This Star Trek: Picard review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Picard Episode 1
“Be the captain they remember.” Too many reboots, sequels, etc. take the same advice too literally. They try to recreate a story from a different era forgetting that cultural context mattered then and it matters now. In Star Trek: Picard, which picks back up with this iconic character roughly 20 years after Star Trek: Nemesis, understands that for Picard to be the “same” character meant something different in 2002 (Nemesis), or 1994 (the final episode of The Next Generation), than it means today.
For one, Picard no longer stands with Starfleet, no doubt a cathartic representation for many viewers (including this one) who are experiencing their own frustrations and anger at the failure of our institutions to protect the people they are meant to represent. The original Star Treks (The Original Series and TNG) were institutional utopias: they believed in the power of Starfleet and/or the Federation, and that belief usually paid off in uncomplicated ways. This started to change with Deep Space Nine, which was more explicitly about space politics than any other Star Trek that had come before, and was complex in its depiction of the limits of institutions like the Federation. Voyager took an interesting left turn when it came to institution, exploring the question of what happens when an entire ship’s worth of Starfleet personnel is removed from the larger framework of institution.
I would argue that one of Discovery‘s biggest weaknesses so far is its lack of articulation regarding its relationship to institution, so it’s nice to see Picard have something to say on the subject. So far in Picard, we have seen this failure of institution chiefly through the eyes of Jean-Luc rather than for ourselves. And while all characters are biased in their own, necessary ways, he has spent years and decades (if you like a The Next Generation rewatch) earning our trust as a leader, thinker, and human being.
In Picard, Jean-Luc has been out of Starfleet for decades, having resigned following the supernova that destroyed the Romulan homeworld and the terrorist action on Mars that happened more or less concurrently. While Starfleet originally chose to answer the Romulan’s call for help in the mass evacuation of their homeworld, spurred in large part by Admiral Picard, they went back on that promise following an android uprising on Mars (an event explored in Short Trek “Children of Mars”).
The revolt destroyed the Utopia Planetia shipyards that were in the process of producing an evacuation fleet for Romulus. Tens of thousands died in the attack that shook Starfleet to its core, and even more died on Romulus without Starfleet’s help. We learn in this first episode that there has been a blanket ban on the development of synthetic life forms as a result. Picard’s resignation was seemingly in protest to both of Starfleet’s decisions: to abandon Romulan in its hour of need and to ban synthetic life forms.
The best reboots recognize the changed cultural contexts of their characters, but they don’t forget who those characters have been in the process. Jean-Luc’s anger and frustration regarding the ban on synthetics echoes his feelings and actions in “Measure of a Man,” a second episode of TNG and one of its best. In the episode, the rights of Lieutenant Commander Data are threatened when a scientist named Dr. Bruce Maddox (name checked in this episode of Dr. Agnes Jurati) who wishes to dismantle him to study his positronic brain requests permission from Starfleet to do so. Captain Picard acts as his counsel in Starfleet court, arguing for Data’s right to make the decision for himself—a fight he eventually wins.
These themes are picked back up in third season TNG episode “The Offspring,” which sees Data creating an android child of his own, named Lal. When Picard reports the events to Starfleet command, they send someone from Starfleet Research who wants to take Lal away from Data. Captain Picard is Data’s most fervent defender, encouraging him to ignore the researcher’s demands that he hand Lal over to him and supporting his rights as a sentient being. Lal ends up dying shortly after her creation, but her life had meaning, not only to Data, who keeps her memories in his own neural net, but to Picard, who values life and has always been a protector of the most vulnerable.
We see these identities on brilliant display during Jean-Luc’s interview. The interviewer (a devilishly insistent Merrin Dungey) prods Picard in his most sensitive spots to get a reaction. “It was not easy for those who died and it was not easy for those who were left behind,” he tells her before leaving the interview before its intended close. The experience makes him realize just how much he has been avoiding during his self-imposed exile at Chateau Picard. Some would argue that Jean-Luc has earned the retirement, but that’s not how Jean-Luc himself sees it. “I haven’t been living,” he tells his vineyard companions, seemingly Romulan refugees. “I’ve been waiting to die.”
Conveniently, a purpose immediately makes itself known to a Picard more than ready for his next mission. It takes the form of a Dahj, a young woman on the run from Romulan agents. They killed her boyfriend and tried to take Dahj, triggering some kind of self-defense instinct within her. She breaks out some martial arts skills, killing them all easily with a bag on her head. When she breaks down over her boyfriend’s dead body, it becomes clear that she has no idea what the hell is going on. The only clue she has? An image of Picard’s face buried within her mind. She goes to find him.
While Picard is immediately sympathetic to her struggle, his commitment to helping her solidifies when he realizes that she may be related to Data, the friend and colleague who died in order to save Picard in Star Trek: Nemesis. Picard still dreams about Data: they play cards together in Ten Forward during the episode’s opening moments, signalling how important this relationship is both to Jean-Luc and to the series itself. “I don’t want the game to end,” Picard tells his old friend on the ship that meant so much to all of us.
Picard may have moved on from Starfleet, but that doesn’t mean his time on the Enterprise isn’t still where he feels safest, isn’t still what he considers home. But home cannot protect us from everything, even in our dreams. The dream ends with Mars exploding outside of the Enterprise’s window, suggesting just how troubled Jean-Luc still is about the events surrounding the Romulan supernova.
Perhaps it is unfair to judge other characters against the central one in this case, given that the latter has had hundreds of hours of on-screen character development, but it’s hard not to notice just how thinly Dahj is drawn in this premiere. When she is unexpectedly and brutally killed by a Romulan agent in front of Picard halfway through the episode, it becomes somewhat clear why that choice was made. The death is effective because we see how it devastates Picard, who immediately cares deeply about Dahj because he cared deeply about Data, but it would have been even more effective if Dahj had felt more like a fully-developed character rather than a checklist of attributes, starting with giving her at least one full scene before violence and confusion overtakes her storyline.
While we briefly meet her boyfriend and mother, those relationships are not allowed to develop in any real way. And while we know she has been accepted into a program at the Daystrom Institute, her identity as a scientist is not integrated into her character. As is, the episode relies too much on the superficial qualities of a specific trope (the emotionally-fraught young woman who is secretly a badass fighter but also a mystery even to herself, seen most famously in Joss Whedon stories) without doing the work to create a specific character, which is particularly important in a story that seems to be engaging with the “what makes us human?” theme central to so much science fiction.
While Dahj’s introduction may not always serve her character well enough, it gives us yet another chance to remember what we have admired about Jean-Luc. “That’s a beautiful memory, and it’s yours. No one can touch it or take it away,” Jean-Luc tells Dahj with a deep empathy. “I will never leave you,” he promises her.
But he can’t keep her safe. When the Romulan assassins catch back up with Dahj and Picard, there is only so much a 92-year-old man can do (Patrick Stewart himself is 79). Picard has never been an action hero, and thankfully Picard doesn’t try to make him one. The fact that Dahj is an action hero but it still doesn’t save her signifies how disinterested Picard is in telling a classic action story—good news for anyone who didn’t like those elements of many of the more recent feature films. Bad news for Dahj.
But actress Isa Briones isn’t done yet. As Yoda would say (whoops, wrong franchise): There is another. Dahj was a twin and the final moments of the episode show us what her sister is up to, leaving us with more questions than answers. Soji, as Dahj’s sister is called, is on a “Romulan Reclamation Site” that also happens to be a Borg cube. It seems like the Romulans have totally retrofitted it for their own purposes, building an army of Birds-of-Prey that suggests they are gearing up for a fight.
We meet Soji through the eyes of Narek, a tousled-hair Romulan who seems very interested in getting to know her—though something tells me not simply for the reasons his flirtation suggests. In their short conversation, we learn that he has a brother who died recently and that she does some kind of work with “broken people” (Narek’s words, not mine). Perhaps this could be connected to the Borg residents that presumably lived on the cube at some time? Whatever the answers to the questions this final scene presents, it’s a hell of a cliffhanger.
Be the captain they remember. Does Picard pull it off? Thus far, heck yes. But he isn’t just the captain we remember. How could he be? And why would we be interested in meeting that captain again? The world has changed and so must we. Jean-Luc doesn’t want the game to end, and neither do we. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to. Not yet.
Was anyone else getting Hunger Games movie vibes from that interview set-up?
Dunkirk has been so hot as a pop culture reference these past few years.
“Romulan lives.” “No… lives.”
It’s so refreshing to see a story like this that so thoughtfully centers an older man—so rare in our mainstream culture. Patrick Stewart is an intergalactic treasure.
“There’s no legacy so rich as honesty” is of course a quote from Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well because Jean-Luc Picard always has been and always will be a total Shakespeare nerd.
From the lush warmth of Chateau Picard and those intimate shots of Jean-Luc’s hands to the kineticism of those fight sequences, Hanelle Culpepper directed the hell out of this episode.
Data’s cat Spot better make an appearance in one of these dream sequences or I am asking for my money back.