What does Admiral Jean-Luc Picard's return to the vast galaxy of television tell us?
First and foremost, it tells us that Patrick Stewart’s cool, erudite Starfleet commander from Star Trek: The Next Generation remains one of the most memorable characters of the late 20th century. Thanks to seven seasons of The Next Generation and the four feature films in which he appears, Picard is the third most-recognized name in Trekdom, behind only Kirk and Spock. Arguably, he’s the only figure not in the original 1966 NBC series who could get his name into the title of a Star Trek show today.
To the more cynically inclined, the very existence of Star Trek: Picard tells us that the show's corporate creator — the post-merger ViacomCBS — has run out of ideas. Now it’s just squeezing money out of one of its most enduring intellectual properties, which has already spawned a dozen Star Trek movies and over 700 hours of television. That includes Discovery, the 2017 series that overcame a rocky development path to put the company’s streaming service, CBS All Access, on the map, much as The Mandalorian recently did for Disney+ upon its launch.
The cynics have a point. And they're not wrong to note that, unlike The Mandalorian — a fresh and exciting bit of storytelling that introduces new actors, characters, and collectibles to a venerable franchise — Picard is built around a shopworn character played by the same actor, who turns 80 this year and hasn’t appeared in a Star Trek movie in two decades. He's beloved by millions, to be sure, but how much can we ask of one man, even one as supremely talented as Sir Patrick?
Well, it turns out we can ask him to launch a sequel. That’s because Star Trek: Picard premieres tonight on CBS All Access with an enjoyable and accessible pilot episode, one that brings the iconic admiral down to earth (literally), gives him lots of great dialogue, and reunites him with an old ally and monstrous adversary that even those of us not schooled in all things Trek will remember.
It’s been 30 years since Picard left active duty and returned to terra firma. The man who once declared that “the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives” seems to be content doing just that. He lives out his days at a sun-kissed country home overlooking acres of vineyard irrigated by flying robots, drinking tea, and penning books of history.
But his life of leisure comes crashing down faster than you can say “24th-century news cycle,” when he agrees to an interview with a TV journalist carrying a secret agenda. (Not everything has evolved since our present time, it seems.) Picard thinks she’s come to talk about the dangers of the supernova, which sounds like a metaphor for present-day climate change. But she’s actually arranged the interview to spring this question on him: “Why did you really quit Starfleet?”
Slowly building a head of steam, Picard launches into a tirade about the shameful, long-ago military retreat that forced him, as an act of conscience, to leave the service. There’s a lot of science-fictiony backstory involved, but when he invokes “Dunkirk,” he is met with a blank stare from his interrogator.
“You, my dear, have no idea what Dunkirk is, right?” Picard says, as he realizes she has never read his books. “You are a stranger to history. A stranger to war. You just wave your hand and it goes away. Well, it’s not so easy for those who died. And it was not so easy for those who were left behind."
“We’re done here,” he announces, as he gets up and leaves.
In fairness to the TV journalist of the future, it wasn’t clear to me whether Picard is referring to the massive battle on the coast of France in 1940 or the USS Dunkirk, a vessel in the Federation Starfleet that has appeared in a couple of Trek-themed video games. We’ll find out soon enough. As he did on Discovery, Picard producer Alex Kurtzman appears to be creating a major storyline that will carry us through the show’s first season and possibly into the second (which CBS has already ordered).
But Stewart’s dramatic reply is the episode’s best demonstration of why, after all these years, so many people wanted him back in the Star Trek world. With his Shakespearean gravitas and avuncular screen presence, he easily projects the values of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision — moral rectitude, curiosity about new worlds, and an abiding hope that with discovery comes progress. I needn’t dwell on how values like that need an advocate today, and if it comes from an old actor playing an interplanetary hero, so be it.
Meanwhile, a parallel story introduces Dahj (Isa Briones), a young woman with nascent superpowers who comes to Picard’s estate seeking help. Her sudden arrival, combined with the fresh reminder of why he left Starfleet, will be enough to shake the admiral out of retirement. When exactly he slips into his shiny new admiral’s uniform remains to be seen.
It’s only in the pilot’s closing scene that the action leaves our humble planet and shifts to the galaxy, where the final shot is of an entity that I think many of us will recognize right away. It wasn’t quite the moment where Baby Yoda knocked us all out of our seats, but the reveal says a lot about where Picard is heading. Even if I got lost amidst the pilot’s lengthy historical exposition (I guess Mars isn’t a thing anymore?), in time I’m sure I will be assimilated — er, I mean filled in.
Much of the pilot episode is told in dreams and visions. Kurtzman has promised a more “psychological” show in Picard, and while the mind magic here strikes me (an admittedly casual viewer) as more Star Wars than Star Trek, it’s a perfectly fine way to move the story along. Case in point is the pilot’s opening scene, where Picard dreams he is playing chess with the android Data (Brett Spiner), his old TNG mate, who was killed off in the 2002 movie Star Trek: Nemesis, which also happens to be the last time Stewart played Picard.
When it is his turn, Picard asks Data if he would like tea. He takes his time pouring out a cup and adding cream. Even a synthetic life form loses patience after a while, and finally Data irritatedly asks, “Why are you stalling, Captain?”
Picard responds, ruefully, “I don’t want the game to end.”
Star Trek Picard premieres today on CBS All Access. Future episodes will be released every Thursday for the next ten weeks.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.