SPOILERS AHEAD … AND A NICE SPOT OF RED TOO, IF YOU’RE LUCKY
Twenty years is a long time.
It may not always feel like it, so rapid is the passage of time, but it is long enough for one Jean-Luc Picard, late of Starfleet and now the overseer of his family vineyard in France, La Barre, to have plenty of time to ruminate on his life and career.
And quite long enough, as it turns out, for some people, say an ensign at Starfleet HQ, to not recognise a man who was once an admiral, the saviour of the Federation and sundry other worlds on multiple occasions and a Lazrus of sorts who bested the Bord, the Cardassians and other villains without number.
Given his dedication to the cause you would expect Picard to be roundly and comprehensively venerated beyond measure, but as Star Trek: Picard opens we find our onetime hero of the hour, many hours in fact. swept away out of sight and mind by the Federation who views him as some sort of galactic embarrassment.
Much of the opprobrium that now greets Picard is certain quarters comes down to his willingness to evacuate the Romulans some 14 years earlier from their supernova-doomed homeworld (the event was depicted in the 2009 film Star Trek), a mercy mission that never took place when an synths (artificial humanoid) uprising destroyed and the rescue fleet of 10,000 warp-equipped ferries with it.
It wasn’t the rescue mission as such that alienated Picard from the Starfleet mainstream – though the fact that the Romulans were arguably the Federation’s greatest enemy didn’t help matters – but the vociferous way in which he argued for it to take place, a publicly-articulated force of will that didn’t endear to the powers-that-be who were fending off, as it turns out, demands by 14 member races to abandon the Good Samaritan act of epic proportions (900 million lives were at stake) or face their departure from the galactic U.N..
In essence, humanitarianism lost out to politics, leaving Picard so appalled at the Federation’s willingness to sell out everything it supposedly stood for for political considerations that he resigned his commission and fled back to his vineyard.
Many years later, past and present collide rather spectacularly when it becomes known to a man whose dog is affectionately known as “Number 1” that there is a great deal of life left yet in the horrors of 14 years earlier.
While many Romulans rightly regard Picard as some kind of hero, including the two people closest to him, his Romulan housekeepers Laris (Orla Brady) and Zhaban (Jamie McShane), there are others who damn the whole Federation to hell including a secretive cabal known as the Zhat Vash, even more secretive and nasty than the Tal Shiar, who appear to be, among other things, on a mission to ensure than no artificial beings can threaten them ever again.
They seem to, reasonably fairly, given events, blame the synths for the deaths of millions upon millions of Romulans but as Laris points out, their enmity is of far longer standing, their anti-synth beliefs a product of centuries of trenchant, hate-filled belief.
As Star Trek: Picard gets underway in a refreshingly slow-building fashion that gives the narrative time to breathe and to fully explore its great many intricacies and possibilities – some may see it as too slow given its divergence from the frenetic revelations-every-five-minutes dynamic of a great deal of modern TV but it is a welcome change of pace – we bear witness to such revelations as the fact that Dr. Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy) has continued his practical work on artificial lifeforms despite the Federation explicit outlawing of them following the events at the Utopia Planetia Shipyards on Mars. (We first encountered his character in the Star Trek: Next Generation season 2 episode, “The Measure of a Man”.)
Thought Data died in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), ostensibly taking the possibility of creating sentient artificial lifeforms with him, there is a proof, incontrovertible proof in fact, that Maddox has been able to do the possible, giving life to twins Dahj and Soji Asha (Isa Briones), the former of whom has a memory of Picard that goes beyond simply knowing he exists.
When she makes contact after some shadowy Ninja-like figures try to kill her, a great many events are set in train and a grand conspiracy, the kind that the squeaky clean Federation is supposed to have no part of, begin to be uncovered.
It’s thrilling and exciting television on a great many levels that makes use of a great deal of Star Trek lore as much as it forges new, exciting paths of its own (much like Star Trek: Discovery) but which resists the temptation to ramp up the pace simply to create some sense of artificial momentum.
The fact is that Picard has a great deal of momentum, just not the modern breakneck pace we are accustomed to, and which, energising though it is, sometimes sacrifices the delicious slow drip of discovery for wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am-thrills-and-revelatory-spills.
This is a show content to drop big reveals at a slower pace, reveals that are no less impacting because of its willingness to unfurl big narrative indicators at a pace that makes them hit harder simply because they are allowed to really stand out, to really get noticed.
The big reveal at the end of episode 1 for instance when we find out that the Romulans are working on reclaiming a Borg Cube – a nod to Shinzon and the events of Star Trek: Nemesis – is accomplished simply and elegantly by drawing further and further back from Soji Asha and Narek (Harry Treadway), a Romulan spy who is wooing her with a view to finding out what she knows and exactly what she is capable of (like Dhaj she is unaware she is an android) until all we see in space is the broken ship known simply as the “Artifact”.
Then the episode, quite perfectly, ends; similarly episode 2 finishes with the revelation that Narek and Narissa Rizzo (Peyton List), a Starfleet lieutenant who’s a Romulan spy in disguise, are brother and sister.
It’s not overly dramatic, elegant in its stripped back execution but it’s a major, massive narrative reveal, accomplished in such a way that you can help but notice it because there’s no distracting fuss being made.
It is emblematic of the beauty of Picard‘s storytelling which makes an impact but in an old-fashioned, let-the-story-tell-itself style, confident in the strength of its slowly ever-building narrative to the extent that it doesn’t have to keep pulling any sorts of sensationalist stunts, which is for the betterment of a series which is building beautifully to what feels like it’s going to be an impressive knockout blow over its ten episode first-season run.
Coming up in the next episode, “The End is the Beginning” …