Star Trek: Picard and the upcoming Strange New Worlds represent two very different sides of the Trek franchise coin. The first is a heavily serialized meditation on the adventures of an aging Jean-Luc (Patrick Stewart), and the latter is an as-yet-unseen episodic throwback to The Original Series. One thing they have in common: Akiva Goldsman as a co-showrunner.
The writer-producer (Fringe, A Beautiful Mind) is currently directing his first pilot for Strange New Worlds and is also right in the middle of production of Picard season two. Below, Goldsman discusses both shows, the expanding Trek franchise, the return of trickster god Q (John de Lancie) and gives an update on his adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter.
So you’ve started filming Strange New Worlds. How does it compare and contrast to the other Trek shows so far?
It’s unlike the other shows in that it’s really episodic. If you think back to The Original Series, it was a tonally more liberal — I don’t mean in terms of politics, but it could sort of be more fluid. Like sometimes Robert Bloch would write a horror episode. Or Harlan Ellison would have “City on the Edge of Forever,” which is hard sci-fi. Then there would be comedic episodes, like “Shore Leave” or “The Trouble With Tribbles.” So [co-showrunner] Henry Alonso Myers and myself are trying to serve that. We’ve all become very enamored, myself included, with serialized storytelling. And I’m talking to you from behind the stage where we’re shooting Picard, which is deeply serialized. But Strange New Worlds is very much adventure-of-the-week but with serialized character arcs.
You’re directing the pilot, which is always a major privilege and also a lot of pressure. How has that gone so far and what were you looking to bring to that?
It was super fun and I’ve finished almost all of it. There were certain scenes that we couldn’t shoot in Toronto because of quarantine — in terms of limits on the number of extras [in a scene] — that I’ll back and finish pretty soon, I hope. But there’s something extraordinary about a bunch of folks coming together to do a new thing; you’re surrounded by people who would be perfectly happy to be on the floor of a Star Trek convention, which is a little different than a typical show.
Were there any changes to the Enterprise set design and uniforms compared to what we saw when we were introduced to these characters in Discovery season two?
Yeah. It’s a fine line because obviously, we want to keep continuity with the storytelling and the style, but we also want Strange New Worlds to be a different show. It’s not Discovery. There are a few more reach-backs (to The Original Series) and the uniforms have been adjusted slightly, the sets are slightly different. Remember the Enterprise existed as a little piece of [the show Discovery], but now it’s its own object. When you close your eyes and think of the key sets and situations that you think of The Original Series, that’s what we’re looking to do.
What was the turning point moment when the producer or CBS began to seriously consider spinning off Captain Pike into his own show?
There are few things I will take credit for in the Star Trek universe, but this is actually one of them. When [executive producer] Alex Kurtzman called about [joining the Discovery team], I was wildly envious of any involvement in Star Trek because I love it so much — my very first Star Trek convention was in 1975. I had no idea what his show was about, so I went online and I started reading that it was clearly going to be about Captain Pike and Number One. So that’s what I thought I was going to join. Then I got there and it couldn’t have had less to do with Captain Pike and Number One. So I started agitating for them because the timelines overlapped with Discovery and the Enterprise was out there. When the Enterprise appeared at the end of season one, and once Anson [Mount] and Rebecca [Romijn] and Ethan [Peck] started living those characters in season two, it sort of became this wonderful inevitability.
Switching to Picard, what did you guys learn from the first season in terms of pulling off the show that you’re bringing into season two?
Figure out the end earlier. If you’re going to do a serialized show, you have the whole story before you start shooting. It’s more like a movie in that way — you better know the end of your third act before you start filming your first scene.
It felt like another bit of fan feedback from the first season of Picard and first couple seasons of Discovery was that they were overly complicated. Then Discovery season three seemed more directly focused on The Burn and was better received. Is that fair?
Certainly, there are different levels of complication over the seasons of Discovery — and I’m just a friend of the court at this point on Discovery. After season one, I started trying to excavate this Picard idea. But no, I think where our storytelling is complicated, if it is frustratingly so, it’s just our own fault for not doing it well enough. The great thing about plot complication and character excellence is they shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Even a really complicated plot should ultimately become invisible, that’s sort of the job of it. Chinatown being the example that we all endlessly lean on in our imaginations — [the plot of Chinatown is] really complex and complicated, yet at the end of the day you just remember it’s about water. There’s this elegant disappearing act so the characters can shine. … Early on we made the choice to be agnostic when it came to the audience’s knowledge of Trek. We want to welcome somebody who knows Trek and make it even better because of the things we have, but we don’t want to alienate those who don’t. If you know Next Gen, Picard is more fun, but you don’t have to have watched Next Gen to watch Picard — but by the time we get to episode six, you better have watched episodes one through five or your eyes are going to cross. That’s not true with Strange New Worlds, where you can drop in, watch one, drop out, then watch another one later.
You’re bringing back Q, but Picard is a pretty different show, tonally, than Next Gen. So how do you evolve Q like you evolved Jean-Luc, so that he’s still the same character but not overly broad or cartoonish?
You asked the exact right question, and the answer is: “In the same way that we have tried to do with Picard himself.” [Co-showrunner] Terry Matalas and I don’t pretend that the interstitial years didn’t happen. No, obviously, chronological time is less relevant to Q. The time between shows is probably not even the blink of an eye in Q time — if you even have Q time. But we definitely chose to follow suit when it came to him. So as we tried to evolve the other characters, the same is true of Q. This is a show of a different time with actors of a different age. We’re now talking about the issues that come up in the last [stage] of your life. We wanted a Q that could play in that arena with Picard.
What was the inspiration for bringing him on board? What made him right, character-wise?
There are a lot of people who think of Q as a trickster god, right? And he is. But he’s also a profoundly significant relationship in Picard’s life. There’s a lot of discussion in Picard season two about the nature of connectedness. Q’s kind of a great lightning rod for that because in some ways he’s one of Picard’s deepest — not deep in the same way that Riker is or Beverly Crusher was — but in its own uniquely, profoundly deep relationship.
Will Picard’s new body impact his character in season two, or does it just not?
It doesn’t. We did fundamentally try to address that at the end of 10. He’s not Super Picard. We reset this congenital problem he lived with since Next Gen and gave him the opportunity for rebirth, but it’s nothing more than a record as he might have been where he not here.
The original, pre-COVID-19 plan was to shoot seasons two and three of Picard back-to-back. Is that still happening?
I would love to answer that, but I cannot.
And is the Section 31 spinoff still happening?
I don’t know. I believe so. Alex has a plan. You know, Picard wasn’t supposed to be a series. It was just a one-off scene in a Short Trek. He wasn’t even going to be played by Patrick Stewart. They were going to have a young Picard at the end of a short we were making up. Then Alex was like, “What if it was Patrick Stewart? … What if it wasn’t one scene?” Alex has a plan, and it’s pretty cool.
The question of “How much is too much?” is something everybody is grappling with in the streaming era. Does it feel like the Trek output has hit its natural maximum? Does CBS want more?
I can’t speak for CBS. Look, we all do the same thing, which is to look at the example that really works — like, you cannot have enough Marvel shows. I’m waiting for Falcon and the Winter Soldier tomorrow, and I watched the Loki trailer 19,000 times. So with that as the example, you can never have enough Star Trek shows. — but we’ve all seen the other side where it doesn’t work. Star Trek has that heart-space for some people, especially now, after the world was revealed for being worse than we thought it was, I’m a big believer in hard-won happy endings. It doesn’t mean it’s not hard getting there, but I’m just going to choose to believe that there can be good outcomes.
Speaking of expanding franchises, in non-Trek news, you were involved in those hugely ambitious Dark Tower plans that for a while involved both movies and TV shows. What happened there, and is any of it still alive?
I have a lot of regret about the parts of that that didn’t work out. Our best version of that existed well before television-movie crossovers and streaming were a thing. I have a lot of affection for the books that didn’t end up onscreen [in the 2017 movie The Dark Tower]. And Ron Howard had this idea of what could be done across platforms — he didn’t touch the movie, but sometimes things slip away. There are things about that [film] I still admire, and Idris Elba [played a] really wonderful Roland. I think there were too many different points of view — mine included — when it came to figuring out how to tell a cogent story onscreen, and we could have done better.
In other King news, it looks like your version of a Firestarter movie is coming together and casting. What can fans of the book and original film expect in terms of updating that story
Firestarter is one of the last great, either unmade or un-remade, Stephen King novels that have become classics. There are things I will never forget from the original movie. But it diverged from the book significantly. So Scott Teems — who is a really wonderful writer — wrote this terrific script which is much closer to the novel in both incident and tone. We start shooting, I want to say, in 12 weeks. Firestarter was always some of Stephen’s most intimate and affective horror, and I think pyrokinesis is a really fascinating idea when it comes to the expression of hidden feelings.
Interview edited for length and clarity.