I was a huge Star Trek fan as a kid. Star Trek was the gold standard of science fiction for me for the first 12 or 13 years of my life. (And yeah, my obsession with SF began very early.) In later years, that wasn’t the case. Babylon 5 came a long at about the same time I discovered Robotech and gave me my first glimpse of ongoing story-telling; the Star Wars expanded universe showed me another way of doing stories in a shared universe. The end result is that I became rather disillusioned with Star Trek as a franchise, and it took quite a bit of time for me to come around to appreciating it again—in a what might be a more skeptical way, admittedly. Trek is a fine example of Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of anything is crap. Star Trek has a lot of genius, but it’s made of islands and archipelagos in seas of mediocrity.
The upshot of this is that I have been a lot less critical of the new Star Trek shows that CBS is producing. Discovery S1 was about 2/3 meh, but that middle section was really pretty good. Season 2 was actually rather good; Anson Mount’s Pike is a fine captain, and easily in my top three Star Trek captains. Picard, as an exploration of the galaxy after the events of the TNG-DS9-Voyager era, and after the events that spawned the much-maligned Kelvin timeline, earned a lot of good will from me for being willing to move forward, rather than miring us in endless prequels. I was actually fairly excited to see something besides Star Trek Online investigate the future of the future.
Are we going to, you know, Trek?
Star Trek: Picard picks up twenty years after our last glimpse of the TNG crew in Star Trek Nemesis. Picard is retired and disillusioned with Starfleet after their failure to aid the Romulans after their empire was crippled by a wave of supernovae. Content to live out his life in relative isolation, his retirement is interrupted by a young woman showing up on his doorstep after her home was invaded by a special forces group of unknown origins or allegiance.
Turns out, that young woman is an android implanted with false memories of a life that never happened, and someone is very upset about that. To further complicate the issue, Picard discovers evidence that she is, in some manner, descended from Commander Data—who gave his life to save Picard in Nemesis.
Unfortunately, Picard’s alienation from Starfleet is a two-way street, and they deny his request for a small ship and crew to investigate the threat to this woman’s life. Rather than do nothing, Picard hires a smuggler and assembles a rag-tag group to get to the bottom of all this. (It takes three episodes, but eventually we do get out and about.)
Is it Star Trek?
One of the criticisms of the CBS Star Trek shows is that they don’t feel like Star Trek—and that’s fair. The aesthetic is different, feeling a bit more like the Kelvin timeline than the Star Trek we’ve known in the prime timeline. The world is grittier and darker, missing a lot of the optimism we expect in Star Trek. And that’s fair too—but Star Trek has tended to be at its best when it’s critical of that optimism. It doesn’t hurt you to question values you hold dear. The obvious example here is Deep Space Nine, which offers us a lot of narrative doubt about the utopian values of the Federation, but even in the propaganda-like Next Generation, we had to re-evaluate the Prime Directive from time to time.
The “world” of Star Trek Picard feels different from what we expect from the UFP, but I’d maintain that it’s not entirely out of character. The Federation had just spent an enormous amount of resources fighting the Dominion—and nearly lost. The Borg are an ever-present threat, and a fellow empire was just undone by a stellar accident. It doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch that the UFP population might develop an isolationist bent. And while TNG has always beat the “enlightened humanity” drum harder than most of the other entries, even they had had interactions with more flawed groups and societies at the fringes (The Maquis being a notable example). The Federation’s ban on synthetic lifeforms seems to have rubbed a lot of people wrong, too, but the Federation has a terrible track record for “human” rights when it comes to AIs. Starfleet wanted to disassemble Data, for crying out loud, and I recall something about trying to overwrite Voyager’s EMH with a newer version?
Here Be Spoilers (Seriously)
All that to say, I didn’t mind those aspects of Picard. Let’s explore that difference! That’s interesting stuff! Unfortunately, Picard doesn’t really do that. Other than the ban on synthetic lifeforms, Picard largely sidesteps everything interesting in the setup. The Romulans have a derelict Borg cube they are researching and disassembling. A treaty has allowed the Federation access to it; but ultimately, it’s nothing more than a set piece. “The Artifact” could have been any world or space station from any race. And that’s a shame; for an episode, it forces Picard to face his experience with the Borg again, and the episode knocks that out of the park. Later on, Seven has to face up her own Borg past when she decides to temporarily assume the mantle of Queen and re-activate the cube to buy Picard and the others time to escape the Romulans. Except the Romulans (and the show) neatly side step thousands of activated Borg drones by sucking them all out into space. Seven neatly disconnects from the Cube. Nothing comes of it.
“Nothing comes of it” is a pretty accurate description of most of the show. Picard has to face up to an enormously life altering event… and nothing comes of it. A murder occurs… and nothing comes of it. A threat to all organic life is realized… and nothing comes from it. Like so much coming from mainstream media these days, Picard is a visually excellent work that is largely hollow.