Do you seek salvation and guidance? Are you hankering for a grownup who can sort everything out? Is leaving Earth and living in space increasingly tempting? Then 2020 might just be the right time for one of science fiction’s most venerable heroes to make a comeback.
Star Trek: Picard (Amazon Prime) is a sequel to Star Trek: The Next Generation, which ran from 1987 to 1994 and has less cultural currency than the inaugural 60s series, but is, for fans, an upgrade on the Shatner/Nimoy years. Some of its kudos was earned by its deeper exploration of humanity and sophisticated ideas about post- and late-capitalist societies. But a lot of it was the appeal of Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard, the starship Enterprise’s captain – a capable negotiator, problem-solver and, when needed, sneaky badass. Sci-fi likes to fantasise about strong, reasonable leaders; Picard is possibly the ultimate. That his show’s reboot has allowed him to go titular is a measure of the imaginary man.
The Jean-Luc we are reunited with, though, is an elderly gent weathered by grief and regret, easing himself through the early 25th century by tending to the soil – or at least, watching self-piloting drones tend to it – at the Picard vineyard in France. He is still the old Picard, steady and pensive, with a profile like a granite backslash, but his time is filled with trivial routine: a walk with his dog, Number One; a decaf Earl Grey from the instant 3D-printing “replicator” (it does the glass mug, too) in the farmhouse; a glug of red wine in the warm dusk.
What went wrong? Enthusiasts who have seen the 2009 film Star Trek or the 2002 flop Star Trek: Nemesis – Stewart’s last appearance as Picard – know the basics already. For the casual viewer, full concentration is required as Captain Exposition takes the controls. The vineyard idyll is disrupted by that old friend of the scriptwriter desperate for an info-dump: a film crew. How does Picard feel, he is asked, about that time he controversially spaffed valuable government resources trying to save millions of enemy Romulan civilians from a supernova?
Pretty narked is how he feels, as we sense the emergence of the Stewart who agreed to revive Picard when he realised a new series could be his riposte to Brexit and Donald Trump. Star Trek’s original vision was an optimistic one, where working for the space force Starfleet meant representing a federation of planets dedicated to integration and diplomacy. Now, adversity has spawned a distressingly 21st-century brand of cruel isolationism. Picard avers that the lives he wanted to save were lives – not “Romulan lives” – and that Starfleet ought to feel shame at having shrunk from its moral duties.
If this makes Star Trek: Picard sound like a counter-productive Remainer podcast, fear not because Jean-Luc has a personal mission to pursue, too. The newly spiteful federation has banned synthetic humans, scapegoating them after a few rogue androids committed a mass atrocity that set Mars on fire. That means more than a brake on scientific progress: it potentially dooms Picard’s departed robotic friend Data (Brent Spiner) to appear only in the dreams that strengthen Picard’s resolve and lead him helpfully to the next plot point. This is no good. Time to haul that skintight velour out of the wardrobe, get the old gang back together and go guerrilla.
Episode one’s other major consignment of necessary information comes when Picard visits friendly boffin Dr Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), who shares his dismay at the halting of robot research. You can envisage Stewart presenting an urbane pop-science series as, at Picard’s donnish urging, Jurati holds forth on a prohibited new technology that could create entirely lifelike androids. ST:P looks as if it will prowl the same ethical-quandary galaxy as Humans, Westworld and Battlestar Galactica, the last perhaps being the heaviest influence.
In between the ruminative Picard scenes are promising action sequences involving the mysterious Dahj (Isa Briones), an apparently ordinary young woman who is surprised when malign secret agents invade her apartment, and even more surprised when she instinctively knows how to kill them. Those blasts of hand-to-hand combat confirm that Picard exists in the new Trek universe of fast special effects and destructive set pieces. Is that a place where, after a pleasing if not wholly elegant world-building opener, Picard can retain his calm, careful, slightly pompous authority? Faith kept, for now.