Star Trek: Picard is a flawed show that did a great thing — it gave TNG a proper ending
Star Trek is tied in with many of my happiest, most valued early memories. I did not want those beautiful memories further wounded by a crass exploitation of beloved characters.
I've held off writing my review of Star Trek: Picard's first season for two important, but unrelated, reasons. The first is that, with everything going on in the world, writing about a sci-fi show felt trivial. The second was almost the inverse of that: this show means so much to me that I honestly felt like I needed to give it some distance before I could fairly appraise it. The pandemic, alas, hasn’t gone anywhere, and probably won't for a while, so further delay seems silly. As for the second, I recently sat down and rewatched the entirety of the first season, and feel ready to actually offer some thoughts on it.
But this will be more than that — it'll also function as a bit of a history of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also my love letter to it.
And why I've said goodbye to it.
If you follow my writing at all, or my Twitter account, you'll know I'm an unabashed Trekkie. Normally I lean into it with a bit of mischievous delight, tongue slightly in cheek. I am well aware of how geeky my total passion and devotion to Trek is, and I wear that with pride, but also full awareness of the nerdery. I guess what I'm saying is, most of the time, I'm in on the joke. But, like, God, I really do love it. Sincerely. I'm actually not really a sci-fi fanatic in general. I do enjoy a lot of sci-fi, but there's a lot that's not my cup of tea or that I've never bothered sampling. I'm not a sci-fi guy who likes Trek the most. I'm a Trekkie who also likes some other sci-fi.
A lot of Trek is garbage. A franchise this big isn't going to bat a thousand. Some of the movies are duds. I'd say two entire series are basically duds, too — Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: Discovery have had the odd good moment, but overall, you can skip 'em unless you're a completist. But in its totality, since I've been just a little kid, Star Trek has been my thing. It's my pop culture comfort food, my idea of a grand adventure, and some of its characters have been role models all my life. If that sounds odd to you, all I can say is that while Trek can be bad, at times, it can also be very, very good. And the good has made my life better. It's probably made me better.
I was born in the early '80s, during the era of the original Star Trek movies. I was a kid when The Next Generation (TNG) was on the air. TNG was, to me, what the original series was to millions before me. After TNG, there was Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (DS9) and then Star Trek: Voyager (VOY). Then Enterprise, which, as I noted above, left me cold. But this era was an absolute feast of Star Trek, and while Trekkies continue to debate whether TNG or DS9 was the superior show, I don't think there's any debate that TNG was the culturally dominant one. It was a ratings juggernaut and hands-down the best known part of the franchise. The characters of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard and his operations officer, Lt. Commander Data, an android who aspires to become ever more like the humans in whose image he was created, were played by superb actors (Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner, respectively). These two men, and the rest of a solid cast, were on the air together for seven television seasons and four films that followed. It was a golden age for Star Trek, and arguably, for television sci-fi.
But it ended on a sour note.
TNG's season seven-year run on television was a blowout success. The four movies were creatively mixed, as the TNG magic didn't translate well onto the big screen, but all performed well at the box office ... until the last one. Star Trek: Nemesis, released in 2002, was the final film in the TNG franchise, and was both creatively and commercially disappointing. It was intended from the start to bring TNG to a close — at the end of the film, much of the crew is dispersing after 15 years together, seeking out new adventures, and Data, poor Data, is dead, having sacrificed himself to save Capt. Picard's life. It wasn't a bad death, per se, but it was rushed, and coming as it was at the end of a lousy film, it left a bad taste in many a Trekkie's mouth.
This is the end? This is our last memory of Capt. Picard and Data? This is how a sweeping story we've been watching for 15 years wraps up? A show that had such incredible highs is going out on film this low? I felt robbed. I wasn't alone.
Time passed, and television changed. The streaming era arrived. Star Trek: Discovery premiered in 2017, and though I'd argue it was a creative failure, it was obviously a commercial success. Despite high production costs, the show has been repeatedly renewed, meaning it's making money. And though CBS hasn't disclosed much financial information or online viewership numbers, they've greenlit a series of other shows, clearly indicating that they believe there's money to be made here. While Star Trek may be struggling creatively, it’s obviously doing well financially.
Star Trek: Picard was one of those shows ordered after Discovery’s commercial success. Its announcement was a shock to Trekkies everywhere. It had been 18 years since we'd last seen Patrick Stewart in the role of Jean-Luc Picard, and he had said more than once that he felt he'd done all he wanted to as that character and did not intend to return. CBS was able to convince him to come back by offering him assurances that the character would be in a very different place than when we'd last seen him (a huge paycheque may also have played a part).
But gosh, did I ever have mixed feelings when I heard Picard was coming back.
On the one hand, there was intense excitement, bordering on joy. Like, holy shit — Capt. Picard was coming back! A very dear personal friend of mine was involved in the production, so I was delighted for them, as well, and confident in their vision. But on the other hand, I was very, very nervous. I was afraid that they'd ruin Picard somehow. That they'd do what the final film, Nemesis, had done — put a sour note at the end of what had been a wonderful journey.
I had to do some self-examination as I pondered the return of Picard. We all get set in our ways as we age. We become more resistant to new things, and more defensive about the comfortable and familiar. I have no doubt this was responsible for some of my trepidation. Star Trek means a lot to me — TNG means a lot to me, in particular. It was the Star Trek of my childhood. It was the show I’d watch with my family, that I got my sister into, that I watched after school with my friends. Probably my best-ever Christmas was when I received a shocking amount of TNG toys, manufactured by Playmates — I still have most of them, and my kids enjoy them still. (My still-functional tricorder, with fresh batteries, is sitting within arm’s reach of where I write this, in fact … ditto my type-one phaser.)
Star Trek, particularly TNG, is tied in with many of my happiest, most valued early memories. I did not want those beautiful memories further wounded by a crass exploitation of beloved characters and stories.
Oh, God, please, I thought. Don’t ruin this for me.
As the premiere date for Picard approached, I decided I wanted three things from the show. The first and most important was that I wanted it to honour the legacy of Jean-Luc Picard and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also the devotion myself and millions of other fans had for both. Nemesis had been an insult, and I didn't want that again. The next thing I wanted, obviously, was for the show to be good on its own merits — I wanted to just tune in each week and enjoy it. And third, I mean, hey. I'm a Trek nerd. And I wanted some fan service! Play a few of those hits for me!
So Picard, really, is something I'd be judging on two entirely different levels: as a part of an existing Star Trek legacy, but also as a new addition to it. It's a new show, and must be judged on its own merits, but it's also a direct continuation of TNG, and must be judged on that basis, as well.
And my dear readers, something funny happened. I scored the show quite differently depending on which of those metrics we're looking at.
The good news: Star Trek: Picard absolutely honoured the legacy of Star Trek: The Next Generation and of Jean-Luc Picard in particular. Picard picks up 20 years after Nemesis, closely tracking with the real-life difference of 18 years. The characters and the universe have changed considerably during that time, and in believable ways. Picard is an instantly recognizable part of the Star Trek universe, in the best ways, but it has also allowed for growth and evolution. The show is not stagnant or stale. The United Federation of Planets, Earth, the Romulans, Starfleet — they're familiar, but different, changed by the passage of time and some of the turbulent, tragic events that occurred "off screen." Picard the man is particularly changed, and in ways that are sad. The years since we've seen him last have not been kind to the character. When Picard the show begins, Picard himself is old, bitter and sad, in failing health, long since retired from, and estranged from, Starfleet, to which he'd dedicated his life. He has grown reclusive, and remains deeply upset over the death of Data. He simply hasn't been able to move on.
This was a gut punch. I'd preferred to imagine Picard's post-Nemesis years being rich and rewarding ones. Picard presents a different story for the man than what I’d expected, but it's a believable, touching one, even if not what I'd hoped for. It fits with TNG, and Stewart nails it.
So yes, on my top priority, the show was everything I'd hoped for. Nothing that had come before is cheapened or abused by Picard. The writers clearly revere TNG as much as I do, and treated its legacy with all due respect and care. The show also does a terrific job setting up an interesting new era for Star Trek shows to continue to explore. There are rich storytelling opportunities to be found in the new setting of Picard, and I hope very much some of those stories get told. And the little fan service touches I wanted? I got them. I was delighted. They were respectful, sometimes even subtle. They didn't get in the way of the story, but they scratched my itch.
So far, so good.
But does the show work itself, as a show?
Yeah, overall, it does. But it had some major problems.
My wife is not a Star Trek fan, but to my surprise, offered to watch Picard. Perhaps she was curious because of my obvious excitement. Perhaps she just knew I'd be down in the basement with her or without her, so she might as well tag along on Star Trek night. And an interesting thing happened — we both ended up feeling very similarly about Picard. I brought in decades of uber-fan knowledge and huge emotional investment, and she came in with basically zero, zip, expectations. But we agreed very much in our final analysis: Picard has a strong start and then trips all over itself in the home stretch.
The first season of Picard is 10 episodes long, and starts by getting us caught up with what has happened to Picard since we last saw him on the bridge of the Enterprise. He was promoted to admiral, fell out with Starfleet over a controversial decision, and retired in protest. He's been living quietly at his family's vineyard in France, staying out of history's way, when he is suddenly sucked into a situation he does not understand. What at first appears to be a murder — a tragic crime, but a simple one — is quickly revealed to be a deeper mystery, and one that has particular emotional resonance for Picard himself. The first few episodes of the season focus on this — Picard the man, his life and how he finally comes out of his depressed funk to be a hero again. And my wife and I both enjoyed these episodes a lot — a lot. Despite our different vantage points, it worked for us both.
The mid-part of the season sees Picard leave Earth, in company with new characters, in search of clues to solve the growing mystery. And my wife and I enjoyed these episodes, too.
But the back-end of the season, particularly the final two episodes, are just ... good Lord. They're a mess.
Something that Picard got right in the early episodes was that it kept things simple. It was a Star Trek show, yes, and unapologetically so. But it was an accessible one. There was a story that anyone could follow, and with Patrick Stewart at the centre of it all, how could it not be good? But the end of the season just became bloated with too many characters, too many plot lines all needing resolution, and it stumbles and falls badly. After the second-to-last episode, my wife told me with a shake of her head, "I have no idea what's happening anymore." She assumed that she'd gotten lost in some of the sci-fi twists and turns. But I didn't understand what was going on, either. I knew what a transwarp conduit is, and why you need chronometric shields when you're inside one. I know about the Borg hivemind and cloaking devices. So I could keep up with all that stuff. But the plot itself had become convoluted. Indeed, it wasn't until I recently rewatched it that I put some pieces of the puzzle together — oh, gosh, so that's why that character is there! And that's how that happened! And these were basic plot points I simply couldn’t track the first time.
Also, some genuinely good things they had going on — including a minor character brought back from TNG to nearly great effect — don't really ever fully pay off. They're squeezed in too hurriedly with other stuff. Good stuff got lost in the shuffle.
There's two things that could have been done to fix this. Another two episodes would have allowed for some of these problems to be smoothed out by simply not rushing them. I'm not sure if the problem was budgetary or concerns over burning out Patrick Stewart — he's 80 years old, after all — but 10 episodes was what they had to work with, and they didn't quite stick the landing.
So the other thing they could have done is get out the red pen and just start mercilessly cutting things.
Going through it for the second time, knowing how bloated the ending got, I was watching with my editor's eye. And there are two entire characters — major ones! — I'd write out of the show entirely. Poof, gone. Whatever they did to advance the plot could be easily reassigned to other characters or simply written around. Some plot lines needed to be cut off way sooner — one antagonist character should have died two episodes before she did, and everyone would have been better off for it. A few other plot points could have been sacrificed so that other, better plot points could live and breathe more freely.
Overall, I liked Picard as a show. I liked most of the actors. I liked most of the characters. I love the overall tone and setting! The story it told probably didn't quite live up to the promise of the early episodes, but it was still engaging. Its final-episodes stumbling was a drag, but not a fatal one. It was a good first season, if not a great one, and I'm excited to see what comes next.
But there's something very important that Picard did, and did well. It ended TNG.
I've mostly avoided spoilers above, out of respect for readers who may be deciding whether or not to try Picard out based on what I had to say. Consider yourself warned, there are massive spoilers below. Sorry. It's unavoidable.
Star Trek: Picard is, of course, about Jean-Luc Picard. But as the season began airing last year, I realized very quickly that Picard was actually about Data. Data haunts every episode. Brent Spiner reprises the role in some dream sequences, de-aged appropriately (if imperfectly) with the help of CGI. As noted above, Picard, when the series picks up, is unhappily retired and still tormented by grief at the loss of his friend. Data, after all, was supposed to be immortal — he could have lived forever, but sacrificed himself to give Picard, all too human, a few more years of flesh-and-blood existence. As Picard begins, the retired admiral is given a grim medical diagnosis. He hasn't long to live, and feels that he has wasted many of the years that Data's heroism bought him. This is a big part of what energizes him to go out into space once more, and do some good. He is trying to earn what Data sacrificed for him — he sacrificed his forever.
This sense of guilt and duty animates Picard's whole journey in that first season. In the final episode, Picard dies, and his consciousness is uploaded into sophisticated computers by androids built in Data's image. The essence of Picard, stored in these computers while his body is treated (it's complicated!) meets the essence of Data. A fully conscious version of Data, built using a memory backup done shortly before his death, has existed for years, as program running inside a computer hidden from prying eyes. This gives the men a chance to speak, to say goodbye — something they never got in Nemesis. It's the emotional farewell that the two men never got to have in that disappointing film, where Data's death was rushed to advance the plot with only minutes to go before the end credits rolled.
For those who watched TNG, and loved it, this is what they were waiting for. This is what they never got in Nemesis. Two great actors, playing two rich characters, sit together by a fire and discuss their friendship and their love for each other. Picard's tortured conscience is eased by Data assuring him that he has never regretted giving his life for his captain. But Data has a request for Picard: once he is healed and his consciousness restored to his body, Data asks him to deactivate the computer holding his program.
After all, Data has only wanted to be human, and humans, in the end, die. Data cannot die in the computer holding his essence. He is timeless and forever, existing in a kind of benign quantum purgatory, and wishes to come closer to humanity by becoming mortal, and passing on to whatever is next.
After an emotional but dignified goodbye, Picard agrees, and powers down Data's computer. In the simulated world where their consciousnesses met, as Data dies, this time (we assume) for good, the essence of Picard, in his familiar old Starfleet captain’s uniform, sits with Data and holds his hand as Data’s world fades to black.
And as I watched that scene, I realized that it was over. TNG was over. It didn't end 19 years ago, with a crappy movie that bombed at the box office. It ended in 2020, when Lt. Commander Data, one of the finest characters in sci-fi history and a decent, gentle man, died a peaceful death with his friend and captain sitting lovingly at his side.
Star Trek will continue. The character of Jean-Luc Picard will continue, for at least two more seasons. New shows will probably be set in that era, and I suspect we'll see more of the TNG cast reprise their roles. Maybe some from DS9 and more from VOY, too. And that'll be great.
But that'll be new. That'll be something else. Picard's second season can start telling those new stories, because season one had a job to do: it had to give Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Lt. Commander Data in particular, the ending they always deserved but never got. A character I loved, and a show, has been given a respectful send off, and they can be mourned without regrets.
This was, I think, necessary. The issue of whether Picard was going to be a TNG reunion loomed large over the entire first season of the show. Some of those old characters do make appearances, and it felt good to see them again. But the show's writers were very careful to avoid falling into the reunion or relaunch trap. Picard is its own show — an imperfect one, as I've said, but it has done an honourable thing. It's given TNG a clean, loving and respectful ending — and that frees up the franchise to go in new directions.
I don't know what those directions will be. I hope for the best, but fear we might get more like Discovery — expensive, beautifully filmed shows with no heart and soul, no sense of purpose and, frankly, nothing in particular to say. But no matter what comes next, Star Trek: Picard did a beautiful thing. It ended TNG well. And I am more grateful for that than I could have imagined I'd be. It hurts to say goodbye, but at least now we had the chance to do so properly.
And now that TNG is truly over, given a loving and fitting sendoff, Star Trek can do what it has needed to do for almost two decades — move on. Boldly, if you will. But forward.
Let's see what's out there.
All images above are the property of CBS and are used here for review purposes only.