As a Star Trek fan, it pains me to see the current state of live-action Trek shows (Nu-Trek). The reason is a very simple one – Nu-Trek had a fundamental problem understanding the ethos of Star Trek. A problem which had been growing steadily ever since Star Trek decided to become an action-sci-fi franchise of movies, the problem slowly blossomed over and reared its head in the reboot movies (especially Star Trek Into Darkness). But when Star Trek finally started its new spate of television content with Star Trek Discovery, the focus was on crafting a television show that was “not your dad’s Star Trek.” In principle, that’s not a flawed concept, but considering the current stakeholders of the franchise (Secret Hideout) and what their definition of a revamp of Star Trek is, Discovery rushed out of the gate with an overly grimdark tone, an extremely serialized narrative, copious amounts of blood and violence, and more importantly, a lack of the smartness and dexterity of all the spinoff shows that came before it. It also missed a healthy amount of silliness and self-awareness.
“Star Trek: Picard” Season 1 debuted with the same approach – a mostly grimdark affair which built up the twenty years between 2002’s Star Trek Nemesis and the first season in a half-baked and extremely lazy fashion, playing fast and loose with continuity. It was bad enough that the tie-in novel by Una McCormack and the short Trek episode “Child of Mars” were essential to get the full context. The bigger issue also stemmed from the research done by the writers’ room, where they took only the most notable aspects of Picard and played those elements up. Picard and Data had an important relationship, yes, but that was more pronounced in the movies. In the show, Data was like any other Starfleet officer under Picard. Picard was under the influence of the Borg, yes, but the Borg was hardly the biggest antagonist of the Next Generation crew, but the most prominent. The first season also dealt with the proliferation of artificial intelligence, the rise of technocracy of androids as the successors to humanity, and ended with Picard being transplanted into an android body made to look like Picard’s age.
Sounds confusing? The fans thought so, as well as the “Star Trek: Picard” Season 2 writer’s room, because the second season started off with course corrections – sidelining characters who were the weakest and frankly baffling elements of the first season, a story that dealt with time travel, a very famous conceit with a somewhat healthy track record in Star Trek. But the story really kicks it up a notch when the omnipotent being Q, one of the primary antagonists of Picard with a somewhat playful relationship between them, transports Picard to an alternate future where the universe is now ruled by a fascistic organization named the Confederation, and the world could only be saved if they traveled back in time to the year 2024 and change the inciting incident which crafted the butterfly effect that transformed their world into this alternate future. The team travels back to the year 2024 with the help of a borg queen, who is now along for the ride with plans of her own, and as they enter the year 2024, things take a drastically different turn.
“Star Trek: Picard” Season 2 starts out stronger, with a lot of promise. The intrigue, the violence, and the grimdark approach still existed, albeit toned down. However, the writers tried to tackle too many plot threads, with not enough dexterity to tie them up effectively. The plot threads of Picard’s ancestor being the reason for the transformation of the world into an ecological wasteland, the plot thread of Q losing his powers and crafting this ludicrously circuitous scheme as one last hurrah, the plot thread of Dr. Adam Soong being the one who inadvertently started cloning technology and might bring about the Eugenics Wars (an important event in Star Trek history), the plot thread of the Borg Queen planning to craft her own army years earlier by taking over the Earth’s populace, the plot thread of Rios’ being inadvertently intertwined into an immigration issue with ICE and meeting a doctor in 2024 who he falls in love with
And lest we forget Picard in the throes of things, Jean-Luc Picard is dealing with his own hidden past, one dealing with the loss of his mother due to suicide, an event which apparently traumatized him so much it haunts him to this day. Never mind that in seven seasons of Star Trek the Next Generation, he had conducted every mission on the bridge with Deanna Troi, a betazoid psychiatrist by his side, who could have counseled him within those years. But I digress.
In short, that’s a lot. And credit should be given to these writers that they managed to remember all these plot threads and effectively tie all of them up in a neat little bow, perhaps too neat and in a very rushed fashion. It also didn’t help that the show, by its fifth episode, felt like it was running out of steam and was moving round in circles. The complaint of Season 1 of Picard’s being a guest star in his own show was still evident here, though the plot thread of his past and his relationship with Guinan, another Next Generation alumni, take up a lot of time. “Star Trek Picard” Season 2 proves that the efforts to serialize and make every season into a big complete epic, one with high stakes, is a hard task to accomplish. In the case of Star Trek, sometimes an approach to basics would be the best option, because Star Trek as a franchise is far more interested in exploration, in adventure, and at its best in philosophical and existential debates regarding humanity. Sure that is against the ethos of Star Trek to chart something new, but looking at Nu-Trek’s efforts, it is better to replicate basics and learn from there. At times in the rigmarole of the plot in “Star Trek: Picard” Season 2, you miss the soul of Star Trek. Star Trek has always been about extremely capable men and women at the top of their respective fields coming together to solve interesting, silly, and extremely incomprehensible problems, all in the auspices of a workplace drama that also mixes high-octane adventure and sci-fi weirdness. Emotional outbursts and soap-operatic exclamations, non-subtle expressions of innermost thoughts, or expressing those emotional, cathartic moments in self-important, pretentious double-speak, are very antithetical to Star Trek, but these are the bane of Nu-Trek’s existence, and Picard sadly hasn’t discarded them very effectively.
It’s a shame because the actors are giving it their all, elevating the mediocre writing to far better heights than given ample credit. Patrick Stewart is still as reliable as ever, but Allison Pill as Jurati and later as the possessed Borg Queen surprises you. She manages to differentiate the two sides of her personality very effectively. Similarly, Santiago Cabrera as Rios is very charming with his roguish self, his plot thread being predictable and running out of steam by the fourth episode notwithstanding. John De Lancie as Q is a far more violent version of the playful omnipotent being, but you can see shades of the old character within, and it is a joy to watch Stewart and De Lancie interact again. The same with Stewart and Goldberg as Guinan. Brent Spiner as Dr. Adam Soong is having a ball hamming it up as the secondary antagonist of the show, whose credits to the near future of Star Trek are far more sinister than we have come to expect.
It’s not a question of whether Star Trek as a franchise has become so radioactive it is unwatchable. Far from it, but it is a franchise whose DNA lies in its procedural roots and in methodical storytelling, with deeper themes underlying the present world view with varying levels of subtlety. More importantly, it is not a grimdark, violent action sci-fi akin to a military sci-fi property like Halo or even The Expanse. Trek is distinctive in its own right, and by revamping it to fit the mold of “not your daddy’s Star Trek,” it has run perilously close to losing its distinctive identity. While “Star Trek: Picard” Season 2 is definitely not as bad as the first season, with moments and important plot developments reverberating throughout the franchise, it is still nowhere near the best of what the older Star Trek TV shows and even the worst of the older movies had to offer. But I am a Star Trek fan, and optimism is my biggest flaw, so here’s hoping.
“Star Trek: Picard” is a 2020 Science Fiction Drama series streaming on Paramount+.