OF COURSE THERE ARE SPOILERS! ARE YOU NUTS???
Let’s not kid ourselves, the reviews from fans for the premiere of Season 3 of STAR TREK: PICARD have been stratospherically euphoric with a teensy-tiny percentage trying to find something to complain about. In fact, one of the complaints I saw was that yet another Picard season storyline starts with “Help me, Jean-Luc, you’re my/our only hope!” Of course, Star Trek II starts that same way with a message from Carol Marcus; Trek III has McCoy/Spock saying, “Help me, Jim;” Trek V begins with “I need Jim Kirk;” Trek VI has “Only Nixon could go to China” (Kirk is Nxon); and so on. In other words, the criticisms I’ve seen so far are reaching deep, folks, and nearly all of them include, “I liked it, but…”
Yeah, you loved it. You know you did.
But WHY did we love it so much (or at least “like it, but…”)? With so many reviews already out there, I’ve decided that, rather than going through everything or most things that were great about this season premiere, I am going to look at just ONE THING, and it is a very important thing! Do you remember the movie City Slickers with Billy Crystal and Jack Palance? In it, the latter’s character of Curly holds up his index finger and says, “One thing.” Imagine me doing that right now…
Oh, there’s way more than one thing to love in this first episode. But for me, there was one 3.5-minute sequence that encapsulated everything that was oh-so-right about this new season, and what’s been missing from ALL of the other CBS-produced Trek series so far. Literally. It’s one scene that made me confident that writer and showrunner TERRY MATALAS is a fan who gets what Star Trek is and wants to give us other fans what we’ve been clamoring for these past six years.
Ladies and gentlemen, my “one thing”…
Actually, I can already hear the (very few) complainers out there saying, “Yeah, but we’ve seen a ship leave spacedock SOOOOOOO many times before!” And it’s true. Variations of that same launching sequence appeared in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II, Star Trek III, Star Trek VI, and even Star Trek Generations (plus twice in Star Trek: Enterprise). But that’s the point of this sequence. It is, in many ways, the quintessential Star Trek scene. And y’know what?
CBS STUDIOS HAS NEVER GIVEN US A PROPER LAUNCH SCENE!!!
Oh, they’ve included a few launch scenes across their various series, but those sequences—for various reasons that I’ll get to in a bit—didn’t feel quite right. But this one did.
Why? Well, let’s take a look at what characteristics mark a “proper” Star Trek starship launch scene like the ones we saw in those Trek movies I just listed and in the pilot episode and fourth season of Enterprise.
Oh, that music! Ever since the 1979 launch of the refit USS Enterprise, fans have been treated to the melody of “the launch.” It starts off low and respectful. These are professionals preparing to do their very important jobs. The music builds slightly as the crew prepares for the order to leave drydock/spacedock. The tone becomes temporarily very serious. If something is going to go wrong (of course, it isn’t…unless Scotty stopped up your drain!), this is the moment. It’s a fun little edge-of-your-seat feeling, even though you know it’ll all be okay. But the music plays with us for just that short moment of uncertainty.
Then the word is given, the helm officer activates the thrusters and/or impulse engines, and the ship begins to move forward. The music changes to something a little louder, anticipatory, and hopeful. This is what Star Trek is all about: boldly going into space…and that is exactly what is about to happen. There’s no going back now (and why would anyone want to???).
As the ship clears spacedock/drydock, the melody is almost a love song. We feel affection for this ship that serves and protects our heroes. I daresay, we love her…even this new USS Titan-A that we’ve never loved or even known before. We love her because they (the crew) love her.
And finally, just before the order is given to go the warp, the music lowers again slightly. And just as the words are spoken by whoever is in the center seat, the music builds to a grand and majestic finale as we see the starship burst into life—a noble stallion going from a slow trot into a full gallop, a great bird taking wing. The music reaches its triumphant crescendo just as the beloved starship speeds into the distance.
Welcome to Star Trek!
CHARACTERS BOTH OLD AND NEW
Star Trek isn’t just about boldly going, it’s about WHO is boldly going. Who is the captain? Who is/are his or her trusted crew? What kinds of people are they? The best launch sequences distill all of these answers down to a few key lines and scenes to introduce the audience—or reintroduce the audience—to the characters who will guide us all on our journey.
Think about what’s come before. Kirk in ST:TMP wasn’t quite the same Kirk from TOS. He was pushing his crew—and himself!—hard in order to prove something. But in Star Trek II, Kirk wasn’t even in command, and Spock playfully teased his old friend by letting a cadet pilot Kirk’s beloved Enterprise out of drydock. This scene defined both Kirk and Spock and their characters’ “starting positions” for the rest of the movie. In Star Trek III, Kirk and the command crew are doing the unthinkable—stealing the Enterprise—and the scene shows the dramatic tension of the moment. In Star Trek VI, Kirk is now almost carefree as he orders one-quarter impulse power instead of thrusters out of spacedock. Compare that Kirk to the intense and determined one of ST:TMP or the “nervous nellie” of Trek II! And of course, in Generations, Kirk’s order to “take us out” is little more than a gratuitous photo op designed to show the movie audience how “unnecessary” the elder Kirk himself has become. He is not really in command anymore and is present only as window-dressing. Of course, that all changes quickly!
And what about the new cast members? There is almost always at least one that needs to be introduced. In ST:TMP, there were two, Decker and Ilia, but neither was introduced during the launch sequence. However, in Trek II, Saavik (who “captained” the Enterprise during her Kobayashi Maru test) is now given a new moment in the spotlight. No new characters to introduce in Trek III, but in Trek VI, we get our first glimpse of Valeris in action—quoting regulations (like Saavik) but later admitting that she always wanted to try an impulse boost out of spacedock. And finally, in Generations, we meet Demora Sulu, the helm officer of the new Enterprise-B.
And so it happens in Picard’s season 3 premiere that we get our reintroductions to our favorite old characters—Picard, Riker, and Seven—along with a new “favorite”(?) character, Sydney LaForge (daughter of Geordi). Her “one thing” is that she’s a fast flyer who takes risks that don’t always pay off. We don’t know much else about her yet, but her obvious embarrassment at the indulgences/transgressions of her youth is evident…not unlike many of us, including Picard himself, if I recall correctly!
As for Picard, Riker, and Seven, even though we’ve already seen the former two together in the bar and the shuttle, this is a defining moment on the bridge for them. Neither is in command, and Picard is obviously a relic with outdated information. Riker is just enjoying being back on his old ship, like returning to your old high school where everything is different but you still feel like the ol’ big man on campus (even though you’re not).
As for Seven, she is now Commander Annika Hansen because her stuck-up captain doesn’t want her using her Borg name/designation (even though she had it for MANY more years than her given birth name). I’m looking forward to delving more into this aspect of the character, as it feels almost like the American settlers of the old west forcing Native Americans to change their names from things like Hinmuuttu-yalatlat (Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain) to “Chief Joseph.” Seeing Seven’s, er, Annika’s interactions with Picard were so subtly compelling, a masterpiece of understated direction leaving the audience primed and eager for more.
All of this in just a few minutes of launch sequence!
Almost as important as introducing the characters is making sure to include some comedy relief. It doesn’t have to be much. Remember that the launch scene is, in many ways, a “sacred” aspect of Star Trek. Unless you’re a show like LOWER DECKS, played primarily for laughs, or PRODIGY, intended mostly for kids (yeah, right!), the launch scene must be taken seriously or risk compromising the audience’s opinion of the rest of the movie or series.
But you’ve got to include at least a little chuckle, right?
There wasn’t really one in ST:TMP—part of the overall “stilted” feel of that film—although it did have its moments. But in Trek II, there’s McCoy’s “Would you like a tranquilizer?” jab at Kirk, and his nervous head shake response. In Trek III, there was Kirk’s urgent order, “The doors, Mr. Scott!” and Scotty’s response, “Aye, sir, I’m workin’ on it!” In Trek VI, when Valeris starts quoting regulations to Kirk, Uhura comically clicks her tongue in disapproval. And finally, in Generations, the ridiculousness of the eager press crew was the whole point of the scene, brought home by Chekov and Scotty’s reactions to Kirk giving the order to leave drydock: “Very good, sir…” “Brought a tear to me eye.”
Very appropriately for Picard, the humor was subtle but nevertheless included in two spots. The first was in the aforementioned introduction of Sydney LaForge, Riker’s bombastic ribbing of her record (although obviously impressed), and Sydney’s brilliantly embarrassed and understated reaction to it. The second, however, was arguably the funniest moment of the entire episode (along with “No one wants the fat ones…”), and that was the interplay between Riker and Picard after Seven—crap, Annika!—gently corrects his outdated advice to her. Picard says, “You’ll be a captain before you know it, Commander Hansen.” Then Riker quips nonchalantly, “Excellent recovery, Admiral.” And Picard grumbles, “Shut it, Will.”
Throughout the long history of Star Trek beginning in the 1960s, production departments have built countless beautiful set interiors for starships. But none ever get quite as much attention to detail and screen time as the bridges of those vessels. It’s where orders are given and so much drama and action happens. Bridges are vitally important parts of each Star Trek series, and we love to see them.
So show them!
In order for a launch sequence to be “proper” Star Trek, it should provide ample establishing visual coverage of the bridge from different camera angles. Let’s get to know this place and show how awesome it is. And remember, also, to show the CREW! A bridge needs people to push all those buttons, and if a few of them are aliens (Vulcans count), so much the better! After all, Star Trek has always embraced diversity of race, ethnicity, and planetary origin.
Generally speaking, space is DARK. Unless your vessel happens to be in close proximity to a solar system with a decently bright star or stars, there probably won’t be much to light up your starship.
Star Trek doesn’t care!
Ever since the 1960s, our favorite franchise has over-lit their various ships to allow them to glow with a cosmic luminance that allows viewers to gaze at and admire their artistic elegance. In other words, light the damn starships; people need to be able to see them!!! The folks making STAR TREK: DISCOVERY pretty much ignored this lesson for the first two seasons, opting instead for dark and ominous-looking space vessels that were barely discernible to the casual viewer. Even Picard‘s first season wasn’t exactly bursting with properly lit spacecraft.
But this one launch scene in the season three premiere fixed all of that with a brilliantly over-lit spacedock filled with bright vessels and support craft. And of course, like so many launch scenes before, ample hero views of the main starship gracefully leaving the nest, spreading her wings, and taking flight (and suddenly Jonathan is a poet!).
Watch the launch sequence again. There’s only two expressions you will see on all of the crew members’ faces: deep concentration and smiles. And this makes perfect sense. As I said above, these are professionals doing their jobs, and those jobs are hard and require lots of focus and attention. But they have also joined Starfleet to explore the final frontier, and that is exactly what is about to happen. They can’t help but smile, right?
CBS OWED US THIS!!!
Now let’s compare this new launch sequence to what CBS Studios had produced up until now, and you’ll understand the true importance of this “one thing” I’ve been harping on so eloquently. As I already said, Lower Decks and Prodigy weren’t really expected to have launch sequences, and so they’re mostly excused from the prerequisite. But what about the other three streaming series?
Discovery didn’t show us a launch sequence until the end of its THIRD season, which is kinda ridiculous when you think about it. And when they finally did, this is what we got…
As you can see, it lacks many of the elements I listed above. Granted, it doesn’t need to really show us the bridge (we’ve already seen it) nor introduce/reintroduce characters. There is a sprinkle of almost-humor when Tilly mentions the gelato, but it’s mostly everyone looking admiringly at Michael Burnham and waiting to find out what her new catchphrase will be. The music is decent at the end but starts off with violins and a cello that struggle to sound anything other than sorrowful because, y’know, cello. And when Discovery finally launches, yes we can see the ship, but oy, with the lens flares already! (Extra points for anyone who knows where that last line’s from.)
Moving onto Picard, there wasn’t really a proper launch scene in season one. By the time they got to space on the La Sirena in that initial season, the situation was dire. In the second season, there was a launch scene of sorts where Captain Rios takes the USS Stargazer to investigate the anomaly, but that scene was mired in witty banter and sardonic flirtation between him and Agnes Jurati. Take a look…
The smiles we see aren’t the hopeful “Let’s see what’s out there…” kind. If anything, they’re a bit sarcastic and snarky. And while we certainly see the bridge, we don’t really see anyone who is on it or get introduced to anyone other than Rios and Jurati. Of course, no one else is really going to be a part of the story, so no reason to waste screen time. There’s pretty much no music until the very end as we shift to the exterior view of the Stargazer. The ship is kinda halfway between over-lit and too dark, and there are mercifully minimal lens flares. But we really don’t get many angles on the vessel. We certainly aren’t meant to “fall in love” with this ship. Instead, it’s more of an “Okay, here we go…” moment.
And finally, STRANGE NEW WORLDS had a launch sequence in the first episode, but it felt somewhat off and awkward. To be fair, however, this was actually on purpose. The creators wanted to show a “typical” launch scene and then screw with it by having Pike appear uninterested and ultimately distracted…
The scene starts off as we’d expect. The music is decent. There’s multiple angles of the bridge, and the obligatory introductions of characters, especially Uhura. The humor is minimal, but the situation is serious, so that’s understandable. The facial expressions are focused, but smiles sneak through. It’s everything a proper launch sequence should be. Pike gives the order to take her out, the music builds, and we cut to the hero shots of the decently-lit ship and “falling in love” music. All is as expected.
But then Pike glances at his reflection, and he instead sees the disfigured visage from his future. Pike has lost his mojo, and everything shifts into an ominous moment, with the music cluing us in that something is wrong. Pike recovers, gives his catchphrase order “Hit it,” and after this unexpected launchus interruptus moment, the starship warps away. But we viewers know that all is not well with our captain (whose character arc is how he gets his mojo back).
You might also notice that the above three launch sequences all time out to about a minute and thirty seconds. That’s pretty standard for a scene on television these days (90-120 seconds before switching to a new scene—seriously, watch for it because it’s all over the place).
On the other hand, Terry Matalas indulges himself and treats us fans to a delightful and luxurious three and a half minute sequence…bless him! There’s no need to rush through this. And indeed, despite the length of the sequence, it doesn’t feel boring or too extended. It feels just right. And that’s because, as a fan himself, Terry knows that such scenes become treasured memories and are held sacred.
For the past six years, CBS Studios has been trapped in a bipolar battle between making Star Trek “new and different” while simultaneously “old and familiar.” And they’ve certainly struggled to find their balance…if such a thing even exists. But after nearly a dozen seasons of five different Star Trek streaming series, it’s somewhat surprising and a bit disappointing that CBS Studios had never given fans a proper Star Trek launching sequence…until now.
But that “one thing” has me on the edge of my seat, eager to experience the rest of the final season of Star Trek: Picard!