TV writer Kirsten Beyer is considered the knower of all things Star Trek. She seemingly burst onto our screens from writing oblivion to co-create Star Trek: Picard. Kirsten has been busy writing novels in the Star Trek Universe including Voyager and Discovery. She shared her insights into transferring her book skills into TV writing with Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
We asked her about her attraction to the Star Trek world. “It’s is about smart people solving hard problems,” said screenwriter Kirsten Beyer. “It’s the characters I fell in love with, beginning with Kirk and Spock, then the Voyager characters. They’re all just so special to me and I find them endlessly fascinating.”
Described as the “oracle” of the Star Trek universe by colleague Akiva Goldsman, Beyer is the go-to encyclopedia for Star Trek content. As a staff writer, her credits include 15 episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, 1 episode of Star Trek: Short Treks, and now co-creation of the new series Star Trek: Picard.
Star Trek isn’t just another science fiction series. It has a much deeper philosophy to Beyer.
“At the core of everything, I believe that humanity – with all of its flaws and foibles – has the ability to progress and transcend the things that currently divide us. Trek can show us some of the way to do that,” said the screenwriter and author.
She added, “I’ve said this before, ‘But I would love nothing more to live in a future that Star Trek provides. The value of the show – diversity and appreciation of diversity – along with the desire to understand the universe in which we live are all things that excite me and drive me.”
Story-wise, Star Trek: Picard is the follow-up to Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) and Star Trek: Nemesis (2002). Sir Patrick Stewart returned to his role as Jean-Luc Picard, now retired. It was a logical outgrowth of the story.
A NEW LEADER
According to Beyer, the story behind Picard came out organically. They knew they wanted to check in with Picard two decades after Nemesis, but to showcase areas that have never been seen before. “We wanted to explore holes and the things that caused him pain.”
Writing this well-known and beloved character was relatively simple, as Patrick Stewart was there to help fill in some of the gaps, even attending many TV writers’ room meetings. “Some of the character elements that resonated the most with Patrick were small ideas in the writers’ room. He helped them expand on these feelings.”
“The loss of Data (Brent Spiner) was the most influential part for Patrick. We all found that surprising and adorable all at the same time. We had a deep desire to explore that, so that was a real revelation to us,” she said.
In the new series, Picard still has a major influence on the world, even though he’s representing a different type of leader. “I see Picard as the best of humanity. There are a lot of times where you can think, ‘What would Picard do?’ and I don’t think that changes just because you’re no longer the leader of the ship,” added Beyer.
Kirsten Beyer described the revelation of losing a position as potentially “blindsiding” or “shaking you to the core.” But, looking through the Picard lens, it’s all about how you pull yourself out of that journey that drove the new series.
FROM NOVELS TO TELEVISION
Beyer started her career writing Voyager novels, such as Fusion, Full Circle, The Eternal Side, and the upcoming To Lose the Earth, but writing for television is a much different process. “I’m used to writing the character’s internal thoughts, but you don’t have that in your toolbox on television. So, one of the things I try to conscientiously do is keep the story in my head, and explore it through character in exciting ways, but keep it as tight as possible.”
Within that terrain, Beyer said the basic story ideas are somewhat easy, where the hard part is making sure the stories are relevant and powerful. “For me, a lot of TV writing is putting two people in a room with clearly defined obstacles and finding out what happens when they begin to talk to one another.”
She will ask herself and the room: ”How are they getting in the way of each other? How are they supporting each other? What do they personally want? What are their needs and how do you help them get to those needs? Then, you want to make sure they’re not all after the same thing.”
The real difficulty in creating these journeys is then bringing the stories back together so character journeys cross and criss-cross one another. This North Star idea is something she uses in her novels and on television. In addition, as much as she loves writing novels, she knew a new version of Star Trek needed to be on television.
“The question was, ‘Where does Star Trek need to go next?’ We’ve been working in that universe for a decade, but we always want to think about our current moment. So we sat down and wrote a pitch for this series.”
THE WOMEN OF PICARD
Like many science fiction stories and time period pieces, the story on the screen also reflects the current zeitgeist. In Picard, various female characters help showcase Picard’s blindspots and round out the series. “You begin with a character like Laris (Orla Brady) who is one of two survivors of the Romulus Supernova and have chosen to spend their lives with Picard. There is an important plot explanation for that, but the real truth is that when someone like Laris sees her own culture with a bit of detachment, she can find a new form of value.”
Some online critics have seen these Romulans as servants, but Beyer disagrees with this assessment. She feels the female characters simply felt a connection with Picard and wanted to spend a portion of their lives together. “They have emotional reasons for doing so.”
On the other hand, the character Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd) is someone who has her own challenges, so she is less able to help the protagonist. Instead, her relationship with the former Captain “pushes her further into her own darkness.” Both of these characters are dealing with trauma, while searching for forgiveness, and working together as Starfleet peers.
Then, there’s Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), who represents the embodiment of a quest for pure knowledge. She represents a reminder of previous missions. But, at the same time, she’s forced to reckon with outside forces along the journey. And finally, there’s Dahj and Soji (Isa Briones in a dual role), who are the “daughters Picard never had.”
Breyer said, “Children are an obvious facet in his life, as it feels like we’re all his children, but seeing him at this later period in life, it feels like he understands the richness and value [of others] in his personal life.”
THE PICARD WRITER’S ROOM
To create the overall story balance, there should be a balance of minds in the writers’ room. We learned from Goldsman that it wasn’t a requirement to have complete Star Trek knowledge, as the show was meant to be written both for fans and novice viewers.
As such, Beyer was there to be the encyclopedia behind the show, to make sure all storylines were correct for die-hard fans. But, the core group (Alex Kurtzman, Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsman, and Kirsten Beyer) began and ended the series as co-creators (Patrick Stewart was also there present during the key critical, formative stages).
“These people have different viewpoints when they approach Star Trek, but when put together, it’s the perfect combination. The writers’ room requires a very particular skillset, so I think between the four of us, Alex is a wide-eyed child who seriously finds joy in the powerful narrative possibilities in Star Trek. He pushes us forward to make sure we’re hitting the most powerful moments of the story.”
Michael Chabon’s role is that of the wise soul. “Michael brings a level of complexity, so there’s never one side or even two sides to anything we’re discussing, which brings more value than just plot, but what it means and long-term implications. He sees the world in such complexity and richness. He astonishes me every day.”
Akiva Goldsman’s role is to focus on the spirit of Star Trek, which he felt from his youth. He too has the childlike wonder, because he loves the world so much (Goldsman also said he makes sure to ground the stories in drama, so it connects with all audience members and not just the Trekkies who have been watching for decades).
“With my own contribution, there is a knowledge that I bring from my years associated with Trek, but I also think that I see story points and ask the question, ‘Has Star Trek addressed this before?’ If so, we might have to put a new spin on it, so we’re not just retreading old ground. I also want to make sure we’re focusing on story as its most essential point.”
Then, there’s the aspect of long-form serialized storytelling, which is why having the novelists in the room is so important. “We’re not telling episodic stories of the week, so having practiced in holding the entire season in your head is essential when you’re crafting a story over nine chapters, or several episodes,” expanded Beyer.
BOLDLY GOING FURTHER
“Once David Mack created [the novel] Star Trek: Destiny, I could expand on what Voyager could be and redefine its purpose. Part of the things I enjoy is that readers want to see their old friends in new adventures. They want to see things move forward, but only so much.” This writing-with-refrain mindset is vital in today’s reboot culture. The audience may not withstand monumental leaps.
The author and screenwriter said, “For Star Trek novels to endure, they have to break up, and we have to free ourselves up to tell greater stories with long-term consequences for the characters.” In Beyer’s work, the challenge is coming with reasons for the characters to reunite and keep working together. David Mack’s book helped define these challenges.
“Because of Destiny, I could shine a light on character interactions we’ve never seen before. To carry that story forward slowly and methodically, we could go really deeply into theme, in a way Voyager didn’t have the time to do.” With all of this in mind, not every character could be brought back to Picard. “You don’t want to make it too easy on yourself, but you also want to think about the reality of the situation twenty years later. You want to allow your main characters to be where they are, but to serve the current narrative and not just the past.”
Characters like Picard, Data, and Seven have rich histories, so many things can remain unspoken, but relying too much on fan knowledge of Next Generation can also be a crutch. “We wanted Picard to feel like part of the universe, but we also wanted to show them places and relationships they’d never seen before. The only way to do that was to reimagine the folks we surrounded him with.”
“You’re always mindful of [the new audience] as well. You need writers in the room with fresh eyes to see what makes sense and what doesn’t. The legacy characters have great value, emotional weight, but they aren’t necessarily the people to push the cart forward.”
Beyer concluded, “The journey of a writer is finding your own voice. It’s the one thing that is unique to you, so you have to find it, protect it, mine it, and then not stop. It’s very easy to start stories. It’s very hard to finish them. I create stories because I have to, and knowing people are responding to it is enough for me.”
“I began my journey as an actress, but once I realized there wasn’t going to be enough fulfilling material, I came to terms that I was going to have to create it myself. What I don’t want is to see a good story badly told. I originally discarded writing, because it came somewhat easy to me, but what I found was that when I studied the craft, it’s incredibly difficult and rewarding as a creative endeavor. At the center of everything though, I tell stories and I can’t imagine the day will come when I don’t tell stories.”