Star Trek unites us. It binds us. It holds our universe together. No wait…that’s the Force. But like the Force, Star Trek fandom is fractured into a light side filled with positivity, patience, and tolerance…and a dark side of anger, resentment, and even hatred—at least when it comes to the newest Star Trek TV series.
I remember when The Next Generation premiered in 1987. While I wasn’t one of those who boycotted the show because it dared NOT feature Kirk, Spock, and the rest, I still wasn’t all that thrilled about what I saw at first. Here’s a few actual snippets of an early review I wrote partway through the first season for my fan club’s newsletter (yeah, I was even reviewing Trek 33 years ago!)…
- So there’s this unknown British actor playing a French captain with a British accent? But even harder to accept: he’s bald! Starship captains need to have toupees!
- Wait, the blind guy is steering the ship?
- They’re all wearing pajamas. I mean, the uniforms look all science-fictiony, but going to the bathroom must be a ridiculous experience! Hey, where is the bathroom?
- Why is the ship’s counselor on the bridge all the time instead of seeing patients?
- If that kid Wesley saves the ship one more time, I amm going to throw something at the TV!
- I do NOT like that starship design at all. The top is a clam, the bottom is a duck, and when they separate, it sticks its tongue out at you.
- Pick a chief engineer already!
- “Captain, the ship is going to blow up in ten seconds, what do we do?” “Conference!”
- If I never see Lwaxana Troi again, it’ll be too soon…same with Q!
- Stop surrendering, dammit!
I still watched the show every week. I even recorded them all on the highest quality SP speed on my VCR (two episodes per VHS tape, with commercials paused out!). I didn’t love the show, but I didn’t hate it either. It wasn’t “my” original Star Trek, but I was willing to give it a chance—even if it was oh-so-easy to make fun of. Part of me hoped I’d get used to it, or it would get better…and eventually, that’s exactly what happened.
Similar things happened with the launch of Deep Space Nine (“how can you “boldly go” anywhere if you’re stuck on a space station?”), Voyager (“shouldn’t the ship be trying to get home rather that stopping every episode to be attacked by the Kazon?”), and don’t even get me started on Enterprise and Discovery!
Each time, however, I made certain to give the shows a chance to grow on me—even Discovery—and find their way. It’s not easy to create and produce any regular TV show, and even more so if that show is the latest iteration of a multi-decade billion dollar franchise!
So with that preamble-ramble out of that way, let’s take a look at the first season of STAR TREK: PICARD…
In the song Star Trekkin‘, Mr. Spock says, “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as we know it.” Well, here’s the first hard truth about Picard that many fans didn’t get the memo explaining before boarding the La Sirena:
“It’s Star Trek, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as we know it.”
And that is NOT an inherently a bad thing, folks!
I know that some fans out there wanted the TNG they grew up with and/or remembered from 30 years ago. Basically, they wanted The Orville. Well, I’m sorry, but that was never going to happen. It’s just not practical. The average age of the cast of The Orville is 43. The average age of the TNG cast is now 67…not counting SIR PATRICK STEWART (who turns 80 in July!).
Even if the entire TNG cast did want to come back to reprise their roles on a weekly TV series, most of them are retirement age or beyond and don’t have the stamina they used to. They’re hardly invalids, but like Picard himself, their characters wouldn’t be able to do as much at they did on the Enterprise-D. And trust me: Star Trek: The Geriatric Generation is NOT something you’d want to watch as much as you think you would! Also, it doesn’t make sense that all of those officers would still be serving together 25 years later (Riker and Troi had ALREADY left the Enterprise for the USS Titan).
Also, why just reinvent the wheel? Why NOT try something completely new? What’s the worst that could happen? So the show sucks (which I don’t think it does). Did the world just end? No, we’re just stuck at home! Did the mere existence of Picard suddenly erase 50 years of Star Trek episodes that you still binge-watch over and over and over? Of course not. If you like Picard, great. If you hate Picard, don’t watch it. No need to sit there at your computer trying repeatedly to convince people who like the show that it’s somehow a pice of trash. The rest of us enjoyed it—no need to kill our buzz, bruh.
Okay, so I’d like to share my own final reflections on this first season of Picard…
TEN IS NOW THE MAGIC NUMBER
Back in the days when TOS, TNG, DS9, VOY, and ENT were being produced, television seasons were usually 26 episodes. That is a LOT of work…and a lot of content!
These days, the “new normal” (unless you’re a broadcast network show…and sometimes even then) is shorter seasons of only 10 episodes, maybe even 8 episodes, or occasionally 13 episodes. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. You’re not being “cheated” out of episodes. The folks creating these episodes are still putting in the same amount of work and usually similar, if not higher, budgets. Discovery and Picard cost between $8 million and $9 million per episode. Back in the 1980s/90s, TNG (one of the most expensive shows on television at the time) had a budget of $1.3 million per episode, which is about $3 million today adjusted for inflation.
Let’s do some quick math. If made today, 26 episodes of TNG would cost $78 million. 10 episodes of Picard would be about $85 million. (And if you’re curious, 13 episodes of The Orville are $91 million.) So everyone is at about the same level. But creating 26 episodes like TNG used to means a LOT less is spent per episode. This means that shows like Picard (and Discovery and Orville) can be made at a less manic pace and more carefully crafted with more intricacy and complexity.
And you can see it in the production quality of Picard. The series is beautiful to watch—whatever else you might think of it. Nothing feels rushed (other than the scripts for the last two episodes), and the series had a cinematic level of excellence that even some feature films would be hard-pressed to match.
So 10 episodes per season is not an inherently bad thing, folks. It allows for a different kind of viewing experience where fewer episodes are delivered, but each can be of much higher, less rushed quality without having to constantly try to do “more with less.”
SO NOW THAT WE HAVE ONLY TEN EPISODES, WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN?
We viewers need to understand what 10 episodes means not just budget-wise but also story-wise. The previous series (except Discovery) were all mostly episodic with two exceptions. The first was the last ten episodes of DS9, which were essentially a 10-part story. The other was the third season Xindi arc of Enterprise. But even those were somewhat episodic in that each episode was still mostly a self-contained story with certain subplots continuing.
As I’ve said previously, Picard was a 9-hour feature film cut into 10 pieces. And really, that’s what on-demand television has become these days. One story or saga divided into 8 or 10 or 13 pieces…and each new season is then another long story cut into 8 or 10 or 13 episodes. So what needed to happen was for the writers to create their season long arc and then figure out how to divide it up into episodes. This is NOT an easy task, folks!
YOU CAN’T PLEASE ALL THE TREKKIES ALL THE TIME
No one ever sets out to make a bad TV series. It doesn’t look good on the resume, for one, but it’s also better to have job security—and getting canceled is the surest way to ruin that plan!
So most production teams, starting in the writers’ room, will try to make their series the best it can be right out of the starting gate…and most will fail. Think about TNG. The first ten episodes of that series were underwhelming and included such winners as “Code of Honor” (“Then you shall have no treaty, no vaccine and no Lieutenant Yar!”) and “Justice” (planet of the joggers)…and episode 11 was “Haven” which introduced Lwaxana Troi and almost had Deanna married off.
In other words, not exactly the pick of the litter.
It took TNG at least a full season for the actors to really find their characters and for the writers to start getting a true feel for the show and its dynamics. Season two was a bit better, but we all know that it wasn’t until MICHAEL PILLER came on board in season three and made the show more about the characters that TNG began to truly hit its stride. In other words, it took 25 to 50 episodes for TNG to get its footing and become consistently good. So far, Picard has had just 10 episodes.
What I’m trying to say is, even if you don’t like the show, give the Picard creative team a chance just like you gave the TNG, DS9, VOY, and ENT teams a chance. Don’t condemn after just 1o episodes.
WHAT DID THEY GET RIGHT…AND WRONG?
I don’t need to go point-by-point through all the minutiae. I’ve done that for ten weeks. You know I don’t like the swearing and that I love the acting. And there’s no need to debate Picard’s awful French accent or whether there were too many Trekkie easter eggs, too few, or just enough.
No, instead I want to look at this question from a much higher level. Here’s what I think they got right (and I know many of you will NOT agree with me, so let me know why in the comments)…
They took a chance
“Risk! Risk is our business!” One of Kirk’s best lines is just as true for the writers and producers of Picard as it was for the original Enterprise crew. As I said above, this was never going to be Next Gen: Phase II. So just accept that and figure out something fresh and new. And that’s what they did.
Whether or not they succeeded is obviously something countless fans will debate until our fingers are numb. But I give the creators credit not only for trying but trying REALLY hard. The writers significantly fleshed out this galaxy of 2399…from the Federation’s and Starfleet’s post-traumatic stress and isolationism to the post-supernova Romulan Empire…from Picard’s personal history to the histories of the other main characters, both established (Seven, Hugh, Riker, Troi, Data) and new (Raffi, Rios, Jurati, Elnor, Soji). Of course, not every character got as much time for their backstories to unfold (I really want to know more about those Tal Shiar housekeepers at Picard’s villa!), and most of the villains weren’t developed much at all (Oh, no they were not!). But overall, the writers really committed to the universe they were creating for us.
It was really only about Picard…and also about everybody else
Star Trek has always been an ensemble cast, led by a leading man (or woman) with some characters more prominent than others. But throughout the various series, each character would get “his”or “her” A-stories or B-stories or C-stories in individual episodes.
When one thinks about the entire story arc of Star Trek: Picard, it’s overall a “Picard episode.” He gets the A-story of his journey from retired, disillusioned recluse living with anger and regret and sadness at a life (and its meaning) fading slowly into nothing…to a newly empowered, self-confident veteran commander who still has a LOT to offer the galaxy. This first season was not only Picard’s quest to help Soji and the synths but also Picard’s journey to rediscover his true self.
But at the same time, most of the other characters got “their” episodes. Not as much screen time, of course, but enough for us viewers to begin to know—and love?—them and want to see more in season two. (And if you don’t want to see more in season two, why are you even bothering to read this blog?) No one of the main cast—except maybe poor Elnor—was cheated of their chance to shine in the spotlight at least a little bit. And thanks to those B-stories and the magnificent performances put in by the actors, this series was, for me at least, rich and satisfying. And yes, I do want more!
So what did they get wrong?
Too much was going on
I like a complex plot line as much as the next guy, but I think the writers miscalculated and threw too many ingredients into the soup. We were juggling three villains, a Borg Cube Artifact, Romulan secret police, Romulan even-more-secret-cult police, Romulan warrior nuns and their boy Elnor, ex-Borg, an XB Fennir Ranger (Seven), Bruce Maddox on the run, the search for Maddox, the murder of Maddox, Dajh is Data’s daughter, Soji is Dajh’s twin sister, they’re both androids, Soji’s romance with Narek, Narek’s betrayal of Soji, Starfleet losing its way, Picard’s growing dementia (which didn’t really become much of a “thing”), Raffi’s addictions and estrangement from her son, Rios’ relationship with Agnes, Rios’ relationship with his dead mentor and growing attachment to Picard, Elnor’s hugs, Hugh, the death of Hugh, Romulan infiltration of Starfleet, Agnes’ deadly sin (and the non-resolution of it), Seven almost becoming a Borg Queen, Picard’s Tal Shiar housekeepers, the Admonition (let’s begin), the Admonition (look out synths), we know you’re wishin’ that we’d go away, but the Admonition’s here and it’s here to stay (sorry, channeling Mel Brooks), the synth attack on Mars, the synth planet, the killing of Flower and Jana, Sutra’s reaction to losing her synth-sister, Dr. A.I. Soong and his magic golem, the second death of Data, and of course, the synthetic Kraken from beyond time and space hell-bend on destroying all organic life. Oh, and Kestra and Riker and Troi, oh my!
That’s a LOT to squeeze into 10 less-than-an hour each episodes!
I can’t fault them for making the attempt to juggle so many ongoing storylines and single events, but I just feel that, in trying to deal with everything, several important plot points suffered from lack of development. The most obvious example is how Starfleet suddenly came to its senses and tried to help the synths rather than destroy them or at least keep them out of the Federation (banned, remember?). Starfleet’s and the Federation’s loss of compassion and newfound isolationism was such a large part of the set-up in the first few episodes, and then it was suddenly “all better” in the last 20 minutes. But we never got to see how it happened.
Stop trying to destroy the frickin’ universe!
Go big or go home! After 79 episodes of TOS wherein the universe was only threatened with annihilation a small handful of times, the first Star Trek motion picture brought forth a threat to the entire Earth. The second and third introduced Genesis, which could destroy any planet in seconds. Trek IV had a mysterious probe vaporizing Earth’s oceans. Trek VI almost brought war to the Alpha Quadrant. Generations almost destroyed a solar system. First Contact threatened to assimilate Earth in the past and erase the Federation. And don’t get me started on JJ Trek!
Discovery ended its first season by stopping a war that had threatened to end the Federation. And their second season finale saw a race to stop Skynet, er, Control from taking over the Federation. The stakes are getting higher and higher and higher!
This new series didn’t really need to raise the stakes so far as to threaten all organic life in the universe. There was so much more to Picaard already. But maybe the writers just weren’t confident enough in themselves and their other 47 story points and felt they needed to included a big VFX-heavy finish with hundreds of starships on the screen at once, a mecha-techa space Kraken coming through a breach in the fabric of reality, and giant space orchids getting blasted to pieces by 218 warbirds.
With luck, the writers have gotten it all out of their system now, and season two won’t be building up to an even BIGGER galactic menace that threatens to destroy the very atoms of the universe. A little less “bigger and better” might actually make the series bigger and better. We shall see…
My best friend really, really didn’t like the last two episodes. He’d loved the first eight, but the final two left such a bad taste in his mouth that, by the end, he was trouncing the entire series. To me, the last two episodes were just misfires—the “Justice” and “Code of Honor” (first season TNG episodes)—of Picard‘s first season…and still not all bad.
I found myself wondering, as I prepared this blog, what would have happened had CBS All Access decided to release the full 10 episodes of Picard all at once and allowed fans to binge-watch over a single weekend. Many fans did, in fact, do exactly this when CBS made All Access free for a month to anyone who wanted to see the full Picard season…and many fans who binged-watched loved it. Would more fans have felt this way if we didn’t have seven days to pick each episode apart week after week?
Of course, full-season releases on the same day are a Netflix and Prime thing. All Access and Disney+ are trying to make more money from longer subscription periods by releasing new episodes weekly for a few months. It’s partly greed and partly practical business sense. The latter two streaming services have very limited original content, so they need to parse it out to keep subscribers longer (or at least CBS does). When you’re constantly producing new content (like Netflix and Prime), you can afford to release whole seasons at once.
Anyway, despite some missteps along the way, I think CBS overall succeeded in their first season of Star Trek: Picard. It’s a quality, entertaining show, mostly well-written, very well acted and directed, with great music, costumes, makeup, lighting, and visual FX (and mercifully few lens flares!). Could things have been better? Sure. And things could also have been a lot worse…
In the end, I’m not only willing to stick with the series, but I’m actively looking forward to season two. Perhaps the writers will feel less pressure to be so story-driven and instead give the characters more of a chance to breathe and develop. Maybe they’ll supply a little more detail about how Starfleet and the Federation got over their PTSD, or maybe actually deal with Agnes Jurati’s unpunished, cold-blooded murder of Bruce Maddox. Maybe we’ll get to see some more guest stars like Whoopi Goldberg (who doesn’t want to see Guinan?) or Levar Burton or Michael Dorn?
TNG might be over, but Star Trek lives on…and so do these amazing characters and the actors who portray them. Perhaps they’ve aged a little, but like a fine vintage wine, aging just enhances the flavor and enjoyment.
Here’s to season two of Star Trek: Picard…
P.S. – I know I promised last week that this week’s look back at the entire season would be “MUCH shorter.” Looks like I was wrong. Thanks for reading.