tv review

Star Trek: Picard Stumbles Over Its Own Legacy

A very good captain with his very good Number One. Photo: Matt Kennedy/CBS

Premiering on February 13, 1989, “The Measure of a Man” was the first sincerely great episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Nestled early in the second season of what’s arguably the most successful entry of the franchise — spanning seven seasons and four feature films, including the regrettable final entry Nemesis (2002) — the episode is undergirded by probing, potent ethical questions viewed through the lens of Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner): Who gets to be viewed as human and guaranteed the rights that come with the belief of that humanity? What does it mean to be human in the first place? “The Measure of a Man” positions some of the show’s most important characters against each other as a scientist, Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy), desires to dismantle Data to study him and produce replicas. Data and Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) are vehemently against this since there’s no guarantee Maddox knows what the hell he’s doing. This leads to a court argument in which Picard defends Data’s right to life and thus his humanity while first officer Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is put in the indelicate position of arguing on Maddox’s behalf, therefore undermining a cherished friend’s own identity. “The Measure of a Man” represents Star Trek at its best, brimming with fiery, intelligent speeches, emotional and moral bramble, the lived-in warmth of the set design, and the undeniable chemistry of its cast.

Star Trek would return to these questions sparked through Data’s story again and again, including in the new Star Trek: Picard. Using the story of twin androids (played by Isa Briones) made to be indistinguishable from humans — Dahj, whom Picard fails to save, and Soji, whom he is searching for in order to uncover answers and possibly bring back Data from death — Picard seeks to illuminate questions about the nature of humanity and defining one’s own identity in the face of grand forces. But more than anything Star Trek: Picard is a show concerned with legacy: that of the iconic Picard himself, that of the egalitarian future that Starfleet represents, and that of The Next Generation itself.

It’s easy to look back with modern eyes at The Next Generation as a beloved relic of a very different televisual landscape. But at its best, it explored philosophical questions and ethical conundrums with burning curiosity bolstered by the tremendous chemistry of its cast. In the three episodes I’ve been able to see thus far, Star Trek: Picard is a tighter, glossier, shinier series, one that pulls at intriguing threads about aging, legacies, and the responsibilities of superpowers like Starfleet toward communities in crisis. But the show thus far lacks the fundamentals that are necessary for any successful Star Trek story: curiosity and chemistry.

A Star Trek franchise lives and dies based on the chemistry of its cast and their characterization. We return to The Next Generation not only to see the ethical entanglements the characters face, but to see the likes of Worf (Michael Dorn), Data, Riker, and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) simply play poker together. And when Star Trek has failed — Voyager, I’m looking at you — it has been because the characterization and the cast felt ill-fitting. The new characters of Picard have some intriguing, thorny complications, and each character, like Picard himself, is haunted by desire or loss, and in some cases both. There’s Raffi (Michelle Hurd), a rough-hewn woman mired in substance abuse who feels disregarded by Picard; Cristobal “Chris” Rios (Santiago Cabrera), a pilot and former Starfleet officer whose roguish, devil-may-care demeanor barely hides the fact that he is clearly a haunted man; I’m particularly fond of Alison Pill’s Dr. Agnes Jurati, whose sprightly personality and quest for knowledge puts her right at home in the Star Trek universe. But while the basic sketches of these characters hold promise, the writing is often starkly blunt, making me wish Picard placed more trust in its actors to flesh out their characters’ unspoken qualities, and trusted its audience to pick up on them.

It doesn’t help that the main mystery Picard forms around is at this point still quite muddled. The thrust of the series concerns whether Dahj and Soji are indeed Data’s “daughters” and what that implies in a universe that now bans synthetic life. This ends up intersecting with shadowy contingencies embedded within Starfleet, casting darkness over their sparkling image as peaceful explorers. Unfortunately, the writers have a tendency to tip their hand too early, undercutting the suspense surrounding certain relationships, such as that between Soji and Romulan official Narek (Harry Treadaway). It’s still hard to see how the dual plotlines of Soji’s life aboard a disconnected Borg cube being studied by Romulans and Picard’s quest to find her can be brought together cohesively — they feel like ill-fitting puzzle pieces being forced together.

But the more pressing mystery of Picard is one that brings us back to “Measure of a Man,” and the shadow it casts over its successor: The exploration of androids and synthetic life-forms, and notions of their humanity, is a narrative Star Trek has already explored, and very well, so what is Picard’s motivation in returning to these questions? What does this new Star Trek have to say about the world we live in that hasn’t already been said? Perhaps the answer lies less in the show’s narrative than in the world it’s created. The future that Picard represents, taking place 18 years after we last saw the captain and his beloved crew, is a place of shadowy intrigue and loss. Synthetic life has been outlawed after a harrowing incident that’s left Mars on fire all these years later. Picard is quicker to anger and, perhaps, quite yearning as he lives on his château and tends to his vineyard alongside his dog, Number One. He left Starfleet as an admiral under sour circumstances, fighting to save Romulan refugees and finding himself facing the cold response of the organization he once believed in, an intriguing wrinkle that allows the series to explore the fissures in Starfleet itself. In this manner, Picard which is spearheaded by co-creators Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman, Kirsten Beyer, and novelist Michael Chabon — is deeply indebted to the trenchant Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which made great strides in serialized storytelling to explore the moral, interpersonal, and psychological effects of war, colonialism, and the price of sustained peace.

Picard is still struggling to effectively combine its threads about an even more secret Romulan police force hunting synthetic life-forms, the rot at the heart of Starfleet, and Picard’s own haunted nature. The show seeks to pull together notions of mythology, personal lore, and futuristic considerations of very modern problems, but often trips over itself in the process. But every time Picard was starting to lose me, there would be a spark of interest across the screen — a line, a gesture, a moment — that felt piercing and true. Take for example a brief moment near the end of the first episode when Dahj and Picard are running from Romulan assassins. He has to stop for a moment and catch his breath, holding on to the handrail of a staircase. It’s a moment that reminds us that Picard has changed, grown older, toughened at the edges. He isn’t quite the same iconic captain we remember with the staunch moral compass, confidence, and grace. (I couldn’t help but smile when he ordered Earl Grey, decaf, from the replicator.)

The tension between the Picard we remember and the Picard we’re presented with today is ripe for exploration. The show stumbles in ways both aesthetic and narrative in covering this ground, but Patrick Stewart has such a handle on the character — imbuing tender loneliness and regret into every gesture and line reading — I couldn’t help but be mesmerized, at least momentarily. Now more than ever I could use a good Star Trek property; the franchise has the uncanny ability to interrogate the present by exploring a possible future while retaining an essential hope about humanity that I desperately need to believe in right now. And I need to believe that Picard will find a way to scale the same heights of intellectual exploration and moral complexity as its predecessors.

Star Trek: Picard Stumbles Over Its Own Legacy