Get two sentences into any retrospective of Star Trek, and you’ll run smack into a glowing pronouncement of difference between Gene Roddenberry’s vision and spaceship jockey opuses that preceded it: the optimism. Star Trek promised a future where there was no war, at least among humans, no racism, no money, no systemic inequality. Sexism — eh, that was a work in progress. But generally, humanity had its shit together was the point, and as exponents of the United Federation of Planets, the Enterprise crew sought out new worlds, not to conquer, but for the sake of knowledge, altruism, and pretty much the fun of it. Star Trek: The Next Generation continued in that mold, posturing as even more evolved: look! The women get pants this time!* The cast was bigger with more complicated, evolving relationships, the show featured many prominent women in meaty storylines, and the stories themselves, which could now arc over entire seasons as well as the entire series, frequently questioned gender as a construct, navigated the messy lines between personal autonomy and the greater good, and unstintingly defended civil rights, even if those rights applied to an enemy, an alien, or a machine. TNG did stay extremely white for its duration, something that its immediate successor series, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, sought to repair. But on the whole, its vibe was one of fair-minded, multicultural-sensitive wokeness, Roddenberry’s White Liberal Optimism: The Next Generation. Which makes Star Trek: Picard particularly interesting and particularly timely, particularly for me, a white liberal optimist raised on Captain Picard’s speeches in the safe, prosperous America I always believed was all around me.
Picard was never going to be Kirk; in the early days of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it was pretty clear Picard’s first officer, Commander William Riker, was meant to be the Kirk, or the cartoon of Captain James T. Kirk that survived into the late 1980s anyway: a handsome, alien babe-smooching action figure that toggled easily between order-bellowing and twinkling Lothario settings. Riker, like all of the core Star Trek: The Next Generation cast, far transcended that programming by the show’s final episode in 1994. But it was Captain Jean-Luc Picard — the statesman, the diplomat, the expert helmsman, the archeologist, the scholar, the grudging tolerator of children, the passionate advocate, the emotionally-distant, yet forthright and inspirational leader, the unwitting catnip for charismatic Betazed nobility and omnipotent tricksters, the surprising noir fanboy, the even more surprising romantic lead, and the unerring moral compass — who ultimately defined Star Trek: The Next Generation. Of course he did. He was the Captain. But as a cool-headed leader more in the vein of Spock than Kirk, Picard represented a more mature, multifaceted version of Roddenberry’s utopian Wagon Train to the stars. The syndicated format and the audience were primed, and the show admirably grew into its promise over seven seasons, making Sir Patrick Stewart a flippin’ movie star to boot.
One of the new wrinkles Picard brought to the show was that, pre-Enterprise, he had loved before and well — I mean, captained, totally captained. The Enterprise was James Kirk’s true love, much as it was with Commander Riker, but Picard’s first command was the Stargazer, and hearing him wax wistfully about his time as its captain was like hearing your Dad sadly muse about a high school girlfriend. It was a little gross. You didn’t love her as much as you love Mom, right, Dad? Maybe not, but Picard made it clear more than once he missed the old days, and we would have to take the writers’ word for it that Picard of the Stargazer was a seat-of-the-pants flying badass in his own Kirk-esque fashion. And hence, the Picard Maneuver. The gist of it was that the Stargazer under attack accelerated so fast, it presented as a double image to the enemy ship’s sensors, simultaneously where it had been and also its true, current position as it unloaded its photon torpedoes on the enemy. Boom. And that is the trick of Star Trek: Picard, too: at once the Picard we expect and the Picard we didn’t see coming. And boy, does it deliver a payload. Since Picard was never inextricably tied to the Enterprise in the same way Kirk was, it’s interesting, too, that his character has almost become as much a shorthand for Roddenberry’s idealism as the Starfleet flagship was. Certainly, as his sequel series begins, that is our expectation of him.
So screw your expectations. In Picard, Admiral Picard has finally retired to the French vineyards we were introduced to on the show all those years ago, the home he could never wait to leave and mud-wrassled with his extremely earthy brother about, the home that wasn’t home so much as his launchpad. He has an adorable stubby pitbull he calls Number One. He has a pair of Romulan refugees living with him who land somewhere between confidantes and servants, like the retainers of ancient aristocratic families. He is writing dry books of history and essentially just waiting for Ian McKellan to drive up so they can go solving mannerly mysteries in the village together. It might be what you’d imagine for Patrick Stewart, but it’s not what you expect of Jean-Luc Picard. He’s not even sparking Dr. Crusher.
In the all-too-relevant form of a gotcha broadcast interview, we learn the reason he resigned his commission and collapsed into a PBS pensioner melodrama is his poor protest against Starfleet’s abandonment of Romulans during a revolt of synthetic life forms on Mars. Despite his most vigorous appeals, Picard finds himself at last in a Federation where right doesn’t matter. The synthetic revolt has devastating consequences beyond the decimation of Romulans, leading to an all-out ban on synthetic life in the Federation. (Apparently not counting holograms though. And to think, Robert Picardo’s Doctor on Voyager had all that character development, too.) He loses a close subordinate, Raffi (Michelle Hurd), who leaves Starfleet to follow her own quest for justice on Mars into seedy, conspiracy hack territory, and he earns the bitter fury of the Romulans he was forced to abandon. To top it all off, Picard learns that an untreatable brain abnormality is about to take his life, but only after hollowing out his mind first. Starfleet is riven by double-agents and religious zealots, defined by insular, fear-driven policies, and the once-great Admiral who captained the legendary Enterprise isn’t even recognized by the receptionist at the front desk. This isn’t the utopian vision you were looking for.
Picard’s last chance to really Picard Out comes with the appearance of a mysterious girl named Dahj (the freaking peerless Isa Briones). Attacked by Romulan assassins while she was simply having some replicator and chill with her boyfriend, Dahj awakens to a few facts. One, she possesses some serious Matrix-fu capabilities. Two, she is probably not human. Three, she needs to find Jean-Luc Picard. When she does, Picard is joined to her quest for answers, and while that doesn’t turn out as hoped for Dahj, Picard learns that she has a sister, Soji (Briones again), a doctor on a decommissioned Borg cube being studied by the Romulans. And so the RPG party-assembling segment of the story begins.
I am still slightly suspicious of how much I loved the members of Picard’s eventual crew. I feel as though they were algorithmed into my heart somehow. I mean, we only had 10 episodes, and I bear them at least season 3 TNG love here, people. In addition to Raffi, who resents Picard deeply for his non-actions post-Mars (and all of her bad decisions that followed), we have our cigar-chomping Captain Rios (Santiago Cabrera) of La Sirena — no, sorry, unlike every Star Trek movie, the old Admiral doesn’t get to pull the Enterprise out of mothballs for one last glorious mission. He hires a ship, and it’s Rios’s ship, and it’s not even a little Federation-issued. Rios is what Star Wars wanted Poe Dameron to be: a heart-of-gold flyboy with a murky past, tough and wisecracking and maybe/maybe not ready to be loved. (As an added bonus, all of the assistant holograms on his ship take his image with different voices and personalities, so every episode is a little bit Santiago Cabrera’s accent workshop. It’s actually fun, I swear!) We have Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), the last prominent cybernetics expert in the Federation, who talks like a Joss Whedon character but also has big conflict and hidden depths, like a Joss Whedon character. There’s an honest-to-Surak Romulan samurai (OK, the order is actually the Qowat Milat warrior nuns, but he’s a freaking samurai) named Elnor (Evan Evagora), who is as awkward and earnest and sweet as he is going to absolutely murder you if you get on the wrong side of him. You might be tempted to see them all as tropes. You wouldn’t be wrong to do so, but they are high-lovable anyway. There are sections of Picard that absolutely feel like playing Bioware’s Mass Effect. But then Mass Effect offers some of the best sci-fi storytelling I’ve ever experienced, so…make it so.
Picard does bump into some familiar faces along the way, of course, despite eschewing involvement of his previous crew because he didn’t wish to endanger their loyal souls. The entire show is underscored by a requiem to Commander Data (Brent Spiner), who sacrificed himself for the needs of the many in the close of the last TNG theatrical entry, Star Trek: Nemesis, and we understand that Dahj and Soji were, technobabble paraphrased, cloned from the last remnant of Data’s brain by Jurati’s lover/mentor Bruce Maddox.** You will get to see Commander Riker make pizza with his Imzadi, Deanna Troi, and their daughter, while reflecting on the tragic loss of their son. Hugh, the Borg boy Picard grappled with saving in the aftermath of his own assimilation, returns as a grown-up ex-Borg (xB, in the show’s terms) helping others like him recover. Most crucially, witness the return of Voyager’s ex-Borg Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) in an excellent audition reel for her own spinoff as a badass queer heroine saving lives no one else will.
I didn’t love everything about Picard — there’s a sly Romulan brother-sister villain duo I found tedious and better fit for Crimson Peak, and some of the exposition scenes betrayed a hesitance to let any one character, even Picard, lead. Patrick Stewart was probably having too much fun in the episode where he gets to equip a terrible accent and an eyepatch for me to have fun. But on the whole, it was everything Roddenberry’s Star Trek was ever about — defending the ideals of individual freedom and social responsibility, humanity’s best prevailing against impossible odds, science and truth winning the day against ignorance and cynicism. It is Chicken Soup for the Liberal Soul. A frequent criticism of the trajectory of Star Trek after Roddenberry is that it became too bleak and too complicated, and whether that is creditable, I find the achievement of Picard is the way it begins in a disillusioned universe where pretty much everything sucks, but still finds that strain of Roddenberry optimism in its wonderful, wonderful characters. Picard looks for, and ultimately finds, the helpers.
Picard also manages to do something the TNG theatrical films frankly struggled with, and that is universalizing the struggles of Picard, the finely-drawn leader of an ensemble show, into something we can all easily connect with. For me, and I imagine for a lot of people, the degradation of the Federation into backward, isolationist policies and Picard taking up a torch against them after a long period of disillusionment is a pretty damn apt allegory for the Trump-Brexit era. But it is as powerful as a meditation on mortality, on how death gives life meaning, on willfully preparing your legacy for the next generation, knowing you will likely never see its fruition, on deciding — to paraphrase my other favorite speechifying sci-fi hero — to make a stand until you fall. And it takes up the threads of some of Picard’s most compelling stories during TNG, the inborn rights of synthetic versus organic life and Picard’s traumatic experience being assimilated by the most Hellraiser-y of Star Trek species, the remorseless and indefatigable Borg, to advance them in necessary and interesting ways. With a resolution that’s extremely Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel, they’ve definitely opened up powerful possibilities for season 2. Now go get you some Beverly Crusher snuggles, Admiral.
* Never let it be forgotten that the idea to change the female costumes on the original Star Trek from sensible, gender neutral (but still quite smart!) pant ensembles to a Go-Go costume was lobbied by actress Grace Lee Whitney.
**You may remember Bruce Maddox from one of the greatest, IMHO, TNG storylines, in which he campaigns fiercely to dissemble Data so he could learn to reverse-engineer his creator’s work, leading Picard to prove Data’s sentience and right to self-determination. BRING IT HOME, DADDY
Angela has honestly not couch jumped for the return of a character like she did for [spoiler] in the finale since Derek Jacobi realized he was the Master.