There is no doubt that the fans’ hopes for this new production in the long-running Trek franchise were high, partly because of its focus on one of the most iconic characters for this universe, and partly because the more recent offerings did not exactly meet viewers’ expectations, maybe (and this is only my personal opinion) due to the fact that they chose to look at the past of this universe rather than envision its possible futures, and therefore had to deal with issues of canon and continuity that provoked displeasure from some hard-core fans.
Did the first season of Picard meet those expectations? I would largely say yes, although it was not exempt from pacing and narrative problems. The story is set some twenty years after the events of the last TNG movie, Nemesis, and starts from the premise that a supernova threatened the obliteration of a good portion of the Romulan Empire: the Federation and Starfleet mounted a huge operation of rescue and relocation of the affected population and gave Picard, promoted to the rank of admiral, the task of coordinating the effort. Despite the technical difficulties and the political problems – not everyone in the Federation was happy with the idea of investing so many resources in aiding a long-standing enemy – the operation proceeded competently until it was wrecked by an unforeseeable disaster: the androids designed to increment the workforce suddenly and inexplicably turned on their creators, destroying the shipbuilding facilities on Mars and killing tens of thousands. Faced with Starfleet’s decision to stop the rescue mission in the aftermath of the tragedy, Picard threatened to resign in the hope of waking up their conscience, but his resignation was accepted with no qualms and he retired to his family home, angered and defeated.
As the series opens, it’s been fourteen years since that day and the Picard we meet is a disaffected, reclusive man who nevertheless rises to the occasion when a young woman comes to seek his help after having been the victim of a brutal murder attempt… I will leave the rest of this complex, many layered story for you to discover, and concentrate instead on the first season’s characterization and storytelling.
There is no question that characters are the backbone of this show, both the old and the new. Jean Luc Picard is of course the one who enjoys the most screen time, but he’s very different from the person we knew (or thought we knew…) from the seven seasons and four movies of TNG: he’s older, disillusioned and quite bitter about the way his career ended – the rescue and relocation effort could have been its crowning achievement, not just for the amount of lives saved, but for the opportunity of turning the Federation’s ideals of diplomacy and cooperation into tangible fact, of showing that even long-standing differences can be overcome in the name of a worthy goal.
Present-day Picard is not the man we remember anymore: he has turned inwards, almost forgotten to look up at the stars and see the promise they offer; there is no more hope in him and at some point he understands that for all this time he has been vegetating, waiting to die as he claims in a moment of merciless introspection. The long years spent in this self-inflicted isolation have left their mark on him, and it’s not a welcome sight: even once he embarks on the “adventure” that’s the focus of this story, he has moments when he seems unaware, or worse dismissive of other people’s feelings, when it appears as if he’s using them as convenient tools to fulfill his goal. And yet, where these moments should make us think less of him, they help instead to make him look far more approachable than he was in the past, as if, shedding that mantle of unshakable authority that made him one of the most celebrated Starfleet captains, he gained in humanity.
This less-than-flattering view of Picard is only the mirror for what happened with the Federation, which has turned into an insular entity, more concerned with its own problems than with the expansion of knowledge and the betterment of its members that were its founding principles. It’s often been one of the mandates of science fiction to examine our present and to reflect it back at us through some imaginary filter, so we could take a good look at what we are, and the image that we see in this mirror is far from flattering: the hope and optimism that were at the roots of the earlier incarnations of Star Trek are present in name only, replaced by an unprecedented wariness toward the other that denies those lofty ideals. The prequel novel The Last Best Hope does a good job of showing how this kind of mindset came to be, and it’s indeed a useful key to decipher the atmosphere we breathe in this first season of the series, to understand the kind of inner journey Picard has to take in the TV series to rise up again from the depths of disillusionment he had fallen in and regain the armor of moral authority that was the main component of his personality.
Back to the characters, there are some new faces here who end up forming the crew Picard needs for this unexpected mission, and while they are all interesting, they are not given sufficient space to really grow into fully-featured personalities: ten episodes and a story that needs to explain enough of the past to help us understand the present are hardly enough to show all the facets that would deepen our understanding of them. Still, it’s a good start and my hope is that they will be given room to expand with the second season: if I choose to see this first run of the series as a prologue, there might be a good chance they will be allowed to mature fully and to create a new “family” for the old captain. On the other hand, the appearance of a few familiar faces from the past is more than welcome, either the cameo roles of Riker and Troi or the more substantial presence of Data and of 7of 9 from Voyager – and in this respect I look forward to her return in Season 2 because the metamorphosis from her former aloof personality to the present ass-kicking awesomeness represents one of the highlights of this series. In this respect, I would like to address some of the accusations of “fan service” I read online, and while I admit that the show was at times guilty of it, I’m also aware that it needed to build on the ties of the past to better establish its footing in this “present” – and I’m also certain that no one, not even those detractors, was able to remain unmoved when Picard finally uttered his trademark “Engage!” at the end of a certain episode…
The first season of Picard, while promising, is not immune from some narrative issues, particularly in the pacing that feels too slow in some instances and far too swift in others, blithely skipping over some details that would have helped make sense of the progression of events – and yet it all comes together in the final episode, one whose emotional content was enough to make me forget all previous doubts and criticisms. Not perfect, no, but promising enough to encourage me to wait for next season with great anticipation.