The first season of Star Trek: Picard was maybe the best season of Star Trek ever. I adored it so much that I wrote six reviews covering its ten episodes! (If you’re interested, you can start here.) It wobbled a little bit on the landing, but overall it was character-rich, exciting, and thoughtful – all the things that The Next Generation muffed on a regular basis.
I was certainly disappointed to hear that Michael Chabon stepped away from being the showrunner of season 2, but was happy to give it a chance. Unfortunately my disappointment was warranted, as season 2 was a big step down from season 1.
Season 2 featured a lot of Trek fan service, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. It set the early tone for the series as the first episode was packed with views into Picard’s life, his current role in Starfleet, what the other main characters were doing in and around Starfleet, the return of an old friend, and the return of the Borg. But things get turned on their ear when Q shows up and most of the principals from season 1 find themselves in an alternate timeline, and have to return to the 21st century to set things right.
The problem is that the writing was all over the place. As in season 1, each character has their own story arc, but they’re embedded in a tired framework (going back to “the present day” to fix history) with extremely awkward pacing (a lot of running around to set up later payoffs, but the running around gets tedious quickly). Finally, it absolutely does not stick the landing, although the final episode has a few nice bits.
Spoiler-rich commentary after the break:
I’m going to start with the parts that I thought worked, and move down to those that didn’t work, and then wrap up.
Picard’s Personal Trauma
One of the most successful parts of season 1 was that most of the characters had significant trauma from the last 20 years which they had to confront. Picard has a similar arc here, and it’s the emotional center of the season. His housekeeper, the Romulan Laris, makes romantic advances towards him, which he rebuffs in the most Picard way. Once he’s in the 21st century, he has to confront his childhood memories of his abusive father and his mother trying to take him away – which ends up inverted as we learn that his mother was mentally ill, his father tried to protect both of them, didn’t do a very good job, and Picard feels he contributed to his mother’s suicide. This left him emotionally scarred and unable to form lasting romantic relationships.
This was the most engaging thread of the season, and not only was the development of the thread satisfying, but the structural tricks used to show the flashbacks were themselves clever. The awkward part is that it felt attached to a larger story that was basically unrelated to it.
Picard’s interactions with 2024 Guinan (Ito Aghayere) are also a strong part of the season. Aghayere plays Guinan with a more imperious demeanor, though glimmers of her philosophical hippie-like nature come through on occasion. There’s a kind of pointless aside when the two of them are picked up by the FBI, but when it’s just the two of them it works.
Borg Queen Jurati
In order to go back to 2024, Picard and company draft a Borg queen who was to be executed by the twisted Confederation to perform the computations for La Sirena to use the age-old slingshot effect to travel into the past. Once there, the ship is crippled and Picard and Jurati negotiate with the Queen to help it limp along. Unfortunately Jurati goes a bit too far and ends up with the Queen embedded in her head, gradually taking over.
Some of this was a little far fetched (endorphins power the Queen’s assimilation of Jurati? Okay), but it was overall a solid creepy thread. Made all the more so by Alison Pill’s virtuoso performance as Jurati sliding into oblivion. Pill wasn’t given a lot to do in the first season, but here she’s given a great role to chew on, and she doesn’t disappoint, not only playing the slowly-Borgifying Jurati body, but the quickly-maturing Jurati herself, who becomes more confident and decisive even as she has to live with the consequences of her choices.
The weak link here was the conclusion, as the negotiation between Jurati and the Queen just didn’t ring true (except maybe in NextGen Pollyanna-land), though Star Trek is hardly a stranger to inconsistent and nonsensical portrayals of the Borg (the very existence of Borg Queens is pretty ridiculous, frankly, showing a lack of commitment to what makes the Borg fundamentally terrifying). More on this below.
Speaking of acting performances, Brent Spiner returns as Adam Soong, the ancestor of Data’s creator Noonian Soong (having played Noonan’s son in season 1), and chews the scenery whenever he shows up. Adam is a disgraced geneticist who has created a series of clones, none of whom have lived for long. His last try, Kore (Isa Briones, who played Data’s “daughter” Soji in season 1), lives her life in a bubble, and Soong makes a deal with Q to sabotage the upcoming Europa mission in return for a cure. Once Kore realizes what he’s done and leaves, the Queen in Jurati’s body convinces him to establish his legacy by capturing La Sirena and again attempting to foil the mission.
He fails at all of this, of course, and as a character he’s rather mercurial and his motivations don’t really add up once Kore leaves, but watching Spiner is just so much fun that I’m willing to forgive a lot of that. I wonder if they’d not involved him in the Queen’s machinations at all if he would have felt a little less scattered.
We really only saw the alternate-timeline Confederation for one episode, but it was pretty tense. If anything I was disappointed they didn’t go all-out and draw parallels to the old American Confederacy and the German Nazis – which would certainly have been timely. We got to see Elnor shine one last time before being killed (though he returns briefly in the last episode in two different ways). We got a glimpse of the evil man Picard could have become. It wasn’t an especially subtle episode, but it was well done.
Renée Picard and the Europa Mission
Q sets Adam Soong on a path to stop the Europa mission, a key member of which is Picard’s ancestor Renée, who is already having serious misgivings about participating. The most interesting part of all this is that she has a Supervisor (from the original series “Assignment: Earth”) watching out for her, and said Supervisor, Tallinn, is an ancestor of Laris’, and a Romulan. Once Picard makes contact with her, she is a key resource in their mission, as their goals align.
This story has its ups and downs. The crew has to fake their way into a party for the mission, which is mostly a pretty dull “caper” sequence,except that it provides a mechanism for the Queen to further her control of Jurati. While the two Picards have a charming talk, it all feels like a lot of screen time which could have been cut or at least replaced with a much shorter sequence. The final sequence where the crew has to stop Soong from sabotaging the mission is better, though Tallinn’s sacrifice is by far the key beat here.
Q was one of my least favorite parts of NextGen. The only Q story I enjoyed was “Q Who”, largely because it really showed us something about Picard as a leader (and also the Borg were at the time a pretty chilling enemy). But I felt Q was a total washout as a character: He wasn’t funny, he wasn’t charming, he wasn’t likable, and it never felt like he had skin in the game – even when he seemed to, it always felt like he was just putting Picard through the ringer again before the status quo reasserted itself.
Q here showed more promise at first: Something was wrong with him. He seemed nasty, not just trying to show Picard something. His powers were fading. Was he dying? Something worse? An unbalanced Q not in full control of his powers could be truly terrifying.
But no, it was just the same old Q, only this time motivated to try to help Picard work through his childhood trauma, because as he says, “Even gods have favorites.” Good old deus-ex-machina Q, ascending to another plane of existence but putting everyone through hell one last time. Such a waste of a fine actor in John de Lancie. And such a waste of an opportunity to do something different with the character.
This season was too clever by half in their handling of time travel. In 2024, Picard meets Guinan (played by Whoopi Goldberg in the 25th century, Aghayere in 2024), who should have remembered him from when they met in 1893 in “Time’s Arrow”. The explanation – which seems perfectly reasonable – is that since in this timeline Picard didn’t go back to 1893, Guinan didn’t know him. (Presumably there was a little fallout from the events of “Time’s Arrow” happening differently, but likely nothing that would seriously affect 2024 as we “know it”.) I wasn’t even bothered that the punk on the bus that Seven and Raffi ask to turn down his music is the same one (same actor, even!) who was put to sleep by Spock in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, rubbing his neck when confronted before meekly turning the music down – this was just a bit of fan service.
But it goes off the rails when they return to the 25th century and the same logic doesn’t apply: Jurati is still the Borg Queen, even though the Queen never went back to 2024 in this timeline (not to mention that La Sirena didn’t go back either, so how did she get off of Earth?). Rios lived his life in the 21st century, even though in this timeline he never went back. You can say that Q’s interference changed things up, but that’s weak sauce. I’ve written before about my standards for time travel stories, and this one doesn’t measure up, even – especially – by its own standards.
Wandering Around Los Angeles
So the crew go back to 2024 and Raffi, Seven and Rios beam into Los Angeles to find the “Watcher” (who ends up being the Supervisor, Tallinn). Rios gets injured and ends up in a clinic where he meets the doctor, Teresa, whom he eventually falls in love with and stays with in 2024. Then they get rounded up by ICE, and Rios is being deported by bus, and Seven and Raffi have to rescue him. Meanwhile Picard separately beams to Los Angeles, meets Guinan, and finds the Watcher. It’s almost two episodes of running around for extremely little payoff. Really bad writing, even worse than the too-long Europa mission party caper.
Season 1 felt overstuffed with plot threads, character development, and big revelations. Season 2 felt like it wasted at least three episodes on make-work.
I understand that these sequences were largely to provide Rios his love interest and reason for his exit, as well as exploring Raffi and Seven’s individual and joint issues, but I thought all of that felt awkwardly wedged in – the brief mention of Seven and Raffi’s relationship seemed like an “oh yeah, we should probably mention that sometime” moment.
The final episode was all over the place. The climax was the crew foiling Soong, and the Europa mission successfully launching, at the cost of Tallinn’s life. This followed the departure of Jurati having negotiated a truce and a new path forward with the Borg Queen, which was not very believable. The denouement was the very unsatisfying wrap-up of the Q thread.
A nice aside here was the return of Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher, who is now one of the Travellers he’d encountered in NextGen, and who now travels in space and time. The Travellers oversee the Supervisors, which interestingly firmly establishes the Supervisors as a force for good (they’ve been portrayed more quixotically in spin-off fiction – notably the excellent Star Trek: Year Five comic book series). While I’ve certainly seen Wheaton act as an adult, seeing him play Crusher when both of them seem much more confident and accomplished was fun to see.
The remaining denouement was largely a miss. Queen Jurati calls off her attack and teams up with the Federation fleet to stave off a “galaxy class event” which has basically been manufactured for one big special effects moment. This is NextGen plotting at its worst. Then she petitions for membership, and that’s that. This needed much more unpacking, since this is a human/borg hybrid who’s lived for almost four hundred years and is a unique entity. We don’t need the Federation Council arguing about the merits of giving them provisional membership, but some character moments between her and Picard, or even a chewier segment exploring how these Borg are different from other Borg (and how they’ve avoided the other Borg all these centuries!) would have provided some closure. As it was – enh.
Picard’s final chat with Guinan was largely pro forma, and his reconciliation with Laris was appropriate and necessary, but it felt like the characters were given the short shrift, either being overlooked or being told rather than shown. The episode dotted most of the i’s and crossed most of the t’s, but ultimately it was just okay.
This season had a lot of ambitions, but it jammed too many disparate pieces together, and the main plot was a routine Trek story awkwardly told. It’s impossible to say “where things went wrong”, but I think they should have limited the 21st century sequence to four episodes at most, and figured out a more compelling 25th century story to work through in the remaining four episodes, perhaps making Q’s condition more dire, and exploring the nature of Queen Jurati in some depth. They should have found a different way to work with Rios’ departure, and completely rethink Seven and Raffi, who just didn’t have much opportunity to shine. Certainly this would have resulted in a very different season, but focusing the 21st century part to be much shorter I think would have eliminated most of the chaff that we saw which giving the larger story more room to breathe.
Easier said than done, to be sure.
While better than your typical block of NextGen episodes (and better than the third season of Star Trek: Discovery by a country mile – I stopped watching that show after that one), this was a letdown compared to season 1. And while that was a huge standard to live up to, I think this season undershot even what it could have been.
I have not been much spoiled for season 3, but from what I have heard, I worry that it will be a season of even greater fan service, rather than focusing on Picard and his way-more-interesting-than-the-NextGen-crew supporting cast from this series. Hopefully they can go out with a bang. But if not, at least I hope we get to see Brent Spiner chew all the scenery one more time.