Review ‘Star Trek: Picard’: A Final Season Retreads Past Glories But Ekes Out A Win

The 'Next Generation' crew is back, and cheeky references to past Treks abound. But there's just enough new here to make things work.

Jonathan Frakes (left) as Riker and Patrick Stewart as Picard in ‘Star Trek: Picard.’ Trae Patton/Paramount+

The year is 2023, and the revenge of the nerds is at hand. Not only are the embarrassing hobbies and interests of yesterday the massive market movers of today (superheroes, video games, Dungeons & Dragons), but the outcasts are now running the clubhouse. 

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Look to the top of the pyramid at Marvel Studios, and you’ll find lifelong comics obsessive Kevin Fiege. The Star Wars sequel trilogy was bookended by films by director J.J. Abrams, whose adoration for the original is apparent in every frame, for better and for worse. The commercial success of their work is indicative of corporate entertainment’s current strategy of letting the demands or expectations of large, vocal fanbases — the sort that can make or break your movie on social media — dictate the creative direction of their most valuable franchises. While this effort to give fans exactly what they want occasionally results in something fun and satisfying, even these successes tend to be recursive and repetitive, and understandably so. People whose love for a fictional character or world is all-consuming are almost always going to demand more of the same, with as little variation as possible. And so long as the people in charge of making those new iterations are die-hards themselves, they’ll be only too happy to give it to them.

Such is the case with the third season of Star Trek: Picard, a crowd-pleasing product that takes the safest path to victory and narrowly ekes out a win.

Current Star Trek head honcho Alex Kurtzman has what I consider to be a healthy relationship with the franchise, embracing the diversity of its fanbase and trying to offer “something for everyone” rather than “one thing for everyone.” The current slate of Trek shows includes the contemporary and hyperbolic Star Trek: Discovery, the old-school episodic Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, and two radically different animated series aimed at well-heeled older fans and uninitiated children, respectively. The odd duck of the bunch is undoubtedly Star Trek: Picard, which was conceived by original showrunner Michael Chabon as a more meditative adult drama about its aging lead character, played by a returning Sir Patrick Stewart, and a new cast of younger supporting characters. That story was met with an uneven reception, and the second season, headed by Akiva Goldsman, was an even more raggedy time travel adventure set almost entirely on contemporary Earth. Say what you will about these two seasons of Picard (and I certainly have), they did, at least, head off in unexpected directions. Their risk-taking didn’t pay off, but I have to respect that they were willing to dive into the deep end.

Patrick Stewart as Picard (left) Michael Dorn as Worf in ‘Star Trek: Picard.’ Trae Patton/Paramount+

By contrast, the third and final season of Star Trek: Picard is wearing water wings. New showrunner Terry Matalas has remodeled the show yet again, this time in the image of the ‘80s Trek films he loved growing up, namely Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. These are the films of writer-director Nicholas Meyer, who overhauled Gene Roddenberry’s Wagon Train to the Stars into a more self-serious naval adventure in space. (These happen also to be my own favorite entries in the film franchise.) For the first time, Star Trek: Picard is set primarily aboard a Starfleet vessel with a Starfleet crew, encountering strange astral phenomena and engaging in some exciting space battles. Nearly all of the characters introduced in the first two seasons have been jettisoned in favor of reuniting the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which sadly isn’t a tragedy other than for the young actors who lost their jobs to people whose careers all but ended 20 years ago. This ten-hour season is essentially Matalas’ crack at making a Star Trek XI, a final installment of the Next Gen film series that appeals to mass audiences and rebounds from its bleak, unsatisfying tenth chapter, Star Trek: Nemesis.

All of this I knew to expect before I began watching the episodes that Paramount (PARA) provided me for review, and in truth, my first hour of viewing reinforced most of my prejudices against it. I felt blatantly, aggressively pandered to, and like being on a date with someone who’s too eager to please, I was a little embarrassed and a lot turned off. The average viewer probably will not pick up on the near-constant visual, auditory, and story quotes from The Wrath of Khan, but to me — ostensibly the kind of person these bits are aimed at — they were insufferable. Between the marathon of winks to other, better Star Treks, the endless stream of clumsy expository dialogue, and one of the most predictable twist endings in recent memory, I was ready to write off the season then and there as Trek’s equivalent to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, an installment so desperate for approval that it sacrificed any identity of its own. However, since I am not only a Star Trek completist but a professional whose ability to pay rent depends on it, I pressed on. And, by the time I’d finished my six advance episode screeners, not only did I no longer hate the show, I’d legitimately gotten into it, and I now eagerly anticipate the arrival of the final four episodes to my inbox.

The improvement between the first and following episodes is staggering. Picard immediately feels more like a show for and written by grown-ups. (The season’s cringiest scripts are both credited at least in part to Terry Matalas. Television writing is a group effort, but it’s hard not to notice how much more sweaty and faux-clever the dialogue is in these two episodes.) The cheeky references and borrowed charm never entirely stop, but the storytellers gradually expand the variety of past Treks from which they draw influence. While it’s still safer than hinging the story on wholly new elements, I did not expect history from lesser-seen franchise entries like Deep Space Nine or even earlier seasons of Picard to become critical pieces of backstory. (If you’re not familiar with them, don’t worry, they’ll catch you up.) More importantly, none of the familiar characters whose presence on the show is expected to draw in nostalgic lapsed fans are exactly as we left them. They’ve all grown, and not all in the same directions, leading to some well-earned character conflict, something famously in short supply on The Next Generation. There’s fanservice galore and it never entirely stops being a retread of previous, successful Star Trek stories, but it’s also not a bland Greatest Hits collection. There’s just enough here that’s new to justify its existence in my book.

However, despite how much Picard improves over the course of the season, it’s unlikely that it will ever achieve the greatness of the Star Trek films after which it’s patterned. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a beloved fan favorite today, but it was the subject of no small controversy when it was released in 1982 for the extent to which it reinvented Star Trek. Neither producer Harve Bennett nor director and uncredited screenwriter Nicholas Meyer were Trekkies, and they weren’t shy about injecting their own sensibilities into the work at the expense of those of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. (Roddenberry is even rumored to have tried to deliberately sabotage the film out of spite.) Star Trek is clearly sacred to Terry Matalas and his team, and they have created something that should satisfy others to whom it is just as precious. It’s by fans and for fans, which is a reliable way to guarantee an immediately warm reception. It is not, however, how you create something that stands out, that stands on its own, or that stands the test of time.

Review ‘Star Trek: Picard’: A Final Season Retreads Past Glories But Ekes Out A Win