'First, Last And Always, I Am A Fan': Michael Chabon Steers Latest 'Star Trek'

Jan 23, 2020
Originally published on January 23, 2020 6:16 pm

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon has been a devoted Star Trek fan since he was 10 years old — but when people ask whether it's a "dream come true" to be a showrunner and executive producer on Star Trek: Picard he says no.

"I say 'no' because I never would have had the ... chutzpah to dream that," Chabon says. "I would have been happy just shaking Patrick Stewart's hand and telling him how much I loved him on Star Trek. But to be able to actually write words that he will speak and act? It's incredible."

Chabon's Los Angeles office — filled with knickknacks and posters — is the lair of a serious Trekkie. There's a black velvet painting of a menacing lizard-man called a Gorn (Chabon can even name the classic Trek episode, "Arena," in which he appears.) An old-school, polyester Mr. Spock Halloween costume sits in a box on a nearby shelf. A bulletin board beside the door is decorated with photos of people dressed as Star Trek characters. You might think they're friends and family but turns out, they're strangers — Chabon bought the pictures on eBay.

"That's sort of my shrine to fandom," says Chabon, who makes little secret of his love for pop culture. "As soon as you enter into making Star Trek, you enter into a relationship with fans ... that's very different from your relationship to Star Trek."

Star Trek: Picard is the latest high-profile project to revive a venerated corner of the Trek universe — this time for the streaming TV service CBS All Access. Chabon says that for some fans, watching a new version of an old franchise they love can feel like a series of slaps in the face — even if they like the new story.

"It still reminds you that you don't own it, that it's owned by a big corporation, and that ultimately, you have no power over it whatsoever ... [which] can feed a sense of resentment or anger," he adds. "I think I just created that shrine there as a way of reminding myself that first, last and always, I am a fan. I want to stay a fan."

Chabon is known for unexpected career turns, and this latest project may be one of his greatest challenges yet. Patrick Stewart will return to play Jean-Luc Picard — a turn that "astonished" the longtime Star Trek actor.

"It was the one thing that I was convinced of; no more Star Trek, no more Jean-Luc Picard," Stewart told reporters after a news conference in Pasadena. He last played the character in 2002, after 15 years starring in TV shows and movies featuring characters from the syndicated series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Stewart says Picard, the former Federation Starship captain, had to be a changed character to interest him now. The actor got to sit in the writers' room to help develop ideas — though he admits he was a little intimidated by Chabon at first.

"I was, first of all, terrified of him, because novelists have always been kind of a menace to me," Stewart says, laughing. "I don't understand how it works, being a novelist. Michael has actually been very open, very generous in talking to me."

Chabon says Stewart pressed for something new — for the character, for the show, for the series. "In the first conversation that I ever had with Patrick Stewart, the main topic was: How are you going to do this in a way that is nothing I've ever done before? How do I get to play Picard in a way I've never gotten to play him before? And what kind of story are you going to tell that feels like a Star Trek story that hasn't ever been told before?"

The new story, outlined in the first three episodes made available in advance to critics, centers on Picard's efforts to help a mysterious woman who may have a connection to another beloved character from Next Generation, the android Data.

When he meets this woman, Picard is sidelined, living restlessly at his family's vineyard in France. Now 92, he has quit Starfleet and is disillusioned, wracked with guilt over how his service ended. This elderly Picard gets short of breath running up a flight of stairs and is facing his own mortality — a theme Chabon discovered unexpectedly while he worked on the show.

"As I started work on this first season of Picard, my dad was dying," says Chabon, 56, who eventually wrote an essay for The New Yorker about the experience caring for his father, Robert Chabon, while writing Trek stories.

"Of course, I was thinking a lot about, not just his life that was coming to an end, but my life and my eventual death," Chabon explains. "But I didn't ever think, 'I'm going to try and find a way to work this into Star Trek' at all. It was really not until the season was done; that's when I sat down and realized, wow ... I was working elements of what I was going through emotionally and intellectually into the storytelling."

Chabon's time writing for Trek started a few years ago, when Star Trek: Discovery executive producer Akiva Goldsman asked if Chabon would write an episode for the series Star Trek: Short Treks. Eventually, he joined the writing staff for Star Trek: Picard and, later, became its showrunner.

He has a growing list of TV credits: Chabon and his wife, fellow writer Ayelet Waldman, are among the co-creators of the Netflix miniseries Unbelievable. The couple will also write and serve as executive producers/showrunners on a Showtime series based on his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Chabon acknowledges some may think writing a Star Trek series isn't up to his literary chops. But he thinks back to his father who loved Thomas Mann novels and the soap opera General Hospital. Chabon says his dad taught him — by example — that any pop culture that moves you is valuable and valid.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Patrick Stewart is returning to one of his most famous roles, Jean-Luc Picard, in the new CBS All Access series "Star Trek: Picard." Some of his lines were written by novelist Michael Chabon. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has the story of how a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer became showrunner for one of the year's most anticipated television series.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Look at the knickknacks and posters filling Michael Chabon's Los Angeles office and it's obvious you stepped into the layer of a serious "Star Trek" fan. There's a black velvet painting of a lizard man called a Gorn and a bulletin board next to the door with photos of people dressed like "Star Trek" characters. I assumed they were friends and family - turns out they're pictures of strangers Chabon bought on eBay.

MICHAEL CHABON: And that's sort of my shrine to fandom because as soon as you enter into "Star Trek" - to making "Star Trek," you enter into a relationship with fans.

DEGGANS: Chabon says for some fans, seeing a new version of an old franchise they love can feel like a slap in the face, even if they like the new story.

CHABON: It still reminds you that you don't own it, that it's owned by a big corporation. Ultimately, you have no power over it whatsoever. I think I just created that shrine there as a way of just reminding myself that, you know, first, last and always, I am a fan.

DEGGANS: Chabon seems to like surprising others and himself in his writing choices, and his latest job serving as executive producer and showrunner for "Star Trek: Picard" may be one of his greatest challenges yet. One reason - star Patrick Stewart. Stewart thought he was done in 2002 after 15 years playing Federation Starship Captain Jean-Luc Picard in TV shows and movies featuring characters from "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK STEWART: It was the one thing I was convinced of - no more Star Trek, no more Jean-Luc Picard.

DEGGANS: That's Stewart speaking to reporters after a news conference in Pasadena. He says Picard had to be a changed character to interest him. He joins Chabon and the other producers in the show's writers room to develop new ideas, though the actor was initially a little intimidated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: I was, first of all, terrified of him because novelists have always been a kind of menace to me. I don't understand how it works, being a novelist. Michael has been, actually, very open and very generous about how he works and what that means to him.

DEGGANS: Chabon says Stewart pushed for something new.

CHABON: The main topic of conversation was, how do I get to play Picard in a way I've never gotten to play him before, and what kind of story are you going to tell that feels like a "Star Trek" story that hasn't ever been told before?

DEGGANS: In the new series, Picard investigates a mysterious girl who may be connected to the android Data, also from the "Next Generation" series. Picard has quit Starfleet, is disillusioned, restless and wracked with guilt. At age 92, he's short of breath running up a flight of stairs. This is Picard facing mortality, a theme Chabon discovered unexpectedly.

CHABON: As I started work on this first season of "Picard," my dad was dying. And, you know, of course, I was thinking a lot about not just his life that was coming to an end but my life. But I didn't ever think, I'm going to try to find a way to work this into "Star Trek" at all. It was really not until the season was done and I sat down. That's when I realized, wow.

DEGGANS: Chabon's "Trek" writing life started a few years ago, when "Star Trek: Discovery" executive producer Akiva Goldsman asked if Chabon would write a short episode for the series "Star Trek: Short Treks." Eventually, he joined the writing staff for "Picard" and later became its showrunner. Chabon says some may think he's slumming by writing a "Star Trek" series, but his father, who loved Thomas Mann novels and the soap opera "General Hospital," taught him by example that any pop culture which moves you is valuable and valid. And Chabon has been a Star Trek fan since he was 10 years old.

CHABON: You know, I would have been happy just shaking Patrick Stewart's hand and telling him how much I loved him on "Star Trek." But to be able to actually write words that he will speak and act is incredible.

DEGGANS: When "Star Trek: Picard" finally debuts this week, Chabon will learn if his fellow fans share his enthusiasm for this new vision of their obsession.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOXYGEN'S "STAR POWER I: OVERTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.