Star Trek Picard - In the end, it was good TV, even if it wasn’t great Trek.
Picard, the latest extension of the Star Trek franchise wrapped up its first season this week with a finale that leaned hard into the strengths and weaknesses of the series. I've held off writing a review of this first Season for a few days to give folks a chance to catch up. There are no intentional spoilers ahead, but just in case - go watch the finale first.
You're back? Great, let's get started.
The conclusion to the 10 episode arc put a bow on the byzantine plot and provided a final ending for a major Star Trek character. However, it left unresolved some bigger questions about whether a fan-powered franchise – even arguably the oldest and most beloved fan-powered franchise in the modern media era – has a warp drive powerful enough to propel the reunited CBS/Paramount/Viacom enterprise into spaces where no streaming media service has gone before. From the first announcement that Picard was returning, I devoured every morsel of information regarding the show's development. From its opening frames, Picard announced itself as a different kind of Star Trek series. Yes it was set in the universe of the Federation, populated with some familiar faces and the same combination of idealism and technobabble that has delighted us Trekkers since the mid-1960s. The difference is that many of the foreground characters exhibit flaws and damage that we had not really seen in earlier Trek series, and the universe they inhabit is much darker and grimier than Gene Roddenberry’s rosy vision of the 24th century. I think that was the real struggle for me. The optimistic vision of the future was gone. All spaceships were going to look like the Nostromo.
Characters were not themselves. Picard was clearly older but now could not remember how to pilot a ship despite stating and proving to the contrary during various episodes of The Next Generation's seven season run. In some cases, as with Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine (reprised from the 1990s-era Star Trek Voyager), the updating of the characters to fit the darker world and story feels at odds with everything that had been established in prior canonical works, whereas others – Jonathan Frakes’ Will Riker, for example – seem to evolve directly out of their original characterizations, just a little grayer. Marina Sirtis' Troi too seemed a little older, a little more seasoned (true Trek fans will see what I did there) but she was an evolution of her character, not a revolution as with Seven of Nine.
The dense story-line of Picard owes as much to Blade Runner and the other works of Philip K. Dick as to the more space operatic antecedents of other Trek shows. Some of the political intrigue and infighting are reminiscent of The Expanse or Battlestar Galactica (2000s version), making the obligatory reunions with old-favourite characters seem jarring and out of place against such a tangled backdrop.
The tensions that manifest creatively in the series may reflect the dual and conflicting objectives that Picard embodied for CBS’s streaming strategy. Star Trek is catnip to fans, one of the very few elite TV or cinematic properties that can stand toe-to-toe with Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars juggernauts. It has an audience spanning at least three generations and a media footprint that extends from television to movies, comics, games, novels, experiential attractions and merchandise. As the foundation for a streaming media platform, you could do much, much worse. The problem is that Star Trek, for all its appeal, is a hard core genre show that grew from a singular idealistic vision. Gene Roddenberry’s concept of “Wagon Train to the stars” emphasized exploration and discovery; the crew of the ship was essentially an ensemble of contrasting but ultimately harmonious personalities united in common purpose. Even as the concept was updated for different eras and different sensibilities, laying in richer story ideas and more ambitious world-building, it drew strength from those firm foundations.
In today’s era of Peak TV, the clarity and simplicity of Star Trek is deeply out of fashion. Serious (and successful) shows today feature moral ambiguity, anti-heroes, mysterious McGuffins and endlessly percolating subplots. Can you imagine Game of Thrones structured as a “monster of the week” show, or Breaking Bad built around a cast of lovably bickering archetypes? This is another area where I felt Picard struggled. It sought to bring a little of that prestige TV ambiance to its blue chip fan-favourite, while at the same time keeping the existing fanbase on board. It didn't always work for me. Building the series around a character portrayed by Sir Patrick Stewart, one of the finest actors of our time, is a good place to start. Unfortunately, his stately presence and the almost bottomless reservoir of sentimentality that his return to the role uncorked, was not by itself enough to square the circle. So CBS brought in Michael Chabon – a genuine literary lion with unimpeachable geek culture credibility – as showrunner and head writer. Chabon and the executive production team of Akiva Goldsman, Kristen Beyer and Alex Kurtzman, gave us a literate, watchable science fiction series optimized for the streaming Peak TV era. Stewart’s performance helped sell us on a version of Picard very different from the confident captain of the Enterprise. A talented cast did their best to make some deeply unlikable characters bearable to watch, and Picard had the budget to look convincingly cinematic.
In the end, Picard was good TV, even if it wasn’t great Trek – or, until the season finale, which dripped with classic trappings – even recognizably Trek at all. The fan base that went into the show wanting to like it probably got enough to stick around, hoping perhaps for something better in Season 2. But did the radical departure from the franchise’s core principles bring in viewers beyond genre fans, or satisfy those who equate complex, multilayered storytelling for its own sake with “quality TV?” The season one story itself was not entirely unique for fans of science fiction. It hinged on the conflict between organic and synthetic life. We’ve seen this conflict before in countless shows and movies, from Blade Runner to Westworld. Terminator to Ex Machina.
Throughout the season, I was on the fence. I could not decide if I liked it or not. Yes, it had some of my favourite characters, yes they were not really written as they should have been, but the finale, if a little rushed and predictable won me over. I've almost forgiven them for ripping our Icheb's eye without anesthetic, probably the most horrific scene in any incarnation of Trek - ever.
Will I return for Season 2 - you betcha!