An Interview with Picard Art Director Kit Stølen, Part II: The Sets of Picard
Art Director Kit Stølen supervised various sets for Star Trek: Picard, about which he says, “I did the little Wesley Crusher scene at the end of Season 2, all of District Six and Sneed’s, Daystrom Station, and the Borg sets in Season 3.” With the first part of this interview having featured Stølen’s reflections on Star Trek, this article will focus on each of these sets in detail.
Setting the Scene for Wesley Crusher
Kit Stølen’s first work on Star Trek: Picard was to design a setting for the Wesley Crusher cameo in the Season 2 finale “Farewell”. “It was actually a,” he sighs, “a very sad-looking dirt patch that was outside of the costume department — right out next to the street, outside the Santa Clarita stages — and there was, like, a rotten little gazebo.” The same building that contained the costume department also housed Season 2’s 10 Forward set. “In a lot of circumstances, it would just be a nice park that we went to and filmed a scene, but there are always logistics with moving a film company to a spot, so it was a lot easier for us to say, ‘Okay, well, here’s a really terrible spot of land. Let’s have construction build a nice little patio area and gazebo and deck.’ And then the greens department, which deals with plants, came in and brought in all sorts of flowers and trees and dressed the thing up.”
The scripts for Season 3 were not extensive at describing precisely what details should be included in District Six on M’Talas Prime but nonetheless inspired the setting’s design. “Obviously, the ‘hero moments’ are things that they’ll tend to describe,” Kit Stølen explains. “So, if they go into a Ferengi establishment, that’s described, and they mention that Sneed has a thing for collecting Earth memorabilia. Those are all scripted elements, and then you try to fill in everything else.”
More was initially planned for the scenes in District Six than was ultimately shown in the third season. “Originally, there was a whole thing with Worf on the rooftops,” Stølen reveals, “and Worf and Raffi were being lured into the trap with the criminal Vulcan character by a little Klingon girl.”
To create the alien setting of District Six, the creative staff took over an entire backlot. “It was originally meant to do Middle Eastern or Iraq Afghanistan war movies,” Stølen reflects. “They built huge sections of city, and we took it over.”
The backlot was then filled with individuals and details. “We started deciding, ‘Okay, well, we want to populate it with aliens. What aliens can we negotiate? What make-up can we afford? What are the different groups of people we want to put into this city?’ Obviously in Star Trek, there’s always established aliens and a lot of the languages are relatively readable. So, we went through and started filling in the world. You know, you start to find holes where there’s no information, like, ‘Well, how do you express latinum or currency?’ So, we actually came up with the currency symbols for latinum and exchange charts and little numericals.”
To construct District Six, Set Decorator Shauna Aronson rushed to locate as many elements as she could from salvage. “District Six, of course, is all salvage stuff — all old sets that we painted different colors, turned upside down, put alien writing on,” says Stølen, “and then anything that we could rent for cheap out in the city, because there’s all these warehouses where old sets or pieces of sets get sent, and then you could rent or buy them, and then you sell them back. So, there’s a whole recycling system.”
Borg parts were incorporated into District Six. “In fact, the entire market is made with repurposed Borg elements and there are Borg chop shops, because we wanted to foreshadow that this is the Borg returning, and we wanted to run a theme through — that there is some element in which everyone is feasting off this corpse of the Borg,” Stølen explains. “They feel in themselves that they have this long grievance, and even coming up from the other two seasons, people are harvesting off of them. Starfleet is constantly repurposing their tech using Borg tech and getting into trouble for it, and so we wanted to show that there’s this whole economy of people just scavenging and feasting on them and having an unhealthy reliance on their technology. You can sort of see it shadowy; they ended up cutting around it a little bit. I think they decided that it might be a giveaway of who the ultimate villain was. But I like it thematically, that there is this apparent abuse for them, especially because, towards the end, the Queen seems to think that she has legitimate grievances.”
The Borg parts included a particular style of wall panel that had a somewhat random origin. “Shauna Aronson had found these weird organic textured panels for District Six, and I recognized those. They had started out life in a weird Disney theme park, George Lucas/Francis Ford Coppola short movie, with Michael Jackson in it, that had been done as a 3D experience called ‘Captain EO’.”
Stølen’s work on District Six was inspired by his love of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. “We have a lot of Deep Space Nine references throughout District Six,” he points out, “and so getting to play in that world was a highlight.”
Stølen counts District Six as his second favourite of all the Picard sets he worked on. “In terms of scope, District Six was a lot of fun, because there is so much detail that we put into the world. Ninety-nine percent of it you probably didn’t see on screen but just all the little details — all the little Klingon food, all the little Andorian stuff, etc. Luckily, we took lots of photos, so there’s lots to comb through with details of things that are there.”
The Fleet Museum, in orbit of the planet Athan Prime, was supposed to be a modification of the same Spacedock shown orbiting Earth in multiple Star Trek productions. It shows up in the films The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, The Final Frontier, and The Undiscovered Country as well as the Voyager episode “Non Sequitur” and the Discovery episode “Will You Take My Hand?”.
The original script of the Star Trek: Picard episode “Bounty” had an away team — consisting of Picard, Seven of Nine, Sidney La Forge, and Jack Crusher — beam into the Fleet Museum. Although Stølen didn’t work on designing the museum, he recalls, “Originally, it was scripted that we would have been able to go in there, ’cause in an early draft before the released first draft, they meet Geordi in the museum instead of him coming onto the Titan. They go to his office and then most of the scenes that, in the episode, happen on the Titan actually happen in various parts of the museum. Picard has a scene with Geordi in his office instead of the Titan observation lounge. Jack and Sidney are walking around the observation platforms when they’re looking at the Bounty and going, ‘Hey, I got an idea,’ but obviously for budget reasons that got shifted to the Titan bridge. In the original script, there’s the added element of Geordi having to talk down the museum’s Starfleet staff, as they immediately try to arrest the main characters, since they’re fugitives.”
Ultimately, only a small background set was constructed to represent Geordi’s office aboard the Fleet Museum, only ever shown on the Titan’s viewscreen. “They did what we call a ‘phonecall set’ for Geordi’s office,” notes Stølen.
While the Titan is visiting the Fleet Museum in “The Bounty”, an away team that includes Riker, Raffi and Worf explore the vaults aboard Daystrom Station. Kit Stølen comments, “As scripted, they’re exploring these vaults for quite a while, and the doors are shutting on them.”
The process of selecting Daystrom Station’s multiple displays was lengthy. “Essentially an ‘Area 51 storage facility in space’ was the idea behind it,” Stølen recollects. “When we began conceiving of it, we started trying to fill all the vaults with actual items. We came up with these huge lists of items that were to go into the vaults. Actually, Mike Okuda and I sat down for a long session and generated these massive lists of items and debated, ‘Okay, well, did they exist at the end of the episode? Is it something that somebody, after the story happened, would have come and gotten and cleaned up and brought to this station?’ They’re not technically Easter eggs. I tend to be opposed personally to fourth-wall-breaking Easter eggs, as opposed to things that should reasonably exist in the universe that you might see again, so we scrutinized everything along those parameters.” The quantity of displays was ultimately reduced, due to the third season’s limited budget for sets.
The aesthetic shared by each of the displays had to be designed. The idea for how they would look was devised by Production Designer Dave Blass and Computer Playback Supervisor Todd Marks. “Dave and Todd came up with this scheme that would be video feed that’s floating like holograms,” says Stølen. “So, I took that and ran with it.” Stølen filmed some test footage of the team trying to make the displays look slightly more holographic and three-dimensional.
The layout of Daystrom Station’s vaults was another factor that had to be decided on. “We came up with all of these lists of stuff and then created sections. So, in the original plan, they go through a progression of places — it’s like biological storage, pathogens, viruses.”
Amongst the displays are James T. Kirk’s physical remains, having apparently been salvaged after his death in the movie Star Trek Generations. When asked whether he’d say Kirk is still alive, Stølen remarks, “I don’t know. That’s a very interesting question. I think you could probably find justifications for either way, because he’d been spat out by this weird Nexus event. We don’t really even know the rules of this thing. Is there still a version of Kirk in the Nexus, because there’s a version of Guinan in the Nexus, so is it possible that it could spit out another iteration of him? They never really defined how that worked in the movie.”
The Daystrom displays also housed a so-called “attack tribble”, about which Stølen comments, “The attack tribble was supposed to be a sock puppet at one point. I’m sad it didn’t end up still being a sock puppet. It turned into a CG thing, but I would have been greatly amused if it had stayed a sock puppet.”
The design of the long walkway in Daystrom Station was absolutely inspired by a long walkway in stellar cartography aboard the Enterprise-D in Star Trek Generations. “I mean, it’s meant to be evocative of that, but there’s a lot of that kind of pattern in science fiction design,” Stølen observes. “Actually, you see that set design in Doctor Who, like in Jon Pertwee episodes. It’s this floating platform with a drop off and void. In theory, if there’s sensitive equipment, it might be an isolation chamber, so that they want to isolate the equipment there, and then protect it. So, that was the idea behind that.”
Both the vaults and the cybernetics area (the latter was scripted as the “Security Chamber”) were actually a reuse of an often-recycled set. “I guess an interesting thing of note for Daystrom is that it’s actually the same set, or the same bones of a set, as the Elios, and it was also Soong’s lab from the second season. The room where Data is was the same room that Kore was living in with Soong; the hallways were his lab. Then it became the bridge of the Elios, with the corridors. It was also the Titan maintenance area, for some scenes where the Changeling is sabotaging the Titan. So, that stage ended up being the majority of our other spaces that weren’t spaceships or District Six.”
The set for Daystrom Station included a framework containing B-4. Both the framework and the B-4 body parts were reused from the film Star Trek Nemesis. “We had to figure out how it all went back together — parts were missing, etc.”
The same area of Daystrom Station additionally includes a framework containing Data. “The apparatus that Data is in was something that we constructed that was new, and Michael Meyers and James Addink were the illustrator and set designer for that, me as art director of course.”
The Titan-A’s Engineering
One set which was initially scripted but ultimately wasn’t created was a full engineering set for the Titan. “All those scenes with Data/Lore were supposed to be in engineering, but instead they were in sickbay and a smaller computer core room,” observes Kit Stølen. “Also, there was a lot more memories from Data; I recall a painting of Lal, for example. We had discussed converting the La Sirena into the Titan’s engineering and warp core, but that’s something that didn’t happen. With a repaint and a warp core, it would have probably looked a bit like Voyager’s. It’s a shame, as I would have liked to have done that set.”
Although a Borg cube that had been portrayed in Season 1 of Picard had a very clean and streamlined appearance, the gigantic Borg cube at the end of Season 3 — in the episodes “Võx” and “The Last Generation” — was conceived as a lot different. “We wanted to say that it was a much older cube,” Kit Stølen explains. “It might even be one of the original core cubes from the unimatrix, but they’re sick; they’re basically cancerous. There’s this Janeway virus that’s gone nuts throughout the system, and so it’s almost like roots or veins are growing like crazy and things have just gone nuts and strangled itself to death, and so it’s kind of this dead cube.”
Not only was the concept of the Janeway virus followed on from Voyager’s series finale, “Endgame”, but various other sources also inspired the overall look and feel of these Borg sets. “It’s an environment that’s leaning into the biomechanical Giger-esque qualities of the design,” Stølen remarks. “We wanted to get a very hybrid Next Gen look out of the Borg chambers. It’s supposed to be a little bit of the ‘Best of Both Worlds’ look with, like, lots of First Contact and Voyager. But as you get into the Queen’s chamber, there’s the more modern kind of regeneration alcoves, and we wanted to show little bits of progression.” This chamber was meant to be evocative of the Borg Queen’s lair in Star Trek: Voyager.
The Borg sets at the end of Season 3 were a redress of the heavily recycled sets that had served as Daystrom Station interiors. “We’ve obviously knocked holes in the walls and did a lot of work to them and put cables everywhere,” says Stølen. The sets were in the same building as the costume department, where the 10 Forward set had stood in Season 2.
The Borg sets ended up being very dark, so many of the details in them are not clearly visible in the final versions of the episodes. However, these intricacies are nonetheless present, carefully designed for the final two episodes of Star Trek: Picard, and Stølen eagerly discusses these minute details.
The regeneration alcoves for the Borg drones was obviously one requirement of the Picard Season 3 Borg sets. Remembers Stølen, “We went back to the plasma disks. They’re in a very ‘Best of Both Worlds’ shape, but they’ve got little Voyager touches.”
The bullpen of the Star Trek: Picard art department, which was a communal space, meanwhile contained a regeneration alcove from Star Trek: First Contact. It was there only to provide inspiration and was never filmed for Picard.
Some of the design for the Picard Borg sets conceptually germinated while the art department was planning District Six. This was because the Borg sets included manufactured replicas of the same textured parts that Set Decorator Shauna Aronson had found for District Six, left in salvage after the making of Captain EO. The same parts had already been used as Borg wall panels in TNG. “A lot of the Borg sets came from that film, and the Borg costumes,” Stølen relates, referring to Captain EO. “Once that was over, they threw out all that stuff and Star Trek clearly came along and said, ‘Well, we can make some use of this.’ All of these props, set dressing, and costumes from this Captain EO movie became available, and they made good use of it. Shauna Aronson had found one of these panels. You see them in ‘Q Who’ and ‘The Best of Both Worlds’. People have noted that they show up in a number of sci-fi shows throughout the ’80s and ’90s. There were three still-existing complete ones, which were in a couple of different styles. And then there were ones that had been cut down, or had big holes in them. We were finding stuff like this in prop/scenery rental houses. We decided we had to sort of lean into this design, so we went and reproduced them. We probably put hundreds of them back into the Hollywood ecosystem at this point!”
Green pyramid-shaped distribution nodes from the first part of “The Best of Both Worlds” two-parter were also included in the Picard Season 3 Borg sets. Even the Borg logo was repurposed, used for Picard’s final two episodes, but too dark to see. It had previously appeared in The Next Generation episodes “Q Who”, parts one and two of “The Best of Both Worlds”, and parts one and two of the “Descent” two-parter, as well as the first part of the Voyager two-parter “Unimatrix Zero” and the Picard installment “Penance”. “It doesn’t really make sense that the Borg have a logo,” Stølen reasons, “so we put it in as a little circuit pattern in the lights. We tried to say it’s just something indicative of their technology.” As well as incorporating the emblem into a circular lighting fixture over a crescent doorway to the Borg Queen’s lair, the logo was also displayed in a pattern on a small console.
As Stølen explains, the central access node — encountered by Worf and Riker in “The Last Generation” — was created as a practical effect. “We made sort of a mirror box and experimented with playing around with this see-through TV and a reflective interior to try and create a holographic space,” Stølen recollects. “We were trying to play around with some of these notions. Like, Voyager comes around and they start having the Borg push touch-screen buttons and look at things, and I feel like people were critical of that, and I chose to interpret it as not that; it’s like information packets — something else, more dynamic, is actually happening in that process, and we’re just interpreting it as something. We tried to lean into these ideas, while retaining the shape of them but trying to flesh them a little deeper. The central access node was based on the central plexus from Voyager, presumably part of the same system.”
As Stølen remembers, adding the Borg Queen, played by Jane Edwina Seymour, was another challenge. “We had the performer up in the air on a plank, looming over Picard and Jack, with protruding ribcage to make it look like her lower half was just these intestine-like hoses spilling out, connecting everywhere. The idea was to really not distinguish much of a difference between Queen and cube; they’re part of the same organism, and walking around the ‘cube’ is like being inside their guts, which is another reason we pushed for a more bio-organic look — that their technology is closer to being like an organism and follows a logic and sensibilities that seem ‘alien’ to our own. What’s the cable management like for the roots of a tree, or the veins in your arm? They simply have different perceptions and priorities than we do. A scan and mold of the performer were taken. We used the mold to sculpt the sets and figure out where the makeup effects, costume, and sets integrated. All these elements had to merge into one gesture for the Queen.”
Stølen recalls that Todd Marks was involved in lighting the sickened Borg Queen, whose appearance was designed by Lead Creature Designer Neville Page. “Todd cast a very faint digital chatter over the Borg Queen herself, that would crawl down the tubes. I don’t think it’s very evident in the final product.”
The Borg sets for the gigantic Borg cube were Stølen’s favourite of all the sets he worked on for Star Trek: Picard. As for why, he rhetorically comments it’s “because… how fun is it to do the Borg set?” Stølen was also glad he was given the opportunity to design the Borg sets “how I wanted them — Giger-ish, with Lovecraftian, creepy interiors.” Stølen’s only regret is that he didn’t add five-and-a-half-inch floppy disk covers to the Borg cube’s walls, much like there are in “Q Who”. Nevertheless, he sums up the Borg sets of Picard Season 3 by declaring, “That’s an absolute highlight of my career, thus far.”
Sets of the Future
As Kit Stølen speculates, District Six might reappear sometime in Star Trek. “Maybe one day, the show will go back there and they’ll get to do more of it,” he supposes.
Stølen is clearly proud of the sets he worked on for Star Trek: Picard. He concludes, “Even though we didn’t have the budget for a lot of these sets, a lot of work went into them.”
Editor of WarpFactorTrek, Dan is an avid Star Trek fan who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. Dan has loved Star Trek ever since discovering it in his childhood. He worked as an administrator, for six years, on the encyclopedic Star Trek website Memory Alpha, which involved studying the making of the various series and films. He has been mentioned in the official Star Trek Magazine, has qualified from a Star Trek course taught at Glasgow Clyde College, and coordinates the SubSpace Chatter (formerly The Scotch Trekker) YouTube channel, which regularly features live interviews with the cast and crew of Star Trek.