EXCLUSIVE The career of Pultizer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon has many frontiers (children’s books, comics, feature film screenplays, newspaper serials) but no storytelling enterprise has been more exciting than his latest mission. That’s because the lifelong Star Trek fan has been recruited by Starfleet. “I’m really so delighted and I can’t believe I get a chance to be part of this,” Chabon said Thursday about his recent addition to the writers room for the upcoming Star Trek revival in bringing Trek icon Patrick Stewart back into Federation space. “I’m thrilled.”
The storied Star Trek brand celebrated its 52nd anniversary in September and has loomed large in Chabon’s imagination since his childhood. How large? “Everything in my life has been leading up to this,” the author of The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Wonder Boys said Thursday. “And I say that in all semi-seriousness.”
No release date has been announced for the still-untitled Stewart series but it will be joining its sister show, Star Trek: Discovery, on CBS All Access in the U.S., Space Channel in Canada and Netflix everywhere else. Chabon already got an early jump on his Starfleet career by cowriting the script of Calypso, one of the Star Trek: Short Trek mini-films that CBS All Access has been presenting as off-season programming for Discovery (which returns in January).
The just-released short stars Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton) as a new Trek character: Craft, a stranded soldier who is rescued by a Federation starship that, mysteriously, has no crew beyond the artificial intelligence of the ship’s computer. Deadline caught up with Chabon on Thursday to talk about the short film, his interactions with Trek icon Stewart and the shifting imperatives of screen storytelling in this digital era.
DEADLINE: What makes a Star Trek story a Star Trek story in your mind?
CHABON: On a lot of levels the way I would answer that question would be while I was writing and I think almost all of them would be unconscious. I’ve been a Star Trek fan since I was about 10-years-old and I’ve watched every version of the show since the first-run — after the original series, which I watched first in reruns — and I’ve seen all the movies and, look, I’m a huge fan. I’ve absorbed a lot of the Star Trek ethos so as soon as I sat down and started trying to write for Star Trek, a lot of those questions — what are the parameters, what are the givens, what are the underlying assumptions — I think a lot of that is stuff I’m doing almost subconsciously so I don’t have to stop and think about it. I think what appealed to me in this germ of an idea [with Calypso] is when I perceived of this artificial intelligence being a character in the story which grows out of the traditions.
In a way there are kinda two competing strands in history of Star Trek in terms of looking at computers and artificial intelligences — although that’s not what they would have been calling them in the original series — and one that was especially prevelant in the original series was this idea of computers being dangerous. There’s one episode where there’s this computer called Nomad, that believes it’s mission is to sterilize the human race, expunge it from creation because it’s imperfect. So you’ve got sort of like doomsday computers and mad computers and that’s a common trope in the late sixties and early seventies where this super mad computer was going crazy, taking over the world and killing all the humans. You see that over and over coming through Terminator and all kinds of cautionary tales right up to the present moment.
Then there’s this other strand that really emerges and it’s best and fullest form is on Star Trek: The Next Generation with the character Data who is more than just an A.I. He is an artificial human. Which is another way of looking at it and with Data it gets at one of the perennial Star Trek questions which is: What does it mean to be a human being? And whether you’re looking at that from Mr. Spock the question was framed as: How much of human nature is based in emotion and how much is based in intelligence or logic? And then you have Data really pushing that question, it comes up again with [the Star Trek Voyager character called] Seven of Nine and the Borg. So it’s something that Star Trek has always been fascinated by and it’s that sub-genre that this new story is coming from with the story of this castaway and the Artificial Intelligence that saves him. What is human and how does he come to view her.
DEADLINE: On Star Trek: Voyager there was also the hologram doctor who had a prickly, exasperated personality. What kind of A.I. personality inhabits your story?
CHABON: She’s been lonely. She’s overjoyed to have company. She’s so excited that she’s finally got a crew again even though it’s a crew of One. Her programming, her mission is to ultimately serve the needs of the crew. She kind of goes a little bananas in that regard and tries to do everything she can think of to keep Craft happy and ultimately she has this underlying longing to keep him. She’s been alone for a thousand years and then there’s this guy and there’s part of her that doesn’t want to lose him. She’s kind of mischievous…she has personality because my thought was that over a thousand years with no crew to tend to, she would have spent time upgrading herself. She calls herself Zora. It’s similar in a way to Data’s mission to become more human but she’s had a lot more time to work on it.
DEADLINE: In September Patrick Stewart tweeted a photo with you sitting next to him. “The journey has begun,” was the caption. That must have been pretty exciting for you considering your passion for the heritage of the franchise.
CHABON: Yes that was for the untitled Patrick Stewart Star Trek series. It’s a catchy name isn’t it? It really rolls off the tongue. But that project is ongoing now and the photo was us getting started with Patrick. He was in the room for two weeks. It was fantastic. That was sort of in the preliminary writers room that we had going before it expanded to the full room that it is now with a bunch of writers in there. I’m up in Berkeley and they are down in L.A.
But that time with Patrick as a resource and as a very willing and literate resource, I think its going to make the show. It’s going to take it to another level. Just to have him participating in the way he participated? Amazing. He understands drama and he understands character and can bring to bear on that all of his experience doing Shakespeare and Beckett and everything in between. Plus he’s incredibly sweet and funny and charming and surprisingly humble and modest. He’s a wonderful collaborator and I can’t say enough about the amazing and unexpected benefit of the process.
When someone has a ‘sir’ in front of their name you anticipate there might be a certain amount of loftiness, inaccessibility, whatever, but he’s such a genial, thoughtful and curious guy. He asks a lot of questions about you and your life. He’s a sweetheart. He’s also really, really smart. I’ve had the experience over the years of meeting actors who play intelligent characters and sometimes it can be a little bit of a disappointment when you meet the actor to discover that they aren’t as brilliant as the character they portray. But Patrick? He’s really literate, thoughtful and intelligent. He’s learned a lot about drama in the course of his long career as an actor.
DEADLINE: I was talking recently to Star Trek: Discovery Executive Producer Alex Kurtzman and he was describing the changing nature of Hollywood productions and the possibilities of subscription-based episodic models. He said it was halfway between film and TV with the ambition, production values and budgets of big screen projects but also with the small screen’s strengths — like audience allegiance, ensemble energy and long-arc possibilities. You’ve spent so much time thinking about storytelling and genre possibilities — do you share his opinion?
CHABON: I think that it actually might be something more exciting than that. Something that is not so much a halfway point between one old medium and another old medium but something that is actually a new medium itself. We have this tendency to think of the kinds of stories that we consume — or the form of the stories that we consume — as having this intrinsic, plate-tectonic nature. We think of them as if they’ve always existed. But actually almost every kind of storytelling that we consume is a product of a particular kind of technology one way or another.
In German literature, for instance, they have this tradition of really long ‘short’ stories. They’re like 90 to 100 pages. Novellas we would call them. We don’t really have that tradition in English-language literature and the novella is a much rarer form. The reason for it was that German magazines for whatever reason, maybe for ad-space reasons or printing requirements, they preferred the 90- to 100-page stories so that’s what writers wrote. The U.S. magazines that printed short stories wanted much shorter ones. So here we have this glorious tradition of the short story so we think of it as this perfect form that found its perfect shape. But it was actually a product of market forces. It’s like the way we think of movies as movies — this thing that’s always been and is the way it is because it must be that way. But movies are a product of technology that produced them. As was broadcast television. The artistry shaped itself to fit the constraints of the medium.
What we’re starting to see now — and I think Alex is right about it — is kind of a new medium emerging. It has constraints of its own and we are just starting to feel our way through them as artists working to the limits of those constraints and figuring out what they are as we go. It has possibilities neither film or television were able to provide. Serialized storytelling with budgets that are approaching the budgets of feature films. It’s giving us an ability to tell stories in a way they’ve never been able to tell them before and that’s exciting. To sit down and contemplate that you can tell as full and as intricate a story — with as many characters — as you can in a novel. That’s not something you could do in film or [traditional] television and something you couldn’t do until very recently. It changes the way you think about the art.
DEADLINE: Another example would be the way Charles Dickens novels were published first in serial form and then collected in book form. When one chapter ended with a character near death there was such demand for the next installment that there was a riot at the pier in New York waiting for the delivery ship. The imperatives of that cycle had to affect the writing choices just as much as the consumer experience…
CHABON: Yes, right, that’s right, and now it’s coming across in a different way. There are new technological parameters and commercial parameters. Like this whole thing of binge-watching. I think that — in some ways that we’re conscious of and in other ways that are unconscious — that’s affecting the choices of the stories we tell and the shape of the stories because we know that somebody that is sitting down to watch is going to watch two or three or even four episodes. That makes you think, ‘Well, what has to happen in the first episode both to keep them going so they will skip the intro [of the second episode]?’ Or knowing that people are going to be doing that, you also ask yourself, ‘What do I need to do to protect the secret of my plot and to hold back something that will keep the momentum going?’ It’s all evolving, still, and in varying directions. Not all the platforms work the same, too, some are still on that week-to-week model. So it’s a hybrid mode of storytelling at the moment but that will change rapidly I think because, well, that’s the way things go now.