A new Star Trek series premiered last week on CBS’s streaming service. It is called Star Trek: Picard and focuses on the character of Jean-Luc Picard, former captain of the Enterprise during the series Star Trek: the Next Generation portrayed by Patrick Stewart. It has been just over 20 years since the last movie using the TNG cast, and this series is set about 20 years after those events, letting Patrick Stewart play the character without any awkward de-aging.
Before I get to any spoilers, here is my quick review: it is good. The story is about a man not entirely happy in his retirement, haunted by regrets. There is some action, though one of my favorite moments in the show was when a group of bad guys beam in and a younger person is trying to hustle Picard to safety, he is acting like an 80-year-old. That look on his face, panting, at the long set of stairs was a bit heart-breaking, but also heartening. This story isn’t going to pretend that he’s super human.
You don’t have to been a megafan to follow the story. In one of the early scenes features an FNN (Federation News Network, I presume) reporter interviews Picard about the anniversary of a major event which happened ten years after the last TNG movie, and the course of the interview gives you the information needed to follow the rest of the tale (and explain why Jean-Luc is not happy in retirement).
It does help to be familiar (but not to have watched) the last TNG cast movie: Star Trek: Nemesis, but fortunately Camestros Felapton had posted a nice summary here:
And if you never watched the reboot movies, there is one other detail that will help you follow this series (which is not a sequel to the reboots, but…) the internal justification of the re-boots (and the reason that in the first of the reboots Spock was played by original series actor Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto), is that when a supernova threatened to destroy the Romulan homeworld, Ambassador Spock took an experimental craft out to try to stop the supernova, but instead his ship and a Romulan ship were thrown back in time (literally to the day the Captain Kirk was born), and thus changed history. So the reboot movies exist in a different time line than any of the TV series.
Anyway, the aftermath of that stellar disaster also figures into Picard’s situation. But again, none of the events of the reboot movies are part of this series’ history. (Cue timey-whimey music)
One final thing that you might need to know if you aren’t a diehard Trekkie but are interested in the show: Romulans and Vulcans look virtually identical. In the first episode, at least, all the pointy-eared characters you meet are Romulans, who are not cold master of logic like the Vulcans. In other Trek series if you see what appears to be a human with pointy ears, you can assume it’s probably a Vulcan and will be something like Spock. Given other things we learn during the first episode, it is probably safer in this series to presume that any pointy-eared character is a Romulan, rather than a Vulcan.
Past this point there be many plot spoilers. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read on. Don’t read the two reviews I link below, either, because they also have spoilers.
Seriously, don’t scroll further!
Turn back now!
Okay, if you’re still reading, it’s your own fault!
One of the things I really like about the series is that it isn’t filmed the way that Star Trek: the Next Generation had been. TNG always felt like it was on a stage (which, of course, it was). This series is filmed much more like a movie. The Chateau Picard scenes are filmed at an actual vineyard they found in California where the main house looks like a French chateau. When Picard goes to try to get help from Star Fleet, scenes are filmed in an actual outdoor set, and so forth.
Not all of the scenes. The opening scene appears to be set aboard Ten Forward, which was an officers’ lounge on the Enterprise during Picards time as Captain. Picard (who is not wearing a Star Fleet uniform) is playing poker with Commander Data. This turns out to be one of Picard’s recurring dreams. It has cool callbacks to both the final scene of the final episode of TNG (where Picard joins a group of his officers for their weekly poker game, having never done so before), but also the final scene of Nemsis, where the android B-4 started humming the song “Blue Skies” which had been sung earlier in the movie by Commander Data, giving some hope that Data, who died heroically in that movie, might live on in some way in in B-4.
Even though the set of the first scene does look a lot like the original Ten Forward set, the camera comes into it by panning though a star field, then to the Enterprise, and then through a window. Again, much more like one of the movies than the usual TV series camera work.
Picard wakes up, and we meet three of his current companions: a dog named Number One, and two Romulans who apparently live with Picard in the chateau and help take care him. We quickly move to the interview, where despite the assurances the network gave many times they would stick to talking about the supernova, and not talk about Picard’s reasons for leaving Star Fleet, the reporter takes an early opportunity to do just that.
As Picard answers we learn how, because of an apparently unrelated disaster, the Federation terminated a massive evacuation effort, and has since become less eager to extend resources on humanitarian efforts.
I have seen online more than a few nidgets claiming that getting these politics into Star Trek is horrible. To which I say, “Did you actually watch any of the original series? I mean, really?” There were episodes that commented on (sometimes ham-fistedly, yes) the civil rights issues playing out in the real world in the 1960s when the series was made. The original draft of “The Enterprise Incident” was such a scathing indictment of the real world Gulf of Tonkin events (America’s excuse for invading Vietnam), that the network censors went a bit crazy and ordered rewrites that watered it down… but it was still recognizable as a commentary on the Cold War with the Soviets and China in general, and how it was playing out in Vietnam in particular. Many episodes commented on the moral imperative not to turn a blind eye to injustice just because it was happening somewhere else.
The action switches to Seattle, where a young woman (along with her boyfriend) is celebrating getting accepted for a Fellowship with the Daystrom institute when mysterious people beam in, killed the boyfriend, try to capture her, and then, well, she kills them all and runs, having had skills and memories she never knew she had activated during the attack. One of the memories in Picard’s face and name, along with a strong sense that she will be safe with him.
Which brings her to his vineyard. Picard decides to try to help her. But that night he has another dream featuring Data, and when he wakes up the girl is gone. Still, Picard has some clues. He checks out his “quantum archive” at Star Fleet, which is apparently a fancy storage locker (there are several cool call backs there), and then runs into the girl again.
She says she decided to leave because she was afraid the bad guys who killed her boyfriend would kill everyone at the chateau if she stayed there, so she left. She doesn’t tell Picard that she called her mother, or that her mother mysteriously knew that she had been to see Picard. Since what the mother said next in that call seemed to awaken new hacking skills, I’m presuming that the mother also muddled her memory a bit. Presumably the mother will turn up again in later episodes.
The hacking skills led her to Picard again. They have a brief conversation where Picard tells her is theory that she may be a “child” of his old friend Commander Data. Which doesn’t make her happy, since one of the other things that has happened in the 20 years since we last saw Picard in action is that androids and other synthetic life has been banned. But her existential crisis is interrupted by bad guys beaming in again, and another fight (including the stair scene I mentioned), and an explosion where the girl dies. But not before the helmet of at least one of the bad guys is smashed to reveal that he’s a Romulan.
Which I did not see coming at all. Since the actress appears in a lot of scenes in the trailers. Before the episode is over, Picard talks with an expert at the Daystrom Institute and learns that if the girl had been created the way the expert suspects, there is a twin.
Now, some of the stuff in these scene also caused knobheads in some parts of the internet to get up in arms, because the plot seems like a rip-off of Bladerunner to them. Again, Bladerunner‘s theme of what constitutes a person when talking about robots and such has been around much, much longer than the movie Bladerunner. That’s the entire plot of Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man,” for instance. The science fiction play that gave us the word robot, ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ by K. Čapek was about a factory that creates artificial people grown out of tanks of flesh, which are then treated as slaves, and the plot of the play revolves around what is the definition of personhood. Heck, it’s also one of the themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein published back in 1823!
As I and others have said many times: science fiction hasn’t really ever been about brand new ideas no one has ever thought of before. Science fiction is a conversation about everything from new ways to look at old ideas, to how we as individuals and society react to change, to consequences of technology, to speculation about the origins of the universe, to imagining the end of time. Scientific theories don’t spring full-formed from the ether, they are built on existing theories and observations. Real life inventions never come from nothing—they emerge from the synthesis and dissonance of exist technologies and ideas.
The episode ends with the reveal that the twin does exist, and she is some kind of scientist at something that appears to be a Romulan outpost. We see her being chatted up by an extremely sexy Romunlan guy, who we can presume both by how he approaches her and the earlier revelation that her twin was killed by Romulans, is probably not a hero.
The camera pans out in a particularly cool way to reveal that this outpost is a damaged Borg cube, surrounded by a lot of Romulan ships, and existing in the shadow, as it were, of a dual-ring nebula. It’s a really beautiful closing shot.
I’ve watched the episode three times now, and it just gets better each time. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are a couple of excellent reviews: