Star Trek: Picard came into being with astronomical expectations to meet. It was the grand return of Sir Patrick Stewart to the iconic role of Jean-luc Picard after 16 years. We’d left the character after 7 years on TNG with what many consider a near-perfect finale in “All Good Things…” and then what many would argue to be a mixed bag of theatrical outings in the years following. This new series was set to be an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the character’s somewhat disappointing previous sendoff in Star Trek: Nemesis. It was also a chance to revisit the firm, moralistic optimism of the character that we’d all been craving amidst these current tumultuous political, social and economic times.
Each individual Star Trek series in some way or another acts as a microcosm of the era in which it exists, and for better or worse, Star Trek: Picard is no different. The series we were presented with is entirely reflective of our current political and social climate – a concept that’s arguably true to form for Trek. It’s also a series tinged by more modern writing trends and sensibilities such as heavily serialized storytelling, morally gray characters and scenarios, a general distrust in authority, and strong measure of nostalgia mixed in for good measure to gently reflect our collective desire for “simpler times” (whatever that may mean).
In the lead up to this show’s premiere, the creators behind Picard as well as sir Patrick Stewart himself told us all exactly what not to expect outright: this new show would definitely not be TNG 2.0. It was to be a new kind of story, a more personal story, and one that directly reflected the issues that Stewart himself felt pulled to address.
According to Stewart in an interview with Variety, the series is a response “to the world of Brexit and Trump,” and written to ask the question, “‘Why hasn’t the Federation changed? Why hasn’t Starfleet changed?’ Maybe they’re not as reliable and trustworthy as we all thought.”
Born from all of this is a first season of a show that is as much Stewart’s baby as it is the writers’ and producers’. As ambitious as it was divisive.
Picard‘s beginnings take root in the unenviable task of not only attempting to tell its own story, but also having to answer questions that fans have been asking for 16 years – most notably, what happened after Star Trek: Nemesis? Questions that were further heightened by J.J. Abrams’ shake-up of the Trek universe by introducing the Romulan supernova in the ‘prime’ timeline before moving onto to a new timeline to tell new stories free of canon constraints.
So, given all of this, does Star Trek: Picard work?
First off, while I find myself falling on the side of liking the show, I want to get this out of the way: there were definitely plenty of pieces that just didn’t work for me.
The universe-ending stakes that the story took us to elevated the plot in ways that made it feel much less personal and felt unnecessary for a story that would have been much better served by sticking to the promise of being an introspective character study. The A.I.-focused plot coming so quickly off the heels of another A.I.-focused plot in Star Trek: Discovery at times gave way to the unfortunate feeling of less ‘boldly going’ and more ‘already been there.’ All the heavy lifting the plot was trying to do to raise and answer so many questions inevitably led to the underserving of many interesting threads and themes that deserved much more attention. I also struggled with the introduction the Zhat Vash, another, even more secret-er, secret Romulan police (and the biker gang get-up in broad daylight didn’t really come off as super, extra secret…). And finally, on top of all that, I’ll echo the problem that’s been pointed out by others that this first season has a specific problem with the unnecessarily brutal killing of black men – which comes off as problematic at best in a franchise that’s long been a champion of progressive ideals and social justice.
So with all of that being said, here’s what I loved:
Picard as Don Quixote
I wouldn’t have initially made this connection, but having listened to Melinda Snodgrass discuss the series on the podcast, The Geeks Guide to the Galaxy, I found the comparison to be more than apt. Trek has a storied tradition of literary references and allegories and it feels perfectly fitting to see Picard’s story continue on this trajectory.
According to Snodgrass, “It reminded me of Don Quixote – the old man being cared for by people who are saying, ‘Don’t do that. You’re being foolish.’ And he goes off to tilt at windmills and have a great adventure, and the windmills in this case are Starfleet and the Romulans and all the rest of it. If you try to think of this show as absolutely just about one old man’s journey to find purpose at the end of his life, then I think it all begins to make some sense, in terms of the themes of it.”
Revisiting Old Friends and Making Some New Ones
Will Riker, Deanna Troi, Hugh, Seven of Nine, Data – seeing these characters grace the screen once again in a Star Trek property together was nothing short of a delight.
With Riker & Troi, we get a tender update on these two characters and the family they’ve built for themselves on Nepenthe. With Hugh, we see some absolutely fascinating growth for the character, becoming an advocate for XBs (the show’s term for former Borg drones) and dedicating his life to helping them reclaim their individuality. Seven of Nine has found herself disenfranchised with the inaction of the Federation, struggling to find a place of belonging since returning ‘home,’ and – taking cues from her former Maquis crew-members in Star Trek: Voyager – has since taken on the role of ‘freedom fighter.’ And Data, in an effort to reconcile an arguably hollow ‘death’ Star Trek: Nemesis, is finally given the opportunity to rest on his own terms that actually reflects his arc in TNG (more on that to come).
Furthermore, each member of Picard’s new crew adds depth to the series and brings something interesting to the table. Raffi, Rios, Elnor, Soji and Dr. Jurati – they’re all impeccably portrayed and truly feel like characters who’ve naturally existed in this world before we come to meet them for the purposes of the main plot. Some definitely get more development than others, but I can safely say that I’m excited to see each one of them grow as the series continues.
The Evolution of the Romulan Race
As mentioned above, I didn’t care much for the Zhat Vash, and I also wasn’t a huge fan of the Romulan apocalypse myth involving A.I., but setting that aside, I found there to also be some meaningful and fascinating expansions to the culture of the enigmatic race. I loved the Qowat Milat, the sect of warrior nuns we meet in the show’s fourth episode. Their adherence to ‘absolute candor’ is a fun concept to play around with, and through their relationship with Picard we’re given the introduction of Elnor, a character with immense potential to explore as the show goes on.
With that, it was refreshing to see Romulans just simply existing. So often they’re portrayed as conniving, cunning, and duplicitous at best – victims of Star Trek‘s storied history of depicting aliens as mono-cultures with only one trait that defines the entire race. Star Trek: Picard made a concerted effort to subvert that trope and give us a wide range of Romulan characters and that is something to commend.
All of that is not even to mention the Romulan refugee crisis and resettlement efforts – an important, if not smaller, thread to the larger story arc of season 1. It not only serves as a perfect antithesis to the questions raised in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country but also expertly updates those notions to mirror many aspects of issues such as this as they stand in our world today.
Themes of Marginalized Groups Reclaiming their Voices
Through the eyes of Soji and, to some extent, her twin sister, Dahj, we learn that the synth ban was not as simple as outlawing a certain form of technology, but rather criminalizing a sentient being’s very existence within the Federation. It’s a direct allegory to how governments today will still design laws to exacerbate marginalization of certain groups people in nearly every way short of simply detaining them for who they are (and of course, in some cases doing just that). I’m reminded of efforts here in the U.S. that effectively criminalize poverty, laws that reinforce systemic racism and sustain historic redlining, and most obviously the pervasive anti-immigrant rhetoric under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’ that has infected our political discourse.
In what could be described as the season’s ‘B-plot,’ this theme is further explored through Hugh and the XBs. Up until this point, the majority of Borg depictions in Trek have treated them as a singular entity that exists as a near unstoppable force. They’ve been purely villainous, and anyone assimilated (save for Picard, Seven of Nine and a few others) is simply too far gone to save. This show, however, challenges that notion in the best possible way. We see the return of Jonathan Del Arco’s Hugh as a researcher helping former Borg drones acclimate to life outside the collective. We see individual Borg as victims rather than villains, forcing us to question our convictions cultivated through previous Trek iterations. It’s quickly made clear that despite the distinction the show wants us as the audience to feel, many in the universe itself still don’t feel that way. Hugh describes the XBs as still some of the most despised beings in the galaxy, noting that while they have regained elements of their individuality, they’re still treated as less than human by nearly everyone.
Both of these plot threads serve the grander narrative of the oppression that comes with silencing minority groups and in turn shows us the power that can come with these groups reclaiming their voices through whatever means available to them. It’s a powerful notion and one that feels absolutely true to Star Trek‘s core ideals and values. And true to our own reality, neither of these plots is shown as ‘done.’ While both groups are shown to have made strides towards their cause (the synths more so than the XBs), we’re shown that both fights have a long road ahead.
A Fitting End to Data & The Next Logical Step for Picard
For any show to tackle the legacy of Jean-luc Picard today, the character had to evolve. Picard’s Enterprise always seemed to live up to the ideals and vision that the Federation hoped to represent – even when the Federation itself couldn’t (which happened often throughout the franchise). It felt true to the character that the next moral step to take would be for Picard to outgrow Starfleet and the Federation. Rather than continue to uphold the ideals in his own corner of Starfleet, he was forced to truly reconcile with the its shortcomings on a grander scale. At first he crumbles under this weight, resigning and isolating himself from the rest of the galaxy. But as we come to see, Picard can’t sit idly by for too long and he ultimately chooses to take on the Federation’s moral failings head on with or without a Starfleet ship and crew to back him up. It’s a wonderfully optimistic and mature take on the character and I was happy to see this was the direction he was taken.
Much of Picard’s story is tied in with that of his old friend, Data – building on their deeper relationship as it developed through the 4 TNG films. At the end of the season finale, Data is finally given the chance to end his life on his own terms and to finally achieve his goal of becoming more human by being allowed to die as if he were one. It’s a beautiful and fitting sendoff to a beloved character – rectifying his more so uninspired sacrifice at the end of Star Trek: Nemesis while still respecting it as part of Data’s overall arc.
In what I intended to be a short reflection on the series, I’ve now written what I think is my longest piece for The Continuing Voyage to date! Whew! If you stuck with it and read through this whole thing, I thank you for your patience. I’d love to hear what you think of the first season of Star Trek: Picard too, so feel free to leave a (respectful) comment below and share your thoughts!