Star Trek fans – as they have been ever since J.J. Abrams and collaborators introduced something called the “Kelvin” timeline – seem torn. The “Wagon Train in Space” Roddenberry era is gone. The Harve Bennett/Nicholas Meyer-curated films already had their day. Rick Berman’s TV empire – Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise – burned out long ago. Chief contributors to the older eras are slowly dying off. (RIP, D.C. Fontana and René Auberjonois.) Even the more recent Abrams-produced films seem to have hit a wall, with development on a potential fourth installment morphing into something that might feature an entirely new cast, according to writer/director Noah Hawley.
What’s left is Star Trek: Discovery, a show which was designed to be a launch title for CBS All Access in January 2017 but didn’t actually arrive until 9 months later due to multiple delays and bts problems. Not surprisingly, the show we got was wildly inconsistent, and while the second season – which added legacy characters like Spock and Captain Pike to the cast – appeared to right the ship creatively (critics, at least, love it) that wasn’t enough to silence the haters. They are all too happy to point out that Discovery has now had more showrunners (5 total) than it has had total seasons of TV. Typically, that is the hallmark of a chronically troubled production. (See also: Designated Survivor.)
Despite all of that, Discovery is a suitable gateway vehicle for new fans, and the second season, in particular, is closer in structure to a classic Star Trek show than even some of the Berman-era spin-offs, with a bunch of people on a ship traveling through space and encountering new problems every week. It just does so with far more, to put it lightly, giddy up to its go and nods quite heavily toward the Peak TV-era need for season-long mysteries and have-to-watch-the-next-one-right-now cliffhangers. As Inverse recently put it, “Discovery is like Star Trek slamming vodka and Red Bull while playing with 1960s characters from ‘The Cage.’”
Some fans are coming around to it, others will likely forever remain opposed to this new era. CBS, meanwhile, just wants people to stop canceling their All Access subscriptions. Discovery fans have fallen into a habit of canceling after each season and re-subscribing when the next one starts, contributing to the kind of subscriber churn all streaming services dread. In response, All Access now offers mini-episodes in-between seasons, two of them written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. Some of the most recent Short Treks have even been animated.
That was always a temporary solution, though. In the long run, CBS would love to have a new season of Star Trek every quarter or two quarters, the same way Marvel Studios, when it wants to bulk up, is entirely capable of putting out a new movie every couple of months. That’s why CBS announced Discovery co-creator and executive producer Alex Kurtzman had been tasked with launching additional Star Trek shows. At last count, he has around five in development. Picard is the first one out of the gate.
Based on the pilot, it might be exactly what Star Trek fans have been waiting for: something new, but distinctly in the spirit of Next Gen. It has the look of a comforting final ride with the world’s greatest Earl Grey enthusiast. The man is 79, though. So, please, make his Earl Grey a de-caff.
Opening Hailing Frequencies
When CBS announced in early 2018 that Kurtzman had been tasked with launching additional Star Trek shows, fans immediately jumped on the obvious: why not bring back Picard? If Patrick Stewart could use Logan to give Professor Xavier the send-off he deserved, surely he’d jump at the same chance for Captain Picard. Star Trek: Nemesis is not the ending anyone wanted for the Next Generation crew. Let’s right that wrong.
Discovery staff writer and Trek novelist Kirsten Beyer had the same idea. According to Starburst Magazine, she’s the one who first suggested a Picard show to Kurtzman, and the producer invited the legendary actor in for a pitch meeting. They gave him a four-page document outlining their idea for a grounded character study revisiting Picard decades after he’s left Starfleet, punching out the clock on the old family vineyard until a mysterious event pulls him back in for one last mission. It all made sense – roughly the same basic story outline as Logan but with Picard in Wolverine’s place – a perfect pitch to turn Picard into a prestige show tailor-made for the streaming wars.
So, of course, Stewart politely declined.
He’d actually only taken the meeting as a professional courtesy. Captain Picard was his past and at nearly 80s-year-old Stewart wasn’t inclined to repeat himself anymore. As he said in 2014, “I really do believe there comes a point when you hang up your boots and accept that it’s moved on. If there were to be some development that really exposed Jean-Luc Picard or the other members of my crew to something exciting, I bet every one of us would consider it. But I think it’s unlikely. And, perhaps more importantly, unnecessary.”
Stewart Makes It So
What if this – a pitch for his own TV show – was that “exciting” moment, though? Others had come to Stewart in the years since Nemesis with pitches for another Picard/Nex Gen adventure and he declined each time, but maybe he was too quick with the “no” this time. What else could they come up with for Picard if he gave them time?
So, Stewart reached out and asked them to pitch again. By this time, Michael Chabon had joined the crew, and he helped the team turn that 4-page outline into a 35-page document laying out a potential 3-season journey. It was enough to not only earn Stewart’s “yes” but inspired him to sit in with the writers to brainstorm more ideas. A surprise announcement at Star Trek: Las Vegas soon followed as did this announcement on Twitter:
The anticipation has been killing us ever since. When Stewart and his Picard crew – including Chabon, now promoted to showrunner, and a group of actors hired to play created-for-the-show new characters – took the stage of New York Comic Con last year they were the stars of the entire convention. The new Picard trailer they premiered – revealing more scenes between Stewart and a returning Jonathan Frakes as well as more from Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine, a surprise addition to the cast – sent the internet into fan theory overdrive. It was also prettty damn charming. I mean, Picard has a pit bull now, and he named it Number One! My heart, it can’t take the cuteness.
The key figure in many fan theories was Dahj (Isa Briones, who was born five years after Next Gen ended). She’s the one who shows up in Picard’s vineyard and pulls him out of retirement, but how exactly? And what’s her big secret? The leading theories: she’s Data’s daughter Lal, Picard’s daughter, a former Borg drone, the daughter of Picard’s clone, Shinzon, from Nemesis, or somehow some new version of Data.
Star Trek as Prestige TV
The pilot episode, “Remembrance” – spoiler warning – certainly answers the question, but along the way, it hits with you several additional reveals, setting the stage for Picard to again try and mount up to save the world. Those hoping for a Mandalorian-style return to episodic TV will likely be disappointed, though. The cliche of the Peak TV era is to refer to shows as 10-hour-movies, but Picard definitely has that feel. By the end of the first episode, Picard is still on Earth, has yet to re-up with Starfleet, and doesn’t have a crew or ship. That, apparently, won’t happen until the end of episode 3, and they won’t come from Starfleet.
There are fan-servicey Easter Eggs on the periphery, such as repeated references to Bruce Maddox, a character from legendary Next Gen episode “The Measure of a Man.” However, the biggies already spoiled in the trailers – Picard sharing the screen with Seven of Nine for the first time, briefly reuniting with Riker and Troi and even meeting old Borg drone Hugh again – all seem pretty far away. Data is at least in the pilot, but only in dream sequences, with the SFX team offering a digital assist to de-age Brent Spiner.
Instead, the nostalgic pull of “Remembrance” is the comfort of revisiting Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard, delighting in how effortlessly he falls back into playing his breakthrough role again. Here, he’s older, plagued by nightmares and regrets, and a rather disgraced figure due to his role in what sounds quite a bit like a mismanaged refugee crisis. (The parallels to modern politics come fast and furious in this episode.)
As the story progresses – tragic backstories get filled in but not all the way, mysterious assassins somehow trigger Dahj into terminator mode – it all has the unmistakable feel of a puzzle box prestige series. It gives us the answers before the questions and promises it will all make sense if we stick around long enough for all the twists, turns, and major reveals. Admittedly, that’s an initially jarring look for a Jean-Luc Picard show, certainly light-years away from the hokey charms and, as the NY Times put it, “flat-footed corniness of Next Generation.”
However, you don’t bring back the legend and ask him to play the hits. Give us something new. Picard just happens to be the most radical Star Trek series yet: a mature character study mixed with an intergalactic mystery that has more in common with Logan than anything Gene Roddenberry wrote. I don’t where they’re going with it, but I’m totally on board.
What’s your take on Picard so far? Or Discovery? Or the current state of Star Trek in general? Like, will we ever get that Tarantino Trek film? All signs point to no, but that’s a good thing, right? Let me know in the comments.