Patrick Stewart returns to his iconic role in a new Star Trek series in desperate need of a shakedown cruise.
It’s pleasing enough to see Patrick Stewart once again gazing at the stars. He calls his dog “Number One”, and orders earl grey tea, and shares a moment with some familiar faces. This older Picard is a bit more subdued than the confident captain who once strolled the decks of the Enterprise. But every once in awhile, the captain awakens once more, and Stewart delivers a line or look or an expression that briefly rekindles the fire that fueled The Next Generation.
It’s pleasing enough to see Star Trek finally advancing the timeline beyond Nemesis. This first real measure of in-universe progress since then deals with the Romulan detente hinted at in the 2002 release and the destruction of Romulus depicted in the 2009 reboot. The series contends with the more expansive use of artificial life hinted at in Data’s adventures and the aftermath of so many Borg encounters.
It’s even pleasing enough to see another series advancing Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, upholding his spirit by channeling current issues and events. The Federation we see in Star Trek: Picard< is not the same institution whose principles the show’s title character once so vigilantly upheld, but rather, one struggling with its place in a changing universe.
The esteemed Jean-Luc Picard chose to resign his commission rather than be a party to an organization that would turn its back on refugees and banish a form of life it doesn’t understand, out of reluctance and fear. This is no longer a utopia. It is, instead, a government dealing with the fault lines between principle and practical realities, and a favorite son who, understandably, won’t stand for the latter winning out over the former.
But eventually the thrill of seeing Stewart reclaim his iconic role subsides. The excitement of moving further into Star Trek’s future wears off. And the thematic relevance fades into the background. Once that happens, Star Trek: Picard still needs to chart its own path, craft its own memorable new characters, and tell its own, worthwhile story. Its attempt is…aggressively fine.
Shave off the serial numbers, swap out Stewart for another classically trained vet, and Star Trek: Picard could be any other modern science fiction show. It offers yet another tiresome mystery box to unpack, scads of tin-eared and on-the-nose dialogue, and a host of new characters who struggle to make the viewer care whenever Picard isn’t on screen. Some of this can be forgiven amid the necessary throat-clearing and table-setting any new series must do. But much of it casts this latest spin-off as a replacement-level sci-fi show with little juice beyond its connection to a hallowed character and a rich universe.
Star Trek: Picard still needs to chart its own path, craft its own memorable new characters, and tell its own, worthwhile story. Its attempt is…aggressively fine.
The series’s first trio of episodes introduces a mysterious young woman who needs Picard’s help. She’s connected to a cryptic conspiracy plot involving the Federation, the Romulans, a group of “Synthetics” akin to Data, and maybe even the Borg. The puzzles at play recontextualize the act of terrorism that all but ended the Federation’s benevolence, linking it to shadowy organizations with heretofore unknown but apparently longstanding motives.
As usual, the tendrils run all the way to the top, and Picard (with a convenient excuse for why he can’t get the old gang back together), has to form a ragtag band of his own to get to the bottom of it. A new ship, new allies, and new-ish enemies are the order of the day. Whatever its other faults, the show at least dutifully sets the stakes and establishes the reasons behind Picard’s new self-sworn mission.
But much of that setup is convoluted, convenient, or contrived. There are connections to past characters and events that strive to make this adventure more resonant. There’s even a vague but discomfiting dose of 9/11 Trutherism at play. (Hello Star Trek Into Darkness fans!) Still, the show strains when trying to introduce new personalities and a new conflict to support this wobbly ten-episode mystery.
The bad guys are a set of sexy young Bond villains who connive and monologue with all the subtlety of a swinging bat’leth. The good guys are filled with the usual array of quirks and tics and all but announce their backstories and emotional states at the drop of a hat. And Picard’s time-worn connections or newly-forged bonds with each of them are hit or miss.
Some performers match Stewart note-for-note when sharing a scene, while others crumple under the uneven writing that Stewart could once elevate without fail. All suffer from the show’s apparent mantra of “When in doubt, toss stilted, overly-explanatory dialogue at one another.” When that falters, the series delivers competent if generic action sequences, channeling River Tam-esque combat and the franchise’s usual phaser fights, bathing it all in the glossy look that’s defined modern Star Trek and its enhanced T.V. budgets.
Despite those noteworthy problems, the show still has plenty of potential. How could it not, given the outstanding performer at the center of the series, and the opportunity to break new ground in a franchise that has, ironically, spent the last twenty years looking to the past? Its ideas are still weighty and relevant, with enough salience to make the series about something worthwhile. Lord knows The Next Generation had its share of growing pains before achieving excellence.
But in its first three episodes, this series is a standard-issue science fiction show, bolstered only by the two big names in its title. Right now, Star Trek: Picard feels like a cadet pretending to be a captain, and only time will tell whether the series can eventually transform itself into something more exciting, commanding, and engaging.
Star Trek: Picard is currently streaming on CBS All Access, and will air new episodes Thursdays.