The season’s eighth episode epitomizes the blandness that suffuses the show.
Star Trek: Picard doesn’t feel like Star Trek.
Granted, that’s a nebulous statement. A feeling is an ineffable thing to chase on television, especially when it comes to Trek. “Star Trek” means different things to different people at different times. The stories overseen by the likes of Gene Coon and Dorothy Fontana are meaningfully distinct from the ones shepherded by Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor, and Ira Steven Behr. The films crafted by Nicholas Meyer scan as markedly dissimilar from ones made by J.J. Abrams, even when the two directors are spinning the same plots. With more than fifty years in flight, this franchise has a diversity of moods and tones. That’s a feature, not a bug.
But ST:P doesn’t seem of a piece with any of them, not even The Next Generation. It should, given the presence of almost every TNG familiar face, character, and scenario, with more on the way. Season 2 offers Qs and Borgs and Soongs and, of course, Picard himself (Patrick Stewart). But the vibe is different. It’s empty and by-the-numbers in a way Trek should never be.
Gene Roddenberry’s initial concept of Star Trek’s core values should unite all these disparate takes. Exploration, openness, the betterment of humanity, and yes, even “Mercy” are the order of the day. To its credit, Star Trek: Picard strives to live up to that legacy. The themes at play in the season’s eighth episode are in line with those at the franchise’s heart.
Q (John de Lancie) looks to the unknown with fear but also hope that there will be meaning in the next great phase. Picard helps a man see visitors from beyond the stars as a beacon of enlightenment instead of a source of fear. Guinan (Ito Aghayere) has her faith restored in humanity because of our willingness to, as Ken Lowe so eloquently put it, “fight to get there” — to achieve a better self and a better world, even when we’re stuck in the past. These ideas are in line with the animating ethos of Star Trek. To their credit, the creative team behind this series is trying on this front.
The catch is that the dramatization of these themes feels rote and hollow. The spark, liveliness, and humanity that fueled so much of the franchise are missing. With all due respect to Captain Archer’s later missions, Star Trek: Picard doesn’t feel like Trek; it feels like NCIS: Starfleet.
One of the underappreciated details behind The Next Generation is that it wasn’t made for any particular network. Instead, it was sold into first-run syndication, a groundbreaking distribution method for a drama at the time. As a result, the show had a wider berth to avoid network notes and norms. It gave the creative team more leeway to confer upon the series a distinctive voice and tone.
Despite the preponderance of preexisting characters and perils pulled right out of TNG, Star Trek: Picard, by contrast, comes off like just another network drama. You could swap it out with any old CBS procedural and– but for some sci-fi wooliness–not notice a significant difference in the look, feel, or atmosphere. There’s a sense of the bland and generic that permeates the series, which undermines the admirable thematic work it attempts.
There’s no better microcosm of this deadening philosophy’s effect than the show’s use of its score. Jeff Russo does fine work as series composer. His melodies stand on their own and suit the presentation. But the creative team deploys his compositions nonstop throughout. In an episode like “Mercy” it detracts, rather than enhances, emotionally.
Star Trek: Picard doesn’t feel like Trek; it feels like NCIS: Starfleet.
Watch a random episode of The Next Generation. You’ll notice how unexpectedly judicious the series is with its musical accompaniment. The orchestra emerges for dramatic standoffs. The sound may swell at the climax of a big speech or meaningful moment. But, particularly for more down-to-earth and intimate scenes, the show would leave it to the performers to sell the sentiment. It’s a style that helped break down the inevitable artifice of the presentation.
But if you watch “Mercy,” you’ll notice that the score basically never goes away. This installment, in particular, is rife with writerly monologues explicating grand ideas about life and the universe. It’s filled with florid conversations to draw out the personal hang-ups of its players. Some of them come off a tad hokey or stolid, but many of them have real potential in the proud tradition of the grandiose Star Trek oratories Stewart himself made famous. Unfortunately, there’s no room to appreciate these resounding speeches on their own terms.
Seven (Jeri Ryan) reflects on what it is to yearn for lost connections only to watch them flounder. Raffi (Michelle Hurd) wallows in her guilt over contributing to Elnor’s death by keeping him close for selfish reasons. Q accepts his own impending demise, reaching for one great act that can give his existence, and maybe humanity’s, some deeper meaning.
Guinan regains her faith in humankind. Rios (Santiago Cabrera) and Teresa (Sol Rodriguez)) talk in a way that confirms their feelings for one another. Kore (Isa Briones) accuses her father of treating her like an experiment rather than a daughter. Adam Soong (Brent Spiner) defends his love for both his child and his life’s work. And Picard reassures a man frightened of what lay beyond the stellar horizon that what humanity may find there is something to be celebrated, not feared.
Each of these carries genuine thematic weight. Some succeed better than others. As with so many storylines and critical moments this season, many of the epiphanies and new understandings they contain arrive too quickly. Many more lack sufficient depth given how many balls the series continues to juggle at once. But each is a chance for the performers to shine, to sell the audience on their emotional journeys and the broader ideals at the center of the show, and Star Trek writ large.
Only that can’t happen because the score is glaring and ubiquitous during all of this. Star Trek Picard leans on those sonic byways to tell viewers what to feel instead of letting the audience react naturally. There’s no trust in the actors. Instead, the music is ever-present, there to hold the audience’s hand through each emotional beat, regardless of whether the writing or performances could earn that on their own.
The plot points in “Mercy” aren’t so bad on paper. Logically, all this mucking around in the past would eventually lead our heroes to run afoul of law enforcement. The concepts of a fearful FBI agent concerned that aliens have come to stifle humanity’s growth, a young woman afraid her father views her as a mere tool for scientific advancement, or two lovers trying to save a friend while revealing truths about themselves all have their merits and potential.
Granted, the Borg Queen linking up with a Soong ancestor to assimilate the past with nanoprobed commandos plays like more cheap fan fiction. And as intriguing as Q’s speech to Guinan is, his true intentions remain maddeningly opaque given the series’s regrettable mystery box approach to absolutely everything. Those faults aside, though, “Mercy” features creditable efforts to live up to Star Trek’s spirit in the tales it tells and the ideals it strives to vindicate.
But it fails, and fails badly, because it’s trapped in the same staid trappings of dozens of interchangeable T.V. dramas. The hand-holding score, the flat visual palette, the off-the-shelf approach to narrative and dialogue leave this episode and this series feeling like something viewers have seen a million times before, merely wrapped in a Trekkian package.
As Guinan herself explains here, it’s essential to keep evolving. The Next Generation didn’t need to be like The Original Series. Likewise, the modern slate of Star Trek shows like Discovery, Lower Decks, and Prodigy don’t need to be like TNG. In a media landscape where every new release is a part of some venerable franchise, it’s that much more critical for new projects to be permitted to grow and change and differ from what came before.
But that move should be toward something more distinctive, specific, and more attuned to the new possibilities each new era provides. In episodes like “Mercy,” Star Trek: Picard falls well short of that standard. It offers only the banal look and feel of a hundred other generic shows, poured into a familiar Star Trek shape, but missing the spark and soul that’s sustained the franchise for so many years.