A reunion among the Enterprise-D faithful and a mysterious new threat set the stage for a nostalgia-heavy final season of Star Trek: Picard.
The premiere episode of Star Trek: Picard’s third season delivers more of the nostalgia-tickling material many Trekkies wanted from the beginning. “Captain Picard and Commander Riker team up to rescue Dr. Crusher from a mysterious enemy beyond the reaches of Federation space” could easily have been a storyline in the 1987 series. Geordi’s daughter pops up at the helm of the U.S.S. Titan, sporting the same first name she had in TNG’s “All Good Things.” And Jean-Luc (Patrick Stewart) and Will (Jonathan Frakes) enlist Seven (Jeri Ryan) as a big helping hand for their scheme. If you wanted an outing that plays like an updated version of the adventures Captain Picard used to have all the time, with plenty more familiar faces to come, here it is.
So too comes the type of “Time has passed you by” ruminations that have been the stock and trade of the franchise since at least Wrath of Khan. Nobody wants Enterprise-D mementos anymore! Our onetime heroes are reduced to giving dull speeches at puffed up parades! The prickly new captain of the Titan derides his predecessors as reckless dinosaurs who caused as many problems as they solved!
His recriminations are amusing since Picard himself once leveled the same sort of accusations at Spock and his era of “cowboy diplomacy.” Nevertheless, these gestures to the past of the Next Generation crew provide them an opportunity to show they still have something left in the tank, and that their older, bolder ways still have value in a time of refined-yet-rigid precision.
And yet, at the dawn of its final season, Star Trek: Picard still struggles to justify its existence. The material here is resoundingly fine. A far cry from the drizzling, nonsensical ending to season 2, this season premiere (cheekily titled “The Next Generation”) launches the new season with suitable aplomb. The episode features yet another mysterious distress call, one more hidden threat that poses a serious challenge, and a couple of old hands making their way across the galaxy to both save their friend and protect the universe. The show’s creative team accomplishes what it needs to in order to set the stage for the no-doubt raucous events to come.
If you wanted an outing that plays like an updated version of the adventures Captain Picard used to have all the time, with plenty more familiar faces to come, here it is.
But there’s little here that demands your attention or excitement. What do you know — it’s another massive attack on Starfleet’s home front, with hints of an advanced weapon that could destroy everything! Fans have seen this setup so many times that the impact is all but nil.
At least Raffi (Michelle Hurd) is onto the ploy. She feigns having fallen off the wagon while working for some furtive handler at Starfleet Intelligence. Uncovering such conspiracies is a time-honored Trek tradition, and Hurd does alright with the material. But it comes off as paint by numbers. Even the arrival of a giant ship, menacing our heroes with pincer-like protrusions that dwarf the protagonists’ comparatively humble conveyance, is a bit rote by franchise standards.
This is the same customary block and tackle that Picard individually, and the new era of Star Trek more generally, have been delivering for years now. Sure, it’s cool enough to see Beverly (Gates McFadden) get into a firefight with some spooky aliens, or watch Raffi skulk through an ersatz version of the Coruscant underworld, or witness Starfleet’s recruitment center (replete with a statue of the Enterprise-C captain) demolished by some godforsaken hole in the sky. But these types of images are each too overfamiliar to truly move the needle after two years of Picard and six years of franchise impresario Alex Kurtzman’s bombastic vision of Star Trek.
And yet, “The Next Generation” has a few saving graces. Chief among them is the rapport between Picard and Riker (and by extension, Stewart and Frakes). Frankly, Frakes might be what the show needed all along. Such a talented performer brings out the best in Stewart, and the pair have the sort of playful dynamic that’s been missing from the series thus far.
As in season 1’s “Nepenthe,” the longtime pals fall back into their old rhythms and ribbing with ease, which livens the proceedings considerably. Whether it’s the two actors’ real life friendship, or the long history the characters share, every desultory plot point here is more fun with these two old pals bantering their way through it.
But this is also a prime Seven of Nine episode. It is remarkable, in hindsight, that the producers of Voyager set out to cast a “Borg babe” to goose ratings for the series, and ended up not only developing one of the franchise’s most compelling characters, but finding a performer who’s still killing it twenty-five years later.
Suffice it to say, Ryan soars as the first officer of the Titan, She labors under an exacting captain who expects regimented mediocrity and discourages coloring outside the lines. Unfortunately, Captain Shaw (Todd Stashwick) starts off as a one-dimensional foil who mainly serves as a flat boogeyman in opposition to Riker and Picard, with a helping of anti-Borg prejudice to boot.
But his domineering presence foregrounds how Seven feels sanded down in her role within Starfleet. She’s quietly grateful that Picard’s arrival gives her a chance to break ranks and improvise, in a way that vindicates the values they both ascribe to rather than succumb to the numbing protocols and expectations of her commanding officer. Seeing Seven take a stand, and watching Ryan sell her character’s conflicted place within the Federation firmament, is one of the major highlights here.
Whether it’s the two actors’ real life friendship, or the long history the characters share, every desultory plot point here is more fun with these two old pals bantering their way through it.
With her help, Jean-Luc and Will hitch a ride aboard the Titan, and rendezvous with Dr. Crusher in a nebulous region of space just beyond the Federation’s territory. There, they board her ship, which is worse for wear after an attack. And soon they find…her son! Dun dun duuuuuun.
Hoo boy. Look, maybe it’s not as bad as it seems. But as with Picard’s second season, “The Next Generation” seems to be taking major inspiration from the original cast films: from the lingering glory shots of the Titan a la Star Trek: The Motion Picture, to the “Let’s borrow a ship and go rescue our friend” plot cribbed from The Search for Spock. Viewers have reason for trepidation, then, that this episode may be following the path of The Wrath of Khan, where the captain of the Enterprise goes off to rescue an old flame in distress and discovers a long lost love child in the process. Or hey, given the accent, maybe he’s the product of Beverly’s infamous love affair with a candle ghost.
Either way, reuniting Picard, Riker, and Crusher comes with an inherent thrill. And while convenient, Beverly’s estrangement from the rest of the TNG crew, which apparently lasted more than twenty years, is a personal mystery box worth opening. The pieces are there, and even though the dialogue is often clunky and the execution remains solid-at-best, the building blocks of a decent season of television are firmly present.
But as Star Trek: Picard embarks upon the third and last year of its mission, the show seems poised to devolve into the fanservice and nostalgia that many more fans feared. It’s rousing to see Jean-Luc step aboard a galaxy class (sorry, “neo-galaxy” class) starship again and partner with old friends. There’s room for worthwhile character development in the way he and Will Riker seem to be left behind by a new class of Starfleet officers who’ve forgotten or dismissed their predecessors’ accomplishments, leaving them hungry to prove themselves all over again. Taking stock of the past, using it to define your legacy, and setting the stage for the future, has meaning in-universe and out.
Still, in this opening hour, the series struggles with what it’s struggled with from the beginning — why should we care about these new stories beyond our affections for the old ones? There’s plenty of time for Star Trek: Picard to respond to that question. But as befits a season premiere, “The Next Generation” offers more questions than answers. Instead, it paves the way for one last victory lap for our storied heroes, forced to prove themselves all over again, in a season that harkens back to when they were the new kids on the block.
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