Star Trek icon Jean-Luc Picard is returning to the final frontier. And one of the people helping the beloved character boldly go once again is bestselling author Michael Chabon.
The author of acclaimed novels Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon is part of the writing staff for the Picard-focused show, which will star Patrick Stewart and will stream on CBS All Access at some point in the future (Disclosure: CNET is owned by CBS).
Before the Picard show debuts, and before Star Trek: Discovery season 2 begins in January, Chabon has also written the latest mini-episode in the online Short Treks series. Having worked on a movie project with Discovery producer Akiva Goldsman, Chabon was invited to build on an idea by writer Sean Cochran. The result is Calypso, premiering on CBS All Access on Thursday 8 November. The short mini-sode sees a new character known only as Craft awake on the starship Discovery, which is mysteriously empty and abandoned by the familiar faces from the show...
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I spoke to Chabon on the phone to find out more about how Calypso intriguingly abandons the familiar elements you'd expect from a Star Trek story, how he's nerding out in the writer's room, and why Trek remains all too relevant in our turbulent times.
Q: With Calypso, did you deliberately set out to write Star Trek without any of the trappings of Star Trek?
Chabon: It is a story about two isolated people, and the film itself is in a way isolated from the vast tapestry of Star Trek. Romulans, Klingons, Starfleet politics -- none of that matters, none of it plays the role in the story at all. This is all taking place on this little tiny speck of a ship in the middle of the vastness of space. These two people are as alone as two people can possibly be.
You're well known for your complex use of language in your novels. How do you approach the very different and very sparse form of screenwriting?
Chabon: You're right, it is very different. You have far fewer tools in your toolkit. You can only present dialogue, and description of action, and that's it. You have to stop and think, how do I show this, because I can't describe it. I can't take three pages to set the scene. I have to get the point across in an image and give the viewer everything they need to know with no words at all. It becomes a challenge like writing rhymes versed with meter or something like that, where there are restrictions that the form imposes. But then the creativity comes from working within those restrictions. Ultimately there's no greater spur to creativity than having restrictions to work under.
You mentioned that Star Trek lore doesn't matter in Calypso, but what about in the writer's room for the Captain Picard show? Is canon something you think about a lot?
Chabon: You have a responsibility. Any Star Trek writer, any writing room on any Star Trek show after, let's say, The Original Series had a responsibility to consider canon, to know your canon. Just speaking for me, that's an incredible pleasure -- to have a legitimate excuse, and get paid, to nerd out completely!
At the same time, and this is true when you're dealing with any kind of canon, there's always gaps. There are cracks. There are contradictions. There are mysteries that we never got to hear the explanation of, when people allude to things in canon and don't give any further explanation. Maybe the greatest example in all canon ever is the giant rat of Sumatra from Sherlock Holmes. Fans and writers ever since have tried to come up with possible explanations for that. So I think it's important not just to view canon as a barrier, as a perimeter beyond which you can't go, a kind of a grid that you're trapped on. You try to find the loopholes. You find the empty areas. You find the things the canon doesn't seem to have anything to say, and you say it.
And if you're really lucky and you get to be working on a Star Trek show then what you say becomes canon itself!
Calypso features a character watching old movies and finding meaning in these relics of the past. With The Original Series now so many decades old, do you feel like there are certain values in Star Trek that we've forgotten in modern times, and that's why it's still relevant?
Chabon: I absolutely do. Now that I'm working on the show and now that I'm part of Star Trek, I feel like it's my responsibility to make sure that the current model is true to the ideals of the original show, the ideas of tolerance and egalitarianism. Obviously, you look at the way women are represented on The Original Series, and that show fell far short of its stated ideals of egalitarianism, although at least they did have women in some positions of responsibility. But I think we have this responsibility to continue to articulate a hopeful, positive vision of the future. I think if anything that's more important now than it was when The Original Series came out. It was really important then, and it had a profound impact, socially, with Lieutenant Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise, and this message that we can think our way out of our most primitive violent instincts.
To me, dystopia has lost its bite. A, we're living in it, and B, it's such a complete crushing series of cliches at this point. The tropes have all been worked and reworked so many times. There was a period where a positive, optimistic, techno-future where mankind learns to live in harmony and goes out into the stars just to discover and not to conquer, that was an overworked trope. But that is no longer the case. A positive vision of the future articulated through principles of tolerance and egalitarianism and optimism and the quest for scientific knowledge, to me that's feels fresh nowadays.
So Captain Picard is the hero we need right now?
Chabon: Yes, Captain Picard is the hero we need right now. He exemplifies in some ways even more then James Kirk -- and I'm not gonna get into the Kirk vs Picard argument because I love Captain Kirk, he was my first captain -- but Picard is even more of an exemplar of everything that is best about Star Trek's vision for the future.
... And he wasn't such a hound dog as Captain Kirk.
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