At long last, the third and final season of Picard is finished. How much better is it than the second season? A little. How much more nostalgia does it have? A whole lot. All the nostalgia. More nostalgia than you can imagine. Scientists remain divided on whether it’s possible to have more nostalgia in a single season of TV and whether doing so would require access to new and exotic dimensions in which our understanding of spacetime no longer applies. It’s pretty nostalgic, is what I’m saying.
Nostalgia isn’t inherently bad, but it can become so if you make too many sacrifices in pursuit of it,* and, oh boy, does Picard do that. This season is the poster child for what happens when a storyteller’s main objective, their prime directive you might say, is to remind the audience of previous stories in a franchise, rather than making the current story something to be enjoyed.
Spoiler Notice: Picard
Stories Are Cut Short
One of the reasons season two fails so badly is that the writers are on a chaotic dash to shuffle most of their characters out of the show.
- Soji doesn’t even come on the adventure.
- Elnor is dead for most of the season and then leaves.
- Rios sees the horrors of modern USA racism and decides he’d like to stay in the past and live through them.
- Jurati has a rushed arc where she merges with the Borg Queen and then goes to stare at a glowy thing in space.
None of these departures go over well. Soji and Elnor get nothing to work with at all, they just leave. Rios’s story could have worked if it was framed as him staying in the past to fight for justice, but it seems more like he’s just really into this 21st century lady he’s known for a couple days. Jurati’s story gets the most attention, but the Borg Queen’s switch from assimilation to synthesis still goes by far too fast.
We now know why this happened: They had to make room for all The Next Generation headliners to return, minus Yar and Pulaski. Raffi is the only original main character to survive the cull, and while she is still present in season three, she fades into the background as more and more of the old faces return. By the end, it’s easy to forget that Raffi is supposed to have an arc of not getting to see her grandchild because… all her medals were classified, I think? I don’t know; it’s hard to keep track of.
I’m not the biggest fan of Picard’s first cast, but this is just a dick move. For anyone who did like those characters, sorry, you get nothing. For everyone else, the damage is twofold. First, we have to endure Picard’s train wreck of a second season, a set of episodes whose main purpose is to clear the board for season three. Second, we’re given the message that it’s not worth building attachment to anyone because they can vanish as soon as something else catches the showrunner’s eye.
That second point is somewhat dampened by the fact that Picard is over now, but the franchise is too interconnected for the damage to remain fully contained. Should we worry about Lower Decks dropping Mariner and Boimler so the writers can do a Deep Space Nine reunion? Is Strange New Worlds going to launch Pike into a black hole so Archer can have another try at command? Hopefully not, but the chance is higher now than it was before, and it’ll be worse if we get any Picard spinoffs.
The sad thing is that if the Picard writers had focused on giving their original characters a proper send-off, it might have worked. Give us enough time for Jurati to properly turn the Borg Queen. Have Rios stay in the past to run a refugee advocacy group. Give Soji and Elnor literally anything to do. With real closure, the departures wouldn’t leave such a bad taste in the mouth. But there wasn’t any time, because we needed to do an arc about Picard’s double secret mom trauma.
Setup Is Contrived
Once the purge is complete, it’s reasonable to build season three’s plot around the TNG cast’s shared history. Since this season is aimed squarely at people who have already seen TNG, you might guess they’d pick something from one of the episodes or movies – maybe a previously unresolved plot thread or a hook that was never followed up on?
Nah, better make it about Picard and Crusher’s secret son instead. Oh, and let’s cast an actor in his thirties, even though the character is supposed to be 21. Do you not know any 21-year-old actors, Paramount? They’re grown-ups, so you don’t have to worry about child-labor laws! Casting weirdness aside, it seems like Jack was chosen as a MacGuffin mostly to give Picard, and to a lesser extent Crusher, a bunch of candy. Wow, they’re so cool that the entire galaxy’s fate rests on their child. That’s what happens when you’re doing everything possible to hype up beloved characters from 30 years ago.
As a character, Jack is awkward for a few reasons. First, Crusher’s reasons for not telling Picard are flimsy, to say the least. Her explanation is a bit confusing, but the gist seems to be that she thought being known as Jean-Luc Picard’s son would be dangerous. That doesn’t sound like a good enough reason for the Crusher we know, and then she took baby Jack with her on a bunch of space crimes, which also sound pretty dangerous.
Second, we don’t know Jack, while nearly every other major character is someone we have decades worth of attachment to. Positioning Jack as the second most important character, after only Jean-Luc himself, makes the kid feel like an interloper. It doesn’t help that Jack’s “I’ve always felt different” schtick comes across as entirely manufactured. Even if that was better, we’d still be left wondering why the show thinks Jack is so important. We’re supposed to care about him because we care about his parents in a weird case of narrative nepotism.
Don’t worry, the bad guys’ setup is equally contrived. In a bold move, the writers decided not to mine TNG nostalgia,* but DS9 nostalgia instead. We have a bunch of revanchist changelings who are mad they lost the Dominion War, and they have taken over Starfleet… somehow. There are supposedly only a hundred of them or so, yet they appear to be everywhere.
The logical issues with this evil plan are many. Assuming the changelings can slip past any kind of sensor, how did no one notice that a bunch of important officers couldn’t remember any of their access codes?* Starfleet’s been infiltrated before, so you’d figure they’d watch for that. That’s not even considering any suspicious orders the changelings gave, like when they somehow convinced the Intrepid’s crew to preemptively fire on the Titan. Back in DS9, replacing even one key leader was a major operation, but now the changelings apparently have carte blanche to do what they like. The closest thing we get to justification is Worf’s line about not being able to expose the infiltrators because it would restart the Dominion War, which is as silly as it is quickly forgotten.
Beyond the logic, it’s dramatically unsatisfying to have something so momentous as the infiltration of Starfleet take place offscreen and with no build up. That’s a big deal – you need to lead into it a little! It’s actually a similar problem to the old episode Conspiracy, when we found out that some alien bugs had completely suborned Starfleet while no one was looking. I guess in a way, it is TNG nostalgia after all!
It’s important to note that not every instance of nostalgia is a problem in this season. We have nice moments, too, like when Seven of Nine does a little reminiscing upon seeing Voyager docked at the fleet museum. It’s a touching scene, and it happens at a naturally quiet moment in the episode, so nothing is disrupted.
The rest of the season isn’t so lucky, as we have numerous instances where the pacing grinds to a halt so the writers can assure us that they’ve also seen Star Trek before. By far the most onerous example is when we spend three entire episodes inside the same nebula. What is there to do in this nebula that could possibly take up that much time? Nothing!
Instead, the show basically enters a holding pattern so it can build up to a big moment where we realize that the nebula is actually alive and also where our heroes ride the nebula’s shock wave to escape. No, I don’t know why a living nebula produces shock waves, but I do recognize these tropes from previous Star Trek episodes. They were more than a little silly in their original incarnation, and bringing them back in Picard doesn’t help. It’s also painfully ironic that the nebula got so much attention while the changelings’ infiltration of Starfleet is hand-waved.
Another instance doesn’t take as long but is even more noticeable. The bad guys have sprung their trap and are about to attack Earth, and our heroes need to find themselves another ship. Fortunately, Geordie has somehow rebuilt the Enterprise-D despite half of it exploding back in Generations.* And he’s given it working weapons. And rigged it with enough automation that seven people can run it instead of the normal 1000+ person crew.* Sure.
As you’re trying to figure out how that all works, Picard and friends stop for a moment to reminisce. They talk about what the ship means to them, how much they appreciate each other, and Picard even makes a joke about the carpet. That’s nice, except the bad guys were about to attack Earth. Did they stop so the heroes could have a moment? Apparently so, because nothing bad happens during the several minutes they spend chatting.
Why do pacing goofs like this happen? Because all the slow and quiet moments where it would make sense to indulge in some nostalgia are already full to the brim with nostalgia. But that’s not enough. We need more. More. MOAR. Until the writers are shoving it in anywhere they can, regardless of how much it messes up the story’s rhythm.
The Reveal Is Underwhelming
Season three’s throughline is the “mystery” of why the bad guys want Jack Crusher and who the ultimate villain actually is. I put that in quotes because it’s one of those mysteries where the audience is just left waiting for the eventual reveal, as there’s nothing the characters can actually do to figure it out. Nor are there any real hints for viewers since the mystery’s only purpose is to generate hype as people try to guess what the answer might be.
This kind of mystery is inevitably disappointing because it lacks the buildup needed for a successful arc. No matter what the answer is, the story just chugs along until the writers finally decide to reveal the truth. Once that happens, there’s an inevitable moment of “Oh, that’s it?” It’s similar to the way the marketing around Into Darkness made a huge fuss over who exactly Benedict Cumberbatch was playing. No matter who it turned out to be, the answer would never be as exciting as the hype implied.
A good mystery needs a turning point, just like any other plot. It needs proper foreshadowing and setup. Yes, that means genre savvy audiences may guess the reveal before it comes, but that’s not a problem in well written mysteries. It’s actually a great feeling when you follow the clues and arrive at the right answer. In this kind of mystery, there’s no satisfaction for guessing the answer because it’s just random chance.
Of course, it doesn’t help when the eventual reveal is the worst option available. With Into Darkness, it was Khan, the most obvious answer. In Picard, it’s the Borg, and they want Jack because he inherited some mind-assimilation powers from Jean-Luc, somehow. The mind-assimilation is pure techno-nonsense, but using the Borg is even worse.
For one thing, the Borg were everyone’s first guess because they’re TNG’s most prominent bad guy. We don’t even have the novelty of it being someone weird like the Pah-wraiths or that evil mask that once took over the ship. Next we’ll have a big Star Wars mystery villain, and the reveal will be that somehow it was Palpatine again.
For another, nothing about this makes sense. We just saw Jurati merge with the Borg Queen last season; are we pretending that didn’t happen? I know the writers are done with the old cast, but come on. We also have dialogue where the new Borg Queen blames Picard for destroying the collective, something that didn’t happen. You might be able to argue that Janeway destroyed the collective at the end of Voyager, but even that’s a stretch.
The reason for this total letdown appears to be, you guessed it, more nostalgia. In the lead-up to season three’s release, the creative team dropped hints about the mysterious villain, just vague enough to be unclear who they were talking about, almost certainly to encourage fan speculation. That definitely gave the show a boost in its online profile, and the only expense was quality.
The Forest Is Missed for Some Trees
This season knows you love TNG, and it wants you to know that it also loves TNG. That’s why we have all (most) of the old TNG characters back and why they rebuilt the old Enterprise bridge set. Then, after all his misadventures, Jack is going to join Starfleet like his parents, and his ship has been renamed Enterprise!* The characters also talk about how important their time on the Enterprise-D was, even though they’ve spent much more of their life off it, and, of course, how great Starfleet is.
Problem: what we actually see is modern Trek’s obsession with making everything as dark and dismal as possible. Outside of the old crew’s glowing testimonials, Starfleet is terrible! After refusing Seven of Nine entry for years, they finally let her in just so they can assign her to a ship with an incompetent captain who keeps deadnaming her.* When Riker is captured, two regular security officers stand by and do nothing as a shapeshifted villain beats the crap out of him. Section 31 is an official department of Starfleet Intelligence rather than the rogue secret society they were originally portrayed as.
It’s not just in worldbuilding, though. Apparently, our heroes have barely spoken to each other for 20 years, even the ones who didn’t go into hiding with their secret baby. Remember how TNG ended with everyone laughing and playing cards? That was a lie – they’re all very sad now! Heck, Riker and Troi’s marriage has gone from loving and happy to completely on the rocks since this very shows’ first season. For that matter, where is Kestra during all this? They talk a lot about their dead son, but I think they forgot about their living daughter.
Every time a new Star Trek is announced, the writers say that while they totally get that Star Trek is supposed to be optimistic, they’re just going to go a little dark with this one. Or, as Picard’s showrunner puts it: “It doesn’t mean you can’t go into dark places; it just means that optimism is the core tenet of Star Trek.” Honestly, it’s getting old.
For one thing, there is nothing left of Star Trek’s optimism to subvert. Every new iteration gets darker and more dismal. It’s so pervasive that Strange New Worlds and Discovery’s fourth season feel new and fresh for not going grimdark.* Perhaps more importantly, the question isn’t whether the story can go darker, but what benefit it gains from doing so.
Star Trek VI is a bit darker than previous Trek films because it explores a Cold War analogy, and that requires two sides who are both at least somewhat at fault for their conflict. Deep Space Nine is darker than TNG so it can portray a planet devastated by occupation, which requires recognizing the horrors that occupation inflicts.
What is Picard getting out of its darkness dive? Is there some deeper message hidden in the changelings’ contrived infiltration of Starfleet or having all our favorite characters perpetually mad at each other? Nothing that I can see. Even scene-level emotional conflicts are resolved in a split second when the writers are done with them.
It’s exhausting. In this show, Starfleet isn’t a beacon of hope or something we aspire to. At best, it’s as flawed as a modern military force, and sometimes it’s a lot worse. A last-minute pivot to Jack joining Starfleet doesn’t change anything; it just highlights how badly the writers want to have their cake and grimdark it too. Given season three’s much higher critic and audience ratings, they seem to have succeeded, but only by flooding the zone with beloved characters from a different show.
The good news is that not all Star Trek nostalgia is this self-destructive. Lower Decks and Strange New Worlds have done a much better job so far, and I’m hopeful they will continue to do so. I’m also optimistic that Discovery’s fifth and final season will give us some great Trek stories that don’t depend on nostalgia at all. Maybe the franchise can finally kick the grimdark habit once the upcoming Section 31 movie is out of its system. Hope springs eternal!
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