Worthwhile ideas meet convenient oversimplifications as the series begins year two of its mission.
In season 2, Star Trek: Picard places its focus exactly where you’d expect — on the love life of a ninety-five-year-old man. The first episode in particular asks why Jean-Luc (Patrick Stewart) never found his soulmate or settled down. The decorated officer certainly gave up chances for true love in the name of duty. He spoke of the sacrifices necessary for a Starfleet career to Wesley Crusher. He shared the same sentiments with a young woman groomed from birth for a politically expedient arranged marriage. And he grappled with the family life he never found time for in Star Trek: Generations.
Questions of what Picard set aside to pursue his vaunted journey through the stars have long been a rich vein worth exploring. So there’s merit in examining what the prospect of love and companionship means to him in his twilight years when the pull of duty isn’t quite so strong. As Star Trek: Picard embarks on a new season, the show laudably anchors itself around the personal for its title character. This first episode in particular creditably examines the chances at affection and connection he’s forsaken in favor of his extraordinary life, and why he remains alone long after he stopped commanding starships.
That catch is “The Stargazer”’s answers to these weighty questions are all too tidy, too built around appending convenient new bits of backstory to Jean-Luc’s personal history, and too sweeping in how they handwave away all his prior romantic entanglements. Suddenly, Picard wasn’t simply too devoted to his life’s work to make time for romance. He wasn’t merely fascinated with exploring the stars from a young age. He isn’t just someone who had his great loves but never got the timing right.
Instead, the season premiere strongly hints that Jean-Luc is someone who took to the stars in order to run away from a family life of domestic violence and never settled down in a relationship due to the ghosts of his parents’ marriage. There’s a powerful story you could tell with that framework, but it’s an awkward fit for the Jean-Luc that viewers came to know during The Next Generation and beyond. Worse yet, Star Trek: Picard’s pat take on the idea reduces the infinite complexities of human relationships and personal motivations to the facile simplicity of commitment-phobia and a desire to run away from your parents’ awful relationship.
If you can set that aside, “The Stargazer” is actually pretty good! It’s as much a re-pilot as it is a continuation of last season’s execrable finale. After a year and a half, Jean-Luc is back on his chateau for the harvest before starting his responsibilities at the head of Starfleet Academy. Elnor (Evan Evagora) has become a cadet on his first assignment. Raffi (Michelle Hurd) is a commander with her own ship where she can keep an eye on him. Soji (Isa Briones) is on a goodwill tour with the Deltans. (!!!) Dr. Jurati (Alison Pill) is happy to come along for the free drinks. Rios (Santiago Cabrera) is back in Starfleet, and a captain of the new and improved Stargazer, once Picard’s first command, no less. And Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) is back in the Fenris Rangers, using La Sirena to transport medical supplies and fight bad guys.
Each landing spot for the show’s slate of new-ish characters is oddly heartwarming. Sure, the relationships between Dr. Jurati and Rios on the one hand, and Raffi and Seven on the other, have both conveniently gone south. Picard’s not the only one forbidden from having a functional romantic relationship, after all. But otherwise, this is a welcome reintroduction for the major players, each of whom is in a bit of a better place than when we last saw them, having earned a measure of peace and happiness.
We can’t have that for too long though! Not just because it would make for a pretty boring season of television, but because this is Star Trek, and there is, of course, some wild spatial anomaly right off the port bow! This time, a tellingly green rupture in space emerges near Federation territory. The fissure sends out a plea for help, seeking none other than Jean-Luc himself. It’s a good excuse to get the gang back together, especially when it becomes clear this is no mere unusual request to join the Federation, but a Borg threat.
Yep, they’re doing the Borg again. You can’t blame the powers that be for chasing the highs of “The Best of Both Worlds” and Star Trek: First Contact yet again. But between those memorable outings and Seven’s numerous adventures with Captain Janeway on Voyager, the franchise has all but exhausted the cybernetic baddies by now. Still, the return of a Queen, with sensor readings that suggest time travel, is at least a little intriguing, particularly with the wrinkle that she’s ostensibly seeking admission to the Federation rather than attacking it. It prompts a Next Generation-style boardroom debate and the sort of moral dilemma that Star Trek always thrives on.
In the shadow of this peculiar request, Picard admits his uncertainty. Seven bangs her fist on the table against the untrustworthy evil she was once a part of. And our heroes strain to balance self-defense and due caution against Starfleet’s commitment to openness and understanding with any species. This is modern Trek, so it’s only about five minutes before the phasers start firing, but hey, it’s something.
Thankfully, before the fireworks start, a familiar face emerges in the midst of all Picard’s soul-searching. As promised, Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) makes her return here, helping Jean-Luc work through his emotional problems over a bottle of Saurian brandy. (Scotty would be proud.) While the episode’s approach to Picard’s self-cloistering still feels miscalibrated, and the explanation for Guinan aging is clunky, it’s a deft choice to use her in this fashion.
Guinan was one of the few people with whom Jean-Luc felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable. (Give or take a conspicuously unmentioned Beverly Crusher.) The barkeep of Ten Forward could speak to him as a peer rather than a subordinate. So it makes sense that someone who once described her relationship with Jean-Luc as “Beyond friendship, beyond family,” would be the confidante he’d turn to for frank advice and knowing insights into this mental itch he can’t quite scratch.
The series’ take on Picard’s past, his passions, and such grand notions of love and time, don’t come with the complexity or harmony they deserve.
Granted, she too is a mouthpiece for the show’s questionable read on Picard’s psychological hang-ups, one that hinges on the same “What are you running from?” bromide that infects the rest of the episode. But it’s still nice that Guinan’s not simply here for a fanservice-y cameo. The episode plays on the characters’ history but uses the force of Guinan’s grand return to advance ideas and character beats for this show and this story, which is all you can ask for in a legacy series like this one.
The same can’t be said for Picard’s Romulan aide, Laris (Orla Brady), who’s been upgraded from “hastily forgotten side character” to “love interest.” If you’re going to import a new possible paramour this late in the day, it makes sense to use a character with at least some on-screen history with Jean-Luc, however insubstantial. But the combination of an awkward “Sure my husband just died, but it’s cool” conversation; the real-life age difference, and a tortured “attraction that can never be” dynamic makes the gesture toward a romance between them a dud from the jump.
Nevertheless, Laris looks longingly, if frustratedly, as Picard beams back out, combadge and all, to confront the mysterious presence calling his name. Since the teaser mortgages drama from later in the episode, in the form of flashy action followed by a “48 Hours Earlier” chyron, the audience knows this doesn’t end well. But there’s still tension in watching a Borg Queen beam aboard the Stargazer, subdue a raft of Starfleet personnel who try to blast her during her Doctor Octopus routine, and tell Jean-Luc to look up, much as his mother once did, moments before the ship self-destructs.
It’s a strange ending, one made all the more peculiar by the way Picard doesn’t perish but instead wakes up in a familiar yet disorienting time and place. Thankfully, our favorite puckish demigod is back to explain it all, with a hell of a tease to boot. None other than Q (John de Lancie) taunts Jean-Luc with a suspiciously Mirror-like setting and a promise to explore an alternate path.
In its first few episodes at least, Star Trek: Picard’s second season doesn’t live up to the potential of those tantalizing possibilities. The series’ take on Picard’s past, his passions, and such grand notions of love and time, don’t come with the complexity or harmony they deserve. The ideas at play are interesting, but the show tangles its plots, romances, and the psyche of its title character, into a series of ever-more ungainly knots. Still, if anyone can help turn them into a tapestry over the rest of the season, it’s good ol’ Q.
Star Trek: Picard airs Thursdays on Paramount+.