I Don’t Want the Game to End: Picard, Season 1

We finished rewatching Star Trek: Picard season 1 last night so we can start watching season 2. I know this was a big talking point online, but wow yeah the first season has some pretty intense Mass Effect vibes. Which I’m not exactly complaining about but it did feel a bit weird at times. It also, like Discovery, has a lot more serialized storytelling than a traditional Star Trek series which usually follow more of a “monster of the week” sort of format. Given that, I don’t think it’ll make sense for me to do episode-by-episode mini-reviews like I’ve been doing for TNG, so I’ll just talk about the season as a whole instead.

I’m a bit higher on NuTrek than some fans, but even I have some reservations about the prestige television approach that all the live-action shows seem to be gravitating towards. Mostly the fact that everything needs to be turned up to eleven at all times. All the drama, all the emotion, all of it, all the time. No time to breathe. It made the first two seasons of Discovery a bit difficult for me to get through, and it also made me a bit guarded the first time I watched season 1 of Picard.

Discovery finally ended up stealing my heart in season 3 by introducing trans and nonbinary characters and having a season-long arc that was wholly original, thematically invested in rekindling the Federation as a force for good, and explicitly placed the Federation in opposition to capitalism. Admiral Vance actually says it out loud in the explosive two-part season finale.

But what of Picard? Honestly, even before I had seen a single episode, I was a bit put off by the concept of the show, and even the title. “Star Trek: Picard.” When has a Star Trek series ever been about a single person? Yes, there are numerous examples throughout the franchise of how one person can make a difference and that our individual choices matter. But one of the central draws of Star Trek for me has always been the crews, and Starfleet. To have a Star Trek show start off by eschewing both was off-putting to say the least.

It took me a while to overcome my reservations about this radically different direction, but the show did have some inherent advantages all the same. The involvement of the Romulans and Borg, unquestionably my two favorite Star Trek antagonists, was a definite boon. Not to mention the returns of fan-favorite ex-Borg characters like Seven of Nine and Hugh. But, for all my reservations about the concept of a Star Trek series centered on a single person, probably the biggest thing the show had going for it was Picard himself.

If you have to focus a Star Trek show on a single character, Picard is the obvious one to go with. Raffi jokes at one point, “I mean Picard is so Federation, his face is still probably on the damn brochures.” And that might as well be true of the franchise as a whole. I don’t think any single character more represents what Star Trek is about. And although I had my reservations about the way the first few episodes seemed to throw Starfleet under the bus, in so doing they had Picard loudly standing up for the Federation’s principles.

But while his attention was largely dominated by this big-picture struggle, Picard made several extremely believable personal mistakes. So the first few episodes were basically a parade of people telling Picard off for being an arrogant prick. And… yeah, you can totally see it. Picard is one of the most admirable characters in the entire franchise, but he’s not perfect. And this show clearly understands what makes him tick, and how to show him believably having had a fall from grace on both a personal and professional level.

I would still be pretty uncomfy with all of this were it not for the fact that this first season is ultimately a season-long redemption arc for both Picard and Starfleet. And I think it’s pretty damn appropriate that the avatar of the latter comes in the form of a reinstated Captain Riker charging to the rescue with a cavalry of Starfleet vessels. I’ve realized recently that William Riker is just absolutely the best, so I enjoyed that even more on this rewatch.

I will say that it was a bit annoying that no one bothered to tell Will that Jean Luc was dying, and that it was only his new family surrounding him when they thought he had breathed his last. Will is basically one of Picard’s surrogate sons. I get that the television logic here is that Will is a guest character and these are the new main characters of the show, but it does feel a bit disrespectful to the history of both characters that Will didn’t play a larger role in Picard’s brief death and resurrection.

What makes this jump out even more is that the show is unbelievably respectful of Picard’s relationship with his other surrogate son, the late Lieutenant Commander Data. Picard is thinking about him all the time, and the season ends with an incredible tear-jerking sendoff for Data. I was bracing myself for it and doing everything I could to insulate myself from the impact of it, but I couldn’t stop myself from sobbing wildly when Data finally passed on.

What makes this so wild is that this emotional farewell actually retroactively makes Star Trek: Nemesis better??? Whereas Nemesis inserted B4 as a clumsy way to bring Data back if they ended up prolonging the TNG movies, Picard actually pays that story off by definitively closing the book on Data’s character, giving him a real ending devoid of half-measures. And in the process actually says aloud what always should have been said out loud: that they loved each other.

I’m tearing up a little now just writing about it so I’m gonna go ahead and move on, sorry.

While the prestige television approach isn’t my favorite, it does need to be said that Picard season 1 is just an absolutely gorgeous-looking show. And I understand that that’s the tradeoff we’re getting. I would still like to see NuTrek eventually find its way to more of the chill, “monster of the week” vibe that has always made Star Trek so enduringly appealing, but I don’t want to fail to acknowledge its strengths. As long as the show keeps doing right by its characters, no matter how it does or doesn’t fit my tastes, I’ll be happy to keep boldly going along with it for its additional two seasons.

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