The first episode of the new season of "Star Trek: Picard" may not initially inspire much hope. The previous two seasons of "Picard" have been sloppy, violent, poorly written, and were filled with "dark," murderous characters. The utopian ideals of "Star Trek" and its appealing, unformed sense of propriety were gone. This new show was to feature fighting and death, and introduce bizarre technological concepts that felt out of place even in the wild, technology-driven future of "Star Trek." Rebuilding an android's entire memory from a single speck of his body, for instance. Not an episode would pass without at least one character taking up arms and killing someone.
The new season of "Picard" has boasted a reunion of the core cast "Star Trek: The Next Generation" — Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, LeVar Burton, Brent Spiner, and Michael Dorn — but if they were to all be depressed killers or drug-addicted vigilantes in the spirit of this series so far, then it would be a wasted opportunity to examine their lives. "Broody, unstoppable action badass" may be the most boring character type still commonly employed by modern screenwriters.
For a moment, it looks like that's where this first episode, called "The Next Generation," is going. Beverly Crusher (McFadden) is on board her own starship with a mysterious young man named Jack (Ed Speelers), being pursued by mysterious masked assailants. The assailants beam on board Crusher's ship, looking for something. Crusher, previously a compassionate and mature character, takes up a phaser machine gun and kills off the intruders. McFadden may have had a great time finally playing an action hero, but, golly it does not bode well for this season.
Luckily, that trepidation wears off over the course of the next few scenes.
The Worst Is Behind Us
When audiences first see Picard (Stewart), he is at his chateau in France, hastily giving away all his possessions. He announces that he no longer needs to look to his past to find thrills and that he requires no legacy. These are utterly refreshing words to be spoken aloud in what is essentially a legacy TV series. "Star Trek: Picard," it states up front, is not a series about recollection or nostalgia. Indeed, a character like Picard doesn't strike Trekkies as the type to wallow in his past. When he says "I need a new adventure," not only does it denote continued forward motion for the character, but for the franchise at large.
His adventure comes when his old Enterprise communicator chirrups, containing a message from Dr. Crusher, asking for help. She is located out at the edge of Federation space and requires assistance. Will Riker (Frakes) is in town for a Federation holiday called Frontier Day, and he and Picard converse about how tiresome it is to make nostalgic speeches. They aim to help Dr. Crusher by more or less hijacking the U.S.S. Titan-A, a starship that Riker once commanded, but has since been retrofitted and given a new captain.
If they're like me, many Trekkies will likely breathe a sigh of relief at the mention of their starship-forward scheme. The previous seasons of "Picard" didn't take place on starships, and the characters weren't in uniform. It was, until now, an "off the grid" version of "Star Trek." The formalism and propriety of starship living, however, has always been a core component of the franchise. "Picard" proved that moving action off of starships can leave the characters strangely adrift.
Life On A Ship
By moving back onto a ship — surrounding the characters with familiar LCARS computer panels, color-coded uniforms, and a chain of command — this new season … well, to use a cliched phrase, feels like "Star Trek" again. The cameras slow down to look at ships. The episode's music (which heavily re-uses a lot of Jerry Goldsmith's scores from older "Star Trek" feature films) blasts awe-inspiring fanfares over glory shots of starship hulls. There are earnest attempts to make this season of "Picard" contain an element of cosmic awe and technological affection.
On board the U.S.S. Titan-A is first officer Annika Hansen, aka Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), who has turned over a new leaf. In previous seasons, she was a murderous bounty hunter. A career in Starfleet makes more sense for the characters. She isn't happy, however, as her captain is the gruff and bitter Capt. Shaw (Todd Stashwick). Capt. Shaw is a wonderful character. His bluntness belies not villainy, but a different command style than Picard, Riker, or even old-school Capt. Kirk. His adherence to protocol is frustrating for Riker and Picard who fully intend to redirect his ship and go rogue, but it's an understandable and relatable character quirk. He's the kind of character one loves to hate. Doubtless, Trekkies can look forward to witnessing his eventual confrontation with Seven, or his capacity to work in a group.
Shaw initially refuses to help, but Seven — resentful — goes behind his back, delivering Riker and Picard to the edge of Federation space. On the way, Picard and Riker talk about how their hands or knees don't work well, and how they need to urinate frequently. How kind of "Picard" to recall that its title character is over 100 years old.
The Action Stuff
While all this is happening, Raffi (Michelle Hurd) is working on a plot of her own. Now an undercover agent for an unseen Starfleet contact, Raffi has infiltrated the criminal underground — she had connections after years of drug addiction — and is seeking a mysterious weapon stolen from a Federation space station. The weapon is, more or less, a portal gun from the video game "Portal," but powerful enough to swallow up buildings and starships. Raffi witnesses the Starfleet recruitment building getting sucked into the ground, only to be dropped again from a mile up. The devastation is massive, but "Picard" has the good taste to continue with the investigation rather than wallow in death and tragedy.
The episode ends with Picard and Riker on board Crusher's ship, meeting the mysterious young man Jack, who announces he is her son (odd that he's named after her dead first husband). It's Jack the masked baddies at the start wanted. Jack is brash and criminal — definitely a Han Solo type. A massive pointy warship appears out of a nebula. Cut to black. It's all very exciting.
"Picard" is clearly being written less like a mystery series a la "Lost" and more like a feature film. The change is appreciated. Stringing along a season-long mystery is a frustrating way to watch TV; just because it worked for "Lost" doesn't mean it's going to every time, or ever again. The opening episode of "Picard" doesn't so much plant the seeds for mysteries, but introduces elements to be explored later. We'll get to know Jack, of course. We'll catch up with Crusher. And, most importantly, we'll respect the relationship between these characters.
This new season is so, so much better than what came before.
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