Meet Jean-Luc Picard, space dad. He was, for 178 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and four theatrical films, the captain of the starship Enterprise; an inherently trustworthy father figure who pushed everyone around him to be more noble, understanding, and empathetic. Eighteen years after his last appearance in the movie Star Trek: Nemesis, Picard is back in Star Trek: Picard — a CBS All Access show that plays surprisingly well for people who have not seen a moment of Star Trek as well as longtime fans. Star Trek: Picard is trying to go somewhere new. Shockingly, it seems a little bit nervous about it.
Star Trek: Picard takes place 18 years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, the final film starring the crew of The Next Generation, and several years after Jean-Luc Picard has retired to his family vineyard. The retirement, we learn, was not one he wanted, spurred by his superiors’ handling of a cataclysmic disaster on Mars, the details of which are slowly fleshed out over the first few episodes.
The premiere wastes no time getting Picard to leave that vineyard. Miles away, a young woman named Dahj is pursued by assassins for reasons unknown, but two things become clear: there’s something special about her, and Jean-Luc Picard is the only man who can help her. So she quickly makes her way to his doorstep, and the adventure begins.
Picard is a mystery on two fronts: One set in the recent past, peeling back the layers of what went wrong on Mars, and another in the present revolving around Dahj’s identity. The show heavily implies that these two mysteries are actually connected, and Picard is somehow at the center of both. The show is careful to take care of new viewers — while knowledge of The Next Generation will certainly help you understand the significance of plot twists sooner. Nothing important is left unexplained — to the point where the show feels like it has a little too much setup, stopping dead in its tracks after a very good premiere to meander for two episodes before doing some actual... star trekking. (CBS made the first three episodes available to critics.)
Star Trek is a franchise unusually concerned with ideals and ideas, and Picard gestures at compelling ones. What if Starfleet, the peacekeeping navy of the nigh-utopian United Federation of Planets, has suffered a slow decay that prioritized playing politics over valuing life? What if, even in a world where humanity has learned to cooperate and build a bright future, the slow slide to fascism is never really that difficult to begin? Picard is extremely interested in examining how the idea of Star Trek must change to make sense in 2020, and using one of its most familiar and beloved faces to do it.
Unfortunately, all of these questions have an easy, cheap answer, and they are never far away in Picard. If the Federation has changed, maybe it’s because it was compromised. If an alien race is treated with hostility, well, they are up to some shady stuff. And if an organization is ultimately oppressive, principled people who work within it are definitely not complicit.
The good news is that even three episodes into a ten-episode season, Picard is still very much gearing up, and there’s still plenty of room for the show to surprise viewers and choose the more difficult, complicated answers to the questions it poses. Giving the show the benefit of the doubt, however, feels too much like the hollow centrist play that Star Trek needs to move past if it truly wants to be resonant today. Because the upsetting truth about 2020 is that, when faced with certain disaster, there are people who will ultimately refuse to work together, who’d rather rule over ruins than labor toward an equitable future.
Star Trek is a franchise that believes in institutions, and it’s fascinating to see Picard acknowledge that institutions don’t just fail, they can become co-opted entirely while still posturing as a force for the public good. The challenge of the show, then, echoes our real-world political challenge: being honest about why that happens. Whether or not it does that, Picard has a chance at being the most relevant Star Trek has ever been — just maybe not for the reason it intends to be.