“Time offers many opportunities,” Jean-Luc Picard intones in the season premiere of Star Trek: Picard, “but it rarely offers second chances.”
This new season presents something of a second chance for both Jean-Luc and the Paramount+ show that bears his name. The first season started off with the exciting notion of Sir Patrick Stewart revisiting his most famous role, and the conceit of an elderly Picard staring down his own mortality gave the great actor more to play than he often got back on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But Picard quickly found itself stuck in a convoluted season-long plot involving a race of sentient machines, the Romulans, the Borg, the consciousness of Picard’s late friend Data, and too many other things to follow. It had its moments, but ultimately became the latest streaming series to treat its entire first season as a long pilot episode for the show it really wanted to be(*).
(*) Or it was an excuse to rectify a couple of pre-existing stories by giving Data a more dignified death than he received in Star Trek: Nemesis, and by putting Picard into an artificial body as a workaround for the degenerative neurological disorder introduced in flash-forwards from the TNG series finale.
It’s been disappointing to see modern Trek lean so hard into serialization, when the heart of almost every previous Trek series was in the stand-alone adventures that distinguished one episode from the next. There would be ongoing threads like Data’s quest to be human, or rising political tensions on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Not all of these visits to meet new life and new civilizations were good — in fact, the majority of them from the first two seasons of Next Generation were quite dire — but the earlier shows always had the ability to do something new and potentially better the next time out. When Star Trek: Discovery committed its whole first season to a misconceived re-examination of the Klingons, though, there was no getting away from it. It’s not that Trek can’t be serialized, but it’s not the franchise’s natural state of being, and shifts have to be handled more delicately than these recent shows have. (DS9 concluded its run with a lengthy galactic-war story, but it had carefully built up to that over the previous six years, rather than attempting to start out in a serial box.)
It seems as if the current keepers of the franchise know they messed up on this front. The animated Star Trek: Lower Decks almost exclusively tells standalone stories (and has gotten much better after some bumpy early installments), and the producers of Discovery spin-off Star Trek: Strange New Worlds recently said that they will be “returning to episodic values.”
As for Picard, the new season has not wholly returned to episodic values, but it’s closer. Season One ended with Picard and his new friends — rogue starship captain Cristóbal Rios (Santiago Cabrera), Picard’s former protégé Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd), cybernetics expert Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), android Sohji (Isa Briones), Romulan warrior Elnor (Evan Evagora), and former Borg drone Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan, reprising her role from Star Trek: Voyager) — teaming up to go boldly off in search of adventure together. We return to find out this is not exactly what happened(*): Picard has retired back to his vineyard, while his would-be new crew have scattered to different points around Federation territory.
(*) Technically, we return with an in medias res flash-forward to a catastrophic event 48 hours after the episode’s story truly begins. Even by the overused standards of this device, this feels particularly unnecessary. Trekkies love Jean-Luc Picard. They can certainly enjoy just watching Stewart emote for a few minutes until the plot kicks in.
These early scenes are used to set up a flirtatious relationship between Picard and his Romulan employee, Laris (Orla Brady, who made more of an impression in a few brief appearances last season than several of the cast regulars did), and to examine exactly how and why Jean-Luc got from the French countryside to the captain’s chair of the Federation flagship. This is surprisingly untilled soil for the franchise. We saw the vineyard a few times on TNG, and knew that Jean-Luc had a difficult relationship with his older brother, but that was largely it in terms of backstory. He had defining characteristics — a thirst for knowledge and a powerful idealistic streak, to name just two — but he was never on an emotional journey in the way that Data, or Worf, or even Will Riker were on TNG(*). The Picard creative team have some room to maneuver and explore more of what makes their hero tick. There remains the possibility that the more we learn about Picard, the less interesting he becomes, but for now you can see Stewart engaging strongly with this material.
(*) This then created a problem when the plot of Star Trek: Generations was meant to give Picard his heart’s desire in perpetuity: There was clearly nothing he wanted other than to keep doing the job he was so obviously good at. So somehow his fake Happily Ever After involved spending a perpetual Christmas with his extended family. (Though James T. Kirk’s fantasy in the same movie was even more out-of-character, and mainly an excuse for William Shatner to ride a horse onscreen.)
Pretty soon, though, Picard is face-to-face with both of his arch-nemeses: the Borg Queen (now played by Annie Wersching from 24) and his omnipotent tormenter, Q (John de Lancie, simultaneously amusing and threatening as ever). Without spoiling much (the season premiere is streaming now), the season’s arc brings in not only those two, but Whoopi Goldberg as Picard’s ageless old counselor Guinan. And the plot also leans into two familiar devices from Trek history: stories set in alternate timelines(*), and (as most famously used in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) Starfleet officers traveling back in time and struggling to fit into a world like the one we recognize.
(*) Q goes meta with the line, “How ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’ of you,” alluding to one of the most beloved TNG episodes of them all.
So even though we appear to be in for another serialized arc, Season Two so far falls victim to 10-Hour Movie Syndrome far less than Season One did. Each of the three episodes provided for review has its own story and structure, and often its own guest stars. (Isa Briones’ musical-theater star father, Jon Jon Briones, has a memorable role in the second episode as a new colleague of Seven of Nine’s.) The third episode suggests our heroes may be stuck in a specific circumstance for a while, so it’s entirely possible that we will wind up back in narratively shapeless territory soon. But for now, at least, Picard seems to be doing its best to hearken back to the way its title character’s stories used to be told, while blending that with this more modern approach.
There are other promising improvements along the way. Sohji and Elnor, the two most earnest and kinda dull members of the ensemble, both get sidelined early on, leaving even more room for the characters who pop. The show leans more on its actors’ facility with comedy — Alison Pill in particular is a damned delight as a more confident and loose version of Agnes than the one from last season — without undercutting the dramatic stakes(*).
(*) If hearing Stewart say unexpected words and phrases is your particular comedy fetish, get ready to hear “L’chaim,” “hooch,” and “bullshit” escape his lips. (Though in general, the profanity doesn’t add nearly enough value to be worth it, especially since that’s really the show’s only tangibly “adult” difference from TNG.)
The Next Generation had to muddle through two mostly awful seasons before figuring itself out. Picard Season One was never as bad as any of that — and episodes like Picard’s reunion with Riker and Deanna Troi were wonderful — but nor did it hit the ground running. We’ll see if Season Two turns out any better, but by leaning on some of what Star Trek has always done well, it’s off to a more promising start.
New episodes of Star Trek: Picard stream weekly on Thursdays on Paramount+. I’ve seen the season’s first three episodes.