What’s a classy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author like Micahel Chabon doing in the Star Trek toybox?
Chabon burst onto the literary scene with his debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in 1988, which made him a best-selling author and–in an even more extraordinary twist for an author–a celebrity. He followed up with other hit novels like Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, the latter of which won him the coveted Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Chabon earned note for the inclusion of queer themes in his work, at times based on his own sexual fluidity.
Now Chabon has boldly gone into Hollywood, taking over the much-anticipated Star Trek series, Picard. The show sees Sir Patrick Stewart return to the iconic role of Jean-Luc Picard, a retired Starfleet admiral struggling with terminal illness and working to relocate alien refugees after the destruction of the planet Romulus. When a mysterious woman appears claiming to be the daughter of his long-dead officer, the android Data (played again by Brent Spiner), Picard embarks on a journey to find a scientist who may have at last perfected biological androids. Along the way, he assembles a new crew of misfits, crosses paths with old friends, and joins forces with a group of former Borg led by Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco) and another former Starfleet officer turned vigilante, Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan).
After months of trying, Queerty finally got our man. We managed to snag some time to chat with Chabon about the show, his unapologetic love of science fiction, and how he introduced new queer characters to the Trek universe, as well as outed a fan favorite. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, CBS All Access will make the entire season of Picard available for free until April 23 at Stewart’s behest. Use the code GIFT when prompted.
Red Alert! This interview will contain spoilers for Season 1 of Picard.
How did a guy with a Pulitzer end up on Star Trek?
I dunno. There are so many fiction writers in the past decade who have found a place in television. It’s far from unusual. What makes this most surprising to me is that it’s not something I thought I would ever end up doing. I didn’t seek it out. I got invited by Alex Kurtzman & Akiva Goldsman to work on a new Star Trek show to follow Star Trek: Discovery. It was unclear what the show would be. They said maybe we could lure Patrick Stewart back to do a Picard show.
A once lofty goal.
I said I would love to. I just wanted to help make a Star Trek show so I came on as a writer and executive producer. By accident, I fell into the showrunner job. It seemed unlikely to me less because I was a novelist than I never thought I would ever be showrunning.
Let the record show too that you’re someone whom Hollywood has let down in the past. You’ve also turned down some very high profile projects, in addition to adaptations of your own work. Wonder Boys, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, which I hear is finally happening as a series.
You were invited to work on X-Men. You were invited to work on Spider-Man. And you turned those down…
Oh no. Not true.
Then please, let’s correct the story.
I invited myself onto X-Men. I pitched some ideas to Fox. They politely listened and declined. I didn’t turn anyone down, I was turned down. With Spider-Man, I was invited by Sam Raimi himself. He called me and offered me the chance to write a script, which I did. I wrote a draft of what became Spider-Man 2. I worked on John Carter too. There are projects I’ve said no to, but I couldn’t even tell you what they are. I’ve been screenwriting in one form or another since 1995.
Most writers have to find ways to support themselves outside fiction writing. For many, that involves teaching. I was lucky enough to get into screenwriting. And I’ve been able to do that even though most of what I’ve written doesn’t make it to the screen at all.
That’s unfortunate, but not unusual in Hollywood. You’re unabashed with your passion and love for all things geeky. Sci-fi, comics, and so I have to ask you about an elephant in the room when it comes to contemporary Trek. It’s been plaguing me since Discovery. How much does a show like Battlestar Galactica influence you? Obviously, that’s a very influential show, a sort of anti-Trek. I’m wondering how it becomes something to emulate or shy away from.
I don’t think it qualifies as an elephant in the room.
I’m not even sure it’s some kind of mouse in the room.
I’m a big fan of Battlestar Galactica. I watched it all in its first run. It did some amazing things I’d never seen before. To me, it was definitely a milestone of sci-fi television. No question.
But the television show we thought about the most in making Picard was Star Trek.
The original series, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery…or the films. That was the material that was always in the background. We talked about individual episodes. We talked about characters from different series. We talked about canon. We talked about history and the timeline of Star Trek. Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5 or The Expanse, which is a show I love—they might have expanded your sense of what could be done on television. They are influential; I don’t mean to dismiss that. But I don’t think the words Battlestar Galactica ever came up.
Maybe once, when we were talking about androids who are totally human. Then maybe we were thinking about Cylons, so maybe the word got said once or twice. But it wasn’t like Battlestar Galactica invented that.
No. And in fairness, that’s borrowed from other sources too. Blade Runner, for example. And to be clear, I don’t mean that just in the sense of the Cylons. Battlestar radically altered the aesthetic of sci-fi television. It’s less people sitting in a room pushing buttons on a console, like we saw on Trek and more ships flying, essentially because special effects had advanced. And latter-day Trek is much closer to Battlestar in that regard.
Well then you’re talking about a process of which Battlestar Galactica itself was simply kind of a byproduct. The VFX technology buys what you seen on screen, and that feels like a timeline of progress. When we were breaking the story, we don’t really talk about how that would look, or how we’d create something, or how it would look on screen. We’d just assume whatever we wanted there to be, [VFX supervisor Jason Michael] Zimmerman and his team would make it work.
There is a lot of Star Trek knowledge in the room, but also sci-fi knowledge more generally. Older sci-fi TV shows, recent sci-fi, literary sci-fi going back many decades—everything. When you talk about androids, you’re talking about Asimov and I, Robot. You’re talking about dozens of classic sci-fi novels.
One of the big themes in this season is the death of child. This came up when I chatted with Jonathan Del Arco a few weeks ago.
Picard loses Data and Hugh. Troi and Riker have lost a child. Data loses Daj [his clone daughter]. Seven loses Icheb [her adopted son]. Raffi is estranged from her child. Where does that come from? What’s the comment?
Those are all aspects of a greater theme, which is the theme of loss. What you cited are all aspects of loss. I think it just immediately becomes part of your story when your protagonist is 94 years old, like Picard. As soon as you tell as story about someone that old, it becomes about loss. It’s inevitable. As you get older, your experience of life increasingly becomes about loss. You reach a certain age—I’m 56 and can already feel this happening to me—the world I grew up in, that I got to know, is gone. It takes you a while to realize that. It takes a new generation coming along and you find yourself having to annotate your conversations so you can explain what you’re talking about. That’s an aspect of loss that is inevitable and happens to all humanity. That was built into the DNA of the story we were telling about this character, so it kept emerging both consciously and unconsciously.
The other element that excited me, and I think would excite our readers, is sexual fluidity.
Sexual fluidity is also a recurrent…not theme, but an element. There are hints that both Seven and Raffi are bisexual.
As someone open about his own fluidity in the past, was that an element you made a conscious effort to confront? In particular, though we finally have a gay couple on Discovery, there is this long and curious history of queer erasure on Star Trek.
Oh, I know. Certainly. You know, when we talked about our characters and their sexualities I think the assumption was that if we’re talking about the Star Trek vision of the future, which is rooted in diversity and tolerance and openness and freedom, inevitably that would lead to total freedom to be who you are. One of the things I see looking around at people who are in their teens and 20s, is people exploring their identities and trying to figure out who they are in terms of their gender and sexual identity.
I talk about the world I came from doesn’t exist anymore. It’s obvious that so many of the categories that were available when I was young just feel so antiquated and limited. Basically you were straight, gay or bi, and there was all this argument about whether there was even such a thing as being bi. That people who were bi were just afraid to be gay. That was it.
It’s not like that at all now. Letters keep getting added to the LGBTQ. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to arrive at a time where it doesn’t even come up anymore and you don’t need to label yourself as anything at all. With a character like Raffi, to the extend we imagined her history in a fair amount of detail, her history included all kinds of sexual partners. There’s a father of her child, but that was far from her only sexual or life partner. She’s had relationships with all kind of people. If it was ever to come up, it was always going to be organic.
Same thing with Seven of Nine, having to catch up after such along absence from the human race. If you think about that, it almost seems unnatural that she wouldn’t’ have had partners of other genders. It seems clear she would have. So even if we didn’t see that on Voyager, years have passed. In that time, she’s continued to explore the spectrum of human relationships in a broader way. So in our show, there are echos and implications of that.
In writing a scene, to the fairly limited extent that the sexual histories of our characters are a topic, there are hints. While that feels totally natural, I still don’t think that’s sufficient.
It is so important that Star Trek presents a vision of a future that truly does live up to that edict of a more perfect future. Representation is important, and sometimes representation has to be a little bit more in your face or on the nose. While implication is defensible on a story basis, it’s not sufficient in a larger basis of what’s good. Star Trek having this questionable history of trying to do the “right thing…”
What do you mean by that?
Well, Star Trek having the first interracial kiss. Having Uhura on the bridge was incredibly influential. We hear that from people like Mae Jameson and Whoopi Goldberg how incredibly important that was. And the interracial kiss, while incredibly important, we also have to remember in the context of the episode was compelled.
Yes, it was manipulated.
Kirk wasn’t dating Uhura. They didn’t have a relationship. Star Trek didn’t present a future of interracial romance. And that’s not to diminish it, but sometimes it’s important to try a little harder. I think we could have tried a little harder than we did. Stamets and Culber on Discovery, that’s important because it is overt. It’s not an implication.
That’s so important, I think we could have done a better job recognizing that.
Well, I won’t criticize you for it. I didn’t feel offended by the subtlety. In a sense, you’re also confronting a question I always have watching Star Trek. If you can mate with an alien species, is there any notion of gender or sexual orientation anymore?
What does that mean for our identity?
And that would be something to explore and dig into in a way. Raffi’s son has an Asian last name, and Raffi is mixed race. Presumably tens of millions of people on Earth presumably are in that future. Her son is married to a Romulan. So it does seem like there’s a commonplace quality to people’s relationships outside the boundaries of what have been considered mainstream [in our reality]. That’s the principle we were following.
But when I read my words on the page, I felt like I was missing something.
I felt like there was a point that I hadn’t given it due consideration because of privilege. Representation is important to me as a principle that I support, but not as one of life and death. Because of that I need to make more of an effort to make it as if it were life and death to me.
That speaks well of you.
For example, we should have had Raffi, when she calls up her old friend at Starfleet for diplomatic credentials, I wrote that scene as if Raffi and her friend had been lovers. That’s what they were in my mind, which is why Raffi can take advantage of their relationship. There’s a kind of flirtatiousness there. I explained that when I talked to Michelle about the scene. So it was built into the scene that this was an old flame of Raffi. That’s why it’s so painful when she says “Don’t ever call me again.” But why not just have Raffi say she’s going to call an old girlfriend?
That would have been great.
Had I been more mindful, that’s what I would have done—made it explicit. So we weren’t trying to avoid it, but I think it was also a fair consideration like you’re talking about. If it is widespread, people wouldn’t talk about it [explicitly]. But we’re not making a show for the 24th century. We’re making a show for now.
That’s incredible, and I have to say, a very unexpected answer. If you want to be more overt in Season 2, I and many others will be there for it.
It’s just about getting it. Sometimes it takes longer than it should. I’ve had the experience out in the world and in my own house of having people call my attention to built-in assumptions or tone-deafness in the way I’m thinking. It just strikes me reading my words. I’m like, oh…
Well and that’s true of every writer to some extent. Our words haunt us; we always would change things or do things differently.
I have to ask you about fan service, which is a hotly debated idea in the biz right now. Picard is obviously written by people that know and love Star Trek.
That’s more than I can even say for some of the Trek movies. There’s so much conversation about toxic fandom right now, and pandering to fans. Marvel, Star Wars, Bond, they’ve all been accused of pandering, as have the JJ Abrams Trek films. That is to say they try to mask their own shortcomings by validating an audience, making viewers feel special or smart, rather than tell an engaging story.
You don’t do that here. There’s a lot of what could be considered fan service in Picard, but it’s not obvious. It doesn’t feel like pandering, it feels like it’s just part of the texture of the universe. Did you make a concentrated effort to please fans? Or do these details and nods come from focusing on a writing a character and universe true to itself?
Well, that’s a big question. First of all, fan service as a term is pretty slippery. I think it means different things to different people.
Some people, if you made a list of 20 different allusions that we have over the course of the season, it would be hard for people to come to an agreement about which ones are fan service, and which ones legitimate storytelling allusions. Is it fan service if a Romulan gets cut and has green blood?
I would say no. That’s following established rules of the universe.
Exactly. So what is fan service? I think people are confused by the term. There’s no real agreement on what it means. The idea that you could try to please fans, especially Star Trek fans is so misguided and hopeless. Trek fans are so diverse. You’re talking about a huge number of people, and people who historically disagree. Disagreeing about Star Trek is a deep part of Star Trek fandom.
That is true.
Some Star Trek fans think the original series is sh*t, but they love Deep Space Nine. Or they love Next Generation. There are those arguments, then there are fans that don’t like comic episodes. They prefer episodes that are dramatic. Or whatever. Fandom is so diverse; it’s not a monolithic thing.
Anything you do on any Star Trek show for any reason is going to piss off some people and please other people and have a middle group of people who are neutral. We were all Star Trek fans. Some of us, like Kirsten Beyer, is a deep Voyager fan. Akiva & I grew up with the original series. I love TNG. I watched it religiously. Over the years I checked in and out of Deep Space Nine, but have come to really admire it. So we brought a diversity of preference, but we had a common sense of what we think is cool about Star Trek so we tried to please ourselves. We thought if we could please ourselves as fans, we could please others and displease others. You can’t worry about fans; there are too many of them.
Well, that’s quicksand too. If you go in trying to service fans, you get Rise of Skywalker, a movie that just goes all over the place and doesn’t have a coherent tone or narrative or vision.
We feel like we know how to tell stories. We knew our characters. We knew Picard. We had a chance to progress the character into his future and to progress Seven of Nine into her future, and all these other characters as well. We knew the kind of story we wanted to tell, and tried to tell that story. It’s Star Trek as defined by us. Then people divide up—some like it, others don’t.
Awesome. Now, I also have to add, on behalf of Jonathan Del Arco and his hundreds of fans that have messaged me on Twitter, please bring back Hugh Borg.
Jonathan’s last words to me were “Go save Hugh.” So I’m conveying the message.
It’s Star Trek so you never know.
Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, CBS All Access have made the entire season of Picard available for free until April 23.Use the code “GIFT.”