Picard faces a twin dilemma as Star Trek sets out to do Blade Runner. Star Trek: Picard (S1E01) Review
EXT: VAST SMOKING CRATER. WE STAND ON THE EDGE, UNABLE TO SEE INTO THE DEPTHS BECAUSE OF THE BILLOWING PLUMES OF THICK, ACRID BLACK SMOKE.
It is the year 2003 and Rick Berman, John Logan and Stuart Baird have just cratered the Next Generation Franchise, destroying a sixteen-year legacy of future-facing “Star Trek”. There are no signs of life from the crater and the path further into the future seems to be destroyed, blocked by the rubble, detritus and fallout from the ‘Nemesis’ Device which salted the Earth. With an irony Mr Atoz would appreciate, the only future for the franchise, it seems, lies in the past.
FADE TO BLACK
FADE IN. EXT: The same, blasted wasteland, still strewn with dirt and rubble, still lifeless and barren. Not a single flower or shrub or even scruffy, misshapen weed has managed to take hold.
CAPTION: ‘Seventeen Years Later’
The silence is broken by a small noise, a couple of shifting stones. There is a momentary pause then a further noise, more hesitant movement, more dust and soil and pebbles shifting. Then, suddenly, a hand reaches up and grasps the edge of the crater. It is the hand of actor Patrick Stewart. It is the hand of Jean-Luc Picard.
Yes, Jean-Luc Picard is back. Older, yes. Wiser? Maybe. Sadder? Definitely. It doesn’t feel like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” but it does feel like “Star Trek”.
Picard (Patrick Stewart), now retired, spends his days tending to the ancestral Picard vineyard (presumably the house was completely restored following the fire which claimed the lives of the rest of his family), troubled by the dreams of the past. But when a mysterious stranger arrives, it sparks a mystery which rouses Picard from his melancholy and gives him a purpose again. The mission, this time: to honour a debt to a dearly departed friend.
‘Adventure of the week’ isn’t the fashion in television any more and certainly not in vogue as far as the current grand poohbahs of Trek are concerned (despite it being the best format for the franchise) so “Remembrance”, as the opening chapter of a longer story, doesn’t feel the need to deliver a sense of narrative conclusion. What it does do, though, is carefully lay the groundwork for the story to come, introduce the thematic and narrative strands which will be woven together for our entertainment and start to fill in some of the background details on what’s been happening since “Star Trek Nemesis” marked the end of the Star Trek timeline like a tombstone.
The episode opens whimsically, Bing Crosby crooning ‘Blue Skies’ over gaudily coloured nebulae when suddenly, wham! The Enterprise-D swings into view like a nostalgic nut-shot. Never my favourite Enterprise design, it nevertheless looks absolutely gorgeous here and I suddenly realise how much I’ve missed it (despite only finishing a TNG re-watch mere days ago). Onboard, we find Picard and Data (Brent Spiner) playing poker. Data still doesn’t look quite right, but better than the trailers had made him look. Perhaps the longer look at him helps normalise the make-up which just seems too saturated, somehow. The yellows are too yellow, the blacks far too black. Interestingly, Data is in his post-“First Contact” uniform which means there’s something not quite right about this Galaxy-class set flashback, as if Picard adding milk to Earl Grey wasn’t enough of a red flag. Also, Data’s winning hand being five queens – I wonder if that’s foreshadowing a return by Trek’s most infamous Queen at some point in the future?
Vocally, though, Spiner finds Data a lot quicker and better than Stewart does Picard. Much has been made of Patrick Stewart’s seeming agelessness but, like Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones And The Crystal Skull”, it’s impossible to ignore. Impressively spry, Stewart wears his 79 years well but it’s in his voice you notice the biggest difference. It’s lost that deep, authoritative timbre and it’s difficult to imagine this late-era Picard negotiating successfully with the ‘ecky, ecky, ecky, f’klang’ loving Jarada. Fortunately, at least for this first episode, “Star Trek Picard” seems to have no interest in pretending the intervening years haven’t taken their toll and it’ll be interesting to see how well they weave Picard’s age into the narrative going forward. I have to say, though, I’m not even remotely sold on the theme tune, another anaemic dirge in the same vein as “Star Trek: Discovery” – never mind the oddly Whovian conceit of Stewart himself featuring prominently in the titles – but we’ll see if it grows on me. Ironically, the end credits theme is much better and I kind of wish they’d swap ‘em around.
Some background elements – the aggressive, gotcha-style media and Starfleet being remodelled allegorically to reflect present-day US geopolitics – withdrawn, selfishly isolationist, xenophobic and defensive – seem a little on the nose and bordering on cliché but the far more interesting plotlines opening up concern a devastating rebellion by synthetic lifeforms (alluded to in ‘Children Of Mars’) and its impact on the humanitarian mission to save the Romulan Star Empire from a supernova (incontrovertibly canonically anchoring the Kelvin universe to this Prime timeline for the first time) are very promising indeed. Although we’re given the CliffsNotes version of this history, there are clear hints to there being a deeper and more significant beef between Romulans and Synthetics that we’ll hopefully get to explore as the series progresses.
The central mystery which begins when Dhaj (Isa Briones), on the run from would-be assassins, arrives on Picard’s farm seems to revolve around Data, or more specifically his neural net, which apparently didn’t survive being copied onto B-4 (or so we’re told here) but may somehow have been replicated through ‘fractal neuronic cloning’ (ahh, technobabble, how I’ve missed you!). Of course, the number of non-Data Soong-type androids littering the galaxy may present something of an ongoing plot irritant for this series (I’m thinking particularly of Lore and Juliana O’Donnell Soong Tainer, Data’s ‘mother’) but the callback to Bruce Maddox is a tantalising masterstroke, as is the fact he apparently ‘disappeared’ when synthetic life forms were banned – could he be one of the series’ ‘big bads’? The final piece of the to-be-assembled puzzle comes in the closing scenes of the episode as we leave Earth and find ourselves in deep space where we see Romulan forces engaged in salvage operations aboard an abandoned Borg cube.
Deliberately slower in pace and character-driven – although there are some impressive action beats – this is an engrossing and intriguing start for this newest volume of Trek lore. Stewart brings everything to the table as the aged man of principle, still bristling at the injustices of the past and the supporting cast are uniformly excellent, with Alison Pill’s Dr Jurati a particular delight. Production-wise, everything looks fantastic and there’s gratifying attention to detail when it comes to the differing uniforms in the flashbacks. There’s also an attempt to keep things consistent with the last time we saw this era of Trek, although it does appear that the Romulans gave up their penchant for bowl cuts after their planet was destroyed. Perhaps none of the precision barbers were evacuated?
Certainly, it’s a stronger and more coherent start than “Discovery” had, but then it’s not fighting for its right to exist against decades of pre-established canon, and it’s by far and away the best pilot Picard has ever appeared in. “Remembrance” is a full-bodied and robust vintage which lingers on the palate and definitely makes you look forward to finishing the bottle. Another episode next week? Make it so!