The latest CBS All Access spin-off fails to launch.

By Darren Franich
January 23, 2020 at 03:00 AM EST
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New life, new civilizations: Nah. Star Trek: Picard boldly goes nowhere new, graverobbing fan-familiar concepts when it’s not distracting you with pointless fight scenes. The clichés pile in Thursday’s premiere episode, streaming on CBS All Access. Premonition dreams wedge in a dead-character cameo. New character Dahj (Isa Briones) gets the Jason Bourne intro: A regular person, so whoooaaaaa where’d the badass martial arts moves come from? Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) returns with a mad-as-hell televised speech, such a tired way to launch a show that Aaron Sorkin already did it twice. The dynamic between Picard and Dahj suggests one Star saga playing catch-up: He’s the famous elderly hermit unretiring for one last job, and she’s Palpatine’s granddaughter, more or less.

Worth the subscription fee, you might think, just to see Stewart back in uniform. The Next Generation‘s charismatic captain last appeared 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, a memorably unpleasant vampire-clone weirdventure that killed off Picard’s synthetic friend Data (Brent Spiner). From then to now, Picard got promoted — and fired. He was once a Starfleet Admiral plotting a rescue mission to save 900 million Romulans from a supernova. That calamity, witnessed distantly in 2009’s feature reboot, took place kitty-corner to another disaster. Peaceful androids on Mars went kill-crazy, exploding a massive shipyard in a suicide scorch. The carnage scotched the Romulan resettlement plan — not that there was much political will to help an enemy empire.

Matt Kennedy/CBS

Why did Picard part ways with Starfleet? “Because,” he fumes, “It was no longer Starfleet!” Heavy conceptual framework here: Environmental catastrophe, a homefront assault. To be unforgivably blunt, it’s Space Katrina plus Martian 9/11, with a side of who-turned-the-androids-crazy hacker paranoia, and the depressing possibility that someone in the writers’ room said “false flag” out loud. Picard was a Trek paragon: soldier, diplomat, philosopher, intermediary from our lifestream into a megalotheistic abstract-o-realm, expert palmer of face. Now Starfleet’s finest is Starfleet’s critic.

Picard, suffice it to say, is nothing like The Next Generation. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though the streaming hysterics make you long for leisurely syndicated charms: Holodeck reveries, Ten Forward wind-downs, comfy lean-back helm chairs, the eternal promise of an O’Brien Family check-in. Instead, Picard is bad for the same reason many contemporary genre series are bad: It’s a long-form story with zero forward progression. In the pilot, Picard decides to set off on a new mission. Two episodes later, he’s still organizing a crew for that mission: The thrills of pre-production, dramatized!

Serialization used to be exciting, back when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was crafting a multi-season war epic. The three episodes of Picard I’ve seen confirm that serialization has become a haven for television’s hackiest writing, a way to justify stretching one limp story across empty take-forever hours. Briones’ role entwines famous Trek species, but her subplot deadends into “Weird stuff sure is happening!” placeholder tension. Santiago Cabrera, Michelle Hurd, and Alison Pill play characters who you just know will join up with Picard; naturally, they spend a long time debating whether or not to join Picard.

The series was co-created by Alex Kurtzman, the reigning Star Trek producer of the past decade, unfortunately. He co-wrote the 2009 reboot and 2013’s magic-blood crashfest Star Trek Into Darkness, before steering Star Trek: Discovery through two bumpy seasons. Discovery has its lighthearted pleasures, and is the first show in TV history to ever feature the decapitated head of a Klingon baby. The noggin was fake, but its appearance was telling: Kurtzman’s vision for Star Trek is loud and violent, “mature content” for immature dumbos. In Picard, there’s a recurring threat that SWAT-looking assassins might teleport into a room to explode into fountains of blood acid. (You can understand why some fans flee to Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which recreates a kinder-gentler Trek era right down to the alleged hairpiece.)

In a generous mood, you’d say: Picard is about societal trauma. The main characters are grief-stricken. Hurd’s Raffi is a disgraced Starfleet-er gone freaky off future weed. Cabrera gives good scoundrel as a spaceman named Rios, until the tell-all dialogue reveals a tragic backstory involving “blood and brains splattered all over a bulkhead.” Picard himself is haunted by Data, “the man whose death I’ve been mourning for two decades.”

Hard to declare absolutes with a franchise so massive, but I do think that Picard has built Star Trek‘s darkest future ever. Synthetic beings are outlawed. Victims of the Borg collective recover from their assimilation, and “there’s no more despised people in the galaxy,” we’re told. Anti-Romulan sentiment runs high. The show clearly wants to oppose isolationism, but the plot has it both ways: The pointy-headed sneaks actually have slithered into high levels of government.

“I never dreamed that Starfleet would give into intolerance and fear,” Picard says, and I know what you’re thinking: Is he talking about us, man? The problem, I think, is that all this bleakness feels blandly familiar, cynical tropes hiding a lack of creative spark. The show doesn’t honor its own criticisms. Picard decries Starfleet as an organization but praises Starfleet ethics. He wants to get himself a starship, and will, of course, get around to saying “engage.” Other characters accuse him of being a relic — but they also worship him as a famous hero. You don’t blame them. Can’t Star Trek just go trekking to the stars? Wasn’t that the whole point: a new weird thing every week, investigated by coworkers respectful enough to never swear?

It’s possible that Kurtzman’s response would be a variation of an opinion I’ve seen elsewhere: Well, times are tougher now, so Star Trek should be tougher. As if the late ’60s were all peace and quiet. Picard feels narratively stuck in its own past — the most famous image from The Next Generation becomes, no joke, an archaeological dig — but stylistically, it’s the lamest sort of modern. Even the twists around Dahj come off like shock tactics, stranding newcomer Briones in the vacant role of Sap Who Doesn’t Notice How Strange Everything Around Her Is.

It gives me no joy to say this, but: Stewart gave a more interesting performance in 2019’s Charlie’s Angels. That scattershot revival had the wit to cast Sir Patrick way against type. His Bosley was a wily charmer — and, surprise, an angry old man raging against his own future-is-female obsolescence. Stewart was having scary fun with all that bad behavior. His role here is mournful, but the character’s iconography makes a weird fit into Kurtzman’s tone of aggressive self-seriousness. For a certain swath of the Trek-loving fanbase, Picard basically is Starfleet. He’s raging against his own machine.

Kurtzman is one of four credited co-creators, and there’s a tonal whiplash in these early episodes that could reflect diverging mission statements. That was already a problem with Discovery, which frequently swapped producers before resetting itself entirely for the upcoming third season. Will Picard find a clear direction forward? The showrunner is the brilliant novelist Michael Chabon, who I’m required to point out also worked on 2012’s John Carter. I worry that talky flop is more suggestive of the material here than any of Chabon’s wondrous prose. Honestly, though, I have no clue what Picard looks like going forward. In the third episode, a bunch of people finally get together on the bridge of a starship. The mood lightens immediately: Was that so hard?

Larger question: Does anyone want a bitter and brutal Star Trek, full of murder-sorrow flashbacks, swoopy-kinetic fights, and all-encompassing paranoia? So much of Trek since 2009 strains to resemble the dumbest version of cool. You always sense the hand of some savvy-pitchman producer trying hard to make everything that was once endearingly nerdy look swole as hell. Picard has flashes of eccentricity, and any science-fiction show with a Miguel de Unamuno shoutout demands a quantum of hope. But for now, this is another disappointing Star Trek. Should we give it a chance? My advice: Disengage. Grade: C

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Star Trek: Picard

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