Now that it’s here, I’m not sure what I was expecting from Star Trek: Picard. Months of clips and trailers promised either a drama about a contemplative old man dealing with the successes and failures of his past, or a slick action show about a young woman breaking that old man’s contemplation with one last mission for him to complete.
Picard tries to have it both ways in its premier episode, which has the onerous task of exploring the 24th century the larger Star Trek franchise has ignored since 2002’s Star Trek Nemesis ended an era that began with the 1987 debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Watching this show without its predecessors coloring it in some way would be impossible, so let me say this: Picard takes fewer risks in its pilot episode than most Trek series, and is more interested in the individual than any series besides its contemporary, Star Trek Discovery.
But what an individual to pull focus on. Patrick Stewart is back as Jean-Luc Picard, and time has not robbed his portrayal of the character of its gravitas. The purpose of this episode is to insinuate Picard into a universe where Romulus went supernova, and it does so by positioning him as the admiral of a rescue armada whose relocation efforts ended when “synthetics” attacked them on Mars, destroying the longstanding colony there. The Federation withdrew its rescue attempts and banned synthetic lifeforms, and Picard left Starfleet as a reaction to its cowardice in the face of a difficult moral choice.
It’s in these moments that Picard feels most sure of itself, as if the show is a gentle rebuke to the fearful, xenophobic time it’s being produced in. It’s a different feel for a show with Jean-Luc Picard in it, as Next Gen was mostly hopeful about the nature of human curiosity and its openness to change. In an early scene in Picard, Jean-Luc is interviewed by a network news anchor about the anniversary of the Romulan supernova, and the tone of that scene is one I wish the episode spent more time examining, dealing as it does with the way those who are safe often wave off the nuances of the history that made them so.
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“I Haven’t Been Living”
To reanimate Jean-Luc Picard, Alex Kurtzman and Michael Chabon give us Dahj (Isa Briones), a young woman who Picard comes to believe is the daughter of Data (Brent Spiner, who appears in dream sequences). Dahj is just a newly accepted student at the Daystrom Institute when a group of assassins break into her apartment, kill her boyfriend, and accidentally activate Dahj’s mixed martial arts subroutines. She kills her assailants and, having seen him in a vision, visits Picard at his home.
Briones carries herself well, but the whole “young person with latent superpowers” thing has been done to death, often with Patrick Stewart in tow. While television is now hostile to the kind of fighting Star Trek used to present, the episode’s big action setpiece, which has Picard just out of focus in the distance, watching helplessly as Dahj smoothly executes a Romulan strike team with suplexes and headscissors, accidentally lays bare the risk inherent to making a television show about a hero of the 1990s in 2020. It’s not that Jean-Luc Picard wasn’t built for this world, more that the narrative grittiness and desaturatized color palates of modern television were built to repel characters like him. In this conflict and in the one between Picard and the news anchor, there’s nobody in the room who’ll actually talk to him, so he’s more witness than participant in the events of his life.
Maybe whether or not men like Picard are capable of navigating eras which contradict their values is a theme worth exploring, but the first episode of Star Trek: Picard is worrisome in that what it sets up isn’t an exploration of humanity’s future, but a relitigation of its titular character’s past. In such an expedition, who benefits? It’s nice to be invited over for tea, but will any of us like the conversation?