Season Reviews, Star Trek: Picard, TV

STAR TREK: PICARD (Season 2) is a frustrating, contrived wallow in nostalgia

If ever proof were needed that the writers and producers of modern Star Trek study what audiences think and feel about their shows, then Star Trek: Picard’s second season is most assuredly it.

The first season was a defiant aberration even in the context of Star Trek’s modernisation. Ostensibly a character study, the first Star Trek series directly focused on a popular icon from the broader franchise, Picard was deliberate in just how determinedly it refused to play to the gallery of Star Trek expectations. We only saw Starfleet and the Federation in passing and they were reconceptualised, in the wake of the Trump Administration, as at best an insular, ignorant organisation driven by paranoia, at worst an openly corrupt government. There was no glistening starship our characters travelled on. No exploring new worlds.

This made sense, in broad strokes, given what Picard was designed to explore. Sir Patrick Stewart agreed only to return for a deconstruction of his legendary Enterprise Captain; aged, lost at the end of a century he no longer recognises, haunted by his inability to save a population formerly made up of ideological enemies from a natural catastrophe. Surrounding him with newly invented characters, placing him far from the world of Starfleet he was so closely associated with, the first season of Picard worked to take Jean-Luc on a journey to rediscover the spirit he had lost. A dark series, it dared to suggest the 24th century future fans had imagined after Star Trek: Nemesis was quite different from what would have been expected.

Which, in part, is why Season 2 immediately reverses track. Star Trek: Picard gives in to audience expectation, maybe even pressure, to try and tap not just a 1990s but also 1980s nostalgia for the franchise. It largely fails at both.

Although it wasn’t entirely successful in its aims, with the loose plotting of Michael Chabon and his writing staff meaning they didn’t quite know where the series was heading, you could largely understand what Season 1 of Picard was about.

It was about the consequences of climate change. It was about rampant, unchecked artificial intelligence and the anxieties about how much control to cede to it. It was about national paranoia, a fear of outsiders driving an insular agenda. It was about Picard as an emeritus figure of a bygone age standing up for age old honourable principles amidst a sea of conspiracy and corruption. Though the plotting, and some of the performances left something to be desired, Picard’s first season had a logical shape. It’s vaunted attempts at prestige storytelling saw the series reach for a gravitas no other Star Trek show previously had. It made sense.

Season 2, you realise by the end, does not. It is a foundation that looks firmer than it actually is. Everything is stacked on a very wobbly pile of cards which, by the finale, collapses completely.

As Chabon exited stage left, yielding the floor chiefly to Terry Matalas—under the ongoing direction of Alex Kurtzman as all current Trek shows are—Picard begins with the second season to morph back into what we might recognise as Star Trek, as opposed to a fairly gloomy character drama that just happens to be set in the same universe.

Immediately the season calls back to Picard’s own backstory lore in reintroducing his old ship, the U.S.S. Stargazer. It puts him back in Starfleet as Admiral Picard, despite a key point about S1 being the fact he resigned his commission in protest. It places Cristobal Rios (Santiago Cabrera) back in Starfleet, as a Riker-esque, cigar-chomping Captain with swagger, after S1 introduced him as a surly, psychologically tortured take on Han Solo. It brings back the Borg, not as a series of relics from another era, but in full First Contact-style force as a galactic threat to the Federation.

This is absolutely a conscious choice by producers who left the first season jittery about fan response. Critics liked it but weren’t bowled over. Fans were divided about the manner of Picard’s return, even if many valued not simply retreading The Next Generation. But we have seen in the last couple of years a considered trend toward Kurtzman & Paramount working to steer the franchise back toward more familiar waters, aware that Discovery is marching to the beat of its own drum and Prodigy/Lower Decks are outliers for unique demographics. Strange New Worlds, warping in as Picard S2 heads off into the sunset, is the most pointedly Star Trek-y Star Trek show since 2005. It’s intentional. And the same thought process went into how Picard S2, first and foremost, is clearly intended as a fusion of several Trek greatest hits: First Contact, The Voyage Home and TNG’s Tapestry.

The latter, in particular, was considered to be the roadmap in play once Picard announced that John de Lancie’s vaunted Q would be returning in live action form for the first time since appearing in Voyager’s seventh and final season in 2001. While Q became synonymous as perhaps TNG’s most popular recurring character, many consider Tapestry—in which he takes a mortally wounded Picard on an afterlife-esque journey back into his own youth to a moment he deeply regrets, only to realise that difficult event shaped the man he became—to be the finest Q story the series ever did. Q was always positioned as a variant on the trickster God, the Loki figure, even if Star Trek’s rational secularism attempted to define him more as an omnipotent alien being, but in Tapestry he very much plays into the role of him as the Almighty guiding Picard’s soul.

Season 2 of Picard appeared to be continuing that theme, as we see Q arrive at the end of The Star Gazer—after Picard has forsaken a romantic future with his Romulan carer Laris (Orla Brady) and seemingly is about to blow himself up to the stop the invading Borg—and tell Picard that he is now on “the road not taken”. Picard and his cohorts are shunted into an alternate reality based, much like First Contact, on the change to a historical event on Earth that reshapes the Federation into a totalitarian state similar to the camper Mirror Universe reality that we’ve seen as viewers since the 1960s. The series places Picard, and ultimately his family, directly at the heart of the fate of the entire human race. This steers the story away from Tapestry and further into First Contact territory with even shades of Doctor Who’s ideas of ‘fixed points in time’.

The third major callback comes in the form of The Voyage Home, long recognised as one of Star Trek’s most eccentric and lightweight stories, in which Captain Kirk and his middle aged crew travelled back to 1986 San Francisco on an ecological rescue mission to save 23rd century Earth from disaster. Picard S2 from the get go works hard to try and replicate that film – utilising the method TVH uses to time travel by slingshotting around the Sun in Assimilation; culture clash comedy (although less pronounced given modern Trek characters sound far more contemporary); characters being captured by government agents and interrogated in Mercy; the cameo of Kirk Thatcher’s punk repeating the same comic beat (a terribly misjudged moment) and Rios saying one of Kirk’s classic lines “I only work in outer space” to the modern girl he romances while there. The series desperately wants to evoke the nostalgia of that film.

Star Trek has had, and even with Strange New Worlds, a nostalgia problem ever since Discovery returned in 2017. It is a problem not uncommon to fandom more broadly but Trek feels particularly anxious about charting new frontiers. The first season of Picard was rooted in nostalgia for Stewart’s character, who unlike Kirk before him had never reached a natural conclusive end on screen after Nemesis, but more broadly it tapped audiences nostalgia for 1990s Star Trek in a manner Discovery sought to evoke the 1960s, which now Strange New Worlds is diving head first into. Audiences always wanted more content set in the TNG era at the end of the 24th century and Picard provided, even tying in loosely to the events of Star Trek 2009 and the new universe that span out of that.

At the same time though, the first season refused to give audiences precisely what they wanted from a revival of this era. It held back on the return of too many legacy characters, with Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) a notable principle exception. It tried to place tried and tested 1990s Star Trek geopolitical mainstays in completely different paradigms; a shattered Romulan state, a seemingly paralysed Borg Collective, even how the Federation as we’ve stated changed direction. Stewart had no interest in simply playing the same man in the same circumstances and Picard wasn’t; he was listless, aged, severed from the world he knew and looking for moral purpose. What let that season down was the nature of the writing and storytelling, not specifically the world building which was hardened and well considered.

Season 2 takes a pick axe to those intentions as Matalas works to play all the familiar notes in a different order.

So we have Whoopi Goldberg back as Guinan, not seen outside of a brief cameo on screen since 1994’s Star Trek Generations; we even have a 21st century incarnation of her (played by Ito Aghayere), who brings a youthful sass even if her inclusion serves as problematic for existing TNG continuity. We have Starfleet, back with a vengeance as the good guys. We have the Borg Queen, arguably the TNG-era’s greatest villain, here played by a new actor (Annie Wersching) but as sinister as we always knew her. And we have the aforementioned Q. More on him later. Time travel, a tried and tested Star Trek narrative trope, is just the icing on the cake. Picard moves from being a rather dark, somewhat dour exploration of hope in the face of disaster (as the first season was) to something altogether different. An introspective look at trauma in the attempted guise of a frothy romp.

It’s hard to know quite why Matalas and his team decided to tell a story about Picard’s mother taking her own life, after which he represses the memory for almost a century. Nothing in Picard’s backstory across TNG suggested anything like this as to explain his stoic level of detachment that thaws over time. It never comes up when his brother and nephew burn to death in a fire in Generations. There is one significant nod to Yvette Picard early in TNG, in Where No One Has Gone Before, where what we now know was an idealised version of her as a sweet old lady is incarnated by an alien force before his eyes. This seems to be the touchstone for Picard’s forced dramatic arc here, as Matalas gives him an emotional bit of catharsis he never actually needed, rather than doing anything with the rather whopping fact that Jean-Luc died in Et In Arcadia Ego and was reborn into an android body. That is conveniently brushed aside in favour of the mystery box plotting employed here.

This isn’t to say that Picard’s emotional arc isn’t relatively effective. Monsters is probably the strongest episode of the season, as Picard goes into his memories to expose the tragedy he has suppressed. It does manage to say something about trauma and mental health, and the importance of discussing feelings. Good messages for audiences today. But it is all wrapped up inside the rather baffling nature of what Q is trying to accomplish as a means of helping Picard reach such a catharsis, as opposed to having the singular dramatic power of Tapestry as a stand-alone piece of drama. What does it all really add to Picard as a man? It doesn’t contextualise or explain anything new. It just feels contrived.

Contrivance is everywhere in Season 2. Q is the most egregious example of this. While the series should perhaps be commended for attempting to bring back a classic character and not simply have him be precisely the same, leaning into de Lancie’s advancing years, Q ends up feeling like an underwritten footnote to a story that with a couple of tweaks could probably have existed without him. The season establishes itself as returning to Q’s long term quest to judge humanity through Picard but the bite is gone. Q, powerless and therefore nowhere near as fun to watch, ripples through the narrative in the background trying to manipulate events and only having scant interaction with Picard in just two episodes of the season – Penance, a solid standalone exploration of a dark future, and Farewell, the calamitous mess of a season finale which attempts to recast Q as a dying God simply looking to spend time with his favourite tormented human.

It is the biggest waste of a classic Star Trek character in the saga’s modern era yet.

The season attempts to hook the narrative structure around Renee Picard, one of Jean-Luc’s ancestors who flies the Europa Project and kickstarts a successful era of space flight that (a coming WW3 aside) helps forge a path toward the Federation. It’s the same idea as Zefram Cochrane’s warp flight in First Contact, except with much less charm and impact.

The show is more interested in Tallinn, the ancestor to Laris (allowing the popular Brady more screen time, just not playing the character fans wanted to see), who also happens to be a Supervisor watching over Renee (in a direct link to Gary Seven and The Original Series‘ favourite Assignment: Earth). She serves a purpose we could have seen young Guinan play with a tweak and feels largely superfluous. The last half of the season becomes All About Renee, as Picard & his crew have to save her (and kill her – don’t ask) to ensure their own future. It feels a played out beat seen before not just in science-fiction generally but Star Trek’s own history.

Bizarrely, Season 2 feels cursed with both not enough plot and too many plot elements for it to balance out correctly. Episodes feel stretched out rather than propulsive (Fly Me to the Moon, Two of One, Mercy) yet Farewell is tasked with resolving a huge amount of minutae to lead us back to the in media res inciting moment on the bridge of the Stargazer with a reveal everyone had guessed by the end of the third episode. Events reach a climax of sorts in penultimate hour Hide and Seek but Picard ends up reflecting a series of two halves – a pulpy action story involving Borg invasions and corrupt scientists (inhabited by Brent Spiner’s powerfully tedious Dr. Adam Soong, in a Trek trope fast becoming a futuristic Blackadder), and on the other Picard’s cosmic resolution of his own history and how it connects to the fate of the universe. The two major narratives never entirely mesh together and the result ends up an anticlimactic lean, in Farewell, more toward the final season to come than this one.

Along the way, constituent characters are sacrificed. Some for the better, largely shunting dead wood performers Isa Briones & Evan Evagora into slimmer supporting roles. Some for the worse, such as sidelining Seven and a much-improved Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd), no longer a grouchy irritant and here rather a resourceful mother figure. She and Seven make a fine double act when the series allows them the space, and too little attention is given to their LGTBQ representation. Rios, easily the MVP of the whole series, nicely transforms into a charming ladies man as opposed to a surly grump, but in falling for the nice but dull Dr. Teresa Ramirez (Sol Rodriguez), he ends up relegated from the action at key points. 

Perhaps the best utilised ensemble character is Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), the disgraced scientist who killed a man in cold blood last season only to be given a free pass by the end of the year, who is given a predictable but satisfying consequence in how she ends up transforming into a Built Back Better Borg Queen. Jurati was always morally questionable, not to mention appealing to the Manic Pixie Nerd Girl trope, so having her face a rather permanent fallout for her actions is satisfying. It robs the show of Jurati at her funniest, with Pill probably the best actor in the ensemble (even including Stewart, who is largely just playing himself by now), and it’s all rather hackneyed, but it works. Whether the Borg evolving into a collective of no longer lonely beings seeking connection works depends on your stance, but Voyager pulled the teeth out of them as a threat decades ago.

Their fate is one of the more Star Trek principled ideas we’ve seen in Picard, certainly this season.

It would be unfair to suggest Season 2 is any kind of write off because there are fun moments. Many of the supporting characters are written with greater depth. There is in places more of a lightness to proceedings than before. Some of the nods and in-jokes will make people smile or service long term fans. It is easier to soak up than the first season, less challenging and intentionally angled toward pulp science-fiction storytelling. However, at the same time, it also believes itself much more skilled and profound than in truth it really is. Darren Mooney has described the series as “trapped in an uncanny valley between prestige television and something much more banal”, attempting to replicate the scope and function of prestige television while consistently falling short of that level of quality. The greater you dig into this season of Picard, the less you are likely to find.

Come the finale, Farewell, a confused, overtly emotional attempt at manipulation to cover nonsensical plotting, Picard’s second season has lost all credibility. The final half of the season plays as if it was mapped out in a rush, without much forethought, having to counter the effects of Covid-19’s noted delays and frustrations with production, and the limits of Stewart’s ability to film on location given his age. This might be the case although it is well known that the second and third seasons filmed back to back, suggesting both were structured in advance in a manner the first season wasn’t. If that’s true, the misbegotten steps of the back half of Season 2 are harder to forgive. The series becomes a near-embarrassing shadow of the intent behind Picard’s creation, falling into Discovery levels of emotional over-exposure in lieu of consistent plotting and meaningful writing.

It is just a disappointment, and given the season starts with a renewed vim suggesting both an entertaining adventure and more of a combination of Star Trek ideas and fun storytelling, the fact it descends into a morass of muddled plotting, dour characterisation and baffling character development just rankles. Picard the man, and Star Trek as a universe, just deserves better.

★ ★ 1/2

DIRECTORS: Doug Aarniokoski, Jonathan Frakes, Joe Menendez, Lea Thompson, Michael Weaver

WRITERS: Terry Matalas, Akiva Goldsman, Christopher Monfette, Kiley Rossetter, Juliana James, Jane Maggs, Cindy Appel, Kirsten Beyer, Matthew Okumura, Christopher B. Derrick

CAST: Sir Patrick Stewart, Santiago Cabrera, Jeri Ryan, Michelle Hurd, Alison Pill, Orla Brady, Brent Spiner, John de Lancie, Annie Wersching, Whoopi Goldberg

NETWORK/STREAMER: Paramount Plus

3 thoughts on “STAR TREK: PICARD (Season 2) is a frustrating, contrived wallow in nostalgia”

  1. This St:Picard 2nd series seems slightly boring and slow and lack of starships action. Fed up with lack of starships that we like to seeing like they did in the first episode of 2nd series…… I hope there will be more starships actions/battles in the future 3rd series! Come on Paramount, you can do better than that!

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  2. At this point they are defrauding shareholders. It’s clear Picard is nothing but a money pit being used to pay people who think they know what star trek is, but aren’t even close. It’s turning away the fanbase in droves who are deliberately and specifically refusing to watch even classic star trek as it’s become tainted and no longer a sufficient pallet cleanser.

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    1. I would say that reaction is a bit ridiculous to be honest. Star Trek of old hasn’t been ruined by the weaker quality of the modern day. People need to just appreciate what we did have and hope for better in the future. Strange New Worlds is straight away looking more like Trek fans have hoped for.

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