Thoughts on Picard

(Editor’s Note: Yeah, I know, the show came out what seems like an eternity ago, and even the most casual of Trek observers has already consumed the show and moved on. So why do this now? There are two reasons. First, I’m loathe to write reviews of things in a timely fashion. No one, neither reputable editor nor whoever the fuck it is that cuts the Spon Con checks, is paying me to write any of this shit. A timely review would therefore constitute a bid to claim a piece of a pie that has already been divvied up in full. But if I wait to write about a show (or album or video game or whatever) until well after the culture at large has moved on, I can delude myself into thinking that this display of patience makes me less of a sucker, somehow, even though I’m still doing work and still not getting paid for it.

Second, I am now and always have been a historian. I firmly believe that in order to truly understand something, and thus mine it for insight, one needs a certain amount of temporal distance. This places me in a sort of fundamental, philosophical opposition to ‘hot takes’, especially in low-stakes situations. This is just some dumbass TV show and none of this matters and everything is terrible and COVID ain’t going away any time soon and the police continue to murder civilians and who even gives a shit, anyway. Point is, it took me a while to form a cogent opinion in this instance because it always does, and I was thinking about it now so here I am.)

In the past decade or so, Star Trek has felt less and less like itself. The first J.J. Abrams movie was pretty good and remains a fun watch, but its big, loud, and, let’s face it, dumb aesthetic has left an indelible mark on the entire franchise. I try as hard as I possibly can to avoid throwing in with the ‘They Changed It, Now It Sucks‘ crowd at all times, but I’m not sure I can abide the idea of ‘dumb Star Trek’.

However, I must acknowledge that, like any viewpoint in ideological alignment with the teachings of TCINIS, I am being solipsistic in my assessment of what Star Trek really is. My view of Star Trek is merely my subjective interpretation of the essence of Star Trek: The Next Generation, projected onto the whole of the series. TNG is frickin’ great, y’all. It’s a cerebral and often deeply chill show about a bunch of flawed but functional characters who confront the challenges they face with selfless, determined professionalism, and often resolve those challenges non-violently. In this sense, it’s more akin to The West Wing than any other sci-fi show.

And that’s the problem here, isn’t it? How is it fair to hold an entire franchise up to the standard of only one of its constituent series? It’s not even historically accurate – the dumb was always there, right from the beginning. Star Trek: The Original Series has a good smattering of standout episodes that remain largely worth watching, but even at its best, it’s swashbuckling and corny to the point of camp. At it’s worst, it’s an insulting and frequently misogynistic waste of time. There’s also the second season episode The Omega Glory, which is uh…something else entirely, but I would never make the mistake of calling it ‘smart’.

There’s also Deep Space Nine, which is damn near every bit as excellent as TNG, even though it goes well out of its way to shred the entire TNG gestalt to smithereens. While DS9 takes a similar approach to characterization, it explicitly rejects the idea that the power of a good speech can solve most any problem. It’s understandable that some would watch it and come away believing that the TNG formula is no longer viable. My point here, is that Star Trek is lots of things, obviously, and that my lizard-brain view of it cannot encompass all of those things, also obviously.

And, of course, part of the TCINIS experience is pining for a ‘better’ time, which is invariably rooted in a less-than-accurate impression of a time when one’s comprehension of the world was, to say the very least, limited. I whine about the dumbing down of Star Trek because it reminds me of what I perceive as the dumbing down of society at large. And that’s simply giving society too much credit. I was born during the presidential tenure of Ronald Reagan, the original dementia-riddled MAGA turd. For the entirety of my lifetime (and quite possibly the entirety of its existence), this has been a nation of idiots.

All of this is to say that Picard is kind of dumb and often doesn’t always feel all that much like a Star Trek show. While it’s not as stridently non-intellectual as the Abrams movies, it’s never really thought-provoking, and often suffers from hackneyed execution. The first episode tries to sneak a blatant exposition dump past the viewer without notice in the form of a TV interview with the great JLP, and while it gives Patrick Stewart a platform to go into full-tilt Shakespearean monologue mode (always a good thing, and if anything, Picard doesn’t have Patrick Stewart deliver monologues nearly enough), it’s also clunky as heck. In trying so hard to disguise the obvious exposition dump, the interview conceit merely calls attention to it.

Picard also doesn’t seem to have much in the way of new ideas. The main plot hinges in no small part on a religious prophecy that the show takes at face value, as if this shit is Star Wars all of a sudden. The central conflict of the series reminds me of nothing so much as the central conflict of a certain video game series of note. The new crew members are the sort of not just deeply flawed, but full-on psychologically tortured hot messes that can barely do their jobs in a way that is fine in a vacuum, but is ubiquitous throughout all of contemporary genre fiction and now feels trite. Sometimes it seems like everyone has completely forgotten how to create compelling characters that are not also alcoholic, homicidal sex addicts with dark pasts. Once upon a time, it felt fresh. Now it’s just exhausting.

There’s even a villainous brother-sister duo whose dynamic is best described as ‘incestuous’ – while the incest not explicit (it’s merely heavily implied), one cannot help but be reminded of another villainous, incestuous brother-sister duo from a certain prominent genre series. Even granting the fact that it’s all been done before, Picard doesn’t put in enough effort to make its stale elements feel fresh. I cannot help but be underwhelmed, especially given that the show had Michael Chabon at the helm (pun intended), who is famous for being extremely, extremely good at the whole writing thing.

All of that said, I do admire the show for not simply running back the TNG formula. The decision to surround Picard with a new supporting crew and place him in a fundamentally different situation from his Starfleet days is a smart one. The episode with Troi and Riker is pretty great, but I’m glad there’s just the one; more than that would have felt cheap. Even for all its flaws, Picard avoids falling into the nostalgia trap. I’m told a second season is coming, and I hope it’s able to improve and become a show that’s not merely forward-thinking, but also a show that feels new.

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