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The Poppies of Terra #24 - A Tale of Three Picards

By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

2024-02-28 09:00:36

In the just-published Star Trek: Picard: The Art and Making of the Series, visual effects editor and author Joe Fordham (Star Trek: First Contact: The Making of the Classic Film, Planet of the Apes: The Evolution of the Legend, with Jeff Bond) provides a swift pictorial history of the production and design of the show’s three distinctive seasons. Roughly a third of the book is dedicated to the first season, a bit less than a third to the second–which seems fitting, given that the second season itself felt padded, and large chunks of it took place in the year 2024–and the difference is made up by longer coverage of the far more satisfying and redemptive final outing. Chapters typically range from two to six pages, with a few dedicated spotlight features that highlight, say, Jeff Russo’s scoring for the first two seasons, or pay tribute to Annie Wersching, who played the alternate-timeline Borg Queen. Among those on record are Alex Kurtzman, Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsman, Todd Cherniawsky, Jason Zimmerman, Brian Tatosky, Terry Matalas, and a dozen or so others. Besides the principals of each season’s cast, who are generally given voice, it would have been nice to hear the perspective of folks like Todd Stashwick (Liam Shaw) and the actual writers of key screenplays. But what we have paints enough of a picture to capture each season’s unique flavor and to get a sense of how things were run behind the scenes. 

From the very beginning, it’s clear that the show was birthed in a power dynamic that disproportionately favored its star, and primary selling point, Patrick Stewart, over the show’s originators. Stewart was famously reluctant to return to the role of Jean-Luc Picard and was only willing to do so if certain storytelling conditions were satisfied. Alex Kurtzman and Michael Chabon essentially tailored the themes of the first season to address Stewart’s requirements. Stewart was preoccupied with the notion of fascism–he’s described as bringing Madeleine Albright’s book on the subject to a meeting–and, enthused by his dark turn in Logan, wanted a postmodern version of Picard at the show’s outset. The creative voices accommodated, and Stewart’s influence extended even to the show’s design aesthetic, informing, for example, Picard’s background artifacts in the chateau. A Federation that seems to be straying from its principles, a fear of synthetic lifeforms, a disheartened and alienated old man: one might be forgiven for thinking that these don’t sound much like the Star Trek of the past. The first section of this book, including Michael Chabon’s admission of a “very conscious sense of Lovecraftian horror” in his development of Romulan culture, makes clear that this was thoroughly by design. Some nice tidbits include how the Sunstone Winery in Santa Ynez was used for the chateau exteriors, or, for instance, how a skeletal gun design stemmed from a J. J. Abrams Star Trek movie, but I do wish there was more detail on certain topics, like the items from Picard's past in Starfleet Archives (p. 27).

Moving on to the second season, an interesting observation on page 88 relates to the effects that the Paramount and CBS merger had on what could be used in-story. There are a number of quotes by creators that I think capture what some viewers construed as narrative miscalculations, ranging from small details to broader character development issues. On p. 35, for example, the famous Vasquez Rocks location is described by Hanelle Culpepper as being “a fun Easter egg for the audience”–I experienced it as more of a distraction, and I think the location is famous enough to not be much of an Easter egg but more of an Easter boulder. Composer Jeff Russo didn’t seem to expect that folks would notice his use of Fred Steiner’s Romulan theme in season one, but it’s a pretty distinctive musical number for fans of the show. Kurztman talks about Picard being “still haunted by what remains of the Borg inside him”; Stewart himself “understood” that Picard “had never dealt with that trauma”; later on Goldsman declares that “Picard has childhood issues,” which explains the impetus for season two; and so on. On the production side, we learn, when Dave Blass talks about the menacing Borg ship at the start of season two (p. 82), that he imagined it had assimilated the Doomsday Machine–but there was no script on hand for the season finale at that stage, so he didn't know how the situation would resolve (the way it does makes the menace work at cross-purposes to the story, sadly retroactively undermining the logic of the sequence).

Terry Matalas’ attention to detail and clarity of direction is felt right from the start of season 3, indeed even going back to certain elements of season 2. Matalas, for example, wasn’t afraid to explicitly reference the first two feature films (p. 133), had a firm grasp on the central notion of the “passing of the torch from one generation to the next,” and relied on a number of veteran industry hands to recreate or evolve known visuals and elements, as for instance Dan Curry’s work on the kur’leth (p. 144), Stephen Barton bringing back the sound of the blaster beam–they even had the instrument’s original player, Craig Huxley, return to the fold!–and, most famously, the recreation of the Enterprise-D bridge, lovingly tended to by Mike Okuda, Liz Kloczkowski, and others. We learn that for the most important action sequences Matalas completed numerous storyboards–“more than in previous seasons”–and that he had precise ideas on how to make Vadic a memorable villain, a task in which he certainly succeeded. The specificity of his vision, and its considered continuity with The Next Generation and other Trek tales, manifested in every aspect of the show’s execution. Season 3 composer Stephen Barton talks about writing music “vivid in its coloration;” this strikes me as an apt summation of something that was lacking, in a broader dramatic storytelling sense, in the first two seasons. Those seasons had story colors, to be sure, but didn’t seem to know how to confidently combine them in evocative and affecting ways.

Fordham’s prose is polished and well-paced throughout, with a well-tempered mix of source quotes and descriptive passages. He is to be commended for penning one unified treatment of what at times almost feel like three separate series, which couldn't have been an easy task. Whatever your favorite moments of Star Trek: Picard are, you’ll likely find yourself wishing that those specifically were covered more extensively. Compared to other books of this nature, the “art” component does at times seem to outweigh the “making of” proposition, so if you’re looking for in-depth breakdowns of scenes or hefty recaps of pre-production briefs, you’ll likely be disappointed. The book’s twin conception is not necessarily a bad thing, however. The work of Neville Page, for example, and John Eaves, is showcased consistently, and their design permutations are often fun, even striking. Photo and sketch reproductions are high quality, as is the book’s paper finish. This is admittedly less of a reference book, or a completely candid making-of saga, and more of a pretty coffee-table tome, than some fans might have hoped for. But considering the changing identity of the show’s three seasons, which in essence give us a tripartite Picard–tripicardtite?–rather than one truly cohesive whole, and its numerous production challenges, I’d rather this archive be committed to posterity than none at all. It’s good to spend time with old friends. The Star Trek franchise, like the Klingons it portrays, seems to have a hard time admitting to knowledge of two words: defeat, and farewell. If this is truly the latter for The Next Generation cast, it’s good to see it ultimately triumph over the former.  

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published over fifty stories and one hundred essays, reviews, and interviews in professional markets. These include Analog, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy's Edge, Nature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus,, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Cyber World, Nox Pareidolia, Multiverses: An Anthology of Alternate Realities, and many others. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg was published in 2016. Alvaro’s debut novel, Equimedian, and his book of interviews, Being Michael Swanwick, are both forthcoming in 2023.

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