Star Trek: Picard, the latest series in the five-decade-old Star Trek franchise, finished its ten-episode run on CBS All Access, and the time has come to address the good, the bad, and the ugly about Patrick Stewart’s return to his most iconic role.
Star Trek’s history dates back to 1966 when CBS presented a series with effects that were ahead of their time for television, stories with more moral complexity than most of its contemporaries, and a diverse crew of characters from all around the world and even one from another world. Throughout its history, Star Trek’s exploration of space has often included a deep-dive into human nature itself.
How does Star Trek: Picard fit into all this? Let’s dive into the problems with Picard.
Star Trek: Picard is a sequel to the Next Generation-era of Trek, which ended with Star Trek: Voyager. Throughout its history, from tv to film and even albums released by various cast members, Star Trek is made whole by its music. Whether you’re a Trek fan or not, you know the original theme song from Alexander Courage. Legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith created the iconic themes for TNG and Voyager while Dennis McCarthy handled Deep Space Nine.
Now, we have Jeff Russo (Fargo), who adds his talents to the long musical history of Trek. He does a fantastic job creating new themes, including the subtly mesmerizing main theme of the show. Russo and company also weave in older themes. When Seven of Nine shows up, listen, there’s a taste of Voyager’s theme. When the Romulans come into the picture, their underscore from the original series adds to their ominous nature. The score is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the series.
Star Trek also has a legacy of casting great acting talent. Picard is no different. Stewart is a legend. Full stop. Surrounding him are actors Allison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), Santiago Cabrera (Heroes, Merlin), and Isa Briones (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story) who each do a great job with the material. Jeri Ryan (Star Trek: Voyager, Boston Public) is instantly captivating and makes her return as Seven of Nine a compelling character in new ways. Throughout Picard, the acting is solid, considering what they had to work with.
Ooh, ominous much?
Filmmaking is eternally in a complicated relationship with itself. Film and television production is a complex business with a lot of talented people involved with each adding to or subtracting from the whole. There are a lot of reasons that certain aspects of a show or movie don’t work. Budget, direction, contracts, rewrites, actor requests, and time, all play a factor in the final outcome.
With that said, there’s so much that’s lacking in Star Trek: Picard that it’s hard to decide where to start. For a franchise known for cutting-edge special effects, Picard has none. It’s all standard CG, some updated HUDs from Minority Report, and little else. Where previous Trek built a detailed future-world around their characters, Picard seems to take the opposite approach. There’s little visual world-building going on through ten hours of television. At first, it looks like maybe the show went for subtle minimalism, but after a while, it’s clear that it’s more likely due to budget constraints or a lack of effort put into those areas.
Part of the VFX of Star Trek over the years has produced some of the most beautiful starship porn ever committed to film. Yet, in a pivotal, season-ending space battle, it looks like the ships on both sides were simply copy and pasted over and over again. There’s little, if any, variation in ship design, and the entire sequence falls flat. Not to mention, it goes no where. It ends almost as quickly as it began. La Serena, the ship used by Picard and company throughout the season is nothing to write home about and a lot of the close-up CG shots of the ship look dated in real-time.
Overall, Picard is woefully average at best in most departments. The lighting, the costumes, and the production design seem half-hearted or lacking in time or money. For a franchise that has featured the iconic bridges on five shows, La Serena is an opportunity to add to this heritage. However, when the crew is gathered for the classic straight-on shot, it all looks like a warehouse in a super-expensive fan-film.
The writing. Plain and simple. Again, as I mentioned before, the final show is the result of a lot of decisions along the way. But, there are so many gaps in story logic or dropped ideas that it’s clear the writing was never ironed out. Picard feels like every episode got one draft of a script and went straight to production.
A fundamental part of storytelling is what’s referred to as setups and payoffs. You set up a situation then pay it off with something later. In just about every story, whether on TV, film, video games, or books, there will be moments where creators will set up a problem, present a solution, have the solution fail, then have the characters figure out a new solution on the fly. That creates tension and drama. In Picard, they balk at this idea more often than not.
For instance, in one episode, we’re told about a potential problem. The crew has a solution. The solution works as intended and we’re on to the next scene. What was the point of bringing up a problem if it’s going to be resolved without any real consequence or point? This happens time and time again on the show.
Perhaps the biggest crime of the writing is that Picard is an irrelevant character in his own show. It’s not really a show about him but a show about stuff. Most of the stuff isn’t addressed, gets dropped, or glossed over. For several episodes, things just happen around Picard or characters fall right into place where Picard needs them to be. It’s rare that Picard is getting himself out of trouble and is simply saved by another character out of the blue which several more basic building blocks of storytelling. Additionally, a simple re-write to the first episode could exclude Picard altogether for the entire run of the show without much else changing.
If you know of Alex Kurtzman’s work, it’s no surprise that Picard has such problems. Kurtzman, like JJ Abrams, is less concerned about story cohesiveness and more focused on feeling. And that’s fine. There’s room for all manner of entertainment in the world. But with that stylistic choice come consequences. As with most of their work, it all feels great on the surface, but even a moment of looking deeper at the material causes it to fall apart because there’s little effort put into creating a cohesive narrative.
But the reality is that Kurtzman is, in part, a victim of modern television. Star Trek: Picard could EASILY be a non-Trek related series. It would probably even work better if it was just set in its own little universe. However, it’s not. Because CBS doesn’t own many franchises that can compete in a world of Disney+ and Netflix they have to rely on Star Trek (and to a lesser extent, The Twilight Zone). But that doesn’t mean it needed to lean on Stewart and his iconic character. The character of Picard has one of the finest endings to a television character in history. Though they made four movies after, the character’s legacy is built on those seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Star Trek Beyond Picard
It’s easy to understand why Star Trek: Picard happened. Patrick Stewart is a beloved actor and a big draw to bring in fans. Did it work? Well, that’s hard to tell since streaming services like Netflix and CBS All Access do not release viewer numbers, and they do several little tricks to pad their numbers for shareholders too. There are ways to glean a little information, but it lacks empirical integrity. Yes, the viewership numbers on YouTube for Ready Room, Star Trek: Picard’s after-show hosted by franchise alum Will Wheaton has steadily declined, but that doesn’t say much (if anything) about the overall popularity of the show.
If Star Trek needs to do anything as a franchise, it’s to re-establish its world. They need to take a cue from their own history. When Star Trek: The Next Generation arrived, it brought with it many familiar things from the past, but it also set up the new paradigm. On that foundation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and, to some degree, four movies were able to expand the narrative. Picard does not do that sort of thing. It’s a show where stuff happens. Some of it is exciting, a lot of it is frustratingly confusing. Most of it will be irrelevant, forgotten, or ignored by the time season two makes its way onto CBS All Access. But will viewers show up or is CBS ultimately going to be gobbled up by Amazon, Disney, or cash-rich and content-needy Apple? Sadly, Star Trek: Picard isn’t a bad show or a good show. Picard’s a painfully average show (at best) that’s presenting generic science fiction with a Star Trek logo on it. May the franchise boldly go into the creative and innovative realms it once explored.
Is Star Trek: Picard on your watchlist? Did you watch it, love it, and want to nerd rage at the author? Leave your comments below.
Read more articles and interviews from Ruben R. Diaz.