STAR TREK: PICARD Review: An Engaging But Uneven Start
When Star Trek: Picard was announced, the excitement was palpable, and revolved around two things: the return of Patrick Stewart to his most beloved character; and a continuation of the Star Trek: The Next Generation timeline that many of us grew up with. With CBS and Viacom now merged, Star Trek can now draw on any elements from past canon - for a while, the movies and shows had to be separate for rights reasons - and that’s just what they’ve done in the pilot episode of Picard. It’s an episode in which not a hell of a lot happens, exactly, but which is nevertheless packed with information and mystery.
Our boy Jean-Luc has been living on his vineyard for some years now: taking his tea decaf, chatting to his dog Number One, dreaming of treks past, and actually speaking his native French for once. Patrick Stewart fits immediately back into his old role, whether in old uniforms or new civvies, and good thing, too, given how much expositional heavy lifting he’s shouldered with. Through a somewhat clunky space-TV interview, Picard catches the audience up on the future history we’ve missed out on - and despite the sub-Council-of-Elrond infodump, it’s the first sign that the writers of this show at least “get” the character of Picard.
Picard’s big falling-out with Starfleet, it seems, centred on its unsatisfactory response to a series of tragedies. With the Romulan sun going supernova (as in Star Trek (2009)), Picard set about effecting an immense, Dunkirkian relocation of 900 million Romulans to safety. Reaching out to refugees from one of the Federation’s oldest enemy factions (not “Romulan lives,” but “lives”) is an extremely Picard thing to do - not to mention a timely story to tell in the Trump era - but it’s not specifically the focus here. Picard's rescue attempt was foiled by an insurgency of “synths” - sub-Soong proto-androids - who destroyed the Federation’s Martian shipyards, prompting Starfleet to withdraw and abandon the refugees it promised to save. Thus departed Picard, ashamed of his government and military.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but we’ll have to do that in future episodes; indeed, it’s likely to form a significant part of Picard’s character development. More presently, into this new status quo steps Dahj, a young woman who’s discovering she isn’t quite what she seems. Picard’s sleuthing-out of exactly what she is - based primarily on a dream, a hunch, and a painting in the Starfleet equivalent of the Jedi Archives - isn’t one of the pilot’s strong suits. Stewart does his best to make his big revelatory speech empathetic, but it plays as weirdly unhinged and even belligerent toward Dahj, depending on how you view it. He’s right, of course, but so rushed is his detective work that it feels unconscionable to leap to this particular conclusion so quickly.
At any rate, Dahj is soon taken out of the picture by Romulan assassins, setting up Jean-Luc’s mission to find out who she was and why she was killed. A visit to the Daystrom Institute introduces Picard to researcher Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), who informs him that Bruce Maddox (the intensely creepy roboticist who spent TNG's “The Measure Of A Man” trying to deny Data his personhood, making this series a weird sequel to that specific episode) has gone missing after his promising research was deemed illegal. She also informs him that Dahj has, somewhat arbitrarily, a twin, and that’s the last we see of Picard for the episode. He’s got a mission, but it can wait a week.
At that point, the show cuts halfway across the galaxy to Romulan space, where Romulan agent Narek (Penny Dreadful’s Harry Treadaway) is meeting that very twin, Dr. Soji, in a research facility of some sort. A research facility, notably, located within the remains of a Borg Cube. Of course it is.
Given the advanced age of its star and protagonist, it’s not particularly surprising that Picard should start as slowly as it does; as of this episode's closing credits, Jean-Luc is still on Earth, a plan still nascent in his mind. (Old-timers like myself will be pleased to see that Jean-Luc is too old to run around and fight; that's for newer, younger characters, who are quite good at it.) It is a strange episode, paced to almost overwhelm with information that at this point doesn’t quite point in a consistent direction. Like all legacy sequels, it’s jam-packed with references to its predecessors (Picard literally has a personal nostalgia room in the Archives), adhering so committedly to canon that it even invokes the spectre of Star Trek Nemesis’ terrible Data substitute B-4. In keeping with its sister show Discovery, it’s also rather cinematic, entirely shrugging off the visual identity of the comparatively stagey, beigey Next Generation. One hopes that this fits-and-starts opener will give way to smoother storytelling to come, now that twenty years of narrative Band-Aids have been yanked off.
So what is this all going to be about, then? Hopefully, it'll be more than yet another “sentient AI is a legit form of life” show in the vein of Westworld, Battlestar Galactica, and hell, even elements of Star Trek: Discovery. In terms of plot, we're definitely set for some conflation of Soong-type androids, Borg technology, and Starfleet and/or Romulan medicine. Thematically, it seems the story will speak about learning from history; about refugees and aiding the needy and different; and, inevitably, about legacy. If we are due for a U.S.S. Caprica show, it wouldn’t be entirely outside Picard’s wheelhouse of applying equal personhood to all forms of life. It also wouldn’t be particularly original.
We’ll see! It’s exciting to see dear old Jean-Luc back, and despite the initial clumsiness, there’s certainly enough intrigue to bring me back for more. We won’t be running weekly reviews for this show, sadly, but I’ll be back at the end of the season, at which point we can talk about the show as a whole. We've got a lot of light-years to cover between now and then.