Star Trek boldly goes back: the welcome return of Jean-Luc Picard
If you travelled back to 2002 and told the world that there would one day be a television programme about the continued adventures of Jean-Luc Picard, chances are you’d get a smack in the mouth. By 2002, Picard and the entire Star Trek: The Next Generation crew were a spent force. The four films to feature the TNG cast (Generations, First Contact, Insurrection and Nemesis) were hugely disappointing affairs; cheap, staid and targeted too squarely at a thin sliver of fanatics. It would take seven years and a radical overhaul of the franchise to make Star Trek anything like popular again. Picard, it was assumed, would die with Nemesis.
How things change. Now there’s not only going to be a new Picard-centric Star Trek series, but people are actually looking forward to it. During the Las Vegas Star Trek Convention, it was announced that Patrick Stewart, Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman, Kirsten Beyer and Michael Chabon were teaming up to “tell the story of the next chapter of Picard’s life”. That’s a vague promise, but a rapturously received one nonetheless.
Thanks to Star Trek’s new series, Discovery, the franchise is in a radically different place to the slightly backwards-looking era of the modern reboots. Although far from perfect – it was saggy and overcomplicated in places – Discovery had a confident sheen of prestige to it. It couldn’t quite enter the realm of the all-time greats (for my money it was five episodes too long), but it showed enough promise to blow the Star Trek universe wide apart. Now there’s Discovery, a fourth rebooted film, the mooted Tarantino project and the Star Trek: Short Treks miniseries on the go at once, and a new Picard series should slot into this landscape seamlessly.
Of course, most of the excitement about this series concerns Patrick Stewart. Not only is he a beloved figure in the Star Trek world – if it wasn’t for him, after all, Star Trek captains would still be bonehead punch-’em-up Kirk analogues – but his range has increased enormously in the last decade or so. Stewart’s light touch, previously only glimpsed in outtakes is much more pronounced now. Nobody watched him in Starz’s Blunt Talk, but his was an almost virtuoso-level comedic performance. I’d bet my life on the bulk of the Picard show being heavily dramatic, but let’s not forget that the main character drinks Earl Grey and enjoys the work of Gilbert and Sullivan. If it can incorporate even a shade of Frasier in Space, I’d be thrilled.
But the most exciting name on that roster might just be Kirsten Beyer. Beyer was a staff writer on Discovery, but she’s also written 10 Star Trek: Voyager novels. Her works – such as Full Circle or Children of the Storm – kept the diehard fans going through Star Trek’s lean years. They were able to wing off in directions that film and television couldn’t allow, going deep into technology and mythology and concentrating on minor but well-loved side characters. Beyer is essentially a fan who knows the canon inside out and has been given the keys to the kingdom. The nearest television equivalent to this is when Russell T Davies got to reboot Doctor Who, and that went quite well.
Let’s not be too prematurely triumphant here. This sort of thing doesn’t always go as smoothly as anyone would like, especially since fans often demonstrate a toxic proprietorship over work they enjoy. Look at the hammering that Rian Johnson continues to take for not painstakingly adhering to doctrine on the last Star Wars film – or look at the showrunner churn that preceded Discovery – and it’s clear that opposition to this could come from any quarter.
But pessimism isn’t a very Star Trek quality. It has always been about the exploration of bravery and open-eyed enthusiasm, so let’s start there. In principle, a Jean-Luc Picard series could be tremendous. If everyone involved walks the fine line between respecting the past and breaking new ground, then this might be a show worth getting really excited about.