Making It So
The first episode of Picard is out and I have thoughts. I am avoiding spoilers for episode details in case you are curious about the show but want to do a little research first.
This may come as a surprise since I don’t talk about Star Trek much on this blog or even on social media, but Star Trek: The Next Generation is my favourite TV show. I don’t see anything ever unseating it. It’s the only series I’ve watched in its entirety multiple times, and I’ve liked the series more every time. The aesthetic is amazing, the characters engaging, the philosophy and social issue exploration fascinating, and the adventures fun. When it dipped into humour, it was seriously funny, without the tone feeling entirely shifted.
The movies, less so. For all of the above. Insurrection comes closest, which is why I like it more than most. The most common reason I’ve heard people dislike that it feels too much like a long episode of TNG, which is a feature to me, not a bug. That said, I do think First Contact is the better movie, even if it is not as close of a TNG adaptation.
Picard is something new. The closest existing Star Trek I can compare it to is First Contact, in that it’s clearly built on TNG’s existence, but updated to fit modern sensibilities and use the formal to its advantage.
The TNG Chassis
There is no Picard without TNG. Surprisingly, there it seems there is no TNG or Star Trek that Picard is shying away from.
Continuity Deep Cuts
When new footage of Data appeared in the trailer, fans speculated what that could mean. Is it B4, a secondary character in one of the most hated Star Trek movies? Or was that movie, Nemesis, which featured Data’s death, being ignored? Or was it going to be addressed in the way Rise of Skywalker addressed Last Jedi?
Ends up, a lot of Picard’s plot is built on Nemesis. Which makes sense: It’s the last significant event in Picard’s life that a large audience was privy to (or the last period, I am not sure if any novels, comics, or video games have checked in on Picard’s post-Nemesis life). And quality of the movie aside, the events that took place would have a lasting effect on Picard’s psyche.
Also unexpected, Picard ties into Star Trek 2009. Even though that movie franchise was a reboot in a lot of ways, it was an in-continuity reboot, where events that happened in the main Star Trek timeline were so catastrophic to the Romulans that someone from that timeline seeking revenge went back in time. How that event played out in the main timeline is a major motivator for Jean-Luc Picard’s new status quo at the start of Picard episode 1.
There are tons of other large and small signs that the Picard showrunners know their TNG continuity. As someone who values that continuity, I appreciate it being used to enhance my viewing experience.
Real World Allegory
Science fiction is often described as a genre that uses aliens and future technology to address modern day issues. Star Trek is at its best when it embraces this, so having modern political issues baked into the premise of the series goes a long way to establish that Picard is Star Trek.
I’ll go into this story tomorrow, but in 2014 I stumbled across the writing team of the movie that would be Star Trek Beyond loudly breaking down a version of the plot. At one point one of the writers was in the middle of describing a scene, stopped himself, and said “no, that’s just more people talking.” Him saying that hit me hard because nothing does people talking like Star Trek. Picard building to his point in a tense diplomatic scene is more exciting to me than a huge space battle with non-stop lasers and explosions.
Picard’s got my fellow diplo-fans covered! The first episode’s first act intentionally focuses on how age and apathy have slowed the character down. The turning point comes when, against his wishes, Picard is forced to bust out a dramatic speech. It is exactly the more common “provoked into punching” scene, except Jen-Luc Picard punches with his words, and it’s a knock-out blow!
A Modern Show
Star Trek: The Next Generation is a lot of things, but modern is not one of them. Despite being a sequel and the latest series in a franchise with more TV shows and movies to its name than (thinks about it) any other (?), Picard is not a traditional Star Trek show.
Star Trek and TNG are episodic. It wasn’t until DS9 that Star Trek attempted long form storytelling. Even then, most DS9 episodes were self-contained and about one thing, with larger ramifications or b-plots addressing the metaplot.
Picard episode 1 doesn’t have a plot in that sense. It sets up the first season’s plot, but on its own? We meet characters, we learn about the world, stuff happens. Picard doesn’t have an Encounter at Farpoint that begins and ends in the meantime.
And that’s fine. It’s modern streaming show storytelling. The cliffhanger is the most important part of the episode, because the show isn’t trying to hold a viewer’s attention over a commercial break, it’s trying to get you to click play on the next episode or, in the case of CBS Access, trying to convince you to stick around after your free month trial ends.
A Blended Universe
Star Trek lived in a pretty starkly divided universe. It makes sense that Starfleet had a single look with common traits shared by everyone on board, but it made less sense that virtually every culture they interacted with fit within a simple pigeonhole. Whether a planet had a million people or a billion people, you saw about the staff of a typical The Gap worth of citizens and square footage of the planet. If the planet had two religions, the episode was about how they were at war.
Picard has already shown more of what life is like for non-Starfleet humans than any Star Trek series before it.
Similar to the above, there are moments peppered throughout the episode that look at the Star Trek universe through a more realistic lens. The best example is early on in the episode when someone uses someone else’s replicator and makes a joke about their preferences. It’s a joke I am not used to seeing on Star Trek, but one I constantly encounter both sides of in real life.
I honestly enjoyed everything about the episode. The only fear is that this show is not going to give CBS All Access a competitive advantage, and it seems to be the only egg in the CBS All Access basket. Basically, I’m worried that Picard’s success is dependent on the success of a streaming service no one seems otherwise interested in at a time when people are looking for excuses to avoid signing up for another streaming service. If the show was episodic, then it’d be unfortunate that it got cancelled but not frustrating. Frustrating is when a show is built on the promise of the last episode, and we never get that last episode.