Star Trek: Picard is looking to the future instead of reimagining the past

David Brown is thankful that the sci-fi franchise is no longer serving up prequels

Star Trek is finally looking to the future again with Picard series

The image says it all. Jean-Luc Picard is standing in his vineyard in France with the vastness of the heavens before him. But the angle of his head suggests that he doesn’t know whether to look to the sky or turn away from it. For us fans, though, the message is clear: with its new Picard series, Star Trek is once again embracing the future and it’s a wonderful thing.

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Since 2002, we’ve been deprived of a show set in the post-Nemesis 24th century, thanks to the Star Trek franchise choosing instead to mine its own past. First, there was Enterprise, which told the story of Starfleet’s earliest explorations, then the crew of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise were recast for the big screen, before Discovery also took us back to the 23rd century.

But the trouble with prequels is that they always come with this built-in sense of inevitability. Just the very presence of Spock in Discovery robs that series of jeopardy because we know that he’ll survive. (And then die. And be reborn, obviously.) So where’s the tension?

Then there’s the issue of continuity, which, in the case of Star Trek, has been mapped out over 50-plus years. For the timeline to make sense, Discovery had to leap through some pretty convoluted (and, at times, credulity straining) hoops in order explain why its characters were never mentioned in other series or why Spock didn’t talk about his adoptive sister Michael Burnham.

For purists, however, the biggest stumbling block are Discovery’s aesthetics. The technology on display puts The Next Generation to shame, which is irritating, seeing as it’s supposedly set a century before Picard’s mission.

Ep #201 - Pictured: Anson Mount as Captain Pike; Rachael Ancheril as Lt. Nhan; Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham; of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Jan Thijs/CBS © 2018 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

Prior to Enterprise and Discovery, we’d witnessed Star Trek spin-offs reference the 1960s-inspired consoles and clothing of the Original Series in a playful way. The Deep Space Nine episode, Trials and Tribble-ations, for instance, has great fun at the expense of those bulky tricorders and mini-dresses. But, when watching Discovery, with its sheen and expansive starship viewscreens, we’re constantly left asking: why didn’t the writers just set this in the far future rather than in Star Trek’s own past?

Well, for those who’ve been left frustrated by this revisionist take on Trek lore, there is finally some hope, because we’re no longer nose-deep in the Federation’s history books. Instead, a new “in universe” exhibit in San Diego celebrating the life of Jean-Luc Picard ahead of Patrick Stewart’s on-screen return is exploring previously uncharted territory.

Official revelations about Picard’s life after the events of Nemesis (and I’m not counting non-canonical literature, terrific though some has been) had been scarce. But we’re now getting some tantalising glimpses into what’s in store: apparently Picard commanded the Enterprise-E until 2381 when he was promoted to admiral and given a special assignment by Starfleet Command.

Then, in 2386, he retired from Starfleet completely and returned to a quiet life tending his vines in La Barre. Executive producer Alex Kurtzman has also spoken out about plans for the upcoming drama, revealing that “events conspire to take Picard back to the stars”.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

For those of us who came of age during Star Trek’s second coming in the 1980s, news such as this is thrilling. Looking back, we really were spoilt for choice during that period: with Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, we had 21 seasons of drama, each building on and adding to the 24th-century world being created before our eyes. If I can be permitted to slip into cliché for half a sentence, we were truly boldly going forward where no one had gone before.

It was a heady time, supplemented as it was by tie-in novels, comic books, even action figures. And when Star Trek paid tribute to its legacy – as in 1991’s Undiscovered Country movie or Leonard Nimoy’s appearance as Spock in the TNG two-parter Unification – it was respectful and touching.

But it wasn’t to last. For many fans, the backward-looking Enterprise felt like that moment in Search for Spock when the sabotaged Excelsior sputtered and ground to a halt as it tried to leave Spacedock. The antipathy towards it obviously put the frighteners on Paramount, which then went down the nostalgia route with the franchise.

Those three Chris Pine-starring films gave us all the tried-and-tested totems that even those who’d barely exchanged more than a nod and a smile with Star Trek down the decades would recognise. True, Trek now appeared to have more pep in its step, but the fact that these movies were prequels (albeit ones in an alternative timeline) did reduce the risk factor somewhat.

What’s happened now, of course, is that the era of the Next Generation has faded so far into the past (it debuted a whopping 32 years ago) that it too is being viewed with a certain degree of wistfulness and sentimentality. But looking at the pre-publicity for Star Trek: Picard, it seems that the show’s writers aren’t merely trying to recapture past glories. As befits an actor of Stewart’s calibre, it appears as though Picard is wrestling with fresh demons and is a very different figure to the one we last encountered in the lacklustre Nemesis.

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It remains to be seen whether the finished product will bear this theory out. But the indisputable fact is that Star Trek is finally moving its own story onwards. Instead of remoulding old events, we’re getting a whole new starfield to explore. And I, for one, can’t wait to engage.