Lately, I have been seeking pleasure, trying to capture joy wherever I can find it — cooking a lush meal, taking a brightly colored bubble bath, Skyping friends as we navigate the chaos and uncertainty of the present moment. Beset by the realization that the coronavirus pandemic will endure for months, continuing to expose the frailties of the systems that control our lives, I have found myself turning to Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series that fosters the kind of empathy, curiosity, and optimistic belief in humanity that feels like a balm in a time lacking these qualities.
Star Trek: The Next Generation — which ran from 1987 to 1994, spawning several movies after that — started out roughly but bloomed into a show brimming with curiosity about human nature and our impulse toward connection. That quality has been hardwired into the franchise since its beginning, percolating beneath the surface as a bold and timely argument for the importance of community and social bonds, including and beyond blood relations. Watching the show now conjures up a host of memories, ripe and tactile: my mother’s nimble hands oiling my scalp and braiding my hair, the heat of Miami nights, the smell of plantains frying in the kitchen. So I have found myself turning to everything from trenchant and moving episodes like “The Inner Light” to episodes with more ridiculous moments, like Commander Data (Brent Spiner) reciting a poem about his cat, Spot. This is not merely an exercise in nostalgia, but a means to experience and cherish that which undergirds Star Trek as a franchise: hope.
One of the most trenchant aspects of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s nature is its essential hope about humankind and the ways we relate to one another. This holds true for the Star Trek franchise even in its darkest moments, like the latter seasons of Deep Space Nine, which explored the nature of war and the price for maintaining peace in a chaotic universe. And it should hold true for Star Trek: Picard, the new CBS All Access series that follows The Next Generation’s iconic Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) as he navigates a milieu that doesn’t adhere to his hope for better worlds. This Picard is a changed man in many ways — rougher around the edges, quicker to anger, and burdened by grief that renders him more vulnerable than we’ve seen before — which could have led to rich territory if Picard showed a greater commitment to the Star Trek franchise’s most central, enduring theme. What does it mean to hold on to hope in a universe that no longer seems to believe in it? That’s a vibrant question to explore right now more than ever.
Unfortunately, Star Trek: Picard has struggled to live up to Stewart’s tenderhearted, fully realized performance, which imbues Picard — typically a stalwart captain modeling the kind of grace, intelligence, and empathetic leadership absent in the world today — with the weight of grief and failure in a universe that now lacks the order he typically clings to. The struggle to hold on to hope in the face of chaos is ripe for exploration, especially now as the world feels destabilized and confusing. But while Picard has shown sparks of interest in this struggle, it’s largely traded such somber reflections for a bombastic story line concerning Romulan cabals intent on wiping out the galaxy’s synthetic lifeforms, which Picard feels an obligation to stop due to connections to The Next Generation’s Data that are too laboriously complicated to lay out here.
A major factor in Star Trek: Picard’s uneven nature is that it doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be, even in the wake of its first season finale. Is this meant to be a continuation of an iconic character that speaks to established fans, or is this a glossy reimagining meant to conjure new viewers by bending to the mores of the Peak TV era? Like the show he was born into, Picard feels out of step with the expectations of modern TV in many ways, so Star Trek: Picard has capitulated by casting its universe in darker shades while leaning into mysteries formatted like puzzles for the audience to solve. This was most apparent in the Romulan intrigue involving siblings Narek (Harry Treadaway) and Narissa (Peyton List), played with an odd incestuous bent among their murky spy dealings, which were largely separate from Picard’s journey until the last third of the season.
Not every show is made to bend toward mystery like Lost or Watchmen. What’s made Star Trek so enduring is not slow-burn intrigue and puzzle-box storytelling; it’s the people who populate its fantastical settings, watching them navigate the unknown and the frankly human. Perhaps that’s why Picard has so far been at its best when engaging with characters from Star Trek’s past — like Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco) and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), who gets some of the most badass, action-oriented moments in the series; or Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), who have a new sort of relaxed casualness with Picard — rather than bending itself to the surface-level dynamics of modern dramas that lean heavy into mystery.
It’s not like Picard isn’t set up for this sort of character exploration. The Jean-Luc of Picard is a haunted man when we meet him in the beginning of the series, tormented by the loss of Data, the destruction of Mars, Starfleet’s refusal to help Romulan refugees, and the widespread banning of synthetic life. His return to the stars is shadowed not just by his age but the terminal diagnosis he receives before leaving his vineyard in France. This setup is ripe with opportunity on a character level. What does it mean to face a mission you know will likely be your last? How do you remain hopeful in the face of oblivion? How do you put one foot in front of the next when you barely believe in the person you are? How do you grapple with unmet yearnings at the end of your life? But Picard has repeatedly eschewed the somber for the bombastic, giving us not nearly enough moments to breathe and really dig into the new reality facing Picard, as well as the new characters surrounding him.
At first blush, the new characters that round out Picard hold a lot of intriguing bramble. Raffi (Michelle Hurd) is beset by addiction issues and a fractured relationship with a son who wants nothing to do with her. Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) is obsessed with synthetic life and moves with boundless, bubbly energy. Rios (Santiago Cabrera) is guarded, grappling with the loss of a captain whom he deeply cared for and looked up to when he was in Starfleet. Unfortunately, these characters have been developed with a mind toward raising more questions and complicating the show’s mystery. Agnes killing Bruce Maddox, her colleague and love, was an intriguing character turn quickly soured by the fact that the show thought it was more interesting to withhold information than properly explain why she made the decision she did. Rios’s backstory feels especially clunky and mishandled when the captain of his past is revealed to have killed himself due to an elaborate plot that forced him to kill two synths, one of whom looked just like Soji (Isa Briones). Are you still with me? Despite the genuinely good work by the actors, there’s only so much you can do to provide emotional resonance to a plot this thinly drawn and convoluted.
In the penultimate episode, Picard reveals to his ragtag crew the terminal diagnosis he’s been hiding from them. There is a false levity to Stewart’s physicality that denotes the tension between the casualness with which he’s presenting this news and the gravity of the situation. It’s a wrenching moment that works because Stewart wills complication into the moment, not because the characters surrounding him have been properly fleshed out. Just watch nearly any scene that doesn’t include Picard (or returning characters like Seven of Nine) and you’ll witness how uneven the show is in its characterization. This recurring failure leaves me not only angry about Picard’s inability to reach its full potential, but confused about what it is trying to say about the grand theme of hope in a time of chaos, grief, and loss.
This confusion speaks to what the show is ultimately lacking, the thing that attracted me to Star Trek in the first place: its curiosity. Even at its darkest, Star Trek has been propelled by an essential curiosity about how various worlds and their inhabitants work, holding them up as a mirror to our own lives and histories. Picard at times displays this curiosity when it digs into its characters’ histories, or uses its plot machinations to speak to concerns of xenophobia, immigration, and the failures of political powers; the show is at its best when it tangles with the franchise’s past and complicates what we already know about these characters. But Picard often undercuts the potential of these dynamics with its tendency to keep viewers in the dark for the sake of mystery. Too often the plot turns on what we don’t know, and what is new to Star Trek lore — even more secret Romulan cabals, secret synth societies, and so on — elements far removed from the more empathetic concerns Star Trek has always tangled with.
The tension within the series between embracing its essential Star Trek nature and bowing to the demands of Peak TV comes to a head in the finale, which grants Patrick Stewart many moments to stretch his skills, showing Picard at his most impassioned and most vulnerable, sometimes within the same moment. He makes grand proclamations that speak to the notions of empathy, curiosity, and humanity that power Star Trek. “Fear is an incompetent teacher […] To be alive is a responsibility as well as a right,” he says with conviction at one point, and my heart swelled. We are even granted a touching reunion of sorts between Data and Picard in an ornate simulation after Picard seemingly dies. The entire scene hinges on Picard finally proclaiming his love for Data and acknowledging his grief over his loss. It’s a beautiful moment that works not because of the plot beats that brought us there, but due to the character history upon which it’s built.
There are moments of beauty within Picard, to be sure — watching Riker diligently make pizza; Seven of Nine shooting phasers through a room; Picard gently speaking to Soji about Data or encouraging her with care and conviction — and most of these moments hold the thrill of seeing the show hearken back to its roots, rather than running from them and toward the expectations of modern TV drama. The Next Generation started out roughly itself, so I have a bit of faith that Picard can still find its own path. But for Picard to become the show it has the potential to be, it needs to eschew the darkness and intrigue that comes with the expectations of Peak TV storytelling, and fully embrace the curiosity, beauty, and sense of hope that has made Star Trek endure.