The most important thing to know about Star Trek: Picard is that while bringing back one of the franchise’s most iconic characters might seem like a deliberate retreat to the past, the first three episodes of the CBS All Access series are much more about the new: New characters, new mysteries, and a whole new era of the Trek universe to explore.
That last element is particularly key—one of the first exciting things about the show is that in the recorded annals of Trek, we’re further into the future than ever before (with the exception of some one-off instances of time travel), and that future is darker than one might expect. In a culture obsessed with prequels, this fact alone makes Picard a gift.
Set in the year 2399, almost 30 years after the end of Next Generation, much of Picard’s three-episode premiere is centered around the aftermath of the destruction of Romulus. (That was the event which, in the 2009 J.J. Abrams film, sent Spock back into the past and created the Kelvin timeline, in which Abrams’ subsequent films take place, but to be clear, Picard takes place in the Prime timeline, in which Captain Kirk looks like William Shatner, not Chris Pine. If you’re finding this a bit confusing, that’s understandable, but really all you need to know is that a planet blew up and that’s where the Romulans used to live.)
The loss of Romulus didn’t happen in isolation, but instead triggered a number of additional tragedies that, as handled by Starfleet, eventually drove Jean-Luc Picard to lose faith in the organization to which he had devoted his life. So the show begins with him in retirement/retreat at the Chateau Picard vineyard in France, spending his days puttering around the vines with his trusty pitbull Number One, and his nights dreaming of lost friends and better times.
However, the arrival of Dahj (Isa Briones), a terrified young woman who seems to know him without knowing why, pulls him out of his self-imposed exile. To go into further detail about what happens would be to spoil the premiere’s biggest twists. But Next Generation fans who haven’t been watching Star Trek: Discovery might be taken aback by the approach here: This is not an adventure-of-the-week story, but instead a mystery that only gets more complex episode by episode. And while that mystery is deeply grounded in the show’s history, it is fresh and new enough to make Trek newcomers feel somewhat welcome. (That said, there’s no coddling for newbies, and some big reveals may not make an impact as a result.)
The first minutes of Picard include more than one familiar face, and thanks to casting announcements going back months, we know that other Trek veterans will be making appearances down the line. But Picard puts in the effort to create a whole new ensemble with complicated histories of their own, from nervous synthetics expert Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) to rogue ship captain Chris Rios (Santiago Cabrera) to Picard’s former (and very bitter) second-in-command Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd). Hurd stands out for her raw bitterness at the hand dealt to her by life, while elsewhere, Harry Treadaway makes a big impression as the untrustworthy (but still hot) Narek.
Briones, the daughter of under-appreciated American Crime Story star and theater legend Jon Jon Briones, has to take on a lot here, but the show gives her a solid showcase for her talents. Most importantly, a key aspect of the narrative here hinges on her character being able to connect with Picard, and fortunately she and Stewart have immediate chemistry.
Stewart, meanwhile, shows not a moment’s discomfort at slipping back into the most career-defining of his roles, though it likely helps that he’s not being asked to play the Picard of decades past. Instead, this Picard carries with him the burdens of age and tragedy, his happy memories made sadder by what has followed. It’s a perfect example of the magic that can occur with long-running franchises like these when they take advantage of their legacy and use the existing history to create a narrative with decades’ worth of depth, and watching Stewart find new nuances to this role is one of the show’s most exciting aspects.
While Picard never loses sight of its legacy, Trek as a franchise has always been about constant reinvention, with new entries into the universe often defining themselves against what had come before, incorporating fresh new approaches into the mix. Star Trek: The Next Generation challenged the idea that Trek stories had to star Kirk and Spock by bringing in a whole new cast. Deep Space Nine asked “hey, could Trek work on a space station?” (answer: kinda sorta, but it was no surprise when Captain Sisko got himself a warship in Season 3). Voyager didn’t just put a woman in the captain’s chair, but explored weekly the question of how a Starfleet crew would survive when isolated from the Federation, and Enterprise made the bold choice to prove that Trek can be really really bad sometimes. (Sorry, but the only good thing about Enterprise was the dog.)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon served as showrunner for Season 1, but since the departure of Bryan Fuller in the early days of Star Trek: Discovery’s development, Alex Kurtzman has been serving as the Kevin Feige of the Trek television universe, with plans for multiple spinoffs. And Picard, the first of those spinoffs, is right in line with Discovery’s darker tone and more adult material; this is a version of Trek where real booze is drunk as much as synthehol, people enjoy sex, and F-bombs are not uncommon.
Picard isn’t above moments of nostalgia (one scene in particular is packed with Easter eggs) but it also features a firm commitment to moving the franchise forward not just in time, but in what kind of stories Trek is capable of telling. This is a show that is more complicated and mature than what came before, but in the best ways, ways which do not discredit the past, but show it’s always possible to change and grow — whether you’re a 79-year-old man, or a 54-year-old franchise.
Picard premieres Thursday, January 23rd on CBS All Access.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.
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