First seasons are difficult. If you’re a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, go back and watch its first season again. It is what those of us in the business call cringeworthy. The “business” I’m referring to, of course, is the guild of US postal clerks who write anonymous online reviews without any financial remuneration.
This opening paragraph doesn’t bode well for Star Trek: Picard, does it?
Keep in mind that you seldom read any reviews I’ve written for things that I didn’t like. This is usually because I stopped watching the movie or series, reading the book, or playing the video game when I was deep enough into the project to realize that I hated it. This happens more frequently as I grow older. Time is growing short.
If I write a review, it implies that the subject under review has some redeeming qualities. I have no other motivation to spend time on something that didn’t bring me some joy (see above: without any financial remuneration). I derive no satisfaction from bashing something that someone else spent time creating. People who do so deserve to be called critics, with all of the word’s negative connotations.
Should you watch Picard?
If you are a Trekkie as I am—or at least Trekkie-adjacent— then the answer is a resounding Yes. You will find plenty of things to like about this first season. Plus, you’ll understand all the references to TNG and Voyager, and you’ll enjoy spending more time with a few characters that you haven’t seen in a while.
If you’re not already a Trek fan, or your experience with the franchise is limited or extremely casual, then this series isn’t a good place for you to jump on the bandwagon. All you will see are its flaws, without appreciating the things there that are meant to pander to the fans. Go back and begin watching TNG or even start where I did, with the 1966 original series. In my opinion, this latest Trek series has some prerequisites.
Enough preamble. Now on to our review.
The central character in this new series is, of course, Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart), former captain of the USS Enterprise and, as the series opens, a retired Starfleet admiral. Twenty years have passed since the events of Star Trek Nemesis, so the series begins with more backstory than just the television series and movies. The self-sacrifice of Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) in Nemesis, and the destruction of Romulus in Star Trek (2009), form the inciting incidents of the story told in these ten episodes. Plus, an attack on Mars by rogue synths. Starfleet banned synths and backed out on their promise to help relocate all of the surviving Romulans. Admiral Picard, to show his disagreement with the sudden policy shift, tendered his resignation. It was meant to be a bargaining ploy, but backfired. Starfleet accepted his resignation and Picard was suddenly a civilian, exiled to life on his family vineyard.
That’s where we find Picard as the season kicks off. He’s an old man, a shadow of his former polyester uniform wearing self. Patrick Stewart is turning 80 in a few months, and does indeed look older than he did the last time he was Jean-Luc. As the season begins, he acts a lot older as well. His is not the voice we expect from the Shakespearean actor we know him to be. Some of this may be a ploy, because Jean-Luc seems to have more vim and vigor in the finale episode. But, I suspect at least part of it is because Stewart is entering his ninth decade.
Watching him on screen was a poignant reminder that I’m also about 20 years older since he was last Jean-Luc Picard.
To kick off the season’s story—as opposed to its busy backstory—Picard is approached by a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones), who turns out to be an android and is somehow the “daughter” of the late Lieutenant Commander Data. Dahj asks for Picard’s help and then is killed right in front of him. This is Picard’s call to adventure, which he, of course, accepts. Briones also plays Dahj’s twin sister, Soji, who is still alive and doesn’t know she’s an android. Part of Picard’s new mission in life is to find her and protect his departed friend’s legacy.
Since official channels are no longer open to Picard, he has to obtain his own ship and build a new crew. The ship is La Sirena, and her owner and pilot is Chris Rios (Santiago Cabrera), a former Starfleet officer himself who also still deals privately with the loss of his beloved captain. Rafaella “Raffi” Musiker (Michelle Hurd) served as Picard’s first officer during the Romulan evacuation; she has a substance abuse problem and is dealing with the loss of her relationship with her son. Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) is a doctor working for the Daystrom Institute, who is dealing with the loss of her mentor/lover Dr. Bruce Maddox, who created Dahj and Soji. A young Romulan refugee named Elnor (Evan Evagora) is essentially a dark-haired Legolas, a combat expert with a samurai-like code who binds himself to Picard’s mission. As a refugee, naturally he’s dealing with loss as well.
You may get the idea, at this point, that loss is one of the season’s underlying themes. In case you missed this while watching the episodes, it was driven home again every time a guest character showed up.
The guest stars are a major plus in the series for veteran Trekkies. I mentioned Brent Spiner already, and he makes appearances as Data in Picard’s dreams, and later in an active computer simulation where Data, in fact, somehow still lives. The final episodes of the season convince me that Data will not continue to appear as a character. Spiner probably doesn’t want to sit in the makeup chair that long any more. Plus, Data isn’t supposed to show his age, and makeup can only cover so much. Spiner does get to appear as Altan Inigo Soong, the son of Noonian, and the actor seems to relish the slightly-mad doctor role.
William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) also appear in the series. They’re still married and raising a wild teenaged daughter, and also mourning the loss—there it is again—of their eldest child. Riker is a retired Starfleet captain, but is still on active reserves, which becomes important during the final act of the season.
Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), the former Borg drone who helped reinvigorate Star Trek: Voyager for its last four seasons, appears as the leader of a vigilante group called the Fenris Rangers. I suppose she’s still dealing with the loss of her humanity, and certainly her childhood. She appears several times during the season, and I hope she’ll be a permanent fixture in Season 2.
These first ten episodes are largely about introducing Picard’s new crew. I liked all of them a lot more during the tenth episode than I did in the beginning, so this part of the series was effective. This is not the same brand of Trek that we enjoyed in TNG. This has been a charge frequently levelled at Star Trek: Discovery as well. It’s a bit darker, perhaps even dystopian in many ways. Distrust of government organizations is a very modern trope, so the concept of a vast conspiracy in Starfleet doesn’t faze me too much. Even TNG toyed with this premise, you might remember. There is more of a feeling of optimism at the end of the season than the beginning. ‘Nuff said.
Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville has—successfully, in my opinion—recaptured the sunny idealism that permeated those classic Trek series. Keep that in mind if you need a retro Trek fix. You’re not going to find as much of that in this, the Age of Disco.
Elements of the season make me think of Blade Runner, The Terminator, Westworld and even the video game Mass Effect (no surprise there). Of course, Isaac Asimov is the grandfather of all synthetic lifeforms. Trek even uses his literary invention, the positronic brain. So, naturally, I thought about the Good Doctor Asimov as well.
The story itself is okay. I can’t say, honestly, that it blew me away. In retrospect, it feels like it managed to meander quite a bit in only ten episodes. Maybe if we weren’t having to meet all of these new characters, it would have felt cleaner, more streamlined.
The story also had a problem with its bad guys. The Romulan secret anti-synth organization was the Big Bad throughout much of the season, then it was revealed that they actually had a point, and the Big Bad was whatever it was that was about to come through the wormhole/Stargate/Mass Relay in space to consume all organic life. Reapers? Thanos? Cthulhu? And what about synths themselves? Everything seems resolved at the end of the season, but is it, really? Trek still has more of a history of evil synthetic lifeforms.
Star Trek: Picard has a gold-plated pedigree. In addition to Sir Patrick, who also serves as an executive producer, other luminaries were deeply involved with the show. Akiva Goldsman—director, producer, writer—has had a hand in many properties that I’ve loved, including the television shows Fringe and Titans, and the new Trek movies. I’ll try to forgive him for I, Robot and I Am Legend. Until now, I’ve known Michael Chabon only as a writer. He was the author of Wonder Boys (an excellent novel and Michael Douglas movie), and won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which was about, among other things, the early days of superhero comics. He served as showrunner for this series. Alex Kurtzman and Kristen Beyer have left their fingerprints all over the Trek universe as well.
It’s bottom-line time. As you’ve no doubt already gathered, I didn’t love this season. It’s a good-looking show, with the quality of special effects we’ve come to demand, but the writing is uneven, the story sometimes awkward and quite weak in the middle. With only ten episodes, you wouldn’t expect to have a structure problem this obvious. I can’t believe Chabon deserves to be vilified for this flaw, as showrunner and Pulitzer-Prize-winning storyteller. This has more of the feel of a story constructed by committee, sometimes taking the lowest-common-denominator route. A single authorial vision, even in a story steeped in darkness as this one is, may have been more acceptable.
Or, I could be wrong, and it’s all Michael Chabon’s fault.
At the end of the season, we have a ragtag crew on a non-military vessel with a Spanish name (The Expanse, anyone?) with a very familiar person in the captain’s chair. I worry about the longevity of a series with an 80-year-old lead (also the namesake of the series itself) and currently doubt the ability of the show to continue without Patrick Stewart, if he should no longer be available for the role of Picard. However, the series has been picked up for a second season. As an eternal optimist, I expect it to be much better.
Firewater’s Make-It-So-Engage-and-Tea-Earl-Grey-Hot Report Card: B
I wanted to like this more. In truth, this may even have been graded on a curve. Hits a lot of the right nostalgia buttons, though.