By some measures, Season 3 of Star Trek: Picard has been a rousing success. It’s adored by fans, generally accepted by critics, and is the first Star Trek program to make it onto Nielsen’s Top 10 streaming charts. All signs point towards Paramount (PARA) giving the green light to the prophesied spin-off series, Star Trek: Legacy, campaigned for by the cast and showrunner Terry Matalas and demanded by the online Trekkie community. As a lifelong devotee to Star Trek as a narrative and as a philosophical text, I should be thrilled to see this kind of buzz around the franchise, especially so soon after the similarly warm reception to the excellent Star Trek: Strange New Worlds last year. Instead, I’m halfway mortified, because if the future of Star Trek looks like this season of Star Trek: Picard I honestly might prefer that the brand go back on the shelf for a decade. (Thank goodness for other future Trek projects, like the just-announced Section 31 film starring Michelle Yeoh.) Picard’s finale, like the rest of this season, is non-stop, wall-to-wall fan service, a reliable feel-good machine with no intent other than to perpetuate Star Trek. Judged simply as an hour of streaming entertainment, it’s perfectly fine. Judged against a legacy built on exploring ideas and challenging convention, however, Picard Season 3 represents a failure of imagination.
Spoilers ahead for the finale of Star Trek: Picard.
The final episode of Picard sees the beloved crew from Star Trek: The Next Generation reunited aboard a refurbished USS Enterprise-D, complete with a near-perfect reproduction of its cozy, carpeted bridge. It’s a homecoming for characters, performers, and fans alike, a made-to-order cocaine bump of nostalgia. Only this aged crew stands a chance of saving Earth and the Federation from the resurgent Borg threat, which has captured the entire Starfleet and assimilated every officer under the age of 25. Thus, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the gang warp into danger to confront their old nemesis the Borg Queen, who has turned Picard and Beverly Crusher’s son Jack (Ed Speelers) into a transmitter through whom to control her new collective. The fate of the entire galaxy may now depend on Jean-Luc’s ability to connect with his estranged offspring.
Put like that, it sounds like this story is about something, but any deeper thematic intent behind this ten-episode arc has been smothered by hour after hour of “things that would be cool to have happen.” A visit to the Starfleet museum lets us have a look at all our favorite ships from previous series again! Sure, that’s neat. The Borg have joined forces with the Changelings and are using the transporter to secretly assimilate people! Hey, that’s a cool idea. Data’s back, and he’s finally got a sense of humor! I’m happy for him. The series closes with the TNG cast having a good time around a poker table, echoing the tear-jerking final scene of The Next Generation. On paper, that should get to me. Silly as it may sound, the USS Enterprise-D is as much a home to me as any real place as I’ve ever lived, and these characters have played a meaningful role in my development as a person. This is meant to be their swan song, their Big Goodbye. So, why do I feel nothing?
I am willing to accept the possibility that the problem is me, or my professional occupation as a media critic. To earn the luxury of spending my days watching movies and TV I’ve sacrificed the freedom to simply sit back and enjoy the watch. I’ve made a job out of scratching beneath the surface of things and translating those scratchings into something useful and entertaining. Increasingly, I find myself running into the same problem: Practically everything I watch feels like a consumer product, designed to satisfy the desires of a pre-sold audience rather than to say anything or to create anything beyond demand for more of itself. And it pains me to apply the same criticism to Star Trek that I recently applied to The Super Mario Bros, Movie.
More depressing than setting Picard’s climax aboard the same old ship fighting the same old enemy and then wrapping up with a reprise of the same ending that we liked in 1994 is the finale’s transparent plea for a spin-off. Promoted to Captain, Voyager alumna Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) finally rises to command of the USS Titan, the super-cool new vessel that’s served as the setting for most of the series. Though admittedly a modernization of the beloved Constitution-Class from the original Trek, the Titan has made a name for itself as a solid “main hero ship” of the canon. So, naturally, before warping away to its next voyage with Picard’s entire younger contingent, the Titan is renamed the USS Enterprise. “Names mean almost everything,” says newly-minted Ensign Jack Crusher, who’s been assigned as Captain Seven’s “special counselor” as an excuse to have him on the spin-off.
Unfortunately, I agree with Jack here. The rechristening of the Titan says a mouthful: That what’s old and familiar is still preferable to what’s new, even when what’s new is working. It’s why the new Enterprise bridge crew features a Lt. La Forge and an Ensign Crusher, why the entire old Enterprise bridge crew survives the finale, and why John de Lancie’s Q shows up in a mid-credits teaser despite receiving a heartfelt send-off last season. Neither of Picard’s previous seasons were great television, but they took risks and left their worlds and characters changed. Season 3 holds the viewer’s hand and, rather than leading them boldly into the unknown as Star Trek should, softly assures them that the future they grew up with is right where they left it. That’s not how the future works. You’re thinking of the other one.