In Review: Star Trek: Picard
I want to review CBS’s latest Star Trek series, Star Trek: Picard. But first I have to set the scene, about my relationship with Star Trek, and a potted guide to its history for those unfamiliar.
Prelude: Star Trek in a nutshell
When I was born, the BBC were three-quarters of the way through their first-run British broadcasts of the original Star Trek series, some two years later than their US broadcasts. Apparently a big hit in Britain, the series was repeated often through the 70s and early 80s. That success, now I come to think of it, may have influenced the commissioning of Blake’s 7, the BBC’s adult-oriented space opera, in 1978.
While I was an avid viewer of Blake’s 7, I never took much to Star Trek. The vision of a multi-national crew, represented by multi-ethnic Americans, nevertheless remains admirable for the times, and it was certainly politically engaged. The series stands as a curious and pioneering attempt to smuggle somewhat cerebral, literary sf concerns into a mainstream show, with a character-based warmth at its heart. It’s a good recipe, with some great ingredients. It addressed very American concerns of the late 1960s, but maybe felt a little bit dated for my generation.
Meanwhile, in the US, Trek also became a big hit in the 70s, re-run in syndication, bigger than it ever was during its original late-60s run on NBC. It grew not only its mainstream audience, but generated a qualitative change in the nature of audience itself, with the emergence of Star Trek fandom. The idea of an organised television audience, with their own voice and ideas, was so far outside of their reality tunnel, the story goes, that industry representatives, on seeing the much larger than expected numbers at the first fan convention, simply left the event, unable to deal with the implications and potential shift of power. The significance of this event for the changing nature of media audiences over the past 50 years bears consideration, as fannish cultural practices slowly, insidiously some might say, became mainstream. These days everyone binge-watches, over-analyses, reviews and makes their own fiction about their favourite TV show. That’s pretty much our culture now. But once, it was a sub-cultural sociality known as fandom.
The success of Star Trek: The Next Generation proved the importance of audience. The idea that Star Trek was a very liberal and progressive – and even in some areas a radical – enterprise, isn’t especially valid for the original series. Many of the ideas we associate with this interpretation of Trek derived from the fan culture of the 70s and 80s, who saw in Star Trek the potential for a radically inclusive and progressive futurism. The idea that poverty, hunger and racism have been eliminated in the future, within an enlightened, yet Earth-centred galactic federation, simply isn’t present in the original series. Indeed, it’s implied Earth is a colonial power. It’s now thought Roddenberry saw these more Utopian, progressive ideas emerge from the fan audience, and adopted them. The development of Star Trek was led by the remarkable creativity of its fan audience. The Next Generation also seems to me influenced by new age culture, surging in late 80s California, where as Dennis Potter once remarked, ‘every nut rolls’ sooner or later. By 1987, Paramount was still making $1 million per episode in syndication. The arguments for a new series were overwhelming.
Star Trek The Next Generation’s cultural influences can be read into the initial decision to dispense with a regular Chief Engineer, but insist upon a regular Counsellor character on the bridge of the new, pastel-shaded and softly furnished USS Enterprise. This reflects the caring, sharing, person-centred, eco-conscious culture of liberal America of that time.
Next Gen had a hard job convincing fans of the original series attached to the idea that Star Trek could only incarnate in the Kirk-Bones-Spock triumvirate. Indeed that idea had been established early in Star Trek fandom’s literature, that the heart and essence of the series lay in the interplay of these three characters. Mr Spock representing the emotionally repressed, logical, thinking element, Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy representing its counterpart, the emotional, feeling man. According to this theory, Kirk represents the perfect integration of feeling and intellect in a man, and thus is fit to both mediate between the forces represented by Spock and Bones, and lead them as their Captain.
The characters of the Next Generation were developed by Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana, and thankfully don’t attempt to replicate this formula precisely. However, we have a female Doctor, hilariously named ‘Crusher’, and the android Data, who acts as a mirror of Spock in some ways. Unlike Spock, Data has no emotions to repress, so his desire is to become more human, not less. And so we come to Picard, who is presented as an idealised, integrated man. Cultured, intelligent, an explorer interested in poetry and drama, inclined towards the diplomatic and consensus solution, but entirely able to use maximum military force with ruthlessly effective tactics when necessary.
This triumvirate is backed by a slightly larger regular ensemble cast than the original series. By accident or design, the cast assembled had genuine chemistry with each other, forming close real life bonds which persist to this day, and this factor had a lot to do with the success of the series.
After a shaky couple of years, but with a base level of quality and moments of brilliance, Next Gen’s third season, with the writing drastically improving by the week, established the series in its own right. The events of that third season had genuine weight, affecting the characters, Picard in particular, in ways that are still being explored, most recently in the 10 part CBS series Star Trek: Picard that aired earlier this year.
There were times when Stewart had me crying my eyes out as Picard, most notably during the season 6 episode Chains of Command, in which Picard is tortured by David Warner. Picard gives an incredibly sensitive performance, informed by research undertaken with Amnesty International into people’s experiences of torture. Here’s a great Picard moment, from the best Star Trek movie, in which Picard reveals the extent to which his traumas still motivates him several years later.
The state of Trek
After the 2009 cinematic reboot, the Star Trek Universe split into two parallel universes. The new movies occur in the ‘Kelvin’ timeline, while the original universe maintains its existence as the ‘Prime’ timeline. As if mirroring this, the film and television rights split apart when Paramount Pictures’ parent company Viacom dispensed with CBS, who hold the television rights. It was in this environment CBS decided to return Star Trek to television, some 12 years after the last Star Trek TV show, the prequel Enterprise, ended after four seasons. The commercial circumstances were remarkably similar to those that conditions the return of Star Trek to TV back in 1987. The audience for genre film and TV had expanded, fandom now enjoying the kind of relationship with the industry which would have been a mad dream in 1972. Moreover, the back catalogue was finding a new audience on streaming services, just as the original series had found a new audience in syndication back in the 70s, increasing the commercial pressure for new content.
CBS hired Bryan Fuller, who’d worked in his younger days on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and who’d now made a name for himself as the showrunner of the Hannibal Tv series, to develop new Star Trek shows. His winning idea was to create an anthology show which would start in the years before the original series, but progress through the Prime timeline, giving fresh takes on different eras of the show. While there were creative tensions between Fuller and CBS, it seems his early departure from the production of Star Trek: Discovery was more down to scheduling conflicts, with CBS and Netflix keen to get the series quickly while Fuller was tied up on prior commitments to adapt Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for television.
CBS brought in Alex Kurtzmann, who’d worked on the new movies, to oversee Star Trek for them.
I’ve never seen Star Trek: Discovery, although I have seen a couple of the Short Treks anthology show that spun off from it, a show which seems to fulfil Fuller’s vision of a show that can explore any bit of Trek it likes. And Star Trek: Discovery, having explored and reinvented the back story of some of the original series characters (like Christopher Pike, Kirk’s immediate predecessor as Enterprise Captain, and Spock), has now been flung forward to a century after the time of Next Generation, much as previous prequel series Enterprise brought in a plot elements from the far, post-Next Generation future too. This also fulfils Fuller’s plan to have the early seasons set before the original series, and later seasons set in advance of the later spin offs. But much of this has passed me by. I gave up on Star Trek sometime during Voyager, a show with a lot of unfulfilled potential, and saw little of Enterprise. But a little bit of Star Trek, thanks in large part to Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard, stayed with me.
And so the announcement last year that Stewart would be reprising Picard, in a new TV series focused on that character’s life 16 years after the end of the Next Generation, excited me. I figured if Stewart was involved, that suggested quality, and the potential for surprising quality.
So what’s Star Trek: Picard like? Was it a joyful reunion, or a disappointing afterglow? Join me next time to find out.