Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: Picard is so much more than a hero’s homecoming

Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes
Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes
Photo: Trae Patton (CBS Interactive)
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Just hours into season one of Star Trek: Picard, the eponymous and beloved Starfleet officer is told, “This is no longer your house, Jean-Luc.” While it’s true that Picard, played indelibly and with renewed soulfulness by Patrick Stewart, doesn’t have quite the same standing in the year 2399 that he did in 2385, the character and actor still look very much at home in the newest Star Trek series. In many ways, Picard is the leader we remember, a man whose compassion and intelligence preceded him, who believed that the progression of humanity could, with concerted effort, keep up with that of technology. But 20 years after the events of Nemesis, there’s been a considerable change in circumstance: he’s now a man with no crew or starship, just a long memory and a mission (and a vineyard and a great dog, but we digress).

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The same sense of purpose that sends the erstwhile Enterprise captain journeying through the stars once more also extends to the wider series, and keeps Picard from being a mere exercise in nostalgia or repackaging of intellectual property. The series, Alex Kurtzman’s latest foray into this particular sci-fi universe, shares its lead character’s penchant for delving into history, but keeps its eyes trained forward, seeking out new ways to tell classic Trek stories—among them, exploring what it means to be human.

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Finding a balance between old and new, between the past and the future, is as much a thematic concern as it is an offscreen imperative for Kurtzman, Stewart, and their fellow executive producers Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsman, and Heather Kadin. No one on screen or behind the scenes believes this story can just pick up where The Next Generation (or even the big-screen adventures) left off, narratively or otherwise. The passage of time, both on the show and in real life, is seen and felt everywhere, from Picard’s strained relationship with Starfleet to the Federation’s current state of intergalactic affairs to the more somber tone of the series.

But even with such an esteemed history and noble intentions, Star Trek: Picard struggles at times to fly true in its first three episodes. Attempts to marry the sensibilities of big-screen (specifically, Kelvin timeline) Trek with those of its TV counterpart create discord; there is a slickness to the pilot, particularly in the big action set pieces, that doesn’t quite jibe with the more pensive nature of the small-screen franchises. But veteran TV director Hanelle M. Culpepper, who helmed the first three episodes, eventually settles into a more familiar speed, one that allows each new discovery to land before moving on to the next.

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Patrick Stewart and Alison Pill
Patrick Stewart and Alison Pill
Photo: CBS Interactive

Picard is also so packed with plot and backstories, it’ll have you wishing you had the memory banks of Data (Brent Spiner), the dearly departed android whose cinematic death still haunts Picard. In just the first three hours, the series sprints through decades of history, including the tragic events of the Romulan supernova that killed billions and made refugees of millions more. The details of Picard’s rift with Starfleet are gradually revealed, and we also learn more about his retirement, his vineyard employees, and his old (but new to us) comrades, like Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd), who is one of a surprising number of people on this show who won’t readily forgive the old Francophone. Kurtzman et. al. insist that you can walk into Picard a Trek novice, which is probably true, though we should note that being versed in the history only enriches jokes about Picard’s indifference to science fiction and makes transparent the wary reactions to the mere mention of the Tal Shiar.

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In addition to all that world-building, Picard season one has conspiracies within conspiracies—though we suppose that’s to be expected in any storyline with this many Romulans involved, including Narek (Harry Treadaway). There are flashbacks and previously unheard-of destinations, as well as new characters with just as much to lose as the iconic captain, but whose motives aren’t nearly as obvious to us. Alison Pill co-stars as Dr. Agnes Jurati, the Earth’s leading expert on synthetic life forms—the same synthetic life forms (or “synths”) that were outlawed following an attack on a Mars space station that was first glimpsed in Short Treks. As Cristobal Rios, Big Little Lies’ Santiago Cabrera gets to play buttoned-up and swashbuckling, occasionally even in the same scene. But most intriguingly, Picard introduces Dahj (Isa Briones), a brilliant young woman who, despite meeting Jean-Luc in the premiere, has deep connections to his past.

Isa Briones
Isa Briones
Photo: James Dimmock (CBS Interactive)
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At times, it’s difficult to keep the people and machinations straight, not to mention maintain interest in them. But all of these moving parts make up the engine that drives Picard the man and Picard the series, from the real-life events that inform the isolationism and refugee crisis depicted on the show to the search for compassionate and right-minded leaders. Regret is a powerful motivator, and Jean-Luc’s list of regrets is nearly as long as his list of accomplishments, but Picard is more opening salvo than it is a requiem for a starship captain. War, or some other cataclysmic event, is brewing, and no one gets to sit it out; not even the man who once thwarted the Borg. Soon, Picard’s return makes all the more sense—the reunion of the actor and the role, of the character and the battlefront is truly, as Dahj says at one point, “like lightning seeking the ground.” It’s immediately, undeniably comforting to see Stewart playing Picard once again, even as dulcet-toned actor brings new layers of vulnerability and insecurity to the role.

But though Picard acts as a beacon for his companions and viewers at home, the series doesn’t paint him as a savior. Picard carves out a distinct place for him—which is, at times, on the bridge of a starship—while also expanding the roles of his new comrades. It’s hard to pick a favorite among the new castmates, who bring wide-eyed energy (Pill), charisma (Cabrera), pathos (Hurd), and star quality (Briones) to familiar environs. But they’re ready to chart a new course within the universe of Star Trek, just as that universe welcomes back its most inspiring hero. Together, these stories make for one of the most rousing installments in the franchise, and potentially one of the most powerful.

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Reviews by Zack Handlen will run weekly beginning Thursday, January 23.

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