“This is the end, my friend.”
Having returned to the character of Jean-Luc Picard after a gap of nearly two decades, Patrick Stewart bids farewell to the role with a third and final season of Star Trek: Picard. And this time round, he has some old friends along for the ride.
When Picard was first announced, Stewart was adamant that he didn’t want it to be Season Eight of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and had wished to take the character in new directions, rather than just retreading what had gone before. As a part of that, it meant jettisoning – at least, for the most part – his former shipmates from the Enterprise-D (and, latterly, E), and giving him a new ensemble with which to work alongside, in order to set this new programme apart from its predecessor.
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You can judge for yourself how successful they were, as most of them have already been written out in various ways by the time this latest season begins. So long, the thinly-veiled Han Solo-esque rogue; the ditzy drunken murderer; the Romulan ward; and the pseudo-daughter of Data: we hardly knew ye. It seems a certain amount of strategic pruning was necessary as part of this soft reboot or course correction undertaken by new showrunner Terry Matalas, as well as doing something of a tonal shift of the series, in order to go back towards grass roots Star Trek.
The original Star Trek was a beacon of hope for the future, at a time when the Cold War was at its height, giving a hopeful vision of co-operation between different races, nations, and even species. When Picard began, however, it eschewed that notion by showing Starfleet and the Federation to be colder, darker places than we were perhaps used to seeing. Picard’s standing was not as a revered figure, but rather something of an embarrassment, a holdover from a time now passed, and a relic best shuffled off to retirement, only to be wheeled out for purely ceremonial occasions.
Part of this was driven by the original creative team’s drive to have Picard’s setting reflect our own present times, with the impact of such things as Brexit and the Presidency of Donald Trump. Suddenly, the future wasn’t so bright anymore, and it was a more cynical, divided place. Star Trek Into Darkness is something which should be used only as the title of a movie, rather than the guiding philosophy behind a show. Things all just felt a little off, and rather than it being an escapist vision of a society striving for a utopia, it simply reminded us of just how awful things are right here, right now.
There is a certain carrying over of this approach as we begin Picard’s final season, which is understandable as otherwise having a rapid 180° turn would have been at risk of giving us whiplash. The past of The Next Generation is still viewed as something of a joke, with replica models of the Galaxy Class Enterprise-D failing to sell for the upcoming Frontier Day – the 250th anniversary of the launch of the NX-01 from Star Trek: Enterprise – as nobody wants the “fat ones”, it seems. Yet Terry Matalas uses this as a springboard to slowly remind us why TNG was so great, and makes us fall in love with it all over again.
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One of the strongest messages which comes across through the course of the season is that the past matters, and this is drip fed to the audience, via a steady series of reminders. A very good early example of this is the refit of Riker’s former command – the USS Titan – having been dubbed the Neo-Constitution Class, thereby evoking the look and feel of the USS Enterprise as seen in the first six films. Suddenly, old is new again, and things once consigned to the past are given a whole new lease of life, being made relevant for the present, setting the groundwork for what is to come.
As a threat begins to mount which puts the whole future of the United Federation of Planets in jeopardy, Picard gets a message from his former medical officer – and on-off love interest – Beverley Crusher (Gates McFadden), which sets into motion a series of events that requires the bridge crew of Enterprises D & E to reunite for one final mission together, for the first time in more than two decades. In the process, showrunner Matalas gives us what fans have been after for the longest time – amidst all the nu-Trek, we finally get the return of a legacy series cast, and boy does it feel good to see it happen.
The original USS Enterprise crew had one last chance to shine in their farewell, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In contrast, the TNG team’s last appearance together – 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis – felt almost perfunctory, and not really the kind of fitting send off which they deserved. Unfinished business is Matalas’ starting point here, and over the course of the ten episodes, he sets about giving them a big farewell and last hurrah which leaves you feeling truly uplifted. This is a joyous celebration, not simply of The Next Generation, but also of everything from the original Star Trek right up to the end of the ‘Bermanverse’.
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One of the big criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that with the proliferation of content on both the big screen and Disney+, each new release feels like casual viewers have to do homework in order to be able to keep up with all of the continuity and references. In a similar vein, it felt as though Alex Kurtzman’s nu-Trek was trying to make the franchise more accessible to audiences who were not diehard fans, by making two new programmes – Discovery and Strange New Worlds – prequels to the original Trek, thereby requiring far less knowledge of all the extensive pre-existing continuity. It was almost as though Star Trek felt embarrassed to have attained such longevity.
However, we live in an age where Trek is perhaps now more accessible than ever, in an age of on demand and streaming. Viewers now no longer have to await sporadic repeats or go out and buy the home media releases – they can simply go online and watch the back catalogue. With Picard, Matalas has made sure that the franchise not only accepts, but also embraces its almost 60 years of history. Yet this is not just mere nostalgia porn for the sake of it: everything used has been carefully selected. It would have been so easy to have dotted around loads of Member Berries (or, perhaps due to the franchise’s lineage, ‘Roddenberries’ would be more apt) to no real end.
By knowing what makes Trek work, having been a longtime fan himself, Matalas manages to pick what he needs out of the franchise’s past, giving it a new spin, without the need of just referencing something to do all the work. Yes, there are lots of respectful nods to the different interactions, but they are (mostly) there in service of the story, and not purely the fans. Picard reminds us there is still mileage to be had from previous entries in the Trek canon, while following the trend first set by Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, acknowledging the passage of time. Cleverly, Matalas actually makes youth a disadvantage as part of the plot, giving legacy characters a purpose and relevance, as well as renewed vitality.
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Besides the sheer nostalgic buzz of seeing the gang back on screen after so long, there are also genuine emotional beats throughout the story, giving a connection to the material in a way rarely seen in nu-Trek. The cast wholly inhabit their roles, and have seldom been better than they are here, with peak performances by Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, and LeVar Burton, the latter showing what an injustice it was to have such expressive eyes being covered up by a VISOR for so many years. Gates McFadden and Patrick Stewart jointly get put through the wringer across the season, and they ride the gamut of emotions together.
Crucially, there is a valid reason for all of them being there, rather than having to contrive some excuse, like when they had to keep coming up with reasons to bring Worf back from Deep Space Nine for the TNG movies. In addition, holdover characters from the first two seasons of Picard – Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) and Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd) – do get to receive some well-deserved growth and progression. Of course, there are also newly-created additions to the roster, with Amanda Plummer’s gloriously OTT turn as villainous Vadic a particular delight, especially when playing cat-and-mouse with her target.
Ed Speleers also shines brightly as Jack, the self-described ne’er-do-well who has a rascally charm and quiet nobility, while also displaying an inner torment. However, perhaps the season’s MVP is someone who has become everyone’s favourite “dipshit from Chicago”, the Titan’s commanding officer, Captain Liam Shaw, masterfully portrayed by Todd Stashwick. It takes some combination of both writing and acting to deliver somebody whom you alternately love and hate in equal measure, to end up being taken to your heart by season’s end, even after pulling such dick moves like his constant deadnaming of Seven as his First Officer.
Stashwick makes Shaw feel fully rounded, and does an easy transition from his dry deadpan comic delivery, to righteous anger, and his outpouring of grief and trauma. Shaw acts as a pointed example of how much things have moved on since the much warmer, cosier days of The Next Generation, yet through all his interactions with them, he goes on a personal voyage of self-discovery and growth. We finally start to see that hopefulness of TNG re-emerging, and Matalas is clever in using Picard’s final season not only to be able to pay such tribute to the Enterprise-D team, but also set out a stall and vision for a possible future of Star Trek.
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Yes, the plot does at times feel rather contrived in the way it brings together perhaps the unlikeliest of team-ups to face off against our heroes, and there are great chunks which feel torn from the Wrath Of Khan playbook, which to this day is still casting a long shadow across the franchise. However, it must be said Picard’s swan song is overall a triumph, and it both draws a line under one era and perfectly sets up another with its respectful passing of the torch. The fact that Picard’s third season marks the first time that a Star Trek show has entered the streaming charts is definitely a remarkable and noteworthy achievement, and it points to Matalas being the best choice to be torchbearer for Trek’s legacy.
All good things must come to an end, but if the audience is extremely lucky and there is enough demand, maybe – just maybe – they can continue in some form. Engage with your viewers and make it so, Paramount+. I like to think there are always… possibilities.
Star Trek: Picard is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.