As a long-term fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation my feelings on the prospect of Star Trek: Picard were mixed. It certainly promised to be more cerebral in the vein of classic Trek, as opposed to the action-driven spectacles of the Abrams’ films, Discovery and, if we’re being honest, the TNG films.
As much as Patrick Stewart clearly loves getting into a scrap, at 79 years old it’s almost impossible to build a series around him gunning down aliens. So, the only solution is to fall back on the substantial class he brings to the role, which is far more in-keeping of the Picard of the series. At the same time though; Star Trek as a franchise was largely done. TNG ended in 1994 after 178 episodes, in-part because the writing staff felt like there were no more new ideas to explore. It’s impossible then to view this latest iteration, seemingly driven largely by nostalgia and Patrick Stewart’s enduring appeal, without acknowledging the dead horse assault taking place in the background.
For what it’s worth though Star Trek Picard, at least feels like a new story. Set in the wake of the frustratingly titled Star Trek (2009) in which a supernova destroyed the planet Romulus (kicking off the events of that series). Admiral Picard, who after Nemesis, had more reason than most to distrust Starfleet’s oldest enemy actually commanded the armada to evacuate the 400 million Romulans. When a group of rogue synthetics attacked the Federation’s shipyards on Mars, Starfleet used the incident, seemingly as a convenient excuse, to cancel the rescue and recall its ships. Picard resigned in protest and has been living in isolation at his family’s vineyard ever since.
So, we have a set-up that effectively utilises the events of Abrams first film to provide context for where we are in Picard. That in the face of a changing world with new technology and a dramatically different political landscape the government is becoming more insular and xenophobic (fancy that!). And rather than grapple with that Picard has, in turn, isolated himself until a young girl named Dahj, arrived seeking protection from unknown assailants.
If all this plotting sounds a touch dense, then imagine how it feels to be rushed through it in 44-minute runtime. Life at Chateau Picard feels so charming that you almost want to spend more time there before being dragged into a detective story about Dahj’s past. Isa Briones is putting in a ‘human’ enough performance, but the character is so wrapped in mystery that it’s hard to become invested in her fate. With what little investment we have jettisoned at Dahj’s abrupt and unceremonious departure. Hopefully coming episodes will offer the chance to add more flesh to her bones.
On the subject of performances; Stewart hasn’t lost any sense of what makes Jean-Luc Picard. A man so curmudgeonly he might as well have been born in his sixties. Over the course of The Next Generation Picard lost much of his pomposity and learned to open up, which is very much on display here. He’s warm to his confidants (particularly his new Number 1), but rigid and uncomfortable around new people. Quick to judge not only others but also himself when finally spurred into action.
In many ways Picard himself is the only remnant of ‘classic’ Trek present in the show. There’s no Starfleet HQ, no officers, no scenes on the Bridge. The show only leaves Planet Earth for the final scene set aboard, of all things, a Borg Cube. While more recent Star Trek shows have at least retained the basics, Picard seems to be nakedly trying to distance itself from the trappings of the franchise as much as possible. That however is a double-edged sword; it certainly succeeds in giving Picard an identity of its own. More free-flowing and concerned with the more colourful margins of its universe rather than the bland bureaucrats who often occupy its centre. But then if we’re not here to watch space bureaucrats’ boss around aliens then why are we even watching a show titled Star Trek?
That’s the question that Star Trek: Picard will have to answer in it’s coming episodes. For now there’s promise; the focus on synthetic lifeforms and an increasingly hostile Starfleet show that there are in fact new directions for the franchise to take.
Stewart remains a commanding screen presence for his humanity as much as his class. And as much as I’m sceptical about the show as an action series the choreography and special effects are incredibly well-executed. This, perhaps more than Discovery, is a Star Trek show for the golden age of television. One driven by big, long-form narratives that feel organically across each other and with a considerable pedigree when it comes to production design and scoring. All that remains to see is if it has the character (in every sense) to keep us watching.