Here's your chance to beam out to avoid spoilers for episode 1 of Star Trek: Picard.
Well, it’s finally here. With the exception of The Mandalorian on Disney+, Star Trek: Picard is probably the most talked about new TV sci-fi in the last few years, ever since it was announced by CBS All Access in August 2018. And in the last few weeks, the Promotion Engine has been running way past the red line.
It's safe to say that every Trekkie (or simply Star Trek fan, if you prefer) the world over has been looking forward to this, which no doubt put a lot of pressure on the narrow shoulders of executive producer Alex Kurtzman. Expectations were certainly high, but recently Trek hasn't been held accountable to higher standards of writing and production. Take Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery - that was mostly dreadful, yet the excessive exposition, over-emotional overload, contrived plot, convoluted time travel story line and poorly-written finale, is all too easily forgiven.
But what about Picard? The new series, which launched Thursday on CBS All Access, brings back Sir Patrick Stewart as the iconic Captain Jean-Luc Picard from seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and four feature films. How does this new entry in to the Trek franchise hold up?
Let's warp straight to the chase.
The first few minutes of Picard looks great and gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. The episode, entitled "Remembrance" opens with Bing Crosby singing "Blue Skies" and a beautiful, soft, slow montage of cosmic snapshots until the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D (wait, wasn't that destroyed in Generations?) gradually fades into view. (Bing Crosby was also used to great effect on the epic Short Trek episode "The Trouble With Edward" so maybe someone in the writer's room is a fan.)
The Enterprise looks as gorgeous as she ever did and we gently zoom into what looks like a deserted Ten Forward. Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner) are enjoying a game of poker. The dialogue feels organic and the delivery feels authentic. Picard stalls for time and says he doesn’t want to wake from the dream, but he does nonetheless and finds himself in his beautiful rustic bedroom in a château in the Picard vineyard near the French/Swiss border.
Still unsure if he's awake or still dreaming, he walks to the window, throws open the curtains looks to see that everything is normal outside. This is a nice touch and we’d like to have seen it used to even greater effect: perhaps if it could be established that this was indeed his regular go-to mental reality check, a little like Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) uses his stopwatch in Blue Thunder or like the spinning top totem in Inception.
We cut to a futuristic cityscape at night. It’s less Blade Runner and more…er, modern day Dubai, although it’s meant to be Boston. Thankfully though, the 2020 visualization of the 24th century is so much better than then 1987 visualization of the 24th century and that's consistent throughout the episode. The production design has a more realistic look and feel to it, with more than a touch of a retro-tech aesthetic, which is nice.
A young human, Dahj (Isa Briones) is enjoying a romantic meal at home with her boyfriend (he doesn’t have a name for reasons that will become clear in just a second) when suddenly a bunch of tactical gear-wearing goons beam into her apartment, dispatch poor Boyfriend with a knife to the chest and put a black hood over the head of Dahj.
"She hasn't activated yet," says a goon.
And almost as if those were the words that actually did just that, Dahj goes full Jason Bourne and beats the bejesus out of them. Thankfully one of the goons just has time to shriek, "She's activating!" before she breaks a bone or two then dispatches him with his own disruptor. Naturally, she's pretty freaked out.
Cue the opening credits and the new theme music, which is .. okay. It leans heavily at first on the cello, which was made popular as a primary theme tune instrument in Game of Thrones and again on HBO in the disappointing Westworld, but thankfully Jeff Russo maximizes the whole of the orchestra and skillfully weaves in the rest of the string section to achieve a soothing score with a subtle, underlying hint of seriousness that is very much in vogue on TV at the moment. It ends with the Star Trek chords hanging in the air from a flute, which may or may not be a nod to a particular chapter in Jean-Luc Picard’s past.
We return to château Picard and meet the Romulan couple - Laris (Orla Brady) and Zhaban (Jamie McShane) - who are living there and looking after both Jean-Luc and the vineyard. Well, Laris certainly looks Romulan, but as the episode unfolds, her Irish accent seems to get progressively stronger. The cinematography is beautiful and a vineyard somewhere in Northern California has evidently doubled for the La Barre region of France.
There's a great moment where Picard orders, "Tea, Earl Grey, decaf" from the replicator, which is a wonderful way of showing how times have changed.
Sadly however, this is all for the purpose of setting up a section of the first episode that is also our biggest complaint. Picard is sitting down with a television reporter on the anniversary of the Romulan supernova for his first interview ever since retiring. Apparently it's all agreed that the reporter won’t inquire about his separation from Starfleet .. and already you can see what’s coming from a light-year away.
In essence, this whole scene is a massive exposition dump, so we can quickly and efficiently get caught up with the events of the last 20 years. And just when Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Retired) starts to open up a little, the reporter becomes aggressive and cuts him off so we can hurry the exposition along and quickly incorporate the controversial element of Picard's actions.
In short, he wanted to give as much assistance to the Romulans as possible before the supernova destroyed their homeworld, but many believed this was a misallocation of Starfleet resources to aid one of the Federation's oldest enemies.
Picard starts to get annoyed and his feelings mirror our own. The reporter again attacks him and he defends himself with a reference to Dunkirk. She continues on an entirely inappropriate line of questioning with the rogue synthetic's attack on Mars, which wiped out the rescue armada and completely destroyed the Utopia Planitia shipyards. Apparently, the resulting explosions ignited the flammable vapors in the stratosphere; Mars remains on fire to this day and 92,143 lives were lost.
Picard goes on record to say that the subsequent decision to ban all artificial lifeforms was a mistake. Finally she pushes him to say why he really quit Starfleet and Picard angrily retorts, "Because it was no longer Starfleet. We withdrew. The galaxy was mourning, burying its dead and Starfleet slunk from its duties. The decision to call off the rescue and to abandon those people that we had sworn to save was not just dishonorable, it was downright criminal. And I was not prepared to just stand by and be a spectator." And we're just about all caught up.
She seems to relish his anger and appears to consider herself having achieved her goal by goading him into a reaction. Perhaps this was the writers' (Michael Chabon, Alex Kurtzman and Kirsten Beyer) way of making a comparison to the state of the media in the 21st century. Certainly some of the events Picard is talking about have parallels in today’s turbulent world.
Granted, it doesn't jar quite as much on the fourth and fifth viewing - and you can see what the writers were trying to do - but the first few times that you watch it, it feels like a shoehorned set piece for the sole purpose of conveniently apprising us with the major events of the past 20 years and how Picard feels about them.
This is all really important information, why does it all have to be unloaded in one five-minute scene? Surely it could've been woven into the story fabric more gradually with greater effect.
We briefly see Dahj standing in the rain, looking at the telecast interview through a shop window and then we cut back to the Picard vineyard when Dahj suddenly turns up announced at the château. Without so much as a "who the blazes are you?!" or "get off my property!" she's welcomed in with open arms. This feels a little odd and like it’s in the wrong franchise; more like Professor Xavier than Admiral Picard - "come my dear you must be a rogue mutant ..."
Sobbing, she explains what happened and that she keeps seeing Picard's face in her dreams. "Everything inside of me says I'm safe with you," she explains.
Picard appears to wake up and throws open the bedroom curtains … but there’s no activity in the vineyard as there should be. He sees Data painting a picture of a girl, but it's incomplete.
He wakes up from having been asleep at his desk and here would’ve been another nice opportunity to reinforce his regular reality/sanity check by having him wake up in his bed and go to the window to see the activity in the vineyard … before he recognizes the painting that was in his dream as one hanging above his fireplace. It is of a girl that bears an uncanny resemblance to Dahj.
We also learn that Dahj has gone.
Picard heads to San Francisco to the Starfleet Archives. It seems he's entitled to a whole room of storage and we see models of the USS Stargazer, the Sovereign Class Captain's Yacht and even the Picard Day banner from "The Pegasus" (S07, E12). He locates a package and opens it to reveal an identical oil painting to the one in the dream and hanging on his study wall. Turns out the artwork is called simply "Daughter" and it was painted by Data circa 2369.
Meanwhile Dahj is running through the shadows in the streets of Paris. She pulls out a com device and calls her mum, but it's clear this isn't really her mum, but someone or something manipulating the actions of Dahj. She's advised/ordered to locate Picard once more and she finds him still in San Francisco.
Picard tells Dahj about the painting and explains how the attack on her may have acted like a wake up call, or a positronic alarm bell, first introducing the notion about who and what she might be. However, this jaw-dropping revelation is only allowed to be just that, a jaw-dropping revelation, as Dahj suddenly shrieks, "They’ve found us!"
The two of them run up flights of stairs over walkways, the 79-year old Patrick Stewart and the 94-year old Jean-Luc Picard do well to cover the distance. Dahj displays her combat and athletic skills as more of the same tactical gear-wearing goons beam in and try to capture her. The headgear comes off one of the dead goons and Picard sees that they are Romulans. Unfortunately, one of the wounded Romulans spits some weird, green Alien-acid-for-blood stuff that hits Dahj and the disruptor rifle she's holding, causing it to overload and explode. (Who knew Romulan stomach acid was so dangerous?) The enormous explosion sends Picard flying and surely would've killed both a 79-year old and a 94-year-old man.
Picard wakes back in the safe hands of his Irish-Romulan care-giver Laris. He reveals that Dahj was a synthetic seeking sanctuary and the attackers were Romulan and there's some utter nonsense about an automatic cloaking device that she must have had. This is followed by a meaningless monologue by Picard about how he should've been doing something rather than nursing his offended dignity, although quite what he thinks he could've been doing instead isn't altogether clear.
However, his next actions are clear and he sets off to visit the Daystrom Institute in Okinawa, Japan; a technology and research center - once famous for its Cybernetics Division - that has existed in Star Trek canon since the original series episode "The Ultimate Computer" (S02, E24). Here he meets with Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) and asks how long it would take to create a sentient flesh and blood android (so, a Replicant then). Not for a thousand years she says and Picard replies, "That makes it even more curious that recently I had tea with one."
What follows is another exposition dump, some of it interesting and useful, some is gobbledygook. Following the attack on Mars by a group of rogue synthetics, cybernetics research was gradually restricted until it was shut down altogether. Jurati shows off the disassembled B-4 in a clip that we'd seen in Picard trailers. She explains that Data tried to download the contents of his neural net into B-4 just before his death, but almost all of it was lost because B-4 was nothing like Data at all. “In fact, no other synth has been,” she says.
"And there's the rub," Jurati says. "No one has ever been able to recreate the science used to create Data. And then came Bruce Maddox, he recruited me out of Starfleet. Despite Data's death, we came so close … then we got shut down and it crushed him.
Maddox disappeared after the ban and despite efforts by Dr. Jurati to find him, she's been unable to. Apparently any new, advanced, synthetic would have to be made from Data. (Why?) With access to Data's neural net, perfecting a flesh and blood host body would be simple. (OK, sure.) But, his neurons died with him. (And?) The dialogue here isn't very well written and feels unnecessarily complicated, but it just about makes sense, although this level of analysis really shouldn’t be required to aid understanding, Star Trek or any other sci-fi.
According to Jurati, Maddox had a radical, beautiful idea called fractal neuronic cloning, whereby Data’s entire code, even his memories could be reconstituted from a single positronic neuron. She and Picard theorize that if there is a synthetic out there, that is perfect, then an essence of Data would … er, therefore be alive. Hmmm. Not really sure where the writers were going with this one, it sounds like a 4 a.m. solution to a plot problem.
Picard also concludes that Maddox created Dahj and based her appearance from the painting that Data did so many years ago. Jurati then reveals that they (fractal neuronic clones?) were also created in pairs … thus we're introduced, albeit rather clumsily, to the notion that Dahj has a twin.
But … what about Lore?
It’s been a long-running theme within The Next Generation that Data is unique. However, according to Star Trek history, no one has been able to replicate the technology used to make him, specifically his positronic brain. A number of people have desperately wanted to take him apart and study him, most notably, cyberneticist Commander Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy) in the The Next Generation episode "The Measure of a Man" (S02, E09). And while Data is a sentient being and doesn't deserve a dissection akin to the Dark Ages, surely engineers and scientists could've studied his evil twin, Lore.
Data was discovered on Omicron Theta by the USS Tripoli in 2338 when it responded to a distress call from the colony following its destruction by the Crystalline Entity. The landing party discovered a signal that led them to the deactivated Soong-type android, Data. Some 26 years later, the USS Enterprise returns to Omicron Theta, Lore is discovered (The Next Generation episode "Datalore" S01, E13) and his mischievous reign of evil began.
It ended six years later in 2370, when Lore was dismantled following a failed attempt to lead a small army of Borg drones no longer connected to the hive mind and capture the Enterprise, kill the crew etc.
The events of Star Trek: Nemesis take place nine years after this in 2379 and the events of Picard are a further 20 years later. Taking into account that all artificial intelligence research was apparently halted within the Federation following the Mars attacks in 2384, then cyberneticists officially had had 14 years to scrutinize Lore as much as they wanted. Moreover, Dr. Noonian Soong constructed Data using technology that existed over 60 years ago and operated unofficially, in secret, as he developed his fourth and fifth generation androids.
So how come no one else has managed to even come close? While we suspect this issue will be addressed in more detail in forthcoming episodes, it strains belief just a little bit. For instance, what happened every time Data stepped onto a transporter pad? We know that Data had a detailed understanding of how he himself worked as we've seen him explain it on numerous occasions. For example, Lore's positronic net differed from Data's: it had a type-L phase discriminator compared to Data's type-R. ("Time’s Arrow" S05, E26 & S06, E01).
And yes, you could argue that Data doesn't in fact have a full understanding of himself, which is why his daughter Lal suffered a total system failure ("The Offspring" S03, E16). But it strains belief just a little bit.
What is interesting is how Maddox might be portrayed as the new Soong; is he creating artificial life off-world and as an outlaw, like Soong did on Omicron Theta?
Will Lore show up later in the series? Did he perhaps escape somehow and lead the synthetic’s attack on Mars?
Will the actor Brian Brophy reprise his role as Bruce Maddox? Aside from small very small roles in The Shawshank Redemption and Armageddon, Brophy hasn't appeared in anything since 2014 and according to IMDbPro, he has no industry representation, so it's unlikely.
The Klingon war and subsequent peace was very much a statement on the end of the Cold War. Here, in Picard the allegory is fear and racism, but a species isn't actually singled out, instead it’s artificial life. This could be a commentary on how today in 2020 we’re close to developing it and the fears we have, but it could also be a link to Discovery and the convoluted Control time-line plot.
And then, for the final scene in the premiere, we cut to deep space and see a strange, as yet unknown spacecraft exiting a weird, two-ring cosmological phenomena that looks a lot like Maddox’s symbol for fractal neuronic cloning, so much so that the edit cut straight from Dahj’s necklace to this. It could just be a coincidence, or it could hold some deeper association.
The strange craft, which looks like a cross between a Terrahawk and a Totenkopf Glider from Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow, flies through some force shields and into an area we see is a “Romulan Reclamation Site.” Could this perhaps be a new Bird of Prey?
The reclamation site looks like a massive industrial facility and we are introduced to a Romulan named Narek (Harry Treadaway). He meets with Dr. Soji Asher - also played by Isa Briones and clearly Dahj’s twin. He even points out Asher’s necklace, which is identical to Dahj’s. They engage in a little chit-chat, which feels a bit forced, but that might be more to do with Narek’s personality rather than bad dialogue writing.
And then we zoom out for the big reveal of episode one, the reclamation site, the landing bay and the walkway where Narek and Asher were talking are just one tiny part of a massive Borg cube.
There are, without a doubt, some glimpses of genius - however, there are also some examples of sub-standard writing, which is disappointing given the talent working on this show - but we have high hopes that this show is just going to get better.
Sure, some might be upset that this is a far cry from the familiar Star Trek utopia of The Next Generation, but that's simply outdated thinking. It’s necessary to think chronologically. That Trek TV series was made in the 1980s, the world has changed and our view of the world has changed.
Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica effectively changed how television sci-fi was written and recent global events have shown us that we are far - very far - from being on track to that perfect vision of the 24th century.
The 10-episode Star Trek: Picard series will air on the paid subscription streaming service CBS All Access in the U.S., and in Canada on Bell Media's Space and OTT service Crave. New episodes will air each week, with episode two arriving on Thursday 30 January, 2020.
CBS and Amazon Studios have announced that the new show will stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in more than 200 countries worldwide within 24 hours of its premiere on CBS All Access and Space in the US and Canada, respectively.
CBS All Access subscription is the home of Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Discovery and a host of other original and archival CBS television shows. Subscriptions start at $5.99 a month. You can try CBS All Access for a week free here.