Jean-Luc Picard is the character we need on television today. And, lucky for us, Patrick Stewart is providing exactly the type of spirit we need to see in the world.
If the premiere of Picard decided to follow a retired captain living out his days on the family vineyard idly examining the crops, taking his dog for a walk, and taste testing the product, I can’t say I would be mad. When you have Patrick Stewart fully committed to a project, it actually doesn’t matter what you have him do.
But Stewart, much like Picard, is a man with purpose and one who responds to the call of duty. This is not the same world that existed when Next Generation aired. It’s not the same world that existed when I first binge-watched Next Generation eight years ago. And so, Picard, and the new series on CBS All Access, exist in a new place and time.
Star Trek has never been shy about making a statement. And to have the Captain return at this particular moment puts a stamp on this moment in history — we need you.
CBS All Access is not short on fantastic original programming in the Star Trek sandbox. Star Trek: Discovery and the Short Treks are thrilling narratives that weave their way through and around canon, upholding the optimism and spirit of the original collection.
Under the guidance of Alex Kurtzman at CBS, Picard is hoping to do something similar. But just as the appearance of the Enterprise at the end of Star Trek: Discovery season 1 left fans a bit hot and bothered, the return of Patrick Stewart to the small (and slightly more portable) screen drummed up a lot less initial pessimism.
Star Trek: Discovery’s use of Captain Pike, Spock, and Number One, turned out to be some of the best ensemble work of the series thus far. I for one, was pleasantly surprised.
Bringing back the Captain at the right time
The return of Picard and the other characters from Next Generation and beyond are only as good as the return of Patrick Stewart. If he believes it is the right time for Picard to get back into space, then the suit needs to fit.
This isn’t a matter of clothing not fitting like used to — I’m quite confident that Stewart can pull the suit out his closet and zip it right back up at any moment — it’s about the material on the page feeling right. The gravity lies in the act of stepping back into this world, seeing the insignia, saying the names of the people and places again, how all of that can stir up mixed feelings. And if the heart of the character is not beating in the actor’s chest, it will not play on screen no matter how much effort is given to the other areas.
Michael Chabon, acclaimed author returning to Star Trek following two Short Trek episodes, serves as the season 1 showrunner and writer on Picard. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Chabon noted that Stewart is not just stepping onto set and saying the words.
“There were many times over the course of the season where Patrick would take me aside with a line or a couple of lines together, and he would say, ‘I understand what the purpose of these lines is, but this just doesn’t sound like Picard to me,’ or, ‘I don’t think Picard would say it that way,”’ or, ‘I don’t think he would say it at all,’” Chabon said. “You can’t argue with that, and I never did. He was always right. Such a clear sense of the character.”
That shines through in Stewart’s promotional appearances over the past few months. You see a man who is not only ready and willing to return to the role, but one who is elevating everyone involved. The press junkets for Picard from Comic Cons to premieres to the Television Critics Association panel all gave off the same energy: Stewart is driving the series, but no one is left behind. There is a new family being built on the screen, one that will promise new adventures under a familiar guide.
Someone who puts being good and just above most everything else. And that is bound to come into conflict with some of the changes the world has seen. It’s hard to be a good and just person today. Same goes for placing that type of person back into the post-Next Generation world.
In an interview with NPR, Stewart said “Well, as our world goes one step forward and two steps back, I think there is much of the man that we certainly knew in Next Generation. His modesty, his patience, his affection — no, affection is too weak a word, his passion for humankind and for the future of the solar system that we inhabited.” But moving that man forward takes a certain perspective that only comes with age and experience, which Stewart and Picard share. The weight of Data’s destruction and refugee crisis brought about by the destruction of Romulus will be top of mind for Stewart’s Picard.
The world has always been tricky to navigate. While science fiction/fantasy does a lot of the heavy lifting to present resolutions to situations that could be seen as parallel conflicts, it is the internal battles, ones that are uniquely human, that make the genre so captivating. Jean-Luc Picard is isolating himself on a vineyard while dealing with some intensely personal battles. Who has not want to run away before? Who has had to get themselves up and fight for something bigger than themselves, whether that is simply feeding the dog or helping a stranded person you find on your property.
Picard is going to pick himself up not because we need him to, but because he needs to.
One episode to watch before Picard
The essential episodes to watch before Picard could go on and on. To be fair to the series and viewers appreciation of the work that took Next Generation from “oh another Star Trek series” to one of the most revered, comes from watching from episode 1 through episode 178 (and the subsequent films).
But not everyone has time for that. With promotional material featuring the crossover of Seven of Nine (reprised by Jeri Ryan) from Star Trek: Voyager and the return of Hugh (reprised by Jonathan Del Arco), it is likely that Borgs are going to play a part in the first season. Which is why the two-part finale/premiere of season 3 and season 4, “The Best of Both Worlds,” is a must-see before the premiere of Picard.
After capturing Picard at the end of season 3, the Borg assimilate the captain by first acquiring all of his knowledge, experience, and memories, and then transitioning to using his form under the name Locutus. Under control of the Borg, it was decided that using Picard to be the human voice of the Borg would add to the other advantages of the reserve of information.
The Borg: Captain Jean-Luc Picard, you lead the strongest ship of the Federation fleet. You speak for your people.
Picard: I have nothing to say to you; and I will resist you with my last ounce of strength.
The Borg: Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.
Picard: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.
The Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.
Picard: We would rather die.
The Borg: Death is irrelevant. Your archaic cultures are authority-driven. To facilitate our introduction into your societies, it has been decided that a human voice will speak for us in all communications. You have been chosen to be that voice.
The Borg do overcome Picard and he is taken as the mouthpiece turning against not only his crew, but the mission he has upheld for decades as an officer of Starfleet. When the assimilation is eventually reversed, the memories of his time as Locutus are not wiped away.
Picard takes time away, retreating to his family’s vineyard. The weight of his past and the thoughts of sitting alone with his friends, really his family, sitting across the universe, cannot be replaced by a few bottles of exquisite wine. And as we find him here again, it is only a matter of time before we witness the gravity of the events that directed the Captain back La Barre.
A new Picard for a new world
Picard has changed. The audience has changed. We are, after all, both human.
The pillar of the man Picard was at the end of the initial series run does not go away and it serves as the measure by which he and others view him. So many events have happened to and around Picard. Most of them out of his control. He is a man built of experience, and he carries the weight of those with him in every decision that he makes. Whether it is choosing to fight for Data, weighing the actions of each Borg individually, and seeing someone come to him begging for help, Picard is not one to turn a blind eye.
And we need a return to that. It’s a tight rope to walk, balancing the proper amount of nostalgia with the need to push a story forward. Star Trek properties have the opportunity to bring endless new characters to build upon the ideals of the universe and set a tone for viewers. Few, however, can drive home the punch that Stewart can with Picard.
He is not going to meet the mark we set for him. Nor will he meet the one he has set for himself. But to watch Picard is to watch a human struggle to live up to the standards we set him against and see a person who needs to rediscover unity with others while carving out a mission to believe in when the one he has held for so long no longer exists in its original form.
Picard may have lived an entire lifetime in the season 5 episode, “The Inner Light,” but that does not mean he is done living yet. And luckily for us, we get to go on this adventure with him and maybe be reminded of a few things along the way.
Star Trek: Picard comes to CBS All Access in the US and Prime internationally on January 23.