On the couch: Leader binging reviews

‘Star Trek: Picard’ shows a bruised future can still have hope

Posted 3/25/20

With both independent theaters and cinema chains temporarily closing their doors, it’s time for my reviews to shift from big-screen films to movies and TV shows you can binge while sheltering …

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On the couch: Leader binging reviews

‘Star Trek: Picard’ shows a bruised future can still have hope

Posted

With both independent theaters and cinema chains temporarily closing their doors, it’s time for my reviews to shift from big-screen films to movies and TV shows you can binge while sheltering in place.

And yes, my first recommendation in this category comes from the Star Trek franchise, because us nerds know how to spend weeks and months at a time not leaving our bedrooms, much less our houses. You are all living in OUR world now.

The moment CBS All Access announced it would carry “Star Trek: Picard,” I knew I’d be subscribing for that show alone, but what’s impressive is how richly textured they’ve made a streaming series that could have satisfied nostalgic fans like me with an endless succession of pandering callbacks.

It’s been nearly 18 years since the cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” last appeared onscreen, and a lot has happened since then.

“Nemesis” ended with everyone’s favorite android, Data (Brent Spiner), sacrificing himself to save Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), and as a result of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films, the Romulans have lost their homeworld and been reduced to galactic refugees.

It’s a bold choice to update the Star Trek franchise by focusing on some of its least-popular creative choices and then adding the banning of all synthetic life forms within the Federation as an almost entirely offscreen development in the process. But in a metafictional sense, this can’t help but feel to me like Star Trek as a whole is seeking absolution for its wrong moves over the past two decades.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Picard himself, a retired admiral now overseeing the operations of his family’s vineyards in France, until a mysterious girl with cryptic connections to Data shows up on his doorstep, being hunted by Romulans.

Picard not only failed to stop the Federation from banning the existence of synths (like Data), but also failed to force the Federation to live up to its promise to help resettle the Romulans, so his quest to rescue a young woman who’s related to Data is perhaps his only opportunity to make up for letting down so many others.

The thing about “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was that it was a smart but safe show, clever in exploring scientific and sociological concepts, but almost always guaranteed to restore its status quo by the closing credits.

With the exception of multi-part episodes like “The Best of Both Worlds” and “Chain of Command,” or extremely rare one-offs like “The Inner Light,” “The Next Generation” was basically a sci-fi version of Classic Coke “Law & Order;” a space exploration procedural in which all the regulars had rigidly defined personalities, but no one really had any long-form evolution or character arcs.

“Picard” seems mathematically designed to offer the opposite viewing experience from “The Next Generation,” in that Picard’s self-appointed mission of locating Dr. Soji Asha (Isa Briones), rescuing her from the danger she doesn’t even know she’s in, and reuniting her with the family she doesn’t even know she has, would be an episode or two of TNG at the most, but it’s set to take up all 10 episodes of the first season of “Star Trek: Picard.”

The storytelling in this series is deeply meandering, but it allows the characterization and the exploration of its fictional cultures to breathe. We’re introduced to rehabilitated former members of the Borg Collective, we learn more about the Romulans in this show than we have in the 54 years of Star Trek leading up to this point, and we come to feel like old friends with a new crew of characters whom we never saw before this series.

This is not the circle of convivial chums we knew from the Enterprise bridge. Everyone who volunteers to join Picard on his quixotic quest is bringing every bit as much emotional baggage on board as he is, in a future where the once-inclusive and idealistic Federation has backslid into xenophobia and corruption.

Everyone’s acting is on point, from Alison Pill as tortured cyberneticist Dr. Agnes Jurati to Michelle Hurd as Picard’s burnt-out former Starfleet colleague, Raffaela “Raffi” Musiker.

But in a long-running franchise that’s so often pandered to the male gaze, with go-go miniskirt uniforms and green-skinned alien slave girls, what’s perhaps most refreshing about “Picard” is how much its casting caters to the gaze of women.

This includes its selection of Santiago Cabrera as the Latino Han Solo whom Picard hires as his pilot, Evan Evagora as the Romulan Legolas swordsman whom we learn was once Picard’s adopted son, and Harry Treadaway as the dashing, tousle-haired Romulan double-agent who’s pretty much Draco in leather pants.

The best asset of this show, though, is right there in the title, because after decades on stage and screen, including an extended run as Professor Charles Xavier in Fox’s X-Men franchise, not only is Jean-Luc Picard easily the most beloved character played by Patrick Stewart, but his work on “Picard” is perhaps the best acting of his entire career.

In “The Next Generation,” Picard’s character was defined by always being on the right side of any argument, no matter what it was, to the point that he would spit in the eye of any senior officer who told him to stand down. The end result is that, by the time we catch up with him in “Picard,” he’s burned damn near every bridge he ever had, and all those admirals he shouted down are only too happy to see him fall from grace, not in spite of Picard still being right, but because of it.

Picard is a proud, righteous man who shirked his moral duties by allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. By apologizing to those who now curse his name, he’s atoning not only for his own sins, but for those of a Star Trek franchise that had lost its way to retcons and reboots.

The original “Star Trek” series gave viewers during the Cold War 1960s a utopian future to which they could aspire, but “Picard” gives modern audiences, who have lost faith in a better future, a vision of tomorrow that’s turned away from the light, but can still be redeemed if enough good people come together to make it happen.

Like Kyle MacLachlan as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper in “Twin Peaks,” Stewart’s Picard is a man both out of touch and out of time, but he’s also a man others feel honored to serve, however off-putting they might initially find his pomposity, because he believes in a better way forward.

We still love you, Space Dad.

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