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'Star Trek: Picard' soars by embracing the legacy of 'The Next Generation'

Jonathan Frakes as Will Riker and Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard.
Trae Patton
Trae Patton/Paramount+
Jonathan Frakes as Will Riker and Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard.

One of the central themes in Star Trek: Picard has been the importance of accepting every bit of your past, so you can move forward to a new future.

Which is why it's surprising that Paramount+'s new series — centered on Patrick Stewart's beloved, aging starship captain Jean-Luc Picard — has taken so long to learn that lesson for itself.

Gates McFadden as Dr. Beverly Crusher.
Trae Patton / Trae Patton/Paramount+
Trae Patton/Paramount+
Gates McFadden as Dr. Beverly Crusher.

Fortunately, the third and supposedly final season of Star Trek: Picard practically forces the series to change course, pulling in more characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation to join their former captain, including Jonathan Frakes' William Riker, Michael Dorn's Worf, LeVar Burton's Geordi La Forge, Marina Sirtis' Deanna Troi and Gates McFadden's Dr. Beverly Crusher, among others.

The result: A program that finally brings the rollicking spirit and camaraderie of the '80s and '90s-era series into a modern context, reintroducing old characters in bold new ways — with contemporary special effects and cinematography — while leaning into all the things that made fans love The Next Generation series in the first place.

Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine, Patrick Stewart as Picard, and Jonathan Frakes as Riker.
Nicole Wilder / Nicole Wilder/Paramount
Nicole Wilder/Paramount+
Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine, Patrick Stewart as Picard, and Jonathan Frakes as Riker.

Old characters find new purpose

Nowhere are the benefits of this new approach more apparent than in the arc of the very first character we meet in this new season: McFadden's Dr. Beverly Crusher.

Brent Spiner as Soong.
Trae Patton / CBS
Brent Spiner as Soong.

Next Generation fans will remember that the series often couldn't figure out what to do with her. Yes, she was the starship Enterprise's more-than-capable chief medical officer. But she was also mother to a precocious ensign on the ship, widow to a man who was killed under Picard's command and a sometimes-but-not-quite love interest for the captain himself.

McFadden told me in January — in response to a question I asked during a press conference — that she had pressed for Dr. Crusher to get more action scenes back in the day, to no avail. But she gets her wish on Star Trek: Picard, which opens with Dr. Crusher in a shootout with unknown villains who will become the biggest of bad guys for the show's expansive third season.

She also uncorks a huge personal secret of Picard's that threatens to redefine his legacy and change his life in harrowing new ways – something that blindsides the now Admiral Picard, just as he's thinking of slowing down and living a different life.

"I am not a man who needs a legacy," Picard says, in a line so weighted with foreshadowing, it falls out of his mouth like an anvil. "I want a new adventure."

Who's to say you can't have both?

Turning a painful legacy into a new adventure

Without giving too much away, the third season of Picard accomplishes exactly that, drawing together most of The Next Generation crew to face a new threat rooted in their long history together — with more than few nods to other Trek series, such as Voyager and Deep Space Nine. Along the way, Stewart's character must come to terms with decisions he made long ago, while learning how much his old compatriots have changed since they last shared an adventure together.

Those who have watched previous seasons of Picard, will recognize that this is the type of story the series has tried to tell before — Picard as a lion in winter, drawn out by a new threat, which he can only defeat by learning to accept the mistakes in his past (last season's episodes, which were particularly disappointing, even featured therapy sessions and flashbacks to his childhood, in case the symbolism was too obtuse.)

But each of those storylines felt unsatisfying and incomplete. Now, it's more obvious why — Picard can never reconcile conflicts from his past without engaging the other beloved characters from his swashbuckling history. Fans have spent decades consuming the adventures of The Next Generation crew — to suggest in this new series that Picard had a huge and damaging part of his background that mostly didn't involve them, felt unrealistic and unearned.

Previous seasons of the show spent too much time and effort building a new family of characters around Picard. Or they brought back familiar faces in different forms, having John de Lancie return in season two as a hugely diminished version of the extra-dimensional entity Q, or trotting out Brent Spiner — who played fan-favorite android Data in The Next Generation series — to play villainous geneticist Adam Soong.

In this third season, when we see Dr. Crusher and Picard talk about their past romance, those scenes are fortified by the weight of events in episodes from more than 30 years earlier. When we eventually see Dorn's Worf and Frakes' Riker trade playful insults, it continues a dynamic Trek fans first fell in love with decades ago.

Paramount+'s new Trek series have worked hard to establish their own identities — no mean feat for the latest iterations of a nearly 60-year-old franchise with loads of TV series, films, novels and merchandise preceding them. In particular, Star Trek: Discovery, the series built around Sonequa Martin-Green's previously unknown adopted sister to Mr. Spock, developed a new approach to Trek stories that bent and broke many of the rules developed in previous generations.

But the success last yearof Star Trek: Strange New Worlds — a Discovery spin-off centered on the adventures of the Enterprise years before Captain James T. Kirk would take the helm — showed the value of returning to the classic rhythms of the original series, boosted by the thrill of seeing new origin stories for characters like Spock, Christine Chapel and Nyota Uhura.

So it makes sense Picard would stage a creative turnaround in its third season with a similar strategy (perhaps longtime Trek nerd Terry Matalas, who took over as sole showrunner for this season, had something to do with the narrative upgrades). It's about time the new Trek series stopped sidestepping the franchise's long legacy — instead, finding ways to embrace it again, while leaving room for new ideas, new characters and new challenges.

One other problem with Star Trek: Picard, that the new season addresses less skillfully, is the sense that the weakest link in the series is often Picard himself. At age 82, Stewart is hardly going to be jumping into physical fist fights in the same way colleagues 10 or 15 years younger might do (it's worth noting most of the Next Generation cast members who show up here are between 65 and 74 years old themselves, making this season of Picard a great argument against ageism in TV. )

But beyond the physicality of the role, a lot of Picard's story points have turned on the character's regrets about how major decisions in his past have affected friends and family. It's meaty ground to cover for an actor, but it can have the unintended consequence of turning him into the most indecisive character onscreen. Which is not a great look for a legendary starship captain-turned-admiral.

Is this truly the end for Picard?

During the same press conference where McFadden spoke on her long struggle to develop Dr. Crusher, Stewart and executive producer Alex Kurtzman hinted that Picard could continue past this supposed final season, if there was enough interest from fans and Paramount in making it so.

"There is still enormous potential for narrative in what we've been doing," Stewart said then. "And there are (narrative) doors left open still...We didn't close all of them."

I'm predicting fans will love seeing The Next Generation crew together again and back in action they way Star Trek: Picard presents them.

The only question left — at least for me — is whether Paramount Global will have the good sense to keep a great Trek series going, just as it has finally found a thrilling new voice.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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