'Star Trek: Picard': Patrick Stewart on Why He's Reprising the Iconic Role Now

Ileane Rudolph
Preview James Dimmock/CBS

For the first time since the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis, Patrick Stewart, aka Jean-Luc Picard, is seated on a 24th-century starship's bridge, booming "Engage!" in that stentorian British accent as he and the crew head out on an interstellar mission. It's a scene from Star Trek: Picard, a series no one expected to see.

Certainly not Alex Kurtzman, cocreator of another CBS All Access show, Star Trek: Discovery, who conjured the idea for this eighth Trekverse entry. "I put the odds at zero that Patrick would agree to reprise the role," he recalls with a chuckle.

And not Stewart, who thought that after seven seasons of the syndicated drama The Next Generation (1987–94) and four movie sequels, he had completed his job as arguably the most popular Trek captain. (We'll clear space for your letters championing William Shatner's James T. Kirk.)

Over tea and small treats at a chic New York City hotel, TV Guide Magazine's Most Bodacious Man of 1992 (he's also been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II) confirms he had rejected other offers to reinvent the character. "I just felt that we had made an entertaining contribution," he says, "and that there was no purpose in experimenting with different takes [on the show]."

Patrick Stewart as Picard, Michelle Hurd as Raffi (Trae Patton/CBS)

Stewart nixed this idea as well, until reluctantly agreeing to read a lengthy proposal put together by, among others, Kurtzman and Pulitzer Prize–winning author and Trek fan Michael Chabon (most recently a cocreator of Netflix's Unbelievable). "I liked it very much, and I've also reached a stage in my life that I feel I still have so much to do," the 79-year-old actor explains with near-boyish enthusiasm. He was impressed enough to say yes to a possible three-year run; a second season has already been ordered.

Over 10 episodes, streaming weekly, Star Trek: Picard picks up 20 years after the Enterprise captain saved the Federation of Planets from his evil Romulan clone. Having later resigned as a Starfleet admiral because of Federation decisions made after a supernova destroyed the planet Romulus (the result was human catastrophe, long story), Picard is retired, and restless, at his family's vineyard in France's Loire Valley.

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"It was important to me that Picard be a different man now," Stewart says. "I asked for scenes that showed aspects of him you wouldn't believe possible — irritability, rudeness, a short temper — growing out of frustration and disappointment." Adding to his unhappiness, dreams about Lt. Cdr. Data (Brent Spiner), the beloved android (the new term is "synthetic") who sacrificed himself in Nemesis to save his captain, have begun to plague him.

Happily, Picard doesn't watch the grapes grow for long. In the pilot, a distraught young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones) finds him after an attempt on her life. She claims a mysterious connection to him — and why she feels that way turns out to be a shocker that will lead once more into space.

Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard, Isa Briones as Dahj (Matt Kennedy/CBS)

"Dahj is very smart, scrappy, and empathetic, but she feels lost," Briones says of her first big role. "Her relationship with Picard is interesting because, though she is the one who obviously needs [rescuing], they help each other."

To solve the puzzle of Dahj's origins, a revitalized Picard embarks on a search for a missing scientist involved in forbidden research. Rebuffed by the Federation for help, he turns to Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd, Blindspot), an estranged ex-colleague who's a brilliant systems analyst and hacker.

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"They worked together for the Federation very, very closely," Stewart teases, hinting that, though "she's important to his mission, it could be more than that." But before any romance ensues, they have some healing to do.

"Raffi has a very complicated and deep relationship with JL," Hurd says. It ended after Picard admittedly made what she calls an "appalling" decision during the Romulan evacuation — something "that made her break a promise and sent her spiraling downward." Her post-Federation life, she tells Picard bitterly when he first approaches her, has not been filled with fine wine and lovely views.

Patrick Stewart as Picard, Jonathan Frakes as Riker (Trae Patton/CBS)

For her own reasons, Raffi helps secure a starship and its pilot, rakish former Starfleet officer Cris Rios (Santiago Cabrera, Big Little Lies). Seeing a professional opportunity, scientific rebel Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill, The Newsroom) quickly joins what Picard dubs his "motley crew." Her area of study, synthetic life (robotics to you and me), is "very relevant to Picard's mission," Kurtzman says carefully. And two Romulans also come into play: seductive spy Narek (Harry Treadaway, Penny Dreadful) and warrior Elnor (Evan Evagora, February's big-screen Fantasy Island).

But what's Picard without his old comrades? The new Trek is laced with TNG fan favorites. Despite his death, Data shows up in multiple episodes. Also look for former Cdr. William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and his wife, counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), plus Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco), a man assimilated by the hive-mind Borg Collective who managed to keep his free will and spread that idea to other Borg. 

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Since the Borg have a key storyline, there's also room for Star Trek: Voyager's rescued assimilated human, the fondly remembered Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). "It's exciting to have Picard and Seven, two iconic characters from two different shows, start their relationship in a fractious way and then find they share common ground," Kurtzman says.

(Trae Patton/CBS)

This is an abbreviated version of TV Guide Magazine's latest cover story. For more, pick up the issue, on newsstands Thursday, January 16.

Star Trek: PicardSeries Premiere, Thursday, January 23, CBS All Access