There’s a sheer artistry about the latest Star Trek instalment, Star Trek: Picard (2020 – ), but it has nothing to do with storytelling.
We begin with shots of space. They’re gorgeous. Then it’s the Enterprise 1701-D, which we last saw way back in Star Trek: Generations (1994). Specials effects have come some way since then. This shot is amazing. I imagine fans of The Original Series (1966 – 1969) felt this way when they saw the Enterprise 1701 on the big screen for the first time in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).
There’s something epic about the Enterprise 1701-D navigating the deepest reaches of space (or, at the very least, Mars’s orbit).
- are awed
- feel this is Star Trek
- relish what’s to come.
Then we move to Ten Forward – the lounge and bar that was introduced in season two (along with Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan) of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994). This looks nothing like the Ten Forward we know, but is a faithful enough contemporary interpretation that we’re willing to overlook that.
Next comes Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner) playing poker. Spiner has aged somewhat, and they’ve done the best they can to make him look like the timeless android he is meant to be. Stewart is older, but still commands the screen, although – on occasion – his voice loses the timbre of its heyday.
But it’s enough.
If you were playing the poker game, you’d go all in here.
Star Trek is back.
Questions Begin to Arise
Defenses are down. We’re no longer wary – or at least not so wary. This isn’t going to replicate the travesty that is Star Trek: Discovery (2017 – Please End). This is going to be real Trek. This, in fact, is going to be Okay Trek. We sit back and relax.
The Enterprise is orbiting Mars. The atmosphere explodes. Picard wakes up in his bedroom. It was a dream. Or a flashback. Or a dream of a time past. Oh, here’s a mystery. What happened? Picard gets up and throws open the French doors. We then have shots of his vineyard. Beautiful. This is what happened to Jean-Luc after retiring from active service. He even has a dog named ‘Number One’. How whimsical!
Picard has Romulan servants. Oooh, another mystery. He’s later interviewed by some journalist and – despite Picard cautioning his Romulan servants to ensure that no questions are asked about his departure from Starfleet – all she asks is about Starfleet and why Picard left ingloriously.
Apparently, after the Romulan sun went supernova (without any warning), Starfleet refused to help with the evacuation of 900 million Romulan inhabitants. In the second episode, we learn Starfleet pulled out because several planets threatened to withdraw from the Federation if they aided the Romulans. The fiends.
But Picard? The captain who was always the measured diplomat? He considers Starfleet’s action ‘criminal’.
A Word About the Romulan Sun
The story in JJ Abrams’s Star Trek (2009) reboot is that in the late 24th century, the Romulan sun goes supernova. A Romulan mining ship, the Narada, is consumed by a gravitational singularity and thrown back into the the 23rd century.
Does the Narada consider the events of the 23rd century mythical? No. Because who would think the recent past has ceded into legend? Only an idiot could try perpetuate that as part of the world-building. Oops. Wrong franchise.
The Narada attack, and destroy the USS Kelvin – the ship aboard which James Kirk’s father, George (Chris Hemsworth), serves. George dies, but his pregnant wife, Winona (Jennifer Morrison), flees, and gives birth to James on the escape pod. None of this was meant to happen this way. Consequently, the timelime schisms from this point. This is known as the Kelvin timeline.
But the sun going supernova still exists in the the main – the Prime – timeline.
A woman, Dahj (Isa Briones), is having a romantic night with her boyfriend when three masked intruders beam in, kill her boyfriend, and try to abduct her by shoving a futuristic black bag over her head. No, wait, that’s just a normal bag that you could find today. Why they do it this way instead of trying to stun her is anybody’s guess. Or if they could beam in, why not beam her directly out? She ‘activates’ and goes all Matrix (1999) on them. She then has a vision of Picard.
Visions drive the story now.
She flees, randomly sees Picard’s interview on TV, and, oh, she realises it’s the man from her vision! What luck! She decides to go hunt him down on his vineyard. I can only assume she must’ve also been based in France, because I can’t see how she would’ve gotten there without resources. Also, surely her abductors would be monitoring all forms of travel.
It turns out that Dahj was cloned from one of Data’s ‘positronic neurons’. This is encouraging to me, as I want to clone my toaster from one of the glowing orange coils.
Surely now this is possible.
Not a Comparison
I saw a review that said if we judged Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s on its pilot, ‘Encounter at Farpoint’, then that series mightn’t have gotten very far.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was made in 1987. It was a return to television for the franchise with a new ship, a new crew, and a new universe advanced from The Original Series. Back in the 1980s, sci-fi television series were rare. This sort (a crew gallivanting around space) were nonexistent. Star Trek: The Next Generation had to feel its way through the landscape, because nobody had any idea what they were doing. The Next Generation had to be the pioneer.
That’s not the case with Picard. Yes, you have an updated universe, but it’s built on geography that’s become well-entrenched. You have an established character (Picard) and a magnificent actor (Stewart) to play him. Sci-fi television is rote now. People know what they’re doing. It should be much easier to hit the ground running.
Obviously, any television show could have teething problems, but Picard doesn’t face the unknown the way The Next Generation did.
They should have a much better idea of what they’re doing, and how to be true to their universe.
The Not-so-Good …
Dahj talks with Picard, then flees, and has a call with her mother, who encourages her to go back to Picard.
Now there’s good storytelling that exists only to introduce this spurious mother.
Picard then has a dream of Data painting a mysterious woman.
Dreams drive the story now.
When Picard wakes, he goes to a vault where he’s stored sentimental memorabilia, and sees the picture Data painted. A holographic helper who somehow isn’t considered synthetic life says the picture is entitled, ‘Daughter’.
Dahj tracks Picard down in the city, but they’re attacked by three Romulans. Dahj beats them down, but one spits acid on her, and she begins to melt, then explodes. The explosion flings Picard twenty feet through the air. Next thing Picard knows, he wakes up in his own bed. The police brought him back. Apparently, they didn’t bother to question him or investigate this violence in the hub of the city. Dahj has been erased from surveillance footage. So there’s just the explosion, three dead Romulan attackers, and a former Starfleet captain found unconscious.
Something else to note amidst all this is that Picard says that Data always wanted a daughter.
Well, he didn’t. In episode 16 of season 3, ‘The Offspring‘, Data created a non-gender-specific android, and let the android itself choose its race and gender. It chose to be a human female, Lal (Hallie Todd). Data never specifically wanted a daughter before her demise, or after it.
But why let the facts get in the way of the plot?
Picard goes to the Daystrom Institute and speaks to Dr Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill). Building ‘synthetics’ (they’re no longer androids) is illegal now, so Daystrom can only practice theoretically. I imagine conversations go like this:
Scientist 01: ‘What if we gave a synthetic four legs?’
Scientist 02: ‘How about we gave a synthetic the ability to sing opera?’
I’m unsure what else they could be doing.
Picard learns that cloning from an android is possible, and that Dahj has a twin, Soji (also Isa Briones). Also, Dahj was an android built in a biological body. What? Then why did she explode? Was she gassy? Was she flatulent? Is this where this series is going?
The story is grotesquely unravelling, tangling into a gigantic mess of stupid.
It’s like vomiting on a Persian rug.
Sir Patrick Stewart is selling the hell out of it, though. He is the legitimiser that Star Trek: Discovery doesn’t enjoy (although they got close to it with Anson Mount playing Captain Pike in season two). Stewart’s acting, his presence, and his marquee, will fool you into thinking that Picard is better than it is.
It’s easy enough to spot the stupid: like the ‘fractal neuronic cloning’; or the molecular thingamajig (in episode two) which, somehow, is able to scan a room and replay a part of a conversation that occurred in it earlier; or Picard not wanting to go to Worf, LaForge, and his old comrades, because … they would actually help him? This is the logic? The Next Generation‘s finale, ‘All Good Things‘, involves a future-Picard from this very time who learns of an anomaly that’s going to destroy Earth. And what’s he do? He immediately calls on all his old friends for help.
But why use Picard logic in a show called Picard about a character named Picard?
… the So-Bad …
The last two Star Trek series have been Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Enterprise (2001 – 2005) – both were prequel series set before Star Trek: The Original Series. JJ Abrams’s rebooted movies take place during The Original Series. Fans rejoiced when Star Trek: Picard was announced, as finally we’d get a series in what we know as the Star Trek present, last seen in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002).
Star Trek: The Next Generation was about exploring the unknown.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999), while station-based, also explored the Gamma Quadrant.
Star Trek: Voyager (1995 – 2001) explored the Delta Quadrant.
Even Star Trek: Enterprise explored space and laid the foundation for the Federation.
I understand Star Trek: Picard is yet to leave Earth and some exploration might actually occur, but let’s look at the way it’s set up:
Jean-Luc Picard is wasting away in his retirement years. That changes when he is visited by a woman named Dahj. Picard learns that she is an android clone of his former Second Officer, Data. Dahj is killed, but Picard discovers there is a twin, Soji. He must investigate and find her, despite Starfleet’s refusal to help. Picard doesn’t realise that a conspiracy at the highest levels surrounds these androids. He must put together a rag-tag group to discover the truth.
This is typical of the storytelling that comes from the stable of JJ Abrams.
It’s not about exploring brave new worlds.
It’s not about building on the present and taking the characters somewhere new.
It’s about a mystery from the past which must now be unraveled so the present can make sense.
Reminds me remarkably of another franchise JJ ran into the ground.
… and the Very Ugly
Picard has two Romulan servants: Laris (Orla Brady) and Zhaban (Jamie McShane). Laris had also been a member of the Tal Shiar, the Romulan secret police. And now she’s serving tea. No doubt Zhaban will be somebody of influence. Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita) – part of Starfleet’s top brass – is monitoring the situation with the androids, and has a flunky, Lt. Narissa Rizzo (Peyton List), who’s meant to be on top of the situation. Rizzo’s brother is Narek (Harry Treadaway), a Romulan tech who’s just met and slept with Soji. They’re aboard a Borg cube the Romulans possess under the pretense they’re liberating Borg drones. But, well, if you have the Cube, surely there’ll be some Area 51 investigation and reverse-engineering of the tech going on.
Is it just me or is there a lot of characters conveniently placed and all plotting for their own hidden agendas?
And Starfleet were willing to let 900 million die just because they’re Romulans. Let’s ignore:
- in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Starfleet made a diplomatic entreaty to their enemy, the Klingons, after the Klingon’s key power facility, Praxis, exploded. Yes, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) himself was against this … initially, but he admitted he was wrong at the end. The bulk of the Federation were for peaceful negotiations.
- in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Starfleet allied with the Romulans against the Dominion.
- in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), the movie climaxes with the Federation and the Romulan Empire taking their first steps towards peace.
But now Starfleet are this ruthless, selfish, conspiratorial entity. I understand empires grow complacent, that they even grow indulgent and ultimately fall, but this one has deteriorated quickly in an era where humanity is meant to be evolved and altruistic. It’s irrelevant if that’s unrealistic, or if it’s unlikely that our own humanity gets there. This is the vision that Star Trek has always posed, the vision of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
Let’s throw in some swearing, too! After Picard makes a plea to a Starfleet Admiral Kirsten Clancy (Ann Magnuson) in the second episode, she responds, with outrage, ‘Sheer fucking hubris!’ Remember Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) when Kirk and company travel to the past, and are bemused by profanity and struggle to understand it?
You can update a property for a contemporary setting. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did it brilliantly. That is a gritty story that features an ongoing war, and – at times – Starfleet personnel acting questionably. But it operates within the framework of a well-established property. There is respect. Even if Starfleet officers behave reprehensibly – and Sisko (Avery Brooks) did at times – there is always a counterpoint to reflect it isn’t the norm.
Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery are aberrations, monstrosities shat out by writers who seem to have little knowledge of Star Trek canon or how that universe works, no respect for operating within the framework of that universe, and who believe that a mindless action-adventure with conspiracies at every turn is going to advance the human experience that has been Star Trek‘s mandate since the first series debuted.
I know Star Trek: Picard is only two episodes in, but what’s to be expected of the rest of the season given the people in charge?
My Stupid Theory
I think, ultimately, Star Trek: Picard is going to rip off Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984).
Data’s consciousness will probably be floating around (probably in Picard’s head, which is why Data haunts him so), and, they’ll stick that consciousness in a synthetic body at the end.
And everybody will call it genius because they brought Data back.
But let’s go back to the beginning: the pilot drew on sentimentality, built on goodwill, and – once that was spent – degenerated into something that’s not Trek.
It can look like it. It can carry the name. It can share much-loved characters.
But if JJ Abrams’s 2009 reboot should’ve taught us anything, it’s to beware of bad imitations.