Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Television: Star Trek: Picard

One thing I wasn’t prepared for regarding the latest Star Trek series was the hype. Discovery was an unknown property, with new characters in what was a kinda-sorta familiar Trek setting, but it wasn’t your parents’ Trek! It represented a new look and a more modern direction for the franchise, and while CBS gave it the hard sell, Fandom Assembled received it with a great deal of trepidation.

Picard has been different, and not just because it’s the return of a familiar and beloved character—its reach has gone lightyears beyond the fandom, and much of that is because of Patrick Stewart. In the eighteen years since the last TNG film, Nemesis, he’s become a huge celebrity, but it’s the kind where his real-world persona has become as important, if not more than, his roles: his presence on social media, his charitable work, his talk show appearances, his friendship with Ian McKellen, his knighthood. Virginia, who is not what you’d call a Trekkie, was giggling over that country music video of Stewart’s to the point where she actually bought the CD.

That’s exactly the sort of thing I mean. On the one hand, stage work aside, Stewart is ensconced as a genre actor now; he doesn’t make as many non-SF/F movies as he used to (Conspiracy Theory, LA Story, Jeffrey, etc.), but because his reach has extended deep into the mainstream, he has transcended Trek and genre in general in a way only William Shatner, and arguably George Takei as well, has done.

The difference, I think, between Stewart’s fame and Shatner’s is the former appears more selective in the projects with which he involves himself. No one will remember Shatner for things like $#*! My Dad Says or War Chronicles, but I think Shatner’s motivated very differently. Between the acting, the writing, the spoken-word CDs, the commercials, and more, he seems determined to do it all. Stewart doesn’t strike me that way.

Who is this mystery girl and what’s her connection
to Data, who died in Nemesis?
And now he’s achieved what no other Trek actor has done: headlined two different Trek TV shows. Once again, Ann let me watch the first three episodes of Picard on CBS All Access at her place. The first episode was not shown on the main CBS channel this time. It’s just as well, since they’re going the season-long-story-arc route, like Discovery—which is not the only way to tell a story, by the way. It’s understandable if some of you may have forgotten. At least the episodes are being released one at a time instead of all at once.

Picard picks up the plot threads from Nemesis and the events of the 2009 film, in which Romulus was destroyed. The Federation had been mounting a relief effort on the Romulans’ behalf when something happened that led to them having a change of heart. This pissed off Jean-Luc (an admiral now) enough for him to leave Starfleet. Plus he’s still sad over the death of Data. Then he encounters a young woman with ties to his past, and to Data, and the things he learns as a result force him to come out of his self-imposed exile to uncover a secret plot within Starfleet itself.

Jean-Luc will assemble a new crew for a new mission,
but not as Starfleet officers.
Stewart’s presence alone makes Picard compelling to watch, of course. This is a different Jean-Luc: embittered over what he sees as the Federation turning its back on its ideals (though with reason), yet still willing to take action to save it from itself, if need be. The Romulans play a vital part of this story; we see good-guy and bad-guy Romulan characters as well as ones who are somewhere in between.

There are a number of precedents within Trek for the Federation and Starfleet being the antagonists—the movie Insurrection, for example. Still doesn’t feel right, but Stewart, an executive producer on the show, has said Picard would reflect current events. My initial thought was that Section 31, the secret black-ops group within Starfleet, might be the source of the problems. I hope they are, though I have a sinking feeling it won’t be as simple as that this time...

As of this writing, the TNG gang hasn’t appeared yet,
but they will. Seven of Nine too.
At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I find this season-long storytelling format challenging and I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve changed or television has. I think it may be the latter. In Picard and Discovery, there is no status quo to act as a baseline; everything in the series is subject to change from episode to episode. I think this is how hour-long dramas work now, and I still can’t get used to that, especially within Trek.  Picard as a show is pretty good overall, but it makes me sad to realize there’s no room anymore for done-in-one episodes—especially comedy!

Why does smoking exist in Picard? One character does it because she’s been in a deep depression for years, one exacerbated by Jean-Luc’s presence in her life again. I can understand that—but another does it for no reason that I can tell. I really find this disappointing to see. I had thought humanity had outgrown this habit in the future.

I like Picard overall, certainly more than Discovery, and I know Trek in general can’t go back to the way it was circa 1993 anymore, but that’s a hard pill to swallow.

4 comments:

  1. I am afraid you have crossed over into fogey territory, my friend. I've been keeping a seat warm.

    Thanks for reminding one and all that there are other ways than the serial format to tell a story. I may be interested in Picard or many other shows, but simply do not want to commit to the format. It makes watching television feel like an obligation instead of a pleasure.

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  2. I will gladly take my place with the fogeys if it means I get to hang out with you! Hope you got some popcorn left.

    You hit the nail on the head: watching TV should not feel like an obligation. I do believe PICARD is good as it is, but why do we need the entire season to tell the story? Because this kind of storytelling is what’s popular now?

    The Dominion War was a six-part arc because the storytelling demanded it, because it was the best way to address all the issues DS9 had been building up to, and even then, the first four episodes felt complete in and of themselves. Neither PICARD nor DISCOVERY do that, and while I’m not saying their way is inherently bad, Trek has shown us that it’s possible to find a middle ground, a balance.

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