SURPRISINGLY FEW SPOILERS…
I had almost forgotten the feeling. Maybe that’s because it’s been 15 years since I’ve felt it.
I used to get the feeling often when watching Star Trek episodes. They’d end, and I’d go “WOW” or (as when Riker said “Fire!” followed by the words “To be continued”) I’d just want to see more…NOW!
There were episodes of Next Gen and DS9 that left me feeling proud to be a Star Trek fan, like I was being treated to carefully crafted masterpieces like “The Inner Light” or “Sacrifice of Angels.” Even Voyager and many episodes of Enterprise‘s final season had this effect on me. Star Trek was exciting, fun, thoughtful, brilliant even…and these episodes always left me feeling happy and satisfied with my decision to dedicate so much of my life to this grand sci-fi franchise.
And then the feeling just…stopped.
I really wanted to like the 2009 JJ Abrams Star Trek movie reboot. The ingredients all seemed to be there. But that movie completely missed the mark for me. Star Trek Into Darkness frustrated me even more. And while Star Trek Beyond had a few moments, the feeling of excitement and satisfaction just wasn’t there. I spent more time complaining about unbelievable and illogical plot holes, wondering why Khan was suddenly a white guy, and trying to figure out why a small starship needed to carry a motorcycle and a Beastie Boys soundtrack.
And Discovery only seemed to worsen the situation. I suffered through most of the first season. And while the second season improved noticeably, when each episode ended, I still wasn’t feeling like I wanted more…like I was truly satisfied with what I’d just watched. I wasn’t feeling proud to be a Star Trek fan anymore—at least not with this new series. And most of the Short Treks, while enjoyable, didn’t spark that old feeling either.
Three blockbuster movies.
Ten Short Treks.
Twenty-nine episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.
And all I felt was “meh.” I actually had to frequently remind myself why I was sticking with the new releases from the franchise rather than jumping (star)ship as many other disillusioned fans were claiming to have done.
But with just a single episode of the new STAR TREK: PICARD series, the feeling is back, baby, and as strong as it’s ever been! How the heck did that happen???
Fan response to Picard seems to be overwhelmingly positive. A quick survey in the Fan Film Forum Facebook group showed 93 respondents liking/loving it, only 5 disliking it, and no one hating it (6 had no opinion, and 24 hadn’t see it yet).
And with the exception of Entertainment Weekly, I have yet to see a negative review of this new show—not from the fan blogs, not from the major media sources like The New York Times and Rolling Stone, and even Rotten Tomatoes has a Certified Fresh rating of 94% on the ol’ Tomatometer from critics and a solid 83% from fans! (Star Trek: Discovery has an embarrassing 42% from fans.)
So what did Picard get right that JJ Abrams and Discovery haven’t? In short, everything. But that’s too glib and lazy of an answer. So let’s take this question seriously and really look at the answers.
First off, we can all breathe a sigh of relief: this is NOT a dystopian future! It’s Starfleet having stumbled but not fallen completely off the cliff. Keeping in mind that we might see more over the next few episodes that makes me take back that relief, it appears now that Starfleet and the Federation simply had a major trauma when the synths attacked Mars and reacted much the way the U.S. and the world reacted after 9/11.
And this isn’t unprecedented in Star Trek history, folks!
During the Dominion War, the DS9 two-parter “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost” showed us how quickly and easily Starfleet and the Federation could abandon their lofty ideals and descend into fear and paranoia. So I didn’t find that aspect of this new series difficult to accept.
But what I find most fascinating about this new series (and what the show-runners have been telling us for many months) is that this show is NOT about what happened to Starfleet. It’s about what happened to Jean-Luc Picard and how the events of this series change both him and (we hope) the Federation, as well. But this series is focused primarily on this one man—so much so that nearly every scene (all but three!) in the first episode, “Remembrance,” included Picard…and I’ve got no complaints about that so far!
With Discovery, I think the show-runners ended up never really agreeing on the focus. It started out being about Michael Burnham’s journey from impulsive mutineer back into a thoughtful hero through a journey of self-discovery (hence, the title). Then it shifted to being a series about war and what it makes people do. Then it crossed over into the Mirror Universe and all focus was lost for four episodes. And then when Discovery returned to the proper universe, the show raced to wrap up the war and all plot threads…ultimately showing Burnham emerging as the hero (although, in my opinion, not really earning it).
For season two, I’m not sure if anyone can say what Discovery‘s focus was. There was a storyline about Tilly and Magic Mushroom May, Hugh came back of the dead, Saru loses his ganglia and grows a pair, Pike and the Talosians, Spock, time traveling Klingons, time traveling mothers, Skynet, and how many ships can we fit onto the TV screen at one time. Maybe—in the complete opposite of Seinfeld—Discovery‘s second season was a show about “everything.” And I have no idea what JJ Trek is about other than taking some weird detours to explain how Kirk and Spock became friends.
Picard, on the other hand, is focused…very focused. At least in the first episode, this made it easy to follow and a pleasure to watch as I enjoyed seeing some of the mysteries slowly get solved only to open the door to more mysteries below the surface.
In today’s fast-paced world, many TV shows and movies throw a lot at you all at once, dazzling you with fast cuts and explosions and stunts and high drama. For most of its existence, Star Trek had budgets that couldn’t afford to be like that. But then JJ Abrams turned Star Trek into Star Wars, and Discovery continued the fast pacing by throwing rapid scene shifts and character beats at the audience like baseballs from a pitching machine.
But sometimes you don’t want to take a fast shower. Instead, maybe you’d prefer to enjoy a long, relaxing bath. Guess which one Picard was.
That’s not to say that Picard was like watching a chess tournament. There were ample places in the episode where things got quite fast and dramatic. But between those fastballs were slower pitches and moments where the viewers can rest a little, process what we’ve just seen, and catch our breath before the next major plot development.
As I said, Picard is thoughtful…and it succeeds in being so because it gives us time to think. JJ Trek and Discovery offer viewers that courtesy only very rarely. Usually, those other Treks feel more like being rushed on a tour through a museum trying to make sure the group sees everything without providing time to just look at and appreciate what we’re seeing.
You’ve heard (well, read) me complain often about the writing on Discovery. I don’t care about the characters. The writers on that show write to the beats (the major character-changing moments) and then rush to move the character to the next beat, not giving the characters or the audience much time to process.
The characters themselves are a bit caricaturish, as well. There’s little subtlety to Tilly or Stamets or Tyler or Burnham or (heaven help us!) the Empress. Most of them have the dramatic nuances of an air raid siren. Not that they don’t work as characters when put into the proper storyline, but they’ll usually take over a scene rather than simply allow it to play out more subtly.
SIR PATRICK STEWART can take over and overwhelm a scene quite easily if he wants to, but if this show were simply all Picard, all the time, it would be a very different experience. Instead, the writers let us get to know many, many more characters simply because Picard (thanks to Sir Patrick) can play a part within a scene while gently giving others a chance to have the spotlight. Just try to share the spotlight when Michael Burnham is in a scene with you…just try. The writers won’t let you.
In short, the Discovery writers and JJ Trek writers mostly use sledgehammers. The Picard writers, so far, and painting with delicate brushstrokes.
That brings us, of course, to acting. And as I’ve learned recently, good acting doesn’t just happen. It requires good directing. Sure, Sir Patrick could read the phone book and leave us all mesmerized. But a good director, like director and co-executive producer HANELLE M. CULPEPPER, can utilize Patrick’s talents to tell the story in an even more effective manner. It’s like taking the most amazing meal and pairing it with the perfect wine. (I had to work wine into this blog somewhere!)
The acting in Discovery is fairly decent, all things considered, and Hanelle Culpepper did direct a couple of Discovery episodes, as well. But overall, when I watched Picard and its many actors, especially Sir Patrick, I just felt I was seeing acting at a higher level (except for a couple of characters like the reporter).
Of course, comparing the abilities of a 60-year veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company to a 34-year-old actress whose film career only goes back to 2005 isn’t fair. And SONEQUA MARTIN-GREEN is certainly skilled and has had a lot thrown at her. She’s been tasked with portraying Michael Burnham as confident, angry, insecure, troubled, funny, serious, subordinate, insubordinate, commanding, tough, tender, and just about everything else you can think of. She’s whatever the writers need her to be in the moment…which (unfortunately, I think), has hindered her in finding and clearly defining her character.
Stewart, on the other hand, is playing a character he’s refined and perfected over a decade and a half of TNG episodes and feature films. Slipping into Picard for him is like putting on a old and comfortable pair of sneakers. So now he’s free to explore what new aspects of this character emerge as he enters the final stage of his life. As I said, it’s not fair to compare the leads on these two shows.
What is fair, I believe, is to compare the rest of the cast. Now, I have to say up front that when it comes to acting, I’m a watcher, not a performer. But as a watcher, when I see episodes of Discovery and the JJ movies, I see actors delivering their lines “in a box.” There’s no question that DOUG JONES is an amazing actor or that CHRIS PINE is incredibly talented. But when I see them doing scenes, their performances feel, well, I guess the best word I can think of is “isolated.” Mary Wiseman does a good job playing Tilly, but it almost feels like, when it’s her turn to speak in a scene, she’s handed the microphone, the spotlight is pointed at her, she delivers her line(s), and then the mic is handed off to the next actor to do the same. Maybe that’s the actors; maybe it’s the way they’re being directed. And maybe I’m just imagining things.
Now in Picard, admittedly, most of the scenes do involve Sir Patrick himself, and as WIL WHEATON commented in the first episode of THE READY ROOM (essentially the “AfterTrek” of Picard), Sir Patrick helps the actors he works with be better actors. So simply appearing in a scene with Jean-Luc Picard likely results in a better performance. But whether it was that or quality directing or some combination, the scenes in Picard just felt so much more impactful than anything I’ve seen in JJ Trek or Discovery (excepting most scenes of ANSON MOUNT as Pike because, well, it’s Anson Mount!). The dialog just seemed to flow better in Picard. I really felt, as I watched and listened, that I was there in the scene with the characters rather than just sitting back and viewing things passively on a TV screen.
If there are any experienced actors reading this who would like to comment about whether I’m on the mark here or just full of crap, I welcome your insights.
PRODUCTION DESIGN AND CONTINUITY
I almost titled this blog, “Now THAT’S a STAR TREK!” And the fact is that Picard did something from the very first moment that Discovery and JJ Trek have struggled to do…and all-too-often failed miserably at: honoring canon.
It’s not that hard, people!
[WARNING! Spoilers in the next five paragraphs.]
The Enterprise-D shows up in the first minute and looks like the Enterprise-D. And while Data wears a style of uniform that he never wore on the “D” (the gray shouldered jacket was introduced in First Contact along with the Enterprise-E), that was okay because it was a dream sequence. Later, we see Picard and Data in their television TNG uniforms, and the comm badges are the oval-background ones, as opposed to the later style, which Data is wearing in the first dream. Neither was redesigned or rebooted or retconned.
In Boston, we see the Ferengi logo on one building and the London Kings logo on another (they were Buck Bokai’s baseball team…perhaps resurrected and relocated to Boston where they’re still stealing signals). So there’s a nod to Deep Space Nine…and of course, we get Voyager‘s Seven-of-Nine in at least two of the upcoming episodes. We see a replicator that looks like a replicator. We see Romulans that look like Romulans (why couldn’t Discovery have left the Klingons alone????) All of the remembrances in Picard’s “quantum archive” were perfect replicas of what we’ve seen before: the USS Stargazer, the Enterprise-E, the bat’leth and d’k tahg, the Captain’s yacht, the “Picard Day” banner. The episode showed the Daystrom institute and mentioned Bruce Maddox from TNG‘s “The Measure of a Man.” And of course, we see the Château Picard Vineyard (which I will be visiting soon…it’s out near Solvang, CA).
See? There’s nothing wrong with keeping what went before. I just wish JJ and the Discovery folks had gotten the mind-meld…er, memo. Instead, Discovery‘s production designer did all sorts of crazy stuff from the shiny metallic Starfleet uniforms to the Klingon D7s that looked nothing like D7s to the consoles to color-shifting to a blue sheen over nearly every shot. Discovery looks so monochromatic and cold to me. And don’t get me started on JJ Abrams and the Budweiser brewery engine room!
Of course, Picard doesn’t carry a one-to-one consistency over everything. A perfect example is the almost instantaneous transporters that no longer take 5-10 seconds to disassemble and reassemble you. But just as 4G and 5G WIFI networks are ridiculously faster than what existed 20 years ago, so too has the Federation advanced 20 years since we last saw Jean-Luc Picard. So instantaneous transporters aren’t hard to accept…unlike transwarp beaming and spore drives! We also have new Starfleet uniforms, but they look much closer to a natural evolution from what came before than the Discovery blue ‘n’ shiny disco suits.
Another example is the “no synth” policy, which means no androids and no B4 replacing Data. But that’s a feature, not a bug. The whole show is looking at the aftermath of the synth attack, and we’d all like to know what the heck happened. We had a little taste of the story at the Daystrom Institute…just enough to wet our appetites for more! Oh, and lest I forget, they deal with the Data/B4 issue, too. Yay for keeping continuity intact!
And let’s also hear it for the production designer on Picard who, instead of going for the white AppleStore look and endless lens flares (yeah, I know that was JJ) or the cold blues and grays, Picard is filled with warm earth tones with colorful accents. Granted, these are scenes primarily on Earth itself, so earth tones make sense. Once Picard goes to space, that could (and probably should) change, as it did when the episode shifted to the cold grays and eerie greens of the Romulans’ home-sweet-cube base. But Star Trek has always been colorful—even in the more subdued hues of DS9 and Enterprise. And while JJ Trek was colorful, as well, the whites of the corridors and bridge never felt right. And Discovery just looks and feels imposing and depressing to me.