This post contains full spoilers for the first season of Star Trek: Picard, whose finale debuted today on CBS All Access.
Midway through the Star Trek: Picard finale, the show’s dying title character realizes that he needs to get into orbit in a hurry, and the only person available to fly his team’s rickety starship there is himself. “Make it so,” robotics expert Agnes Jurati tells him, and the sheer delight on Jean-Luc Picard’s face at hearing his famous command thrown back at him almost makes the whole 10-episode experience worth it on its own.
This is a credit, as always, to the genius of Sir Patrick Stewart in his most iconic role. But it also speaks to the narrative muddle that Picard turned out to be. If not for how dazzling Stewart could be in moments like that, the series wouldn’t have seemed capable of taking flight.
The show’s early episodes were a bit slow-moving, but still intriguing as we got to see how much Picard had changed since Star Trek: Nemesis, the final film featuring the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast. The story arc laid out by showrunner Michael Chabon and the creative team seemed fairly clear: Picard discovered android sisters Dahj and Sohji (both played by Isa Briones) were the technological offspring of the late Commander Data (Brent Spiner, appearing in dream sequences), and were in need of his protection in a galaxy that had grown hostile to artificial lifeforms. From there, the season sprawled out to involve the wreckage of the Romulan home world (a plot point from the first J.J. Abrams Star Trek film), a captured Borg cube (overseen by Hugh, a former Borg drone introduced in one of Next Generation‘s best episodes), the lives of Picard’s new crewmates, and more.
To borrow the title of one of Next Generation‘s most famous installments, the Picard creators attempted to have the best of both worlds when it came to telling its story: a complicated, season-long story arc, but also relatively standalone adventures to give each hour shape and purpose. This is an approach more serialized dramas should use, but the balance here rarely felt right, as the big story and the little ones kept getting in each other’s way. It was fun, for instance, to see a glorified heist episode that required Picard to wear an eye patch and mercenary ship captain Cristobal Rios (Santiago Cabrera) to dress like a Seventies pimp. And the series’ best hour, “Nepenthe,” had Picard and Sohji hiding out with the retired Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), reflecting on how different their lives had become since their Next Generation adventures. But interludes like that always seemed to derail the pacing of the main arc, making its twists and turns harder to follow in the bargain. (By the time the sisters’ true origin was explained, I had largely lost the thread.)
Like Star Trek: Discovery, the first Trek series on CBS All Access(*), the Picard dialogue offered the kind of casual profanity that would have been banned from Next Generation (“I said I would never do it again, and I fucking did it again,” Rios says in the finale of his periodic bouts of idealism). Curse words are meant to be signifiers of mature material, but Picard didn’t feel appreciably more adult — as in, sophisticated — than its predecessors. At times, it was even less. The show gave the supporting characters huge emotional moments — Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) has to temporarily plug back into the Borg collective to stop the Romulans from killing everyone on the cube; Agnes (Alison Pill) is brainwashed into murdering her mentor/lover — and then raced through their aftermath. (Seven is able to unplug again within moments, and seems unaffected by the experience.) As an explicit time-out from the race to find Sohji’s home world, “Nepenthe” allowed itself to linger on how everyone was feeling, and was far more compelling as a result. Too often, though, Picard was biting off more story than it could satisfyingly chew.
(*) Like a lot of streamers, All Access is offering a month’s free subscription during this period of social distancing, which makes it easier to watch the whole thing.
And yet throughout this muddle of reversing loyalties and giant space orchids, there was Patrick Stewart acting his heart out. Back in the day, his raw talent was often the only thing making the first two TNG seasons at all watchable. Picard never did anything remotely as bad as TNG could get, but its leading man nonetheless had to elevate the material more frequently than you might hope for decades later.
Stewart is particularly grand late in the finale. Picard appears to sacrifice his life to prevent a war, only to find himself in a digital simulation with his old comrade Data, whose memories were salvaged after he sacrificed his life to save Picard in Nemesis. Picard learns that he will get to live on in a new body(*), while Data asks his former captain to grant him the gift of a permanent death like the human beings he always envied. A reborn Picard recites a passage from The Tempest (a speech Stewart has performed often on stage in the past) and unplugs the simulation, as we see Data lie down on a couch, comforted by a younger, uniformed version of Picard, before both break down into pixels, and then the blackness of the world beyond the one we know.
(*) We’re told that Picard’s new android form — frequently referred to as a golem, a figure of Jewish myth (and a prominent figure from Chabon’s award-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) — has no superpowers like Data’s, and that it has not made him immortal. So it’s basically just a Get Out of One Death Free card for the writers to play, as well as the latest example in a season full of them about characters having multiple copies. (See also Brent Spiner’s other role, as the previously-unmentioned son of Data’s creator.)
It’s a lovely moment, and one that makes the season feel in many ways like its primary goal was to give Data a better death than the one he got in the universally-derided Nemesis. (If nothing else, he says a proper farewell this time, rather than a whispered “Goodbye” after rescuing Picard.) But the story required to get us to that point proved too unwieldy and overstuffed, even as it could be excellent in individual moments.
After Stewart’s performance, the show was most consistently good at letting us get to know Picard’s new shipmates: Rios, with his collection of holographic crew member doppelgangers (including an engineer who, of course, had a Scottish accent); Raffi (Michelle Hurd), Picard’s burnout sidekick from the final days of his Starfleet career; and Elnor (Evan Evagora), an orphan who became Picard’s surrogate son, and the only male member of a sect of Romulan samurai-nuns. By the time the season ended with Rios’ ship having a more or less full crew (including Seven, who it’s implied is getting romantically involved with Raffi), this group felt like a durable foundation for further adventures. (Another season is already in the works.) The season closes with the crew at their stations on the bridge, now all wearing Starfleet insignias again (or, for some, like Sohji, Agnes, and Elnor, for the first time), prepared to explore strange new worlds, and seek out new life, and new civilizations.
As happened earlier in the season, we hear the classic Next Generation fanfare, and Picard issues his other famous order, “Engage” — but this time with more confidence and happiness. He has been given a reprieve from the brain abnormality he thought would soon kill him, and in Sohji and the rest of this rag-tag group, he has found new purpose and a new workplace family. It seems not at all a bad start to the show Star Trek: Picard can become now that it’s bumpy origin story is out of the way. But the second season would do well to either figure out a stronger and clearer story arc, or simply go back to the episodic adventures that typified Picard’s first show at its best.
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