REVIEW – Star Trek: Picard season 1

Captain Jean Luc Picard was one of my childhood heroes growing up in the early 90’s (FYI we didn’t get The Next Generation until about ’91 here in Australia). So I was over the moon when I first heard the announcement that Patrick Stewart would be reprising his iconic role in a new Star Trek series. Whatever minor hesitations I had going into this new show they were soon wiped away by the premiere.

Now that the whole series has aired I can say that Star Trek: Picard is an incredibly enjoyable reunion with the good Captain as well as a fun return to the 24th century. But on top of that it’s also a compelling and thoughtful story with something to say, which is very much appreciated.

Like all series of Star Trek, season 1 suffers from the usual teething problems, a few “hand-wavey” moments and some unanswered questions by end of season but, if I’m honest, these are sort of on par with Star Trek in general. Overall, those nitpicky elements don’t really get in the way of enjoying a good, well-told story. And in terms of format it’s certainly not what we’re used in traditional Trek but I think that’s a good thing (there was an over-saturation of Star Trek in the 1990’s and it soon became stagnant). In the same way Discovery (which I enjoy by the way) was a mix of what we’re familiar with and modern, contemporary television story telling, Picard alters the mixture once again every so slightly and still maintains what we love about Trek (it’s like adjusting the equaliser on your stereo – sure a lot of that adjustment is down to personal taste but ultimately it’s the song you love to listen to).

I decided to watch it all again for a second time before I wrote up this review just to make sure of a few things but also to test a theory: the current trend of season-long story arcs may be better suited binged in one or a couple of sittings rather than waiting for a week for each episode. All 10 episodes are now currently available and if you are in the US, CBS All-Access are offering a free 1-month trial in the midst of the current “stay at home” advice. Internationally, Picard can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video, which is also offering a 30-day free trial.

From here on my review will contain some MAJOR SPOILERS as I lay out a few things I liked and didn’t like about the season (I hope to write a far more in-depth analysis later), so I highly-recommend you stop reading and go watch the series first as it is fantastic to see Jean Luc Picard in action again.

Retired to his vineyard in France, the former Admiral Picard is living out his days tending to his grapes having left Starfleet because, according to Picard, it was no longer Starfleet. He’s soon sought out by a mysterious young woman who was attacked by mercenaries and whom we soon find out is a “synth”, an artificially created sentient being and possibly born from a remnant of the late Lt. Commander Data. All of which is controversial as the Federation has placed a ban on the creation of synthetic life in the wake of a catastrophic attack by rogue synths on Mars. This thrusts Picard back into the action as well as give him a new zeal to seek out what is going on rather than sitting in his chateau “waiting to die.”

Being set nearly two decades after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis there was always going to be a need to catch the audience up on the current state of the final frontier. The first half of the season is pretty much all about doing just that as well as introducing us to Picard’s “motley” crew of new characters. Some have complained that it’s a little slow but I disagree and think there’s enough excitement and forward momentum to keep viewers interested. The second half is the meatier part of the story as well as copious helpings of fan-service that, in my opinion, reward the fans for sticking it out.

Many have expressed dismay at the idea that Starfleet or the Federation was no longer depicted as some sort of “Utopia” of the future but that not only displays an impatience of the story (there is more going on than it seems) but it also ignores all the other times Starfleet and its top brass have acted less than nobly and opposite to their stated mission statement, often as a foil for our heroes to overcome (ordering Data to be dismantled resulting in him fighting for sentient rights in “Measure of a Man”, certain Starfleet admirals’ complicity in sabotaging the peace talks with the Klingons in Star Trek VI, just to name two).

Reintroducing fans to Picard at a low point, as a shadow of his former self, is one of the more interesting choices this series takes. It’s not only managed in a way that keeps with his character as a moral centre, a “legend”, a man who has been through so much and experienced great trauma, leaving Starfleet with his conscience intact, but also balances all that with Picard’s less than ideal coping mechanism in shutting out all those he once knew. And it was all performed brilliantly by Sir Patrick Stewart. Over the course of the season you can see Picard slowly rebuild himself and confront certain things about himself, his past, his achievements, his pride and ego, his legacy. As I said earlier, this character was a hero of mine and I very much appreciated this depiction of him: that he is also flawed but not beyond overcoming those flaws.

The cast are all fantastic and a wonderfully diverse range of characters at that. For all the praise Star Trek gets for diversity, albeit limited to being products of their time, for the most part in those previous series we were primarily dealing with trained officers (bar a few civilian main cast and regulars). Here we have a main cast ranging from disgraced and traumatised former Starfleet, a scientist, a Romulan Warrior Nun and refugees, ex-Borgs… There was enough variety to create some interesting interactions amongst those characters.

As I said, we’ve seen so many by-the-book officers (or in the case of Voyager, former officers who somehow easily adjust back into it) so I found characters like Rios to be refreshing. Yeah he starts off as the “lovable rogue” archetype but he’s also a nice balance between someone who’s still very competent as a starship captain yet clearly affected by his past (as depicted by his various Emergency Holograms also played by the same actor, Santiago Cabrera). In an opposite direction Raffi (Michelle Hurd) hasn’t done so well post-Starfleet and that was interestingly done too yet in any other version of Trek she would have been seen as a gifted analyst but in the wake of the attack on Mars she’s seen as a conspiracy theory nutbag and that tweak or change of presentation was fascinating. What I loved most of all was her affection for “JL” (even to the point of being able to call him “JL”).

Both Dr Agnes Jurati (Alison Pil) and Elnor (Evan Evagora) were great characters in their inexperience and naivety. Not only did that play well in countering the more experienced characters but also in hiding the more extreme elements of their own characters. Also, as jarring as it may have sounded surrounded my mostly American accents, allowing Evagora to keep his Aussie accent as Elnor was very much appreciated.

The standout though (second only to Sir Patrick of course) is quite possibly Isa Brionese doing triple-duty as Dahj, Soji, and eventually Sutra.

It’s as much her story as it is Picard’s as she’s the centre of the mystery that propels the entire plot. And the ability to play three different characters in three different, however subtle, ways and even characters that have to deal and process the existential concept of what it means to be “real” is certainly a tough gig and Briones handles it very well.

There are a few other great characters too and I’ll get to them…

Not since the “Unification” two-parter in The Next Generation have we seen such varied and nuanced depictions of Romulans. For most of Star Trek‘s run we’ve really only ever seen them as 2-dimensional monoliths, all looking and dressing alike and almost always scheming against the Federation. In Picard we see the aforementioned refugees as well as the Qowat Milat (“Romulan Warrior Nuns” who are the antithesis of how Romulans are depicted with their belief of “absolute candour”) and, as a testament to how overused the various “secret police” agencies are in past Treks, along with reintroducing the Tal Shiar we’re introduced to the Zhat Vash, an ancient extremist group whose beliefs are at the core of what’s pretty much messed up the galaxy at this point.

In any case that varied depiction of Romulans also informs the design of the Romulan characters. Again, we’re not just seeing soldiers in the same uniform and haircut here but also civilians. Also the design of the prosthetics also varies. The look of the Romulans changed over time to make them more distinct from Vulcans (in The Original Series they did look just like Vulcans and that was even a plot point in one episode) but here they not only had Romulans with pronounced foreheads but also ones with smoother more Vulcan-like features too to not only match what we’ve seen in the past but also help a plot point with certain characters.

Some have said that the appearance of the Borg were a wasted opportunity or that they didn’t serve a purpose in this season and I would have to only partially agree. While the Borg certainly could have been utilised much more than they were, in terms if this story, I strongly believe that they served their intended purpose. If you’re going to investigate a conspiracy involving Romulans and cybernetic lifeforms (that are not completely synthetic) then an abandoned Borg Cube being stripped for parts is good place to do it. But more importantly, it was about giving Picard some sort of progress and closure on his trauma post-assimilation.

When you really think about it, Picard never truly resolved his trauma of being forcibly turned into Locutus (I mean, you don’t “resolve” PTSD but you get what I mean). He certainly confronted it in First Contact but killing the Borg Queen probably only did so much in the moment. Having him deal with that violation as well as a reminder that there is life after assimilation also helps tie into the theme of the rights of cybernetic beings. It’s both therapy and an education for Picard but also highlights that his activism on behalf of synthetics is not just limited to Data.

The presence of the Borg also allowed for the return of Hugh (Johnathan Del Arco) and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). Both of whom have important connections to Picard (even if the latter had never met him on screen before) and their characterisations in this series were fantastic, even if tragic. The reunion between Picard and Hugh was actually one of the many sweet moments in the series.

But of course the most important aspect of this is the story and honestly I thoroughly enjoyed it. All the good and most memorable Star Trek episodes are about something and Star Trek: Picard does exactly that with a story that is most timely and reflective of current events (pre-global pandemic anyway). The knee-jerk reaction in the wake of the attack on Mars is most definitely reflective to similar xenophobia-disguised-as-policy here in the real world. And to have that driven by extremists and their misinterpretation of a message as the basis for their core belief system is very much on the nose when it comes to real-world religions using same as an excuse to do harm (by the way the show isn’t anti-religion, the Qowat Milat are a monastic sect that are depicted as the exact opposite of the Zhat Vash and are helpful and charitable).

Patrick Stewart himself said in an interview that the reason he decided to reprise this role was as a response to Brexit and Trump. Keep in mind, Sir Patrick was an executive producer on this series and had some input in the writers room.

It’s a story that tackles the losing of one’s faith in a system, the rights of minorities and what it means to be treated equal, hateful and manipulative influences that can steer even the most well-intentioned into the wrong direction, the processing of and the shared experience of trauma, and finding a way back from the lowest point. And if I’m honest that last theme hit a little close to home.

Granted there are also a few mixed messages in this story but I would submit that they simply require a little more thought surrounding them by the viewer.

Along with The Next Generation, I was also a fan of Deep Space Nine so I find it hilarious that there are people who look at this show and claim that it is “too dark” to be Star Trek or no longer appropriate for children because of a little swearing. Past series have gone far darker in theme and tone and all this series has done has evolved the story telling to match the current and contemporary style. It actually handles humour and levity rather well, better than most past Treks. Even Picard gets in on some of the quirkiness.

As mentioned before, the early part of the season is a setup and reintroduction to the 24th century and its status quo. Once it’s done that it then becomes much more the Star Trek we’re familiar with by dolloping on the fan service (much more than the sprinklings of it at the start). Picard’s reunion with Riker and Troi is especially wonderful and hits right in the warm and fuzzy nostalgia. And while Riker instantly switches back into first officer mode and Troi puts on the ship’s counsellor hat again, there is also a fantastic display of how their characters have evolved since we last saw them, in particular with how candid they are capable of being with Picard.

But the most Star Trek this show gets (on an obvious surface level anyways) is the two-part finale which feels almost exactly like an episode of TNG (small futuristic compound, inhabitants wearing the same style of clothing, welcoming of outsiders) but just with a larger budget for VFX and location shooting. It too lays on the fan service and is an absolute delight.

In regards to the ending, no matter how “predictable” it may have seemed, the cast really sold that moment and its impact even to the point where you start to question your own prediction. And regardless of how much they telegraph what’s coming next, it presents a wonderfully emotional and long overdue send-off for Data.

The visual effects in this series are pretty much what you would expect for a television/streaming production in this day and age and the de-aging they did on Brent Spiner, while not perfect (the Marvel Cinematic Universe really has set the bar high), was greatly improved from what we saw in the early trailers.

As much as I enjoyed the hell out of this show it’s not without its flaws, certain hand-wavey moments as well as a few unexplained conveniences. Some have decried the amount of exposition in the series and yet Star Trek has always been full of exposition, especially in the form of technobabble or in the introduction of a new culture, etc. So if every detail is not being spoon-fed to you it’s because they’re saving that for the really necessary stuff.

I think using an extremist Romulan cult as the antagonist for all this was a fantastic idea, however, despite the really good performances I’m not sure I was able to fully invest in the specific Romulan characters doing the antagonising (but that just may be a personal taste thing when it comes to villains, they have to be really evil for me to care).

Using Nemesis as a jumping off point is also a little frustrating. If anything this series does a good job in making up for how terrible that movie was but in doing so it also forgets some major elements. If we’re dealing with Data’s progeny then surely at some point someone might remember that Data once created a daughter in the episode “The Offspring”.

And as fun and exciting as the finale was, there were a few instances that could have been handled a bit better. If there was a much more exciting or interesting choice they instead (at times) went for the easy one. There might also have been a rewrite in the finale too once they found out that there would be a second season but I’d only be speculating on that. The major irony of the ending being a little too neat and tidy is that it’s exactly how Star Trek has always been, including warping off into the distance!

Structurally speaking, my theory about the way contemporary shows with massive story arcs are told, seems to hold water especially with Trek. Lots of set ups, mysteries, and cliffhangers that get answered in the following episodes are still something many viewers are adjusting to, especially Trekkies who are used to everything being wrapped up in a single 42-minute sitting. Said set ups tend to get forgotten in the week’s long wait or too many impatient fans start complaining even before their questions are answered. So I would recommend binging this series in no more than two sittings.

There is a reason I’m spending so little time on my criticisms: because ultimately they don’t matter. My nitpicks aren’t egregious enough to ruin the overall story for me. The positives very much outweighed the negatives and as I said earlier, it’s a typical case of first season teething. But in spite of that, what we got was a wonderful, fun, and thought-provoking adventure.

I loved Star Trek: Picard and it made me excited for Star Trek one again. Sure, I enjoyed Discovery too and will defend that series but the difference here is that Jean Luc Picard was back being “the captain they remember” and for someone who looked to this character as inspiration as a kid I was not disappointed in the slightest.

This is a definite blu-ray purchase for me and I’m excited to see where season 2 takes us.

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