Getting Back Into Picard's Head Wasn't A Problem For Patrick Stewart

Following the release of "Star Trek: Nemesis" in 2002, it appeared that "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was effectively at an end, and "Star Trek" in general was on a cultural wane. "Nemesis" notoriously didn't gross well, opening to a paltry $18 million, on a $60 million budget, eventually only earning about $67 million worldwide. This disappointment ran concurrently with the ending of "Star Trek: Voyager," and the disappointing ratings of "Star Trek: Enterprise," the first Trek program to run on its own since the debut of "Deep Space Nine" in 1993. While "Star Trek" would be rebooted by J.J. Abrams in 2009, Trekkies knew in their hearts that it wasn't the real thing. To quote Linus Van Pelt, would you give a starving dog a rubber bone?

When CBS All Access (now Paramount+) launched in 2017, Trekkies were assured that "real" Trek was back, and the newest show, "Star Trek: Discovery" launched to ... Well, reactions have been mixed. Paramount proceeded to put all their eggs in one basket, and as of this writing, six new Trek shows have debuted in the last five years. 

During this new marketplace flood, it seemed that all Trek was back on the table (especially after the CBS/Viacom split was repaired in 2019). It would be in 2020 that "Star Trek: Picard" would launch, bringing Patrick Stewart back to a role he hadn't played in 18 years. In a 2022 interview with the Guardian, Stewart, who recently turned 81, revealed that playing Picard — even after 18 years — was easier now than it had been in the past. Indeed, much of the character, Stewart found, came to inform who he was in real life. With the door open again, Stewart walked through, head held high.

It's just who I am now

Initially — as stated in the Guardian — Stewart didn't want to return to Picard. He had played the role for seven seasons of TV and in four feature films. He felt there was nothing left to explore. Indeed, Jean-Luc Picard was already a fully-grown adult by the time "Star Trek: The Next Generation" began; he was mature, intelligent, and in control. As a character, Picard was not made for a great deal of growth. He was an exemplar of steadfast professionalism. Unless a crisis was manufactured, there was little for Picard to take care of to become complete; he was already there. It was when Stewart heard that the new show was going to catch up with Picard in retirement — he wasn't in uniform, wasn't a starship captain — that he became intrigued. It seemed that an older Picard was very much where an Older Stewart was.

"Star Trek," however, even more than most long-running shows and series, is staunchly devoted to continuity. The Guardian asked Stewart if he did any deep-dive research to remind him of character details, or if he simply fell back on memories of Picard: 

"The latter. As the seven seasons of TNG went by, the distinction between Jean-Luc Picard and Patrick Stewart became thinner and thinner, until it was impossible for me to know where he left off and I began. So much of what I believed and felt went into that show. So coming back to the part, I felt that the impact of time on Jean-Luc would just be there in where I am now. And that's how it has felt."

Capt. Ian McKellan

The showrunners of "Picard" had to make it intriguing for Stewart regardless — Stewart serves as one of the many executive producers on the show — as another actor was not "second in line" to play the part. Picard was not only deeply woven into the fabric of Stewart, but the two were bonded in the eyes of the producers as well. While perhaps a younger actor might have played a younger Picard — Tom Hardy played a young Picard clone in "Nemesis, for instance — the show would lose all imprimatur if Stewart weren't in the role, tacitly approving of the show's existence. The Guardian asked Stewart about that, even suggesting a known actor to perhaps step in should Stewart have stepped out: Sir Ian McKellan.

"Oh, I would have watched that. What a clever idea. No. They were absolutely clear: if I passed on it, there would be no show. And I believed them and thought that was generous."

McKellan and Stewart starred together in several "X-Men" feature films, and played Vladimir and Estragon in a notable 2009 production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." While McKellan never appeared on "Star Trek," seeing the pair back together in a sci-fi setting may have intrigued Stewart ... as well as this author.

"Star Trek: Picard" has completed its second season, with its third set to debut on Paramount+ in 2023. The third season will see a reunion of TNG's main cast, including Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, LeVar Burton, Brent Spiner, and Jonathan Frakes. Stewart, while happy to have found an intriguing angle on an old role, has confirmed that the third season will be his last. A final hurrah for a notable captain.