Remember the slingshot effect? It’s the starship manoeuvre that flung Kirk and crew around the sun and into Earth’s past, whiplashing them through time to the 20th century, in search of whales.
Sometimes it feels as if Star Trek has been trapped in a terminal slingshot effect for the best part of 20 years. The 2000s gave us Enterprise, retracing the final frontier to the first days of Starfleet. Then came 2009’s big screen JJ Abrams reboot, reanimating Kirk, Spock and all the classic iconography that made the ‘60s show a pop-culture phenomenon. More recently Star Trek: Discovery has also charted the prequel zone. Where the franchise once pursued tomorrow at warp speed, it’s now historical drama in its own universe.
All that changes with Star Trek: Picard. Reuniting us with the character that made Patrick Stewart not just a star but the world’s greatest facepalming meme, it’s set 20 years after the events of 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, on the very edge of the 25th Century.
Brace yourselves for future shock. This almost certainly won’t be the bright utopia of The Next Generation. And Jean-Luc Picard is a changed man. Long retired from Starfleet, the former commander of the Enterprise is living in semi-isolation on his ancestral French vineyard (seen in the season four Next Gen episode “Family”). He’s haunted by two events we saw in the movies: the death of android colleague Data and the destruction of the planet Romulus, which has triggered an interstellar refugee crisis.
“The world of Next Generation doesn’t exist anymore,” Stewart told Variety, setting up the series and its vaguely dystopian shadows. “Nothing is really safe. Nothing is really secure. In a way, the world of Next Generation had been too perfect and too protected.”
It’s this darker, more unsettling context that promises to make Star Trek: Picard more than an exercise in cosy nostalgia, more than a simple reheat of an established, profitable brand. Stripping away the certainties of Gene Roddenberry’s 24th century, it shows us a Starfleet whose moral centre appears to have shifted since Picard’s glory days. Confronted by the cosmic crisis, Jean-Luc’s forced to undertake a private mercy mission, without the galaxy-wide back-up he’s accustomed to.
And that’s an intriguing premise, especially for a character whose mix of diplomacy and cool rationality always defined the highest of Starfleet values. As showrunner Alex Kurtzman revealed, Stewart agreed to reprise Picard with one crucial proviso: “I don’t want to do what I’ve already done.”
Picard was always one of the more well-drawn of the Trek icons. A reserved, cerebral counterpoint to William Shatner’s equally brilliant but altogether brawlier James T Kirk, he redefined our idea of a starship captain from the moment he issued a clipped “Engage!” in 1987 pilot “Encounter At Farpoint”. Subsequent stories put the tea-sipping patriarch through the psychological wringer: captured and tortured by the Cardassians; shattered by the death of his family in a tragic fire; assimilated by the Borg and transformed into the sinister Locutus, complete with lingering PTSD.
Through it all Stewart invested the character with all the emotional truth you’d expect from a former RSC player who’s bagged a Laurence Olivier Award or two. 2017’s Logan proved he’s unafraid to revisit a signature role and mine something deeper and darker – his final turn as Professor X, the mutant leader’s mental brilliance now corroded by dementia, is astonishing, and if there’s a touch of that unflinchingly raw performance in the older, guilt-broken Picard then we’re in for electrifying viewing.
Stewart may be Star Trek: Picard’s key weapon but he’s not alone. While the show teams Jean-Luc with a new, mismatched crew of renegades – Romulans and ex-Starfleet officers, including Daredevil’s Michelle Hurd as a character who shares an untold history with Picard – it also returns some 24th Century icons to the screen. Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis encore as Riker and Troi while, more tantalizingly, Brent Spiner is back as the allegedly deceased Data. Dream? Hallucination? Reassembly job in Picard’s shed? No one’s saying, though Spiner has revealed “Data’s story is a part of the thread of the show.”
Also resurrected are the Borg, in a storyline that promises fresh twists on the hive-minded menace that gave The Next Generation its defining foe. Jonathan Del Arco plays Hugh, first seen in 1992 episode “I Borg”, while Star Trek: Voyager’s Jeri Ryan returns as Seven of Nine, now assimilating into humanity. “She is not the same Seven,” Ryan recently told Digital Spy. “She is much more human. She’s been on Earth for a long time, she has been through a lot.” The presence of the Borg is an intriguing part of the show’s status quo: will Picard be triggered or has he finally conquered his resistance-crushing techno-demons?
Above all Star Trek: Picard promises to do what classic Trek did best – weaponize the present to tell a tale of the future. That was Gene Roddenberry’s essential mission, after all, to smuggle contemporary hot-button issues beneath the cloaking device of sci-fi. And with its apparently isolationist Federation and morally challenging humanitarian dilemmas, this is very much the 21st Century reflected in the 24th. As Stewart told Variety, this aspect of the series “was me responding to the world of Brexit and Trump and feeling ‘Why hasn’t the Federation changed? Why hasn’t Starfleet changed?’ Maybe they’re not as reliable and trustworthy as we thought.”
Let’s hope it shows us a positive way to navigate the present.
Star Trek: Picard begins on CBS All Access on January 23 in the US, and on Amazon Prime internationally from January 24.