TV Review: Star Trek: Picard, Season 2

The second season of Picard is quite divisive.  Critics seem to love it, while the audience hates it.  Those who enjoyed the first season can’t seem to find anything positive about the second, and vice versa.  It’s small wonder: the mood, writing and setting couldn’t be different between the seasons.  And yet, there are similarities.  Just like the first season, this one is also a hot mess with too many stories that lead nowhere, but it also remains interesting to watch, thanks to another deep dive into Picard’s psyche, and the redemption for the most unlikely of characters.

Following the first season, everyone seems to have been forgiven for their past sins.  Picard is an admiral of the Starfleet again, and he is enjoying his high reputation with the academy students.  Raffi, the broken-down alcoholic from the first season is a lecturer at the academy.  Rios, the eternally depressed and lonely pilot, is the captain of his own Starfleet ship, and is accompanied by Jurati, whose crime of murder seems to have been brushed under the carpet.  Elnor becomes the first Romulan cadet in the Academy, and Seven of Nine also has her own ship.  Their idyllic life comes to a halt, however, when a mysterious signal requests that Picard shows himself at a point in space.  Arriving on Rios’ ship and being joined by the rest of the old crew, Picard witnesses the emergence of the Borg mothership.  The queen teleports herself on board and begins assimilating the entire fleet.  To prevent an all-out disaster, Picard initiates the self-destruct of the ship.

Just before the destruction, Picard wakes up in his own house.  Suddenly, the God-like Q appears and tells him he transported Picard into an alternate timeline to test him again.  It soon emerges that all the main characters were transported here, and they find themselves in various roles within a fascist version of the Federation, with Picard as a bloodthirsty general bent on eradicating all non-human races, and Seven as the President.  They link up with the others, and soon learn that an event not too far from our own present time has caused the timeline divergence, and so they use their ship to travel back in time to set things right.

To accomplish this and find the critical moment, the crew must reactivate the remains of the Borg queen.  With her reluctant help, they split up and start looking for clues in nearly present-day California.  Rios is quickly arrested by the immigration police, Seven and Raffi have to look for him, Jurati stays on the ship to keep an eye on the Borg Queen, and Picard heads to a bar.  The bar belongs to Guinan, the immortal alien who was portrayed in The Next Generation by Whoopi Goldberg.  A younger and far more abrasive version of her directs him to The Watcher, who would have more information.  Picard links up with The Watcher, another immortal, who looks after Picard’s ancestor, Renee, whose space mission to Europa causes the time divergence.

In the meantime, Jurati and the Borg queen somehow merge.  Jurati is initially controlling the dual personality, but the queen is slowly taking over.  To make matters worse, Q enlists the help of Adam Soong, the bitter and disgraced scientist who would later go on to create Data, to prevent Renee to fly to space, by any means necessary.  The entire team infiltrates a gala event in honor of the space mission, but things go wrong.  Picard is heavily injured, and Jurati is taken over by the queen and disappears.  From then on, it’s a race to heal Picard, find the Borg queen, protect Renee, escape from the FBI, and avoid direct confrontation with Soong.  Things come to a head at their spaceship, which the queen is trying to take over, in order to start assimilating humanity at a time when they are completely vulnerable.  To help her, she enlists Soong’s help, but he fails, only to disappear and plot his next move.  The queen still gets the upper hand, but at the last moment Jurati wrestles back enough control to stop her and reason with her for a new course of action.  The rest of the team then rushes to save Renee and ensure a smooth launch, thus restoring the original timeline.  Q appears, explains his reasons for all these hijinks, and transports them back to the time just before the self-destruction of their ship.

Throughout this story, there is a parallel one, viewed in flashbacks.  In the past, Picard has been a very effective leader, but emotionally distant to everybody.  The secondary story explores the reason for this.  Picard has repressed memories of his childhood with his mother, which are slowly being dragged up, until he recalls the entire series of events and makes peace with himself.  This story has very little bearing on the main narrative, save for a few convenient tidbits that help Picard during his battle for the ship, and Q’s very unlikely but moving redemption arc.

To say that this season was a departure from the first season would be an understatement.  It is tonally completely different, in several major ways.  The most obvious one is the character development.  Some of Picard’s crew, most notably Rios and Raffi, get their own character arcs that are much better fleshed out, and they are a joy to watch.  Picard is no longer the confused old man who needs to learn humility again.  He is the slightly less confused and rather decisive about what he wants the crew to do, and he is getting surprisingly little pushback.  He even wraps the all-powerful Watcher around his finger.

The less obvious difference is the unashamed fan service throughout the entire series.  Star Trek fans will notice it here and there, and everyone will get it like a punch in the face in the last episode.  The time travel and the hijinks that ensue are very strongly reminiscent of The Voyage Home, to the extent where some scenes are actually recreated, with the same actors.  The last episode goes into beast mode with Easter eggs.  After all his research is destroyed, Soong begins working on his next big thing, “Project Khan”.  Who knew the father of Data was responsible for that as well…  Then, Will Wheaton shows up as Wesley Crusher and performs such a perfect rendition of his “mansplaining Will Wheaton” Internet meme that even I found him amusing, perhaps for the first time in Star Trek.  Because of this fan service, however, the tone of the series is entirely different.  Instead of boldly going on a new path within the Star Trek universe, the series reverted back to a fairly standard fare for existing fans, which offers little to new audience.

The least obvious difference is the series of nods to The Original Series, which infantilizes the Picard franchise.  Where the first season was a character drama that happened to take place in space, the second season is a throwback to 1960s science fiction, with all the low-budget action and social constructs that firmly cross the line from awkwardly funny to cringe-worthy.  I believe this was done on purpose to evoke the nostalgic feeling of watching Captain Kirk and his exploits.  The show features two fights, one a brawl between the three lead women, and the other the battle for the ship.  The choreography of the first and special effects of the second were on par with The Original Series.  In addition, this season contains several quasi-commentaries of current politics, mainly the destruction of the environment and immigration controls in the US.  In both cases, their portrayal was strongly reminiscent of the ridiculously simplistic episodes from TOS where the crew visits a planed full of Nazis or a society that used a book about the 1930s Chicago gangland scene as their Bible.  I must credit the writers for creating such ridiculously over the top situations where the viewers can laugh at otherwise serious matters.

This brings me to the less pleasant task of pointing out what a mess the show is.  Even more than in the first season, the second season has a huge amount of side stories that are never resolved.  There are characters that randomly appear and disappear.  Some side characters, such as the FBI agent who hunts aliens because once he met a Vulcan, are very conveniently placed to interfere with the main plot line.  We never find out what happened to the agent.  Renee also just randomly pops into the narrative, disappears who knows where, and reappears whenever it is convenient.  Soong is a disgraced scientist who somehow can afford not only a state-of-the-art laboratory but is hugely influential over the US space program.  And even though he suffers one setback after next, he is still somehow portrayed as a valid antagonist.  I don’t even want to think of what this season means in regard to the artificial people from the first season, especially since there is a recurring character in both settings.  To me, it feels that the main story could have been told at the same length as The Voyage Home movie, perhaps a little longer due to Picard’s flashbacks.  As a result, we have about three hours of meaningful content in a ten-hour series.

Just like the convoluted and confused writing, acting was also a mixed bag.  Patrick Stewart repeated his performance from the first season, so there were no surprises or disappointments there.  Michelle Hurd and Santiago Cabrera as Raffi and Rios, respectively, got far more freedom with their expanded characters, and they ran with it.  Watching them was a pleasure.  Brent Spinner as Soong delivered an almost too professional and detached performance.  And then there was James Callis as Picard’s dad.  This was a genuinely pleasant surprise, and I just wish he had gotten more space.  On the other side of the spectrum was Picard’s mother, portrayed by Madeline Wise.  Hers was such a jarring and wooden performance that I felt like time-skipping whenever I saw her on the screen.  I don’t recall the actress from anywhere else, so I can’t tell whether she was directed to overplay a bland character to such an excess, but regardless the reason, her character alone made me almost quit the show a few times.  I can’t even begin judging Alison Pill’s acting as Jurati, as the quirky scientist trope is so outplayed that I cringed most of the time I saw her on the screen and didn’t pay much attention to the actress.

Picard Season 2 certainly isn’t for everybody.  In fact, I doubt it will generate a fan following.  It is an interesting dive into Picard’s psyche and offers plenty of fan service for the fans of The Original Series.  On the other hand, the writing is even more convoluted as in the first season, the plot is drawn out from about three hours to ten, and acting ranges from expected to terrible.  Personally, I have been quite ambivalent about this season.  I finished it without too much of a discomfort, but I’m not planning to ever rewatch it, or even remember much of it a month from now.

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