I had a conflicting sensation of dread and optimism when Picard was announced in 2018 at Comic Con, the prospect of the continuation of one of my most cherished franchises and series framed against the legacy of the recent movie trilogy and Discovery series. As a concept and brand, Star Trek has always been a progressive ideological prism of society transposed to a futuristic setting, it was the antithesis of the post happiness doctrine and mantra, that humanity could and would overcome its societal issues in the quest to better ourselves and understanding of the final frontier. Picard is of course framed around the titular returning character from The Next Generation, played once more by the venerable Patrick Stewart.
He has kept no secret of having walked away from this series with the release of the last movie Nemesis, being drawn back only to tell a significantly different story than those seen before. The release of Discovery was mired somewhat in its attempt to present a contemporary interpretation of societal issues into an established framework and ‘continuity’ though even that angst and issue I’ve never fully understood. Star Trek has always adapted to circumstance, the release of The Motion Picture for instance and a far higher budget leading to a redesign of the Klingon race from their original appearance, only a decade or two later making reference to this aesthetic change.
Of course a returning franchise or series does rely to a degree on the goodwill of an established ‘fanbase’ and a perception to deviate or alienate those you are relying on can have unfortunate consequences, Star Wars with The Last Jedi backlash for example. With Star Trek, it has always been a shining light on divisive issues and injustices from its earliest iteration, the trajectory of the narrative of the first season of Picard if you take into account the openly vocal nature of its lead star would lead you to believe or feel that this latest iteration of the franchise is once more following in the spirit of the original series. However, Picard and indeed Star Trek is no longer the sole proprietor of this methodology, the space based drama The Expanse charting its own course to critical acclaim in its depiction of the unknown framed against isolationism and division.
Unfortunately, many of the critical messages and viewpoints about the isolationism of Starfleet, the futuristic space based ‘military’ wing of the Federation, a sort of utopian functional depiction of socialism, have already been made in more effective narrative forms elsewhere. For me, in this first tranche of episodes in this series, it feels the tone and nature of the Federation has changed simply to reflect western culture and societal impressions, where America has a more nationalist, arguably isolationist leader, so the Federation must be depicted to have the same mentality. It’s in keeping broadly with the methodology used by the series as noted however it subverts at best or shatters the original premise of Star Trek of a series depicting an optimistic viewpoint of the future. The Federation isn’t America today, nor was it the Reagan era of capitalism with the launch of The Next Generation or the divisive Jim Crow laws of segregation that were abolished shortly before the launch of The Original Series.
Discovery and its Short Trek produced episodes have forged a path in subverting expectations of its product. I respect the intention and direction of this approach, at times it has been effective, others not so much. The Short Trek episode ‘The Trouble with Edward’ seemed to make a mockery of a character with depicted anxiety issues who was glibly killed off to make some point or punchline. This was a stark contrast to the character of Barclay in The Next Generation who was supported and assisted to overcome his challenge with confidence into a functional and contributing member of Starfleet. My concern with the first series of Picard it would take this irreverent attitude to certain characters or anxieties over others and use this mindset of Discovery.
The first three episodes of the series feel very much like a first chapter, concerning perhaps given its shortened 10 episode series length, and spends a great deal of that time heavy in exposition and dialogue that doesn’t come across naturally. The tone and spirit of the series does feel more balanced and even in contrast to Discovery, clearly there is a great deal of nostalgia present with legacy characters and odes, but equally despite certain references and mentions the main central cast to date features new and original characters. Perhaps a slightly, ageist standpoint but the older actors do come across more agreeable in their depictions, I’ve really enjoyed Laris and Zhaban to date, whilst not main cast, these two characters from the emerald isles of Romulus have a fantastic chemistry with Picard. Are they in keeping with other depictions of Romulans? questionable but as characters in their own right they feel very much in keeping with the spirit of Star Trek.
This opening arc of episodes is predominantly set on Earth and the Romulan owned Borg artefact, one of the long standing frustrations and demands of the audience has been to see a continuation of the universe beyond the events of Nemesis and the Voyager finale which saw a devastating attack upon the collective. Finally, we are beginning to see certain threads revealed, slowly perhaps but the best drama has excelled in providing that level of suspense that gradually builds up towards its pay off. Whether the writers and producers have that skill to reveal a satisfying conclusion we wait to see. The return characters of Hugh and Seven, both former drones suggest the Borg will play a fundamental role in this series, indeed so far every indication points to that though as Discovery showed, don’t assume anything in this latest iteration of the Star Trek series.
There are certainly connotations towards his most recent revival of a beloved character in Logan, this does feel like the final days and mission of Picard and if the series concludes with his death, a fitting way to bring closure to the character. Jean-Luc isn’t the same person we’ve seen before, nearly two decades have passed and I’ve enjoyed the small touches they’ve put in to remind the audience of that transition, from the fatigue at running up stairs in the opening episode, the more acrobatic style of combat used whilst he crouches behind cover to the recent episode of putting him back into uniform with a look back at his resignation from Starfleet. The passage of time is ever present though thanks in part to the de-aging process seen in other franchise, the appearance of a certain android is handled better than expected, the opening scene of the entire series is a beautiful and memorable moment that works to draw you in.
It would be easy to give the ‘fans’ what they want, a nostalgic legacy filled series of willing returning characters and actors and crafting a series simply on who was available and happy once more to pull on their space suit. For the sake of transparency, I would have liked that but time has passed, and nostalgia whilst a powerful driving force can often blind you to reality. I do have a level of respect for the producers of this series in not just reaching out or making this another series of The Next Generation, clearly Patrick Stewart had no interest in this and without your main star, it would have been futile. Equally, there is a rich source of talent out there any future series or spin off has the opportunity to draw from a pool of characters to tell that next chapter.
But the series isn’t devoid of paying respect to its past. From the moment Picard steps foot into the museum crypt filled with mementos and memories from his time aboard the Enterprise, to the inclusion of characters from his series such as Data to those in the same era such as Seven, for me, it has tread the line of nostalgia and original content. Whilst a part of me would long to see the return of the Enterprise for instance, this isn’t that narrative. That said, whilst I’m not a huge fan of the musical scores used in Discovery and Picard, clearly a recognition to the impact of Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score has been realised, used sparingly but when those musical riffs play, you do come to realise how special this series could end up being.
Picard opens with a wonderful, nostalgic throwback to its past and an almost direct connection to the last time we saw these characters in Nemesis, the use of Blue Skies in the opening tracking shot was a great connection to the last feature film in that legacy. But equally filled with pathos, dreaming of a lost friend and waking up to a comfortable, uneventful life weighs heavily on a once great man. Perhaps it took a while to reach that point but taken as an opening arc, as Picard gives the order to engage and a variation of The Next Generation fanfare begins, we may as a collective not want this particular game to end, but it’s paid its dues to its fans and is crafting a distinct vision of its own. To use the closing words of ‘All Good Things’ as a source of hope and caution, as long as its narrative push is ‘nothing wild’ then the sky’s the limit for this series.
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