CBS' 'Star Trek: Picard' scores a Patrick Stewart return bound to please franchise fans

This is less a “Star Trek” for the Trump era and more a wholesale reconceptualizing of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry’s world through a prism of modern realism.
Star Trek: Picard
Patrick Stewart is back as Jean-Luc Picard in the new CBS All Access show "Star Trek: Picard."Trae Patton / CBS
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Ani Bundel

Unlike most of its broadcast rivals, CBS had the foresight to get into the streaming game early with CBS All Access, which it launched in 2014. But as more and more networks launch competing services, CBS is still struggling somewhat to make a dent in the crowded market, with only a few shows breaking through into the mainstream. One of the franchises that have broken through is "Star Trek," which premieres its second original "Star Trek" series this week. Much like CBS’ first “Star Trek” revival, “Discovery,” "Picard,” starring Patrick Stewart, imagines a future where the famous “Trek” utopia is no longer a given, and instead must be continuously fought for.

"Picard,” starring Patrick Stewart, imagines a future where the famous “Trek” utopia is no longer a given, and instead must be continuously fought for.

On paper, “Star Trek” seems like a strong franchise to peg your streaming service to. The science fiction behemoth isn’t just a worldwide phenomenon; it practically pioneered the reboot entertainment strategy. Before there was LiveJournal and fan-fiction site AO3, “Star Trek” fan fiction was the engine that drove early internet newsgroups. And “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was the first successful 20-year revival series, premiering in September of 1987, 18 years after the original series went off the air. Set more than 90 years after the 1960s “Star Trek,” the reboot wound up defining the entire “Trek” brand. This was in large part because of the show’s new star, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by Stewart.

Stewart was ahead of his time in taking the role. A classically trained actor with credits at the Royal Shakespeare Theater, Stewart was best known on American television for roles in PBS highbrow fare like Masterpiece Theater’s “I, Claudius.” His gravitas brought a different tone to the pop franchise, delivering pat didactic moral lessons with a seriousness it might not otherwise have managed. His character has, over time, become the embodiment of the best of "Star Trek’s" high-minded ideals about humanity, and is the most beloved of the “Star Trek” captains before or since.

Stewart also all but ended the franchise. He refused to return after 2002’s “Star Trek: Nemesis,” stating he felt his time with “Star Trek” had run its course. (Besides, he’d also moved on to blaze another trail, that of the famous actor who stars in multiple, high-profile pop franchises, after securing the lead in the original “X-Men” trilogy.) For CBS All Access to score his franchise return after two decades was a coup. It also likely got the attention of fans who might still be on the fence about “Discovery.” If Stewart said these scripts were worth returning for, then this show must be worth watching.

This makes “Picard” a bit on the critic-proof side, which is probably what CBS All Access is hoping for. But for those who complained bitterly about how dark “Discovery” is, the first few "Picard" episodes won’t be a comfort. The world Jean-Luc Picard inhabits has had a tough go of it. There’s been environmental catastrophes and terrorist attacks, the latter of which was depicted in the final episode of the CBS All Access limited series “Short Treks” that arrived just ahead of “Picard” called “Children of Mars.” Picard himself is no longer part of Starfleet, his reputation tarnished due to a rescue operation gone wrong. In his absence, Starfleet has become an unfeeling bureaucracy more interested in covering its own butt than doing right by the galaxy.

But this is less a “Star Trek” for the Trump era and more a wholesale reconceptualizing of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry’s world through a prism of modern realism. Once upon a time, the only drama “Star Trek” could find was the uncertainty of the great unknown. In Roddenberry’s telling, Earth had become a utopia, which was great for us but less great for TV drama. “Picard” writer Michael Chabon and producer Alex Kurtzman argue Earth may have found its way to peace and enlightenment, but we can't take it for granted. In this world, uncertainty begins at home.

For a segment of the fandom that is looking for easy comforts, that won’t fly. But “Picard” is still, so far, worth the monthly All Access fee. The early episodes are filled with references to every single “Star Trek” iteration (yes, even the Kelvin timeline), but this is not nostalgia for nostalgia’s own sake. Both the writers and Stewart have clearly thought long and hard about where a future Picard would go, what choices he would make, and why he would leave the comfort of his vineyard to go back into space.

Moreover, Stewart is no longer the lynchpin grounding an otherwise lightweight cast. Isa Briones, Alison Pill and Michelle Hurd are all standout members of a strong ensemble cast, while Santiago Cabrera brings a jolt of “Star Wars”-esque energy by finally answering the inter-fandom question “What would happen if Han Solo was on ‘Star Trek’?” Brent Spiner, one of the best of the original “Next Generation” cast, is also brought back early on as the famous Data, with the promise that his won’t be the only cameo to come.

But at the end of the day, the real reason to tune in is still Stewart. His Picard is in his 90s, a frail old man who seemingly has given up on the world. (His Earl Grey tea is no longer hot, but decaf.) It takes multiple episodes for him to “boldly go” one last time, but watching Stewart take that journey is a joy.