Star Trek: Picard begins in a French vineyard. You’d be forgiven if you looked at the gorgeous imagery, the saturated greens, and thought that this was escapism. Not so; Picard is miserable and marking time. The retired Starfleet admiral has escaped his previous life, but he has made a series of terrible errors since we last saw him and is now moping in an idyllic landscape. Those Last Jedi comparisons are obvious: here is one of the most famous characters in science fiction, a character known for his hope and virtue, who is now feeling lost, disenchanted, and alone.
All the same, the special boy is back and it’s hard to begrudge fans who take pleasure in that simple joy. It is bold, though, of Star Trek to present this show as a reunion and a comeback when the franchise has only occasionally stopped for breath since Patrick Stewart’s first appearance. Fortunately, this show isn’t only an exercise in fannish nostalgia for the sake of it (although it is very much also that): Picard discovers that his late friend, the android Data, sired a pair of twins. When the first of these synth twins is assassinated by a secretive Romulan group, Picard assembles a motley crew to find and rescue the second twin before it’s too late.
Not that he’s in too much of a rush; it takes three whole episodes of this ten-episode season to hear the word “Engage!” Without getting too bogged down in comparisons, it’s clear that this is a different kind of Star Trek than what’s come before. It is “prestige drama,” which mostly means that the direction keeps insisting upon how important everything is. This is something of a departure for the series, but it’s not too adventurous in the wider context of television production nowadays. Certainly, you couldn’t sensibly accuse it of doing something that fundamentally doesn’t work when this format and style has been done countless times before. Relatedly, some Star Trek characters swear now and the sky doesn’t fall.
As uninspired as the direction is, the pacing in those opening episodes feels confident; it gives enough time to everything, and every beat feels earned. Even if the writers could find a way to cram all the information into one episode (and I’d be surprised if they could), it would ruin the thoughtful tone. No, the pacing issues only hit later, when a subplot set on a Borg cube hits the same beats over and over for half the season.
The Borg themselves—the famous villainous cyborgs that convert individual humanoids into members of a collective species—are a great example of the show’s new narrative structure. Their presence is now largely concerned with the post-traumatic impact that conversion has upon those who, like Picard, escaped the collective’s clutches. This fits Picard’s prestige drama mode: it’s not like Trek was ever entirely episodic, but this take on the Borg has much more interest in the glossy aesthetic of psychological realism. The consequences of events or actions don’t typically go away at the end of an episode. The damage builds up—even damage from decades ago.
Unfortunately, the character drama comes with a glut of continuity references that the show expects you to easily understand. Up until this point, Trek rarely expected viewers to be familiar with the characters and events of previous shows. This was sensible for obvious reasons. If the audience of a long-running, episodic network television show got the impression that they needed to have watched every preceding instalment before they could watch the new one, then that show was in trouble. That was kryptonite to something like Trek; it would have struggled to pull in new viewers. In the age of the prestige drama miniseries, these constraints disappear. This show isn’t just fannish nostalgia, but it certainly isn’t afraid to indulge itself. The results are uniformly insufferable.
The worst case of this is the entire episode in which the plot is put on pause so Picard can hang out with William Riker, his first officer from Star Trek: The Next Generation. But the purest kernel of it is the bit where Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager pops up, and the camera does a big Hitchcock pull as Picard says “Seven of Nine?”, and then she makes a funny joke, and it cuts to black—and the episode ends with no explanation. If you’re not familiar with Seven, a character who last appeared on television pre-9/11, then it’s your own fault, apparently.
The shape of the narrative, however, is quite different if, like me, you begin with the prequel novel, The Last Best Hope, by veteran Trek and Doctor Who writer Una McCormack. The book derives its title from an Abraham Lincoln speech about abolition and its potential to help end the American Civil War, and thus save the Union: “The world will not forget that we say this … We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail.”
Neither McCormack’s novel nor the television show itself is about slavery—though early on we see androids providing unpaid labour on Mars—but the shadow of that speech is cast long across the story. At the beginning of Last Best Hope, Picard is handed the title of Admiral along with a seemingly impossible humanitarian task: rescue 900 million people before the Romulan star goes supernova (a disaster you may recall from J.J. Abrams’ 2009 movie). The story is framed by glimpses of an old Picard rattling away in his vineyard. This mission that must not, can not, will not fail is doomed to failure from the word go.
Of course, the book is paratext rather than text and can’t be of equal importance to Picard—even though it is about as good as the show proper. But it undoubtedly changed the way that I interpreted the show—and changed it for the better. The show’s script is mostly good at characterisation and gives enough development to the crew, but the book brings it up a level. The character Dr Agnes Jurati benefits a lot from the book’s portrayal of her romance with the cyberneticist Bruce Maddox—a crucial element of the TV show. It’s also a lot easier to get invested in another of the show’s protagonists, Picard’s other former first officer Raffi Musiker, when you read about her obsessive commitment to the Romulan relief mission and the resulting collapse of her marriage. So many tie-ins are just trivial entertainment; Last Best Hope is seriously engaged with the characters and consequently makes the show better.
Part of McCormack’s success may be that she is not saddled with Picard’s patchy casting. Evan Evagora is unconvincing as the Romulan warrior monk Elnor, which is a shame, because the character is such a good idea. As a child, Elnor was left in the care of the Qowat Milat, a convent of Romulan nuns who, surprisingly, practice “Absolute Candor.” Where most Romulans are secretive, Elnor straightforwardly states whatever is on his mind. This is a great dramatic idea for an ensemble cast and does a lot to make the Romulans feel like a varied culture and society. Unfortunately, the script never quite makes the most of the idea and Evagora’s performance is consistently flat.
Similarly, Santiago Cabrera is good in his main role as gruff Captain Rios but generally ineffective in his five other roles as the emergency holograms that crew Rios’s ship. Cabrera distinguishes these broad, comical performances mainly by taking on different stereotypical accents. The Irish and Scottish holograms are especially lame. This broad approach is an odd feature for a prestige drama. Tone is a delicate beast!
This is not to say that all the players are duds. It hardly needs to be said that Patrick Stewart is good at acting and enjoyable to watch. Isa Briones, too, is good in her important recurring role as both of Data’s children. Harry Treadaway is also effective as Romulan spy Narek, who you may or may not enjoy depending on your patience for Kylo Ren-type characters—though admittedly the way Narek is written works better than Ren (scarcely a compliment). A lot of time—honestly, too much time—is given to emphasising how he is caught under the boot of his manipulative sister Narissa, who is herself under pressure from the series’ ultimate villain, Commodore Oh. It also helps that Narek’s misdeeds are mostly limited to deception in the service of people who are worse than him, as opposed to Ren, who is literally in charge of the evil First Order for a while.
Michelle Hurd, meanwhile, is especially convincing as Raffi, and it is through her character that Picard’s privilege is most clearly explored. While it would be mean to say that Picard landed on his feet, there’s an immediate sense that Raffi’s trauma has physically worn her out much more and made her hard. She looks and acts exactly like a divorcee alcoholic who lives in a caravan. The show never explicitly goes into the differences of class between Picard and Raffi, but that difference is felt all the same.
Picard’s privilege is also expressed through the literary roots of his retirement. It takes place in essentially the pastoral mode, a form dating back to the third century in which rural life is seen as free from the complexity and corruption of urban life. Many of the old stories and poems under the pastoral banner—written by Edmund Spenser, Percy Shelley, Picard’s beloved Shakespeare, and dozens besides—are mostly or entirely divorced from the realities of farming. It’s an aristocratic imagining of what being from the country might be like, unbothered by practicalities like getting up at six in the morning to milk the cows or shovel excrement. The genre is widely regarded as long dead but it’s alive and well in evolved forms: Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, and, in a different way, coffee shop AU fanfic.
Picard is, as you would expect, interested in the vineyard exclusively for what it represents about the character. From this vantage point, it gets some important things right. Picard does not make like Sherlock Holmes; he does not retire to become a beekeeper, and live happily ever after. His exodus from complex urban/interstellar life is framed as shameful, as one of the great failings of his life. At the foregone conclusion of Last Best Hope, you may find yourself sympathising with Picard’s last gamble of resigning from Starfleet—only to be embarrassed to see the human consequences of that self-righteous act play out across the show. Also, and this is very telling, Picard is not the one who works the vineyard. He rattles around its paths, learns every blade of grass, but he doesn’t get his hands dirty. He has employees for that. His existence, though pathetic and miserable, is a long way from the caravan in the desert that Raffi is forced to make her home after she loses her commission in the wake of Picard’s resignation.
Trek has allowed Picard to be wrong before but the condemnation here is remarkably full-throated. For as long as the franchise has existed, its imagined utopian future has been fairly accused of casting the trappings of liberal capitalism infinitely into the future, projecting it onto every surface it can find. There are, of course, limits to the radical politics of any narrative to be found on something called CBS All Access, but Picard’s willingness to skirt this territory is commendable all the same. The Federation—both its government and its citizenry—could have committed to the Romulan rescue mission to the end; it did not. Once that became clear, Picard could have stayed to help with the fallout and the new necessary infrastructure; he did not. Instead, he retreated to his pastoral escapism. The system failed those in need.
Early in Last Best Hope, Picard observes Starfleet HQ and the surrounding ocean:
One could begin to take it for granted. How safe Earth was, how beautiful. Impregnable, like a castle that had never fallen. How would one feel to learn that one’s home was going to be destroyed? … Like being forced to leave the stars behind, reduce one’s vision to a limited horizon or, worse, to nothing. It would be terrible.
Within the Overton window, there is no sensible solution for the coming disaster. The best hope requires people to set aside their lives, their goals, and sublimate everything just because it’s the right thing to do, but the Federation plays along for some time and then backs out of the deal. This results in a huge body count and massive damage to what infrastructure remains, causing sweeping and ultimately inescapable changes to the way the survivors live their lives. Nothing is ever the same; Picard does not merely depict this—it embodies it, too, for better and worse.
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