This is why Star Trek: Picard is a bold political statement
Patrick Stewart committed his first act of civil disobedience at the age of five. The year was 1945, World War II had been over for mere weeks, and Britain was heading into a contentious general election that would lead to the ousting of prime minister Winston Churchill. A young Stewart had traveled with his father to a polling station near his family's home in North Yorkshire to advocate for the trade union movement.
"My father was a strong trade unionist, and he'd made me a banner to hold," Stewart recalls. "A policeman tried to move me along, and I said 'No, I won't!'" The policeman seemed ready to hit him– "because in those days where I grew up, policemen could do that!"–until the uniformed presence of Stewart's father, a regimental sergeant major in the British Army, deescalated the situation. "So I've been kind of involved in politics, in one way or another and always on the left, for 74 years."
It's unsurprising, then, that politics played a big role in persuading Stewart back to the iconic role he had long resisted revisiting. Prior to the January launch of Star Trek: Picard, it had been 18 years since Stewart last played the role of Jean-Luc Picard, and he had no interest in returning to the Star Trek universe unless it had something new to say. The CBS All Access revival is firmly grounded in our troubled political present, centering on a disillusioned Picard who's removed himself from Starfleet, disgusted by the Federation's move towards isolationism in response to a refugee crisis. "I thought it was vital that the audience would have to get to know this character again," Stewart says, "and that there should be a sense of not only personal failure, but also of national failure in what was occurring."
Stewart sat down with Esquire.com last month to discuss how the Star Trek: Picard team convinced him to return where others had failed, how the series echoes the real-world politics of Brexit and Trump, and how he remains optimistic in the current moment.
What did it take to convince you to reprise this role?
It was complicated, because I’ve passed on a lot of invitations to do spinoffs of Next Generation, or to reassemble the crew in some way. None of them have ever appealed to me, largely because I felt after 178 episodes and 4 films, I had said everything that there was to say about Jean-Luc. Though he’s a character I like and respect, it really was time to move on.
The first hint of interest I felt was when I read the names of the four people who wanted to meet with me – Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman, Kirsten Beyer, and Michael Chabon. I knew these were some very clever and talented people, so I went to see them in person because I wanted to explain to their faces why I was turning them down. But they said some interesting things, and I was eventually convinced that I would not be stepping back into Next Generation. It’s a different world we’re in with Picard, and indeed our real world is, in those 18 years, also very changed. It was important to me that we reflect that.
The show picks up with Picard in self-imposed exile, dealing with PTSD and very changed from the character we knew. Why was that decision made?
I thought it was vital that the audience would have to get to know this character again – a character they once knew very well – and that it would be shocking to them to see how much he had changed. And that there should be a sense of not only personal failure, but also of national failure in what was occurring. But even in the early episodes, when he seems so very lost, it was equally important to show those moments where he begins to sense that his work is not over. He’s not done after all, he’s not just going to be growing grapes on his vineyard.
There's a scene in episode one where Picard's anger at the Federation boils over, specifically because they abandoned the Romulan refugees. Was that a speech that hit close to home for you?
Yes, I was really thrilled by having that to say, because it felt like a way to give Picard a kind of modern voice—not a futuristic voice, but a voice of today. The original series had a strong sense of the importance of equality and fairness, and that nations must be shared. Now, we find that the Federation is not at all the same Federation we knew before, that it can’t be trusted, and that even Starfleet is becoming, to say the least, extremely dodgy.
What were the specific political themes you wanted to touch on in the show?
Well, I’m not a citizen of the US, so I have to be very circumspect in what I say—though I am a resident alien, which is a source of humor to a lot of people! But with that being said, what is happening in Washington is very disturbing. I found the State of the Union address to be a profoundly disturbing experience. And in the UK we have Boris Johnson, who I always enjoyed when he was Mayor of London because he was witty–but he should not be in Downing Street.
It’s especially dismaying because it seems to me that in many cases, the people who voted for Boris Johnson, and the people who voted for Donald Trump, are the ones who are in the long run going to suffer the most from what’s happening.
And then there is Brexit. Our leaving the EU was one of the saddest days of my life. I was doing a promotion for Picard in Berlin, and the whole cast was lined up on stage doing a Q&A, and at the end I asked if they would mind if I said something that was not about the show, something more personal. I made a little speech about Brexit, and how it was one of the saddest days of my life, and why I believed in the European Union - union being one of the most important words that could ever be attached to politics. The audience rose to their feet and applauded, and I’ve never had that happen before, it almost brought me to tears. It was very humbling and heartwarming.
How do you combat despair?
I don't feel despair. I've always been an optimist about the world, and even when things have not been good, when I’ve felt we’re making wrong choices, I have a profound belief that humanity is essentially a responsible and caring species, and that time will pass, and mistakes will be recognized and corrected, and we shall live in a better world. I firmly believe that, and I firmly believe that the world Gene Roddenberry created is a world that we can still aspire to.