Why did I even watch Star Trek: Picard? I noped out of Star Trek: Discovery after the godawful first episode. I’ve been pretty consistently disappointed with Star Trek ever since The Voyage Home back in 1986. I went into The Next Generation with optimism, but was quickly disenchanted with its character-light, conflict-free, unimaginative storytelling, bailing in the second season. I came back to it late in the third season (the series’ modest high point) when I started participating in rec.arts.startrek, but bailed again in the sixth season. I ejected from Deep Space Nine in its second season, and other than a brief fling with the first season of Enterprise, that was it for me and Star Trek on television. I did enjoy the first J.J. Abrams film, but the other two were pretty meh.
(In the unlikely event you’re curious what twentysomething me thought of mid-series Next Generation, you can read a bunch of my reviews here.)
That said, I do enjoy Star Trek: Nemesis, and I enjoy it more now than my review at the time says I did at the time. Indeed, I think it’s the best NextGen film, though it’s not perfect, but it boiled down NextGen to its two best characters: Picard and Data. It struggles to fully develop its themes, but at least it has themes.
Star Trek: Picard seems to have highly variable word-of-mouth. Some people love it, some people hate it. I inferred from context that big fans of NextGen did not enjoy it. So maybe that meant I would? And the more I learned about it, the more appealing it seemed: Michael Chabon is involved. Picard is struggling with recriminations in his retirement involving Data’s death and the destruction of Romulus (a plot point in the Abrams reboot).
And, well, Jean-Luc Picard was the best thing about NextGen.
So tonight I signed up for CBS All Access, and watched the first episode.
And it was a fine hour of television.
My spoiler-free reaction to the first episode, “Remembrance”, is that Picard is a deep character who is indeed dealing with some of the traumas of his career, and the story overall moves Star Trek substantially forward from The Next Generation, rather than just rummaging around in the show’s past. There’s drama and action, and the promise of a lot of suspense and ratcheting up of the stakes to come. But – perhaps most importantly – it moves beyond the feel-good utopian-future nonsense of The Next Generation: Picard is fallible, the Federation is fallible, people make mistakes and have feelings about it. Like humans.
A more spoilers review after the cut:
The premise is basically as advertised: 18 years after the events of Nemesis, Picard (Patrick Stewart) has dreams about Data and deeply misses his old friend. But there’s a lot more: He retired from Starfleet 14 years ago after the destruction of Romulus when Starfleet reneged on its promise to help Romulan refugees, and after a group of synthetics wreaked havoc on Mars, synthetic life was outlawed in the Federation.
Picard’s unquiet retirement ends in “Remembrance” when a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones) comes to him, having been attacked by assassins. Picard finds that she is an artificial life form, imagined by Data in a painting decades earlier. The assassins – Romulans – finally find her and killed her. A researcher at the Daystrom Institute (Alison Pill) tells him she can’t possibly exist, but if she does, then she has a twin somewhere. And indeed she does, we learn, at a Romulan reclamation site inside a Borg cube.
This first episode is dense, but it doesn’t feel over-stuffed. Picard’s state of mind is given time to breathe in the first half before the action starts moving. There are some nifty asides such as the Starfleet archive, and the interview with Picard which catches us up on the setting’s history. Picard has Romulan employees, but surely not all Romulans admire him. He’s an admiral, yet it seems likely that it’s an honorary title.
Moving things forward is a key part of what makes the story work for me. The Federation and Starfleet made mistakes, and people are paying for them. Because governments make mistakes and people get hurt. Picard has recriminations about his role in those events, but he’s also an old man who’s left Starfleet and whose influence is small. Still, when Dahj shows up, a hint of an old friend and what he feels is among his greatest failures, he’s moved to action.
Stewart is great, of course. The actor is now 79 years old, though by all reports he’s in great shape. He’s already convincingly played an elderly, semi-demented Professor X in Logan, and he brings some of that feel to Picard here, such as when he and Dahj are running from the assassins. He also deftly conveys Picard’s aura of certainty about the morality of his own actions, while expressing his inner doubt about himself.
I didn’t think we’d ever seen Brent Spiner as Data again, as I understood he wanted Data to die in Nemesis because he felt he was getting too old to play an ageless android. He does look a little older here, though under make-up and (I assume) some CGI, as well as the limited range of motion he shows in his two scenes, he looks convincing enough.
Picard essentially has four major life-changing events in his past: Commanding the Enterprise, being taken over by the Borg, confronting his own clone and losing Data in Nemesis, and seeing the destruction of Romulus. It looks like all of these elements will come into play in Picard, and yet it seems more as a way for the character to work through his feelings about his history than as mere navel-gazing. Indeed, there’s plenty of opportunity for these to merely be the springboard to move the Star Trek universe forward: Androids, the Romulans exploiting Borg technology, the Federation not the infallible entity it has been portrayed as in the past, all of these are logic extrapolations from previous events. (Of course there are many civilization-changing phenomena in Star Trek, but presumably the writers of Picard will pick and choose those they want to play with. I’m happy to take the series on its own terms and not view it as weighed down in nitpicky Trek continuity.)
“Remembrance” might be the best hour of Star Trek since The Search for Spock. I have hope that, as The Wrath of Khan did with Kirk, Picard will build on the character’s past to help him find new meaning. Unlike Kirk, Picard already has a lot of trauma in his past, so his story might be more one of healing and heroism. I’m hoping they can pull it off.
Update March 31: Spoiler: They pulled it off! I wrote reviews of the whole season, and the next one is The End is the Beginning (episodes 2 & 3).