic Star Trek movie trope: Piloting a starship out of spacedock. In this case, the Titan-A, a Neo-Constitution class vessel (with design homages to Kirk’s Enterprise from the movies). Captained by Liam Shaw (Todd Stashwick), who bristles at Picard and Riker’s unique (and exhausting) brand of heroics, the Titan is taken out by Shaw’s first officer, Seven of Nine, in a sequence filled with visual and audio callbacks to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’s famous spacedock scenes.
“I think it was the first thing I said when I sat down to write it was: I cannot wait to take the ship out of Spacedock,” Matalas recalls, mindful of the fact that the TNG crew never had such a moment on the big screen. “I wanted to do it with that sense of wonder [from the original movies], that sense of nautical tradition. Of going out into the Final Frontier on a starship.”
To do so, composer Stephen Barton (12 Monkeys) helped reprise classic Trek melodies from Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner and blend them into his new score. Also key to pulling the sequence off was locking down the design of the new-but-familiar spacedock, which first made its appearance on screen in 1984’s Search for Spock.
“Those poor visual effects artists,” Matalas says with a laugh. “They went through many, many revisions because – it’s not an ILM model. It’s digital. And some considerable time has passed, so Spacedock can’t just look like it used to. But you want to see it in a new way as well, to use it in this 25th Century-set story and honor what came before, so it requires a lot of back and forth but, wow, they did an amazing job.”
Production Designer Dave Blass had his own back and forth with Matalas, as well, when it came to finalizing the design of the Shrike, a sinister alien craft commanded by the season’s main villain, Vedic (played by Amanda Plummer, daughter of the late Christopher Plummer, who played the Klingon baddie General Chang in Star Trek VI). For the Shrike’s epic reveal in the final moments of the premiere, the production was determined to find a design that gave the vessel a visual presence akin to that of the Klingon Bird-of-Prey in Search for Spock.
“It was really hard,” Matalas recalls. “Poor Dave Blass must have submitted no less than 600 Shrike designs. I think of Kirk’s Enterprise facing off against the Bird-of-Prey and that those two are perfect rival starships. And so I wanted something that felt kind of equal in size, but was something kind of scary and also something you kind of want on your shelf. Something you wanted to pick up and fly around, and it was important that the ship would have a signature sound that you could make when you picked it up [to play with], the things I would do when I was kid. We just wanted to make the ship feel iconic, have a distinguished design and presence. We finally got it to that place with this one.”
New episodes of Star Trek: Picard stream Thursdays on Paramount+.
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