If Picard represented a brave new world of solid storytelling for Star Trek after more than 35 years, Discovery is, well, the same old thing, lightly refurbished to meet modern dramatic television sensibilities. Since I subscribed to CBS All Access to watch Picard, I decided to give Discovery another try, despite the first episode having been so bad that I mocked it live on Twitter.
Overall the show is, well, better than that first episode, but not very good. The first season is very hard going, partly focused around a war with the Klingons, but also spending several episodes in a strange digression. The second season is more coherent and generally improved, but still kind of disappointing. The general feel of the series is one of flamboyant and nonsensical plotting, without much of a message. The characters are generally pretty flat. Overall it feels very much of a piece with NextGen and the later series, albeit with a rougher edge, but that’s not really a good thing.
Jodie Whittaker’s second season as the Doctor was an incremental improvement over her first, and while it introduced a big mystery into the Time Lord’s existence, the show seemed reluctant to go all in on that to craft a full story out of it, opting instead to have pieces at the beginning, middle, and end, and otherwise make the season another set of standalone episodes. Much like last season, the stories were enjoyable enough but kind of nondescript and thus forgettable.
And as for that big mystery, well, some of it was carried off quite well, and some of it was not so great. I enjoyed it overall, but it really should have been a lot more than it was, and ultimately while it sets up some interesting stuff for future seasons, if the series continues in this vein I think it’s going to feel more like an afterthought, possibly one thrown away by the next showrunner.
Anyway, if the last five seasons of Doctor Who are the kind of thing you like, then you probably liked this one too.
“Et in Arcadia Ego” part 2 brought the first season of Picard to a close, and overall I’m quite happy with how it turned out. I think the final episode was a little overstuffed so that not everything was as smooth as I’d hoped. In some cases I think they should have restructured the last three episodes a bit to have some threads get resolved earlier, and in others I think they made some poor storytelling decisions. But the most important thing is that I think they got the emotional resonance of the story right, as there was a lot to cheer about.
For convenience here are links to my earlier reviews of the season:
Wo-ow, “Et in Arcadia Ego” part one, the first half of the conclusion to this first season of Star Trek: Picard, was one great hour of television. Past Star Trek series had plenty of visits to idyllic worlds with a dark underbelly, but here we’ve had a season of build-up to visiting the planet of the synthetics, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Google Translate tells me that “Et in Arcadia Ego” means “And in Arcadia I am”, where Arcadia is a poetic term for a utopia, which is certainly appropriate here.
One thing to watch for in this episodes is the spectacular acting by much of the cast; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a virtuoso ensemble performance in any episode of Star Trek, where Patrick Stewart might not be delivering the best or even the second-best performance.
I’d originally planned to review the last two episodes together, but this one had enough stuff in it that I decided to cover it separately.
Three episodes of Picard this time around, and they’re an odd set to review together:
“The Impossible Box” finishes the second third of the season, as Picard and company make it to the Borg cube and find Soji. It’s the most exciting episode of the season to this point, and starts moving the story into high gear.
So, oddly, the next episode, “Nepenthe”, isn’t really part of any of the three parts of the season (beginning, middle and end). Rather, it’s a pause, a time for the characters (and viewers) to reflect on where we are. While the popular focus has been on the return of Will Riker and Deanne Troi, it also allows Soji and Picard to adjust to recent developments which have left them reeling, while the crew of La Sirena deal with some their own problems.
Finally, “Broken Pieces” resolves several plot points, in a way clearing the decks for the two-part finale, as well as giving us some insight – finally – into Captain Rios.
All three episodes are quite good, and quite different, and everything seems to be coming together. More after the cut:
The fourth and fifth episode of Star Trek: Picard operate as a pair of sorts. Where the first three episodes concerned Picard learning that he had something he needed to do and arranging to be able to do it, these episodes see him and his band leaving Earth and learning where they need to go. They’re more adventurous – in the literal plot sense – than the first three, but they’re also a little awkwardly dropped into the story: Whereas the second episode “Maps and Legends” felt like it was moving pieces into place for the purposes of the plot, these two have a similar purpose but to get to their goal they’re developed in the context of a pair of smaller stories.
After the first episode, “Remembrance”, I’d thought maybe I’d write a review for each episode of Star Trek: Picard, but the second episode, “Maps and Legends”, didn’t feel like it needed a review. It wasn’t a bad episode, and certainly I didn’t expect it to be as good as the first episode as it was a hard act to follow, but it was mostly a moving-the-pieces-into-place episode, without much of a narrative arc.
The third episode, “The End is the Beginning”, jumped the quality back up and made me decide to cover both of them at once.
I figure if you haven’t watched the first episode, or if it didn’t grab you, then you’re not likely to be reading this, so I’m just going to jump to spoilers after the cut:
(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.
After 37 (or so) seasons of television, the BBC cast a woman as the Doctor. Jodie Whittaker fit right in with many of her predecessors, perhaps not surprisingly most closely evoking David Tennant – the most popular Doctor of the modern era – and Peter Davison, with her portrayal of the Doctor being more consistently upbeat and less of a schemer who can’t entirely be trusted (a la the sad end of Matt Smith’s Doctor vis-a-vis Clara).
For me, the key question was whether the writing would improve, as the show’s writing these last few years has been inconsistent at best, and often just plain weak. Did new show runner Chris Chibnall succeed in elevating the storytelling? My answer… after the cut (along with spoilers for the season):
I recent finished reading John Scalzi‘s recent novel, The Consuming Fire, the second in his Interdependency trilogy. It’s quite good, and I agree with some comments I’ve read that although it starts slow, it ends up being a more satisfying read than the first volume. But what won me over fully to it is not the satisfying ending (which is about as satisfying an ending as the second book in a trilogy can have), but the bits in the middle.
(Spoilers for The Consuming Fire, as well as some other stories discussed below!)
The Interdependency in the series is a collection of worlds connected by wormholes, except that after millennia the wormholes start collapsing. Since most of the “worlds” are actually uninhabited – the population live on artificial satellites in orbit, and only one world is known to itself be habitable – this is a big problem, since the worlds can’t survive on their own. The fact of this collapse is a nascent scientific discovery which is not widely believed, but a major development in this book is that a wormhole which had collapsed centuries before has recently reopened for a limited period of time, and our heroes – in the form of the Emperox – send an expeditionary ship through to see what happened to the settlement there.
They break into the main satellite, which is predictably dead and dormant, and manage to reactivate some of the computer systems, whereupon they discover that they’re not the first ones to do so: The system had been reactivated several times since civilization collapsed, and our heroes figure out that not only is there a remnant of the centuries-dead civilization still hanging on, but that they had been visited from elsewhere during that time.
And I love this stuff. Stories about finding long-forgotten and long-dead remnants of past civilizations or even people whose stories ended tragically long before they were uncovered thrills me more than almost anything else in science fiction.
I was trying to think when my fascination with this sort of story started, and the earliest instance I can think of is the Space: 1999 episode “Dragon’s Domain”. Five years earlier, a probe to the recently-discovered tenth planet of the solar system ended in tragedy when it discovered a graveyard of alien ships. On docking with one of them, three of the four crew members are killed by a mysterious creature, and the fourth barely escapes and makes it back to Earth. In the present, he senses that the creature is nearby, and the Alphans find the same graveyard, many light years from Earth, and have a final showdown with the creature. As with most things in the series, the story doesn’t make much sense, but when I was six years old when it first aired in 1975, it made an indelible impression on me, enough that when I had the opportunity to buy a few episodes in the 90s, it was one of the two that I bought. (Yes, I was disappointed when I watched it.) It’s not even very satisfying in exploring the ships they find – we never get to see inside any of them – but somehow it was just enough to stimulate some part of my brain.
Somehow many Space: 1999 episodes are available in their entirety on YouTube, and I watched it before writing this post:
(I could write at some length about Space: 1999, basically that I think there is some good stuff in there that could have been used as the springboard for an actually good series, but it’s buried under so much nonsense and terrible writing that any good series would have been substantially different from what actually aired. But I digress.)
Another episode which tickled a similar part of my brain was “Another Time, Another Place”, in which the Alphans meet their doppelgängers from another universe who had recolonized the Earth, with mixed results. I haven’t re-watched that one, but I recall the exploration of the doppelgänger Alpha was pretty powerful. Again, to my six-year-old self.
Star Trek also had a little of this, though the memorable episodes involved finding derelict starships. “Space Seed”, “The Tholian Web”, and my all-time favorite episode, “The Doomsday Machine”, all feature these small-scale discoveries and piecing together what happened, although the main thrust of each episode heads in a somewhat different direction; the space relics are primarily part of the episodes’ color. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode actually entitled “Relics” features an ancient Dyson sphere, but it’s really about Scotty coming to the 24th century. And the Star Trek: Enterprise story “In a Mirror, Darkly” is a sequel to “The Tholian Web”, but it’s really a love letter to original series fans.
The movie Alien starts off with the characters exploring a derelict alien hulk, and although the film is overall excellent (and I am not a fan of horror films generally), plumbing the depths of the hulk is not the point of the film.
So with all of these TV shows and movies teasing me with glimpses of old relics that don’t really get explored, what really got me hooked on this stuff? Well, it was a book titled Spacewreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space which was part of a series of art books from the late 70s about the fictional Terran Trade Authority. Set over the next thousand years or so, the book is a collection of short stories with corresponding illustration (I inferred that the illustration was done first and the story written to more-or-less match it, but I really have no idea) about spaceships which had been lost and later found abandoned, or maybe just found without anyone knowing where they came from (e.g., alien ships). Mary Celeste-type stuff. It was not great literature, but I read through it several times as a teenager, fascinated by the stories with their sometimes-oblique tragedies of years long past, buried more by obscurity than by intent.
I think that’s part of what appeals to me about such stories: Unlike typical mysteries, in which there’s a perpetrator who is deliberately trying to conceal the truth, in these stories the truth has been lost due to the ravages of time, or due to something simply dropping out of sight, or becoming inaccessible. There may have been some corresponding or causal tragedy to the mystery – that’s sometimes where the story comes from – but I find the peeling back of the layers, and the revelation of what happened to the long-dead people to be the part of the tale that grabs my imagination.
And that brings me to what, to my knowledge, is the preeminent example of this sort of story: Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict series.
Alex Benedict is an antiquities dealer who inherited money from his anthropologist uncle after he was lost in space, and set up his own business. In the first book, A Talent For War (1989) – which is one of my favorite novels – he investigates the disappearance of a crew of heroes who helped end the war against the only known alien species in the galaxy. As a group of legendary officers, the crew lightly evokes the crew of the original Star Trek, but all of them are two centuries dead. The story has some good twists and turns, and a solid ending. It was probably the most satisfying story of its sort I’d read up to this point – it might still be at the top.
To my delight, McDevitt turned this novel into a series, with 9 millennia of backstory for his characters to explore:
Polaris (2004): An auction of relics from a ship whose crew disappeared under impossible circumstances unfolds the mystery of what really happened to them.
Seeker (2005): A lone cup unlocks the mystery to the location of one of the earliest colony ships from Earth, nearly 9,000 years earlier. This one won the Nebula Award for Best Novel.
The Devil’s Eye (2008): A mind-wiped friend of Alex’s is the clue to a government cover-up and a lost colony. The series’ nadir in my opinion.
Echo (2010): A deceased scientist known for searching for other intelligent life beyond humans and the one other species we’ve encountered found something. But if he found aliens, why did he bury the news?
Firebird (2011): Another deceased scientist who was known for researching parallel universes also found something. What he found is very different from the story in Echo, and is perhaps the most arresting storyline of the series, and very much on-theme for this article – but I won’t reveal it here because I definitely recommend reading it yourself. It’s concluded in the next novel…
Coming Home (2014): In addition to the continued story from Firebird, Alex is presented with a relic from the earliest days of humanity’s space age, and he heads to Earth in search of its origin.
Coming Home seemed like a perfect ending to the series, and it was hard to see how McDevitt would top it, but apparently there will be a new volume, Octavia Gone, published next year.
Despite my fondness for the series, I do caution readers to temper their expectations: McDevitt is clearly influenced by the SF Golden Age grandmasters such as Asimov and Clarke, which means his writing can be a bit dry. He also has a decidedly clumsy approach to writing women, which is doubly unfortunate since after Talent – narrated by Alex – the remaining books are narrated by his assistant and pilot, Chase Kolpath. Chase is a pretty capable figure, but there are many cringeworthy turns of phrase involving her gender. So I’d expect some people would find the writing would cancel out the good qualities of the story, but if you can get past its limitations perhaps you’ll enjoy it. Unfortunately in such a limited niche, it’s nearly impossible to have it all.
By the way, an earlier McDevitt novel, Ancient Shores (1996), has some moments that resonated for me in this way – humanity discovers an abandoned network of portals to other worlds – although the main thrust of the story lies elsewhere. I suggest skipping the disappointing sequel, Thunderbird (2015), however.
I’m sure there are other stories I’m forgetting about, but those are the major ones. I wish more writers would play in this space (though I’m not so willing to sit through dozens of episodes of bad television for the occasional story of this sort), but I take what I can get.
Are there any notable stories in this vein that I should check out?
A friend’s comment on Facebook reminded me that I wanted to mention a couple of similar tropes which I see as different from the trope that interests me here:
First are Big Dumb Objects, unfathomable artifacts from ancient civilizations. Stories around these tend to fall into two camps: Either people trying to figure out what they’re used for and eventually reactivating them (usually to disappointing effect, since the payoff is rarely satisfying after the build-up), or as something which trigger the story but isn’t central to how it plays out (for example in Alastair Reynolds’ novella Diamond Dogs). While I can enjoy these stories, they different from the trope I’m discussing here because they’re fundamentally more impersonal; there’s little speculation in or resolution of what happened to the specific characters who left behind the BDO, it’s just a driver for the main characters’ story.
Second are ancient and dead civilizations, which again tend to be impersonal, the discovery of vast swaths of culture and/or technology rather than the story of a specific relic left behind. Star Trek worked this territory a lot, usually encountering the degenerate remnants of such civilizations, though occasionally they found completely dead ones, such as in “Contagion”. “The Inner Light” is a more personal take on a dead civilization, although it contains more of what I enjoy, but it subverts it by throwing Picard into the middle of events (and is shamelessly manipulative and maudlin to boot).