Picard is back for a second season of time-travel, trauma and Q. But can Season Two correct the flaws of Season One while also juggling the Borg?
One of the immense frustrations of Picard‘s first season was just how much good will the show had going into it, and just how much of that good will was completely wasted on go-nowhere plots, a bunch of who-dat side characters that never really cohered into anything, and wasting Patrick Stewart in a series named after his character but which only occasionally gave him anything to actually do. The conclusion to that season, especially, was simply dreadful, with Picard apparently becoming a robot but for no good reason, and the series going out of its way to point out its own irrelevancy. Everyone flew off into the sunset at the end of the season, a crew together for plot expediency rather than any other reason, and speculation inevitably mounted as to whether Season Two would have the ability to course-correct in any meaningful way and address the issues that Season One so glaringly failed to.
Episode Nine / Ten – “Et In Arcadia Ego” Pts 1 And 2
So Picard is a Cylon. Huh.
When, at the end of episode eight, I pleaded for the series to fix its basic ability to tell a story I didn’t actually expect that to happen. And lo and behold it didn’t. Episode Nine – which consists of the same old go-not-very-far-slowly that has become Picard‘s storytelling modus operandi – goes through the usual stop-start motions of delivering exposition a lot, followed by small bits of forward plot momentum, followed by more exposition. The small bits of forward plot momentum are often huge bits of forward plot momentum but rarely feel so, even when – to take a far-from-arbitrary example – a Borg cube crash-lands on a planet, our heroes do the same thing, and a vast Romulan fleet zips into orbit.
I couldn’t even be bothered to find an image for this episode
Episode Eight – Shrug
I mean, I did watch it but I’m not motivated to say a lot more than that, really. It was just a bunch of expoisition vomited on screen in the usual structureless way. The Grief World, though? Really? That’s the explanation for the Zhat Vash’s millenia-long problem with AI? And what happened on Mars? I mean, it’s an explanation but it’s really not an especially satisfying one. Though – and this is the real problem – there really wasn’t going to be a satisfying resolution to the “why the Zhat Vash hated AI for so long” question. Because, how can there be? It’s either going to be evilevilfromthedawnoftime, some bullshit Mystical Orbs thing that would be less well than the Orbs Of The Prophets, or Godlike aliens. Turns out it’s basically the first one. Shrug. There’s no sense of this even really functioning as a ta-da! reveal, it’s just another piece of information trotted out. And how many people did they let die just to stop the Federation’s AI development? Does this make even the slightest bit of fucking sense? No. Not it does not.
I really wanted to start this episode with a two-word review – “nothing happens”. But that’s not true. Plenty of things happen, though they’re mostly low-key, character stuff. That’s fine though at episode seven, whether “low-key” is really what Picard should be aiming for is certainly up for debate. But let’s be clear from the outset – this is an episode specifically designed to do one thing, and one thing alone – tickle all those TNG feels. In that it is an undeniable success. The whole raison d’etre of this episode is Picard meeting up with Riker and Troi, hanging out for a while, then getting back to the main plot. And of course it’s delightful to see those three characters on screen together again, because of course it fucking is. It’s Riker! He’s visibly drinking! I mean, what’s not to love?
What, exactly, do people want from Star Trek? There has been a legitimate line of questioning around this ever since Discovery brought Star Trek back from the televisual hinterland of syndication. One of Star Trek‘s strengths has always been its ability to appeal to people beyond a hardcore of fandom – that’s why it’s the biggest science fiction franchise in the world (putting Marvel to one side, of course – that’s a whole different conversation and I don’t want to get bogged down in genre definitions at this point). The movies appeal to people who like sci-fi but aren’t necessarily huge Trekkies. The original show has become part of the cultural landscape, one of science fiction’s defining texts, watchable by just about anyone. Is there some difficult-to-define over-arching appeal that can embrace TNG and Enterprise? Into Darkness and Picard? And if so, what is it? Over on The AV Club, Zack Handelin wrote, “A friend on Twitter recently pointed out that saying something “isn’t Star Trek” isn’t really an effective criticism”. I strongly disagree with Zack’s friend – I think it cuts to the absolute heart of the issue that people have with both Discovery and Picard, and it is to this we turn our attention.
A lot of the successes of Picard so far have tended to feel a little abstract – a bit more in-theory good and a bit less in-practice good. Stewart is obviously great and we have a series of intriguing mysteries, but one of the frustrations of the show is being able to see a lot of the potential whilst also seeing that the show really isn’t capitalising on it. Complaints that the story has been slow up to this point are certainly valid, yet “slowness” is not in and of itself a problem – take a show like Better Call Saul which moves at a pace which makes continental drift seem snappy and impatient yet also manages to feel achingly tense and riveting. Picard as a show hasn’t managed to get this balance right yet, mistaking slowness for thoughtfulness and number of so-so plot and character beats that just aren’t finding any traction beyond “I intellectually understand why this these choices are being made but this has yet to become compelling television”. It would be too harsh to call Picard boring at this point, but it’s also something that’s been hovering on the horizon ever since the credits rolled on episode one.
This is a show which is absolutely split down the middle at the moment. Which is to say, to be blunt, the stuff with Picard – even if it doesn’t always make the most logical sense – broadly works at least in part because, well, Patrick Stewart is on screen, and nothing on the Borg cube really does. That’s disappointing in any number of ways, but the Borg cube material basically just exists for people to stand around either telling us things which we the audience already know – which is repetitive and boring, or they’re playing with characters that they don’t quite seem to know what to do with, which is frustrating. Take our Romulan brother and sister pairing, Narek and Narissa. They’re baaaad. And they were baaaad last week as well (and the week before). And now they’re baaaad but with weirdly incestuous undertones.
• OK fine, I’m being a bit facetious. But really, I don’t know what more to say about this episode, it’s just Episode 2 but more. Picard speech, Stuff On A Cube, you know.
• Um. I mean, it’s not that this is bad, but the episode could have been entitled “Furniture Movers!” Subtitle – “Does your furniture need moving around? Call us for low, low prices! Wait, not prices, no money in the future. Eh, you know what we mean”.
It shares it’s name with a great R.E.M. song at least… Well, that was a whole lot of nothing. After a measured but compelling first episode Picard‘s second outing is a whole lot of place-setting and really not a lot more. All that exposition that was skilfully deployed in the first episode, teasing out interesting bits and pieces? All gone now as we get infodump after infodump after infodump in a slightly-desperate-seeming attempt to get us ready for the remaining eight episodes. I know we’re going to need more information than this, but surely there must have a more elegant way of deploying it (There was. And don’t call me Shirley etc).
Jean-Luc is back! But will the series live up the reputation of the titular Captain?
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?