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“It was fairly early on in the process.”
Star Trek: Picard showrunner Michael Chabon is upfront with The Hollywood Reporter about his and his fellow creatives’ decision to conclude the series’ freshman season with Picard (Patrick Stewart) on a mission that leads to his sacrifice and resurrection in “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2.” But killing the iconic Star Trek character, in his first return to television in nearly 30 years, was not the challenging part — finding the most emotionally and thematically satisfying way to do it was.
As if the challenge of putting one of science fiction’s most beloved heroes back in action wasn’t daunting enough, Chabon and executive producer Akiva Goldsman — who also directed the season one finale — decided to weave their story together using some narrative threads left over from 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, the last movie featuring the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast. That creative and box office misfire ended with Picard’s close friend, Data (Brent Spiner), sacrificing himself to save his crew. That movie denied Picard and Stewart a chance for that loss to truly resonate, and the season finale more than makes up for that with a six-minute scene that ranks among the best and most compelling Star Trek has ever done. Here, Chabon and Goldsman reveal to THR how they pulled it off.
“We probably talked about 25 different ways to end it”
In the finale, Picard and Data get to have one last chat — one final goodbye — when the former’s consciousness is uploaded to a quantum simulation (which Chabon calls the “Dataverse”). Here, what’s left of Data’s consciousness interacts with Picard’s, and Data’s former captain gets to unburden himself of his guilt and finally have a chance to do that which Nemesis denied him: Confess his love for his friend.
Traditionally, showrunners write their season finales, and Chabon — as a lifelong Star Trek fan — did not take the scripting of this scene lightly. Nor did he find the work particularly easy, despite the effortless feel the scene has. Chabon started the finale by first focusing on and scripting versions of this scene. Chabon and the writing staff knew this was where they wanted to go, they just didn’t know, at first, exactly how to get there.
“It was the plan from early on, but in the beginning, you start out — it’s sort of like a tree, but you’re going backwards down the tree,” Chabon explains. “As you make choices, you end up with fewer and fewer ones, and each choice leads to a fewer range of fewer possibilities. At some point, we probably talked about 25 different ways to end it. And then we were down to like eight different ways, and then six different ways. And then, landing on this way.”
The decision wasn’t made lightly. Especially when it came time to pitch it to executive producer and Star Trek veteran Alex Kurtzman.
“There was a moment where we had a conversation, Akiva, (co-creator and writer) Kirsten Beyer and I, and we went to talk to Alex Kurtzman. We had this realization that if we want to put our money where our mouth has been all season — if we’re saying that since synthetic lifeforms are real and legitimate and they have their sentence, and they have the right to life and existence, if we’re going to be putting Picard out there, where he’s going to stand up and be willing to sacrifice his own life to prove that point? Then he needs to prove it with his life.
Once Kurtzman agreed with their bold approach, which Chabon says turned Picard into the “living embodiment” of the season’s driving thematic principle, the rest of the finale’s story beats — especially Picard and Data’s farewell — snapped into place.
Along the way, however, there was one visually interesting element that proved, according to Chabon, “not the most production-friendly” to pull off: A fleet of space orchids.
“Yeah, that one was me,” Chabon says with a laugh. Introduced in the first half of the season finale, the Synths that call Coppelius their homeworld have a small armada of space-faring flowers (because Star Trek) at their disposal. The advanced androids use them at first to intercept Picard and his crew aboard their ship, the La Sirena, and then later send them to stall over 200 Romulan warbirds from turning Coppelius into dust.
“In the conception of those [orchid ships], we tried to set up the kind of lives the androids of Coppelius Station would be living, and the things they would be doing. We set them up early on with the character of Soji (Isa Briones). There were references to orchids [in early episodes] with her character, and setting up that her father was a botanist working with orchids,” Chabon says.
Originally, Chabon’s vision — inspired loosely by Heavy Metal artist Moebius — was for the ships to be larger, and that was scaled back “largely because of practical production considerations.”
Picard and Data’s reunion tour
“I remember the writers worked on that up to the evening before we shot it,” Stewart recalled in THR‘s post-mortem interview (read it here). The actor and producer “suggested one or two little tweaks” to scene involving his character’s fate, which he didn’t learn of until well into the production of season one.
As previous episodes were teeing up what the finale had in store, Stewart half-joked during shooting, “there was a moment where I thought: ‘Oh, lord, am I being killed off? What did I do wrong?'” Shooting the scene over the course of one long day, on a redress of the study set from the Chateau Picard vineyard, felt very right for Stewart, as it was “the highlight of the season” for him. Stewart credits Chabon, co-star Brent Spiner, and especially director Akiva Goldsman for making that possible — especially given the time crunch.
“It was a sprint,” Goldsman recalls a few days before the episode’s airing. This was one of those [shoots] where we were sort of running and gunning and it was honestly sort of a, you know, ‘don’t try this at home.'”
Before they could shoot the scene, Goldsman and his crew had to address some challenging production logistics concerning the filming of other scenes leading up to the episode’s emotional turning point.
“At the eleventh hour, we were not planning to have Coppelius Station be [in the episode],” Goldsman says. The production had actually built a set on a location they rented and paid for — “a giant parking lot, basically,” Goldsman recalls — but an intense heat wave altered that plan and sent the production to find other means at a location in Malibu.
Once on the other side of that, Goldsman and the production crew were able to turn their attention to Picard finally getting to interact with his long-lost friend, an event set up in the opening moments of Picard‘s premiere episode. For fans, this was a scene nearly 20 years in the making and would leave them reaching for at least several tissues. The director found himself not immune to its emotional effects, either — but not until after he completed the intense shoot.
“[Picard’s] death, the moment where he says goodbye to Data, those are the moments where I sort of went ‘Oh, wow. If I step back, I’m feeling my own emotion just in time to not forget to say cut,'” Goldsman recalls.
Making sure audiences knew Picard was dead, that his body had died, was important to Goldsman. Even though Picard was going to be resurrected in a new (if advanced-synthetic “golem” body), the director needed the beat to resonate with audiences.
“Akiva always talked about how the challenge in the making of it was to really understand the fact that Picard has died,” Chabon says. “When Picard asks, “am I dead?” And Data says ‘yes,’ that’s the truth. So, making sure to sell that was a really valuable insight that I got from Akiva, he sort of provided that note to me as I was writing. And so that really helped me.”
It also helped the actors get into the emotional place necessary to perform.
“It was a full on play between the two of them,” Goldsman explains. It took more than the usual make-up and costuming to bring Data back. “There are actually visual effects that are applied to make Brent appear to be the Data of TNG — or at least look his Nemesis age.”
The use of VFX did not get in the way of the drama the seasoned veterans had to convey. “Michael had been writing some version of this scene since the beginning of the season,” Goldsman says, “and when we shot it, we really had to get it in a run. We kept playing out and doing multiple takes running the whole scene.”
Goldsman dislikes “shooting in bits,” especially scenes as emotional as this one, and he found running the scene all the way through proved effective for the actors’ processes as well. “The actors enjoy it, too. The ability to just sort of play the scene rather than act parts of it. These actors, obviously they know each and these characters very well, and they don’t need a lot of help, quite frankly. We can talk a little bit before [shooting a take] about what to try this time or another, but, fundamentally, it’s just two great actors working,” Goldsman says. “It was really an extraordinary morning and I think sort of pretty moving for all of us.”
The scene serves as an emotional sequel to Star Trek: Nemesis, and it’s somewhat surprising — and inspiring — that the Picard writers decided to use this scene as means to reach back into Trek and Data’s past to right some of that sequel’s wrongs.
“That was intentional,” Goldsman says. “Star Trek: Nemesis both furthered and abrogated Data’s arc. He didn’t get the full closure, so Data’s arc was sort of continued by Nemesis, but also stopped prematurely. We spent all those years with the character wrestling with the nature of what it is to be human. And he needed to complete that journey. And we wanted the season to aid him in that. To also help give us a chance to bring Picard’s arc to a conclusion, at least when it comes to the Picard that we knew.”
Despite similarities, Chabon and Goldsman both insist that the ending of Picard and its titular character’s fate was not intended to be a mirror of Data’s in Nemesis. In the movie, Data — like his Captain — finds his consciousness downloaded into a new body, B-4.
As for the “Picard 2.0” that both the series and its fans inherit by the season’s end, Chabon and Goldsman declined to reveal too much about what’s specifically in store for Jean-Luc in his new body.
“But we definitely don’t want to pretend like these events never happened,” Chabon says. “So, whatever the implications are going to be for Picard having this new body, and essentially a new brain structure, too — although his mind and his consciousness are the same — all of that is going to be part of [the character’s] way of thinking going forward.”
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