Some months ago I had the pleasure of getting to sit in on a brief interview with Patrick Stewart and Alex Kurtzman, with Jeff Bezos asking the questions. I’m not sure if he was involved in some of the funding for Star Trek Picard, but he’s clearly a fan of sci-fi (as evidenced with him taking on The Expanse from season 4). After the event and everyone filed out, as I was making my way down the street some minutes later, I walked right past Kurtzman going in the other direction, and part of my mind wanted to stop and ask him what the hell the deal was with the direction Star Trek has gone, but a general desire to not be a creeper naturally prevented me from acting on that impulse.
Kurtzman is part of a troop of writers that have been all over TV and movies since the early 2000s. I can’t speak much to the television writing, but the movies generally lean towards being pretty dumb. I don’t know for sure how much of this is Kurtzman, as he’s nearly always a co-writer, but with his name on such enlightening and impactful stories as Transformers, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Star Trek 2009, Star Trek Into Darkness, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, he’s a common thread through a lot of really dumb movies. Dumb movies can be fine, and it’s fine to make them and for them to exist, but I take some offense to it when we get into something like Star Trek.
Star Trek is campy, but not all the time. It’s also scientifically accurate, but not all the time. Part of good science fiction writing is having some idea how things are supposed to work, and then maybe pushing that knowledge past what the scientific community knows. You’re allowed to make up your own answers to yet unanswered questions, especially if it’s in service to your story. What we see in Star Trek since 2009 has been something far different. Ignoring known science for the sake of pacing and excitement that makes things fun in the moment, but horribly stupid in retrospect.
Star Trek Picard carried with it, at least until the first episode was released, a bit of hope that things could return to form. My guess, though, was that Star Trek Picard compared to Star Trek Discovery would have the same terrible scripts, but will better handle the nostalgia aspect. Patrick Stewart adds a level of class that will make the show seem better than it really is, and the less critically-minded will watch it feeling like old Trek is finally back, even though it’s nowhere close. That’d be a nice thing to be able to feel, though.
Let’s Get Into It
TL;DR: Based on the first episode, Star Trek Picard is not the return to form I was hoping. The action isn’t yet completely excessive, though a scene midway-through the episode goes on needlessly forever, eventually flying off the rails and killing itself off. In the same way it would be difficult to reckon TNG TV Picard and TNG Movie Picard, the production seems torn between wanting to tone things down a bit to make it seem more like old Trek and wanting to make a mindless action show with ninjas and galaxy-destroying super weapons.
By this point I’m sure the Collective has already complained extensively about all these things, but here’s my general irks and grumbles:
Next time on…: It wasn’t until the little trailer for the rest of the season played that it really hit me how dumb everything was. Creepy McEvilguy! Romulans are building a Borg cube? Punching and shooting and sword-fighting elves, oh my! This made it seem clear that the rest of the show is going to be a long-form version of a TNG movie, but with the additional burden of needing to introduce the next-next generation. This is definitely “could be worse” as while none of the TNG movies were particularly good, they probably would have seemed better if they were in an episodic form, even if the stories were just as dumb.
An odd lack of de-aging: I’m not sure why they went this way, but it seems particularly odd to me that Picard remembers Data as though he had kept on aging along with him. He should really remember him as he was in Nemesis. And of all characters, Data being an android is probably one of the easiest sorts of characters you can get away with it without worrying so much about the uncanny valley.
Assuming Dahj has borrowed memories from Data or something, why does she visualize the current-aged Picard? Maybe her third eye got the latest photo off of space-Google or something.
Skipping the Good Stuff: What struck me the most is that they hand-waved over things that I think would have been more interesting stories. This show seems to be keeping the continuity of the TNG movies, and nods to the supernova that causes the 2009 movie to happen, but I think I’d have preferred things to start there. Shoving it 10 years in the past and then just trying to make the audience accept that a bunch of junk went down makes the setup for who Picard is now and what the Federation has become seem rushed and flimsy, especially regarding the bizarre logical leap to it all leading to a ban on androids. Picard seems to be equally revered and detested because all of the social progress that Star Trek had been a beacon of has been utterly trashed.
The explosion that destroys Romulus is supposed to have threatened the entire galaxy. That’s the sort of cosmic event that I want to see get dealt with in science fiction, but unfortunately it’s already been hastily covered in Star Trek 2009, and one of the main figures in that was Leonard Nimoy, who has since passed on. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t do a story about Picard’s part in it. Mention that Spock is out Spocking it up, but show us what’s happening on the administrative side.
Show us his role, the logistical nightmare of getting the fleet together to try an evacuate an entire planet’s worth of a mature world that should have billions of people on it. Give us some rousing speeches of an older Admiral Picard making his case to the rest of Starfleet that they must do whatever they can to help the Romulans. Take some time and explain why they can’t help themselves, as advanced as they are, or where they come up short. Maybe there’s a sect of Romulans trying to screw things up on purpose.
Oh, wait, they covered all of this in the 2009 Countdown comic books. Oh no, they did it again for Into Darkness. Oh no! They’re doing it again with Picard (what the hell is with that cover art?), retelling the latest version of the 2009 Countdown. What the damn it? Stop taking the interesting parts and shoving them in comic book in service of awful action schlock moving pictures.
There’s a whole first season of this show it feels like we’ve skipped. Show us the Federation using the disaster as an opportunity to bring Romulans into the Federation, or other galactic empires trying to muck with the gears of this to their own ends. Talk about the cosmic event itself and flesh it out some to justify what’s happening. Then at the end of that first season have something go terribly wrong that causes Picard to fall out with the Federation if you want. Give yourself time to justify why the hell suddenly everything is the androids’ fault and then you can take it from there and write your story about how an android is Jesus and is the only thing that can stop the Borg from taking over the galaxy again. Again.
As it is, if feels like the viewer is asked to just accept a bunch of junk because reasons, and that feels pretty bad.
Boldly Groaning Where No One Has Groaned Before
“Ugh, really” is not the feeling I wanted to have, but I expected at least some of it. The chief culprits:
FOX News in space!: “FNN” (presumably “Federation New Network”) and some xenophobic interviewer trying to make connections with current events. I don’t remember anyone even watching TV in Star Trek, and I assumed everyone just read things very quickly in some non-video format. New Star Trek viewers apparently aren’t ready for such a hopeful vision of the future, though, so I guess the 24th century is back to getting their news from talking heads and AM radio.
The Federation: Apparently the Federation, made up of dozens of different species, decides that androids blowing their ship manufacturing plant (and somehow setting a planet of fire permanently) means that they should specifically hate Romulans for their sun (???) exploding.
The Romulan Sun Exploding: What? Is this supposed to be the thing that leads to Star Trek 2009 happening? It’s the same writers. Did they forget that it wasn’t the same star? Probably. I mean, it was pretty dumb before, but there wasn’t really a particular reason to change it for this show that I can see. I’m sure they just forgot.
Assassin Girl is Probably the Key to Everything: Is Dahj or her arbitrary twin the key to the universe? Probably. The direction of everything reeks of this, and if that’s not what happens I guess I should be glad that my expectations will be subverted, but I’d prefer to not have that expectation in the first place. Also taking a female character and giving her a coat of “awesome ninja assassin” paint is done to death.
I laughed out loud in disbelief when she jumped up two flights of stairs during the excessively long rooftop fight scene (thankfully one of only two of these spectacles in the episode).
Picard Cares Excessively About Data: This seems fine. Picard is older, and clearly nostalgic for old times, just like the audience. The curious bit is the omission of the rest of the crew, but this is in service of some nonsense plot where I’m sure something involving Data will be the most important thing in the galaxy, so while the reality would probably be that Picard misses everyone, the story needs him to specifically care about Data, so that’s all we get.
Assassins Using Really Dumb Methods: It’s hard to imagine there not being surveillance on suddenly teleporting into someone’s apartment in the first place with your little gang of assassins, but I’m guessing even if you can bypass that junk, firing phasers on any setting, even in a residential area, is going to set of some alarms you’d rather not deal with if you’re the kidnapper/assassin sort of person in the 24th century, so I’ll give the “let’s just put a bag on her head and knock her out” and “throw a knife at that guy” stuff a pass.
Get Off My Lawn
Star Trek for me is at its best when it’s a diverse group of people joining together to deal with some sort of cosmic anomaly. Life vs. the universe that gave it to us. Perseverance, ingenuity, and collaboration in the face of the horrible power of nature to show us what we can be when we’re at our very best.
Star Trek Picard looks like it’s going to make a very quick turn down the lesser path: Action! With lasers!
I’ll probably still watch the rest of it, remaining morbidly curious and always very slightly hopeful.