Picard S3E1: The Next Generation

Full disclosure: I have not, thus far, enjoyed Star Trek: Picard. I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and was looking forward to catching up with Jean-Luc Picard, last seen in 2002’s dire Star Trek: Nemesis. The first few episodes pulled on some of the more intriguing threads left hanging by Next Generation, namely Starfleet’s efforts to create a race of Data-like androids, and the fate of the Borg after their mothership was destroyed. And Pulitzer-winning author Michael Chabon was the head writer, obviously this was going to be a great show!

It was not a great show. The storylines were weaved together haphazardly, it was tough to care about the ragtag band of supporting characters surrounding Picard, and the conclusion (in which Picard dies and is resurrected, and Data is resurrected then dies, all through the magic of Treknobabble) left a lot of fans feeling like this was a waste of the always-excellent Sir Patrick Stewart’s time. 

And the series continued to pinball between setting a new course and falling back on nostalgia. After the first season roped in Voyager’s Seven of Nine, plus a guest appearance from Riker and Troi, season two—an even more haphazard mess than the first—brought back Q, Guinan, the Borg Queen, Wesley Crusher, Brent Spiner again (playing his third or fourth long-lost relative of Dr. Soong, Data’s creator), and, improbably, the boombox-playing punk riding the bus in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

The joy of Star Trek is that the franchise can go anywhere and explore any number of new settings and new storylines, so it’s been frustrating to see Picard simply run in tighter and tighter circles around the galaxy. It was no surprise when the show went all-in on nostalgia, bringing back the entire cast of Next Generation for its third and final season. It’s a shameless attempt to cash in on Gen-X nostalgia rather than moving the story forward… and yet.

And yet. This first episode does a lot of things right. We get thrown right into the action, with Dr. Beverly Crusher under attack by masked aliens, an unseen man locked up on her ship, and a firefight that ends with her sending an urgent distress call to Jean-Luc Picard. But it also takes its time when it needs to. We get a thoughtful scene of Picard reflecting on his past with Laris, his Romulan housekeeper. We get Picard and Number One (now Captain Riker, retired) catching up over a drink before getting down to business. We get the grandeur of a ship leaving the space dock, straight out of the original movies.

And yet, none of it feels like stalling. The episode’s good at filling these slow moments with character, and alternating with scenes that give us multiple entry points into the season’s mystery. We don’t know who attacked Crusher or why, we don’t know why she’s apparently been estranged from Picard and the rest of the Enterprise crew since the events of Nemesis, and Picard’s scenes alternate with Raffi, desperate and strung out after being drummed out of Starfleet… except that’s a clever bait-and-switch. She’s in fact working for Starfleet intelligence, tracking down a stolen experimental weapon, and working for a mysterious handler whose identity is unknown even to her. It’ll surely tie into the larger story, but how isn’t clear.

Some of the connections are a little too tidy, as when Picard and Riker enlist Starfleet’s help, it’s in the form of the U.S.S. Titan, Riker’s old ship, now run by the hilariously prickly and disagreeable Captain Shaw. They find a more sympathetic ear in his first officer, Seven of Nine (the ex-Borg who, despite being brought onto Voyager for Jeri Ryan’s sex appeal, ended up being the show’s most compelling character, and has thus far been the most compelling member of Picard’s supporting cast.) 

Seven is now going by Cmdr. Annika Hansen to downplay her Borg past, something she seems less than happy about. And in keeping with the title, Titan’s navigator is none other than Alandra La Forge, Geordi’s grown daughter (played by LeVar Burton’s real-life daughter, Mica, and one of two characters who make the episode’s title literal). And while we get a few reunions in this episode (and more to come, as we don’t yet see Geordi, Worf, or Counselor Troi), we at least get an amusing twist: no one’s ever happy to see Picard show up on their doorstep. 

As preoccupied as the Kirk/Spock/McCoy series of films was with aging, the moral of later installments always ended up being “Shatner’s still got it!” Whereas Picard is quick to remind us that Picard and Riker are two old farts who no one wants hanging around meddling, and are in no shape to go on another life-and-death mission. As Riker quips, “Your hands are stiff and my knees are killing me. So long as we don’t have to move or shoot, we’ll be fine.”

Needless to say, we get plenty of moving and shooting, as the episode leads to a satisfying cliffhanger. So, we’re off to a good start. Episode director (and Star Trek: Discovery vet) Doug Aarniokoski treats this less like another season of Picard and more like the fifth Next Generation movie we never got, and we’re better for it. (Not to mention, it’s already shaping up to be one of the better TNG movies, although that’s a low bar to clear).

Stray tachyons:
• Brent Spiner hasn’t shown up yet, but when he does he will have played four characters in this series—Data, Lore, Altan Soong, and Adam Soong. Over various Treks he has played three androids and four Soongs. (He ties Jeffrey Combs, who’s played seven different Trek characters across Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, and Lower Decks.)

Next Generation was a crowded show, with seven leads and a back bench of recurring characters, and it didn’t always serve those characters well (the women in particular; Crusher gets more to do in a few minutes of this episode than whole seasons of Next Generation). Picard cleared some space by jettisoning most of the show’s previous cast — only Seven and Raffi returned from last season — but it remains to be seen how much story Troi or LaForge get, and whether Raffi gets gently pushed aside in favor of our old favorites once the story gets going.

• Full disclosure: By day I work for Simon & Schuster, a division of Paramount, which produces this and every Star Trek show. I have no dealings whatsoever with Paramount’s film and TV division, and these reviews will come from a place of lifelong Trek fandom (and a healthy awareness of the franchise’s highs and lows and the vast gulf between them), not any kind of corporate synergy.