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Star Trek: Picard

Entry updated 9 October 2020. Tagged: TV.

US tv series (2020-current). CBS Television Studios, Roddenberry Entertainment, Secret Hideout. Created by Kirsten Beyer, Michael Chabon and Akiva Goldsman. Showrunner Michael Chabon. Directed by Doug Aarniokoski, Chabon, Hanelle M Culpepper, Jonathan Frakes, Akiva Goldsman and Maja Vrvilo. Written by Kirsten Beyer, Chabon, James Duff, Akiva Goldsman, Samantha Humphrey, Alex Kurtzman, Ayelet Waldman and Nick Zayas. Cast (four episodes or more) includes Isa Briones, Santiago Cabrera, Evan Evagora, Michelle Hurd, Peyton List, Alison Pill, Patrick Stewart, Tamlyn Tomita and Harry Treadaway. Cast (from Star Trek: The Next Generation) also includes, in addition to Stewart, Jonathan Del Arco, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis and Brent Spiner; and (from Star Trek: Voyager) Jeri Ryan. Ten 54-minute episodes.

Over a single ten-episode story arc, Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Stewart) comes out of nearly two decades of retirement to save a synth civilization from the xenocidal Romulans. He dies and is born again.

In 2020 the elephant in the kitchen was the whole kit and caboodle of the original Star Trek, where the future seemed new. If the franchise was to survive, its owners needed to repurpose that archaic good-hearted visionary heritage. The far less tolerant twenty-first viewer would expect a Star Trek not only fit to represent an ageing world (within the franchise and out), but also able to regain the loyalty of audiences already familiar with the already rejuvenated Star Wars franchise, and with both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe. These franchises are all set in darkened, psychologically belated arenas whose plots do less to address the future than to deal with the return of the repressed; they are all well designed to evoke responses from an audience attuned to respond to the future as retribution. So there was no way that anything resembling the old future-is-ours Star Trek could seriously have been contemplated, even if Sir Patrick Stewart's participation as Admiral Jean-Luc Picard had not in fact been contingent on a radical rewriting of the old format.

It remained the case, however, that to mount a significant reboot would risk alienating much of Star Trek's extensive and still active Fandom, a commentariat whose members included praetorians faithful to the franchise from its inception dating back over half a century to the original Star Trek (1966-1969). But so be it. The risk was duly taken, and the commentariat's response to early episodes of Star Trek: Picard did indeed convey some sense that much had been lost, most importantly perhaps a feeling that – despite its protagonist's manifest gravitas – the new series lacked its old missionary thrust: that Gene Roddenberry's mild but, in the original 1960s context, telling Utopianism had been abandoned. All the same, Star Trek: Picard was commercially successful from the first, and later episodes do give something more than lip-service to the old ethos; disconsolate praetorians who persuaded themselves to watch all ten chapters of Picard may have found some solace in the closing moments of this first season.

But the change is radical all the same. In their need to make a genuine stab at a colourable root-and-branch reboot, the franchise owners seem to have granted Sir Patrick Stewart something like carte blanche in determining the sort of vehicle he would consent to captain. It seems clear he thought that much needed to be done, and it seems therefore to have been with his approval and involvement that the potentially disruptive Michael Chabon was engaged as showrunner for the enterprise, a choice both daring and – once made – obvious. Indeed, Chabon's affinity to the task at hand seemed almost overdetermined: childhood fandom maintained smilingly for decades; fascination as an adult with the breeding pool where pulp-Fantastika interjaculates with John Updike; personal fame as something of a hero in the culture wars between Story and Establishment; and a clear grasp – more and more evident as further episodes were unveiled – of the distinction between written sf (see his own entry), which is normally weighted toward arguable outcomes, and sf in film and television, like Star Trek, where sf Clichés and topoi normally serve as easements for raw Story: his uncondescending treatment of Star Trek "science", without reverting to the senatorial handwavium of previous series, was both sophisticated and needed. Finally, Chabon might have sufficient gravitas to keep Stewart from doing the Shakespeare in different voices (mostly, he succeeded). (It is not presumed here that Chabon, though his credited fingerprints are ubiquitous, acted alone.)

Chabon and his team needed to be well prepared, as they had multiple issues to deal with, most pressingly perhaps the need to create for their protagonist, the 79-year-old Stewart, a kind of role befitting his age and long perspective. His agedness could not be uncanny-valley: it had to show that it had taken many human years to reach. For this reason alone, the franchise had to be recast to allow a sense of the genuine passage of time; Star Trek: Picard had to occupy a world where decades had genuinely passed after the "real year" that had secretly time-bound all previous iterations: that "real year" being a reiterating ground-bass Body English version of 1965, a mantra rehonoured again and again over the years with an exactitude evocative of Groundhog Day (1993). Two structural issues can stand in here for several.

(1) The anthology-like episode-based structure of all previous tv iterations may have been ideally suited to house the default Star Trek template where almost every episode ended on an upbeat before curfew, more or less back where it started, with no narrative follow-on, no damage done to the Mission. But this safety net had now to be abandoned. The first episodes of Picard are conspicuously uncoupled from that template. Over the course of these early episodes, the old Star Trek world is shown to have lost coherence; the Federation and Starfleet have abdicated their ethical-policing role over large portions of the galaxy; whole civilizations are beginning to panic and tyrannies to flourish across the known worlds (perhaps not wisely, Picard never addresses the claustrophobic tininess of the Star Trek imperium as compared to the size of the real galaxy: a 1965-ish Scientific Error that might have been fumigated); and Jean-Luc Picard himself has been sidelined, disheartened. The template has been shattered.

(2) Picard must return to action, in order to avert galactic xenocide, but his rejuvenation must be drawn out enough to occupy a longer-breathed story-arc. There is an obvious solution. As Picard is effectively exiled from the corridors of power, he must take matters into his own hands. Therefore, obedient to a story convention now dominant for decades, he recruits a privatized scrub team of specialized operatives to fill the multi-episode scene and to help accomplish his task [for Seven Samurai see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. These recruits – all rebels in some sense or other, and having to be persuaded to join a team – will variously discover or recover a special relationship to Picard; each will possess a special skill or power necessary for the success of the mission; and they will all have been concealing deep personal traumas that must be healed before their full capacities can be freed for the climax. Like accordions, these back-stories and current interactions can be expanded or shrunk according to need, and indeed much of Picard is spent recruiting, familiarizing viewers with, sorting out tensions among the assorted misfits, and cauterizing traumas. None of the samurai lacks interest, and they all seem to have been gifted (what may be a specific Chabon input) with an almost extradiegetic awareness of the paradigms from genre history that, by ghosting their moves, are authenticating them: it is though they and the entire cast can be imagined acting out their destinies while at the same time sitting around some campfire absorbing more Story than can entirely be told aloud. The central samurai cast includes Elnor (Evagora), substitute son of Romulan birth and swordsman; Dr Agnes Jurati (Pill), ringer in the tower; Raffi Musiker (Hurd), former Starfleet intelligence operative, Computer genius; Cristóbal Rios (Cabrera), owner and pilot of the Starship La Sirena, which he mans with holograms representing aspects of his own complex selfhood; Seven of Nine (Ryan), ex-Borg drone, now liberated, combative freedom fighter. Picard himself makes six. The seventh, though only serving in this function at the very end, is/are the half-Robot half-Android synth twins Soji/Dahj (Briones), one dead early, the other searched for but soon found. The only other continuing character of any interest is the quantum-reality "ghost" of Chief Operations Officer Data (Spiner), whose conversations with Picard are both intensely well-acted and entwine themselves around the thin central story, enriching it. There are no Red Shirts.

Jean-Luc Picard has been retired for nearly two decades. He spends his time at Chateau Picard, a vineyard in a France seemingly unaffected by Climate Change (if Earth has been saved from environmental Disaster in some previous iteration of Star Trek, this salvation goes unmentioned here). Backstory Infodumps (see Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Nemesis for original narratives) make it clear that Picard feels obliged to return to the galaxy, in the face of Federation demoralization and indifference, after learning from the synth Dahj Asha (Briones) that the Romulan hegemony is determined to eliminate all synthetic life. She is soon killed, but her identical twin Soji Asha (also Briones), whose location is unknown, may know the secret location of the synth civilization. Picard's mission, which the Seven Samurai (see above) are assembled to make feasible, is to find Soji, find the secret synth haven, reactivate Star Fleet, and persuade the synth colony to eschew its ultimate defense against xenocide: a horde of Forerunner Berserkers waiting (in time stasis? see Stasis Field) for the wake-up call to kill all meat puppets. After considerable complexities, including a few McGuffins, Picard finds he must sacrifice his own life, which has been darkened by an incurable disease, in order to fend off the end of the galaxy as we know it. Simultaneously, Starfleet comes to the rescue, with Captain Riker (Frakes), returned to duty, at the helm. After a period of mourning, Picard's "quantum-realm" essence is safely rehoused in a kind of Clone body. He and Data speak movingly together, and Data is allowed finally to experience death. The remaining cast comes together in La Sirena. A voice says aloud, for the second time in Star Trek: Picard, what they are waiting to hear: "Engage!" she says. Traditional Star Music wells up. The darkness lifts. The first series ends on a note that in the twenty-first century may seem wholesome.

Production values are high. Literacy levels (as might be expected) are maintained. Mises en scene are depicted with professional flow and a circumambience of detail. An underlying "healthiness" to the worlds depicted – only the Borg cube casts a Dystopian shadow, and even this is mitigated – may reflect an inner faithfulness to the original Star Trek. An interlude – the episode called "Nepenthe", which is more or less to say "Dunroamin" – comfortingly presents the semi-retirement of Riker and his wife Deanna Troi (Sirtis) on a safely isolated planet with their perky daughter in tow, where they occupy what could be a twentieth-century second home in Maine. It is a sign of the inherent strength and narrative drive and knowing sagacity of the project as a whole that this family interlude does not cloy. It is also a sign of an overall wholesomeness shaping the concept that Romulans do not nuke "Nepenthe". There is nothing to stir the intellect in Star Trek: Picard, but neither there is any cheapening of the Story. They made it so. [JC]


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