Review: Picard Season 1 Boldy Goes Where No Trek Has Gone Before
Review: Picard Season 1 brings back one of Star Trek’s iconic characters. Patrick Steward does justice to Picard, but the show, like all the new Treks, fails to both inspire and create a cohesive worldview that explains how they got from Roddenberry to now.
With Star Trek: Picard, the Star Trek intelligentsia has finally done something that I have argued for over the last several years: stop rehashing the past and look to the future. Picard is the first Trek that extends the timeline past Voyager. While Picard harkens back to TNG and Voyager, it manages to establish its own future. And quite a future it is.
Synthetic life, or androids, rebel against their human “partners” during a time when the United Federation of Planets is helping save Romulans following the collapse of their star system (which also occurred in the Star Trek film reboot at a different time in the continuum).
A young woman named Dahj propels Picard (Patrick Stewart) out of his restless retirement on the family vineyard when she seeks help after an assassination attempt that eventually strikes home, leaving Picard to discover the deeper mystery behind Dahj and her connection to his old friend Commander Data (Brent Spiner).
And there is a lot more happening, including a Borg cube being mined by Romulans, a withdrawal of the Federation from its borders leaving mercenaries to protect the outer systems, and a really amazingly kept secret of an android enclave.
All of this wraps around a prophecy that foretells the end of the world at the hands of synthetic life, a future that a Romulan secret society swears to never let come to fruition. Think of it as Romulan Ragnorak (and the aliens, to get ahead of myself here, seem to borrow from Hella’s horns and color choices).
That is indeed a lot for a ten-episode run, but I’m not one to damn ambition. But Picard is not the go out and explore future that drove the Star Trek vision. I get that modern humans, us, have found our wings clipped—but over and over that seems to also clip the wings of our imaginations. Rather than looking for the positive, we prisim the negative. Once again, we find a Starfleet riddled with intransigence and distrust, and ah, infiltrated at its highest level by those who counter its most sacred edicts. And we find a show wrapped around a hard to believe premise that relies on a lot of convoluted logic.
We find the future rehashing the past. Perhaps in a different way than say, Star Trek: Nemesis, another personally Picard-centric plot—but still in a way that calls into question some of Picard’s narrative credibility.
CBS continues to invest cinematic values (and budget) into creating a show with special effects and sound that far outstrip most television, including many films from streaming services.
The lighting fits the scenes with precision. Glow and blurs suggest nostalgia while lens flares and harsh shadows demark adventure or jeopardy. Every scene looks amazin.
The use of music is perfect, from standards that play during Data’s retirement to the Lord of the Rings like motif that accompanies Picard’s awakening.
Perhaps the best way to watch Picard is to just let the production values sweep you away. If you start thinking too hard, which you should do with a Trek, you might miss some of the gorgeous production.
Picard Season 1: The Writing
The writing is sometimes beautiful. And while Star Trek was always a writer’s show at its best, good television writers know when to curtail exposition in favor of showing rather than saying. Star Trek: Picard often finds itself bogged down in explanation. And when it does show, and not tell, such as the revelation of a relationship between Rafi and Seven, little scaffolding (or no scaffolding in this case) exists to justify the story element. It was not clear either character was gay or when they had time to forge a relationship.
This kind of personal revelation would have taken weeks even in a teen drama for the characters to figure out who they are and what that means (you can see a similar, more protracted and uncomfortable exploration of sexual discovery in the Netflix team superhero drama, I Am Not Okay With This. I know that the Rafi/Seven relationship was not the center of Picard, but it wasn’t even a peripheral topic so I am left to wonder why, beyond making some closing moment statement about inclusivity, the revelation was added to the show.
Part of the reason for the exposition is to bring people to a place the story can’t take them by itself. Simplify. The results for writers come not from swiftly captured prose, but from the editorial constraint that transforms streams of words into structures.
I think any actor would find themselves hard-pressed to turn in an inferior performance when acting opposite Sir Patrick Stewart. Allison Pill, in particular, offers a nuanced performance as the multi-dimensional Dr. Agnes Jurati whose loyalties, motivations and decisions all seem rather fluid and untrustworthy through the majority of the show’s run. The doubt and pain dance across her face.
Isa Briones (Dahj, Soji and Sutra) lets out her inner Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black’s, Sara Manning, et al) as she plays multiple versions of herself in various states of cluelessness, discovery, and psychopathy.
Santiago Cabrera brings Cristóbal “Chris” Rios to life as a former Starfleet officer turned mercenary/smuggler or sorts also does his share multiple personalities through the holographic versions of himself he created to help run is regularly one-man ship the La Sirena.
Picard’s former exec officer, Rafaella “Raffi” Musiker, played by Michelle Hurd, performs to heart-wrenching affect the role of a former officer, broken by circumstances, substance abuse and the inability to forgive herself her transgressions.
And of course, Jonathan Frakes as William Riker and Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi return in fine form as a couple who have faced the loss of a child and what giving all for a hope can mean—both positively and negatively. Though Riker makes a triumphant later appearance to help is former captain, both are underused once introduced.
It is Jerry Ryan’s kick-ass, take no names Seven of Nine, the former Borg drone from Voyager that steals every scene she enters. And this time her attitude catches the viewer’s attention first, not the snug-fitting metallic onesie. If the Emmy Awards actually reflected the broad spectrum of television-based entertainment, I would see her grabbing a best-supporting actress nod.
It doesn’t all add up
Trust me, I wish it did add up. At least more than it does. I hate watching Star Trek just to pick apart the nagging details missed, the plot wholes paved over and the general lack of acknowledgment of physics or science behind plot points (Transwarp vs. warp—I know this is not Picard‘s folly, the Orchids, the human brain-positronic brain interface). Here are some of the areas where I question choices at the onset. These choices shaped the show. Different choices would have made for a different show. So here we go….
- How did a high-level Romulan infiltrate Starfleet and become the head of security? The entire conspiracy to set up the synthetics on Mars seems too easily achieved. Do androids not have level-1 diagnostics and checksums that make them, or their owners/colleagues aware of fundamental code changes—and if they are positronic, not even the Borg could reach Data’s deepest level of code. We know who and why, we don’t know the how.
- Picard’s Irumodic Syndrome could lead, we are told, in Star Trek’s TNG’s finale, to a number of syndromes. The Picard of the alternative timeframe seems to be much older than the Picard we get in Picard, and he isn’t dead and it turns out, he isn’t “stupid” either. So why does the Irumodic Syndrome manifest and kill Picard? While the alternative futures may create situational variations, the physics of a brain abnormality would likely progress in a similar way future-to-future, though environmental factors may well play a role in its development. Regardless, how the physical defect so small ends up killing him under stress is not addressed very well.
- Reconstituting data from a single positronic neuron using fractal neuronic cloning is just a lot of technical gibberish from the writer’s to get to a place without the hard work. Look at a show like Devs or Westworld, that spend plenty of facty sciency showing time trying to make their science fiction make sense to their fictional world’s internal logic.
- Ugly ships. We only get to see “modern” Star Ships for a few minutes, but they don’t have the grace or elegance or the original Enterprise, or the Enterprise-D. And that’s a metaphor for Star Trek itself, which seems to have lost much of its grace as it evolved to reflect our modern angst rather than inspire our present by challenging our assumptions about the future. The Romulan ships are also ugly. It’s like the Constellation Class and Bird of Prey class ships were ships designed for a “more civilized time.”
- The transition beacon. One-shot. That’s all it would take. I get the sterilization imperative given the Romulan secret society paranoia, but just one shot to at least damage the beacon. It’s the alien synthetics joining the battle that destroy the future, not the handful of androids on a planet. And it’s a bit convenient that nothing comes through given the duration of the transmission. Rather than withdrawing, I would have preferred to see the wormy robots cut in pieces when the portal closes (where was Loki, BTW?). Beacons and awareness, however, face inconsistencies in Star Trek. The Borg beacon from the past doesn’t ever seem to reach its target in Star Trek: First Contact, but once the Borg do know where humanity resides, they never seem to forget. And then there are various beacons in Discovery. No more beacons, please.
- The emotion chip. Never brought up. The biggest change for Data in his existence, but doesn’t seem to be an issue in Picard. It fused with his neural net, before his download into the inferior body of B-4. Those emotional memories should have been retained in the digital mix, no?
- A sharp stick to the eye. We have seen Data torn, shot point-blank, transformed with grafted on skin, and headless and historial in the dust of a cave. I’m not sure a sharp stick to his eye would take him out. Not sure why a sharp stick to an eye takes out one of his descendants.
- The final battle/standoff. It gets resolved way too quickly. I don’t mind the actual speed of negotiation as much as the implied trust at its conclusion where the Romulans runoff and the Federation departs quickly thereafter, technically leaving Coppelius a defenseless sitting duck should the Romulans bide their time and do an about-face. The orchids are gone, as are all the starships. Wouldn’t the Federation leave a couple of cruisers in orbit to ensure the Romulans think twice about coming back (You know the Romulans haven’t just gotten over this). It’s pretty clear Chabon and team don’t have much military experience. And then there is Riker, not even checking on his friend’s medical condition before he decides to warp off and leave things to the ill and potentially outgunned Picard. The standoff, while visually stunning (I’m always a sucker for a bunch of starships in a scene together) doesn’t have the dramatic effect of the Enterprise arriving to save the day in Star Trek: First Contact.
- I’m going to leave the most important and most issue laden event to last: Picard becoming a synthetic.
I am Picard: human-cyborg relations
In some ways, Picard’s transformation brings the Data story full circle. The technology-based on Data becomes sophisticated enough to ingest a human mind. The first mind to find a home in this brave new positronic world just happens to be Jean-Luc Picard. His adventure continues.
But this is all too easy. Perhaps Jurati does solve problems that Soong the Younger cannot. Perhaps there is a 3D scanning and replicating feature that transforms the Golem (a reference to Chabon’s Caviler and Clay work) into the image of Picard. But Golem is the wrong word, even though it fits with the creative world of the showrunner. Golem is an ancient Jewish myth of a body made from mud animated for protection of a Jewish community. Picard’s Golem is not made of mud or earth, and no magic of words will stop it or cause it to disassemble.
More troubling than the misappropriation of the Golem idea is the ways in which Picard was reincarnated, in sharp contrast to the advice he had just imparted on Soji about choice. Picard has no influence on his synthetic design (though Soong says “everyone was paying attention.”) Not how long it will exist or how it will die. He is told that he is finite and would live out his regular life (due to the inclusion of a cellular homeostasis algorithm), but without the brain defect. So he won’t actually be living out his actual life because that life ended due to complications of the brain defect. What will it mean now for Picard to die? Short of him meeting a Klingon disrupter set to kill in the chest, it isn’t clear.
Picard was also told he had no superpowers, but it isn’t clear how that could be, given that the “golem” was likely constructed roughly on Data’s design, but improved, and data did have enhanced strength and fast reasoning ability. This is always the problem with placing organic life in synthetic form. The synthetic form modifies the organically trained brain, and once the brain learns of its enhanced abilities, it ceases the be the same person as the more limited predecessor. (Also, given he is now a machine now, can he be upgraded to live a bit longer?” And yes, Soong washes over that Picard wouldn’t want to be different after 94 years of the same face and body, but they didn’t ask him. And given cellular replacement and aging, his face and body aren’t the same as they were in the past. Perhaps he would have wanted a slightly younger Picard to put up mental housekeeping in.
And given we have already seen the Romulans clone Picard, what happens if someone gets ahold of Picard’s engrams and decides to make another Picard. In science fiction-land, unscrupulous people would screw with his programming so he becomes sleeper agent—which as noted above, should not be possible. Evil in robotics arises from design intent (ST:TNG, “The Doomsday Machine”), or in the case of Data “brother lore” inferior engineering that manifests as sociopathic tendencies. (Or perhaps an evil, mirror universe Picard robot).
Star Trek: TOS, however, dealt with all of this on October 20, 1966, when the season one episode “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” aired. Kirk and crew encounter the remnants of a civilization capable of turning raw material into synthetic analogs of humans. Science Fiction master Robert Bloch penned the episode which concludes that the dissonance between humanity and machine leans to the machine as Dr. Korby finds himself trying to logic his way to emotion and failing.
There is no hint of this potential outcome in the misty-eyed dream between Data and Picard that offers a prelude to his return to consciousness. Picards simply fades back into himself. Except for the uncomfortable bed, he seems right as rain (will he every experience human discomfort again, a major factor in shaping one’s self-view?)
As much as some facets of the AI community seek the Singularity, the personal and moral implications of such a unity between creator and created remains elusive. It is not only a matter of if we can should we?, but a matter of understanding if the execution of the act actually leads to the intended outcome. Does melding with a machine retain one’s humanity or turn the co-existing entity into something else entirely?
In the case of Picard, it seems there is a perfect marriage of mind and synthetic body, but that is easy to accomplish when you own the pen and decide not to dig any deeper. My fear is that they will dig deeper now, and it will rehash all of the questions I just raised—and we still won’t be on another world discovering something new and fantastic. Picard could be mired again in the rehashing of old arguments and situations. Picard the character may be going someplace boldly, but the audience will have already been there.
A final recommendation
Many scientists think that the future of space exploration will come down not to faster than light starships, but better-than-human robots launched into space to explore on our behalf. It would be interesting to see Star Trek explore that context. A robot, with the knowledge and tenure of a Picard, being a well-informed synthetic operating on behalf of humanity in places humans can’t explore on their own. That would stretch the universe and give audiences a glimpse at a very different view of the future.
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And BTW, I’m giving Picard a 4-star rating because some new Trek is better than no new Trek. Not very critical but after being so critical, I just can’t rank it down too far now because we all need a little more Trek right now, flawed or not.
- Inc. w/ CBS All Access