Few involved in the making or watching of 2002’s Star Trek Nemesis would say that it was a fantastic send-off for the beloved characters of The Next Generation. Over seven seasons, TNG became one of Trek‘s most nuanced and consistent entries (though still one that was capable of producing terrible, silly, and just plain weird episodes). But Nemesis is a flat action movie defined by thin characterization, a cheesy one-note villain, and distracting plot contrivances, and it did so poorly ($67 million on a $60 million budget, in a time before “maybe it will make a lot of money in China” was a thing) that it foreclosed any possibility of another sequel. The cast and those characters, the thinking generally went, deserved better closure.
Star Trek: Picard has been the TNG continuation you’d get if you wished for a TNG sequel on a monkey’s paw. The first two seasons made only intermittent use of any non-Picard characters, and the new characters were either annoying or bland or both. The show’s creative staff uses “convoluted twists” as a stand-in for clear and interesting storytelling. It’s a show strictly for die-hard Trek completists, and it’s easily the worst of the five Trek shows in active production as of this writing.
The show’s third and final season has been pitched as a true TNG reunion, and if nothing else, it’s nice to see the clear affection these performers still have for one another. But Picard is still Picard, and many of the characters and plot points in the season so far (we’ve seen the first six episodes of a planned 10, though this piece will only refer to specific events from the season premiere and the trailers) are eerily reminiscent of the ones that made Nemesis so unsatisfying.
The movie version of TNG
My favorite writing on the Star Trek movies is Darrich Franich’s Entertainment Weekly series that revisited each film leading up to Star Trek Beyond‘s release in 2016 (the gap between Beyond‘s release and today is officially longer than the gap between Nemesis and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Trek reboot film). Franich isn’t particularly kind to any TNG movies, for reasons I broadly agree with. These are crystallized in his piece about 1998’s Star Trek Insurrection, which is in part a dialogue with a then-unpublished book called Fade In, written by Trek writer and producer Michael Piller (who died in 2005):
But Fade In is out there, if you’re looking for it. And it is, I think, the first essential book about screenwriting in the new century, a snapshot of Hollywood at the dawn of the franchise era: A portrait of the artist amidst corporate necessity, narrative continuity, the perceived requirements of fandom, the hazy way that actors in iconic roles can know everything yet nothing about their own characters, the urge to change, the simultaneous urge to not change too much. Piller writes how he wanted this ninth Star Trek movie to recapture the spirit of Next Generation, to show how the Enterprise crew [w]as deep-down a family. Piller writes:
During seven years of the television show, Picard had emerged as a man of great principle and moral integrity. He solved problems with his intellect and communication skills and would never fire weapons unless fired upon. This side of him had not been explored in the other two feature films.
I sort of love this idea? I sort of agree? Generations and First Contact both landed on the idea that Picard needed to finalize into a man of action, needed to battle Malcolm McDowell across a rocky missile ledge, needed to carry big laser rifles before dangling above acid mist wearing John McClane’s Die Hard tank-top. Surely there was a way to make a film with Picard the thinker, Picard the outwitter, Picard the clever? But someone disagrees with me, disagreed with Piller. One of the leading Picard experts, actually: Patrick Stewart, who allegedly writes a long and thoughtful (and often quite funny) memo back to Piller declaring that these TNG movies needed to be different from TNG, that the emotions and action needed to be bigger, that too much sentimentality leads to heroes around a campfire singing “Row Row Row Your Boat.”
I don’t disagree with Patrick Stewart about what made for a successful franchise blockbuster in the late ’90s. But the main problem with Picard as a TNG reunion vehicle (which is mostly but not entirely separate from its problems as a show) is that those heightened, flattened movie versions of the characters are the ones who made it back to TV. There’s a scene midway through the first episode of the new season that encapsulates this.
Picard and Riker, again drawn out of semi-retirement, board a Federation starship. The captain they’re attempting to work with (Liam Shaw, played by Todd Stashwick) is neither awed by them nor particularly inclined to give them anything they want. He also seems, like too many Star Trek characters, to have experienced his own reality primarily by watching Star Trek.
Riker: Not a fan of jazz?
Shaw: Mm. No, I am not. I like structure. I like meter. I like keeping tempo and time, which is why you will probably find this inspection boring, for the likes of you two.
Picard: Ensuring the condition of our starships would be boring?
Shaw: Well, we won’t be blowing things up. Taking or engaging in fire. Crash-landing, expectedly or unexpectedly. You know, the usual for you boys.
This image—of Picard and Riker as rule-breaking, property-destroying, authority-flouting cowboys—is a wildly inaccurate assessment of their characters on The Next Generation. TNG was, sort of infamously, the slowest, talkiest, and most diplomatic of Trek shows, always more interested in monologuing than shooting torpedoes. The show leaned into this to give it some distance from the Wild West feeling of the original series, just as subsequent Trek shows like Deep Space Nine and Voyager leaned harder into fast-paced action to distinguish themselves from TNG. Picard was the consummate rule-follower, always ready to drop a soliloquy about duty on anyone he thought needed to hear it.
But it is an accurate description of the movie version of Picard. And there are other signs, beyond plentiful references to the events of the movies; the season has a mysterious, mustache-twirling villain with a gigantic warship, both retreads of Nemesis and Star Trek (2009). The song that plays over the end credits is the main theme from First Contact.
So, yes, the last season of Picard is finally giving us what the show arguably should have been from the start: a full-fledged Next Generation reunion featuring the entire original cast (plus a few fun surprises). But for better or worse, this is the movie version of a TNG reunion. And underneath that, it’s still a season of Picard, with all of the near-misses and unevenness and frustration that entails.