Star Trek: Picard’s First Season Is a Rough but Worthwhile Journey

I’ve had very mixed feelings on Star Trek: Picard’s first season, which wrapped up last night (spoilers ahead).

The official logo for Star Trek: Picard.Certainly, there’s a lot to like about it. Aesthetically, it’s masterful. The special effects, cinematography, art design, and soundtrack are second to none. The acting is also excellent throughout, and most of the characters are excellent.

Patrick Stewart’s Picard is of course flawless as ever. That goes without saying. I also deeply enjoyed the guest appearances by Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine. Jeri Ryan is a great actress, but Voyager’s writers never did her justice. Seven mostly just felt like a cheap Data knock-off with added fan service in the form of a ridiculous skin-tight catsuit.

Picard finally gives Seven of Nine the development she deserves (and reasonable clothes). She’s probably more fleshed out in a few episodes of this show than she was in all of Voyager, and it’s just a delight. I’m quite happy with the not-so-subtle implication that she will be promoted to main cast next season.

Many of the new characters impress, as well. My favourite by the end of the season was probably Romulan warrior-monk Elnor, who is as sensitive as he is deadly.

Can I just say how utterly I love the Qowat Milat? In my head canon, they are the “true” Romulans. I think their philosophy is the original Romulan culture that existed from the Time of the Awakening, when they were Vulcans marching Under the Raptor’s Wings. The Qowat Milat’s philosophy is the exact counterpoint to Surak’s teachings. Instead of repressing their emotions, they express them all, without reservation or hesitation. Instead of cold pragmatism, they live to fight for only the most hopeless of causes.

I love this because it makes the Romulans so much more than just the evil cousins of Vulcans. Clearly their culture was corrupted somewhere along the line, but the Qowat Milat shows it was built on something beautiful and unique.

Evan Evagora as Elnor on Star TreK: PicardAs a long-time Romulan fan, I’ve wanted to see them get this kind of development forever, and even if nothing else about Picard had been good, the whole thing may have been worth it just for this.

However, for all the positives this show has, I spent most of the season feeling more dissatisfied than anything. There’s much good, but also a lot of flaws.

I did say that a lot of the new cast is good, but not all of them. For me the biggest weak link was Raffi. She’s just a shambling mound of manufactured drama without any sincerity or believability.

What makes matters worse is she’s in the same show as Rios, who is basically the exact same character except better. They’re both Starfleet officers who had personal breakdowns following painful events.

But Rios suffered genuine, horrific trauma, and even after that he maintains obvious competence and nobility of spirit. Meanwhile Raffi abandoned her family, gave up on life, and became a junkie simply because she got fired. That might work as a story in a contemporary setting, but with the boundless opportunities and flawless social safety net of the Federation, it just doesn’t work.

That’s the trouble with writing in a utopian setting. You can’t just forget it’s a utopia when it becomes convenient to the plot.

I was also disappointed with the handling of Soji’s storyline. It pains me to say that because she’s a character with enormous potential. A representative of a new race of artificial life, the living legacy of Data himself. That’s a wonderful character concept.

Isa Briones as Soji Asha on Star Trek: PicardUnfortunately they never really use her for anything. She is, when you get down to it, the archetypical damsel in distress. She’s just there to be acted on by others and, ultimately, to be a goal for Picard to chase.

I hope this changes in future seasons, because honestly I love the actress and the character, and she deserves better.

But by far my biggest issue with season one of Picard was how bleak and grim it felt. In a world where cynicism rules the day and our media seems to be in a race to the bottom to see who can provide the most shocks and wallow most deeply in the worst aspects of humanity, a series about Jean-Luc Picard felt like the perfect opportunity to bring back the hope and inspiration that Star Trek has so long stood for. Discovery certainly hasn’t delivered on that front.

But for much of the series it seemed determined to continue wallowing in all that is awful. We saw a broken Picard and a broken Federation, and through it all there seemed little cause for anything resembling hope.

The series hit its nadir about halfway through the season with the episode “Stardust City Rag.” Despite a stellar performance from Jeri Ryan, this episode was so off-putting I almost gave up on Picard then and there.

Icheb’s brutal death was too much — it was just torture porn, pure and simple. I’m not opposed to Star Trek going to dark places — I think any effective drama should be prepared to do so — but there’s a difference between depicting bad things and sadistically reveling in the most gruesome, horrific events imaginable. Forget Star Trek; this scene wasn’t appropriate for any media save a slasher film.

Agnes in Star Trek: Picard.But what bothered me even more was the reveal that Dr. Jurati — up to that point the most lovable member of the cast — was a murderous traitor. With her innocent manner and boundless curiosity, Jurati had struck me as Picard’s representative of Star Trek’s spirit of optimism and exploration. Her turning out to be a villain felt like the writers communicating that Star Trek’s hopefulness was well and truly dead.

My interest in the series almost didn’t recover from that, but I clung on, with the slightest ghost of hope remaining. Picard is perhaps the most serialized TV series I’ve ever seen. It’s all one continuous story, making it almost impossible to judge each episode as an individual unit. Because of that, I held out hope that my faith would eventually be rewarded.

Against all odds, it was.

At the last moment — almost but not quite too late — Picard turns around and finally embraces the inspirational nature of what Star Trek should be at its best. The image of Jean-Luc Picard making a suicide run against hundreds of Romulan warbirds in a tiny passenger ship just to save a bunch of people who want to destroy him and everything he holds dear because he believes they are still worth saving is just about the most “Star Trek” thing ever, and it deserves to be remembered as one of the iconic moments of the entire long franchise.

Virtually everything about the season finale is damn near perfect. It doesn’t entirely erase all of my complaints, but it does counterbalance them enough to make the whole rough journey feel worth it.

I also have to say as much as I love a good cliff-hanger, I appreciate the courage of ending the season with a largely happy conclusion, with no new crisis to confront. It’s a daring choice in a world where the media is an arms race of ever bigger shocks and ever more endless drama.

Soji, Rios, and Picard on the bridge of La Sirena in Star Trek: PicardIn fact, the finale was so good it makes me wonder if we really need a second season. This is such a satisfying ending it could just as easily work as the conclusion to the series. Of course, presumably the Reapers are still out there (because Star Trek turned into Mass Effect somewhere along the line), so the potential for more is there, but I’m not sure the need is there.

All in all, it was a very imperfect season, but it does eventually pay off.

Star Trek Musings: Picard’s Premiere, Discovery Season Two, and STO

Despite years of feeling like my Trek fandom has been left behind, I find myself quite steeped in Star Trek lately. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get to it.

Picard:

The official logo for Star Trek: Picard.Let’s start with what everyone is talking about: Picard.

As someone who grew up with TNG, it’s hard to remember the last time any piece of media felt as much like an event as this does. I’ve been filled with enormous hope, but also great worry that they’ll screw it up. Truthfully, I just didn’t know what to expect.

The first episode hasn’t done a whole lot to clarify my feelings, honestly.

There is a lot to love. There absolutely is. It goes without saying that Patrick Stewart is absolutely flawless. He always has been, and even if everything else was bad, the show could possibly be worth it for him alone.

Thankfully, he’s not the only thing Picard has going for it.

For one thing, this is quite possibly the most beautiful, aesthetically masterful piece of television I’ve ever seen. Picard has the sumptuous production values of Discovery, but rather than being flashy and extravagant, it feels lived in and homey. Every shot feels like a work of art, and the soundtrack is stunningly beautiful.

Picard is amazingly rooted in what’s come before. As a fan of Nemesis, I feared it might be somewhat swept under the rug, being an unpopular film, but Picard is almost entirely a direct sequel to it. Even beyond that, this series is a love-letter to the fans through and through. Subtle callbacks and easter eggs abound, but even the major plot points are the sort of things that you need to have watched a lot of Star Trek to understand.

Jean-Luc Picard and Dahj in Star Trek: Picard.This could be a double-edged sword. Right now I’d rate the appeal of Picard for anyone who’s not a hardcore Trekkie to be pretty much zero. But on the other hand, it’s wonderful from the perspective of someone who does know and love that source material.

One small thing that maybe shouldn’t matter but which I really appreciated is that every single alien we’ve seen so far, even extras, are from pre-established species. Romulan, Tellarite, Xahean. It makes the Trek universe feel more like a real place, something Picard is already doing an excellent job across the board.

It’s not all good news, though. I do still see some cause for concern.

The first half or so of Picard’s premiere is pretty much perfect, but after that things start to slip a bit. It slides a bit more towards the kind of cheap shocks and sensationalism that have dogged Discovery. It’s nowhere near as bad as Discovery yet, but it does leave me worried.

Ultimately, this is a show that’s clearly playing the long game with its story. You can’t really rate the first episode individually. It’s just the first part of a much bigger picture. Future developments could justify what seem like missteps now… or just make them worse.

All things considered, Picard’s first episode does an admirable job of living up to the mountainous expectations placed on it, but my worries are not entirely erased. There’s still lots of room for this to go badly wrong, and modern Star Trek doesn’t have a great track record for quality.

Agnes in Star Trek: Picard.Speaking of modern Star Trek…

Discovery: Season two

I pretty much gave up on Discovery after what I will generously call a rough first season. However, I heard from enough people that season two was better that I eventually caved and decided to give it another shot. I finished up just in time for Picard to start.

In some ways, season two of Discovery is a lot like the first. But in other ways — in just enough ways — it’s quite different.

The main thing that Discovery’s second season shares with the first is that they are both — to put it bluntly — really, really stupid. Season two’s meta plot is crushingly convoluted and riddled with enormous plot holes, and it completely falls apart under any kind of inspection.

Season one was dumb, too, and worse still it wasn’t even an enjoyable story. It was a dull, lifeless slog full of cheap shock value and terrible, occasionally offensive story choices.

At times, season two slips back into that. The most egregious example is what they’ve done with the character of Saru. Once a highlight of the show, season two manages to nullify pretty much everything that made him compelling as a character.

Doug Jones as Commander Saru in Star Trek: DiscoverySaru was introduced as a member of a prey species who live in constant, instinctual fear. It was a really unique concept for an alien race, and as someone who suffers from chronic anxiety, I identified with Saru in a way I rarely can with fictional characters.

Season two reveals that Saru’s species are not the prey but in fact apex predators once they reach a certain age. Firstly, this completely sabotages what made his race different. Now they’re just Klingons with better manners.

Secondly, the idea that chronic anxiety is something you can just grow out of is breathtakingly tone-deaf and downright offensive. It’s akin to writing a story where a gay person realizes they were straight all along once they meet the “right” person. It’s awful.

However, offensive stupid like that is thankfully the exception in Discovery’s second season. The whole arc is dumb, but most of the time it’s fun dumb. There are worse sins for a story to commit than to be dumb. Discovery’s first season was stupid and boring. Its second season is stupid and entertaining.

As always, Discovery knocks it out of the park visually, with state of the art special effects, spectacular art design, and lots of battle scenes filled with eye candy.

But what really makes the second season work where the first didn’t is that it has heart. There are many moments where the characters risk life and limb to do the right thing, with no real motivation beyond the fact that it is the right thing. That’s what Star Trek is all about, and though Discovery gets so much else wrong, that’s the one thing it really needs to get right. The first season didn’t, but the second does.

Michael Burnham in Star Trek: DiscoveryAs of now, I would consider myself converted to Discovery. It’s still a long, long way from my favourite Trek series, and there’s still a lot wrong with it, but it does now feel at least worth my time, with occasional flashes of true greatness.

STO update

And while I’m rambling about Star Trek, I might as well give an update on my continued adventures in Star Trek Online (beyond what was already said in my recent column).

I continue to mostly enjoy my time there, somewhat to my own surprise. I’ve said before it’s a very rough game, and it’s not getting any less rough the farther into it I get.

I played through the starter stories for both other major factions — oddly, the Starfleet content is shockingly brief, and Klingons don’t fare much better — and returned to playing my Rommie full time. She’s now at level cap and delving into the faction-agnostic story arcs.

Turns out this game has a pretty sharp difficulty spike at max level. I’ve gone from waltzing over enemies to struggling to stay alive on nearly every fight. This might bother me more, except there doesn’t seem to be an real death penalty in this game (as it should be, IMO). That makes the difficulty less frustrating and more a problem to be solved.

I am hoping to upgrade my gear some. To my dismay, the main source of endgame progression in STO seems to be reputation grinds, which I consider the very lowest form of MMO content, but on the plus side the lower tiers of reputation aren’t too hard to unlock. It could be far worse.

Space station Deep Space Nine in Star Trek Online.I’m also still playing my Starfleet character, an Andorian science officer, here and there. I switch over to her for story arcs that feel more appropriate for a Starfleet officer, like helping out the Bajorans. One thing that’s really nice about STO is that you can play through the missions in any order, and everything has level-scaling, so I can hop between the two characters at will without repeating any story or worrying about falling behind. This is an extremely alt-friendly game.

I still half expect myself to drop this game at any moment, but for now it’s still keeping my attention, if only because I’ve got Trek on the brain these days.

On top of everything else, one of my friends is now forming plans for a Star Trek tabletop RPG one-shot…