The third time is the charm. Or rather, the third season.
“Star Trek: Picard” is finally a show worth watching — and celebrating. It’s had fits and glimmers of brilliance before this: the episode “Nepenthe” from Season 1. The first three episodes of Season 2. But very little else.
At the heart of the previous two seasons of the Patrick Stewart-starring show was a profound misunderstanding: that to avoid the nostalgia-trap of so many IP-revivals it had to completely reinvent the wheel when it came to “Star Trek” altogether. That meant sudden bursts of ultra-violence and a muted, monochromatic color palette, as if it was trying (poorly) to be an HBO prestige drama. As if that was the way to move the ball forward. There seemed to be a pathological fear of “Picard” repeating what “Star Trek: The Next Generation” had done; so much so, that “Picard” was defined by what it was not, more than what it was. And the whole thing felt like some kind of perverse anti-fan service that tried so hard not to become a thing that it became it: we have a teary farewell to Data at the end of Season 1 that doesn’t move much beyond what “Nemesis” delivered, and a Season 2 that, after a promising start, becomes the redo of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” set in present-day LA that no one could ever have wanted.
Here’s the deal: most fans were never clamoring for a show that would be a “Next Generation” Season 8, as if we were suddenly transported back to the fall of 1994 and granted a new batch of episodes. Or to 2003, and stories set in the immediate aftermath of “Star Trek: Nemesis.” Unlike most other fandoms, Trekkies are generally not quite as nostalgia-obsessed. We didn’t care to feel how we did 20-plus years ago when we were kids, we simply wanted to see what these beloved characters were doing in the “present-day.” It was about bringing them forward, not looking back.
And that’s where “Picard” Season 3 finally, thankfully gets it right. They don’t have to be in uniform, they don’t have to be on a Starship bridge, it’s simply thrilling to spend more time among these personalities we loved and see how they’ve changed — not relive their greatest hits. Season 3 is so much more than “Next Generation” Season 8, even if that’s the clever shorthand that’ll be used to market it. This is a thrilling, heartfelt character piece that also happens to have some of the most exciting action set-pieces of any “Trek” series since the franchise bowed anew with “Discovery” in 2017. One moment of starship action involving Jonathan Frakes’ Capt. Riker, and directed by MVP helmer Frakes himself, in Episode 4 is the most excitingly cinematic space combat on the small screen since “Battlestar Galactica” went off the air 13 years ago.
If you were burned by Seasons 1 and 2, give Season 3 a chance. It begins with Picard receiving a mysterious message from Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), who he hasn’t spoken to in over 20 years. In fact, she hasn’t spoken to any of her old crewmates from the Enterprise in that time. She simply vanished to go off into something like the galaxy’s version of Doctors Without Borders. Now, she’s being pursued by a harrowing threat. And of course, Stewart’s Picard can’t help but spring into action with Riker to help her. In organic and surprising ways, the other members of the “Next Generation” cast come together, all in quite different places than where we saw them decades ago: Michael Dorn’s Worf, the great Klingon warrior, is now a pacifist. Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) is a father. Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Riker, her husband, are going through a rough patch. And there are elements of “Next Gen” and “Deep Space Nine” revived here that you’ll never see coming. Even better, they’re not just callbacks, they are integral to the plot: characters and story points and alien species that are evolved, spun forward, not just resurfaced.
Arguably, that’s something that didn’t happen with the “Next Generation” movies, where all the character development of, say, Worf, on “Deep Space Nine,” practically seemed erased when he was on the bridge of the Enterprise again. But there’s much more of value in those movies than is generally acknowledged: “First Contact” may be the most praised of the bunch, but there’s humor and depth of feeling and fascinating dilemmas in “Insurrection” and “Nemesis” as well. Showrunner Terry Matalas seems to have done the impossible: he’s taken the best aspects of those movies — the action, especially — and really succeeded in creating, in his own words, a “Next Generation” movie told in 10 episodes. He may even have undersold his achievement. “Picard” Season 3 is not a story that could be told in just a feature running-time. Every one of the first six episodes screened for critics feels essential, and likely can be enjoyed both in a binge and week-to-week. I binged it… and now intend to watch it week to week as well.
Just as exciting are the new characters. The characters introduced in Season 1 and 2 were all well-acted, they just weren’t well-written. This time around the writing is worthy of the talent of Michelle Hurd, the one character introduced in the previous seasons who carried over. Worthy of returning legacy characters too: Jeri Ryan, whose Seven of Nine may have had the best arc of anyone in the previous two seasons and is the definition of what it means to evolve a character successfully beyond the way we knew that character decades ago. And, crucially, the writing is worthy of three compelling new characters in Season 3: the main villain Vadik (Amanda Plummer, who sinks her teeth into a role as menacing and pontificating as Khan), U.S.S. Titan Capt. Shaw (Todd Stashwick) whose personality couldn’t be more off-putting at first but becomes an MVP of the season, and Sidney LaForge (Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut), who is everything you’d imagine Geordie’s daughter to be and more.
Will this be the final sendoff for Picard and the “Next Generation” cast? It does feel like there are too many interesting threads being set up here to completely resolve by Episode 10, the series finale. And it’s hard not to want more just when they’ve finally gotten it right. Or maybe, a rousing finale that leaves us wanting more is the best way to go. Of the proliferation of “Trek” series that have streamed since 2017, only Season 4 of “Discovery” and the initial season of “Strange New Worlds” have come close to what “Picard” Season 3 manages. In a landscape glutted with content, where nothing seems to break through, this is an actual “event.” A well-crafted one at that. And, barring some catastrophic downturn in the final episodes, quite a legacy.
“Star Trek: Picard” Season 3 premieres February 16 on Paramount+ with new episodes released each Thursday.