Nobody can deliver lines with Shakespearean gravitas and comforting emotional resonance like Patrick Stewart, which is why the actor—and his famous Star Trek character, Jean-Luc Picard—remain so beloved in the franchise. He gives yet another sublime performance in the new CBS All Access series, Star Trek: Picard, anchoring the larger-than-life stakes of the broader narrative with his intensely personal portrayal of a grief-stricken, disillusioned retired Starfleet admiral who feels the world he once dominated has passed him by.
(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
As Ars’ Kate Cox noted in her review of the pilot episode, the events of 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis “are the plot and emotional scaffolding over which the initial episode of Picard is draped”—most notably, Data sacrificing his life to save the rest of the Enterprise crew. Honestly, that loss drives the entire season, along with 2009’s Star Trek film reboot of the franchise.
That film set up an alternate timeline, caused by the Romulan star going supernova, in which Picard led a massive humanitarian relocation effort for the roughly 900 million Romulan inhabitants. But then rogue synthetics mysteriously revolted and destroyed the Starfleet armada that had been evacuating the Romulans. Against Picard’s passionate pleas, Starfleet reneged on its humanitarian mission and banned all synthetics, prompting a disillusioned and heartbroken Picard to resign.
Set 20 years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, the series opens with Picard having retired to the family vineyard. His bucolic existence is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious woman named Dahj (Isa Briones), who pleads for his help. Alas, Picard fails to save her: she is killed in front of him by Romulan assassins belonging to a radical sect known as the Zhat Vash. Picard discovers that Dahj was actually a synthetic, technically Data’s “daughter,” and she has a twin sister, Soji, who is also in danger.
Resolved to save Soji, Picard asks Starfleet for a ship, but he’s been gone a long time, and his entreaties are rebuffed. Never one to admit defeat, Picard amasses his own scrappy crew over the next few episodes for his unauthorized rescue mission: Christobal (Santiago Cabrera), a skilled thief and pilot of the ship La Sirena; Raffi (Michelle Hurd), a former Starfleet intelligence officer and recovering addict; Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill); and a Romulan refugee, Elnor (Evan Evagora).
Meanwhile, Soji is working at a Romulan reclamation site within a decommissioned Borg cube. She becomes romantically involved with a Romulan named Narek (Harry Treadaway), who is secretly a member of the Zhat Vash. His mission is to seduce Soji in an attempt to discover the location of her home planet, with the ultimate goal of destroying all the synthetics there.
Showrunner (and longtime Star Trek fan) Michael Chabon is perhaps best known as a gifted novelist. So it’s not surprising that Picard has the slow-moving, contemplative feel of a novel, serialized for the small screen. (There actually is an official prequel novel, The Last Best Hope, by Una McCormack, depicting the events that drove Picard to resign from Starfleet after the destruction of Romulus. There is also a six-minute “Short Trek” prequel that details the Martian attack by synthetics.)
In other words, it’s a very deliberate departure from past Star Trek series, including Picard‘s streaming sibling, Star Trek: Discovery. Co-creator Alex Kurtzman has said his goal was to create “a more psychological show, a character study about this man in his emeritus years.” That’s what convinced Patrick Stewart to sign on to reprise his iconic role.
But it’s also what some hardcore Star Trek fans, accustomed to fast-moving, more episodic plots, might find frustrating. It’s a complicated narrative structure, with multiple plot threads and several flashbacks. The tone is darker, and (at least in earlier episodes) more world-weary and cynical, in keeping with the psychological journey of its grief-stricken titular character. Starfleet, and the Federation, which once nobly embraced diversity and unity among species in the galaxy, are now indifferent to the plight of Romulan refugees and openly hostile to synthetics. No wonder the idealistic Picard seems so broken at the outset.
There’s also very little in the way of futuristic technobabble—a hallmark of the franchise since TOS and a major factor in its enduring popularity. Case in point, courtesy of Kate Cox: “They’ll invent a magic deus ex multitool just to get crises solved and instead go straight to the character reactions.” And several fans have also noted the striking similarity of Picard‘s premise to Mass Effect 2. Rios’ ship, La Sirena, “even has a very similar internal layout as the Normandy [the Mass Effect] ship,” per Cox.
There is much to like about Picard. I personally appreciated how it stays tightly focused on the characters and the ebb and flow of their inter-relationships. There are plenty of welcome fan-service moments, including cameos by Data (Brent Spiner), William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), and his now-wife, Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine (from Star Trek: Voyager) is an especially welcome addition to the cast. She’s now a vigilante with a group known as the Fenris Rangers helping those in need—but not above carrying out a bit of personal vengeance should the opportunity present itself.
By far the best new character is Raffi, whose once-flourishing career was cut short when she backed Picard in his standoff with Starfleet over the plight of the Romulan refugees. He finds her, years later, drowning her sorrows in drugs and booze. Watching Raffi dig herself out of that hole of despair and start to rebuild her life provides one of the most interesting character arcs of the series. Also: I am here for the spinoff series where Raffi and Seven of Nine roam the universe, dispensing vigilante justice to help the helpless. The two actors have terrific chemistry, and the characters are a natural pairing.
For all its strengths, I ended up liking Picard more than loving it. Picard’s original mission—to rescue Soji—turns into a battle to save an entire race, and those huge stakes just felt a little at odds with the show’s character-driven psychological themes of loss and regretful nostalgia for a world gone by. Also, I would have preferred this to be a one-and-done standalone miniseries, but CBS All Access renewed Star Trek: Picard for a second ten-episode season before the pilot episode had even aired. So naturally, the finale blinked with regard to the fate of Picard himself; they need him for S2. Letting Picard have a fitting end to his legendary life would have been the perfect denouement for the season.
Star Trek: Picard is currently streaming on CBS All Access. The streaming service has made the entire first season available to non-subscribers in the wake of continued “shelter at home” policies during the coronavirus outbreak. So now everyone can binge-watch S1 as we wait for the curve to flatten—and immersing yourself in the show with a binge session is probably the best way to watch it.
Listing image by CBS All Access