I’m not sure, if I’m going to do episode by episode reviews of Star Trek: Picard like I did for Discovery, but the first episode of Picard, which became available on Thursday, certainly does deserve some discussion.
Now Star Trek is notorious for weak first episodes and entire seasons. It’s a tradition that Discovery proudly upheld with its very muddled first season. So it’s something of a surprise that Picard, a show that was born out of nostalgia for Star Trek: The Next Generation, manages to break with that particular tradition and gives us a first episode that is remarkably good.
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
The first episode of Picard, entitled fittingly “Rememberance”, starts with the expected space vistas, complete with Enterprise, and the rather unexpected sound of Bing Crosby (whose granddaughter Denise played Tasha Yar in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and a Romulan commander in latter episodes) singing about “Blue Skies”. The music is certainly a fitting choice, considering that “Rememberance” is all about the people Jean-Luc Picard has lost on his watch (and Tasha Yar was the first and for a long time only major casualty in The Next Generation) and Romulans. The scene cuts to Picard and Data, both a bit more wrinkly than we remember them, playing poker and drinking Earl Grey aboard the Enterprise, before Mars explodes outside the viewport.
Another cut to Picard, long since retired, waking up in bed at his family vineyard, as his faithful dog Number One greets him. The next several minutes follow Picard and Number One around the vineyard (and in spite of the presence of agircultural drones, I do wonder whether French vineyards will still look like that in the 25th century), as he oversees his realm and bickers with Lharis and Zaban (Orla Brady and Jamie McShane), a pointy-eared couple who work as live-in caretakers for Picard and the vineyard. Initially, we probably assume that Lharis and Zaban are Vulcans, but eventually it is revealed that they are Romulans.
The idyll of Chateau Picard is invaded twice, first by a gaggle of journalists who want to interview Picard about the tenth anniversary of the Romulan supernova. For those who like me were wondering “Wait a minute, when did Romulus’ sun go supernova?” and “Uhm, why exactly did Mars blow up?”, the interviewer provides a neat summary. So in short, the Romulan sun was about to go supernova and the Romulans asked the Federation, with whom they were on somewhat better terms following events in Deep Space Nine, which drew the Romulans into the Dominion War on the side of the Federation, for help. The Federation agreed to send an evacuation fleet headed by Picard and the Enterprise – a decision which the interviewer questions, because why should the Federation waste money and resources to save Romulan lives? “No, lives”, Picard corrects her. Alas, before the rescue mission could start, some rogue synths (synthetic lifeforms implied to be androids like Data – and no, I didn’t know the Federation had other androids like Data either, though they certainly have AIs like Voyager‘s doctor) blew up Mars and killed some 90000 Federation citizens. So the Federation decided to ban all synthetic lifeforms and all research into such (maybe reading up on the Three Laws of Robotics would have been a better idea) and also decided to halt the rescue fleet and abandon the Romulans – a decision which sounds baffling, until you remember that the US, the UK and other countries started a war with Iraq over the September 11 attacks, for which Iraq was no more responsible than the Romulans for the attacks on Mars. Picard, royally pissed off, quit Starfleet in protest and apparently rescued some Romulans anyway, which is where he picked up Lharis and Zaban. Oh yes, and Data is dead, having heroically sacrificed himself to save Picard.
The death of Data and the destruction of Romulus apparently happen in Star Trek: Nemesis, which is the first Star Trek movie since Star Trek V: The Final Frontier I didn’t watch in the theatre and in fact the only classic Star Trek movie I have never seen. Okay, I have never bothered to watch stinkers like The Motionless Picture or The Final Frontier more than once, but I have seen them. However, Nemesis I haven’t bothered with (I may have to rectify that the next time it’s on TV), since it’s reportedly terrible and because it came out at a time when the Star Trek franchise was so exhausted it was time for a rest. Consequently, I have no idea if the destruction of Mars happens in Nemesis as well, though it apparently features in one of the recent Short Treks mini episodes.
The interview scene is a clever way to bring viewers who may have missed Nemesis up to speed (and I’m not the only one who didn’t bother with Nemesis. Camestros Felapton states in his review that he didn’t see it either) and to show us also how the Federation has changed in response to a double whammy of disasters, while Jean-Luc Picard is still very much the moral paragon and perfect captain we remember. Though I do quibble with the Dunkirk comparison (and unlike the interviewer, I do know what happened in Dunkirk), because Dunkirk was a military, not a civilian evacuation. Never mind that in Germany, the name “Dunkirk” is associated more with rank idiocy and inexplicable military decisions rather than plucky heroism. I don’t necesarily have a better example, since most civilian evacuations happen after the disaster and “Cuban hurricane evacuation programs”* is a comparison that is obviously not going to fly in a US TV show. Actually, the evacuation of German civilians and military personnel from East Prussia at the end of WWII would be a much better comparison than Dunkirk, even if more than 20000 people died in the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, MV Goya and SS General von Steuben. But let’s not kid ourselves, that’s never going to happen in a US TV show. Still, considering how the Dunkirk evacuation has been weaponised for toxic WWII nostalgia in the UK and elsewhere – three movies at least partly about Dunkirk came out in 2017 alone and no, the timing is not an accident – I really wish that people would have gotten over weaponised WWII nostalgia by the 25th century, especially since it would be like people today getting nostalgic over the Thirty Years War. On the other hand, given that the interviewer, though annoying, has no idea what Picard is talking about, maybe the Federation has finally gotten over WWII nostalgia, even as it took on other nasty characteristics.
Yes, Picard is another “Federation gone bad” show, though unlike season one of Discovery, the protagonist is actually aware that the Federation has gone bad. When asked why he quit Starfleet, Picard explodes, “Because it was no longer Starfleet.” Uhm, I hate to break it to you, Jean-Luc, but the utopian Federation and Starfleet have always had their share of cracks and dark spots, as Picard should well know, because he was involved in a few of them. Though I do find it troubling that Star Trek writers in the 2010s can apparently no longer even imagine a Federation that at least tries to live up to its utopian ideals, whereas Star Trek writers in the 1960s and 1980s, which were anything but utopian, and the 1990s, which were a little better, but still had their share of atrocities, had no problems imagining a better future.
Just as I find it fascinating that Jean-Luc Picard is viewed as this huge moral paragon nowadays, because he was anything but in several Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes. On the other hand, most of us have probably banished stinkers like The Next Generation episode “Up the Long Ladder” (where Picard thinks it’s totally okay to treat women like breeding slaves, forced to have sex with lots of different men, as long as they are cliched space Irish, whereas reproduction by cloning is somehow terribly immoral – and yes, this really happened) from our collective memories, while remembering the good Next Generation episodes like “Measure of a Man”, where Picard really was the moral paragon we remember him as. It’s that version of Picard who stars in the show named after him and most welcome he is, too. And of course, Sir Patrick Stewart – by far the best actor to ever appear in Star Trek – plays him as well as he ever did. I’ve sometimes said that the German SF show Raumpatrouille Orion, which premiered within two weeks of the original Star Trek, had on average much better actors than Star Trek. On the other hand, Star Trek has Patrick Stewart.
After Picard kicks out the reporters – and good riddance to them – his idyllic vineyard life is disturbed once more by the arrival of a young woman named Dahj, played by Isa Briones. We’d previously seen Dahj, a seemingly normal Federation citizen, celebrating her acceptance as a fellow at the prestigious Daystrom Institute for artificial intelligence with her boyfriend, who is not human BTW, when her apartment was suddenly invaded by masked attackers who killed Dahj’s boyfriend and tried to kidnap Dahj. Only that Dahj suddenly displayed some mean martial arts skills she wasn’t even aware off, took out the attackers and managed to flee. She also saw a picture of Picard in her mind, urging her to seek out this man, because he would protect her. When Dahj sees Picard’s interview on TV, she knows where to go and turns up at Picard’s vineyad. Picard has no idea who this young woman is, though she seems familiar, but takes her in anyway, since she clearly needs a place to stay and besides, Number One likes her.
Of course, Dahj sneaks away anyway, worried about endangering other people. Meanwhile, Picard has another dream of Data, in which he sees Data painting a woman by the sea, turning away from the viewer. Picard wakes up and chances to look at a painting in his study, the same painting from his dream. He also remembered that there were two paintings, both of which Data gifted to him before his death. So Picard heads to Starfleet HQ in San Francisco to visit his personal archives, where he keeps mementos of his time on the Enterprise (lots of nice callbacks there) including the other painting he got from Data. He finds the painting and in this version, the woman by the sea looks at the viewer. Oh yes, and she looks exactly like Dahj. A helpful hologram informs Picard that Data entitled the painting “Daughter”. So now Picard knows exactly who or rather what Dahj is.
Now Data is not the first member of Picard’s crew who comes to mind as the one who’d drop a secret baby on Picard, though it does make sense. After all, Data had tried to build himself a daughter before in The Next Generation episode “The Offspring” (and a really good one it was, too). So it’s not surprising that Data would try again and program his child to seek out Picard in case of danger. In fact, Picard says at one point that Data always wanted a daughter.
Picard now goes in search of Dahj, only that she tracks him down first, using yet more unexpected abilities. Picard gently tries to explain to Dahj who and what she is, only that Dahj, influenced by Federation anti-android propaganda, seems to assume she’s in Blade Runner, while Picard tries to explain to her that Data was a hero and that she is something very special created out of love. Picard also tells Dahj that he will always take care of her and never leave her alone. They are interrupted, when the masked assassins attack again. Dahj drags a panting Picard (he’s no longer as young as it was and Picard on the stairs reminded me very much of my Mom, whose a little younger than Patrick Stewart, when faced with too many stairs) to the roof of a Starfleet building, where she fights the assassins, showing off yet more impressive martial arts skills. She also tears the mask off one of the assassins, revealing that they are Romulans (or Vulcans gone bad, but nope, they’re Romulan). Alas, one of the Romulans squirts acid at Dahj, who begins to disssolve and eventually explodes, with Picard looking on in horror, unable to save her.
This moment is a true shocker, especially since the trailer had presented Dahj as a member of the main cast of Picard. But then, “redshirt leads” – characters who seem to be main characters, only to get killed off in the premiere are nothing new. Zack from the original Battlestar Galactica, played by pop star Rick Springfield, is probably the earliest example. Suzie Costello, played by Indira Varma, from Torchwood is another example. Oddly enough, Star Trek hasn’t had a lot of “redshirt leads”, though Captain Philippa Georgiou, played by Michelle Yeoh, comes close, since she is killed off in episode two of Discovery and subsequently reappears as her evil mirror universe counterpart.
Picard is understandably devastated, since he failed to save first Data and now his daughter Dahj. So he decides to investigate and visits the Daystrom Institute for artificial intelligence and speaks to one Dr. Agnes Jurati (Allison Pill), whose research into artificial intelligence and androids was halted, when the Federation banned all synthetic lifeforms. Dr. Jurati shows Picard a Data prototype named B-4 and tells him that no one knew how to make androids which appear human like Dahj except in theory. She also tells him that her former boss Bruce Maddox, the very same fellow who wanted to dismantle Data in “Measure of a Man”, has gone missing. When Picard tells Dr. Jurati that yes, perfectly humanlike androids exist, because he has met and had tea with one, and shows her Dahj’s necklace, Dr. Jurati blurts out that someone succeeded in making them. When Picard probes what she means by “them”, Dr. Jurati explains that flesh and blood androids like Dahj were supposed to be grown in pairs – only purely theoretically, of course. So Dahj still has a twin sister out there, who has zero idea of the danger she is in. Picard, of course, resolves to rescue her.
The scene then shifts to what a caption informs us is the Romulan reclamation site, where a Romulan Warbird arrives at a large structure eventually revealed to be an inactive Borg cube (typical Borg, never cleaning up after themselves). An exceptionally handsome Romulan (Harry Treadway) exits the Warbird and proceeds to chat up a young female scientist who looks exactly like Dahj, but is in fact her twin sister Soji (Isa Briones again). Soji does not at all mind getting chatted up by a hot Romulan and goes off with him. “You go, girl”, we’d say, if not for the fact that Romulans attacked and killed her sister.
“Redemption” manages the feat of feeling both very much like Star Trek, while being one of the most atypical episodes of Star Trek ever. For starters, there is no ship. Nor is there a crew – the crew we’ve seen in the trailers hasn’t even appeared yet. Almost the entire episode is set on Earth, most of it on a vineyard straight out of the 19th century, if not for the drones. There is a captain, only that he is about 80 and long retired. And yet, “Rememberance” feels more like Star Trek than most of the first season of Discovery. But then, Star Trek has always been primarily about the characters and their relationships. And “Redemption” gives us plenty of characters we enjoy watching from Next Generation stalwarts like Picard and Data to newcomers like Dahj and Soji, Dr. Jurati, Lharis and Zaban and the sexy Romulan whose name I have forgotten.
Something else that Star Trek has usually been – season one of Discovery and the latter seasons of Deep Space Nine being the notable exceptions – is largely optimistic. Now Picard does offer up yet another variation on the Dark Federation theme, but I don’t much mind it here, because unlike the early episodes of Discovery, Picard is focussed on a character who embodies what Starfleet and the Federation strive to be, even if they frequently fall short. Discovery was a depression fest in its early episodes. Picard so far is not, even though much of the first episode is about grief and two disasters which caused an enormous loss of life. The real world parallels of a Federation that has gone isolationist and xenophobic as the result of a tragedy and ignores the plight of refugees are only too obvious and indeed, I’m waiting for the usual suspects that complain that Star Trek has gone so political now, when it used to be just about cool sliding doors. I always wonder, if those people have ever watched Star Trek at all, because Star Trek always was political and not exactly subtle about it – witness the original series episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, which has aged very badly, but apparently was revolutionary back in the day.
The Romulans are probably the most underdeveloped major alien race in all of Star Trek, which is remarkable considering how long they’ve been around. But then, no Star Trek show until Picard has ever had a Romulan in the main cast either. The Romulans are certainly ripe for a reevaluation and it seems as if Picard will do for the Romulans what The Next Generation did for the Klingons, Deep Space Nine did for the Ferengi, Bajorans and Cardassians and Voyager did for the Borg, namely turn them into more than one-dimensional antagonists.
I noted in my review of The Witcher that the two most discussed TV (well, streaming video) shows of the 2019/20 holiday period, The Witcher and The Mandalorian, were both stories of grumbling loners finding themselves unexpectedly responsible for a very special child and learning to rise to the occasion. Now we can add Star Trek Picard to that list, because once again we have the story of an isolated loner who suddenly finds a very special child dropped into his life and has to protect said child, while gathering a found family around him. And just like Baby Yoda from The Mandalorian, Dahj and Soji are the sort of offspring of a beloved franchise character, who will definitely appeal to both our nostalgia and protectiveness. Of course, there are differences as well. Mando and Geralt are both variations on the lone gunslinger of a hundred westerns, while Picard is a very different character, more an Obi-Wan/Gandalf type mentor figure. Patrick Stewart is also much older than either Pedro Pascal or Henry Cavill, though Geralt of Rivia is older than he looks. Though Jean-Luc Picard was also never a paticularly paternal character, as seen in his interactions with Wesley Crusher and the various children about the Enterprise, though it’s notable that Picard kept a banner the Enterprise kids made for him. And yes, Picard can be as grumbly as Geralt or Mando, even if the version we see in Picard has clearly mellowed with age.
Now two high-profile SFF series with a similar theme could be coincidence, but three is a definite pattern. And considering how close to each other all three shows premiered, there is little chance that they influenced each other. So maybe there is something in the zeitgeist that makes us want stories about reluctant father figures and the very special children they protect, similar to the year of the two meteorite movies or the two volcano movies or the two Robin Hood movies, though unlike those examples all three “reluctant father figure” shows are good.
So far, “Rememberance” is mostly set-up, since we haven’t even met most of the main characters yet. However, I for one am certainly going to keep watching to see where the production team take Picard.
*Cuba’s hurricane evacuation plans, where families as well as their animals and valuables are evacuated and moved to shelters together, is why Cuba, though poor, usually experiences much fewer casualties during severe hurricanes than other Caribbean countries and the US.