Why Sir Patrick Stewart’s Returning To Star Trek’s Captain’s Chair

Charge your phasers, prepare your technobabble, and prepare to speak in rich authoritative stentorian tones once more.

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In a surprise appearance at the Las Vegas Star Trek convention this weekend, Sir Patrick Stewart – despite a healthy run with the Royal Shakespeare Company, best known as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation – announced that he would be returning to the franchise that made him world-famous.

Rather than a reboot of The Next Generation, à la the current Star Trek film universe, this new project is to be closer to an expansion – exploring Picard’s further life and times. Sir Patrick hasn’t played Picard since the last of the The Next Generation film adaptations, 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis.

This is significant for the franchise as a whole, in that it’s the first time it’s come close to moving forward chronologically since the Voyager series, which ran between 1995 and 2001. Since then, we’ve seen two prequel series, and the film universe has retreated to rebooting the original series.

This new project is to be an exclusive for CBS’s All Access streaming service, and will be helmed by Star Trek: Discovery co-creator and executive producer Alex Kurtzman, the central figure in CBS’s deal to create new content for the franchise. This Autumn, CBS will be running Star Trek: Short Treks, a Discovery tie-in series of short character-focused stories. The Las Vegas convention also saw Rainn Wilson speaking about his upcoming appearance on Short Treks.

Sir Patrick was quoted in 2013 as saying that, had he known from the outset he would be playing Picard for seven years, he “would never have been part of it in the first place…it still frightens me a little bit to think that so much of my life was totally devoted to Star Trek and almost nothing else”.

However, his views seem to have softened in the interim. During the announcement he described experiencing “an unexpected but delightful surprise to find myself excited and invigorated to be returning to Jean-Luc Picard and to explore new dimensions within him”, adding “it has been humbling to hear many stories about how The Next Generation brought people comfort…I feel I’m ready to return to [Picard] for the same reason – to research and experience what comforting and reforming light he might shine on these often very dark times.”

Star Trek Discovery

As the second season of Discovery is scheduled for sometime in 2019, the announcement of an entirely new series in the franchise – particularly one bringing back a big fish from the franchise’s past – perhaps isn’t the biggest vote of confidence for Discovery. The series met with, at best, mixed reviews, and the production of the second season has already seen some turmoil behind the scenes.

And while an older Sir Patrick is the very chap to play an older Picard, his involvement isn’t necessarily the unalloyed good it’s been received as. Usually, the involvement of a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran, let alone one who’s been knighted, would be a badge of honour for any production. However, over the course of his long career, Sir Patrick has played some proper crap – very literally, in the case of 2017’s weird boondoggle The Emoji Movie (which stormed the Golden Raspberry awards, coming home with fully four Razzies) where he lent his voice to no less a role than the poop emoji.

Still, it’s perhaps unfair to blast the man for taking on the kind of role any classically trained actor might go for in a moment of weakness, when they felt like buying a summerhouse. Certainly, in reprising Picard, he won’t be hamstrung by the material straight off the bat.

Since Picard will be coming back to our screens, I’m obliged to mention that endless, unanswerable question – greater, perhaps, even than that old teaser about the chicken and the egg – Kirk or Picard? And Picard’s return will doubtless add fuel to the fire. This upcoming project will mean Sir Patrick has been playing Picard for a period spanning thirty-five years – a record which Big Bill Shatner’s Kirk still beats, but only if you count his appearance at the 2013 Oscars.

The two were very different figures as commanding officers – most obviously, Kirk was a younger man (although not as much younger as you might think, to look at them). Kirk, in true Horatio Hornblower style, led from the front, whereas Picard was more willing to delegate, less often personally going down to whatever planet they were adventuring on that week. And while both actors had experience with stage acting – including Shakespeare’s works – and Shatner had an inimitable style all his own, it must be said that when Picard gave a speech, you felt like accompanying him into battle on Bosworth Field.

Shatner, for his part, has decisively passed the torch to Chris Pine, who plays Kirk in the recent film reboots. Shatner’s final film appearance in the role took place in 1994’s Star Trek Generations, which was itself passing the torch to Sir Patrick’s Picard, released as it was during The Next Generation’s original run.

The point here isn’t to tot up which Star Trek captain was better. That debate will be going until we’re arguing over which real-life space captain is better (plus, the answer is obviously Deep Space Nine‘s Sisko). But for all Sir Patrick’s theatre history, he was coming in at a disadvantage. As he alludes to in the comments quoted above, neither he nor anyone else involved thought at the outset that TNG would last as long as it did – or even that it would last longer than the original series.

So, while Star Trek became a franchise while Shatner was in the driver’s seat, it was Sir Patrick’s tenure that showed there was a market for more incarnations of the TV series. And it’s often been said that sequels that are better than, or even live up to, the original are like hen’s teeth, with some of the most famous examples being classics like The Godfather Part II and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

This hopefully illustrates exactly why Picard, of the various Star Trek captains we’ve known (six main characters and counting), is the only one regularly compared to Kirk, the OG – and why Picard’s return is such a watershed event. But without wishing to rain on his parade, this impeccable pedigree isn’t an unalloyed good either – it could simply mean that, if something goes wrong, he has further to fall.

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