Star Trek: Picard’s best aspect is also its biggest issue: It has one foot firmly in the past of the long-running sci-fi franchise, and another in a more modern, darker present. The show is a big, fan-servicey return to the story of legendary Starfleet captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), complete with visits from a few beloved characters along the way, and no end of Easter eggs and references that often feel like high-fives to the dedicated viewers who’ve been enjoying the sci-fi franchise for decades, especially in the mid-1990s. Throughout its first season, it often works to update those series, reimagining some of their best ideas through the frame of the modern world. Though it can get bogged down in its attention to Treks of the past, Picard is a darker look at a future that challenges the franchise, not by just telling the stories of great people doing great things–but by amplifying their flaws and forcing them to choose to be better.
Picard picks up the story of Jean-Luc 15 years after he’s suffered a major failure: He attempted to lead Starfleet in an enormous rescue to save the endangered Romulans, the Federation’s oldest enemies. An immense tragedy, the destruction of the Starfleet’s rescue fleet, led to the Federation abandoning the plans to save the Romulans and Picard’s resignation in protest. More than a decade later, the series finds him languishing in his French vineyard, while Earth’s branch of the Federation has become isolationist and bigoted. Hardship and injustice have festered, especially against synthetic lifeforms, the apparent perpetrators of the tragedy–and Jean-Luc has done little in the intervening years to stop it. That’s a stark contrast to the unwaveringly principled captain seen in The Next Generation, which makes it a perfect starting point for Star Trek: Picard.
Picard is shaken out of his complacency with the arrival of Dahj (Isa Briones), a young woman being hunted by Romulan assassins, on Picard’s doorstep. Dahj turns out to be a synthetic created in violation of the ban from the remnants of Data (Brent Spiner), Picard’s former android crewmember and old friend, who died to save Picard’s life. Stirred by his loyalty and friendship for Data, Picard takes it upon himself to protect Dahj and her sister, Soji, gathering a ragtag crew and taking to the captain’s chair one last time.
The season is slow to start, especially as it gets bogged down in setting up a world that’s something like 30 years ahead of where The Next Generation left off. After the first three episodes, though, Picard hits its stride as it fuses two Star Trek identities: the more action-packed, adventure-focused takes of more recent Trek movies, and the moralistic, cerebral approach of The Next Generation. It’s a hybrid that mostly works, too, with Picard occasionally interspersing fun, well-produced action and fight scenes with the moral quandaries and diplomatic conundrums of the Enterprise’s voyages. In a lot of ways, slick CGI space battles and choreographed hand-to-hand fights between Romulan agents and super-fast androids make Picard a more modern take on the franchise. With the budget and the effects technology, some of The Next Generation might have looked a little more like Picard.
The darker, more modern take on Star Trek also makes Picard feel more relevant to the world in which we’re watching it. The show focuses on the plights of refugees, including the Romulan survivors who were scattered across the galaxy after the failed rescue, and the XBs, victims assimilated by the deadly cybernetic Borg who have been freed from enslavement to its Collective, but who are still mistrusted and exploited. The Starfleet of the future is more insular, abandoning much of its focus on exploration of the galaxy and understanding other life and cultures. It’s a Star Trek that uses the lens of science fiction to explore the plights and issues of a more reactionary world than the one in which The Next Generation was made.
But much of Picard’s power comes from its dedication to the past. Few opportunities slip past for references to The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, or the Star Trek movies. It’s not all just about appeasing Trekkers, though–Picard has a deep, encyclopedic knowledge of everything that’s happened to its characters over the years, and does a brilliant job of rejoining their stories, exploring their traumas, and advancing their characters in ways that feel true to them.
The new additions to Picard, however, function less well. Where returning characters like Jean-Luc and Voyager’s Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) get the benefit of the show building on their lengthy histories, the new ragtag crew often don’t really have enough to do, even as the show spends a little time rounding out their backstories. Jean-Luc’s often-drunk former first officer, Raffi (Michelle Hurd), exists to tap away on holographic computers; what interesting conflict she has with Jean-Luc, based on him abandoning her after the Romulan rescue along with everything else, evaporates not long into the season. The same is true for cyberneticist Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), who struggles with her role in the creation of Dahj, Soji, and the other synthetics, but who gets back to normal for plot reasons.
Rios (Santiago Cabrera), the hardnosed captain of the ship Picard hires, is mostly just angry and stoic, and the childishly idealistic, sword-wielding warrior Elnor (Evan Evagora) seems to primarily exist for fight scenes and innocently misunderstanding situations for laughs. There’s also Narek (Harry Treadaway), a Romulan spy tasked with getting close to Soji, who struggles a bit with his task but never really evolves as a character because of it.
All of the characters are interesting, with well-built backstories and strong performances, but none can really take the room needed to grow with the show so often putting a hard focus on Picard and Soji, who spends most of the season unaware of her nature as an android and slowly catching up to a point the audience reached much earlier.
It all makes Picard’s 10-episode run feel just a touch too short to really expand on any of the new characters, especially with the show making lots of detours down the memory lane of The Next Generation. As mentioned, those looks to the past are strong if you’re an established Trek fan, but they often hobble the show’s present. Much of what goes on Season 1 of Picard feels like it’s setup for a more fleshed-out Season 2.
Still, there’s a lot Picard does right. Its update on the Star Trek formula is a sorely needed catch-up to the modern world that makes it feel like Trek has something important to say, and its signature optimism is a perfect fit for the times. It’s also keenly aware of everything that made Jean-Luc Picard such a resonant character, and it revisits those aspects without retreading old ground. On the whole, Star Trek: Picard does well to bring Treks of the past forward, and for fans of Jean-Luc and The Next Generation, it’s a powerful and emotional revisit to beloved characters.
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