Before Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987, the idea of making a Star Trek without any of the original cast or characters was laughable. Fans were perplexed to learn that TNG, the first live-action Trek series on television since the original was canceled in 1969, would be led not by the suave James T. Kirk (William Shatner) but by that bald British guy from David Lynch’s Dune. Had Twitter existed, #NotMyStarTrek would surely have trended.
Over 30 years later, many of those same fans and the generations that came after are celebrating the return of that bald British guy — Sir Patrick Stewart — to the role of Jean-Luc Picard in a new series, Star Trek: Picard, which debuts on January 23rd, 2020. Picard will surround the beloved hero with a new cast of characters, but also promises the return of some old friends and the continuation of threads left dangling in The Next Generation and its spin-offs.
Trek’s slavish dedication to its own dense mythology can be a little scary for new viewers, but this crash course should help even a raw cadet dive into the new series confidently.
What’s a “Star Trek,” Anyway?
Born as a cheesy but frequently profound space western in 1966, Star Trek is set in a future where humanity has grown past bigotry and greed and now lives in harmony amongst itself and with other species as part of a United Federation of Planets. The action of Trek — now spread across eight TV shows and thirteen films — is centered around Starfleet, sort of a combined NASA, navy, and diplomatic corps for the Federation. Each series to date stars a different crew performing some variation on “going boldly where no one has gone before.”
Though the original Star Trek was considered a commercial failure, a rabid following kept the universe alive as it grew from cult classic to Hollywood tentpole. At its best, Trek is a delivery system for morality plays and philosophy experiments wrapped in fun space adventure, while some installments are more about character drama or just plain fun. Recent films and series have been prequels or reboots revisiting characters or settings from The Original Series, but Picard will be the first addition to the canon in eighteen years to move the saga forward into an uncertain future.
This Time They Did Actually Send a Poet
It’s ironic that the Star Trek TV series that had the biggest impact in its own time remains The Next Generation, given that it’s led by an unapologetically uncool man. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is a quiet, middle-aged nerd who avoids violence whenever possible and rarely shows any interest in sex. He’s the Anti-Kirk.
And yet, through Patrick Stewart’s performance, Picard becomes one of the most magnetic and compelling characters in science fiction, the dad who every other character (and most fans) wants to make proud. He’s a paragon of truth, a champion for rights both human and non-human. He believes that with time and patience, peace can be achieved with any foe. Even moreso than the iconic Spock of The Original Series, Jean-Luc Picard is Star Trek incarnate.
For over fifteen years, across seven seasons of TNG and four subsequent films, Jean-Luc Picard serves as Captain of the Federation flagship Enterprise, brokering treaties between worlds, exploring strange phenomena in space and time, and eventually learning to lighten up a little and accept his crew as his surrogate family. When we catch up with him in Star Trek: Picard, however, he’s a retired Admiral who’s returned to his biological family’s vineyard in LaBarre, France with no company other than his pitbull, Number One (newcomer DeNiro).
The Postmodern Pinocchio
The new series’ trailers show Picard haunted by the loss of his former shipmate, Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner). One of the stars of The Next Generation, Data is an android built by eccentric human scientist Noonian Soong (also Brent Spiner). Though capable of mental and physical feats beyond most organic life, Data still aspires to become more human. He believes that his greatest obstacle is that he lacks the capacity to feel human emotions, but anyone watching can tell that Data does feel, he just experiences feelings differently than we do. Data doesn’t smile or laugh or cry, but he has desires and anxieties, he develops attachments and experiences loss and regret. Even before he installs his “emotion chip” in the movie Star Trek: Generations, those closest to Data see him as “more human than any of us.”
Not that everyone sees him that way. In the beloved Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man,” Starfleet scientist Commander Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy) attempts to conscript Data into a dangerous experiment with the goal of mass-producing an army of android servants. It’s only through the intervention of Captain Picard that this order is reversed, and a legal precedent is established that artificial life forms have the same rights of person as organic life. However, in the trailers for the new series, there are hints of a new class of androids, at least one of whom looks a lot like Maddox himself.
At the end of the film Star Trek: Nemesis, the dreary final appearance of the Next Generation cast, Data sacrifices himself to save the lives of his crew, but not before portions of his own program are transferred into his long-lost older brother, B-4 (Brent Spiner again). It’s left ambiguous as to how much of Data lives within B-4, an early Android prototype who, despite his adult appearance, is essentially a young child. Novels, comics, and video games published since Nemesis have depicted Data’s personality reasserting itself in B-4’s body, but those stories are likely to be ignored by Star Trek: Picard. (In the Star Trek canon, anything that happens in media other than TV or film can be overwritten.)
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Friends, Romulans, Etc.
Data’s sacrifice opens the door for a lasting peace with the Romulans. The Romulans were originally introduced as honorable foes for Kirk and Spock, but eventually evolved into a paranoid state obsessed with espionage and political manipulation. They share a common ancestry with the Vulcans — hence their Spock-like pointed ears and penchant for severe haircuts — and have a similar analytical cultural mindset, but where the Vulcans treasure peace, the Romulans covet power. At the end of Nemesis, Picard and his crew have unseated a genocidal maniac from the Romulan throne (is that Tom Hardy?!), and relations between the Federation and the Romulans have never been rosier.
But things turn grim for Romulus about a decade later when, as described by the aged Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in the 2009 Star Trek film, the seat of the Romulan Empire is destroyed by a supernova. The details and aftermath of this event are depicted in apocrypha such as Star Trek: Countdown — a prequel comic to Star Trek (2009), only the broad strokes of which seem to be acknowledged by the new Picard series. A new angle on the fall of Romulus is being revealed in the new prequel comic Star Trek: Picard — Countdown. This series (whose conclusion won’t drop until after the TV show’s debut) features a now-Admiral Picard and his first officer Raffi Musiker (likeness of Picard regular Michelle Hurd) conducting an apparently doomed rescue effort on a Romulan colony world endangered by the nova, leading to a pair of Romulan refugees coming to Earth to live at Picard’s vineyard.
Resistance is Futile…
After sacrificing a dear friend to the peace effort, Picard has maintained ties with the Romulans, but the new trailer also shows them up to no good, performing experiments involving Picard’s most terrifying enemy, The Borg. A race of cybernetic zombies, The Borg forcibly absorb other civilizations into their own collective consciousness, stripping victims of their individuality and downloading their knowledge and skills in an endless pursuit of “perfection.” In their first appearance on The Next Generation (“Q Who?”), The Borg are portrayed as a leaderless hive mind, a faceless foe who cannot be overpowered or reasoned with.
For Picard, The Borg are a nightmare, but it gets worse — in the third season finale “The Best of Both Worlds,” they invade the Federation and set their sights on Earth, and they choose Picard to be their voice. Picard is kidnapped, mutilated, and plugged into their network, remade into the figurehead Locutus of Borg. As Locutus, he uses Picard’s knowledge of Starfleet against them and presides over the slaughter of thousands of his comrades. While his crew eventually prevails over the invaders and rescues their captain, Picard never fully recovers from the trauma, and each subsequent encounter with the Borg reopens the wound.
…But Not That Futile
The big-budget movie Star Trek: First Contact portrays The Borg as scarier than ever, but it also gives them an Achilles heel — the Borg Queen. Now The Borg have a leader, a video game boss through whom Picard and company can deal damage to the whole. This isn’t to say that the Queen isn’t a fun character — Alice Krige absolutely crushes the role — but going from an unknowable force of nature to appendages of a single being who’s stuck on Picard and exchanges pithy remarks with Commander Data is not an upgrade for The Borg.
After her debut in First Contact, the Borg Queen goes on to recur on Star Trek: Voyager, played by Susanna Thompson and then again by Krige in the series finale, where she’s killed for at least the third time. This death, however, may prove to have some lasting consequences, as she is taken out by a designer virus wielded by a version of Voyager’s Captain Kathryn Janeway from an alternate future. (It’s complicated, welcome to Star Trek.) Whether this is a minor setback or a major calamity for The Borg has not been revealed.
The Picard trailer implies that a group of recovered Borg from Treks past will team up for some kind of mission, including Picard, TNG guest star Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco), and Star Trek: Voyager regular Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). Hugh is a rescued Borg who Picard initially intends to send back to the collective as the carrier of a deadly computer virus, but Hugh’s emerging individuality and friendship with the rest of the Enterprise crew brings Picard to his senses and he’s released instead. Hugh is last seen as the leader of a small group of individualized Borg.
Seven of Nine is unplugged by Voyager’s Captain Janeway, but unlike Picard, Seven was initially assimilated as a child and has been Borg most of her life, and unlike Hugh, she does not cope with the separation easily. Seven’s experience is analogous to someone who was indoctrinated into a cult at a young age being torn away from that community as an adult, and slowly understanding that what she once understood as love was really abuse. Initially proud of the Collective’s dominance and efficiency, Seven grows to understand the horror of their actions and commits to atone for the atrocities in which she participated. Picard’s trailer depicts her as a dual-wielding action hero who “[helps] people who [have] no one else to help them.”
It’s easy to be cynical about Star Trek: Picard — launching a new series with a leading man from decades ago is unprecedented for the franchise, and it sniffs a little of desperation as CBS All Access tries to gain a foothold in the Streaming Wars. This simply isn’t how Star Trek is done! But back in 1987, this bald British guy confounded expectations and launched a new golden age for Trek. Who’s to say he can’t do it again?
Star Trek: Picard premieres Thursday, January 23rd, 2020 on CBS All Access in the United States, CTV Sci-Fi Channel in Canada, and Amazon Prime elsewhere.