Star Trek:  Picard – The Journey Continues

by Dennis Greene

I became sentient in 1966, a little too late to have it help me as an undergraduate student but just in time to ship out with James T. Kirk, the 35-year-old Captain of the starship Enterprise. I journeyed with Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Scotty, and the rest of the crew for 79 imaginative adventures from 1966 to 1969 when NBC abruptly cancelled the Star Trek series. Just when mankind took its first step into space with Apollo 11, some short-sighted executives at NBC decided to go in the opposite direction. Seven years later, in a memorable 1976 SNL sketch, John Belushi portrayed Captain Kirk eviscerating the NBC top brass for this ill-advised decision to cancel the show. Every time I hear Belushi utter those final words, “We have tried to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before, and except for one television network, we have found intelligence everywhere in the galaxy,” I vividly re-experience that loss.

It was another eleven years until CBS–evidently a more evolved and intelligent network than NBC–decided, in 1987, to continue the journeys of the Enterprise, this time set 78 years after the original series. It was a more lavish production, with advanced special effects, a larger budget, and a more seasoned cast. Patrick Stewart, a celebrated stage actor, was cast as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. But I was still mourning the loss of the original series and refused to accept Star Trek: The Next Generation in its place. Nothing could replace my beloved original version.

Over the next seven seasons, I caught an episode of TNG now and then, and heard nothing but praise for series.  TNG continued for 178 episodes. Several years after it ended, I finally swallowed my pride and binge-watched the entire series. I discovered that TNG had stayed true to the essence of the original series and built upon it to offer an imaginative, well-constructed, and thought-provoking collection of stories which explored all aspects of the human condition. Star Trek: TNG dealt with many of the “big” questions of human existence including politics, race, religion, artificial-intelligence, xenophobia, conflict, nationalism, isolationism, Shakespeare, sex, loyalty, and diversity. You name it, Star Trek TNG examined it.   Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc Picard, with his wit, wisdom, compassion, courage, and unflinching morality, seemed to personify everything a leader should be.  Our world could use someone like him now.

Since TNG ended over 25 years ago, there have been numerous TV series and full-length films expanding the Star Trek universe, and most of them have been very successful. I have watched and enjoyed most of them, as well as two humorous parodies, Tim Allen’s Galaxy Quest and Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville. But nothing in the Star Trek franchise during the past 20 years has gotten me really excited until now. I just watched the first episode of Star Trek: Picard, a new series developed for CBS All Access.

The cold open of Episode 1 shows Captain Picard and Commander Data playing poker in the Ten Forward lounge, a setting familiar to all TNG fans. In the background, Bing Crosby’s version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” is playing. This is the song Mr. Data sang at the wedding of Commander Riker and Deana Troi, shortly before Data sacrificed his life to save the crew of the Enterprise in the last TNG movie, Star Trek: Nemesis. Both Patrick Stewart and Brent Spinner stepped back into their roles perfectly, as if the eighteen-year hiatus didn’t exist. To old TNG fans, it almost appears that nothing much had changed. Data still displays his intelligence, humanity, and naivete, and Picard is still the witty, wise, and thoughtful Captain we remember. But this is a dream sequence to snare past viewers, and, of course, things have changed.

We learn that Picard has been retired from Star Fleet for more than a decade and is living at Chateau Picard, his large and thriving vineyard in France. He is  now over 90 and is assisted by his loyal house staff, a Romulan man and woman. This immediately caught my attention, since when we last saw Picard in Nemesis, there was only a tentative truce between the Federation and its long time enemy, the Romulan Empire.  There is much to catch up on.

The new series represents a major commitment by CBS All Access to establish a strong foothold in the Star Trek universe. It is the creation of Kristen Beyer, Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, and Alex Kurtzman. Patrick Stewart, Goldsman, Kurtzman, and Chabon are among the show’s strong executive production team, which also includes Rod Roddenberry, the son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  Michael Chabon,  a bestselling novelist, science fiction writer,  and screenwriter–and an admitted Star Trek fan–is the series “show -runner.”  This means he has overall creative authority and management responsibility for the series. The first two episodes are directed by Hanelle Culpepper, an energetic and unflappable filmmaker with broad experience in television. She is the first woman to direct an initial Star Trek episode and, along with Chabon, may bring a younger perspective to the 55 year old Star Trek saga. Episode 1 seems to suggest that Chabon and his team intend to return to the thoughtful, big issue approach of the TNG series, rather than continue the predictable “space opera” adventure trend of the Star Trek motion pictures. But the first episode did include enough stunning visual effects, action, mayhem, and death to keep our attention.

Sopan Deb, in a New York Times review of the new series, noted that:

There are just enough nods to “Next Generation” lore to signal for die-hard fans that this is a show that understands why Picard’s return is so important to them. But it doesn’t lean so heavily into nostalgia to overwhelm a great story. And it is a great story.

The tone and feel of the first episode is intimate and earthbound, as Picard broods about the loss of his friend Data and several other epic events which are quickly revealed. Picard’s interactions with his Romulan house staff, and with Number 1, his companion pit bull, portray Picard as more vulnerable and approachable than he seemed as the imperious Captain of the Enterprise.

In the initial dream sequence poker game, Data makes a large bet which forces Picard to risk all he has left to “call.”  When Picard pushes all his chips into the pot, Data’s reaction convinces Picard that Data has the winning hand. Picard begins refreshing his Earl Grey tea and otherwise stalling to avoid laying down his losing hand. When Data asks why he is stalling, Picard, with a show of wrenching emotion, answers Because I don’t want the game to end. He then wakes up. This may be the key to understanding the series.

Through well-paced action and dialogue, we are quickly brought up to date about intervening events and are then promptly immersed in a mystery concerning Data’s legacy, artificial intelligence issues, the cessation of the Federation’s manufacture of synthetic androids, and the appearance of a strange young girl with unique powers who is somehow intimately involved with Picard. The episode is punctuated by scenes incorporating advanced weapons, acrobatic martial arts, mysterious assailants, and lots of dead bodies. All this stimulates Picard to abandon his sedentary vineyard life and get back in the game.

Trailers indicate that Picard is about to surreptitiously acquire a starship, assemble a crew, and launch into the unknown to find answers to these vexing new questions. My reaction to this planned undertaking by Captain Picard is in sharp contrast to how I reacted to that first mission with Captain Kirk 54 years ago. When I was 22, the thought of a 35-year-old hero embarking on an epic adventure was expected and not especially noteworthy. But now that I’m 76, the thought of a man at least 15 years older than I am, who has trouble climbing stairs, undertaking such a mission draws both my admiration and my concern. I will be rooting for Picard to prevail, but I hope he can find time to nap and then stretch a little. I will worry about him because, after a certain age, most folks don’t handle stress well, especially when moving at warp speed.

Critics who have seen the first three episodes report that these initial episodes are mostly “set up” so that both veteran Star Trek fans, and new viewers who have not seen the prior 55 years of Star Trek, are all able to get up to speed. Then, when this much more mature Captain Picard gives his new crew the order to “Engage,” we can all enjoy the adventure together.

CBS All Access has already committed to Season 2, so I am looking forward to “going where no person has gone before” each Thursday night for the foreseeable future.

Live Long and Prosper!

BOLLI member and frequent contributor to BOLLI Matters, Dennis Greene

Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer–and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie.  He saw The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.

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