Michael Chabon sits in a futuristic chair on the Discovery bridge set
Michael Chabon in the “Star Trek: Discovery” captain’s chair (Photo/Instagram)

Q&A: Michael Chabon heads for the final frontier — ‘Star Trek’

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon is known for his novels with heavy Jewish themes. But his work has also dealt in science fiction and pop culture, in novels like “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” and “Kavalier & Clay.” Now, the Berkeley writer is doubling down on sci-fi and heading for the final frontier, with work on two different “Star Trek” series.

“Calypso,” his episode of “Short Treks,” premieres Nov. 8 on the subscription streaming service CBS All Access. “Short Treks” is a series of short films streaming monthly until “Star Trek: Discovery” returns for its second season in January. Chabon co-wrote “Calypso” with “Discovery” writer Sean Cochrane.

Chabon also was recently named a writer-producer on an as-yet untitled “Star Trek” series focused on the later career of Patrick Stewart’s iconic Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The Picard series will likely debut in 2020.

J.: You’re by far not the first novelist to write for “Star Trek,” but how did you specifically get connected with the franchise?

Michael Chabon: I was working on a film project with one of the producers of “Discovery” and now the Picard project, Akiva Goldsman. They were just starting to assemble possible ideas for these shorts, what became “Short Treks,” and I was in the room while he was talking about it. I’m a big fan and I had told him I’m really enjoying “Discovery.” So he was about to ask if I wanted to write this — before the question was out of his mouth, I said yes.

Is this your first work for TV?

It is the first time anything I’ve written for TV has actually been produced. But this is not the first time I’ve tried to get something on. Ayelet [Waldman], my wife, and I are developing a series at Netflix, wrapping shooting right now, called “Unbelievable” [about an investigation of the rape of a teenager, based on a true story].

Did you grow up with “Star Trek”? I’m talking about “The Original Series,” which ran from 1966 to ’69, starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy — both Jews, as you know.

My dad watched “The Original Series,” I remember that as a small child, but it was on too late for me to watch. It seemed very grownup and incomprehensible. I must’ve been 4 or 5. But I remember his attachment to it. When I was 10, I had a babysitter. “The Original Series” was on syndication everywhere, and she was a Trekkie, self-described. She turned me onto it. We had it on every time she was over. She would go to conventions and come back with cool stuff. She was my introduction to the show and to fandom all at once.

A trailer for “Calypso” teased a setting about 1,000 years after “Discovery.” What is “Calypso” about?

It is about a castaway who is rescued by the Discovery, in the far future, and is rescued by the AI of the starship. It’s about the relationship that forms between the mysterious castaway and the AI. And there is a mystery of what it’s been doing for the last millennium. By the end, some mysteries are explained and others remain mysteries.

I know you can’t talk about the Picard series right now, but I have to try: Can you say anything generally about the setting or time period? Or themes you’re interested in exploring in that series?

I cannot answer either of those questions. I will be abducted by Section 31.

How is it different writing with a group of people in a television series writers’ room versus writing alone?

It’s very different. It’s really pleasurable. That’s one of the things I enjoy most about it. It could be a horrible thing if the people were not nice and kind, but this room is full of bright, funny, charming people with great ideas. Solving plot problems by yourself can be agonizing. Sometimes I get into a hole, and I just bang my head against the wall, and it takes weeks or months, and maybe I never solve it. But when there’s this room of smart people, and they all bring their experiences in life and as readers and consumers of media. You can see this unsolvable problem, and then after an hour of conversation it works itself out.

a room of people sitting around a table
Michael Chabon (right) with Patrick Stewart (left) in the writers room of the forthcoming “Star Trek” series centered around Stewart’s iconic character Jean-Luc Picard (Photo/Instagram)

You’re primarily known for novels with a Jewish bent, but they have also touched on sci-fi and other elements of pop culture. What’s the connection?

There isn’t always an explicit connection; a lot of times it can be a challenge to find one. In “Kavalier & Clay” it was explicit, this history of Jews in the comic book industry and Jewish themes in superhero stories. When I was working on Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Solution” or “Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” there’s not a lot of Jewish hardboiled detective fiction, but to take these genres I love and try to Judaize them in some way, in a way that feels organic, that’s an unspoken project of much of my work since “Kavalier & Clay.”

Let’s talk about the Jews. When Gene Roddenberry created “Star Trek,” he laid out a future in which humanity would move beyond religion. Spock is Jew-ish, many would say. And we’ve got Theodore Bikel doing Worf’s adopted father in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” coded as a Jew, but not explicitly. But where are the full-on Jews in “Star Trek”? Is there room for a character that explicitly identifies with a religious-ethnic group?

It’s not just Jews who are absent; it’s any kind of explicitly religious characters. I can’t think of any explicitly Christian or Hindu or Muslim characters in “Star Trek.” We get Vulcan religion, Klingon religion and other [alien] religions, especially the Bajorans [on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”], sometimes discussions of godlike beings, but I don’t think the absence of Jews is significant in itself.

Roddenberry had a lot of rules for the future, many of which have been bent or broken over the years. Is there room for exploring the role of religion and spirituality in the human experience, or is that an immutable rule of “Star Trek”?

I don’t think any rules are immutable, but I’m not in the decision-making place on that. The best answer I can give is, I don’t really know. As you say, there does seem to be greater willingness over time. There began to be signs of deviation from the initial marching orders from “The Original Series” in all the subsequent series, but as a writer and someone who takes an interest in these topics, it would be interesting.

David A.M. Wilensky
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
J. The Jewish News of Northern California Staff Headshots.
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky