The following article contains spoilers for earlier Star Trek properties but doesn’t reveal specific spoilers about Star Trek: Picard season three, not that you should be watching it anyway.
It’s 2034 and Warner Bros. decides it needs to wring more cash out of Friends, the decade defining cultural juggernaut and sitcom behemoth. Imagine what that show would be like; A warm and cozy three-decades-later check-in on characters you know intimately well. After all, you probably spent your formative years watching them mature from young single New Yorkers to a series of families. Maybe it’ll tickle those nostalgia glands, reminding you of when you watched the show with your own family as a kid.
Unfortunately, the hotshot creator of the age decided they want to go in a different direction this time. This needs to be a dark and gritty miserycore grief orgy that better reflects our more rough-and-tumble times. After all, TV these days can’t be gentle or comforting, offer escapism or posit a better world, not since Trump, Brexit, Bolonosaro, January 6th and Ukraine. The creative team have got that quote on a poster in their office, the one about the triumph of evil, and they’re not going to sit idly by, they’re taking a stand.
In the sequel, Rachel’s famous for her wellness TikTok that often makes allusions to “reclaiming” the US as a white ethnostate. Joey lost an arm while filming a movie and is now in prison after a failed heist to pay off his life-ruining medical debt. Monica’s got a crippling adderall addiction and slips away most nights to murder the neighborhood cats and dogs. Everything’s shot in ultra gloomy vision, and there’s no laugh track, jokes or a studio audience, just unrelenting misery.
This revival is dense with references to the Friends backstory as well as the broader Friends universe. Remember that Lisa Kudrow played Phoebe’s twin sister Ursula on Mad About You, right? If not, you better get yourself to Wikipedia to study up. I mean, it won’t be relevant to the plot, but it’s something you remember, so clap, go on, clap.
You might be wondering why such a project would be allowed to happen, given that it wouldn’t be fun for fans of the original series. Times change, characters age, but you can’t turn a cozy sitcom into Breaking Bad overnight and expect that to be satisfying. You’d hardly think it’d be a big pull for newbie viewers either, who’d probably steer clear if they weren’t already familiar with 236 episodes of intricate backstory. Nostalgia revivals don’t need to be slavish to their source material, but it’s hard to see the appeal for something so grim and unpleasant.
Apropos of nothing, let’s talk about the third and final season of Star Trek: Picard.
Season three was sold as something of a course correction for Picard after its first two deeply unpopular runs. It ditched all but Raffi from the roster of original characters created for it, and instead pulled in the stars from Star Trek: The Next Generation. As well as the returning Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis and Brent Spiner, we’ll see LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden and Michael Dorn back in action. And, in the six of ten episodes I’ve been permitted to watch under strict embargo, I’d say only one of them feels like the character we know and love.
Unfortunately, while we have the other TNG stars, the creative team of Executive Producer Alex Kurtzman and showrunner Terry Matalas didn’t bother to grab any of that show’s lightness of tone. Picard remains a grimdark slog, shot on perpetually underlit sets and featuring a succession of increasingly-bleak setpieces. The plot is stretched so thin that the first four episodes turn out to be little more than an extended prologue for the rest. A prologue that could, I should add, have been an efficient, and possibly more enjoyable, hour. The story is so obvious, too, that you’ll be ahead of the characters pretty much non-stop as they stumble from one idiot plot to the next.
It’s maddening that we can see how much of the plot is blocking itself to ensure things can’t move forward too quickly. There’s a whole episode of gosh-isn’t-this-tense tension that could have been eliminated if anyone in Starfleet pulled out a tricorder and used it as God intended. In this utopian future, where science and technology really are advanced enough to look like magic, why does nobody employ the tools hanging from their waistband? Mostly because Paramount ordered ten episodes, and ten episodes is what we’re going to give them. Another episode has a time-filling punch fight runaround because it’s now somehow impossible for a serving officer to use a Federation ship’s intercom system to call the bridge and warn them of impending danger.
Picard is one of those series where you often find yourself shouting at the screen as the next stupid moment unfolds in front of you. Even worse is that the show’s creative team seem to think that it’s us, the audience, who are deficient in the thinking department. There is scene after scene in which characters repeat the same lines back to each other because the crew assume we’re not paying attention. Because of the limits on spoilers, I’ve re-written a scene to match the sentiment, if not the words verbatim, so you can get a sense of what to expect:
CREW 1: The ship is being pulled closer to the black hole’s gravity well.
CREW 2: We do not have enough power to pull ourselves away, sir.
RIKER: Are you saying that we’re dead in the water?
CREW 1: We will be passing the black hole’s event horizon in 17 minutes.
RIKER: We’re dead in the water and we’re sinking.
PICARD: We’re going to be dead in 17 minutes, Will, unless we can find a way to solve this.
RIKER: We’re sinking into quicksand, and there’s no time to grab a helping hand.
The irony is that this run is so thicket-dense with references that the show basically assumes that you’ve already seen pretty much everything produced during Trek’s gold, silver and bronze ages. But, to make sure nobody’s left behind, everyone has to speak in exposition so hamfisted that, now that this is over, I think Michelle Hurd deserves personal injury compensation. Raffi gets saddled with so many cringe-inducing lines where she states, and restates and re-restates the obvious that I started grasping fistfuls of my own hair to relieve some of my discomfort.
And as for the storyline, what can I say? It’s clear that Alex Kurtzman is only comfortable writing in a single register. His go-to is usually a militaristic, testosterone-fuelled paranoid Reaganite fantasy in which the real villain was our own government all along. He did it in Into Darkness, Discovery season two and even the first season of Picard – to the point where Starfleet is now so lousy with double agents that all of their schemes fail because the saboteurs are all too busy sabotaging each other’s plans instead of that of the wider Federation.
If Picard is nothing else, it’s nearly pornographic in its use and misuse of franchise iconography. I always felt that Jeff Russo’s Picard theme sounded more like the library music for a corporate advert than the makes-your-heart-soar theme a Star Trek deserves. And here, it’s been ditched in favor of Jerry Goldsmith’s sumptuous, nectar-for-the-ears score for First Contact. The first title card is a direct pull from Wrath of Khan, and pretty much every element therein is an elbow to the ribs, reminding you of older, better Star Trek movies and TV series.
An early scene has a character “hijacking a starship” under false pretenses while it’s in spacedock. You know, the mushroom-shaped megastation orbiting Earth from The Search for Spock onwards. And because we’re already going beat-for-beat for a sequence xeroxed from 1984, said starship even jumps to warp as soon as it’s past the exit doors. Despite the fact that the sort of hardcore Trek fans who would spot the reference would also note that you’re not meant to jump to warp while inside a solar system when there’s no urgent need to do so.
I’ll admit, this is postgraduate degree-level Star Trek nerdery, but you can’t have it both ways: If you’re trying to placate hostile viewers with the excessive fan service, you can’t then complain when they point out that you’re doing it all wrong.
The show’s teaser trailer already revealed we’re getting an overstuffed roster of villains to round out the run. Amanda Plummer’s captain of an enemy ship that shares a design with the Narada from Star Trek ‘09. Then there’s Daniel Davis’ holographic Professor Moriarty, as well as Data’s evil twin brother Lore. Both of these sorta make sense in the context, but there’s a hell of a lot of narrative scaffolding to explain away the fact that Brent Spiner is now 74 years old. (The dude looks good for it, but it’s hard to play an ageless android when time marches on and the de-aging CGI budget is spent on smoothing out Patrick Stewart’s face for a single flashback and the pointless needle-drops that open every episode.)
Now, before you scurry off to Memory Alpha to confirm that Moriarty was locked away in a holobox at the end of “Ship in a Bottle,” and Lore was disassembled at the end of “Descent Part 2,” yes, they were. Try to remember that showrunner Terry Matalas and executive producer Alex Kurtzman treat Star Trek’s continuity less as something which informs storytelling and more as a series of shiny objects to keep us all amused when the plot sags or anyone has any time to think about what’s going on.
I’ll also add that the trailers and promotional material have very intentionally kept a lot of material back. There are more classic-era heroes and villains crowbarring their way into the story in the way that, if it were fanfiction, would seem excessive. But, if I’m honest, the second or third time someone, or something, familiar popped up, I wasn’t whooping and cheering, I was sighing. The Star Trek universe is vast and broad and deep, but Picard makes it feel like a puddle where everyone knows each other, and everyone under the age of 30 has grown up watching The Next Generation. If you’re serving in the US Navy, for instance, how likely is it that you’d know the ins and outs of every exploit of even the most well-traveled combat vessel?
Now, I don’t have the language or experience to discuss this properly, and I’m aware of others who do feel differently. This is just my opinion, but I think the depiction of drug and alcohol use in Picard has always felt off. And since I can’t talk about the third season, I’ll talk about the first, where something very similar happened and is just as vexing here as it was back then. Raffi deals with her son’s rejection by relapsing, but then mere hours later, she’s back at her station and advancing the plot. I don’t recall a sense that her use clouded her judgment and I don’t think it was discussed subsequently – so despite the portentiousness in the build-up, it was depicted almost like someone just having a bad day and knocking back some drinks. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, because there are plenty of people who use drugs and it doesn’t impact their professional lives at all. (Read any Making-Of book about The Original Series and you’ll notice how more than a few references to the production team’s drug use.) But if you’re going to write a plot where scenes hang on the will-she-or-won’t-she tension of relapse, but it all turns out to be hunky dory straight after, what was the point of depicting any of this in the first place?
Then there’s the violence, and the casual way that it’s doled out, especially in the show’s numerous interrogation scenes. I’m not advocating for forced confessions, but given Starfleet’s advanced science, and the Federation has a planet of literal telepaths at its disposal, why are we always punching people in the nose with a butt of a phaser pistol? I mean, I know why: It’s a nerdy sci-fi show play acting as a muscular basic-cable drama, but that doesn’t mean it works. I’ve often theorized that many modern-day Star Trek creators would much rather be over the hall making their own Star War instead. Maybe I’m wrong, and the Picard crew is really nostalgic for the hamfisted Bush-era politics of 24.
It was always going to be hard to pull Picard out of its creative slump that started back when the show was greenlit. If there was ever a character who we’d seen grow, change, mature and treat his own life with more kindness, it was Jean-Luc Picard. Some of TNG’s best episodes forced Picard to consider his own life, his history, his mortality, his motives, including the series’ grand finale. “All Good Things” isn’t just good Star Trek, it’s one of the best series finales ever made, encompassing the entire breadth and depth of The Next Generation in one glorious sweep. And between seven years of TV and four less essential but still important movies, he was done.
I wrote somewhere, I forget where, that a smarter idea would have been to center the action on a less-well served member of the Enterprise D crew. I’d have been second in line to watch a Geordi LaForge spin-off (behind uber fan Rihanna, of course), and there’s plenty to explore there. Or a Beverley Crusher spin-off, as she solves people’s problems as a simple
country space doctor back on Earth or on some far-flung planet. Maybe a sci-fi version of In Treatment fronted by Marina Sirtis could have worked, and would have certainly cost less than this.
All of which would be preferable to what we got, which despite initially having a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist at the helm, was two years of go-nowhere, do-nothing bore-a-thons. Its brief moments of cleverness drowned out by the baffling character decisions, tin-eared dialog and ligneous acting. And both had plots which would have struggled to fill a movie stretched out across a painfully slow ten hour runtime.
And that’s before we get to the moralizing, which had characters pointing at a bad thing and saying “thing bad.” I don’t think the second season’s 26 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes is because the (inexplicably) conservative wing of Trek fandom was outraged that a show about happy space communists solving problems while remaining friends suddenly “got woke.” Good, old-fashioned Star Trek at least had the good grace to cloak its progressivism in allegory that could slide past the otherwise closed minds of some of its viewers. By comparison, Picard felt like the first draft of a high school theater production made the term after the teacher had explained agitprop.
Maybe that’s why I feel so annoyed by Picard, because all of the things that are wrong with the show, and its kin, are examples of amateurishness. Amateurish plotting, amateurish dialogue, a lack of thoughtfulness about the material, what it says, or what it’s doing. Just an endless parade of big, dumb, brash, po-faced melodrama used in place of some sort of maturity or integrity. I don’t expect Star Trek to be brilliant all the damn time, but I do expect a minimum standard of something to be upheld. And this falls so far below it, it’s hard to call it Star Trek. Some people will call that gatekeeping, but Star Trek can be anything it damn well wants to be, so long as it’s competently made and halfway entertaining.
The constant callbacks got me thinking about the period when Nicholas Meyer was, directly or indirectly, the major creative force behind Star Trek. It’s been 32 years since his 1991 swansong, The Undiscovered Country, and it remains a high-water mark of cinematic Trek. Drawing to a close the story of The Original Series crew, Meyer didn’t go for nostalgia, but savaged his characters, exposing their flaws, their bigotries, their failings. There was redemption, and heart, and it never needed Meyer to stage endless close-quarters phaser-fu fights in unlight rooms.
But that was a filmmaker with a clear vision, and the good graces to really drag his characters in the dirt before washing them clean. Imagine what would happen if Picard encountered any of the same level of subtext – they’d probably spend an hour running from it before beating it over the head with the butt of a phaser rifle and then spend the next hour feeling glum about it. If nothing else, I’d say don’t even watch Picard for ironic kicks, lest Paramount think it’s somehow a runaway hit and continue to produce crap like this.
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