Entertainment » Television

Star Trek: Picard

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Jan 23, 2020
'Picard'
'Picard'  

In its fifty-plus years of examining the human condition through a (mostly) optimistic lens, "Star Trek" has grown into a tapestry that involves thirteen feature films, half a dozen television and streaming programs, an animated series, various passionately-made, highly faithful fan projects, and countless books, graphic novels, and tie-in collectibles.

Efforts to expand on that tapestry have sometimes been haphazard and not always completely successful, particularly various well-intentioned efforts to fill in gaps in what's come to be considered franchise canon. That's to be expected; after all, a few sketch strokes can grow into a beautiful and intricate pattern, but endless doodling over the same patch of canvas can turn any picture into an over-done, confusing hodgepodge.

So can the seven live-action TV series, "Star Trek: Picard," honor canon, satisfy Trekkies old and new, and fulfill sky-high expectations?

The unqualified answer: Yes. Showrunner, co-creator, and executive producer Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, together with his co-writers, has succeeded, in large part by flipping over that often too-shiny, too-perfect "Star Trek" tapestry and giving us a glimpse of its underside, where messy knots and previously-unseen connections lurk. In the process, he's showing us a recognizable "Trek" that's also very different: Complex, rather than merely complicated, and colorful in ways that advance the storytelling rather than merely trying to be new.

Not that there isn't plenty that's new here, though the show never loses its grip on the familiar things that made "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1987 - 1994) so beloved. "Picard" brings back Sir Patrick Stewart in his iconic role as a Starfleet officer who embodies the finest elements of the classical philosopher-king. So foundational is the character of Jean-Luc Picard to this new - ahem - enterprise that, for the first time, a "Star Trek" show, be it cinematic or televised, is "Based on Star Trek: The Next Generation," rather than "Star Trek," the original series (1966-1969).

The 1960s "Trek" was part morality play and part space opera, a combination that might not play as well in today's TV culture as it did half a century ago. What today's new golden age of television brings us is sophisticated storytelling that is serialized, rather than episodic. But long-form TV storytelling can risk losing the thread, or getting long and draggy.

That's not a problem in the three episodes that were made available for review. "Star Trek: Picard" takes its time to built a more complete and layered world for us, but it starts off like a shot, and the tension only builds from there.

The year is 2399. It's been fourteen years since Admiral Picard (Stewart) walked away from Starfleet. Picard, now grown elderly, is haunted by dreams about Commander Data (Brent Spiner), the trusted android officer and friend who sacrificed himself to save Picard during a particularly perilous mission. Despite his age, Picard is feeling restless in retirement: He stalks his family estate in France, where his staff - two of them Romulan refugees - help him run his vineyard. It's not a life he finds satisfying, as becomes clear when he complains to housekeeper (and sometime bodyguard) Laris (Orla Brady), "The dreams are lovely - it's the waking up I'm beginning to regret."

When a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones) appears on Picard's estate looking for help, his interest is piqued. Dahj has a tale that can't help but appeal to an interstellar adventurer: She's just seen her boyfriend killed by a murder squad of black armor-wearing goons. Even more disturbing, she's found herself suddenly possessed by visions, as well as combat skills she never knew she had - emergent talents that have enabled her to survive and seek out Picard's help.

Thus begins a race to illuminate Dahj's true identity, a mystery around which all sorts of familiar elements swirl: Data-like "synthetic" life forms; a captured Borg cube that's being picked apart by a multi-species team of scientists while its crew is gradually "reclaimed" from the cybernetic collective; the remnants of the Roman Star Empire, crippled if not destroyed by a supernova that wiped out the Roman home world more than a decade in the past. In order to get to the bottom of the mystery, Picard will need to rely on old foes and friends alike, as make some new allies. This, he does in short order, recruiting estranged Starfleet colleague Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd), pilot for hire Cristobal Rios (Santiago Cabrera), and Daystrom Institute expert in artificial intelligence Dr. Agnes Durati (Alison Pill) to accompany him.

And what's out there, waiting to be discovered? Nothing less than an ancient Romulan nightmare - one closely guarded by a secretive cabal that has extended its influence into the upper echelons of Starfleet Command itself.

Chabon's skill as a novelist enables him to adopt a literary pace that doesn't feel as deathly slow as, say, the first few episodes of "Discovery," and also assures his ability to ramp up the series' tension even as he takes his time getting all the pieces put into place. There are one or two overused tropes; how many times have we seen "Trek" present Admirals that are short-sighted or plain naive? And how many times have we seen politics take precedence, among the Federation's leaders, over principle?

And yet, in a way, it wouldn't be "Star Trek" without those things - not because they have been so commonplace across the franchise, but because "Trek" at its best is a reflection of the here and now, a clear-eyed observation of where we are and a challenge to go someplace better. Picard complains bitterly that the Federation has "given in to intolerance and fear," bemoaning a darker time in which "Nobody's thinking; nobody's listening; they're just reacting." Now, as ever, "Star Trek" speaks about a brighter future made possible by better versions of ourselves - but it also speaks directly, and powerfully, to today.

This is an epic ride, and it's been given the space and time it needs to gather its legs beneath it. Even the Earth-bound episodes feel like they take leaps into the unknown: Not the vacuum of empty narrative space, but rather the intricate galaxy of a fresh and well-tuned story.

To that end, the new series enjoys a cinematic level of production design similar to that of the lavishly-realized "Discovery," though the tone of "Picard" feels completely different. The visuals are top-notch, of course, but to a surprising extent this richness is the result of the show's music, with each episode being scored by "Trek" veteran composer Jeff Russo. The music is as emotionally literate and unhurried - and unifying in its storytelling function - as the writing. The use of an orchestra of real instruments (rather than defaulting to the electronic cheesiness of synths (which is one of the ways in which too many "Next Generation" episodes have ended up being dated rather than aging gracefully) is but one of the production choices that gives this series an imprimatur of what feels like durable artistry.

It's been a long time since "Star Trek" felt both cutting edge and completely bound to its own formative roots. With "Star Trek: Picard," that balance has been struck with confidence and authority.


"Star Trek: Picard" is streaming now on CBS All Access

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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