Star Trek: Picard – What. The. Trek. Was. That?

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Back in January, before the world descended into a pandemic induced coma, Star Trek: Picard premiered on CBS All Access. While All Access hasn’t proved interesting prior to this, I was excited. I’ve come to love Patrick Stewart and his character of Jean-Luc Picard. Initially, I didn’t appreciate his captain of the new Starship Enterprise when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered back in 1987. Who was this stuck up bald dude? At the tender age of 10, heroes to me were supposed to be square-jawed, smooth with the ladies. Men’s men. Jean-Luc Picard was none of those things. He was stern and humorless, and he had a literal egghead. It didn’t compute with kid me.

This wasn’t Captain Kirk!

But you grow up. And as I did, I began to appreciate his angularity. He was a fully fleshed-out character with good and bad traits. As the show went on he worked on his failings. A man of conviction, he was fiercely intelligent and unafraid of showing it. He was also arrogant and kind of a dork. I love how uptight he was around children. Just didn’t like them. I can relate. But, strait-laced and too serious as he was, he was also a perennial optimist who saw the best in humanity and expected the best of us. Jean-Luc Picard was a square peg that happily didn’t fit in the round hole of the universe.

The last time we saw Picard, he was at the helm of an adventure in the execrable Star Trek: Nemesis. The final nail in the coffin of a stale franchise, the movie was a pathetic attempt to make Star Trek cool. Focusing on action, Nemesis decided that Captain Picard was now a thrill-seeking adventurer. He was giddy at the prospect of tearing through a desert planet in a dune buggy, grinning like an idiot as his all-terrain vehicle jumped over sand dunes and ended up in a faux Mad Max-style car chase. This guy who for seven seasons of TNG preferred quiet time with a good book and a glass of “Tea. Earl Gray. Hot.” was now…Indiana Jones?!

It didn’t work. Nemesis failed at the box office and the Next Generation crew lay dormant, taking a back seat as Star Trek was successfully rebooted as a film franchise featuring the original series’ characters (though with new young actors, of course. Age frightens us).

But now—18 years, 3 reboot movies, and yet another prequel series later—we finally move forward with the Star Trek timeline as Picard returns. It brought the hope of washing out that rancid Nemesis aftertaste.

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, Picard ends up as bad as that low point in the franchise and in some ways, maybe even worse.

Star Trek: Picard feels cheap.

Oh, the special effects are fine. Spaceships properly spaceship around space. Phaser shootouts look phasery, and there are some nice establishing shots, especially of future San Francisco, 2399. I liked that the Golden Gate Bridge is lined with solar panels. Though, would we still use solar panels in 300 years?

The actual FX work is perfectly fine, so why does the show feel low budget?

Because  the production design is subpar, sunk by an utter lack of imagination. Starfleet headquarters, the heart of an empire that spans the galaxy, is actually Anaheim Convention Center. I mean, it was filmed there.

And I get it. It’s a futuristic looking building and few if any shows have a budget to create a whole CG building for the characters to walk through. Using an actual structure is perfectly fine. But if you’re gonna do that then try, somehow, to hide its present day-ness. Dress it up.

If the rest of the show had been good, I probably wouldn’t have cared. But that barely-even-trying ethic infects the entire show, most glaringly in the storytelling.

Picard’s showrunner is Michael Chabon,

Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Wonder Boys. I read and loved both books. He’s a talented fellow. Where did that talent go when it came to this show, though?

The story itself begins okay enough. The first few episodes bring up intriguing ideas that make it seem like the show might go somewhere. A controversial decision that almost pays off is having Picard himself start the show as a cantankerous old man, useless and awaiting death. It’s sad, but as the show progresses he begins to regain that heir of authority that he’s known for.

Well, until the show flushes everything down the toilet.

Throughout the show, Picard was ailing from a mystery ailment.  A McGuffin so vague the writers never even bothered coming up with a name for it. It’s just called…a brain anomaly. An anomaly that has little to no effect on the main character until the plot calls for it in the last minutes of the show. At one point Picard dies, in the arms of characters we’ve known for only a few episodes, most of whom barely know Picard, but goodness, they start bawling. Then we spend the next quarter of an episode watching these people who barely knew this guy grappling with his loss.

And then, after spending so much time on their grieving, Picard just…comes back. Yup, he simply just…wakes up.

A better title for this show would be: Star Trek: Zero Consequences

The show runners really need to figure out who they’re making these new Star Trek adventures for. Gene Roddenberry, who created the original Star Trek, had a utopian vision for our future. He believed, like Picard, in the intrinsic goodness of humanity. I know that we can’t make a show where everybody is happy and hunky-dory. Drama arises out of conflict and conflict isn’t happy. But there’s a nastiness that permeates Picard that makes me question what the showrunners were thinking.

They’re courting fans of the old show and at the same time, people who’ve acclimated to today’s television. The Game of Thrones effect, I like to call it. Brutality and nastiness rule now. But that’s at odds with the original vision for the Star Trek universe, and indeed that dichotomy plays out within the show’s actual episodes as well. How can you begin an episode with a person sans anesthesia having his eye ripped out in graphic detail and then spend the rest of it dressing up the characters as pimps and having Patrick Stewart hamming it up with an outrageous French accent and an eye patch?

Using sci-fi parlance, this simply does not compute.

Nobody sets out to make bad entertainment. And Michael Chabon is still a very talented author. But seriously. This show stinks. So many awful decisions were made on every level; poor story telling compounded by poor aesthetics, made even worse by trying to appease opposite sides of a very wide spectrum, Star Trek fanboys and the uninitiated with a taste for modern television. In the end, Picard just pulls itself apart like warm bread.

Will season two put this Humpty Dumpty back together again? Probably not, but I’ll give it a shot. Like Gene and Jean, I’m an optimist. Or maybe just a fool.

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Pavel Klein

Pavel Klein is a member of the Florida Film Critics Circle and author of the film-centric blog WritePavelWrite.com