The 1993 MTV Awards included an awesome performance from Lenny Kravitz with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin on bass, and Aerosmith rolling out their new hit “Livin’ On the Edge”. But I can’t show you those! For some nerds in the audience, the highlight of the show might have been a video appearance from Brent Spiner and Jonathan Frakes from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and William Shatner himself in a parody of his show Rescue 911.
“Please, my friends. Choose to live.”
STAR TREK: Picard Season 1 (CBS All Access 2020)
It truly is a shame that the most Star Trek of all the current Star Treks isn’t Star Trek at all. It’s a goddamn show by Seth MacFarlane, and it is more true to the spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s vision than any of the three modern Trek incarnations. If Seth can do it, why can’t CBS? The newest series (which wrapped up its first season on Thursday March 26) is Star Trek: Picard, based on Jean-Luc of course. It’s closer to the feel of Trek than Discovery or the Abramsverse, but only by small margins.
Warning: This review will be light on major spoilers, but there will be spoilers, so proceed only if you don’t mind.
Short Treks: “Children of Mars”
As set up in the final episode of Short Treks season 2: “Children of Mars”, 14 years ago a devastating attack occurred on Mars. Mars is close to home, Earth, the seat of the Federation. The attack, by a new line of androids with a golden skin like Data’s, was devastating. Jean-Luc Picard was blamed for Starfleet’s inability to respond. He had taken the fleet to Romulus to save their race from the supernova that would destroy the Romulan homeworld in 2009’s movie, Star Trek. To make matters worse, the Romulans blame Picard for not finishing the job and leaving their people behind when the fleet is urgently recalled to Mars.
In a last-ditch attempt to muster some relief for the Romulan race, Picard offered Starfleet a choice: help assemble a new rescue fleet or accept his resignation. They chose not to help. The broken hero went home to the family vineyard of Chateau Picard while Romulus died and Mars burned.
With all this now in the past, a retired and shunned Picard bears a heavy burden. Because of the attack on Mars, androids have been banned by the Federation. The only people that seem to appreciate the former Admiral are his two Romulan housekeepers and bodyguards. At age 94, Jean-Luc is not as spry as he was when he took command of the USS Enterprise-D decades earlier. And not all Romulans blame Picard, for some understand that he was powerless when the fleet was sent back to Mars.
Picard’s quiet existence is soon shattered by the appearance of Dahj (Isa Briones), an android who thinks she is human. Dahj has come to Picard for help. Someone (Romulans!) tried to kill her in her home, and she somehow knows Picard’s face as one she can trust. It doesn’t take long for Jean-Luc to recognise Dahj for what she is: an artificial lifeform, created by unknown means as an offspring of Commander Data.
After a visit with Dr. Agnes Jurarti (Allison Pill) at the Daystrom Institute in Japan, Jean-Luc learns that Bruce Maddox (remember him from “Measure of a Man” in The Next Generation?) was working on a technique called fractal neuronic cloning to create a new kind of android. Using a single neuron taken from Data’s prototype B-4 (remember him from Nemesis?) Maddox apparently succeeded despite the ban on synthetic life. Interestingly, fractal neuronic cloning always results in two androids. Meaning, Data had twin daughters — Dahj has a sister! Due to her familial relationship with Data, the android that gave his life to save Jean-Luc, he decides he must find and protect the sister.
We have a mission! To find Dahj’s twin, he needs to locate Bruce Maddox who disappeared when the Federation banned synthetic life 14 years ago.
It takes Picard a few episodes to assemble a crew and get the hell back into space. Once more, Starfleet refuses to help, and drops the first of many unnecessary F-bombs when asked. “Just because you can swear, doesn’t mean you should,” says Rob Daniels.
The first three episodes of the show move slowly, as we are spoon-fed dribbles of information about this new Star Trek world. Jean-Luc had another another first officer after Riker; Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd), and guess what? Preposterously, here’s yet another individual who blames Picard for a whole bunch of things related to the Mars incident. She’s hooked on booze and smoking “snakeleaf”, but she does have a lovely little motorhome-looking place right near the Vasquez rocks. Due to the slow moving nature of the writing, it takes a while for Musiker and her motivations to come out. Apparently she’s a conspiracy theorist, and when Jean-Luc (or “JL” as she calls him) reveals that Romulan agents are running wild on Earth looking for androids, that’s right up her alley.
Raffi is very much correct about her conspiracies, and they go deep. Dahj’s identical twin sister is named Dr. Soji Asha, and she has been on Romulan radar for some time. She is blissfully unaware of her own true nature. Tal Shiar agent siblings Narek and Narissa plan to manipulate her to reveal information they need to wipe out the android homeworld once and for all. Wait — homeworld!? That’s right. Apparently Maddox, on an unknown planet, has been very busy making Data babies.
But why do the Romulans care so damn much about androids? Things get complicated when you ask that question, and the slow-coming answers never completely satisfy. It’s all a little too Battlestar Galactica. “All this has happened and will happen again.” Cylons uprising against their creators. Picard digs itself into a pit with this whole storyline, the ancient and previously unmentioned Romulan hatred of artificial life. A sub-sect of the Romulan Tal Shiar secret police, called the Zhat Vash, is sworn to end all synthetic life — before it ends them, as they have mysteriously foreseen.
As we slowly piece this information together, Picard also gradually picks up the pieces of the crew in sloth-like fashion. Next is Captain Cristóbal “Cris” Rios (Santiago Cabrera), yet another former Starfleet officer with a dark, hidden past. What, are there no happy people left in this world? What would Gene Roddenberry say about this? Rios drinks, he smokes cigars — vices that Roddenberry thought most people would recognise as dangerous. Additionally, Rios has a whole series of holograms of himself, all with different accents and nationalities, to help out around the ship. Wait…what? Holograms of himself, with different accents? What the hell is that? While it’s fun to see Cabrera play five or six “characters” together in a single episode, this makes no sense whatsoever. Who has that much ego, that they want to be surrounded by holograms of themselves all the time? With different accents? Though he’s portrayed as a dark and mysterious captain on an existential journey to heal his broken past, apparently Rios is also a raging narcissist.
OK, are we ready to launch yet? At the last minute Dr. Jurati from the Daystrom Institute decides to join the crew. We board Rios’ ship La Sirena and we’re off!
Wait, wait, hold on. Hit the brakes. We still have to make a stop. Once upon a time ago, we learn that the once child-hating Jean-Luc Picard befriended a young Romulan boy named Elnor during the attempted rescue. Now an adult and fierce warrior raised by an obscure sect, Elnor (Evan Evagora) becomes another of Picard’s new allies. Needing muscle, we make this one last detour at Vashti to pick up the adult Elnor. Here we find that…oh, come on — Elnor has a grudge against Picard, too? It takes one episode (a really good one, admittedly) to introduce Elnor and the Roluman warrior nuns (Qowat Milat) that raised him and taught him those awesome ninja skills. Only for Elnor to be underused in the instalments that follow.
“Please. Choose to live.”
You will love every time those four words are heard on screen. You would choose to live too when you see what Elnor can do with a sword. Those warrior nuns mean business, and they do not like the Tal Shiar one bit. Elnor practices a lifestyle called the Way of Absolute Candor — total honesty in every word. This results in some of the lighter, more humourous dialogue in the series.
Picard excels in this first season when going deeper into Romulan culture. It was never really explored in detail during The Next Generation. No, instead TNG took it upon itself to define the Klingons. Deep Space Nine did that with the Ferengi. And Voyager greatly expanded upon the Borg. It’s about time the Romulans were fleshed out onscreen, and it’s quite well done.
Because of its setting in time, Picard is also the first exploration of the galaxy post-Romulus. Its destruction in Star Trek (2009) was established but the repercussions never seen until now. And guess what — those Romulans have been busy. They’ve established a colony on a derelict Borg cube, cut off from the collective. This cube, called the Artefact, and its Borg drone inhabitants are harvested for technology. And that’s where we find Dr. Soji Asha, assigned to work and study. Zhat Vash agent Narek (Harry Treadaway) has her wrapped around his fingers.
The ties to the Borg story allow us to revisit a couple old friends: Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) and Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco). These characters are shoehorned into the plot just so that they can be in a new Picard series. Though once upon a time they were all connected by the Borg collective, Seven’s never met the other two on screen before. Hugh’s storyline is warm but short. Seven is…oh man, not again? A broken soul searching for meaning. Why can’t any of these damn characters have had a happy life after their series ended?
At least there’s Riker and Troi (Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis). They seem happy on planet Nepenthe, with their daughter Kestra Riker-Troi. Riker’s making pizza, and there’s grass and trees and nature and…oh come on! They have a tragedy too?
Listen, tragedy strikes. It hits us all. Lord knows it does. Star Trek has been building characters on tragedy ever since it killed Sisko’s wife in the DS9 series premier. It doubled-down when it murdered Kirk’s dad and Spock’s mom in Star Trek (2009). But why can’t some of our heroes just have life turn out the way they wanted it to? The way we hoped it would? Just one character?
Frakes, who directs several episodes of Picard, is still Riker. The booming voice is augmented by a bigger stature. Captain Riker has several great moments in this show, in some of the best episodes.
Jean-Luc’s adventures take him from a glitzy Vegas-like planet, to an apprehensive reunion with a Borg cube. They put our hero in great danger and shine a spotlight on his highest moral standards. Though the galaxy may have fallen into disarray since we last visited it, Picard himself is just as dedicated to his principles as before. Perhaps now he is truly able to act according to his moral beliefs, freed of the yoke that was Starfleet command. Patrick Stewart, as if without pause, has simply become Jean-Luc Picard again. He still inspires that sense of greatness and meaning that we should all strive for in our lives. When the adventure concludes, we are reminded that all events set in motion happened because of Picard’s loyalty to his friend.
The lynchpin of the series is Data (Brent Spiner). Though the beloved android sacrificed himself for Picard in Nemesis (aka Star Trek X, the 10th film), there was always a thread left behind for him to return. The comic books depicted his return in one way. Picard takes it in a different direction, one which could either make fans cry or seethe in anger. Personally speaking I found it to be appropriate and incredibly well performed and directed. Nemesis was not a great film (perhaps the worst of the original 10) and Data’s farewell was not nearly as impactful as Spock’s was in The Wrath of Khan. Perhaps this series helps set things right.
We already know a Picard season 2 is in the works, which means we know that the titular character was never in any real danger. I anticipated one plot twist that happened in episode 10, but a full episode earlier. It’s a shame they can’t just leave such things unannounced and let the story unfold in surprising ways, not predictable ones.
By season’s end, Picard is a new man again. With a family-like crew by his side, bonded by life and death and life, the future is promising. Fans have campaigned for a season featuring Q (John DeLancie) as an antagonist. This does not seem impossible given that Q’s nemesis, Guinan (Whoopie Goldberg) is confirmed for season 2. But there are still unresolved threads left hanging in Picard that might be picked up in the second season. One might even directly tie into Star Trek: Discovery or its spinoff Section 31 starring Michelle Yeoh.
Here’s something else the writers should consider doing next season: standalone episodes. We’ve set up Picard’s new ship and crew, as if the season was one 10-hour long pilot episode. It would be cool to visit strange new worlds every once in a while. Discover new civilisations. To boldly go! To do something more akin to the Seth MacFarlane show, because he’s proven you can do it. If standalones aren’t likely because overarching seasons are the current fashion, then at least feed us information more quickly and resolve questions sooner. Picard took forever to get off the ground and moving. Once that happened…they still spoon-fed the audience in drips. It doesn’t have to be that way. To quote Jean-Luc himself, “To say you have no choice is a failure of imagination.”
Most valuable players: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes (as director and actor), Evan Evagora, Jeri Ryan, Jonathan Del Arco, composer Jeff Russo, and newcomer Isa Briones. In key dual roles as Data’s daughters Dahj and Soji, and even as a singer in the finale, Briones never ceased to impress. Welcome to Star Trek, Isa. You’re in it for life now.
Star Trek series typically have rough first seasons. The Next Generation‘s first season was quite awful. Deep Space Nine took several years to get moving (literally since it was a space station and they used a new starship to expand horizons). Discovery underwent a complete re-jigging after its controversial first season. It would be nice if Star Trek would stop being afraid of its own shadow. Be what you are, Star Trek. Don’t try to be Star Wars, or Battlestar Galactica, or anything else that followed in your footsteps. Writers have always complained that Star Trek is hard to write for, since it has such a long and extensive canon. Well, Picard is how you avoid those problems — by moving forward into unknown territory, instead of trying to shoehorn your series between others in the timeline. The future is wide open. Not only did 2009’s Star Trek create a new playground for the franchise to exist in the cinemas, but it also allowed a “reset” of sorts in the original Picard timeline. Something bad happened, and the galaxy changed. This enables freer writing of stories.
It was a good season. Now run with it, and be intelligently true to Trek at the same time. It can happen. To say you have no choice is a failure of imagination!
The next Next Generation. Engage!