‘Star Trek’ BFFs Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton Talk Reuniting on ‘Picard’ and if They’ll Return: ‘Nobody Wants to Be Tom Brady’

SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses major plot developments in Season 3, Episode 6 of “Star Trek: Picard,” currently streaming on Paramount+.

Of the many pleasures of the third season of “Star Trek: Picard,” the greatest has to be watching the cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” finally reunite on screen for the first time since the 2002 feature film “Star Trek: Nemesis.” That movie was a failure critically, commercially and with “Star Trek” fans, many of whom were especially upset that the beloved character of Data (Brent Spiner) was killed off.

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Except, it turns out, he wasn’t. In Season 1 of “Star Trek: Picard,” fans learned that Data’s android consciousness had been kept alive within an inanimate memory core by Altan Inigo Soong (Spiner), the brother of Data’s original creator, Noonien Soong — until Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) honored Data’s desire to finally perish from existence completely.

Except, it turns out, he didn’t. In Episode 6 of Season 3 of “Picard,” Picard and much of the rest of his old crew from the U.S.S. Enterprise — Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), Worf (Michael Dorn) and Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) — discover that Altan created a brand new android body that contains the consciousnesses of not just Data, but his older brothers Lore (i.e. the evil one) and B-4 (i.e. the simple one), as well as Data’s android daughter, Lal. At the end of the episode, Picard and his compatriots activate this new android and get to speak to Data again for the first time in decades.

The moment was especially meaningful for Geordi, who was Data’s closest friend — and, it turns out, it was just as meaningful for Burton and Spiner, who’ve also been good friends for over 35 years. In an interview before the season began, they talked with Variety about what it was like to return to their characters and perform with the “TNG” cast for the first time in 21 years, whether they’d like to continue playing the roles past this season of “Picard,” why they’re so grateful to Season 3’s executive producer Terry Matalas, and the importance of learning how to “sit in discomfort.”

The “Next Generation” cast was notorious for being impossible to corral on sets during the shooting of the original run of the show. When you all came back together to shoot this season, were you better behaved, so to speak?

LeVar Burton: That implies we were badly behaved. I resist that a little. We were rambunctious. But we had no ill intention.

Brent Spiner: We had fun. We were on soundstages with no windows for 14 to 16 hours a day for 10 months a year. If we didn’t have fun, we would have murdered each other and we wouldn’t be friends today. But I wouldn’t say it was exactly the same [on “Picard”]. It was different. We didn’t have fun anymore. No, I’m kidding. We had fun. We enjoyed each other, but I don’t think it was quite as raucous as in the old days. We were trying to serve Terry Matalas, who had given us such nice stuff to play.

Burton: Quite frankly, we’re older and —

Spiner: More mature!

Burton: Slower.

Spiner: Exactly.

LeVar, had you been thinking about what Geordi might have been up to for all these years before signing onto this season?

Burton: No, not really. I mean, when it was clear that “Nemesis” was going to be our last hurrah, there was some sadness that we didn’t have an opportunity to go out, you know, knowing that we were going out. Creating a story that did that would have been nice. But after two decades, I’ve long since given up on the idea that we’d ever come back together again. So this was a pleasant surprise — and an opportunity, I think, to make an adjustment where Geordi is concerned that I felt really needed to happen. In the series, Geordi, as the engineer, was uncomfortable in the presence of women, which I never liked. Especially given that if you look at Worf as a Klingon and not human, then Geordi was the Black man who had maladaptive relationships with women. That felt uncomfortable as well. Terry’s idea that Geordi had kids, that he was a parent, addressed that for me really elegantly.

Brent, you’ve been saying goodbye to Data for over 20 years now. 

Spiner: I’ve done it again and again.

How did you feel about playing this new version of him? 

Spiner: Well, I can’t say too much about it, unfortunately, because I don’t want to blow it.

Burton: But this is after the sixth episode.

Spiner: The sixth episode, as I recall, we’ve seen bits of Data in a sort of a melange with several other characters, all coming through one body. Literally, there’s nothing more I can say about it, other than I’ve enjoyed the season. There’s a lot of good stuff still coming in [Episodes] 7 through 10.

Data’s skin is no longer the greenish pale hue — I imagine that was appealing.

Spiner: Well, it certainly saved a lot of time for me. Terry and I discussed this synthetic being having no gold eyes, either. But at the end of the day, we thought it needed that one distinguishing quality that just went through time and remains the same.

Geordi didn’t have his VISOR in most of the “TNG” movies, but did you enjoy being able to play the role on the show without it?

Burton: Oh, absolutely. And I love the look of the contacts. It’s weird, because it’s simply black lines in a white field. When I put them in my eyes, it gives them a blue cast, which was a happy accident and unintended consequence of the design.

There’s a moment in Episode 6 where Geordi sees the Data being for the first time, and he’s immediately moved to see his friend again. What was it like for you both to act these roles together again after some 20 years?

Spiner: It felt very natural for me. We had such a history of of playing together, but primarily because we have so many years of being together since we last played the characters. Our affection for each other is no less than the characters have for each other. So it’s not particularly difficult to have that experience.

Burton: Brent Spiner’s hands down the best acting partner I’ve ever had in my life. There is an unspoken language that we have developed over time that comes quite naturally to us.

Spiner: Yeah, that’s right.

Burton: Brent was my best man when I got married. We are a part of each other’s lives and will be for the whole of our lives. So the opportunity to come back together again and get paid for it? Come on!

It’s been so gratifying for “TNG” fans to see how tightly knit the cast has remained since the show went off the air — that doesn’t always happen with TV casts. So LeVar, was it strange at all when “Star Trek: Picard” launched and Geordi wasn’t a factor in the story?

Burton: Well, Patrick set the table before he started shooting “Picard.” He brought us all together. He bought us dinner and he said, “I’m going solo.” In that moment, any thoughts or hopes of putting the band back together were laid to rest. So this came as a huge surprise and a great gift, really, from Terry Matalas, who loves “The Next Generation.” All of that affection that he has for this cast and that crew he wrote into the scripts.

At the same time, Brent, Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis did appear in the first season of “Picard.” What it was like for you to watch that unfold?

Burton: You know, Adam, one of the things that I think in getting older and getting anything close to wise, is it is necessary to learn how to sit in the discomfort of life. When you are willing to do that, the reason for the discomfort will reveal itself. In my case, I believe that discomfort of seeing my friends go off and play and I was on the sidelines — the payoff was being OK with that. Because then, when the invitation came, it came with the whole band being put back together, and that’s the best scenario of all. I’m really grateful for that.

Terry Matalas has talked about how he saw this season as the fifth “TNG” movie. Did it feel that way to you both?

Spiner: I suppose in a sense. I mean, we did do 10 episodes, so it was a very long movie. I wasn’t in all 10 episodes, obviously. But nonetheless, it felt like a really long movie. But I understand what he was saying. I think there’s something quite right about that. Hopefully it’ll be — uh, what number would this be? It would be an odd numbered film, wouldn’t it? So we’ll hopefully break that curse as well.

This has also been dubbed the final season of “Picard.” But Patrick recently said he’d want to continue. Would you?

Spiner: That remains to be seen. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. If the fans are there for us and enjoy it and want to see more. By the way, is this going to be visual or are you writing an article?

This will be an article. 

Spiner: An article. So here’s what I would like you to write as your last line. You can quote me on this. I mean, you don’t have quote me — this is your last line: “I, for one, would like to see one of these ten-episode movies every single year as long as they can do it.”

LeVar, do you want to weigh in on this?

Burton: Look, this was an unexpected gift. I don’t want to begin to think about that possibility. Because it’s not wise, right? I’m trying to really enjoy this for what it is. There’s no expectation of anything happening beyond this, because this is the thing that I never thought would happen — and it’s happened. To expect or asked for or even contemplate anything more is just greedy.

Spiner: Yeah. I am greedy, as you know. I’m sitting in discomfort right now, hoping for a positive result!

Burton: But in your case, the discomfort is gas.

Spiner: That’s true.

On the flip side of that, will fans feel like this season was a true farewell to these characters?

Spiner: Potentially, not necessarily. LeVar and I’ve talked about the fact that if this lands in a way that we hope it lands, maybe it would be best to be the finale. And if there should be something more than this, well, as he said, that would just be another gift that we we can’t really contemplate at the moment.

Burton: Nobody wants to be Tom Brady.

Spiner: Right. Exactly. Although, he got a movie at the end!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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