Thursday, January 23, 2020

TV REVIEW. In sci-fi television's dark universe Star Trek Picard on Amazon Prime Video adds a speck of inner light.

by Thinus Ferreira

In an unsure, unstable world of Trump, Twitter, climate change and coronavirus outbreaks, the return of a character like Star Trek's Jean-Luc Picard in Amazon Prime Video's new Star Trek: Picard understatedly underlines just how much - just like Oprah - certain people are desperately needed back on television.

Although somewhat changed by time, Patrick Stewart's measured, thoughtful Picard is still one of the characters deeply needed on television, once again embodying an inner, collective moral consciousness in a galaxy where few care to care, or to listen.

"Let's behave like civilised men," says the former-Captain-then-Admiral-now-retired "Jay-El", once again elegantly portrayed in the 10-episode, first season of Star Trek: Picard.

The new series throws the well-known, well-worn, trusted Starfleet captain - as well as viewers - back into a tumultuous, angst-riddled, scared and gridlocked galaxy where everybody is unsure of themselves and their place in the world, and therefore scared of each other.

Set in 2399, the world and galaxy of Star Trek: Picard is still the one from The Next Generation, DS9 and Voyager, but in the 18 years since the Star Trek: Nemesis film in 2002, 18 years also passed in Gene Roddenberry's universe.

In the way that our lives changed over two decades with iPhones, airport screenings and an increasingly more unstable world, so Picard's world changed with LCARS morphing into hologram displays, now drinking his tea "Earl Grey decaf", the creation and banning of "synths" (androids) after they attacked Mars, and the Roluman homeworld that got destroyed by a supernova.

"I never dreamed that Starfleet would give in to intolerance and fear," Picard remarks during the 3 first three episodes made available for review, with viewers who get to discover how and why Picard left Starfleet as he is lured back to a new space-bound adventure.

"You need a crew. Riker. Worf. LaForge," suggest a character for Picard's latest mission  - to which he says "no".

It's exactly because they would help that he can't risk asking or taking them. This isn't "All Good Things" - the final episode of The Next Generation - but a new mystery and challenge that might bring proper closure and redemption for the story of the beloved Data android character in a clever and inventive way.

While The Expanse which dropped its fourth season last month (co-incidentally on Amazon Prime Video as well) remains the very best science fiction on television in the current zeitgeist, Star Trek: Picard could move itself to second place depending on how the season's story plays itself out.

Star Trek: Picard is what Star Trek: Discovery should have been and what a lot of flim-flam so-called "genre television" these days try to do but don't because of a lack of budget, and talent behind and in front of the screen.

Star Trek: Picard feels Next Generation-ey in a way that Star Trek: Discovery has never yet felt like Star Trek except for Anson Mount as Captain Pike.

Created by executive producer Alex Kurtzman and the screenwriter and novelist Michael Chabon, Star Trek: Picard has the TNG-genes but poured into a current day mould.

There are the familiar yet slightly adapted uniforms but newly fitted around a political intrigue story, transporter technology sparkling around new questions about legacy, appearance and reality, "Borg cube reclamation", secret assassins and interplanetary spy games.

"I've never cared for science fiction. Just never got it," Jean-Luc quips in one of several in-jokes.

Longtime fans of The Next Generation will have little to complain about. Yes, it's not as brightly lit. It's not as clean. Starfleet is no longer so perfect (was it ever, Pegasus?). Yet with the growing existence and investigation of synthetic beings, Star Trek: Picard feels even more human than Gene Roddenberry's utopian world.

Eagle-eyed fans will spot several small mistakes (will aircon outlet grills at convention centres really be the 2020-style in 2399?) but it's probably to be expected from a start-up show with a smaller budget than the syndicated TNG in its 1990s heydey.

Design-wise the production could have done more to include more Next Gen familiarity, but again, they probably didn't have the budget.

With interweaving character setting, setup and the time taken to assemble the new group of travelling stargazers, the first three episodes of Star Trek: Picard might feel a bit drawn out until it gets to "engage" at the end of episode 3.

Viewers who stick around for the new setup to be established will find it worth the wait.

In an era of antihero-filled television an older, wiser, and slightly more unsure Picard is a lot of things but not disappointing and not a sell-out. With a lot of dark television around Star Trek: Picard adds a speck of inner light.

The review is based on the first 3 episodes of season 1 of Star Trek: Picard.

Star Trek: Picard is available on Amazon Prime Video.

ALSO READ: Engage! Here's everything you need to know and see before you start to watch the new Star Trek: Picard on Amazon Prime Video.