When we catch up with Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: Picard, nearly two decades after we last saw him at the helm of the Enterprise, the former starship captain is living an idyllic life, sipping wine on his French vineyard and enjoying the company of his loyal dog (delightfully named Number One). And for those of us who grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Patrick Stewart’s quietly commanding performance as Picard… we’d be happy just to watch that show, right? Jean-Luc could tour local vineyards with his pooch, trying out new vintages and quoting Shakespeare — like a sci-fi version of The Wine Show — and we’d gladly devour each and every episode, simply because we love this character, and this actor, so much.
But, as the producers of Star Trek: Picard know all too well, that kind of affection can be a double-edged sword. How do you give TNG fans what they want, but also give them something new? It’s a tricky needle to thread, balancing nostalgia with innovation, and Picard — debuting today on CBS All Access; I’ve seen the first three episodes — gets off to an admittedly bumpy start in its attempt to weave Jean-Luc into a fresh story with lots of twists and turns. It takes a while to fully gel, and some fans might start to get impatient, but I’m happy to report that Picard does eventually set up an intriguing mission that’s worthy of its lead character.
Jean-Luc may seem to be enjoying his retirement, but he’s actually nursing a deep grudge against Starfleet for the way they handled a humanitarian crisis, leading to a nasty split. So there’s still some fire in his belly when he meets a mysterious young girl named Dahj (Isa Briones) who’s also an unexpected link to his past. It’s all enough to nudge him off that vineyard of his, and Picard evolves into a densely plotted conspiracy thriller… that gets a little too dense at times. (I think I understand 80 percent of what’s going on, but that might be generous.) We’re introduced to a bewildering array of new characters in a hurry, and a subplot on a Romulan base doesn’t connect to Picard’s mission urgently enough to earn all the screen time it gets early on. (It’s a bit reminiscent of the Klingon scenes on Star Trek: Discovery — which is not a compliment.)
Picard is a decidedly sedate affair as well: talky, meditative and barely sci-fi at times, with nary a space battle to be found in the first three episodes. (We spend a lot of time on Earth, too, which stands in stark contrast to Discovery‘s zippy galaxy-hopping.) We do get some nods to Jean-Luc’s Next Generation days — his drink order is an early highlight — but Picard admirably blazes its own trail, assembling a solid crew of newcomers to join Jean-Luc on his mission. The Newsroom‘s Alison Pill is charmingly awkward, a la Discovery‘s Tilly, as geeky robotics professor Agnes, and I instantly liked Jean-Luc’s jaded ex-Starfleet pal Raffi (played by Blindspot‘s Michelle Hurd), since she doesn’t just gawk in admiration of the great captain and even dares to challenge him a little. Plus, Santiago Cabrera (Salvation) adds a dash of swagger as Rios, a Han Solo-ish pilot with a checkered past.
Really, though, Picard centers on Stewart, and the 79-year-old actor brings keen new insight to an old role here, as Jean-Luc faces his own mortality in a harsh world that treats him like a delusional old coot. (Picard also recognizes, wisely, that Jean-Luc isn’t up for big action scenes anymore, and mostly sidelines him when fights break out.) It’s a true pleasure to see Stewart in his element again, and it’s a relief that Picard has managed to build a new universe around him that we’d actually like to spend more time in. By the end of Episode 3, I was starting to feel those familiar Next Generation vibes again… and that might be the highest recommendation of all.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Though the plotting gets dense at times, Star Trek: Picard has created an intriguing new mission for star Patrick Stewart.