Star Trek: Picard preview

23 January 2020

Title:Star Trek: Picard

We live in a culture that has the unfortunate habit of being driven by uninformed rage outbursts, spiralling-viraling out of control through the ether of the Internet. So much so, that a great deal of effort is being spent reviewing -- and complaining about -- films and TV series the reviewer has never seen.

For the longest time, I wanted to write a preview of "Star Trek: Picard", the latest instalment in the Star Trek franchise, but resisted, because I didn't want to join this crowd of ignorant nay-sayers.

So, why now? Why, less than 24 hours ahead of the release on CBS All Access of this brand new series, am I writing a preview of it?

Well, because, for once, it seems that I have things to say about it that are positive and -- to me, at least -- exciting.

First, a quick recap though, of how we got here.

I don't consider myself a "Star Trek fan" or a "Trekkie" (or "Trekker") per-se. I don't cosplay. I don't go to conventions. And I don't spend my time arguing with friends and acquaintances about the relative merits of Kirk vs Picard. I do, however, think that "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is one of the best TV series of all times. I've watched every episode of it multiple times. I've watched them again with my kids. I love the concept, and I love the execution, and I think Jean-Luc Picard is one of the most fascinating characters ever to grace the small screen, and that he inspired a generation of scientists and engineers to push the envelope of the possible.

As so many others beside me, I, too, have been secretly wishing for Picard's return to the small screen ever since "Star Trek: The Next Generation" ("ST:TNG", to those in the know) went off the air in 1994. Sir Patrick Stewart, who plays Picard, is on the record saying ST:TNG went off the air not with a bang but with a whimper. I believe he is wrong. He referred to Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), which was a critical and box-office meh, and ultimately caused the retirement of both Picard himself and the rest of the ST:TNG crew, but I don't see that as the end of ST:TNG.

ST:TNG ended in 1994, with the double-episode season (and series) finale "All Good Things...", still considered one of the best TV episodes ever, and consistently rated among the best episodes of any Star Trek series. It was an emotional refrain that superimposed three points in Picard's life. One, as a young captain, just taking command of the Enterprise; a second, in his prime and our present, as he is after seven seasons of ST:TNG; and the third, as an old man, retired in his family's vineyard in France, where he is called to action by a mysterious joining of these three points in time (courtesy of the show's flamboyant nemesis, "Q"). This joining sends said old man chasing into space, an action that requires him to convince some members of his old team, and particularly the hyper-logical android Data, that he is very much compos mentis, and is only experiencing something that is both impossible and indescribable. (Explaining that may sound like a tall order, and it is, but the whole crux of the episode is to highlight Picard's innate command, regardless of rank, age, or personal situation.)

That was definitely going out with a bang.

The cast's later forays into the big screen I see as unrelated to the series. They are the product of a Hollywood that will always try to cash in on whatever can be cashed in, and do so by recycling formulas that are tried and true ways to mediocrity. I don't think they consciously ignored the tone of the series or the elements that made it great, so much as they didn't understand them, couldn't grapple them into the moulds they knew how to work with, and just discarded them as casualties of a big screen adaptation. (As a case in point, one of the greatest driving forces of the series was Data's Pinocchio-like journey to becoming human, where he is consistently pitted against his own inability to experience emotion, and yet finds remarkable ways to work around this handicap, repeatedly demonstrating himself to be the most human of the entire crew. ST:TNG's first big screen outing, Star Trek Generations, by contrast, begins with Data receiving a completely unexplained upgrade in the form of an "emotion chip" that immediately destroys this struggle. [And before you cry out: yes, the emotion chip was first introduced in the series, in a string of powerful episodes featuring Lore, Data's evil twin, but at the end of these the chip was damaged, and according to the internal logic of the series, the know-how to fix it was lost with Data's inventor. Also, these episodes end with Data unwilling to experiment with the chip further, after understanding its dangers.])

Over the years, Patrick Stewart was asked multiple times in interviews whether he would ever consider returning to the Star Trek universe, and his answer has always been that it would take something extraordinary, and he doesn't believe that would ever happen. The cynics -- which I am trying not to parrot here -- claim that that extraordinary thing that ultimately convinced him to "don the space suit again" (as the Trek crew often refers to it) was a large sum of money. It is said that "Star Trek: Picard" is the biggest payday in Stewart's career. Be that as it may, at the 2018 Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, Stewart came on stage and surprised fans by saying that "Jean-Luc Picard is Back!"

Did my heart miss a beat? I'd be lying if I said it didn't. But just the one. And then the horrible reality of it sunk in. I listen to Stewart's announcement (on YouTube of course, not in Las Vegas) and heard him repeat again and again that Picard is back, but without adding any further information. Knowing the Zeitgeist, I knew what that meant. It meant that the studio was once again staging a cash-grab, by holding viewers hostage to their own nostalgia. And this being, this time around, also my nostalgia, my initial reaction was not delight but rage: there they go, resurrecting Picard just for the sake of using and abusing his name. The series will have nothing to do with the ST:TNG spirit (I said to myself), but will merely include Jean-Luc as an elderly spectator, a bystander in his own series, which will surely be populated otherwise by nothing but ADHD-laden millennials, lens-flare and fast-rotating camera shots.

Stewart's only words in that Las Vegas announcement that hinted at any thought beyond the use of the Picard name as a marketing ploy were a warning: "He may not be the Jean-Luc that you recognise." That, for me, doubled-down on the alarm bells, and made me immediately check who the creative driving forces behind "Star Trek: Picard" were. Turns out, it was the worst two names possible: Akiva Goldsman and Alex Kurtzman.

Akiva Goldsman wrote A Beautiful Mind, won an Oscar for it, and has been coasting on the fame ever since. As an executive producer, he is exactly what Hollywood likes: someone who follows the formula, adds no heart, and can churn out, on time and on budget, stuff that is consistently mediocre. For an example of his later works, see the much-maligned The Dark Tower Stephen King adaptation.

Kurtzman is the same, only without the Oscar. He can boast to his name such dubious productions as The Mummy. To Star Trek fans he is mainly known as the driving force behind "Star Trek: Discovery", which drew the ire of Star Trek fans both casual and fanatic over how it completely ignores the established Trek timeline, internal and external logic, and, again, the very things that made Trek great to begin with.

The two first collaborated on "Fringe", where Goldsman wrote and directed several of the episodes. This was a series co-created by Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and J. J. Abrams. When Abrams later directed his reboot Star Trek (2009), whose screenplay was penned by Orci and Kurtzman, he invited Goldsman for an on-screen cameo, and Kurtzman and Goldsman have been collaborating on Star Trek-related material ever since. On "Star Trek: Discovery", though blame is generally placed at Kurtzman's door, 29 of the episodes, including those first episodes that set the tone and plot-lines for the entire series, were produced by Goldsman.

So, this was a pair I was familiar with, and trusted to ruin the material. I fully expected Jean-Luc to start the series as a washed-out has-been, get a call-to-action via an inexplicable mystery box (J. J. Abrams may be famous for those, but Kurtzman and Goldsman love them, too, and may have trafficked in them long before J. J. came on the scene), enlist a rag-tag team of techno-babble spouting millennials, which will then go on to one high-stakes special-effects-driven adventure after another, cue lens flare, cue rotating camera, you know the rest. Jean-Luc, obviously, is in no shape for the gymnastics -- nay, acrobatics -- involved, so his character will serve, largely, as a framing device, and with any luck will be dropped entirely by season two because, let's face it, Patrick Stewart is expensive.

I was very close to writing these things down, but didn't.

Then the trailers started appearing, and my worst fears were one by one confirmed.

The trailers find Picard an old man, in his family vineyard, reenacting "All Good Things...", but without the ageing make-up. Nostalgia was cranked up to 11, original content dialled down to zero. Lo and behold, a mystery woman appears on the scene, asking Picard for help. Call to action: check. Mystery box: check. Then we see the washed out Picard, forgotten by Star Fleet. Then we see (in a further reenactment of "All Good Things...") Picard trying to convince his old crew mates that he is not crazy and that there is something he must do. Then: millennials begin appearing one by one. And crazy camera work. And techno babble. And special effects. Sigh.

But I resisted and did not air my complaints on a show that hadn't aired yet.

What turned me was a series of interviews that Stewart did in recent weeks to promote the upcoming series. These caused an immediate Internet backlash over Stewart's portrayal of a series in a quite different tone (something he was not too shy to suggest even back in Las Vegas). Die hard fans do not want a different tone. Forget "Discovery" (which was just plain bad); think of "Star Trek: Enterprise" (2001), a series that many now, in hindsight, think was pretty good and pretty daring, but contemporaneously was shunned by the core Trek audience over its stylistic and material departures from canon, which led to its early cancellation, a fate not encountered by Star Trek series before it since the original one.

But, as mentioned, I'm not a die hard fan, and I actually heard Stewart's message as a message of hope. Let me explain.

Consider the Star Trek timeline. For legalistic reasons, Star Trek in movies and Star Trek in TV are disconnected, so I'm going to only consider the TV series for this timeline. If we ignore, for the moment, the two latest TV attempts, "Discovery" and "Enterprise", both of which were not accepted as canon and both of which are very early in the timeline, Star Trek essentially deals with two periods. The original series happened earlier, at a time of expansion by Star Fleet, when space was an uncharted wild west and phasers were the new pistols. The "Next Generation" happened later, at a time when the federation already spanned a quarter of the galaxy, had stabilised, and conflicts generally occurred between familiar parties and were resolved by negotiation. In fact, this was the main driver of the sparring match between Picard and the alien Q. Q attempted to prove that humans were innately barbaric, Picard was about proving that the human race had evolved beyond that, and was now civilised.

This, I should say, was not what ST:TNG's creators originally envisioned. Roddenberry thought he could basically update old Star Trek episodes and rehash them. In retrospect, he was ahead of his time in that, too. But fans weren't. ST:TNG's first episode after the double-episode pilot was called "The Naked Now", and was a remake of "The Naked Time" from the original series. Fans were livid. They did not want old stories rehashed. They wanted to boldly go where no one has gone before. Quickly, the show course-corrected, and the end result became one of the most successful TV series of all time.

The rest of the Star Trek TV series happen in this later time-frame. Appearances by ST:TNG crew place them exactly, and we know that their events follow shortly after the events of ST:TNG.

But even so, there is a shift in tone between them. "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine", for example, is the first foray of Star Trek into what happens when not in a constant voyage, and we get to see politics at work: shifting alliances of power, haggling, bureaucracy...

As a viewer I was admittedly turned off by all this. It smacked too much of soap opera -- space opera -- for my taste. But now, suddenly, in retrospect, hearing Stewart explain his view of "Star Trek: Picard", I thought of it again, and experienced a revelation.

You see, if "Enterprise" was about humanity getting its act together, and the original series was about frontier lands, and ST:TNG was about the age of reason, and only a few years later we're seeing a Star Fleet dominated by politics and bureaucracy, what does that bode for the future?

Gene Roddenberry didn't envision it this way, probably. He thought of Star Fleet as an image of the future, and an image of how bright it will be, but in looking at all these series in conjunction, Star Fleet is clearly a process, not an end-state. It is something that evolves in stages, and these stages mirror Ichak Adizes's depictions of the standard corporate lifecycle, or, otherwise stated, the stages in the life of a typical empire. "Bureaucracy" in that depiction, is the stage before death; the empire collapses under its own weight by the petty corruption and greed of its own elite, so sure of the empire's long-term survival that they sacrifice it for their own short-term benefits.

Which brings us, 26 years later, to "Star Trek: Picard". According to Stewart, it depicts a Star Fleet that has lost its moral centre. Now, suddenly, I am fascinated. Jean-Luc Picard is not a wash-out. He is a man who took a moral stand and left Star Fleet in protest. Star Fleet continued without him, and he assumed the life of, essentially, a recluse in his old family home. But now, when (by magic box and call to action) he is being dragged back into the main stage of history, how will such a man act?

Whereas before, I was horrified at the thought that for pure monetary gain the show's creators decided to empty the character of Jean-Luc Picard of all it had stood for, now, I was for the first time intrigued and rejoicing over this unexpected and fascinating choice: Jean-Luc is exactly the man we remember; it is the whole rest of his world that was turned upside down, so that now he is no longer a model citizen, but rather an outmoded outcast. In a sense, this is a show that asks the question: What if Q is right and Picard was wrong? What if Picard's proofs were not about humanity being better than Q had painted, but simply about Picard being the better man?

That is a great concept with great potential. It can become a "Firefly" or it can die on the vine, but if they say this in the pilot, if they ask these questions, they will at least from me get an A for effort, even if all Trekkie fandom turns against them and cancels them before even the pre-approved second season. I will give them an A for effort, even if they try so hard to make this question "relevant", "timely" and "political" that they trip on their own two feet and drop the allegorical facade. That would be a shame, but just having presented the question is an achievement in its own right.

I have, since this momentary epiphany, looked up online again, to see what else we know of this pilot and this series. Apparently, production has been troubled. Kurtzman has been ousted as show-runner, having diverged too far from the mainstream in wanting this show to be not only a "Discovery" clone but actually one that would share a timeline with "Discovery" and enjoy crossover plots and episodes. That idea was (thankfully) nixed, and Kurtzman was replaced by Michael Chabon (who wrote John Carter).

Chabon apparently tried to bring back the ST:TNG feel, but was blocked by Kurtzman (whose production company is still involved in the production), so the result was an unsatisfying neither-here-nor-there, which ultimately led to Chabon, too, being fired and replaced.

This is not unheard of in the history of television, but is never auspicious. It can be that the many conflicting things that "Star Trek: Picard" needs to be for CBS resulted in a case of paralysis through over-management. Yeah, most likely that is the case.

Most likely, 2020 is too late for an auteur to enter Star Trek, not when it's meant to be a magnet for CBS All Access, not after the debacle that was "Star Trek: Discovery", not when it is produced by the same people who were in charge of that debacle. Not when the audience's attention span is at an all-time low and complex ideas unfolding through slow and methodical exploration don't get the green light.

Yeah, most likely 24 hours from now, after I will have seen the pilot episode of "Star Trek: Picard" I will be somewhat embarrassed by my premature case of slight optimism, having then seen how badly the show dropped the ball. But for now, I wanted to get this out first, to say "Thank You" for this inspiring new thought, inspiring new idea in the Star Trek universe, which is great and wholly deserves to be explored.

And if the most it will ever get explored is in a handful of pre-release interviews by Patrick Stewart and, perhaps, in this discussion... well, so be it. I still feel that I have been given a precious gift.