james debate
james debate

Tuesday 2 June 2020

Created by Alex Kurtzman, Michael Chabon
Network CBS/Amazon Prime
Starring Patrick Stewart, Alison Pill, Isa Briones, Santiago Cabrera
Genre Science Fiction
Running Time 40-65 minutes

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I will preface this review by stating for the record that I am a Star Trek fan. Over the years I have seen every movie, watched all the live action TV series and played most of the videogames. The franchise occupies a significant portion of my childhood nostalgia and I find the prospect of any new addition to the canon a cause of great excitement. I warn you, there will be a few spoilers in this review.

My longtime fandom notwithstanding, readers of this blog will recall that I was not especially fond of the most recent series Discovery (in hindsight I think my review score may even have been a bit generous). On paper the newest series, Star Trek: Picard, sounds like it should right all the wrongs of Discovery.

Whereas the former was criticised for straying too far from the Star Trek formula, this new series brings back several beloved characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation, generally considered to be the high point of the franchise. Where Discovery was criticised for the poor quality of its acting and writing, Picard stars the incomparable Sir Patrick Stewart, and is (remarkably) written by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon. While Discovery was criticised for its mindless action and lack of storytelling depth, Picard presents a more introspective and thoughtful premise focused on the twilight years of a retired Admiral, exploring difficult topics like mortality and loss.

On paper it sounds like the dream Star Trek series. Bold and inventive without losing its affection for nostalgia, backed by the very highest quality in acting and writing talent. Yet despite this, Picard frustrates as often as it delights, and replicates many of the same flaws that held back Discovery.

Let's begin with the positives. Jean Luc Picard is an iconic character, and seeing Patrick Stewart reprise this role is worth the price of admission alone. This is an ageing Picard approaching the end of his life. He is vulnerable, with a creeping world-weariness that appears unrecognisable from the Picard we have seen previously. But this is still the same man and the way Stewart allows that core of idealism to gradually re-emerge over the character's journey requires a performance of great complexity and dexterity. The story is (mostly) good and takes both the character and the franchise to some fresh and interesting places. Chabon, in addition to being a world-renowned author, is apparently quite the Trekkie and has clearly put a great deal of thought into his vision for the world.

Picard frequently delights when it brings back familiar faces from the old series. Jonathan Frakes briefly returns as Picard's former First Officer Will Riker, while Marina Sirtis reprises her role as former ship counsellor (and Riker's wife) Deanna Troi. Jeri Ryan plays a larger role with the surprise return of Star Trek Voyager character Seven of Nine, now barely recognisable as compared to the stiff, emotionally repressed Borg we have seen previously. Picard also quite brilliantly brings back Jonathan Del Arco as Hugh, a minor character from TNG rescued from the Borg by Picard and Data whose unique circumstances places them right in the thick of the action. The scenes with these characters form a highlight of the first season, but Chabon is smart enough to use a deft touch, such that these cameos never feel arbitrary or distract too much from proceedings.

The new cast is also pretty solid with stronger performances and more interesting characters across the board than Discovery. Santiago Cabrera is a particular highlight as Cristobal Rios, a washed up former Starfleet officer with more than a hint of Han Solo about him and a holographic crew of wacky characters (all also played by Cabrera).

Unfortunately Picard is plagued by frustrating production decisions. CBS sadly appears to be dead set on Alex Kurtzman overseeing everything Star Trek, and that means Picard features many of the same design choices as Discovery. The distinctive bright, optimistic visual palette of Star Trek has been replaced by super generic greys and blacks. The tone of the series still just isn't right: far too dour, too brutal, too miserable, with none of the classic Star Trek levity or optimism. I said this in my Discovery review, but Kurtzman and his people seem desperate to make Star Trek look and feel like Game of Thrones or The Handmaid's Tale and the result just comes off as a generic and bland imitation.

While the series starts very strongly, it suffers from significant pacing problems as the season progresses. Chabon is a great novelist, but he clearly hasn't yet mastered the rhythm of television. Some of these episodes really drag, and it often feels as though it takes a long time for anything significant to happen with little of interest taking place in between these moments. It's not so much that the series is overly long, quite the opposite. The problem is that the series and its characters are barely given any time to breathe.

As with Discovery, Picard features a 100% serialised story arc, with none of the classic self-contained Star Trek stories. This is problematic for a few reasons. Star Trek is primarily a character-based series and this format does not allow sufficient time to explore each character and their subplots. The result is that all these new characters and a confusing mess of different story threads get rushed into the main story arc in a way that barely allows them to register. This is why the pace feels like such a slog. Picard could really have done with an additional five or so episodes, each of which broke away from the main story entirely and focused on one of the main cast. I think the interesting characters are there, the writers just need to free them up a bit and add some of classic Trek's narrative variety.

But the biggest problem with Picard is the tone, something which I have already touched upon. This version of Star Trek is almost relentlessly brutal, nasty, and unpleasant. It tries so hard to be shocking and dark, but in ways that come off as feeling juvenile. The series is peppered with gratuitous cursing that feels totally out of place in the Star Trek universe. Several classic characters are brought back only to be unceremoniously killed off. In one particularly ill-advised scene, Picard brings back one of the child characters from Star Trek Voyager only to brutally torture and kill them within seconds (featuring an unnecessarily graphic eye removal). It's so gratuitous and out of nothing that it comes off as childish and robs the moment of any emotional impact that it may have had. Bizarrely this appears to be something of a theme with this show. Of the eight old characters that return in this series, five get killed off.

It is at this point that I refer back to my statement that the story was "mostly" good. It is mostly good, but blighted towards the end by several inexplicably bad storytelling decisions, culminating in a finale that is unfortunately quite poor. Heavy spoilers from here on out.

The titular Picard gets killed off, only to be resurrected moments later as an android, a pointless plot twist that doesn't really add anything to the story and is bereft of any emotional impact when we already know that a second season is on the way. The beloved character Data returns, only to inexplicably request assisted suicide with the idiotic rationale that "life is defined by death" (amusingly, Data actually had a speech in the last movie where he specifically expresses astonishment that any being would ever willingly die). Why bring back a character just to kill him off for no reason (and with a completely out of character justification)? Why kill off a character only to bring him back in the next scene in a way that adds nothing to the plot? Chabon clearly wanted to end this season with some sort of grand comment on the human condition, but what he's ended up with just seems trite and manipulative.

The story strikes another awkward note with new character Raffi. Raffi is a hippie stoner trailer-park girl who looks, sounds and acts more like a 21st century woman who just came back from Burning Man than an inhabitant of Star Trek's 24th Century setting. Raffi is a strange character in that I have no idea what her actual purpose is. I can't think of anything of importance that the character does in this first season and she appears to exist solely to provide some "attitude". It's jarring how poorly her character fits into the Star Trek setting, but the bigger annoyance is the way they portray her as this great old friend of Picard with this rich history together. Aside from the fact that Raffi does not seem like the type of personality that Picard would plausibly spend time with, there is something very obnoxious about taking a beloved old character, introducing some new character we've never seen before and pretending that they have all this history that we never saw, with nicknames and in-jokes, etc. It's a particularly strange choice considering we already have twenty years' worth of Star Trek characters with whom Picard actually does have an on-screen history that they could have chosen to fill this role.

I have done a lot of complaining with this review, but Star Trek: Picard is not a bad series, merely a frustrating one. The concept is there, but its atonal execution belies a muddled clash between a showrunner with no TV experience and a CBS production team who clearly don't understand Star Trek. What could have been a brilliant series has instead been minimised to something that is merely decent. Picard makes for a satisfying addition to the pantheon, but one that is largely carried by its brilliant lead actor.

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