The new wave of Star Trek shows has been a mixed bag, no matter which quadrant you’re approaching it from. Fans of the older shows have only recently gotten to sink their teeth into the kind of episodic adventures that defined the original Star Trek or Star Trek: The Next Generation with the new Strange New Worlds. Those more drawn to a more serialized take on Trek have had Discovery, but that show’s latter seasons have undergone significant retooling from the original “prequel” concept (the show is now set even further in the future than the future we’re normally talking about).
Picard, you would think, would be the perfect show to cater to one of the most prominent groups of Trek fans: those of us who still believe that TNG is the best show ever committed to the airwaves, full stop. Alas, the show has not really done that at all. The first season saw a complicated plot involving androids, the Borg, and the kind of hard-edged supporting characters you’ve been used to seeing on prestige dramas since about ‘05. Patrick Stewart’s return as a retired Starfleet Admiral Jean Luc Picard dragged back into interstellar adventure leveraged the actor’s deep connection to the character and the franchise, but didn’t feel at all like the sort of adventure the crew of the Enterprise D would have gone on. The second season, again, only conservatively brought in characters from the old show and told a story that was pretty much entirely within Picard’s head, diving into a traumatic past we hadn’t heard about before, during a journey to a present-day Earth that definitely won’t come up again.
Picard has never truly felt as if it’s found its footing, or decided what kind of show it really wants to be. And so, Season 3 feels, in its first six episodes, as if the show has finally finished shuffling about the furniture on set, finished negotiating with everybody’s agents, and committed to the selling point: the most beloved characters from the best Star Trek (I will not apologize) are back together in deep space, playing cat-and-mouse submarine warfare in nebulae, sciencing the shit out of problems, butting heads with Starfleet higher-ups, and firing off quips.
In this final season, Picard (Stewart) is pulled back from the brink of moving in with his girlfriend when he receives a distress call from Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), who, we learn, he hasn’t spoken to in more than 20 years. As these messages tend to do, Picard is urged to trust no one. He confides in series—and franchise—stalwart Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes, who also directs several episodes), and the two embark upon a caper to borrow Riker’s old ship, the Titan, to go rescue Crusher. The two retired captains butt heads with the new captain, Shaw (Todd Stashwick), another Starfleet officer who, like Benjamin Sisko, has a very particular axe to grind with Picard. Shaw’s first officer happens to be Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan).
Meanwhile, series regular Raffi (Michelle Hurd), now a Starfleet deep cover spy who isn’t keen on the “cover” or “spying” parts of the job description, is on the trail of a criminal organization that carries out a terrorist attack on the Federation and seems to be preparing another to coincide with a gathering of Starfleet. Her covert mission eventually leads her to cross paths with Picard again, as the mission becomes unraveling a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of Starfleet.
Getting the old bridge crew back together takes the better part of the 10-episode season, and the deeper conspiracy at the heart of the story wasn’t yet revealed by the end of the six episodes Paramount+ made available for review. While it’s a long march getting there, the show (in its third season) finally feels as if it’s taking some cues from its progenitor. One episode finds Picard and his crew aboard a crippled and foundering ship in the midst of a deep space anomaly that renders the typical cure-all tech useless, forcing the characters to come to grips with their interpersonal conflicts and then figure out how to use their smarts and daring to, as Riker puts it, boldly get the hell out of there. The conflict is resolved by some sharp folks trusting each other and working competently to outfox the enemy and overcome the pitilessness of deep space. At the end, the crew witness an awe-inspiring phenomenon that feels right out of a TNG episode.
In watching this season, you will wonder if all franchise TV has to offer us at its peak is warm, fuzzy nostalgia. You will wonder why getting this cast back together, in this kind of adventure, was not the goal of the first season, and why they didn’t just wait until they could get all the pieces together to achieve it. You will wonder how they made Worf look even sexier.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is a kind of apotheosis of the franchise, even in the minds of the many creators of the show. In one episode of Deep Space Nine, Worf (Michael Dorn, back in this show and, I say it again, sexier than ever) says that when he was aboard the Enterprise, he felt as if he were a hero in the old stories, as if there was nothing he couldn’t do. The show was a revival of the original concept that grew beyond Gene Roddenberry as he passed away, and it sets up the crew of the Enterprise D as the best of Starfleet and the Federation, cleverer than its most clever, more driven than its most driven, more principled than its most principled. There really hasn’t been a way to do TNG more than TNG already did, and every show that’s come after it has been a response to it: DS9 went serialized and gritty, Voyager kinda sorta stranded the crew away from familiar territory (before just telling the exact same stories again), and the subsequent shows and films haven’t dared to move the series’ timeline forward until very recently.
Season 3 of Picard doesn’t quite return to those heights—nothing could. In particular, the cracks show a bit around one early reveal about Picard and Crusher’s relationship, an idea longtime Trek fans who have pored over the marginalia and might-have-been plot points will certainly recognize. Like the revelations around Picard’s troubled family life in Season 2, it doesn’t feel necessary despite forming the central internal conflict for the character. Whether that pans out is an open question, but if fans of TNG are looking to see their favorite characters return looking distinguished and engaged, this new season of Picard is probably the first one they may find to be worth sitting through to find out the answer.
Season 3 of Star Trek: Picard premieres Feb. 10 on Paramount+.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste TV. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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