It can be dangerous to live beyond a happy ending. Take Odysseus: Homer leaves him in a pretty good spot at the end of the Odyssey, having returned home, reunited with his family, slain his enemies, and agreed to a peace treaty with their survivors. But he’s generally not so lucky in follow-ups that keep the story going, like the long-lost Telegony, in which he ends up dead at the hands of his son with Circe. Sometimes it’s best to quit when you’re ahead. But sometimes characters can’t quit. Take, again, Odysseus. In his poem “Ulysses,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson depicts an Odysseus whose age hasn’t killed his spirit of adventure and who yearns to return to the sea in spite of all the trouble it’s brought him. Jean-Luc Picard undoubtedly knows that poem, and the Picard we meet in the new series Star Trek: Picard is one who finds his Odyssean spirit stirred by a series of converging events. Whether he knew he still had it in him or not remains an open question, as is another question: Will his story now end in tragedy?
It’s a daring move to bring Picard out of retirement. Star Trek: The Next Generation gave him a pretty much perfect ending with the two-part series finale “All Good Things …” in 1994, settling into his crew’s regular poker game with the realization he should have done so a long time ago. That might partly explain why, apart from the great First Contact, the Next Generation films are generally more tolerated than loved. And sometimes they weren’t even tolerated, like the subpar, series-ending Nemesis, which concluded with Picard palling around with B-4, an emptied-out Coke Zero version of Data, the beloved android crew member who sacrificed himself in the film’s climax.
“Remembrance,” Picard’s first episode, picks up strands from both finales with its opening scene, finding Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner) playing poker aboard the Enterprise to the tune of “Blue Skies,” which Data sang at the wedding of his shipmates Riker and Troi in Nemesis. Perhaps sensing he’s in the midst of a pleasant dream, Picard takes his time, stalling to savor the game. Then the voyage takes an unpleasant turn when Picard realizes they’re headed on a course to Mars, a planet with which he seems to have some unpleasant associations. More unpleasant still: The planet then begins to explode. It’s, of course, all a dream. But it’s a dream that will soon take on a new significance as bits of Picard’s old life start to intrude on Château Picard, the idyllic French winery he calls home.
Elsewhere, the trouble has already started. In Boston, a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones) is celebrating her acceptance at Okinawa’s prestigious Daystrom Institute — which specializes in robotics and AI — with her boyfriend when they’re joined by some armed, dark-helmeted intruders asking “Where are the rest of you?” and questioning whether she’s “activated.” In the ensuing struggle, Dahj loses her boyfriend — and, this being a Star Trek series, her glass table — but takes out her attackers using martial-arts skills she didn’t know she had. After flashing on Picard’s face, she takes off for France.
There, Picard has started to run into a different sort of problem: a past that doesn’t want to stay in the past. Apart from the dreams, Picard seems to be enjoying retirement. He has a nice rapport with a pair of Romulan employees, an excellent dog named Number One, and a new career as a historian. As the episode opens, he’s even agreed to do his first interview since parting ways with the Federation, a sore subject that’s supposed to be off-limits for the journalist doing the interview (played by Alias’s Merrin Dungey). But he also has a reason for doing the interview: raising awareness of the long-term consequences of the Romulan supernova that’s scattered the Federation’s old enemies across the galaxy.
It’s here that we get our most detailed account not only of what Picard has been up to since the end of Nemesis but what’s happened in the Star Trek universe since then. It’s not particularly pleasant and there’s a lot to process. If there’s a problem with this gripping first episode it’s that it has to squeeze a lot of exposition into an hour in ways that sometimes threaten to crowd into space that could be devoted to exploring what the events it recounts mean to Picard. But Picard’s first season runs for ten episodes and it’s already been renewed for a second, so there will undoubtedly be room for that down the line. Beyond that, the changes in the universe appear to connect directly to the heart of the show (credited as the co-creation of Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, Kirsten Beyer, and Alex Kurtzman, with Chabon later announced as its showrunner).
In short, the Romulan star went supernova (as referenced in J.J. Abrams’s 2009 film Star Trek). Picard persuaded the Federation to help 900 million Romulans endangered by the explosion relocate after the Romulans asked for help, an effort Picard likens to the World War II evacuation of Dunkirk. This rescue effort led Picard to leave the Enterprise, and hit a snag when a group of “rogue synthetics” took down the defense shield around Mars wiping out the rescue armada, killing thousands, and leading to a ban on synthetic life forms (never mind Data’s outstanding service record). It also prompted Starfleet to abandon the rescue effort and, consequently, to Picard tendering his resignation. “It was no longer Starfleet,” he declares, shortly before ending the interview.
From the start, Star Trek’s future has reflected our present. In the ’60s series, we saw a Starfleet that suggested our best democratic principles had a long future and intergalactic application. In 2019 we have a Federation that’s lost sight of its ideals, grown smaller and more isolationist in its approach, and let refugees suffer whatever fate brings them. The shifting attitudes have sunk into its citizens, too. Picard’s interviewer wears the smug expression of someone talking to a sweetly out-of-touch idealist who no longer understands how the world works. She looks like she’s interviewing a hippie who’s holding out hope everyone will give peace a chance and join him on the commune.
Picard doesn’t have long to sink into a glass of wine before Dhaj shows up, however, drawn by the unshakable sense that she’ll be safe with Picard, a sense that goes “much, much deeper” than just recognizing his famous name. It turns out she’s only right up to a point. To find out who she is, Picard travels first to Starfleet Archives in San Francisco (inspired by a dream of Data working on a painting) to visit his personal collection, a room filled with mementos that double as Easter eggs. (Did anyone else’s heart melt when they saw the Captain Picard Day banner?) It also includes a painting that bears a remarkable resemblance to Dhaj.
Star Trek: Picard is, one episode in at least, already a very different show from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It tells a serialized story focusing on one character and unfolding in a much more shadowy version of the Star Trek universe than seen in TNG. But it’s one deeply informed by its predecessor. This episode touches on Data’s desire to make art and to have a child, and Picard’s own childlessness and sense that any need he had to take responsibility for and mentor others was fulfilled by his duties as captain. Dhaj serves as a point where all those elements converge, even though no one really knows who she is. Even Dhaj doesn’t know, as revealed by a conversation with her mother (or maybe “mother”) who knows she’s supposed to seek out Picard for protection even though there’s no reason she should. This doesn’t work out for her, however. She finds Picard at Starfleet, where she learns Picard’s theory that she’s actually an android with ties to Data no matter what her memories tell her. She doesn’t have long to think about it, however, before she’s disintegrated fighting another group of helmeted attackers, who are revealed to be Romulans.
After taking a moment to recover and lament, Picard heads to the Daystrom Institute where he meets the robotics expert Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill, a series regular), who informs him that what he’s telling her can’t be possible (and demonstrating this in part by showing him poor, deactivated B-4, who now lives in a drawer at the Institute). Though skeptical that he’s seen a sentient android who appears perfectly human, Agnes starts to come around the longer she talks to Picard — especially once he shows her the necklace he retrieved from Dhaj, which she recognizes as a symbol of “fractal, neuronic cloning.” In short, this suggests that Data’s essence might still be alive in the form of a positronic neuron — if the “radical, beautiful theory” of Jurati’s old, vanished mentor Maddox proves out. Also, she reveals, Dhaj has a twin out there somewhere.
We don’t have to wait long to find out where, either. She’s aboard a “Romulan Reclamation Site,” working under the name Soji Asher, and striking up a friendship with a soulful Romulan named Narek (Harry Treadaway, also a regular). Then the camera pans back. Then further. Then further. Then further … and we see the Reclamation Site is a repurposed Borg cube. This mystery just keeps getting deeper. And it seems likely to send Picard back to the stars.
• The Daystrom Institute takes its name from Richard Daystrom, the brilliant and doomed computer designer played by future Blacula and King of Cartoons William Marshall in the original series episode “The Ultimate Computer.”
• Is Number One now the best dog on TV? Who’s his competition? That he’s a pit bull undoubtedly comes from Patrick Stewart’s time spent fostering a dog he ultimately wasn’t able to adopt because the U.K. bans the breed.
• One element that’s a holdover from The Next Generation: meaningful dream sequences. That Data is holding five Queens of Hearts seems significant, but how?
• It was a pleasure to hear Jean-Luc Picard speaking French for once.
• “Tea. Earl Grey. Decaf.” Picard has made some lifestyle changes.
• Have we seen Romulans spit acid before? That seems like a new, gross, highly effective tactic.
• Soji knows she’s a twin. Dhaj did not. Is it possible Soji is thinking of someone else? We don’t have any suggestion that she knows she’s a synthetic and the Romulan hit squad definitely referred to “others” not “the other.” Interesting …
• One extremely fuzzy detail: What kind of synthetics flipped out and attacked Mars? It would have to be some kind of technology developed between the end of The Next Generation (and DS9 and Voyager) and the beginning of Picard. Who made them? What was their purpose? And how close did they approach Data in humanity? We’ll probably find out, but those remain big question marks.
• And so, we’re off. A series that once seemed unlikely ever to happen is now a reality, and one that’s gotten off to a crowded but thrilling start. Stewart hasn’t lost a step playing Picard, but the performance acknowledges that he’s aged since last we saw him. That’s partly because Stewart has aged, of course, but he’s also playing Picard as a man forced to shake off the habits of retirement. (So far, Stewart’s work is reminiscent of his pal Ian McKellen’s performance in the nifty old–Sherlock Holmes movie Mr. Holmes, which is to say, quite good.) He’ll undoubtedly be the focus of the show — check out the title — but it also feels like Chabon and his team have given a lot of thought as to how the world has changed since Picard stormed away from Starfleet. They’ve given themselves a lot to explore, both in the cosmos and among those who live there.
Want to stream Star Trek: Picard? Sign up for CBS All Access here. (If you subscribe to a service through our links, Vulture may earn an affiliate commission.)