I grew up on Star Trek, the reruns of the original series in faded color and cardboard sets, and then the renaissance of Next Generation and its contemporarily set series just as I was old enough to care about shows as my own for the first time.
Of Picard and Kirk, I always preferred the latter as a teenager. He was the brash one, the cowboy who shot from the hip, and just made infinitely more sense than the man who was a peacemaker first. But then, teenagers are idiots. As an adult, Picard is the one who rings true, the one who you’d want to be on the bridge.
Picard picks up twenty years after we last saw this character, twenty years after Data sacrificed himself to save his friends in the (shall we be generous in hindsight?) forgettable Star Trek: Nemesis. It shows us our retired captain, superficially happy at his family’s vineyard in France, even while he is plagued by nightmares of Data and memories of war.
It’s easy to compare the first episode to Logan in its broad strokes. Stewart is again playing one of his oldest characters, slipping into the role like a glove. A miasma hangs over a world that has gone wrong somehow, seeming familiar but tainted, and our old heroes meandering in a half-life out in the pasture. And a girl shows up, impossibly young and running for her life even as she explodes in half-understood violence. An impossible lost daughter figure who needs the hero that withdrew from a corrupted world in disgust.
That’s not to say Picard is the mashing of the success of Logan onto the Star Trek universe, it’s not some hard-R gritty action reimagining of Next Generation. It just resonates in similar ways and the comparison wouldn’t make any sense really except for the fact that Picard is a damned good show and so invites that comparison. Quality reflects quality, right?
The show moves slowly, setting up how the world has changed since we last saw it, willing to be a slow-burning reacquaintance even as it moves new pieces into play. It masterfully relies on a deep history of the fictional universe, so many characters and places that were key elements of an episode or two long ago become anchor points in this new series. But it’s not gratuitous fan service so much as building new stories upon an old and sturdy foundation.
And I think the most apt way to describe it, is that it feels like Star Trek. It feels like a vast universe even if we’re only seeing one corner of it. It feels like those old stories of wonder and discovery. It feels like a show about what it means to be human, and how kindness and generosity of spirit are at the root of those answers.
But it also feels like a show very much speaking to its times. It is a show very much built on a context of darkness and tragedy, of a world that turned its back on the things it valued when terror broke its spirit, when weak-willed men were allowed to rule.
When I was a kid, I devoured the endless stream of Star Trek novels, picked up by the dozens for ten cents a piece used at library book sales. There was one called Federation, a supersized double adventure that featured both the original crew and the Next Generation one in a single volume. I remember nothing of it after nearly thirty years other than the climax, if only because it was extraordinarily similar to the series finale of Next Generation.
There’s some time-warping anomaly of some sort and the Enterprise and Enterprise-D end up in the same MacGuffin at the same time and unable to communicate, only glimpsing each other while they shoot whatever particle out of the deflector dish that will save the day. And of course it’s a prisoner’s dilemma — the first time I ever read about that, long before the Joker started rigging ferry boats — and either could pull out to save themselves. Both Picard and Kirk stand their ground, and when grilled by those who want them to run, when asked how they know that the other unknown ship will stand with them, they both have the same answer. Because that’s a Federation ship, and that means something. That means they will stand even when they should run. Because that’s who we are.
Picard sets up the heartbreaking question of what we do when that’s not the case anymore. There’s a moment in this episode, such a crushing representative moment, when Picard is pushed and pushed on why he retired, why he left Star Fleet and he answers finally truthfully “because it was no longer Star Fleet.”
“The trial never ends,” Q told Jean-Luc in that final episode of Next Generation all those years ago, sitting judgment on humanity’s worth in the universe, of transcending itself and being something more. In Picard, that trial continues.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
Header Image Source: CBS All Access