Captain Jean-Luc Picard has done it all over again. In 1987, Patrick Stewart beamed in to sprinkle Shakespearean gravitas all over Star Trek: The Next Generation. He would go on to prove there was a future for the franchise beyond Leonard Nimoy waggling his eyebrows and William Shatner chatting up green-skinned aliens.
Now, with Star Trek at a historically low ebb on the back of a decade of awful movies, he is repeating that interstellar feat. His new series Star Trek: Picard has been widely acclaimed by fans and critics as thrilling, affecting and intriguing. Just as he did 33 years ago, Jean-Luc has breathed vitality into a sci-fi saga that has for years drifted through deep space in suspended animation.
Picard is Star Trek for grown-ups. The interstellar romp was, of course, never really for kids. But the new series brings an irresistible melancholy as we catch up with Picard in old age (the character is now 92, Stewart himself 79).
This is Trek with phasers set to pensive. There’s less charging headlong into the fray than in the old days. We are instead treated to many, many scenes in which Jean-Luc stares into the distance, wishing he could travel back in time and change the past (if only he’d watched Star Trek IV: he’d know how to do exactly that).
Yet Picard is more than an autumnal final hurrah for both actor and character. Its arrival has given a warp-speed boost to Trek at the very moment its great science fiction nemesis, Star Wars, has crashed and burned with the spectacularly, almost surreally awful Rise of Skywalker.
Star Wars/Trek is one of the great rivalries in pop culture: Blur v Oasis for pointy-eared people in jumpsuits. Lightsaber or phaser? Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise? Darth Vader, with his heavy breathing and Nazi leathers, or Ricardo Montalbán’s Khan Noonien Singh with chest-hair dancing in the light?
Such are the binary choices that have for decades divided the geek community. Star Trekkers have historically pitied Star Wars fans as callow and interested only in the surface level distraction (ie slow-motion explosions, Carrie Fisher being perved over by Jabba the Hutt, duels with fancy laser swords). Meanwhile Star Wars diehards despaired of what they regarded as Trek’s creaking production values and terrible acting.
The strangest aspect of the rivalry is that it was possible to belong to both camps simultaneously. Many of us flitted between Star Wars and Star Trek fandom according to whichever we were watching at the time.
Star Wars was obviously better at the gosh-wow stuff. And yet there was always that inner voice telling us Star Trek was smarter, sharper and deeper. As a teenager, I devoured Star Trek novels while reserving pride of place in my bedroom for a replica Millennium Falcon. Trek was for the brain, Star Wars for the heart.
With Picard, however, the Star Wars/Trek debate has for now been set to rest. Rise of Skywalker was so bad that time seemed to shudder to a standstill as you watched. Worse than that it retroactively ruined George Lucas’s original trilogy. All the sacrifices by the Rebels in Empire and Return of the Jedi had been rendered redundant with the return of – sheesh! – Palpatine.
With that cheeky resurrection, director JJ Abrams was essentially stamping his muddy boots all over our childhood. And that had followed the sneery, revisionist junk of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi: Star Wars brought to you by the kind of people who laughed at you in the schoolyard for liking Star Wars.
Picard, by contrast, does nostalgia perfectly. As with Rise of Skywalker it brims with call-backs. It is no surprise to learn Picard’s show runner Michael Chabon fell in love with Trek aged 10. He maintained that passion even as he rose through the literary ranks in America, culminating in his Pulitzer Prize for 2001’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (itself a sly defence of nerd culture before it became fashionable to nurture the geek within).
He gets the nods and winks just right in the new series. Picard’s obsession with his glory days captaining the Enterprise NCC-1701-D manifests as haunting visions of his old android friend Data. The first episode references interplanetary cubists the Borg, the 2002 movie Star Trek: Nemesis, and the recent Star Trek films (the first two directed by, of all people, JJ Abrams). Further in, we are promised cameos by Seven of Nine from Star Trek Voyager and Will Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes.
It’s all so seamless. Picard is in many ways a meditation on nostalgia: how our yesteryears can shine a light on our present but also shackle us. It is a truth with which Jean-Luc is him slowly coming to grips. But Chabon is also, perhaps, interrogating fandom’s tendency to wallow in an idealised vision of the past. It adds depth to the action without clanging you over the cranium with an agenda.
Contrast that with the clunking fashion in which Rise of Skywalker raids our formative years. Mark Hamill is arm-twisted back into the frame as Luke Skywalker, despite dying in Last Jedi. Harrison Ford as Han Solo is back as well and just as grumpy as in 2015’s The Force Awakens. R2-D2 and C-3PO are still tottering around in the background, as if conjured from the void through the sheer willpower of Star Wars fundamentalists. Darth Vader’s melted helmet has another guest spot. Boom, boom, boom – Abrams cracks us again and again across the back of the head with a big rolled-up book titled “Beloved Childhood Memories”.
All that thwacking is in vain, however, as Abrams’ fan service is appended to a flailing and incoherent story. Picard, by contrast, picks and chooses what it is nostalgic for and is clear about wishing to weave a new tale rather than plod over old territory.
The outlook isn’t entirely bleak for Star Wars, it should be acknowledged. The Disney+ TV series The Mandalorian, already available in the US and coming to the UK in March, is a worthy addition to lightsaber lore and has already contributed positively to human civilisation by giving us a lifetime supply of Baby Yoda memes.
But it has been so thoroughly eclipsed by the terrible Rise of Skywalker as to neuter much of its good work. Which means, with Picard, Star Trek for now has the upper hand. It wins this round by remembering that geeks cannot live on nostalgia alone and that even the most beloved sci-fi heroes need to keep moving forward. That is a lesson Disney, as custodian of Star Wars, has neglected to its cost.
Star Trek: Picard is available on Amazon Prime from 24 January