”Be the Captain they remember.”
It seems that, as far as the viewers are concerned, there’s been a real problem with Star Trek and ageing. Look at all the jokes about ‘baldly going’ and ‘oldly going’. An episode of The Simpsons did a spoof called Star Trek XII: So Very Tired, which poked fun at the original USS Enterprise crew’s advancing years (and waistlines). It does appear very much like the audience’s Final Frontier is allowing their heroes to grow old as we grow old; in an ideal world, age should not weary them, nor the years condemn, apparently.
Star Trek actually tried to address this issue relatively early on. In Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, which came out in 1982 – only 16 years after the TV show first aired – they’d already dropped figure-hugging spandex uniforms, going for a more forgiving military-style tunic. In addition, they even made a point of Captain Kirk needing to wear a pair of reading glasses (which, oddly enough, he never seemed to do in later movies), showing that there was no point trying to pretend they were preserved in aspic.
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Perhaps that says more about the human condition, as this acts as a mirror to ourselves: we don’t like to see things we love wither, change or deteriorate, as the encroachment of time in this way reminds us of our own advancing mortality, which becomes more pronounced as we go on. No-one likes to see their heroes in their dotage usually, as it reminds you that their best years appear to be behind them, and that all of the things you admire and remember them for are gone, lost in the mists of time and nostalgia.
As the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation sought to remind us, all good things must come to an end. TNG became something of a phenomenon, as it managed to show that Star Trek could live on beyond Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, etc., and blazed a trail for all the series and movies which followed. However, after a run of seven seasons on TV, TNG transitioned onto the big screen for a series of four films, ending with 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis.
This was the end of an era, as it saw Riker finally getting a promotion to Captain, marrying Troi, and actually having a command of his own. At the movie’s climax, Data sacrificed himself to save Captain Picard, although it was suggested that he might live on through his ‘brother’ B-4, an earlier prototype of the type of android that he was, after trying to download his own memories into B-4. It was, however, still a parting of the ways: the Enterprise-D family was no more, and they went in their separate directions.
Although the Star Trek pantheon has continued to grow, it seemed that we would never see anything more of the TNG crew. What a delightful surprise, then, to have it announced in August 2018 that Patrick Stewart would be returning to the iconic role of Jean-Luc Picard for a show focusing upon the character, and picking up the story almost two decades after we last saw him. From then up until now, the wait has been almost interminable, especially as trailers for the show began to appear, teasing what awaited us. And now, at last, here we are.
Star Trek: Picard‘s opener has has given us a show quite unlike any other Star Trek which has gone before. While the other series were based predominantly in deep space, the premiere of Picard is chiefly Earthbound, and shows us what life on the Federation’s homeworld is like now, some 20 years on from the last time we saw the Captain. A lot of this first episode is devoted to setting the scene, as a great deal has changed since the time of Nemesis, so we need to know what the lay of the land is, as context for what’s to come.
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Star Trek comes with a heavy burden, as there’s 50+ years’ worth of continuity behind it, which could potentially act as an albatross round its neck when it comes to attracting new viewers: we know the fans will watch regardless, but how do you get other people to tune in? Thankfully, we have name recognition as a big draw, as Captain Picard is possibly as familiar to Joe Public as Captain Kirk, and the fact that the series is named after him will probably help to bring people in.
Most casual viewers will probably know the broad details of Star Trek anyway (such as the Federation, Starfleet, etc.), so there really isn’t a lot more that they need to be aware of in order to watch Picard. ‘Remembrance’ shows us that this isn’t the warm, cosy world of TNG that we might be familiar with: things have taken a darker turn, and the Federation has suffered a tragedy which has caused it to become more isolationist and inward-looking, turning away from some of the principles that it was founded on.
Patrick Stewart has said in interviews he wanted Picard to reflect our current era of Trump and Brexit, and it certainly manages to do that. No longer is the Federation the shining beacon of hope and moral certainty it purported to be in the past. A once noble institution is now beleaguered and beset by controversies. In one scene, a Federation News Network reporter tries to turn the focus of an interview with Picard onto rampant xenophobia, attacking synthetic beings, and trying to suggest that the lives of Romulan refugees are less worthy than those of humans.
As for Jean-Luc Picard, he resigned from Starfleet under something of a cloud a decade-and-a-half earlier, having received criticism for taking actions which some felt left the Federation open to a terrorist attack which killed tens of thousands, and ended up with an entire planet devastated. His reputation tarnished after his humanitarian efforts to save the Romulan people from a supernova (as established in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek) went awry, Picard left the Admiralty and he retired to his ancestral home in La Barre, France.
Now in his nineties, and seen as being something between an irrelevance and an embarrassment to the Federation, he spends his time looking after the Picard family vineyard and winery, seeing out his twilight years. It’s very much a ‘Last Of The Summer Klingon Bloodwine’; at one point, they even have him don a flat cap. However, the sudden appearance of a young woman – Dahj (Isa Briones) – seeking his help relighted a fire within Picard, and gives him new purpose, leading him to re-enter not just the world, but the galaxy.
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Stewart is, quite simply, outstanding as the older Jean-Luc Picard, unhappy with his lot in life, a sense of unfinished business troubling him, and his past haunting his dreams. We have a lot to thank James Mangold’s Logan for, as it was Stewart’s portrayal of an aged Professor Charles Xavier that helped convince him it would be possible to return to Star Trek, giving some planned closure to his time playing Picard, rather than leaving it on an unsatisfying note with Nemesis.
The passage of time is central to Picard, and doesn’t try to shy away from it, but instead makes it a key component of the storytelling. Stewart compellingly and convincingly sells the vision of a man lost and adrift, his best years seemingly long since gone, his end potentially far closer than he would like; however, Picard retains a strong moral core, and his righteous anger at an apparent injustice – plus the chance to also redeem himself and recover his reputation – brings him right back to life.
Ironically, the makers have to try and roll back the years for the appearance of Data, who – as an android – shouldn’t be susceptible to wrinkles and grey hair, unlike the actor who plays him, with Brent Spiner now being 70. Thanks to de-ageing technology, they’ve managed to mostly recapture how Data looked when we last saw him in Nemesis, and a vast improvement upon the glimpses we saw in the various trailers, which looked unreal even for an artificial life form. For a character who’s dead, he still looks pretty well for it, all things considered.
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Thankfully, a lot of the important backstory is given to us in exposition, so all you need to know is right here – if you’re a casual viewer, you don’t need to have seen all of TNG to understand what’s going on. It’s a very different show to its predecessor, as it’s an ongoing arc, rather than an episodic drama, so there’s more time to breathe – you don’t need to tell a complete story in 45 minutes, and move on; instead, you can watch events gradually unfolding over the coming weeks, and enjoy the focus on character growth and depth.
It also has a district visual look, feeling more cinematic in the way it’s shot, the way it’s lit. Picard has broken out from the confines of the soundstage, and looks more real and believable in the world it shows you. While Discovery helped to re-establish Star Trek on TV, Picard could help to redefine it. This opener shows some real promise, and a tantalising central premise which should help to keep the audience engaged. This is the Star Trek we both need and deserve right now, and while there are enough nostalgic touches for the fans, they don’t overwhelm the story they’re delivering here.
Picard shows there are still plenty of tales to be told with older leads, and that you can still do new and surprising things with characters who you think you know inside and out. If the rest of the series delivers on what’s promised here, Picard could prove to be one of the TV highlights of 2020. Is this the Captain we remember? No, it’s actually so much more, and we’re all the better for it.