Jonathan Franks and Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: Picard season 3. Image: Paramount+
Captain Jean-Luc Picard echoes many of our thoughts in an early scene of Star Trek: Picard season three.
Reflecting on a portrait of the USS Enterprise-D hanging on his wall (who wouldn’t want one of those?) he muses: “She wasn’t the first, but she was certainly my favourite.”
That’s how I feel about Star Trek: The Next Generation. And I’m sure I’m not alone. The Next Generation was not the first Star Trek series, nor the last, but for anyone who grew up alongside that crew (Wednesdays at 6pm on BBC Two each week for me) it’s certainly the favourite.
So when Star Trek: Picard was announced in the summer of August 2018 there was delirium.
Marina Sirtis, who plays Deanna Troi, was in the room when it happened. She told The Big Issue what it was like: “Oh my goodness, when [Patrick Stewart] announced in Las Vegas that Picard was back… I can’t even describe it. This explosion of glee and happiness and joy from 6,000 people – it was an amazing thing to see.”
Unfortunately, when Star Trek: Picard aired, the glee and happiness and joy was almost completely absent. The storyline arcs were so ambitious that logic was stretched beyond breaking point. The tone was bleak and sombre. The visuals muted and grimy. Characters swore because that makes everything more gritty, right?
Star Trek: Picard so far has not been bad as much as frustrating. It has felt like a missed opportunity.
Star Trek: Picard boldly goes into its third season
The good news is that the third season, premiering in the UK this week on Prime Video, finally starts to engage. Having watched six out of 10 episodes, the series is lightyears ahead. And the reason for the improvement is of no surprise to anybody. It’s because The Next Generation characters are back in action and they are brilliant.
Ok, so it takes a few episodes for things to start coming together. That’s fine. Instead of everyone being reunited by a convenient plot device like a wedding or reunion, each character plays an integral part in the story and is given a chance to shine rather than be a token cameo.
Early episodes feature a lot of Dr Crusher and Captain William Riker. Gates McFadden (Crusher) wasn’t always served particularly well in The Next Generation so it’s nice to see her have a moment here. Jonathan Frakes (Riker) doesn’t just do a good job in front of the camera. After a couple of average episodes, it’s the third one that really starts to approach warp speed – and so no surprise to see it’s directed by him.
Today is a good day to bring back Worf
This won’t be a spoiler either. Worf is unbelievably good. The Klingon security chief is now a silver-haired ninja, the writers write fantastically for him. Worf has some great moments and Michael Dorn knows exactly what he’s doing. Star Trek: Captain Worf – or whatever rank he may have now – would be a brilliant spin-off series (and one I’ve got his co-stars Marina Sirtis and Colm Meaney to back).
Wonderful Worf is proof. There is such a rich cast of characters to draw into Picard’s story. It’s been hard to care for any of the new characters introduced by Star Trek: Picard. That’s no fault of the actors. Fans (or myself at least) grew up with TNG faces on their bedroom walls. No performance can match that for connecting with the audience. It’s an unfair advantage but one that Picard finally takes advantage of.
Having said that, a mention should go to Todd Stashwick as Captain Liam Shaw, burdened by having to play that standard role of the high ranking officer blocking our heroes’ quest. He manages to make Shaw empathetic and very likeable. And Amanda Plummer has a lot of villainous scenery-chewing fun.
Star Trek: Picard finally gets it right with the fan service. There is a parade of cameos. The trailer has already teased Lore and Moriarty but there are others. Avoiding more significant spoilers, my favourite might be Galen’s flute.
There is awareness of what the audience wants and the times we live in. Captain Picard is probably most familiar to younger people as a facepalm meme that pops up on social media, and there’s a nod to that when Riker asks him to: “Give me one of those rigid disapproving sour expressions you’re famous for”. Expect it popping up on your feeds soon.
The elements of Star Trek: Picard that don’t quite engage
Is the third series of Star Trek: Picard perfect? No. Not yet. There’s still the grungy aesthetic, shaky camerawork and restless editing. Exploring the final frontier clearly isn’t edgy enough so there’s still some tonally jarring swearing. A frequent weakness of Star Trek is often the surprise family member, never before mentioned, and here we go again. Personalities of characters swing wildly from one dramatic moment to the next depending who’s in the scene to create the conflict.
Then there’s the issue of any series that tries a series-spanning arc. A 10-hour movie is a nice idea but there’s a lot to be said for episodic television. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has reminded us of how fertile that format of storytelling can be. It’s a shame that lesson wasn’t applied on Picard.
It would be impossible to have a favourite episode of Picard, or one you’d want to watch over and over. Whereas when you think back to Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s individual moments that stand out: Data on trial, Lal, Worf not being a merry man, Beverley banging a ghost, Troi as a cake, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”.
In the final episodes, I’m not sure what will happen. But for the first time watching Star Trek: Picard, I actually want to know.
Scenes are chock full of easter eggs that could hatch later on in the series – or in another series. It immediately becomes clear that given the space, most of the original characters could carry their own show. But first, please let that series be about Worf!
Overall, you’re left wishing Star Trek: Picard had started with this season instead of signing off with it. So it may not be the first, but it is certainly my favourite.
Star Trek: Picard will premiere on Prime Video in the UK on 17 February
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