It almost seems like a rule, one as unshakeable as the Prime Directive: The first seasons of “Star Trek” shows have to be bad. And the first season of “Star Trek: Picard” was very bad indeed.
Some of its most egregious plot points are even ignored whole cloth in Season 2, which stands as an improvement in almost every conceivable way — the fact that Picard’s consciousness was transferred into a golem body, so as to save his life, at the end of that initial run is never once mentioned. With the precision of Chief O’Brien locking onto a particularly tricky transporter pattern, new showrunners Akiva Goldsman and Terry Matalas have isolated what worked about Season 1 and what didn’t.
Here’s the great news: the cast from Season 1 was terrific, even if underwritten in those episodes. Goldsman, Matalas, and the “Picard” writers room capture their personalities from the initial re-introductions in Season 2 and advance them significantly: Santiago Cabrera’s Rios is now back in Starfleet and the captain of the next version of Picard’s old ship, the USS Stargazer; Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine is now the captain of Rios’s previous ship; Michelle Hurd’s Raffi is back in uniform too, and her relationship with Seven is on pause due to the ex-Borg’s commitment issues; Alison Pill’s Dr. Jurati, cleared of murder, is able to flower into a lovable neurotic; and Evan Evagora’s Elnor has just enlisted in Starfleet Academy, the first Romulan ever to do so.
Each of these supporting characters pop: their personalities are extremely well defined, their goals potent and identifiable. You don’t miss the fact none of the rest of the “Next Generation” cast is anywhere in sight. (Well, with two exceptions.) “Picard” Season 2 is so character-driven it’s as if that show finally lived up to the desire of original showrunner Michael Chabon to deliver a prestige TV drama rather than a sci-fi show.
But why did it ever have to be one or the other? “Game of Thrones” was a prestige TV drama that never shied away from its fantasy trappings. “Star Trek” is as sci-fi as it gets, and should never be anything less. Even in 1994, the Television Academy recognized that “The Next Generation” was also prestige TV by giving its final season a Best Drama nod. But the approach of “Picard” Season 1 seemed to be of metallic-hued miserabilism, a breathless flight away from anything resembling “Star Trek.”
That Season 2 maintains and deepens the characters of Season One but deploys them in a sprightly and intriguing story is a triumph. Picard didn’t even leave earth until the end of the third of eight episodes that time around. By the end of episode three in Season 2, he’s traveled around the galaxy, fought the Borg, found himself in an altered timeline, and traveled back in time. Having a serialized story but highly individualized episodes? That’s a formula “Picard” has cracked this time around.
Season 2 also feels like a more natural continuation of the Picard character himself, based on where we last saw him in 2002’s “Nemesis” and the previous “Next Generation” movies. In his time — this character is supposed to be in his mid-90s, as opposed to Patrick Stewart himself, who’s merely 81 — he’s one of the most revered individuals of the early 25th Century: an ex-Admiral the benevolent Federation reveres and new recruits to Starfleet aspire to be. But he’s never found true companionship, and he’s left to ponder whether his accolades and career achievements are enough to fill up his life. A halted move toward kissing his Romulan aide Laris (Orla Brady) gets to the problem he’s faced since the character first graced TV screens in 1987: Picard is the epitome of “seeking out new life forms and new civilizations,” but though discovery is his middle name, intimacy is forever out of his grasp.
Picard had brief, perfunctory romances while commanding the Enterprise on “Next Generation” and had an extremely promising relationship in “Star Trek: Insurrection” that was then promptly dropped for “Nemesis.” Maybe romance isn’t the answer — it certainly doesn’t have to be — but one gets the sense even his friendships are limited. If fans are disappointed that more of the “Next Generation” cast has not appeared on “Picard,” well, how close do you think the ex-captain really was to his crew? Certainly not enough to have them visit his chateau in France and share sun-kissed walks in his vineyard.
His relationships, his experiences… they’re wide and not deep. And though his actual motivations are still murky, it seems Picard’s old trickster nemesis Q (John de Lancie) shows up in part to show him that he’s spent a lot of time looking “out there” rather than inside. Choosing not to live by always prioritizing what he thinks he needs to do rather than what he wants to do. Maybe. That’s certainly what Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), now running a bar called “10” in Los Angeles — a reference to the Enterprise lounge “10 Forward” — thinks about Picard herself.
Either way, Q transports Picard and his crewmates from Season 1 off the bridge of the new Stargazer at the moment they’re about to be destroyed in a self-destruct implosion before the Borg can assimilate them. And they find themselves in a strange alternate reality. Actually, it’s their own reality, but something key changed in the past to put them in a harrowing new 25th Century: the Federation is now the Confederation, a xenophobic regime that prioritized conquest over exploration and holds public executions of its enemies. Picard was the much glorified “general” of this Confederation, and he has the skulls of the enemies he executed as trophies, some of whom are names fans of “Deep Space Nine” will appreciate.
Picard and his crewmates have kept all their memories, however, so they know how deeply wrong the Confederation is. And that prompts them, with the help of the Borg Queen of all beings, to jump back through time to the year 2024 to find the point of divergence. What results is some of the best political commentary from “Star Trek” in this entire era of new “Trek” that launched with “Discovery” on CBS All Access in 2017. While being character driven. While being a fun and thrilling story on which to embark.
The thing about those bad first seasons of “Trek” shows? They’re always the precursor to a startling turnaround. Sometimes that uptick happens in Season 2, sometimes later. “Picard” has already made it so.
The first episode of “Star Trek: Picard” Season 2 is available now and new episodes are released each Thursday on Paramount+.