Ahead of watching Star Trek: Picard I was travelling firmly within my own personal neutral zone, completely unenthused by (albeit not turned against) Patrick Stewart’s grand return as Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Sure, I’d watched and loved Star Trek: The Next Generation – but not for a while. Yes, I was somewhat interested in seeing Stewart return to the role 18 years after Star Trek: Nemesis, but overall I felt generally apathetic (not negative, just not excited) about an openly nostalgic follow-up to a decades-old TV series. I’d probably watch it, I thought, but I wouldn’t boldly go and seek it out week after week.
Well, how wrong I was. Because far from just being a nostalgia-ridden vehicle for Patrick Stewart (though it certainly is that as well), Picard is brilliant – it’s fun, imaginative and full of the ethical quandaries that made The Next Generation such a great watch, along with a newly involving, emotional and thematically rich story that acts both as a sequel to the world of TNG and a comment on our own society. Already, I'm desperate to see more.
Picking up around 14 years after two specific incidents – an apparent android uprising and the destruction of the planet Romulus – forced Admiral Picard out of Starfleet, the series catches up with Jean-Luc as he lives peacefully, if not exactly happily, on his vineyard. Soon, however, he’s forced out of his rut by the arrival of a mysterious woman (Isa Briones) who’s being targeted by unknown forces and has tracked down Picard as the only man who can help her.
Before long Picard is breaking all the rules, investigating a massive conspiracy and recruiting a crew (played by Michelle Hurd, Santiago Cabrera and Alison Pill) to go on an unsanctioned, off-the-books mission that could have massive consequences for himself, Starfleet and the universe at large – but he’s also the happiest he’s been in years as he leaps back into action.
Predictably, Picard’s dissatisfaction with his dotage is one of the key ideas explored in the new series, but I was surprised by how moving the storyline was. Blackballed by Starfleet and fading out of the world’s memory, it’s affecting to see Picard’s despair and rage as he’s stuck on the sidelines, the universe slowly moving away from both him and the moral code he so strongly believes in (with some subtle parallels to our own troubled times, if you can believe it).
Towards the end of the first episode there’s a particularly stirring scene when Picard grimly realises he’s just been “waiting to die,” his life continuing to drag on as the person he thought he was is left behind in memories. But this doesn’t last for long, and if your heart doesn’t leap a little at the moment he finally gets to “Engage” and warp away on a spaceship (which doesn’t happen until episode three), you might need to be fitted with your own emotion chip.
With the iconic Star Trek theme playing lightly in the background, this scene is also a great example of how Picard marries nostalgic Trek callbacks with the new story. From new takes on old characters (including Brent Spiner’s android Data in the first episode) and out-and-out Easter Eggs (keep an eye out for a museum stuffed full of TNG props) to a reinterpretation of alien species like the Romulans and the Borg, the series maintains a continuity with what came before but adds more depth and nuance to all of it. And even if some of the alien make-up (especially for Harry Treadaway's emo Romulan Narek) is still a little wacky, that feels very Star Trek as well.
If Picard has a fault, in fact, it could be that it’s so clearly geared towards Trek fans, with a base knowledge of characters like Data and Picard’s backstory needed before a lot of the storylines make sense. Personally, as someone who last watched most of TNG a decade or so ago, I found it easy enough to follow, bar a bit of confusion about what the status quo of the characters was last time we saw them – though I would note that there are a few callbacks to the largely unpopular 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis, so if that’s faded out of your memory it might be worth refreshing yourself on what happened there.
Still, it’s hard to begrudge a series an obsession with the past when really, that’s the central theme of it – how to live up to and move beyond your own legend. And on that front, Picard the series and Picard the man have both making good steps towards becoming something new and exciting.
After watching the first three episodes, forget neutrality. From now on, I’m completely engaged.
Star Trek: Picard’s first episode streams on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 24th January