Star Trek: Picard is at its best when it remembers to be optimistic

Patrick Stewart's spin-off needs more Jonathan Frakes, less Borg torture

Star Trek: Picard episode 7

Jean-Luc Picard – legendary Starfleet Captain. Hero of multiple galaxies. Cherished commander of the Enterprise-D. And also… kind of a moper?

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That’s the conclusion many fans would be forgiven for drawing while watching new spin-off series Star Trek: Picard, which imagines the later years of Patrick Stewart’s The Next Generation hero as he gets tied into a complex plot involving Romulans, androids and former Borg.

After a strong start, public reaction to the series seems to have become more muted in recent weeks, and personally it’s not hard to see why. In Picard, the hope and optimism that still makes early Star Trek such an enjoyable, aspirational watch is largely absent, the show introducing instead a crueller, more inward-looking galaxy.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with telling a more serious Star Trek story – Deep Space Nine did it regularly – and the theme of an older, more jaded Picard is an interesting one to explore. Simultaneously, the themes of political insularity and intolerance have never been more current.

But sometimes Picard is just grim.

In a recent episode, a regularly-appearing Star Trek: Voyager character (ex-Borg Icheb) who fans had watched grow and flourish over a number of episodes decades ago was brought back, only to be horribly, graphically tortured and disfigured in his very first scene. Shortly after that, his de facto “mother” Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) had to murder him in cold blood.

Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) in Star Trek: Picard
CBS

Again, consequences and death in sci-fi aren’t bad things. But here the death of Icheb felt gratuitous, a hamfisted attempt at proving how “adult” Picard was – similar to the introduction of swearing in both this series and Star Trek: Discovery. And this is just one example of the show’s generally “grimdark” shift, which generally sees the upbeat world of TNG transformed into a completely different, generic sci-fi universe.

Because that’s the thing – it’s not actually new or interesting to show a turbulent, corrupt and troubled galaxy. That’s what 90 per cent of space-travelling sci-fi is already. In today’s pop culture climate, it would be more radical to make The Next Generation again than it is to make Picard. Yes, it’s a contrast to the original version of the Star Trek world, but it’s also firmly a part of the current sci-fi status quo.

Still, perhaps there’s hope for this new series. In the latest episode, Nepenthe (released on Amazon Prime Video today), Picard reunites with his old second-in-command Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Enterprise Counsellor Troi (Marina Sirtis) – and here Picard manages to blend the world of TNG with something more grounded beautifully.

Star Trek: Picard episode 7

Unlike Patrick Stewart’s somewhat looser performance as Picard these days, both Frakes and Sirtis seem to be channelling their TNG styles closely, with Frakes in particular speaking in exactly the same manner as the younger Commander Riker. This acts well as a bit of connective tissue to the world of TNG, while the Riker family’s domestic bliss adds a little more balance to the increasingly downbeat Star Trek galaxy.

But within this, Riker and Troi have had some personal tragedy (I won’t spoil it here) which adds layers to the characterisations we wouldn’t have seen in a story-of-the-week network TV show in the ’80s and ’90s without moving away from what made them so watchable in the first place.

For me this is what Picard should be doing – adding shades of grey and depth to the characters and world we know – rather than telling a generically grim, uninteresting sci-fi story with a Star Trek skin. Make it so, CBS.

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Star Trek: Picard released new episodes on Amazon Prime Video on Fridays