Spoiler Warning: I will be looking at material from the two trailers for Star Trek: Picard, as well as discussing the most recent season of Star Trek: Discovery. There will also be spoilers for other Star Trek films and series.
In either 1999 or 2000 – I can’t remember which – I was listening to the radio when the news of a new Star Trek show was breaking. In the UK, the complicated rights agreements in place for broadcasting Star Trek meant that – at least for households which didn’t have satellite television – we were quite behind where the various series were in their US airings. The Next Generation had concluded its run, though Deep Space Nine and Voyager hadn’t yet, and I was very interested to see what would be coming next for the franchise.
When it was announced that the new series – later titled Enterprise – would in fact be a prequel, I wasn’t impressed. Star Trek was about looking forward to the future, I felt, so why did they need to go back in time to before Captain Kirk? In addition, Star Wars Epsiode I: The Phantom Menace had been in cinemas, and there was a lot of talk at the time about how prequels as a concept were bad – some of which admittedly went over my head in my youth.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t convinced about a Star Trek prequel and during Enterprise‘s original run on television over here, I only tuned in sporadically. It wasn’t until I got the series on DVD a few years later that I got to watch it in its entirety. Enterprise actually told some great stories – and is a good example of how a show that “no one asked for” can actually be worth watching after all. But this isn’t a review of Enterprise.
Since just after the turn of the millennium, when Voyager went off the air and Nemesis hit cinemas, the Star Trek franchise hasn’t moved its timeline forward. Instead, we’ve had Enterprise and Discovery – both of which are set before Kirk’s original five-year mission – and the Kelvin-timeline reboot films – which are also set in the 23rd Century, but in an alternate timeline. In all that time we’ve had some admittedly interesting stories, and in 2009’s Star Trek a very brief glimpse at the post-Nemesis future, but no real advancement of the overall narrative of the franchise. And while Enterprise, Discovery, and even the Kelvin-timeline films have told some fun, interesting, and “Star Trek-y” stories, they’ve all been firmly embedded in a time period we’ve seen before.
Any prequel has an uphill struggle when it comes to telling a dramatic and interesting story, as well as building tension. The reason is simple – we know what comes next. You can have a galaxy-ending threat as part of your narrative, but if we’ve seen the galaxy fifty or a hundred years hence, we know that the threat isn’t serious – and even if in the moment it’s possible to get caught up in the story, at the back of our minds we still know that there will be a way out of it. At least, that’s how it works for me. As an example, in season 3 of Enterprise we follow the crew as they race to stop the Xindi planet-killing weapon from destroying the Earth. And that’s a very exciting story – arguably Enterprise‘s best season – but while watching it, at the back of my mind I was always aware that in the 23rd and 24th Centuries, we’ve been to Earth and we’ve seen that it clearly wasn’t destroyed. The journey can still be entertaining if the destination is known, but for me at least, knowing the outcome robs the story of some of its drama and tension.
This is why series like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead have been so successful with what I call the “disposable cast”. By routinely killing off key characters and getting rid of starring actors and actresses, simply being a main cast member isn’t enough to guarantee safety any more – and the sense that anything could happen is present all the time as a viewer, arguably raising the stakes.
Star Trek has occasionally lost main cast members, though these have more often been motivated by production reasons – such as a cast member leaving the series, or the showrunners deciding to “refresh” the cast by replacing someone – rather than for purely narrative ones. In most cases, as viewers we tend to feel that the main characters are safe, and it’s the redshirts like Ensign Bob, introduced for the first time five minutes ago, who are most in danger in any given scenario.
But as we’re now in a new phase of television, one dominated in the aftermath of shows like Game of Thrones with ideas like the “disposable cast” and serialised storytelling, there are new and exciting possibilities for Star Trek. We’ve already seen some of this in Discovery – the first two seasons each told season-long stories instead of being episodic, and we’ve seen characters like Lorca killed off, as well as Pike, Spock, and Una appearing for a single season, and of course Ash Tyler being left behind as Burnham leads the U.S.S. Discovery into the future. Sir Patrick Stewart, when interviewed regarding the new series, has gone on record saying that Picard will be “like a ten-hour movie” instead of a series of episodes – firmly stating that this will be another serialised show.
Personally I’m a fan of episodic television – I think it’s great to be able to drop into an episode of a show without needing to have followed the entire season to understand what’s going on. Previous iterations of Star Trek largely operate like this, though the aforementioned third season of Enterprise, as well as the Dominion War arc in Deep Space Nine, were serialised stories. But for shows like TNG and Voyager, it’s possible to jump into most episodes and follow a single story over forty-five minutes. I like that, and I think it makes for a good format. There’s no getting away from the move to serialised shows, though, and Picard is set to go down this route.
When the TNG-era series all concluded around the turn of the millennium, there were a lot of leftover story points. Although each crew had arguably reached their destination – Deep Space Nine ended its war, Voyager saw the crew make it home, and Nemesis saw the Enterprise’s crew go their separate ways – 500-odd episodes across 21 seasons of TV, along with four films, told over a 15-year period from 1987 to 2002 had a lot of stories to tell and taking that era of Star Trek off the air left a lot of open-ended, unfinished plot threads. There are too many to name here, but a few that spring to mind are: what would happen next for Cardassia after the war? How would the Klingon-Romulan-Federation alliance work with no common enemy? And what happened to the Borg after Voyager attacked their transwarp network and the Queen’s complex? In addition, finding out what happened next to a lot of the characters is something fans would like to know.
By this point in time, several members of Kirk’s crew have had their futures shown on screen. Kirk himself died saving Veridian III in Generations, McCoy lived to a ripe old age and helped christen the Enterprise-D when it launched, Spock ended up in the Kelvin timeline after trying to save Romulus, and Scotty emerged from transporter-suspension in the TNG episode Relics. But what happened next for the crews we’d seen in the TNG era is still unknown to fans – and there’s definitely scope to explore some of that within Picard.
I don’t feel that Picard should overload itself with characters, though. It’s a short series – clocking in at only ten episodes – and the more time it spends looking back, the less time there is to look forward. And the more time it spends with fan favourites of the past, the less time there is to show off the new crew. I’d like to give the new cast a chance to become fan favourites for the next generation (pun intended) of Star Trek fans. I really hope that in another thirty years’ time they’ll be clamouring to find out what happened next to some of these characters the way we are for those of the TNG era. So in that sense, Picard has to walk a line between what happened since Nemesis and what’s to come.
It’s my hope that Picard can strike that balance, and that while we’ll learn a great deal about the shape of the Star Trek galaxy and what happened next for some fan-favourite characters, we’ll also get an exciting original story in which those pieces of information are conveyed. The Next Generation didn’t spend too much of its time in its first season looking backwards – aside from DeForest Kelley’s cameo in Encounter at Farpoint and a couple of name-drops, TNG told its own story. Some elements of that story filled in the blanks for returning fans – we learn, for example, that the Klingons and Federation are at peace, and that the Romulans have isolated themselves for a number of years – but they weren’t in-your-face about it, and those story points unfolded naturally in the episodes in question. They didn’t feel tacked-on or shoehorned in in order to provide cheap fanservice – something I’d argue has happened in some recent Star Wars projects.
At the end of the day, Picard is taking the franchise forward in time – to the close of the 24th Century. And it’s the first time in a very long time that the timeline is going to advance. That is already a huge point in its favour, and without knowing much at all about the story, it’s enough to get me hyped up.
The two trailers for Picard have been great, and I can’t wait to catch up with Seven of Nine, Riker, Troi, and of course, Picard himself. I’m also really interested to learn more about the new cast – including, for the first time, a Romulan main cast member. It looks from the trailers that we’ll see some Borg story elements, as well as learning more about the Romulans after the destruction of their capital. All of those things seem absolutely fascinating, and while I have to admit I’d be hyped up for almost any Star Trek story that moves the narrative forward, the teases we’ve seen of Picard just look incredible.
I know that recent Star Trek projects haven’t thrilled everyone in the fanbase, but I really do hope that Trekkies who weren’t taken with Discovery will give Picard a try. The chance to see what comes next isn’t something we’re always going to get. A lot of shows – by far the majority – are one-off things, and when they’re done they’re done. Some even get cancelled too soon, before even the first part of their story can be told. So this opportunity that Picard presents is a rarity, one I intend to take full advantage of. If Picard is a success, it has the potential to be a launchpad for other series set in the same time period, taking the Star Trek franchise boldly into the 25th Century.
While I don’t expect Picard to spend its entire runtime catching up with galactic events and reintroducing old crewmates, I do hope we’ll get enough of that to feel like we’re back in that galaxy again – combined with enough new material and new characters to drive the story forward and give new fans a chance to get hooked in. Walking that line between the old and the new might be a challenge, but I’m confident that the producers, having cut their teeth on Discovery, can manage it with ease. And with Picard having just been renewed for a second season while I was writing this column, ViacomCBS are clearly confident of that too.
After almost two decades, Star Trek is finally ready to move forward again. With just over a month left to go, I can feel the excitement building already. Forget Christmas, forget New Year – it’s Star Trek: Picard that I’m most looking forward to right now!
Live Long and Prosper!
The Star Trek franchise, Star Trek: Picard, and all other Star Trek properties mentioned above are the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.