Sunday, 5 April 2020

Star Trek: Picard - Season 1

2399 AD. Fourteen years ago, Admiral Jean-Luc Picard failed in his mission to help save the last remaining people on the planet Romulus before it was destroyed in a supernova. Riven by guilt and anger that Starfleet and the Federation (both more insular in the wake of decades of war and uncertainty) did not do more to help, Picard retires to his winery in France. The arrival of a young woman who is being targeted by Romulan assassins calls Picard back into action, especially when he learns that events are tied into the death of his friend Lt. Commander Data twenty years ago and his experiences with the Borg.

Picard represents a key moment in the Star Trek franchise. For the first time since the release of the film Nemesis in 2002, the Star Trek universe is moving forwards. Every Star Trek project since 2002 has been a prequel or set in a parallel universe (or, in the case of J.J. Abrams' movies, both). It's way past due time that we get to see what happens next.

Picard is a bit of a mixed bag and, like its CBS All Access label-mate Star Trek: Discovery, is often deeply frustrating. The ingredients are here for a compelling and enjoyable SF series reflecting on timely themes like mortality and nostalgia, but instead we get moments of excellence interspersed with terrible dialogue and moments of contrivance that will make you very briefly wish Brannon Braga was still working on the franchise (okay, never that bad, but still).

The season opens with a mystery and it is here that Picard shines, as the titular ex-admiral takes charge of the investigation which is deeply connected to his own past. Patrick Stewart is physically incapable of acting poorly, even in his elder statesmen years (Stewart turns 80 this year and is playing a 94-year-old), and when required brings gravitas and integrity to the scenes. One change is that Picard is here suffering the very earliest stages of Irumodic Syndrome (the same disease that was afflicting his future self in the Star Trek: The Next Generation finale, All Good Things...) so Stewart has to make Picard a somewhat more tremulous, feeble character than the one we remember.

This adds an interesting element of human mortality to the series. Stewart was such a commanding force of nature in The Next Generation series and movies that seeing him here as an older and less certain figure is sometimes genuinely distressing. Time is not a kind figure, but having it thrown in the viewer's face as vividly as here is startling. Thankfully, Stewart has still got the old magic in flashback scenes set years earlier and is a much more commanding and forceful figure.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, not for acting talent but for writing. Isa Briones as Dahj and Soji is outstanding in the first few episodes as she portrays two versions of the same character, one fleeing Romulan assassins and the other trying to unearth the secrets of the Borg. She does tremendously well in both roles, and even better in a third role a lot later in the season. Inbetween she is not always well-serviced by the scripts, and becomes too much of a passive figure in the central third of the season, first swept up in a morally dubious romance and then buffeted around by various people trying to save her.

Santiago Cabrera (Heroes) is fun as ace pilot Chris Rios, especially as his narcissistic side has led to him crewing his ship with variations of the Emergency Medical Hologram Programme from Voyager, complete with ever more outrageously terrible accents. It's a fun gag, but one that feels a bit of out keeping with the tone of the rest of the series and is perhaps a bit over-used. Outside of that, Rios gets very little character development. Alison Pill, Michelle Hurd, Harry Treadway and Peyton List all do the best they can with the material they are given, but the quality is again all over the place. Particularly egregious is Alison Pill playing a character who commits an absolutely horrendous crime at one point and everyone seems to forget about it five minutes later and welcomes her back into the crew with open arms.

Particularly baffling is the character of Elnor, a Romulan swordsman prodigy whom Picard recruits for the mission for no particularly convincing reason and proceeds not to do very much for the rest of the series. Evan Evagora does the best he can with the material, but it's hard to make a character with no story purpose compelling.

More successful is the return of Jonathan Del Arco and Jeri Ryan as former Borg drones Hugh (from two episodes of The Next Generation) and Seven of Nine (from the last four seasons of Voyager). Both take care to root their characters in the way they last appeared (twenty-seven and nineteen years ago, respectively) but also layer them with two decades of off-screen character development. It's also good to see Brent Spiner back as Data (albeit in dream and flashback sequences), even if trying to accommodate for his ageing pushes both the makeup and CGI to their very limits. Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis also make very welcome return appearances as Riker and Troi.

Part of the schizophrenic writing quality can be put down to the competing interests of the two showrunners: Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer and Hugo Award-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, is by some margin the most feted author to ever work on a Star Trek series and you can see his influence in the musings on the ethics of creating artificial life, the moral comprising of the utopian Federation by the trauma it has undergone in previous decades (multiple Borg attacks, the absolutely devastating Dominion War, a brief war with the Klingons etc) and the intelligent consideration of themes like mortality and nostalgia. However, it feels like this has been compromised by executive producer Alex Kurtzman, a writer who wouldn't know subtlety and thematic exploration if they joined forces and ran him over with a snowplough. At every turn, Kurtzman's over-earnest need for exposition, lens flares, infodumps, incongruous humour, explosions, needless character deaths for shock value only and murky CGI drags the writing down whenever it seems to be in danger of getting interesting. A good example of this is how Chabon wanted to reference the Dominion War and how the trauma of seeing millions of Starfleet personnel killed in battle rocked the certainties of the utopian Federation and put it on a more isolationist course, but Kurtzman overruled him because he didn't think anyone had ever watched Deep Space Nine, which is a deeply stupid decision.

Picard does have plenty of good points. The production values and effects (bar some strange use of stock footage) are better than they have ever been before in Star Trek, even the movies, and the actors all do the best they can with the material. It's genuinely fun to see Picard back in action and a few character reunions do bring lumps to the throat. The setup in the first two or three episodes is genuinely compelling (plus Into the Badlands' Orla Brady as an Irish-Romulan Tal Shiar agent turned housekeeper is absolutely fantastic) and some of the moral quandaries faced by the crew are intriguing. But it does feel that for every good thing in the series that makes it worth watching, there's something else that weakens it.

Star Trek: Picard's first season (***½) is inconsistent and problematic, but anchored in Patrick Stewart's still-formidable gravitas. It's certainly a stronger first season than Discovery's and it's revelling in continuity is refreshing after Discovery played very fast and loose with it (although the laughably impractical holographic controls in both shows do need to die a death soon). Whether the promised second season can build on the good points of the first season and jettison the numerous weaker elements remains to be seen. The season is available now on CBS All-Access in the United States and on Amazon Prime in much of the rest of the world.

1 comment:

Wastrel said...

It's been really frustrating seeing people lapping this up, for exactly the reasons you give (I think I agree almost 100% with everything you say here*) - the creative team seem to have been operating on the assumption that if they strip out every ounce of individuality or ingenuity, the mass market would love it, and it's annoying that they seem to have been right.

I wish I could just blame it all on Kurtzman, and indeed Akiva Goldsman (because, let's face it, most of what's wrong with the world can be blamed on Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman), but Chabon got into bed with them, and it's going to take a lot of 'I had nothing to do with it I was being held hostage in the basement the whole time' leaks from Chabon to get me to trust him again. Not because the series was awful - I can respect awful! Awful usually requires ambition! - but because it was so painfully, offensively mediocre.

Seriously, I find it hard to understand how the same person could be meaningfully creatively involved in creating both Kavalier and Clay and Picard. The former is so unique, so exploding with ambition and adventure, and the latter is... a bad, by-the-numbers, Mass Effect fan-fic where the names have been changed to make it fit into Star Trek?

Particularly frustrating because, as you say, the first few episodes made clear how much promise there was in this idea, and then the rest of the season did its level best to squander all that promise. It reminded me of what people used to say about sitcoms: you had to pitch them with a really unique, interesting premise, to stand out from all the other pitches, but that made them hard to write, so within a few episodes all the weird stuff in the pilot, that grabbed the attention of the studio, has been written out or ignored and it's the same as every other sitcom on the market. The first few episodes of Picard feel like "the show we have to pretend to be to get Sir Patrick to sign up", and then it transitions to "we couldn't actually think of any good ideas to fill our run-time, so we just bunged some clichés together to please the accountants".

Bah humbug!

*except about Elnor being a Romulan. Are we sure he's a Romulan? I assumed I'd just blinked and missed the bit about the ship accidentally warping into middle-earth and picking up a stowaway elf. Was it previously established that Romulans are just Peter Jackson elves but evil?