The Return of the Picard. After a watchable first season, absolute garbage second season, Star Trek: Picard finishes its final season with an immensely welcomed (near) return to form. In a media landscape that increasingly demonstrates an aversion to the past in an effort to improve or refresh legacy characters or series, the ups and downs of Star Trek: Picard (from hereon Picard), prove that some characters and stories were already exemplary in substance and form from the beginning. Suffice it to say, it boldly goes where it has been before and shows it can thrive.
The third and final season of Picard has resonated with Star Trek fans young and old because it finally went back to its roots, went back to why these characters are beloved and an integral part of the cultural zeitgeist. At least, refocused on that goal, anyway. While I don’t feel that it landed sure-footedly on a return to the Star Trek (TNG, Voyager, and DS9) formula, it was in the ballpark of what makes those series rewatchable over and over. Hardly a week goes by that I am not rewatching TNG and Voyager (DS9, lesser so).
The characters, plots, and themes continue to teach us, they remain culturally relevant. TNG represented Roddenberry’s best expression of his idea launched in the 60s with Desilu Productions at Paramount (yes, that means Lucille Ball was in-part responsible for the launch of Star Trek: TOS). At the heart of what makes Star Trek, STAR TREK are the stories that can only happen on Star Trek and the exploration of what it means to be human, whether that is the 24th century or the 21st. Secondary to the aforementioned is the episodic format that Strange New Worlds and Lower Decks has proven is the best expression of Trek plots. On that topic, the last two episodes of Picard felt like an old school two-parter TNG in all the best ways possible. Why stick to the formula? Because it WORKS.
Anytime a Trek series has deviated from the formula or format, it has proven to be less successful with audiences. If it’s not broke, DON’T fix it. Not everything needs to be a 10-hour movie season after season. Why? Because a serialized format lacks the latitude to explore a variety of characters and plots. Serialized shows are ultimately limited to the stories they can tell, because they ultimately have one main outside/action plot supported by one or more inside/emotional subplots or motivations. The episodic format provides numerous opportunities to dive into Star Trek in both plot and character. While even in its third season, Picard is serialized, the structure of the episodes leans into a quasi-episodic format.
Up until the third season, and even at the beginning of the third season, Picard engaged in perpetual character assassination. Completely retconning the best of our friends from The Enterprise D, E, and Voyager. It’s like, the writers of Picard never watched The Next Generation or Voyager, much less rewatched the timeless series.
Not to oversimplify, but to spotlight the sins of the writers, Picard was reduced to someone that represented an outdated way of life and was responsible for negative development of those around him, Seven of Nine was no longer a strong character of mind and body that wasn’t afraid to question decisions in the pursuit of efficiency and order, Guinan was no longer a comforter and wise counselor and her younger-self hated humanity instead of always seeking the best in them, Riker was too quick to admit defeat and appeared to lose strength of character, Starfleet was constantly disparaged as an antiquated and corrupt institution, and I could go on. Fortunately, Q, Worf, Dr. Crusher, and Data were mostly treated with care, and actually felt like they should after we last saw them in Star Trek: Nemesis (or Voyager, which is the case with Q).
Another area where this series negatively deviated from the TV series is the significant increase in course language, especially in seasons one and two. I am glad they mostly fixed that in season three. Star Trek was always something that whole families could watch, and it upset me when Picard didn’t feel like something for whole families. My hope is that Star Trek, moving forward, will be a show that kids and teens today can watch with their parents in order to form the same kind of fond memories I have from watching TNG and Voyager with my family growing up. Star Trek is family, and “on the Starship Enterprise, no one is alone.”
But by the last few episodes of Picard season three, our friends were back to being themselves! It was so incredibly refreshing when our friends returned to their true selves. The return to form and character reunion that Sir Patrick Stewart said he was not interested in at the announcement of Picard, turned out to be the very thing that the series needed and lacked through most of its run.
This character mix was perfection, as Seven would put it, from season three of TNG and beyond. Each one of them represented a different element of humanity, and only when together can we truly explore the human condition. Star Trek needs its Captain. Whether we are talking Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Pike, or Kirk. And that captain needs to be a strong leader, upholding the best expression of the morals, ethics, and order of Starfleet. It doesn’t mean those values and beliefs can’t be challenged–we certainly saw many times Picard challenged Starfleet’s decisions over the course of TNG–but it’s the pursuit of the best humanity can be to one another that is most meaningful. It’s what keeps Q always curious about humanity, in particularly Picard, a strong moral center.
Picard season three embraces this return to form, despite the naysayers that are negatively criticizing the show for looking backwards instead of forwards (which the Star Trek TV series consistently did). Clearly those that are accusing Picard of a disappointing third season missed the whole point of what makes something Star Trek, what makes Picard the definitive Starfleet captain and role model for his crew and all of us. It’s the same thing that fascinated Q: Picard’s (and for us Star Trek‘s) order, morals, ethics, and reflection of humanity. Just because a series continues to feature starships, uniforms, military-like rules, and an ethical center does not mean it is look backwards–those are the tentpoles that significantly impact the form the show takes and the viewer experience. Remove the tentpoles, and the show collapses.
I remember very little from the first and second seasons, but you know what I do remember? Opening with the Enterprise-D and Data/Picard in the series pilot, the Q scenes from season two, and the return to the stately peerless bridge of the Enterprise-D in the final two episodes of the third season and series. Why? Because if you are reviving a series or crafting a long-awaited spinoff series, you have to start with what is most familiar and true to character and plot, and go from there. If there is an established storytelling formula, then follow it. Formulas are formulas for a reason: they work, they’ve been proven to work.
While there are elements in the story of the third season that feel like Wrath of Kahn meets First Contact meets The Best of Both Worlds, that’s because those two movies and that highly rated two-parter from Season 2/3 of TNG represent the best of Star Trek. Why not take inspiration from them??? There was very little of Seasons one and two of Picard that I felt would inspire new fans to seek out the TV series or previous movies. But season three will undoubtedly prompt those that have not seen the TV series or First Contact to seek them out.
And DON’T stop watching when the credits roll, because there is a mid-credit bonus scene that gave me the BIGGEST smile! Because of the cameo AND how it perfectly sets up a spinoff series with a new generation of Enterprise crew.
The following section(s) contains some series finale spoilers.
The series finale features the rescue of Starfleet and humanity by the crew of the Enterprise-D. In the series, the Enterprise was always the calvary, and it plays out in the series finale as well. And for what it’s worth, the series explains how Geordi was able to rebuild the former flagship of Starfleet following the disastrous crash in Star Trek: Generation (1994) well enough. The showdown is a cross between The Best of Both Worlds and First Contact. And as such, nothing happens that isn’t somewhat predictable, but it’s okay. HOW the story unfolds is exciting because Picard finally embraces its legacy. In a media landscape of TV series that really feel like long movies, this one feels more like a TV show, and that’s a great thing! Trek excels more on TV than it does in the cinema because of the formula of its storytelling.
I love how Picard reclaims his legacy as the definitive Starfleet captain and simultaneously allows himself to be vulnerable enough to embrace his former love Dr. Crusher and his son Jack. When Picard encounters his son reprising the role of Locutus of Borg, Picard must deal with the trauma of that experience that has haunted him throughout his life and risk it all to save his son. This demonstrates tremendous growth for Picard. While this is going on, we witness the ramifications of the human youth’s corruption and assimilation by the Borg. For those that appreciate the thoughtful subject matter of Trek, this can be read as a cautionary tale of how the impressionable youth of our world are the most susceptible to toxic ideology under the guise of peace and a pain-free existence. In other words, an ideology that claims to be able to build a utopia, but utopia is an impossibility, and the pursuit of it comes at the cost of the loss of individuality and human dimension. While the series lacked the thought-provoking content of the TV series, these last few episodes attempt to get back to that.
Also, I love how Seven of Nine gets promoted to the Captain of the newly christened Enterprise-G, flanked by Raffi (a character for whom I never particularly cared, because the show made her unlikable in the first two seasons, and never gave her any real agency until season 3) as her No.1, and Jack Crusher as special counsel (a sort of Deanna Troi minus the empathic abilities). The new Enterprise has her crew, all set for new adventures!
So what is that mid-credit scene? Jack is putting away his belongings in his quarters on the Enterprise-G when Q shows up. That’s right, John de Lancie returns as the indelible Q. Jack questions him because he thought the trial against humanity ended. Q responds with Picard’s trial ended, but Jack’s is just beginning. Does this mean a Star Trek: the New Generation series featuring this crew plus occasional appearances by Q? I certainly hope so.
There you have it! A triumphant return of Star Trek. Perhaps the series started out, and even developed negatively, but it finished well. I’ve been a fan of Star Trek ever since my family would gather around the TV to watch TNG and Voyager each week with a pizza. These characters, settings, and even plots feel like a warm hug from a long-lost friend. I hope that Strange New Worlds, Lower Decks, and the series that Picard will hopefully inspire become the types of shows that years from now we will still be rewatching over and over.
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie Film Critics of America. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.