TV Review: Star Trek: Picard, Season 1

It’s quite difficult to describe the latest Star Trek offering, especially to a fan.  One may attempt to say that it boldly goes to where no other Star Treks went before (sorry).  Others may call it an unnecessary fan service or an apology for the disastrous Discovery.  I see it as a hot mess, with too many stories that lead nowhere, but still somehow manages to stay compelling.

Who is Jean-Luc Picard?  In the TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, he is a leader.  He surrounds himself with the right people in the right positions, he delegates, observes the action, makes decisions and delegates some more.  His direct involvement with the adversary, if that entity is sentient, is largely limited to diplomacy.  In the movies that followed, however, he becomes an action hero.  His cool demeanor is replaced by rage and rash decisions.  He is the first to jump into action, weapon in hand.  His Star Trek: Nemesis antagonist, a laughably imperfect clone of himself, seems more collected that Picard.

Enter some time after Nemesis, to a series that is trying to reconcile between the two Picards.  He is now retired to his family wine yard, with two Romulans who seem to shift between being his friends and his servants.  The Romulans were his undoing.  He had led the effort to resettle them when their sun was about to go nova.  While successful initially, the Starfleet has later stopped his project, and he rage quit his position within the fleet.  Even to the present day of the series, he is at odds with the Starfleet bureaucrats.  This is the brash Picard from the movies, and it appears that the calm and collected one is gone forever.

However, a series of events and encounters leads him to believe that there is an artificial being, which was created from old genetic material of Commander Data, who had sacrificed himself on Picard’s behalf.  This being, who appears as a young woman named Soji, is currently located in Romulan space, as a member of a research team abroad a deactivated Borg cube.  Unbeknownst to her, she is being targeted by a special branch of Romulan secret service, which is plotting to destroy all artificial beings.  They are trying to use her to reveal the planet she originally came from, which is assumed to be the location of the rest of her kind.

Picard fails to get Starfleet involved, partly because of his attitude and partly because artificial beings are blamed for the destruction of Mars, and thus are outlawed in the Federation anyway.  He puts together a ragtag group of adventurers and goes to find Soji on his own.  During his adventures, he teams up with many of his former team members and acquaintances, including his former second in command, Will Riker and Councilor Deana Troy, now his wife, as well as the disconnected Borg Seven of Nine.  Eventually, the small crew with the help of others rescues Soji, finds her home planed and fights off a Romulan armada who tries to destroy all artificial beings and whoever helps them.

To say that the series is a hot mess may be an understatement.  It features so many stories that are merely hinted at or left unfinished, very many concepts that are skimmed over, and characters that are severely underdeveloped.  However, there is a strong undercurrent that holds the story together: Picard’s redemption arc.  Picard is old.  He is frail and has a terminal condition.  He has become a creature of comfort and is quite complacent with living out his final months at his wine yard.  However, with the right push, he picks up where he left off, as a brash action hero of the movies.

The problem is that he is old.  He can’t do the action stuff anymore.  More than that, however, his past actions are coming back to haunt him.  He had alienated too many people, and they are more than happy to hinder his efforts along the way.  He can ill afford to ignore any of them.  While at the beginning he acts just like before, he is shocked at the pushback he receives, and needs to re-learn his humility.  Throughout the series he is the only person who is truly and believably changing to the better, and Patrick Stewart does an excellent job portraying the difficulties his character is having with changing his mindset and temperament.  The way Picard’s redemption arc ends, where his reluctant crew, via unspoken agreement, elects to have him as their captain, is a powerful final image of a season that attempted to bring Picard back to where he came from: a capable leader who listens and delegates.

It’s been a genuine pleasure to watch Picard develop into a more humane character again, and for this reason alone the season was worth watching.  However, his was also the only complete story arc.  The rest of the show seems to be a mile wide, but an inch deep.  Most characters seem to be having backgrounds just as complex as Picard’s, but they are never fully explored.  In many cases, this can get quite frustrating.  Other characters are thus reduced to mere stage props, or devices to move the plot ahead a little.

A good example of that is Elnor, a Romulan warrior or assassin, who can mow through scores of enemies with his dual swords.  I called him Legolas, as he is strongly reminiscent of the character from the Lord of the Rings movies: always calm to the point of being emotionally frozen, deadly efficient and always at the right place when the rest of the crew is in a tight spot and needs a quick way out.  I struggled to consider him a person: he comes out of nowhere (there was a very weak back story in one of the flashback scenes), has motivations that are way too convenient to the plot, and never shows the merest hint of a character development.  Others, especially the fan service characters, also appear only at the most convenient moments, only to disappear later.  A good example is Seven of Nine, who first shows up to help Picard to retrieve a captured scientist, and then quickly disappears on a seemingly suicidal mission.  She later appears to help him out again and is just effective enough to keep him alive.  Riker has a wonderful episode on his own, where he is retired and off the grid, and then bids his farewell.  Until he magically becomes the admiral of the Federation armada sent to stop the Romulans from killing Picard and all the artificial beings.  These coincidences would be too jarring in a show like Firefly, which takes place in a single large star system; in the vast universe of Star Trek they are so implausible as to take away all suspension of disbelief.

I’d like to touch on two more elements of the show, which I personally had strong feelings about.  First, the bad element: the artificial beings discover that an earlier race of artificial beings devised a way to get in touch with them and bring them back, if the need arises.  This happens in the climax of the show, and Suji opens a portal to the dimension of those beings.  On the screen, this looks like a black hole into the space, with purple flowing edges, and the unspeakably evil and large tentacles of the original artificial beings crawling to our universe.  The visual looks like straight from a Lovecraftian horror and feels incredibly cheesy for such a serious show as Picard.  The second element of the show, which I liked, was its linear progression.  While the older Star Trek shows were episodic in nature, here we have only one narrative.  That’s akin to Discovery, but much more linear.  This allows the showrunners to avoid the pitfalls of a convoluted plot and makes the show much more digestible.  Now that the characters are set up and Picard is a true ship captain once again, I can see the next season reverting to an episodic format, maybe with a weak central narrative, but I could not imagine Picard’s redemption arc (which I believe was absolutely necessary for his character) to work in an episodic format.

Presently, we have three Star Trek shows on TV.  Orville is Star Trek in everything but its name, and it is superb in recreating the look and feel of the original two series.  It’s endearing, insightful and a genuine pleasure to watch.  Discovery is dark and gritty, with a very convoluted central storyline and a drastically reimagined universe.  My life is too short to be depressed by a show like this, so I abandoned it halfway through its first season.  Picard is a fascinating account of the character development of one of Star Trek’s most beloved characters.  All around Picard is just fluff, which may be dismissed.  If you approach this show with this in mind, you’ll find it at least interesting.  It’s not a traditional Star Trek show, but I think it’s a worthy addition to the Star Trek canon.

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