Let’s talk about... Star Trek: Picard

by Allen Stroud, Jane Clewett, and Louis Calvert

Let’s talk about… Star Trek: Picard
April 13, 2020 Allen Stroud, Jane Clewett, Louis Calvert

Star Trek: Picard began airing on Amazon Prime in January, bringing back the much-loved character more than a decade after his last screen appearance. We discuss the latest iteration of one of television’s most durable franchises. This article will contain spoilers.

 

Jane: 

My first thought was simply that the show looks incredibly good. It’s not just that the CGI is cutting edge; the cinematography is more complex and engaging than the functional camera work I associate with classic Star Trek series. From the vineyards of Château Picard to the open vistas of space, everything looks handsome, polished, and convincing.

 

Louis: 

I’m feeling conflicted! As a Star Trek superfan I love all Trek in one way or another, but I found myself somewhat wary of Picard. The first episode left me with the distinct impression that the showrunners are heavily playing off nostalgia, and instead of creating a new Star Trek I felt like I was watching a fairly generic (but amazingly well-made) sci-fi show that featured Sir Patrick Stewart painfully easing his way around the set. 

 

Allen: 

Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) always left a polished but distant impression on me. The better Kirk films were much more visceral and passionate. However, with Star Trek: Nemesis, I began to feel the TNG film franchise was going in the right direction in terms of macro (big) plot and micro (character) plot. Picard picks up from where that left off, which I think is the right choice for the franchise. Hopefully, it can get out of its own way this time and deliver something fantastic.

 

Jane: 

It’s obvious that this is a darker take on the Star Trek universe than TNG. Star Trek is widely regarded as the most utopian of the big science fiction properties, but at this point the franchise has spent more time subverting Gene Roddenberry’s idealised future than playing it straight, and Picard looks set to continue this trend. The series dwells on the mistakes and prejudices of Star Fleet and the wider Federation which led to Picard’s resignation, as well as hinting at subversion from within; at the time of writing we still don’t know how far he may reconcile with his former employer or change it for the better.

 

Louis: 

There are definitely interesting moments, and hints of characters and themes I’d love to get to know more about (the Romulan couple living with Picard, for example). The series seems to be focusing on synthetic human rights and Picard working to correct the course of the Federation after it’s strayed. I can’t say it’s broken any new ground in terms of the themes so far, but I still hope to be surprised!

 

Allen: 

The connections of the plot to all the previous incarnations of Trek are a sign of some really good writing. There’s less of a digitally austere aesthetic, which is a massive positive. I also like that the show isn’t using a contained episode structure. In TNG we got an occasional two-parter with some overarching elements, but series writing has moved on and the streaming medium allows writers to develop stories over a longer period.

 

Jane: 

Patrick Stewart’s central performance is as impressive as one would hope, providing a firm anchor for the series. Interestingly, it’s not fundamentally very different than what he was doing in TNG and its spin-off movies. Jean-Luc Picard has always been full of gravitas, someone you really believe could alter the course of history with a single speech. Making him older only enhances the core appeal of the character for me; he can’t run and fight like an action hero, but that was never the point. Viewers who are mostly interested in the series for its protagonist will not be disappointed.

Beyond that, the setting was well-realised. The practicalities of life in the 24th century felt convincing and weren’t overplayed. Modern CGI also enhances Star Trek’s traditional ‘rubber forehead aliens’ — I enjoyed the attention to detail which gave an alien character a constantly blinking nictitating membrane, for example. 

 

Louis: 

Agreed, it’s cinematically brilliant. I always love seeing the ‘non Starfleet’ parts of the Star Trek universe; I enjoy seeing how civilians live and what life is generally like in the 24th century.

 

Allen: 

I liked that the scenes allow questions to develop, rather than raising them and solving them within a tight timeframe. There are a massive amount of direct developments from all across the TNG, Deep Space Nine (DS9), Voyager, and Abrams’ movie arcs. Picard doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to solve everything it invokes, but instead acknowledges and incorporates, allowing the audience the pleasure of learning that their previous memories of these franchises are a part of what is to come. There are one or two continuity issues, but that’s understandable — we don’t often see stories that try to pull together elements from so many different prior sources.

There was a lot of tell rather than show in the detailed exposition moments, but then the plot weave is complex, so they are working to handle a lot of elements. It was also obvious that Patrick Stewart is older and can’t perform some of the action scenes that he used to. In the TNG series and films he was able to manage the fights when needed.

Jane: 

The opening episode used a couple of tropes that I dislike. There is a trend in fantasy and science fiction to come up with an analogy to racism (anti-mutant sentiment in X-Men, for example), and then put the prejudice in question in the mouth of a black character. Picard’s version isn’t particularly egregious, but it still made me uncomfortable.

A bigger problem for me was the show’s willingness to play the ‘fridging’ trope absolutely straight. Named for the late nineties website Women in Refrigerators, ‘fridging’ is when a female character is killed off in order to provide a male character with motivation. As with many things of this kind, the problem is not that any individual instance is outrageously sexist, but that the aggregate effect is to privilege male characters’ stories over female characters’ existence. It’s such a stale plot device, and the double casting of actor Isa Briones as another important android character didn’t compensate for the sour taste the death of Dahj left in my mouth.

 

Louis: 

As a Star Trek nerd there’s a lot in the plot setup that I’m wary of. The core idea they seem to be leaning on — the idea of prejudice against synthetic life, or villainous rogue artificial consciousnesses — is heavily-trodden ground. Westworld and Battlestar Galactica already did it, as did several other episodes of Trek, films, novels, computer games — I could go on! Simply tackling the same themes with a Star Trek wrapper on them isn’t good enough.

I’m fascinated by what happened to the Romulan people after the supernova. I feel like there are some brilliant and relevant stories that you could really get into there; ideas around migration of displaced people struggling to find a place, maybe how other civilisations tightened borders to prevent Romulan refugees seeking shelter… These topics would be perfect for Trek to explore in detail. Sadly though, all of this was rapidly glossed over in favour of comic-book antics and mentions of a (very generic) synthetic rebellion.

The continuity is a little shaky too — I’m assuming the supernova is the Hobus Supernova, the instigating factor in the 2009 Star Trek film that destroyed the Romulan system. Interestingly they seem to have changed it now to the “Romulan sun” rather than Hobus (a nearby star). I’m not sure if that’s going to be significant, but it’s puzzling.

I’m also puzzled as to why the showrunners seem to have entirely forgotten the heavily oppressed slave-species of Reman people living on the planet next to Romulus (a pivotal part of 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis). Presumably they too lost their homeworld and it’s odd that they didn’t at least get a passing mention — I’d have been far, far more impressed if Picard had a Reman assistant instead of the attractive Romulan couple!

I’m saddened that the Federation has essentially abandoned its principles (again!) As you noted Star Trek is, at its core, about a future where humanity has evolved for the better socially and morally, so it’s a bit disappointing that this feels like it’s shaping up to be yet another tale of a few (overwhelmingly light skinned, so far) individuals retaining a moral compass where the faceless ‘government’ fails to live up to its own guiding principles. 

Seriously, the cast of Picard is so white! Michelle Hurd does good work but with such a large cast the absence of other actors of colour is really noticeable. Considering one of Picard’s key characteristics is his inclusive thinking, it’s ironic, in a disappointing way.

 

Allen: 

I’m not getting the kind of visceral connection with Picard that I have with other science fiction shows. Battlestar Galactica (2004) is one of my all time favourite television series. I recently watched the Netflix remake of Lost in Space (2018) and I found myself more engaged with that than Picard. I can’t help but admire the work going on, the performances of the actors, the plotting, the scenes, everything — but for me, the show may still sit in the ‘nice to watch’ category rather than the ‘must watch’ category.

 

Louis: 

So far, this is one of the few Trek series I’ve seen that I’ve been uncertain about from the start. I even loved Enterprise! I’m hopeful that the show will find its feet, though. A lot of Star Trek series start a little shakily (I’m looking at you, TNG), so it’s possible I’ll eventually warm up to it. At worst, it’s a missed opportunity.

 

Jane: 

The more I watch, the more I agree with Louis that Picard is less of a Trek series and more a sci-fi drama that happens to centre on a Trek character. It’s not even that heavily focused on science fiction — the plot is more interested in its mystery and political thriller elements. Overall, I think Picard is a handsomely made but uneven return to the Star Trek universe.