'Star Trek: Picard': TV Review

Nuanced and methodical world-building, but perhaps lacking urgency.
1/23/2020

Sir Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard is back and he's got some unfinished business in CBS All Access' latest venture into the world of 'Star Trek.'

I enjoy narrative table-setting. The first 100 pages of a Stephen King book are always more gripping for me than the last 100 pages. My ideal version of Lost just would have been plane crash survivors learning to live on a deserted island. Those allegedly slow season-opening Game of Thrones episodes that were just characters interacting and reminding each other of the stakes never failed to make me happy.

It's with that grain of salt that I note that I mostly liked the first three episodes of CBS All Access' Star Trek: Picard, but even by my tolerant standards found them a little expositionally over-the-top. The events that get stretched over three, 40-minute episodes of Picard probably could have been dispatched in the opening 10 minutes of a feature and surely could have been delivered in one or two TV installments without sacrificing room to breathe. It's novelistic — Michael Chabon is the showrunner, for heaven's sake — and given grounded intensity by the great Patrick Stewart, but it still has no urgency to get anywhere in particular. Take that as a critique or a warning.

We begin at Chateau Picard in France. In the 14 years since he resigned from Starfleet in a fit of pique/sanctimony/righteousness, Jean-Luc Picard (Stewart) is living a quiet life writing, tending to his vineyard and hanging out with his dogs and a pair of Romulan aides or servants or whatnot. On the anniversary of the Romulan Supernova — invest as much effort into caring as you see fit — Picard does a rare TV interview, an apparently live conversation that goes wrong, though it does attract the attentions of a mysterious woman (Isa Briones' Dahj) with ties to Picard's bestie Data (Brent Spiner). Dahj seeks Picard out and it sets into motion a chain of events that will eventually, very slowly, instigate a mission sending Picard back into space.

What? You thought Star Trek: Picard was going to be an entire series dedicated to Jean-Luc Picard monitoring, as he puts it, "the spittlebugs on the pinots"? "The vine must be drawn here!" Of course not. That's the oddest thing about the pace of Picard. Whether or not you view the series as a straight-up Next Generation sequel, you know that no matter how determined Picard is to maintain his Earthbound exile, he's going to eventually end up on the bridge of some spacecraft or another, because otherwise there's no series, but despite that inevitability, Picard inches along.

If you accept the methodical pacing, the series is structurally elegant. The first episode introduces the element that is going to shake Picard out of his complacency. Spoiler alert: It relates to Dahj. The second episode gives Picard an objective or mission. Spoiler alert: It relates to a character from the franchise's past. The third episode finds Picard achieving the means to seek out that objective. It's very clean and desire-driven. Each of those steps probably could have unfolded in an act break in the premiere except that Chabon and fellow executive producers including Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman and James Duff just aren't in a rush.

There are additional details, nuance, context and jargon — so many details and so much jargon — that I haven't mentioned here and the reasons for that are two-pronged:

First, CBS All Access is spoiler-phobic and why would I want to spoil anything for devoted fans? Like, there's stuff happening in space and it involves some familiar Star Trek races and imagery and introduces several new characters, like the eerie Harry Treadaway's Narek, but you'll want to experience that for yourself. I guess it's helpful, though, to have mentioned the space part of the early episodes, since otherwise you might expect a bit more vineyard time than we actually get, though early director Hanelle Culpepper enjoys the Eat, Picard, Love-gauzy lushness of those scenes.

And second, Star Trek: Picard is designed so that the mythology and ephemera can be taken as bonus material for those interested enough to invest in them, while those who aren't can figure out the stakes based on the narrative simplicity and off of three episodes that introduce and underline aspects of the main character's personality sufficiently that even with exactly no TNG-based knowledge coming in, you'll know what makes Picard tick. If you know nothing going in, you won't know which characters are returning characters and which are new characters still introduced in ways that imply you should know who they are even if you don't and that's completely OK. I actually fall into the least targeted demo, namely viewers whose fandom is somewhere in the middle — conversantly aware, not close to encyclopedically invested — because I know just enough not to always know what elements or characters are new and to be bothered by that.

The thing that can't be denied, if you bother to stick with Star Trek: Picard for more than five minutes, is that Stewart's effortless authority and well-earned venerability — he's 79, but could pass for 60 with ease — is sufficient enough reason to watch. He makes every line of dialogue, no matter how clunky it must have looked on the page, sound melodic and muscular and, as he's always done, protects Picard's more stubborn and potentially infuriating personality traits.

That Stewart is so adroit with the Trek-ese in the scripts allows room for the show's new faces to embrace the franchise's tendency toward earnestly wooden supporting performances. That's why when I say that Michelle Hurd is a perfect addition to this world, as a figure from Picard's past, it's a mixture of compliment and raised eyebrow. Briones doesn't always sell the words either, but she contributes some assertive physicality to one of the few thrilling action beats in the pilot. Alison Pill, nearing ubiquity this spring with FX's Devs and Mrs. America upcoming, races through the twisty techno-babble befitting a character with a background in bio-synthetics and what early laughs there are come from her. I liked the different energy that Santiago Cabrera adds a couple episodes in, though I'd need to see more to know if he's going to emerge as more than just a Han Solo-esque figure appearing in the wrong sci-fi universe.

The end of the third episode is right when Star Trek: Picard seems ready to really take off, which may prove taxing for some impatient viewers. A Hulu-esque three-episode launch might have better mirrored the pace of storytelling here. Of course, the viewers most likely to get impatient are also those most likely to be so happy simply to have Jean-Luc back on their screen that they're willing to allow the show some indulgence.

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Alison Pill, Isa Briones, Evan Evagora, Michelle Hurd, Santiago Cabrera, Harry Treadaway
Executive producers: Alex Kurtzman, Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsman, James Duff, Patrick Stewart, Heather Kadin, Rod Roddenberry and Trevor Roth
Premieres: Thursday (CBS All Access)