And now for something that seems completely not different at all: a new Star Trek series.
Star Trek: Picard (starting Thursday on CTV Sci-Fi Channel and Crave) is one of the big TV events of 2020. Made for the CBS All Access streaming service, it is, among other things, a countermove against the many delights offered by Netflix, Disney+ and other rival outlets. Kept under wraps, it’s feverishly anticipated by some people.
Thing is, this new series is actually substantially different in tone and pace from what spawned it, the old Star Trek: The Next Generation. For a start, the early episodes – three were made available – are mostly Earth-bound and anchored in the familiar, adult human emotions of introspection and regret, not in the Star Trek mythology or science-fiction jargon.
In many ways, it’s a moody character study punctuated occasionally by outbreaks of flashy violence and eye-popping visuals. In the early going, it would be hard to recognize it as sci-fi action drama at all. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s an improvement. And this critic is someone who has never felt the urge to be immersed in the entire Star Trek lore.
You don’t need to be a Star Trek devotee to see what’s unfolding as a story of melancholic uneasiness about how the world – in this case, the galaxy – has changed, and not always for the better. Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart), the retired Starfleet captain we meet, lives in his vineyard in France, in the company of his dogs and a small group of household staff. He walks the fields, and sleeps and dreams.
It’s the dreams that hold the initial storyline together. In the opening scene, Picard is playing cards on a spaceship with Data (Brent Spiner) and gently bantering with his old sidekick. When he later talks about his dreams, one of his assistants (Orla Brady) says one word: “Melancholy.” And indeed he is. Not just missing Data, but saddled with grief and misgivings. This is one rare, completely relatable character for the sci-fi franchise, and utterly different from anyone encountered in the all-action Star Trek: Discovery series.
The reasons why Picard is troubled are explained in the first 20 minutes, when he gives an interview to a TV reporter (or whatever they call their version of TV in the Star Trek universe). “The galaxy was mourning, burying its dead, and Starfleet slunk from its duties,” he snaps. This is, apparently, about a failed attempt to save the Romulans as a humanitarian act – Picard compares it to Dunkirk – and synthetic life forms, such as Data, were subsequently wiped out.
For all the Star Trek insider dope, the concept is easy to understand. In the Star Trek tradition, it’s all about embracing diversity and seeing the good in others, even if they appear to be enemies. This is not to say that Star Trek: Picard is deep. It’s pretty shallow as a dramatic and thematic construct, but it is recognizably contemporary in its reoccupation with diversity and the mistake of excluding those whose traits and faiths are not fully understood.
Sir Patrick is masterful here. His embodiment of the melancholy old leader is what the series rests upon. And the sturdiness of his performance is increased by being Earth-bound; he’s an old man missing the moral certainties of the past. The character feels he let others down and feels let down by the present.
What happens around him brings him back into action as a moral figure. A young woman – whom the viewer has met earlier in a brief action sequence – turns up at his chateau in France. She’s Dahj (Isa Briones), a figure who says she’s being attacked by mysterious forces and is drawn to Picard by some memory or impulse she doesn’t understand. The series will be her story or that of her replica, as much as that of Picard.
To determine what’s happening, Picard visits scientist Agnes Jurati (Canadian Alison Pill, wonderful in this role), and pieces together the threads of a mystery. There is a good scene in which she shows him her near-empty facility, a clear reflection of the suppression of science in general and climate-change science, by some governments.
What does it all mean? A Star Trek less childishly idealistic about the future, a Star Trek about aging and regret and a Star Trek accessible to those who never cared for its sunny trust in technology.