Episode One – “Remembrance“
The question is, really, what do we want from Picard? Or Picard? After a drought of Star Trek shows following Enterprise’s inelegant shuffling off the airwaves in 2005 we suddenly have a deluge – two shows starting up within a couple of years of each other (Discovery having launched in 2017) and more on the horizon, both live action and animated. Discovery’s two seasons have been comparatively well received but it’s a show that often looks more like Star Trek than it ever feels like Star Trek. All the symbols, chevrons, phasers and transporters are perfectly, erm, replicated but often not much else is. It’s competent, slick, and well-acted but there’s a certain something missing, an animating spark that the show only occasionally and tangentially brushes up against. Is this, then, what we want from Picard? That old flavour of Star Trek?
If you’re answering those rhetorical question with a little nod of the head then there’s good news – that’s exactly what Picard does, at least in its first episode. Far away from the space operatics of either Discovery or The Next Generation, Picard feels more than anything else like a character study as much as an exciting action-adventure series. The pacing of the show is deliberate – not slow, exactly, and we get a couple of very well-directed fight sequences to give us a wee bit of action and keep things clipping along, but certainly it’s stately in its progress. This fits in perfectly with the older, more melancholy Picard we meet this time out. There seems little point in mentioning how good Stewart is returning to the role – he is, as literally everyone and their granny might expect, beyond excellent and even if the series was a complete disaster it would be worth spending at least a little time with simply to soak in his performance. But the character beats given to Picard here mark this as someone who has changed over the last couple of decades.
This isn’t the confident, forward-looking captain we left at the end of Nemesis, this is someone who has had to take some real punches in life, and who remains haunted by the death of Data. Stewart is obviously up to delivering on this, but we also get to see a rarely explored side of Picard as he loses his temper during an interview. In just that one scene alone we practically get the best performance Stewart has ever given in the role – and that’s really saying something. The fury, the regret and the disappointment Picard feels at being let down by Starfleet all comes pouring out of him, perfectly in character yet also something new. At every turn, the first episode does a phenomenal job of balancing enough of the old Picard for us to immediately warm to this version and enough new furrows in his character that this is far more than a mere nostalgic re-tread to keep the fans happy.
Yet for the fans there are, of course, plenty of little nods to the past. Some of them are overt – the dog called Number One, the opening dream sequence featuring the Enterprise-D as Data and Picard play poker in Ten-Forward – some a little more subtle, but what’s incredibly refreshing about Picard is that it doesn’t at all linger on these, and it finds a way of using the past as way to inform and understand the present, rather than simply trotting it out for a bit of fan service. Sure it’s sweet to see a “Captain Picard Day” banner but it’s not there simply as a nod to an old episode, it’s there as a symbolic representation of the past that Picard used to believe in but which has now slipped away. The days of tooling around the galaxy having fun adventures have been lost to time, and now only lonely echoes of them remain. It’s not “meta”, it’s not (just) fan service, but is actually something that carries emotional weight with it.
In this the – perhaps surprising – decision to embrace the direction The Next Generation took with Nemesis is also incredibly refreshing, because it again engages with the idea of facing the past, mistakes and all, rather than quietly trying to re-write or forget it. Data’s death in Nemesis wasn’t, to put it mildly, the best way the character could have gone out, but the unselfish sacrifice felt true to Data’s character and to have his death figuratively and literally haunt Picard twenty years later is a smart way of integrating the legacy of that movie rather than ignoring it. Although saying that, there’s something very funny about B4 simply being stuck in a drawer and forgotten about – precisely the fate that terrible, terrible character deserved. Still, overall there’s plenty here for TNG fans looking for a chance to catch up with their old captain.
Were this just about Picard alone, though, the show would be charming – powerful, even – but lack a certain something, so it’s pleasing to note just how well new characters are brought in, and the method in which they are integrated shows real confidence and intelligence. When we first meet Picard, slowly withering away on his vineyard in France, he has two Romulan carers working for him (one of whom sounds like she’s come directly from Space Ireland, or perhaps O’Romulus) without explanation. They’re friendly, helpful and likable, but we get no more information about them until that interview where Picard finally explains he was involved in the evacuation of Romulus and why it was important to him. At that point the reason behind their presence snaps into place and it becomes clear. It’s another example of how smart the script is, trusting the audience to accept what’s been shown then explain it at the right time without an infodump or clumsy, “well, after I rescued you from Romulus, as you all remember…”-type speech.
The show is very good at covering what amounts to a fairly big pile of backstory with a relative degree of smoothness. This is the first episode in the season, so there’s going to be a certain amount of setup that simply has to covered to get things underway but mostly it goes down easily – helped, as ever, by Stewart’s peerless performance – but introducing concepts like the synth rebellion, the destruction on Mars, the destruction of Romulus (leading to the Abramsverse in one direction and Picard in the other), Data’s daughter, Data’s other daughter (the twin one) and then ending on that big Borg cube full of Romulans… well, that’s a lot to cover in forty-five minutes. To its credit the show does its best with this, though the scenes at the Daystrom Institute are a little heavy on the “explain the plot” material but in this case it’s more of a necessary evil rather than a failure of any kind (and as mentioned, B4 being stuck in a drawer is genuinely funny, which helps).
The biggest new character we get debuted this time out is Dahj, played with some degree of confidence and skill by Isa Briones. Well, she’s great! We first meet here having a romantic dinner with her boyfriend, which is abruptly and swiftly taken out by some Romulan assassins before something (dun-dun-duuuuuh!) is awoken in Dahj and she unexpectedly “activates” and kills them before fleeing to meet Picard. Throughout it all Briones is able to project real vulnerability and fear while at the same time perfectly morphing into a kick-ass killing machine. She’s able to do very well when acting across from Stewart – a real compliment – and later on she gets to do some more fighting in an excellently-directed sequence at Starfleet HQ. Dahj is likeable and under Picard’s protection so it’s genuinely quite shocking when she’s killed off three-quarters of the way through the episode… only for the revelation that she has a twin, Sonji Asher, revealed at the end of the episode and also played by Briones. From what we’ve seen in the first episode she has real potential on the show and it will be interesting to see where the story takes her.
Ultimately, Picard is pretty much as good as we could have hoped for when it comes to the debut episode of the show. It’s confident, smart and well-written, it acknowledges the past without being hidebound by it, and throughout it all there is no pleasure greater than seeing Stewart step back into his defining role (sorry, Professor X). It’s simply blissful to spend forty-five minutes basking in him re-embracing a role he said he would never perform again. Yet, if this episode is anything to go by (and there’s no reason to assume otherwise at this stage) then it’s clear why he would be drawn back to the character of Picard because this feels like genuine character development coupled with a real insight into what and who Picard is as a person. There’s depth and understanding, and by digging into Picard – both his successes and failures – Picard the show is able to exactly recapture the feel of Star Trek without simple repetition. Exploring the character is far more important that the correct iconography or being on a starship or whatever, and if there is one lesson to take away from Picard it’s just how crucial that character work is to the feel of Star Trek. To return to our original question – what do we want from Picard? This. This show is what I want. And if the rest of it is as good as the opener then we’re in for a very strong series indeed.
Any Other Business:
• Hey everybody! I’m gonna do episode-by-episode review of Picard! And there’s nothing you can do to stop me! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!
• The Picard title sequence and music are the best we’ve had since Voyager went off the air. Yes, I realise that is not, in and of itself, an achievement. Neither are brilliant but both are fine, and the few notes of the TNG theme in the last few seconds are sweet.
• The opening dream sequence is very nicely realised. Some people have complained that Brent Spiner is too old or plump to play the role – a ridiculous assertion – but the fact that Data looks slightly off does lend something to the surreal feel of the scene. The “painting” dream sequence is handled very well too.
• Nice nictitating membranes on Dahj’s boyfriend before he’s unceremoniously dispatched. Also, Black Guy Dies First trope is clearly still operating in the 24th century…
• Stewart does melancholy so well and our gentle introduction to the character makes his sudden fury and regret during his interview that much more impactful. Great work.
• The “character sees some vital information in a TV shop window” was a hacky device decades ago, so it’s a bit strange to see it here, a very rare misstep in the pilot.
• The archive Picard visits to see Data’s painting, “Daughter”, of course has a plethora of TNG references, but it’s an incredibly sad place, a forgotten relic being visited by a forgotten relic. Yet it never seems maudlin or indulgent, which is quite an achievement.
• So look – that Captain Picard Day banner. It’s sweet, it’s meaningful and it’s relevant. But… how did it survive? The Enterprise-D was destroyed (by humiliatingly easy means and two hammy Klingons). Did someone pick through the wreckage of the saucer section on Veridian III and drag it back to Earth?
• The fight at Starfleet HQ is really, really well done, and I like the fact they pay attention to details like the fact that Picard is an old man and can’t run about the place like Action Movie Picard did on the big screen.
• Every time someone says “we want to develop synths but aren’t allowed” or some variation thereof my brain kept screaming, “but surely the DX-7 has been around for centuries!”
• The revelation of a twin is a bit… eh, not clumsy exactly but it’s also just a tad soap-opera which is a shame because that’s not at all how anything else here reads.
• The Cube reveal at the end alongside meeting Sonji is well-handled and it will be interesting to see where it all takes us.