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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iStar Trek: Picard/i reintroduces an old friend
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The first thing you should know is, Data is dead. That isn’t really a spoiler, at least not for Star Trek: Picard. Data sacrificed himself in Star Trek: Nemesis, the last of the Next Generation movies and possibly the worst. (I go back and forth between it and Insurrection. Generations wasn’t great either.) The android’s death was one of several ill-advised ways that Nemesis tried to mimic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and even then, the writers lacked the courage of their convictions, taking time out to make sure there was a back-up on hand just in case. But all that really matters now is: Data is dead, to begin with. Everything follows from that.

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“Remembrance” makes a lot of smart, strong choices, beginning with its opening (a dream sequence that starts with Bing Crosby crooning “Blue Skies” over images of the cosmos—just the right sort of light, off-kilter note to hit) and ending with its final shot (oh yeah, we’ll get to that), but the most unexpectedly strong choice is the way the script leans hard into some of the most controversial canon developments in the post-TNG Trek-verse. Again: Nemesis was not a good movie; and I’d argue that the time-line introduced in 2009’s Star Trek wasn’t all that terrific either, apart from the surprisingly excellent Star Trek: Beyond. But Data’s death is brought up early on as a key part of this show’s central narrative, as is the supernova that destroyed Romulus, the event which kicked off the ‘09 “reboot.” The strong temptation must’ve been to downplay any rough edges in continuity and try and give audiences the comfort food they crave. In offering a new vision of the future, one which, even just an hour in, is already considerably darker and more melancholy than the note TNG ended on, Picard makes it clear that it has higher aspirations than simple nostalgia.

Whether that aspiration will ultimately pay-off remains to be seen, but it’s a promising start. And if this sort of thing doesn’t interest you—if you couldn’t care less about the lore, and just want to see Jean-Luc Picard back on your TV screen again—you’re in for a fine time as well. This isn’t Next Gen, of course. That show’s pilot, “Encounter At Farpoint” told a single story, one with an open ending but still a clear beginning, middle and end. Modern genre shows are all about serialization, though, and Picard is no exception. The biggest complaint I have with this first episode is that it’s a little too methodical, not so much slow as not quite as focused as it needs to be. By the end of the hour, we have a vague idea of where things will go next, and a lot of questions; what we don’t have is a clear concept of what this is supposed to be as a television show. There’s no “five year mission” or anything like it. Hell, Picard isn’t even on a ship.

That’s a surprisingly minor complaint, though. And it’s satisfying just how much the episode gets right, and how little it strains to meet our expectations. (It’s nearly impossible for me to watch this without the tremendous pressure of needing it to be good—I went back and forth on my letter grade for a long time, and I’m still not sure.) There’s a reassuring confidence to the way the story unfolds, regardless of how you feel about its pacing, and while some of that confidence comes from following familiar tropes, that’s not necessarily a flaw. You could say Picard plays it safe, doling out small servings of reassuring fan service and leaning on structures which have been old since before Patrick Stewart was young, but safety can be a good thing. And I’d argue that it’s not entirely safe. Because, again, Data is dead; and Picard is no longer in Starfleet; and he is old. He is lovely and warm and kind, and he is old.

So: Jean-Luc has retired to the Chateau Picard, where machines cultivate the wine and time has come as close to stopping as one can manage outside of a temporal catastrophe. I just spent several sentences talking about how the first episode suffers from the curse of serialization, doling out information in morsels in order to sustain a kind of slow-walk momentum; and yet, I would’ve been fine to spend a whole hour at the Chateau, just watching Picard bicker fondly with his live-in Romulan caretakers Laris and Zhaban. Oh, and his pitbull Number One, can’t forget that. It so perfectly targets fans who miss the comfort food appeal of Next Gen that it borders on weaponized, and yet to the show’s credit, it doesn’t linger or wallow in the appeal. Picard is doing well, but he’s not quite as well as we might have liked. There are concerns—and he’s started having these dreams.

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We soon learn, through a confrontational television interview, that Picard was part of the rescue effort back when Romulus’s sun went supernova; that a terrorist attack by synthetic life-forms took advantage of the rescue effort to basically blow up Mars; and that Starfleet’s greatest captain resigned his position when the organization used the attack to withdraw from helping Romulus and ban all synthetic life-forms. Another reason this episode has me hopeful is the surprising depth of this backstory reveal. It’s complicated, and yet the information is delivered quickly, deftly. Again, there’s that confidence. You don’t need to grasp all the specifics just yet. All you need to know is, Picard is angry and disappointed with the organization he devoted much of his life to; beings like Data are outlawed; and there are Politics at work which reflect some of our own problems without simply repeating them.

While Picard is dealing with his bad memories, a young woman named Dahj is celebrating her acceptance to the Daystrom Institute with her boyfriend, when a group of masked assassins teleport into her hotel room, murder said boyfriend, and inadvertently turn her into a killing machine. Dahj is devastated and terrified, and all she has to guide her is a feeling that she can trust Jean-Luc Picard, a person whom she has never met.

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(I suspect most of us can relate; I’m also sure the writers understand this. The way the show uses Picard’s legacy as a character is canny without excessively manipulative. I’m particularly fond of the scene where the ex-captain visits his personal archives, and you see easter eggs from Next Gen episodes carefully displayed in a room no one ever visits, for no one’s benefit but his. And ours. If it’s fan service, it’s of the most tasteful sort imaginable.)

In short order, Dahj makes contact with Picard; he realizes she bears a striking resemblance to one of Data’s paintings; but before either of them can do much with the information, they are attacked by another group of masked assassins (who turn out to be Romulans), and Dahj is killed. Distraught over his failure to protect someone who sought out his help (and who also seems to be connected to someone else who died by his side), Picard decides it’s time to find some answers. He visits the Daystrom Institute himself, where we meet Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill, who I’d completely forgotten was in this), who explains to him that everything he’s thinking is impossible—although maybe it isn’t? Before the episode ends, we learn that beings like Dahj—oh right, forgot to mention, she’s a synthetic life-form built out of flesh-and-blood—are made in pairs, and Dahj’s still-living sister is off in the Romulan Reclamation site, working inside what absolutely looks to be a Borg cube.

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As cliffhangers go, that last scene is a nice mixture of ominous and what-the-fuck, and while I wish the first episode had made more progress in getting to the point, I can’t begrudge it too much; the pacing feels deliberate in a way that I can respect, even if I have some qualms about, and the whole thing is never boring or indulgent or pointless in the ways I’d feared. Three episodes were available as screeners, but I’ve only watched the first one, which is how I usually approach weekly reviews. I have no idea where this is going, or how long it will take to get there (I’m also curious how a show with such a clear single story focus is going to build to a second season, but I’m willing to wait and see.), but as of right now, I’m happy and invested and more than a little relieved.

I haven’t really mentioned Stewart’s performance in this, have I. Well, it’s good, which is not a surprise. Stewart’s original run as Picard on Next Generation remains, in my opinion, one of the greatest leading performances in the history television. Even if the show had been garbage fire, Stewart would’ve been strong. (If you doubt me, just watch Next Gen’s first season. Actually, no, don’t do that, it’s very bad, but he somehow holds it together.) It’s unhealthy to invest too much in any fictional character or actor, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t tremendous comfort in seeing him again, trying to do the right thing no matter how difficult or frightening it might be. In another protagonist, such a commitment to basic human decency could come off as trite or cliche, but in Stewart’s hands, it just plays like honesty. The universe is a frightening, turbulent place. It’s good to know that there are people out there who, no matter how bad it gets, will always feel like home.

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Stray observations:

  • I’d either missed or forgotten that Picard’s dog is named Number One before I watched this, and I was just absolutely delighted by the reveal.
  • “Why are you stalling, captain?” “I don’t want the game to end.” I remember when trailers first revealed Data’s presence on the series, and being shocked at how the character looked; I’m not horrible enough to blame Brent Spiner for aging, but it seemed like a bad idea to bring the character back. It works very well in context. Spiner is as good as ever, and the fact that Data looks just a bit off actually adds to the strangeness of the dream sequences. (And the simple emotional value of putting those two actors together again can’t be overstated. I’m grateful that the show is spacing these reunions out, as I’m not sure I could take too many in one go.)
  • Picard speaks French in this episode. Just figured I should acknowledge that.
  • “Romulan lives. “No—lives.” It’s such a simple exchange, with Picard talking to the reporter about why he felt the Romulan rescue effort was so vital, but it feels like it’s something that hardly ever gets said out loud, even in a fictional context.
  • I loved the casual dismissal of B4, a terrible character concept which should’ve never been introduced in the first place.
  • Picard talking about how much Data wanted a daughter made me think of “The Offspring,” if anyone needed another reason to be quietly devastated by a television show.
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