Entertainment Rants

Star Trek: Picard ~ A Season One Review

Thanks to the smouldering unholy shitfest that is Star Trek: Picard (2020 – ), it’s jumped the queue and demanded a blog.

Star Trek: Picard is the worst television show I’ve ever seen. The first season just finished with a bang of stupidity. With so much stupidity piled on so much stupidity, you’d think stupidity would grow redundant at some point. Nope. There are apparently always new ways to find it, to use it, to highlight it.

I accept storytelling as an artistic form that’s considered subjective. We all have different tastes. We also have different tolerance thresholds.

But there’s a realm where we predominantly begin to recognize something as bad. That’s where ratings can objectively tell a story.

Star Trek: Picard – like its companion, Star Trek: Discovery (2017 – ) – is objectively bad. How it has fans and defenders is beyond me.

I could sit here and list the bad plotting in every episode of both. Now I’m not talking about choices in storytelling, i.e. has it gone too dark or whatever? I’m talking about how Point A gets us to Point B given the information they’ve delivered. I’m talking about how come Y doesn’t work, when it was clearly used in a previous situation. I’m talking about characters who have no depth or arc. I’m talking about premises that are so tattered, you could drive a franchise through them and fall into oblivion.

You cannot defend these issues from a creative standpoint. There is only one defense: It’s only a TV show. And if that’s what you’re falling back on – particularly for a franchise that is renowned for producing smart sci-fi – then you might as well shove your head into a blender and hit the ON switch, because that makes about as much sense.

Here are some of my thoughts about Star Trek: Picard as a whole – and this list is by no means exhaustive.

I don’t think there’s enough space on the internet for an exhaustive list.

 

The Premise

The Universe-Building

The Romulan sun goes supernova … Okay, credit to Mike Stoklasa from RedLetterMedia who pointed out that suns don’t go supernova instantaneously. It’s a process that takes millions of years. So there should be time to evacuate the Romulans. Nope. It’s happening instantly.

The Romulans have an empire. They must have numerous planets and ships at their disposal. But they ask the Federation for help, and Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) leads a Starfleet evacuation armada. I guess the Romulan ships are out or something.

While this is happening, the “Synths” – synthetic life forms, like androids, who are now being used as a menial workforce – go on a murderous rampage on the Mars shipyards, slaughtering 92,000 people.

I’m unclear here on why the Synths are being used for such mundane duties. How does this make sense? You build a machine that costs time, energy, and resources so it can push some buttons for you? How is that more inexpensive than just hiring somebody? Add to this that in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s episode “The Measure of a Man” Picard argues for android rights, lest androids fall into the classification of slave labour.

Well, here they are: slave labour! I’d revolt too. (That immediately makes a much more interesting and Star Trek premise than the shit we’re served.)

Anyway, Starfleet withdraw from the evacuation. Picard issues them an ultimatum to go with a new plan he’s concocted or to accept his resignation. They accept his resignation.

Now Picard is just bumming around his vineyard with a couple of Romulan refuges who used to be Romulan secret police but are now servants (because that’s a natural career progression). I guess there weren’t any other worlds in the Romulan Empire to migrate to.

The Plot

Picard has dreams of his former Second Officer, Data (Brent Spiner). Then Picard meets a twenty-something woman named Dahj (Isa Briones). She says she has inexplicable memories of Picard.

Picard goes to his storage locker and finds a painting Data gifted him years ago is of (wait for it!) Dahj. How can this be? Investigation reveals Dahj is a synthetic life form – an android brain in an organic body. She was cloned from one of Data’s positronic neurons, which is like saying I cloned a television from a digital signal.

The Romulans are also after Dahj for mysterious reasons. During one encounter, she fights them off, Matrix-style. But then one spits acid at her. She begins to melt, then explodes. Why an organic body explodes is beyond me.

Picard learns that Dahj has a twin, Soji (also Isa Briones). Due to Picard’s immeasurable bond with Data (never established in the series or the movies), Picard MUST rescue this synthetic life form he’s never met. Good job, Picard! We can see how much she means to you given the zero time you grieved over Dahj.

It turns out Soji is working on a Borg cube that the Romulans are examining. We learn that the Romulans fear Soji will somehow lead to the annihilation of the galaxy. Why they don’t just kill her while she’s gallivanting on Romulan property in Romulan space while under Romulan guard is anybody’s guess.

Picard must assemble a rag-tag group of misfits to save her, and the galaxy.

Like the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy, no thought has gone into the universe-building or the plot. Things are what they are so that the story they want to tell can take place.

But examine the universe building, and it unravels.

 

Picard

Jean-Luc Picard is a curmudgeonly elder statesman just biding his time until he dies. Have we heard this before?

After Dahj’s death, he declares he’s been sitting around doing nothing too long and needs to seize life again.

This is important. Some may cheer here. Good old Picard. But they’re only cheering because Picard is returning to his natural state: the proactive adventurer. That’s the sum of his character development: returning him to his default position because the writers were too inept to give him any meaningful development.

Here are examples of meaningful development:

    • James T. Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982): Kirk (William Shatner) is beginning to feel his age. More importantly, he’s feeling redundant in his role as a Starfleet admiral. It’s a natural career progression in the military to be promoted, but Kirk has given up what he loves. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) tells him this is a “waste of material” as Kirk’s “first, best destiny” is command of a starship. When Kirk regains temporary command, his arrogance puts the Enterprise in jeopardy. By the conclusion of the story, he’s accepted that while he’s gotten older, he needs to be true to what he’s best at, and he needs to appreciate life – and death – in a way he never has before.
    • Wolverine in Logan (2017): Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is still a surly prick, and the adamantium in his body is poisoning him and killing him. He’s taken the responsibility of caring for Charles Xavier, who’s suffering dementia. Then Wolverine’s unwittingly drawn into protecting a child. In becoming her guardian, he finally finds purpose in his life. He is reborn through her, and wants to give her the life he didn’t have.
    • Bill Munny in Unforgiven (1992): Munny (Clint Eastwood) is a vicious killer who gave up the life to marry and have kids. Ater his wife passes away, he has to take care of his children on his struggling farm. A young bounty hunter, The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), entreats him to help collect a bounty. Munny goes begrudgingly because he needs the money. But when the Sheriff (Gene Hackman) kills Munny’s best friend, Logan (Morgan Freeman), Munny is forced to rediscover what he’s best at – killing – and he exacts vengeance on the Sheriff, and the town who’s turned him back into the person he tried to leave behind.

These are complex, layered journeys where characters go through a series of adventures, face numerous obstacles, and learn something about themselves.

But Picard wakes up from unconsciousness and decides he has to become Picard again.

Yay.

And that’s it. That’s his whole journey.

Oh, wait! He has a health issue – a terminal defect in his parietal lobe (probably where the memories for this story are kept) – and resigns himself to the fact it’ll kill him. It does kill him. But then they find a way to fix it. So he’s given a solution that he and the audience weren’t aware was a thing until it happens in the last five minutes of season one.

 

But … is he Jean-Luc Picard?

The last TNG movie, Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), takes place in 2379. Star Trek: Picard takes place in 2399. Picard is now 94-years-old.

An aside: in the TNG pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint”, Star Trek: The Original Series’s Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) makes a guest appearance as a doddering 137-year-old admiral. We accept in the 24th century that life expectancy would’ve increased. Why is Picard so far off the curve?

Throughout the TNG series, Picard is recognized as an elite mediator. That’s gone. He quotes Shakespeare, is composed, and is thoughtful. All that’s gone. He didn’t like children. In one episode that’s clearly shown not to be the case as he plays with a young Romulan child Elnor.

He was never known for his recklessness – that would be James T. Kirk. But when Picard reunites with his former First Officer, William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Riker talks to Picard as if Picard is known for his impulsiveness and self-endangerment. In this show, maybe. That wasn’t the case in the series.

A friend christened him Jake-Luc Picard (after Jake Skywalker – what Mark Hamill christened The Last Jedi’s woeful interpretation of Luke Skywalker).

That sums Picard up.

 

An aside: The Blast-a-Thon

The Original Series aired a pilot, “The Cage“, with Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) as the lead. The network liked it but wanted more action. Hunter didn’t return, so a new character was created: James T. Kirk. Kirk was a swashbuckling lead. He was action man.

Come the 1980s when Star Trek was being rebooted with Captain Jean-Luc Picard, creator Gene Roddenberry was able to be truer to his original vision of Star Trek. Picard is the embodiment of that vision, and the template for future humanity: mature, evolved, intelligent. He seeks intellectual answers, not physical ones. In confrontations, he pursues diplomacy. He is about the continuing human equation to evolve.

But in every episode of this mess, some character will blast Picard for being a buffoon.

He must be constantly reminded of his many shortcomings.

Somehow, Picard became an idiot.

 

The Rag-Tag Crew

When we first meet Captain Rios (Santiago Cabrera), he’s smoking a cigar (although nobody smokes anymore in this universe – something creator Gene Roddenberry fought for) and he has a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder. He tells his holographic doctor to remove the shrapnel without anesthetic to show us how tough he is. Oooh, there’s some good character development.

Dr Agnes Jurati (Allison Pill) is a cyberneticist who cold-bloodedly murders her lover and mentor, Dr Bruce Maddox (John Ales), but other than some mild chastisement, she’s not held accountable. Elnor (Evan Evagora) is a ninja-Romulan who casually beheads enemies, but first utters the catchphrase, “Please choose to live.” Somebody thought that was so cool. Seven to of Nine (Jeri Ryan) has become a cold-hearted, cold-blooded killer. This is a character who stood at the height of knowledge and science and was seeking to reclaim her humanity. Now she’s a psychopath.

Picard’s first officer, Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd) was fired from her commission when Picard issued his ultimatum to Starfleet. Fired. Now she’s a vaping, hard-drinking wreck estranged from her son – we only learn she has a son in the scene they first show him. Raffi’s attempt at reconciliation fails. And that’s it. That’s her character development. Are we meant to feel something for a character we barely know (and, on first impressions, don’t like – oh wait, those impressions don’t change) and the son we didn’t know she had? Are we meant to care about a fractured relationship that we didn’t even know existed until we see the attempt at reconciliation unfolding before our eyes?

Picard saves Soji time and time again, he shelters her and tries to guide her, but when the other Synths tell Soji that “Organics” are bad, she buys in. That easy. Forget all the evidence to the contrary.

Why is everybody so bitter and cold-blooded and angry? Is that meant to translate as edgy and compelling?

How did these people originate in the Star Trek universe?

 

The Zhat Vash

This is a secret Romulan group who are vigilant against synthetic life, because that’s meant to lead to the annihilation of Organics. Of course, they did nothing about Data, Lore, creator Doctor Noonian Soong (whose life work was building androids), the prototype androids he built, holographic life – such as Star Trek: Voyager’s doctor – or the array of synthetic life that various crews have met over the course of their travels. You would’ve thought the greatest threat was Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s V’ger. Nope. Or the Borg, who would classify as organic synthetics. Uh uh.

It’s just now that they leap into action. That’s good vigilance.

We have a scene in an empty desert wasteland (probably Alex Kurtzman‘s imagination) of the Zhat Vash standing around a circular balustrade buzzing with energy. As part of their indoctrination, each member of the Zhat Vash must touch the balustrade and witness the annihilation (known as the “Admonition”) at the risk of their own sanity. All but one of them go crazy and they begin killing themselves. One draws her disruptor and shoots herself in the head.

Now pause: if you have a ceremony that’s going to drive participants insane, do you really want them to be carrying energy weapons? What’s to stop that participant from shooting everybody else first? Some might consider this nitpicking, but it all goes to the world-building.

Why is this ceremony needed anyway? This is a technological landscape. Surely the Zhat Vash would be founded on scientific knowledge. Surely their lead, Oh (Tamlyn Tomita), could debrief members, as would occur with any other organisation. That’s how the future would work – technology, intelligence, science, information, rather than visions and prophecies.

These participants are obviously committed if they’re willing to risk insanity and suicide.

So why bother?

 

What the Fuck …?

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1987), Captain Kirk and his crew travel back to 1987. When they hear profanity, it bemuses them. They recognize what it is, but not how it works. By their time, profanity has become obsolete.

Not so in Star Trek: Picard. Profanity is everywhere. An admiral drops two f-bombs (naturally, they’re directed at Picard). Everybody casually swears. Why? What is it adding?

And that’s an important note: what does it add? Outside the answer of “shock value”, it adds nothing.

Like so much of this series, it’s a cheap representation of edginess.

 

A Sidenote: Starfleet and the Federation

Gene Roddenberry’s vision was of an idealistic future for humanity. The Federation is a benevolent organization comprised of different alien species. Humanity pursues self-betterment, rather than materialism. Some argue that this is too idealistic. Two counters to this:

  • well, this is the playground. If you want to change it, then you’re not in the same playground anymore.
  • there are ways to make it darker without making it trashy. E.g. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) was a darker episode involving conspiracies, assassination, and prejudice. But do we remember that for being an unholy shitfest?

This is the problem with the reinvention of Star Trek. It’s fine to want to tell darker, grittier stories, but there are ways to do it within established parameters.

 

Another Sidenote: How to Identify an Android

In one episode, Picard and Soji take refuge with Will Riker, Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), and their daughter Kestra (Lulu Wilson).

Riker identifies that Soji is Data’s daughter because, on one occasion, she tilts her head in the idiosyncratic way that Data used to.

That’s all it takes. A single head-tilt. Typically, up to this point, Soji has never tilted her head that way.

Who writes this shit and thinks it’s profound?

 

Showrunner Michael Chabon

In a recent article, showrunner Michael Chabon said he wanted to provoke and piss off Star Trek fans.

This reminds me of Rian Johnson’s stance going into The Last Jedi. He said you don’t give fans what they want.

My problem with this idiocy is if this is the way you approach your storytelling, you’re doing things for effect, rather than out of necessity.

Here’s a comparison: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999) is a darker representation of the Star Trek universe. There are a number of questionable acts. Do any of them feel like a cheap ploy? No. They’re organic, born out of the story.

An example: the Federation and the Klingons are at war with the Dominion. The Domininon are winning. Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) realises the only chance they have is if the Romulans can be pulled into the war. However, the Romulans have signed a non-aggression pact with the Dominion.

Sisko enlists the aid of Garak (Andrew Robinson), a former Cardassian spy. They plan to forge a recording that shows the Dominion leaders discussing a surprise attack against the Romulans. They give this recording to a Romulan senator, who takes it to verify its authenticity. Unbeknownst to Sisko, Garak plants a bomb on the senator’s ship, killing him.

When Sisko finds out, he angrily confronts Garak. Garak professes that the Romulans would’ve discovered that the recording was a fake. When the Romulans examine the wreckage and find the recording, they’ll attribute any queries about its authenticity to (damage from) the explosion. It’ll now implicate the Domininon, and the more they deny it the guiltier they’ll look.

Sisko begrudingly agrees that Garak is right – it was the only way to bring the Romulans in. Nothing else would’ve worked. Sisko records all this in a log, then deletes the log.

That’s dark and edgy and wholly justified as part of the ongoing story. It’s born out of the circumstances. It poses interesting moral questions: is the murder of one individual – even a member of an antagonistic government – justified if it helps you save other lives? You also feel in this episode that Sisko is going to carry this on his conscience for the rest of his life. It’ll haunt him. Unlike Jurati, who murdered Maddox, and all is good now. Or Seven, who went on a kill-spree in a bar.

Deep Space Nine did some seriously good storytelling. It went places you didn’t expect. It has dark moments. It has people acting unStarfleet. But it never didn’t feel like Star Trek. It never felt as if stuff was happening purely as shock tactics.

Nothing that happens in Star Trek: Picard is rooted in the plot. It exists to be unStar Trek. It exists to provoke that reaction. Then (some) people see it and because it’s not something they recognise, because it’s not something that sits within those established parameters, they’re fooled into thinking it’s doing something meaningful and different and building on the franchise.

It’s not. It just exists to fool you into thinking it does. It’s doing stuff that should never be in the franchise.

Chabon claims that people initially loathed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager when they first came out, but grew to appreciate them as time went on. I don’t know anybody who hated these shows as they came out. Deep Space Nine is brilliant. Voyager is mostly bland and squandered its premise but is inoffensive. All these years later, I think the same. I know other people who do also. And all of us think Picard (and Discovery) are appalling.

I know people who were apologists for the first half of the first season of Discovery, but then abandoned it once the season was done, and didn’t bother checking out season two or watching Picard – these are people who loved Star Trek: The Next Generation, loved Jean-Luc Picard, and they couldn’t be enticed back.

This is the landscape of Star Trek as it sits now.

These shows aren’t going to appreciate with time.

 

The Finale

Picard and his crew are on the Synth planet. The Synths are calling some artificial powerhouse to come destroy all the Organics.

Two-hundred-and-eighteen Romulan warbirds – yes, 218 (and this is the Empire who needed help evacuating) – show up. Then a similarly sized Starfleet armada shows up.

Who’s commanding the armada?

William Riker.

Riker and Deanna Troi had two children, Thaddeus and Kestra. Thaddeus developed some bullshit future condition. Riker and Troi then moved to Nepenthine – a planet known for its regenerative properties – in 2391. Thaddeus dies anyway. (Groan – typical dark future for legacy characters.)

It’s now 2399. The year 2391 tells us that Riker’s been retired at least eight years.

Why would Starfleet give command of an armada to a retired captain? Not a Fleet Admiral. Not a current captain. But somebody who’s retired?

This is an armada of several hundred ships that:

  1. might go to war with hundreds of Romulan ships
  2. might be about to go to war with this advanced synthentic life form that’s coming through the wormhole to destroy the Organics.

And you want the person in command to be somebody who wouldn’t be familiar with current ship technology, wouldn’t be familiar with current tactics, wouldn’t be familiar with the political climate, and only has a superficial understanding of the threat?

It exemplifies the way these stories are written: things happen because they need to happen and that’s all there is to it. Do not question it. Don’t look under it, to see what it’s built on. Don’t leave your brain on.

Credit to Jonathan Frakes for selling the hell out of his performances. He’s the only likeable character in this. (This includes Jake-Luc.)

Anyway, Soji’s calling the Big Bad and a wormhole opens up in space. The big portals in the sky have become a clichéd means of threatening some great evil. Marvel’s already exhausted its possibilities in their movies. So this is as original as Star Trek: Picard gets (and there have been a number of claims that it’s copied other sources).

Some terrible-looking mechanical tentacles start to emerge. Tentacles.

Now this is sounding like some Ed Wood science fiction movie: Attack of the Tentacles from Dimension X.

Picard makes a plea. Soji changes her mind. She closes the portal. The tentacles disappear.

Everybody leaves. That’s how easy it is.

I don’t get any of this. Why would the tentacle intelligence – if it’s so advanced – need to be summoned? Why wouldn’t it just be monitoring where Organics are growing too advanced? Given the plot, all Organics are considered evil. So why even bother allowing them to develop a society that becomes a technological threat? Wouldn’t you just go from planet to planet, sterilizing organic life so it can never become a threat? And then you close a portal and that’s the end of it? That’s all it takes? These things are still out there. Given they were in the process of being summoned, and that summons ends abruptly, wouldn’t they assume that the Organics had silenced the Synths, and come anyway to exact retribution?

Worst of all, Picard sacrifices his life. His new friends grieve him for five minutes. But on the Synth planet, they restore him to life by infusing his consciousness into a synthetic body that’s exactly like the original. What was the point of the sacrifice and the grieving if it’s just going to be undone? What’s the point of dying if he’s going to come back the same? So we could get five minutes of grieving?

When Riker and Troi talk about their deceased son, Thaddeus, they said they could have used a synthetic host that could’ve saved his life, but synthetics were outlawed. Picard also has a bullshit future brain malaise and they save him with a synthetic body. Does he have the same condition as Thaddeus? Who is this kid’s father?

Oh fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. This is when you swear. When the depth of this shit not only exasperates you, but defecates on its legacy.

Star Trek: Picard enters the realm of objective terribleness. Like a number of franchise properties, I don’t know how anybody finds its plotting, its characterisations, and its narrative defensible. This blog barely explores it, and I’m 4,100 words in.

To the people currently running Star Trek: please stop running Star Trek.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *