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Star Trek: Picard •••

Movie Greg Scott
Star Trek: Picard

Star Trek: Picard
(spoilers ahead…)

Star Trek: Picard

Scott, after thirty plus years, Patrick Stewart has returned to television as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Star Trek fans across the globe are thrilled.

scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I really looked forward to watching this series, and it did not disappoint.

To recap: A young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones) finds Picard, who has retired to a French wine chateau, to ask for his help. It turns out she’s discovered she’s actually an android built from a fragment of Commander Data’s (Brent Spiner) neural net, and the Romulans are out to kill her. The Romulans hate synthetic life forms – or synths – and since the Federation’s Synth Revolution on Mars, the Federation has banned all research and production of synthetic life.

Not long after meeting with Picard, Dahj is assassinated by Romulan special forces. Picard learns that she has a twin sister, Soji, who works as a scientist on a distant science station. To save Soji’s life, Picard seeks a starship from a Starfleet Bigwig but is rudely rebuffed. His only chance is to assemble his own makeshift crew composed of two former officers, Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd) and Chris Rios (Santiago Cabrera), who once served under Picard. Picard also recruits synth expert Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill).

Scott, I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch Picard. I was disappointed in Star Trek: Discovery (DISCO) and really dreaded what this new ‘Trek would look like. We’ve talked before about how the Star Trek franchise is fractured between three corporations (Vicom, CBS, and Paramount) and they cannot agree on who gets what.

I was encouraged by the slow buildup of Picard’s life after the events of the Star Trek: Next Generation (ST:TNG) movies. The showrunners really seemed to be taking their time to create a solid base for the story.

You cannot spend ten hours making the case that the thing that makes life worth living is the fact that we eventually die – and then raise the martyr from the dead.

But as the series wore on, the show looked less and less cerebral and more about emulating what made other, recent, shows unique. They created a ship’s captain who looked like Han Solo. They created an evil pair of incestuous Romulan siblings reminiscent of Cersei and Jaime Lassiter from Game of Thrones. Some of the filming was reminiscent of The Expanse.

And then there were the non-sequitur cameos. Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) returns for no apparent reason. Data shows up in Picard’s dreams. Riker and Troi (now married) live on a bucolic planet with (an adorable) child. Hugh (the rescued Borg from ST:TNG) makes an appearance. It all seems to support fan service rather than the story.

There were some new additions like the smart-mouthed female former commander who cannot say “Jean-Luc” and must call Picard “JL.” There’s flock of holographic characters (reminiscent of ST:Voyager’s doctor) who all look like the captain (why?) and each has a different accent (why?). I feel as if they couldn’t afford another actor. And a ninja warrior kid whom Picard once stranded on a renegade planet and never sent a postcard to for 20 years. That’s a lot-o-stuff, nearly none of it necessary.

Some nice initial observations there, Gregger. You’re certainly right that the showrunners threw a lot of bones to fanboys & girls, especially with regard to continuity. There are many callbacks. My personal favorite is when a character offers Bruce Maddox (John Ales) some tranya to drink. You may recall that tranya is first introduced in The Original Series when the baby-ish alien Balok serves it to Captain Kirk and members of his crew in the episode The Corbomite Maneuver.

The story arc was grounded in issues afflicting us in present-day reality, and the central problem resolved itself in a way that was impressive, moving, and in some ways surprising.

Here are my initial thoughts:

Upon the announcement of Star Trek: Picard in August of 2018, I became a giddy puddle or trekky goo. Apologies to fans of Kirk and Shatner, but Sir Patrick Stewart, at nearly the age of 80, was reprising his role as the greatest Starfleet Captain in Trek canon. What a great opportunity to revive the Trek franchise – again, apologies to fans of Star Trek: Discovery, which I somewhat enjoy but which offers neither the  “feel” nor optimism of classic Trek.

In Picard, the universe has changed and Picard’s character has changed, too. He’s still wise and articulate. But he’s clearly wounded and bitter about the moral corruption run rampant in Starfleet and in the Federation. Picard is a man of principle separating himself from the larger, morally compromised organization. At a time in his life when he should be venerated as a legendary hero, Picard is viewed as a pariah, a simple-minded idealistic fool whose time has passed. There are obvious parallels to contemporary society with Trump and Brexit in control and with much-needed globalization seen as dangerous by populists.

I’m also enthralled with the show’s theme music. It’s beautiful, haunting, and peppered with symbolic images of transformation that are probably a little too on-the-nose. I’m dazzled by this series’ portrayal of future technologies from replicators to communications to airborne tactile-based computer screens.

The production values of Picard are excellent, but let’s face it — this series is centered on Patrick Stewart’s unsurpassed gift of screen presence. Stewart still has off-the-charts charismatic magnetism, and The-Powers-That-Be have surrounded him with many multi-textured supporting characters. I’m getting the feeling that despite any flaws or issues in an episode, if it features Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean Luc Picard, and if he has intelligent and thoughtful things to say, then the episode works for me. Stewart is that powerful and magnetic as an actor. And I do give the writers credit for handling his character and his developmental place in life extremely well.

Not so fast, Scott. I share your man-love for Patrick Stewart. But this version of Picard is weak and facile. The man we grew up with was decisive, thoughtful, with understated power. In this show he is constantly befuddled and in need of relative children to help him. Rather than commanding respect, he has to beg everyone for crumbs. I cannot imagine why anyone would follow this version of Picard. Even his “final straw” moment (related in backstory) where he tried to save the residents of the imploding planet of Romulus resulted in him following orders and letting the planet and its inhabitants die. This is not Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise. This is a hollow shell of a once great man. The writers did not give Picard any evidence that he was still the man we knew.

I’m also a big fan of Alison Pill who plays Agnes Jurati. She was charming in Aaron Sorkin’s Broadcast News and is fantastic in the FX/Hulu show DEVS. But this character, Agnes, is about as badly written as is possible. She starts out as smart, commanding, decisive. Then she weasels her way onto Picard’s ship and becomes the “idiot in the room” – asking all manner of questions because she’s never been in outer space. She is the innocent who… ultimately murders her mentor. And she’s betraying the crew because she’s been fed a vision of an apocalypse – but then she takes a pill that stops the transmitter in her body. Then she saves the day wielding a device that apparently does whatever you happen to be thinking. The writing for this character is all over the page and it is my strong desire that Alison Pill not return to this series and find something more suited to her amazing talent.

I’m not sure why we need Raffi or the Romulan warrior kid. In another very non-Picard moment, the kid (who is Picard’s bodyguard) beheads a man who confronts Picard. Picard doesn’t bat an eye. But when we’re back on the ship, he essentially hits the kid on the nose with a newspaper saying something like “we don’t kill people.” The REAL Picard would have been so deeply offended that the kid would be back home with his mother. Similarly, he has dagger eyes for Agnes when he learns that she killed her mentor, and he’s taking her to Deep Space Twelve for trial… but by the end of the series, she’s a welcome member of the crew. I’m actually confounded as to how that adds up in any universe, much less in Star Trek.

Au contraire, my dear Gregger, regarding our beloved Captain/Admiral Picard. He’s at the mentor stage of his life and career, so we can forgive our beloved octogenarian for being less than robust physically. And besides, we know he is dying from a brain disease, and all things considered he’s still a commanding presence on screen and aboard Rios’ ship.

Let’s get to how things wrapped up at the end of Season 1. How they resolved the issue of the dark and corrupt Federation was not only acceptable, it was fulfilling. Picard’s hero’s journey has empowered him to be a real difference-maker. He has transformed physically, emotionally, and motivationally (which Greg and I describe in our last Reel Heroes book). Picard has used his personal transformation to help transform the world (or universe) in a positive way. The Star Trek universe can go temporarily dark but not permanently so, IMHO. I wonder if ST: Discovery will learn this lesson in its upcoming Season 3.

Soji is transformed by Picard’s use of the simple yet powerful idea of setting a good example. Perhaps Soji is a representative of Millennials (or Gen Z) and Picard as possibly representing the older generation somehow reaching & wielding positive influence on the young. I’ll need to chew on that. There are lots of layers here. The synths desire their independence from the older “establishment” and their defensiveness produces in them the kind of evil they purported to be rebelling against. That’s a nice touch, and realistic, too. I see the Romulans as possibly representing Republican evangelicals, guided by ancient myth and ruled by fear, intent on wiping out any threat to established purity and order.

At the outset of the series, Picard is embittered and mentally defeated. Over time we witness him transform back to his true self. This season has been a journey of healing for him, and his transformative healing places him in the position of helping others (Raffi, Agnes, Soji, Elnor, etc). Even more importantly, Picard’s healing allows for the healing of the larger society and universe as a whole. This is cosmic storytelling, the stuff of the classic hero’s journey.

I loved seeing Picard in his role of mentor, saying all the right things to reach his pupil Soji. It was all so brilliantly written, and very believable, and very moving. And to see a former pupil in Will Riker, come back to help his old teacher, well, that was a beautiful touch, too.

I’m still pondering the new, synthetic Picard and how the showrunners handled his life-altering transition. That life-after-death scene with Picard chatting with Data about their love, and their deaths… wow, it is absolutely exquisite. I believe it’s a true triumph for the series, and for the entire Star Trek franchise.

Is the ending a bit too tidy? Yes and no. A newly synthetic Picard is a kind of cheat, a hero’s unrealistic avoidance of a deadly condition that would elude no one except of course a sci-fi icon.

Yet the way it is done here somehow works, and somehow satisfies. Picard has been “reborn”, healed psychologically and now healed physically. He may be a synth but he’s a mortal synth, with the same ticking biological clock as the rest of us. If his deadly brain condition was brought about by his earlier Borgification, then it’s fitting and appropriate that his emotional healing from that event should parallel his physical healing from it.

So as befitting the hero’s journey, Picard rediscovers his True Self, and in so doing he helps others find their True Selves, and he saves the universe. It’s all very nice. The butterfly image is a bit too on-the nose, but I can forgive that. At least they had the wisdom to make the butterfly destructible. A butterfly, after all, isn’t a butterfly if it lasts forever.

Season 1 ends with the classic Star Trek scene of the triumphant and emotionally bonded crew heading off into the final frontier. Makes you very curious what direction Season 2 will take, or should take. Will Season 2 be a completely independent storyline, or will it have ties to season 1’s arc? All signs that I can see point to Season 2 happening. Whoopi Goldberg and Robert Picardo have both committed to returning as Guinan and The Doctor — that will certainly be interesting.

I am often inspired by the value you can extract from stories that I find come up short. I wish I had the same feeling about Picard but I was very disappointed. I don’t expect to see the Star Trek I grew up with ever again. So, I don’t really compare Picard to ST:TNG or any other Trek incarnation.

But, Scott. The main thrust of this 10-hour slog was that death is what gives life meaning. I agree the scene with Picard and Data is very touching. Every actor wants a great death scene and they sent Data off in style. But his main point is that immortality makes life boring. Data wanted to die because that allowed him to live in the memories of his friends and the fact that there would be no more “Data” made his life precious.

Before Picard died, he gave this impassioned speech about how he was going to show the synths the meaning of life by giving up his life for them. And then he died. And then he was reborn in a synthetic body.

My final thought is this… you cannot spend ten hours making the case that the thing that makes life worth living is the fact that we eventually die – and then raise the martyr from the dead. That’s just contradictory and ultimately terrible storytelling.

I give Star Trek: Picard 2 Reels out of 5 and I give this weakened Picard 3 Hero points.

Season 1: Heroes:

My dear Gregger, you are so hard to please. This series is such a gift to us, as Sir Patrick has only so many active years left in this profession. I was watching Whil Wheaton’s Ready Room interview of Alison Pill and Patrick Stewart, and Stewart admitted that it took a lot of convincing for him to agree to star in another Trek series. He agreed to reprise his role only if his character, and the Trek universe, had undergone a lot of change and if a meaningful story could be told that had positive implications for contemporary issues. Stewart clearly got both his wishes.

Overall, I’m quite impressed with this series. The story arc was grounded in issues afflicting us in present-day reality, and the central problem resolved itself in a way that was impressive, moving, and in some ways surprising. Yes, giving Picard a re-boot, a synthetic life at the end, was sledge-hammered to us and was less than 100% fulfilling. But I give the showrunners a pass here because the theme of Season 1 is multi-level transformation, and there are far more hits than misses

I give Star Trek: Picard 4 Reels out of 5 and I give this extraordinarily transformed elder-Picard 5 full Hero points out of 5.

Season 1: Heroes:

Movie Greg Scott
Star Trek: Picard