ONE LAST TIME…INTO THE SPOILER ZONE!
It leaves me scratching my head that people are still complaining about STAR TREK:PICARD…even after an extremely satisfying conclusion. Did the season have some shortcomings? A few here and there. But on the whole, this was a solid piece of television entertainment aimed squarely at longtime fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
My friend ADAM “MOJO” LEBOWITZ (who worked on DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise…along with Babylon 5 and the Battlestar Galactica reboot)), summed up his feelings about Picard’s final season in this way…
My point is the overall story and plot were just not that great. After ep 9, pretty much everything that happened prior was meaningless. If the show didn’t feature the TNG cast and had every easter egg you can think of, no one would be raving about the show. In fact, the ONLY thing anyone talks about is seeing the old cast, the old ship, and all the easter eggs.
That doesn’t make a it a good show.
I told Mojo that I thought he was totally missing the point. The whole reason for doing this final season was to celebrate the seven seasons and four feature films of Star Trek‘s longest-running television series (in terms of number of episodes produced)…and to honor the actors and actresses who portrayed the seven main characters (as well as a few unexpected guest appearances) with one final, heroic adventure together.
Mojo and I went back-and-forth, as people on Facebook do (I wish I could provide a link to the discussion, but it’s not accessible publicly), but it got me thinking enough that I decided to dedicate my final review to this question:
ARE SOME FANS SETTING THE BAR TOO HIGH FOR STAR TREK: PICARD ?
I mean, what were people’s expectations for this final season? I think those who found things to complain about were coming in already primed for disappointment. In Mojo’s case, he went on to say this…
From my point of view, the writing just wasn’t that good. If the words had been spoken by a different cast, no one would care. NO ONE is talking about the story or amazing new characters – just the nostalgia factor. That’s not a sign of a great show.
Personally, I’ve seen people talking about the story and new characters. Heck, I was lobbying for STAR TREK: SHAW until they killed TODD STASHWICK’s incredible character. I loved AMANDA PLUMMER’s portrayal of Vadic. And I certainly had a lot of things to say about the story (more than 30,000 words as of this blog!).
But putting all of that aside, in my opinion, this finale season was written specifically to be about the nostalgia factor! Picard never needed to be Hamlet (SIR PATRICK has done that to death anyway, as has Star Trek) nor even “the best Star Trek ever.” It needed to tell a decent story that allowed our seven characters to be the heroes and have an uplifting send-off, saving the Federation/Galaxy/Universe one last time. It needed to be Star Trek…pure and simple. And gosh darn it, it was!
Was the writing stellar or even interstellar? Far from it. The mystery of Jack Crusher dragged on too long, the Borg Queen was a one-note villain designed to be “pure evil,” distance didn’t matter at all (dozens or hundreds of light-years were covered in hours, sometimes minutes), and scenes like Picard talking Borg-Jack back to humanity were as predictable as seeing the “Star Trek: Picard” logo at the beginning of the episode.
But just because you already know what you’ll see at the Grand Canyon doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the trip!
The writing wasn’t “bad,” despite the few nits I picked above. In terms of TNG episodes, the episodes in this final season were, on average, probably in the 70th percentile or more…and definitely better than nearly the entire first two seasons of Next Gen. Remember, we had to endure “Code of Honor,” “The Royale,” and “Sub Rosa.” So if you’re holding up “The Best of Both Worlds,” “Darmok,” “Tapestry,” and “The Inner Light” as typical Next Gen episodes, you’re setting the bar unrealistically high.
And by the way, I don’t think anyone is complaining about the acting (are they?), the quality of the sets, costumes, make-up, visual FX, music, sound quality, or editing. And I will certainly acknowledge that the choice to make the lighting as subdued (dark) as it was turned out to be a questionable decision at best, and that not everyone appreciates a good (or bad) swear word here and there. But I think the main complaint from Mojo and folks like him focuses mainly on the writing (and possibly the directing when that intersects the telling of the story).
Of course, as I stated, I disagree about the writing being “bad” (and actually believe it was pretty darn good!). But rather than just saying it, let me PROVE it…
THE OVERALL STORY STRUCTURE – EPISODES 1 TO 4
As I mentioned in previous blogs, the ten season three were episodes were broken down into two “four-parters” followed by the two-part grand finale. Mojo (and others) claimed the following…
10 episodes of Picard had about 2 hours of actual plot. You could cut it down to 2 hours and not miss anything. 4 episodes of cat and mouse in the nebula amounted to nothing.
I feel that what Mojo is complaining about is more of a feature than a bug. And what I mean by this is that the first four-parter had a number of goals that it needed to accomplish:
- Introduce the main characters (both old and new)…not all at once, of course.
- Establish the two settings—the U.S.S. Titan and M’Talas Prime—and the situations on both.
- Establish the villain, Vadic, and her ship and crew.
- Introduce the character conflicts and dynamics (Picard/Beverly/Jack, Shaw/Seven, Shaw/Picard/Riker, Vadic/Goo-Headed Borg Queen, Raffi/Worf).
- Create exciting moments of danger like the attack on the Starfleet recruitment building and the first and second Shrike attacks.
- Establish the presence of Changelings as bad guys, explain who they are, and provide a little info about their new abilities.
- Start working up the mysteries like why the portal weapon was really stolen (to mask stealing something bigger) and why Vadic is so desperate to get ahold of Jack.
- Move certain character arcs forward, like Picard and Jack, Shaw and Seven, and Raffi and Worf.
- Create peril for both the A-story (Titan) and B-story (M’Talas Prime).
- Get in a few fights and space battles but also show our heroes thinking their way through their challenges.
So obviously, three episodes in the nebula (not four, as the first episode was all about getting there) didn’t “amount to nothing.” But one needs to understand that the nebula was just a setting that allowed the story to unfold. Now, because there was so much story to tell, those three episodes probably felt a bit slow in places. But again, the bricks of the story were being carefully laid.
That said, those four episodes were each unique in terms of mood, pacing, and style. Let’s briefly look at each:
- “The Next Generation” – Buddy movie. A tense opening leads into some comfortable scenes with light humor. Picard and Riker together make this feel a little like a “buddy comedy.” Fans get a very satisfying leaving-Spacedock launch sequence to introduce us to the U.S.S. Titan-A. Raffi is introduced, as is her mysterious “handler.” We meet the “new” Seven and the “curmudgeonly” Captain Shaw. The episode ends with a terrorist attack while Picard and Riker steal a shuttle to help Beverly…as the Shrike arrives.
- “Disengage” – Tense. The pace picks up a little in places, but we’re still moving the chess pieces into place. Excitement as Picard, Riker, Jack, and the wounded Beverly escape back tot he Titan by the skin of their teeth…plus Vadic tossing Beverly’s vessel at our heroes’ starship. The episode also has some talking scenes as Picard tries to figure out if Jack is who Jean-Luc thinks he is and Raffi’s ex forces her to make an impossible choice. But things end fast again as Worf steps in to save Raffi (samurai style!) and Jack is revealed to be Picard’s son, so they can’t hand him over to Vadic.
- “Seventeen Seconds” – Space battle. This episode was much faster than the first two. It’s not non-stop action, of course, because there’s still many pieces needing to be moved into place. But the dynamics change in unexpected ways as Shaw is wounded and transfers command to Riker…and Picard slowly discovers that Will is now risk-averse. Meanwhile, Raffi and Worf are now a ninja team as they go after what turns out to be a Changeling. In sickbay, Shaw suspects they have a mole on board. Jack and Seven discover yet another Changeling saboteur while Picard confronts Captain Riker on the bridge, who finally gives in to his former commanding officer, only to discover that Picard’s maneuver has doomed them all.
- “No Win Scenario” – Slow sinking of the submarine story. When Mojo complained about the slowness of the nebula episodes, this is what he was probably thinking about. And yeah, it seemed to move at a glacial pace until the final 18 minutes. Lots of deep exploring of characters, their backgrounds, motivations, fears and resentments, and conflicts. And there was no Worf/Raffi to break away from the claustrophobic intensity. But once our heroes began to trust each other again, the action restarted and those final minutes escaping from the nebula and Vadic’s ship (and severely damaging it) were a wild ride.
Certainly a lot more than “nothing,” Mojo!
THE OVERALL STORY STRUCTURE – EPISODES 5 TO 8
With everything resolved—at least temporarily—it was time to move on to the next four-parter, which had a completely different set of goals to accomplish:
- Bring in the remaining three “missing” TNG main characters: Geordi, Data, and Deanna…and unite the A-story on the Titan with the B-story of Worf and Raffi.
- Expand upon the “bigger” threat (bigger than the Shrike) that there were now many, many rogue Changelings infiltrating Starfleet.
- Introduce and develop the mystery of Jack, his hallucinations, and his emerging superpowers.
- Find out that the Changelings also stole Picard’s human remains…but why?
- Bring back Lore and use him to create a “new” Data 2.0.
- Turn the Titan and her crew into Starfleet renegades.
- Reveal Vadic’s backstory and create an “epic” confrontation with her where she appears to win only to be defeated at the last moment.
These next four episodes were, like the previous four, completely unique from each other. Again, let’s take a trip down Recent Memory Lane:
5. “Imposters” – Dramatic and intense confrontation. Ro Laren had betrayed Picard in the penultimate episode of TNG, and the palpable tension between the two brilliant actors made the A-story of this episode immersive and captivating. It also firmly defined the depth of the Changeling threat and established the Titan‘s new status as a “rogue” crew. Less captivating was the B-story with Worf and Raffi taking on a Vulcan mob boss on M’Talas Prime, but since they weren’t in the previous episode, their plot needed some time to move forward. And the C-story, what there was of it, introduced us to Jack’s, um, issues with the red door and suddenly becoming Batman.
6. “The Bounty” – Total fan service and totally awesome episode…perhaps the best of the series. After uniting all the old characters featured so far—Picard, Riker, Beverly, and Worf (along with new characters)—this episode completes the set by bringing in Geordi, Data, and Deanna at the end…all in very unique ways. Geordi takes up most of the episode, and we’re given a chance to reacquaint with him and meet his other daughter, Alana. Data is not himself (or more precisely, himselves). And Deanna is being held hostage. But the fan service was the most satisfying: the Daystrom Institute of Easter Egg Horrors, the Starfleet Museum sequence that brought a tear to me eye, plus Moriarty and flashbacks to the pilot episode of TNG. Vadic only appears twice, briefly, but is set up to be the big threat for the rest of this four-episode arc.
7. “Dominion” – The set-up for the next episode. I found this episode the weakest of the season, as the pieces were being maneuvered into place for episode 8. That said, there were strong scenes with alt-Tuvok, Lore’s emergence, and the battle for the Titan. But the main box this episode needed to check was giving Vadic a chance to tell her origin story.
8. “Surrender” – Action, suspense, heroics, triumph. Things start out bad with a capital BAD, which is good television, as the ultimate victory feels most satisfying when there is a very tall mountain to climb. Jack now shares the secret of his powers with his parents, Worf and Raffi rescue Will and Deanna, and Vadic does really mean things while gloating. Data faces off and eventually defeats/absorbs Lore, Jack confronts Vadic, Raffi and Worf somehow convince the Changelings to switch from phasers to swords, and the good guys win while the bad guys lose. The end features the reuniting of the entire TNG cast for the first time, and we’re ready for the big finish!
That was a LOT of story, character, and action presented in those four episodes. Did some of it drag? Maybe a little. Was some of it contrived? Of course…Star Trek does that often. How many times was the Enterprise the only starship available?
Anyway, I can’t imagine squeezing those eight episodes down to two. That would have cheated the fans of some amazing and very satisfying moments. And we haven’t even gotten to the finale yet!
THE OVERALL STORY STRUCTURE – EPISODES 9 and 10
Prepare for maximum warp because the final two episodes needed to be fast-paced, intense, and grand! This was, after all, the final appearance of the original TNG crew. Here was the final “to do” list…
- Switch quickly from Vadic to the reveal of the big boss villain and make them ultra-sinister.
- Explain all of the remaining mysteries: Jack’s powers, why the bad guys wanted him, and what’s this nefarious plan for Frontier day?
- Set up a huge threat to Earth/Starfleet/the Federation because…well…this is the way. (This is the way.)
- Separate the seven main TNG characters from the rest of the cast and give them each a way to shine individually in the ultimate victory.
- Have LOTS of action and weapons and explosions that completely blow what’s left of the VFX budget.
- Include a few surprises that no one saw coming.
- Make sure someone important and beloved dies (the requisite “noble, heroic sacrifice” that must accompany any victory to make certain it feels “earned”).
- Throw in a few humorous moments to break the tension, but keep them brief to maintain focus on the danger.
- End part one with a real “oh, crap!” cliffhanger.
- Include some moments of hope during the fight, but have part two continue the inevitable slide from bad to worse until the last-minute win.
- That win should include as many of the cast (old and new) participating as possible.
- Make sure the villain sees the defeat coming.
- Complete any character arcs that have not already been resolved.
- Wrap everything up with a happy and optimistic ending, and most important of all…
- Set up a potential sequel series because finding and keeping a job in Hollywood is HARD!
Are most of these items total tropes? Totally! But honestly, most fans are okay with that because—after half a decade of CBS Studios-produced Star Trek that tries to be “new” and “fresh” and “different,” all we really wanted was some familiar comfort food…just to nourish our fannish souls. Sure, this might not be storytelling on the highest plane of intellectuality and critical composition. But sometimes you just want good, old-fashioned basics. This was scriptwriting at it’s most basic level…done well! Let the next series be erudite and require deep thought. Right now, long live tropes, and pass the popcorn!
I would like to acknowledge the two best-kept secrets of the entire series. After being totally surprised by the appearances of MICHELE FORBES reprising her role of Ro Laren and then ELIZABETH DENNEHY as Admiral Elizabeth Shelby, when I heard the voice of WALTER KOENIG as Federation President Anton Chekov (son of Pavel?), I got chills. And of course, that final mid-credits sequence with JOHN de LANCIE reprising his role of Q completely knocked me for a loop. We’d thought Q died at the end of season two, and perhaps he did. But we had so many other important people (and beings) from Picard’s life during this season…how could there not be a cameo from Q (setting up the sequel series, no less)?
And finally, just a few quick notes about character arcs. Good writing takes the characters on a journey, not just spatially but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. We care about these characters because they grow…and most of them did in some way…
- Riker got past his resentment of Deanna and began to process his grief at the loss of their son Thaddeus. The couple reconnected and might even go visit Orlando!
- Beverly returned to the fold, no longer living a life separated from her friends and hiding a dark secret from them.
- Geordi reconnected with his daughter Sidney, finally letting go and allowing her to live the adventures as he had done…even though there would be danger.
- Data evolved into DataLore and finally, after wanting to be human for so long, finally reached that oh-so-elusive goal.
- Worf did most of his character arc journey before his appearance this season. But it was still fun to see an “enlightened” Klingon warrior being his own straight-man for countless comedic lines.
- Seven came into her own, moving from being a resentful first officer to Starfleet’s newest captain, comfortable and confident with her new command.
- Raffi needed to find her lost self-respect, and she came a long way. Granted, we didn’t see her doing much more than fighting (with phasers and swords), sneaking around seedy locations, trying to be a detective, and palling around with Worf, but by the end, she was able to reconnect with her family, gain some respect from others, and get a decent gig being first officer to her ex. (Um, let’s see what happens there.)
- Jack got past his feelings of isolation and fear of being seen for who he truly was. He formed a bond with his father, and even cleaned up his act to get a commission in Starfleet and a really speedy posting.
- Picard managed to exorcise the last of his demons—in the case of the Borg Queen, quite literally. But also, in finally connecting with Jack, Picard finally realized that the family he always avoided was already there and waiting for him. No longer sitting alone on a Vineyard waiting to die (well, sitting with Laris), Picard was now connecting with others.
Have you noticed the common theme? This season is all about connecting and reconnecting with others, be they related by blood or simply “family.” Don’t tell me that’s bad writing!
- Oh, and the U.S.S. Titan-A had a character arc, too! In the first episode, we watched her launch on her maiden voyage, get battered, protect her crew, lose almost all power, come back to life, receive a cloaking device, and take on the entire rest of Starfleet all by herself. And now she’s been rechristened as the Enterprise-G. Sure, it might feel weird to see such a “little” ship be given that name, but maybe it’s time for that. After all, size matters not, and history tends not to forget the name…Enterprise.
In the end, folks like Mojo will find inevitably others to complain to along with those who share their disappointments. But I’ve spent years now watching Trekkies bitch about almost everything that CBS has produced. This time, though, the vast majority are not. The one slightly negative blog review I wrote this season was raked over the coals by dozens of fans. They loved this season.
Does that mean they have bad taste or low standards or simply want nostalgia and nothing more? I doubt it. I mean, the nostalgia WAS nice for us long-time fans. But I also think we were given a quality viewing experience…certainly better than the first two seasons and extremely satisfying.
We were finally given real Star Trek.