Honesty: This is a spoiler-filled rant. Not a review. Want to wallow in the stupidity of Star Trek: Picard with me? Enjoy.
A little while ago I finished the last episode of Star Trek: Picard’s premiere season and I still can’t stop laughing. What. The. Trek. Was. That?
Back in January, before the world descended into a pandemic induced coma, Picard premiered on CBS All Access. And while All Access hasn’t proved interesting prior to this, I was excited. I’ve come to love Patrick Steward and his character of Jean-Luc Picard. Initially, I didn’t appreciate his captain of the new Starship Enterprise when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered back in 1987. Who was this stuck up bald dude? At the tender age of 10, heroes to me were supposed to be square-jawed, smooth with the ladies. Men’s men. Jean-Luc Picard was none of those things. He was stern and humorless, and he had a literal egghead. It didn’t compute with kid me.
This wasn’t Captain Kirk!
But you grow up. And as I did, I began to appreciate his angularity. He was a fully fleshed-out character with good and bad traits, and as the show went on he worked on his failings. A man of conviction, he was fiercely intelligent and unafraid of showing it, but he was also arrogant and kind of a dork. I love how uptight he was around children. Just didn’t like them. I can relate. But, strait-laced and too serious as he was, he was also a perennial optimist who saw the best in humanity and expected the best of us. Jean-Luc Picard was a square peg that happily didn’t fit in the round hole of the universe.
The last time we saw Picard, he was at the helm of an adventure in the execrable Star Trek: Nemesis. The final nail in the coffin of a stale franchise, the movie was a pathetic attempt to make Star Trek cool. Focusing on action, Nemesis decided that Captain Picard was now a thrill-seeking adventurer. He was giddy at the prospect of tearing through a desert planet in a dune buggy, grinning like an idiot as his all-terrain vehicle jumped over sand dunes and ended up in a faux Mad Max-style car chase. This guy who for seven seasons of TNG preferred quiet time with a good book and a glass of “Tea. Earl Gray. Hot.” was now…Indiana Jones?!
It didn’t work. Nemesis failed at the box office and the Next Generation crew lay dormant, taking a back seat as Star Trek was successfully (for a couple movies at least) rebooted as a film franchise featuring the original series’ characters (though with new young actors, of course. Age frightens us).
But now—18 years, 3 reboot movies, and yet another prequel series later—we finally move forward with the Star Trek timeline as Picard returns in, well, Picard, and with it brings the hope of washing out that rancid Nemesis aftertaste.
Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, Picard ends up as bad as that low point in the franchise and in some ways, maybe even worse.
Let’s start with the surface stuff first.
Picard feels cheap. Oh, the special effects are fine. Spaceships properly spaceship around space, phaser shootouts look phasery, and there are some nice establishing shots, especially of future San Francisco, 2399. I liked that the Golden Gate Bridge is lined with solar panels. Though, would we still use solar panels in 300 years? Anyways, the actual FX work is perfectly fine.
So why does the show feel low budget?
Simple: the production design is subpar, sunk by an utter lack of imagination. Starfleet headquarters, the heart of an empire that spans the galaxy, is actually Anaheim Convention Center. I mean, it was filmed there.
And I get it. It’s a futuristic-looking building and few if any shows have a budget to create a whole CG building for the characters to walk through. Using an actual structure is perfectly fine. But if you’re gonna do that then try, somehow, to hide its present day-ness. Dress it up.
Follow me here. They show transporter doors outside the building continuously transporting hundreds of people per second and then they all converge on…typical swingout doors?! It’s the future, a future that has containment fields, energy walls, you name it—why would they even need doors? Especially with thousands of people walking in and out constantly. Those swinging doors would get mighty inconvenient.
Later a character is wearing earbuds. They’re big and clunky, perched precariously in her ears, clinging desperately to her like Harold Lloyd to his clock. At least they’re wireless. But that’s still today’s technology and not even the best of what we offer. How about using something sleek and small like Air Pods, at least? Paint ‘em black and voila: future headphones. Though in an age where people can be de- and rematerialized, wouldn’t we have a more efficient way of transmitting music directly into our ears?
Imma hop off this chintzy production design train in just a moment, but I do have to share this last bit. Near the end of the last episode there’s a “futuristic” chandelier hanging in the background of one scene:
Hmmm, where have I seen that before? Oh yeah. My house:
Look familiar? No, not the dolls. I’ll explain those later. (Note: I will NEVER explain the dolls.) I mean, if you’re shopping at IKEA for futuristic sets, you really aren’t trying very hard.
Fine. We can chalk all this up to nitpicking, and frankly, if the rest of the show had been good, I probably wouldn’t have cared about these things, minor annoyances tucked to the back of the brain. But that barely-even-trying ethic infects the entire show, most damagingly in the storytelling.
Picard’s showrunner is Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Wonder Boys. I read and loved both books. He’s a talented fellow. Where did that talent go when it came to this show, though?
The story itself begins okay enough. The first few episodes bring up intriguing ideas that make it seem like the show might go somewhere. I liked that the supernova that destroyed the Romulan homeworld, an event that kicked off the alternate timeline of the Star Trek theatrical reboot in 2009, also ties into the thrust of this show’s story. Bringing the villainous Borg back in a neutralized form is also interesting. And a controversial decision that almost pays off is having Picard himself start the show as a cantankerous old man, useless and awaiting death. It’s sad, but as the show progresses he begins to regain that heir of authority that he’s known for.
Well, until the show flushes everything down the toilet.
Remember that episode of The Simpsons, “Lisa the Vegetarian,” where Lisa uses a rider mower to push Homer and Bart’s prize BBQ pig down a hill, but it gets away from them, and ends up launching itself through Springfield? The whole time that Homer and Bart chase after their escaping dinner, gross things keep happening to it, yet they keep insisting, “It’s still good! It’s still good!”
That was me watching Picard.
Stupid shit would happen and I would cringe but still insist it’s okay. One character, Dr. Agnes Jurati, a Starfleet scientist specializing in synthetic life, who used those 300-year-old headphones that weren’t even good back now, is given a Vulcan mind-meld vision that convinces her that synthetic beings will bring about Armageddon for humans. She’s so destroyed by this vision that she ends up killing her lover, Dr. Bruce Maddox, a character who appeared in the original Next Generation series 30 years ago, who created the synthetic human prophesized to bring about this end. An episode or two later she meets this synth, Soji, who was rescued and shepherded by Picard because she’s apparently Data’s daughter. Data, of course, was the perennial fan-favorite, Pinocchio-esque android from TNG, who strove to be more human, to experience emotions his programming was incapable of reproducing. He was a Lieutenant on the Enterprise, serving under Captain Picard. Over the years, the characters bonded and that’s why Picard is obsessed with helping Data’s “daughter.”
So, now that we’re caught up: Agnes meets Soji face to face, and after having been driven mad by this vision, after killing the man she loved in the hopes of thwarting this future, do you know what she does to Soji?
Nothing. She does absolutely nothing. Even Soji wonders why, and Agnes just waves everything away, her temporary insanity, her murder, everything, with a pithy, “Now that I’ve met you, I couldn’t possibly do anything to you.” A wha? Excuse me? And just like that everything that’s brought this character to this moment is gone, forgotten. It’s literally cringy.
These kinds of dismissals keep happening throughout the show up until the last and most miserable episode, written by Michael Chabon himself. Picture it: A Romulan fleet hovers menacingly over the synth homeworld, a synth homeworld that, you guessed it, looks like a modernist house overlooking a beach in California. (Once again, great job production designers). This attacking fleet is composed of an ancient cult that intercepted the synthetic Armageddon vision hundreds of years ago and has been trying to thwart it since. A vicious cult that sacrificed 900 million Romulan lives just so they could get a ban on synthetic life to take hold throughout the galaxies. These guys are about to get their wish to wipe out the synth homeworld (well, more like a synth hippy commune, but whatever).
But, instead of finally firing, they keep counting down to their act and keep getting interrupted. It almost becomes a drinking game. Take a shot every time the Romulan captain, in a sinister baritone, orders “Planetary Sterilization Pattern Number 5,” a stupidly wordy threat she repeats over and over, though, somehow, impressively, without giggling.
But, whatever, they’re constantly thwarted, whether it’s by giant space orchids that attack the ship (you read that right) to finally a Deus Ex Machina armada of Starfleet ships that improbably show up at the last second to help Picard defend the synths.
It should be noted that the very synths he’s trying to protect are, at this point, actually trying to fulfill the prophecy and bring about Armageddon for organic lifeforms.
Turns out that vision the Romulans received, the one that made Agnes temporarily crazy, was actually meant for Synthetic life to see; it was a message from Uber-Synths that will come when called to our universe and wipe out all organic life forms in order to stop the subjugation of synthetic life. I feel dumber just having written that.
So, Soji, who is still supposed to be a protagonist, begins opening this portal. Her reasoning? “I can’t find any other way!” to stop the subjugation of synths. Deep. Picard jets off into space and holds off the Romulans with a McGuffin machine, a tool randomly given to them by a hippy synth that does whatever they need it to do. (One wonders if Chabon and company used such a machine to write the show.) Picard video calls Soji, the feed seen by all of the ships, and pleads with her to stop. The portal, meanwhile, opens in space and, I’m not kidding, monstrous robot tentacles start coming out. Picard finally gets through to Soji and she closes the portal at the last second, much to the chagrin of the robot tentacles which mechanically scream as their entrance is shuttered.
But, here’s the kicker, and the reason why I explained all of the above: The Romulans, who have been hunting synths for millennia, who have done anything and everything underhanded to stop them, see this person who was supposed to bring about the destruction of all organic life (and damn well nearly did) change her mind at the very last second and they, the Romulans, suddenly are okay with it and just power down their weapons and go home. Once again, everything that was built up is waved away with barely an explanation.
And then Picard dies.
You see, throughout the show, Picard was ailing from a mystery ailment. A McGuffin so vague the writers never even bothered coming up with a name for it. It’s just called…a brain anomaly. An anomaly that has little to no effect on the main character until the plot calls for it in the last minutes of the show. So, Picard convinces Soji to stand down and *KERPLUNK*, he dies, in the arms of characters we’ve known for only a few episodes, most of whom barely know Picard, but goodness, they start bawling. And then we spend the next quarter of the episode watching these people who barely knew this guy grappling with his loss.
And then, after spending so much time on their grieving, Picard just…comes back. Yup, he simply just…wakes up. See, the synths had a synthetic body they were growing, which they refer to as a “golem,” (not the first time Chabon has referenced the mythological creature from Czech folklore in his works) created by the son of the man who created Data, (with all three characters played by the same actor, Brent Spiner, because that’s how genetics work). Did I mention that no mention has ever been made in all of Star Trek that Data’s “father” had an organic son?
MICHAEL CHABON: “No? Oh well, who cares. Now he has one.”
This son was hoping to transfer his mind into this android body he was growing but at the last minute he somehow, off-camera, preserved Picard’s mind instead and put it into this body. Is Picard now in a strong android body instead of his frail 94-year-old figure? Nope, the scientists just got rid of his brain anomaly and kept everything else the way it was, because, get this, they knew he would have wanted it that way. So the show kills his character off, spends time on the effect that this has on the other characters, then simply hits the reset button. Picard died an old man and comes back as, erm, an old man. No change. Nothing. As if it didn’t even happen and now let’s never speak of it again.
Picard and his new crew, now wearing uniforms (who knows why because they’re not Starfleet and they have no mission, nothing to do), jet off into space.
Mind you Soji and Agnes are both there too.
Soji, who has been searching for her home planet so desperately is now zooming into the unknown because, as she says, she realized that she’s more of a traveler (when? How? WHAT?!). And Agnes, who killed the man she loved, remember, is all smiles and ready to go on an adventure with no repercussions at all for her actions.
A better title for this show would be:
Star Trek: Zero Consequences
On a final note. The showrunners really need to figure out who they’re making these new Star Trek adventures for. Gene Roddenberry, who created the original Star Trek, had a utopic vision for our future. He believed, like Picard, in the intrinsic goodness of humanity. I know that we can’t make a show where everybody is happy and hunky-dory. Drama arises out of conflict and conflict isn’t happy. But there’s a nastiness that permeates Picard that makes me question what the showrunners were thinking. They’re courting fans of the old show and at the same time, people who’ve acclimated to today’s television, acclimated to the Game of Thrones effect, I like to call it. Brutality and nastiness rule now. But that’s at odds with the original vision for the Star Trek universe, and indeed that dichotomy plays out within the show’s actual episodes as well. How can you begin an episode with a person sans anesthesia having his eye ripped out in graphic detail and then spend the rest of it dressing up the characters as pimps and having Patrick Steward hamming it up with an outrageous French accent and an eye patch?
Using sci-fi parlance, this simply does not compute.
Look, nobody sets out to make bad entertainment. And Michael Chabon is still a very talented author. But seriously. This show stinks. So many awful decisions were made on every level; poor storytelling compounded by poor aesthetics, made even worse by trying to appease opposite sides of a very wide spectrum, Star Trek fanboys and the uninitiated with a taste for modern television. In the end, Picard just pulls itself apart like warm bread.
Will season two put this Humpty Dumpty back together again? Probably not, but I’ll give it a shot. Like Gene and Jean, I’m an optimist. Or maybe just a fool.