(Photo owned by CBS)
Although I am currently writing a historical fiction/biographical novel, those who know me will tell you I am almost equally a history nerd and a science fiction nerd. Most notably, I am a Trekker and always have been. I do not write movie, book, or television reviews very often, but with the new Star Trek: Picard, I can’t help myself.
Most of what I learned about character development, I learned from my theater and acting classes in college. Whenever you are onstage, your character has to have motivation for every move they make beyond getting from point A to point B just because you have to be at point B for the next scene. Without inner motivations for every beat of a scene, the character will play as false or contrived onstage. The same is true for the written word. Without clear motivations, back story, etc., characters can come off as two dimensional or contrived.
Another thing that creates a three dimensional rather than a two dimensional character is change. A character must go through some changes and be changed by the events of the story. Why? Because that is what happens in real life. Each one of us is changed by the world, people, and events around us. No one is a static character. However, if a character changes too much over the course of a story, this will also play as false or contrived. A character must be true to the deepest parts of who they are.
RED ALERT: Major SPOILERS ahead
Well, the newest episode of the newest Star Trek series Picard, “Stardust City Rag,” is truly a master class in how to achieve real and meaningful character development in a very short amount of time. Specifically, the character Seven of Nine, a character from Star Trek: Voyager. Seven of Nine is not the main character in this new Star Trek; however, among Trekkers, she is beloved and well-known. So it was important to handle her re-introduction carefully for the sake of those who had already gotten to know Seven over the course of her four years on Voyager. It is important to note that we haven’t seen Seven in 20 years.
Starfleet and Seven have both gone through vast changes in the intervening years. Starfleet and the Federation seem to have been rotting from the inside out in the last couple of decades. None of the clean lines, high ideals, and sanitized violence of the Next Generation or Voyager years. “Synthetics” are now banned, mostly androids, but I would also assume this has some bearing on Seven with her Borg implants.
However, Seven has become less and less “synthetic” or technological and more and more human since we last saw her. Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 01, aka Annika Hansen, is the former Borg turned valued crew member of Voyager. She was a purveyor of deadpan humor with raised eyebrow and tilted head, drinker of unappetizing nutritional supplements, logical thinker to a fault, wearer of tight French twist and impossibly tight spandex jumpsuit, and dampener of all emotions. Now she is feeling all of the emotions; we see evidence of maternal feelings, romantic feelings, compassion, anger, and revenge. She sheds tears without thinking her ocular implant is malfunctioning. She’s drinking bourbon straight and wearing a loose but functional and sexy jacket, pants, and boots outfit. Even her hair is literally and metaphorically let down. No longer is she searching for perfection, but for connection.
Much can change over the course of a 20 year period, as we have seen in the previous four episodes of Picard. Picard, Starfleet, and the Federation itself are very much changed in this new Star Trek world since we last saw them in Star Trek Nemesis. So we have a lot to catch up on in a very short period of time.
To do that, we are subjected to one of the most violent (though necessary) scenes in Star Trek canon, the removal of Borg implants from another beloved character from Voyager, Icheb, Seven’s adopted son. Some of Seven’s most poignant moments on Voyager were with Icheb. She experienced some of her first stirrings of maternal instincts with him. He even saved her life once by giving her his cortical node at risk to his own life.
So when in the first few minutes of Episode 5 we see her have to put him out of his fatal misery with a phaser blast by her own hand while she cradles him in her arms, we are given the reason for the marked changes in her character. The Seven of old is broken in a way that requires her to embrace her humanity to survive. Not only is she mourning Icheb as she sobs over his body, but she is mourning the loss and betrayal that led him there. A former friend (or lover?) of Seven’s used information from Seven to ambush Icheb and strip him for parts.
How to Accomplish Believable Change in a Character
If Seven had just shown up completely different from the way we once knew her without any explanation, that would play as false to the character. Nor would viewers/readers want extensive exposition about the past to explain the changes.
Rather, we are given two short scenes that explain a great deal. One is the flashback with Icheb at the beginning of the episode. The other is the confrontation with Seven and Bjayzl, her former friend and betrayer. With these two scenes, Seven’s motivations for change are made abundantly clear but with dialogue and action rather than straight exposition. Subtext written between the lines of Seven’s dialogue with Bjayzl, specific looks exchanged between them, even the tears that Seven is fighting back as she speaks, all serve to give us the full picture of Seven’s changes. But interspersed within the scenes of the episode, we also see little bits of the old Seven. The head tilt, the raised eyebrow, the deadpan humor delivered with Borg precision, even her determination to fight for the underdog. Some have said that Seven going after Bjayzl for revenge goes against her nature. I would argue against that, however. Seven was always fiercely protective of Icheb, and she still is.
Some of the accomplishments of this episode are due to the brilliant writing of Kirsten Beyer. Some to the fantastic direction by Jonathan Frakes (that’s right, Will “leg over the chair” Riker). But a huge shout out has to go to Jeri Ryan for her re-embodiment of Seven, not relying on old tricks of the character, but allowing her to have fully grown and changed in the past 20 years. She gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen as Seven.
As a post script, I think there should definitely be a Seven of Nine series spin off. This episode alone proves that it would be welcomed by Star Trek fans.
Review the Highlights of Character Development
- Allow your characters to change while staying true to who they are at the core.
- Give them motivation for the changes.
- Show the changes in dialogue and action rather than exposition.
- Keep some touch stones that mark who the character is (quirks, characteristics, etc.)