Picard: Season 1

It’s been well over a month since I watched Picard and it has taken me this long to summon up even enough enthusiasm about it to bother writing a review. I had been really looking forward to it, but wavered around a bit while watching. Maybe my hopes were too high, but I never really settled into it. Despite some lovely moments where I really felt part of the epic Star Trek universe, mostly I was frustrated and sad.

On one hand the series has a lot of nostalgic charm to it. There are plenty of connections back to the Next Generation, the series which introduced me to Star Trek, and to a certain extent to science fiction television as a whole. It’s hard not to smile as small refrains of the music come through, the glimpse of a familiar communicator, at Picard’s familiar mannerisms, or outright grin when Jonathan Frakes bounds on to screen as Riker. There are nods to the other series as well, it’s satisfying to see the ongoing growth of Seven of Nine’s character.

But with this nostalgia comes sadness for things that are lost, seeing once mighty characters and ideas become smaller, weaker and less relevant. Picard himself is a shadow of his former self and although it may be accurate to show him aging into a slightly doddery and occasionally foolish old man, I don’t really want to see that. Similarly the Federation and Star Fleet itself, Gene Roddenberry’s great ideas, seem to have floundered. The messages of hope and optimism seem a little lost. I can see what the writers are doing, the Next Generation is now thoroughly the Previous Generation, and it would be slightly ridiculous to not look at the themes of aging and being left behind. But I didn’t like seeing something I loved so reduced.

That may be my personal taste, the bigger problem I had with the series though was that it just didn’t always seem very good. It felt forced, lacking the organic flow that we’ve come to expect from modern TV series. It felt rushed, and that played out most heavily with the characters and relationships. The new characters mostly had little more than basic personalities built off just a couple of key traits or big mysteries about them, none of them really had any depth, and often their behavior just felt inconsistent. There wasn’t sufficient distinction between the depth of these new relationships, and the longer ones built on decades of shared experiences, I could understand Picard being desperate to find a new mission and a new crew, but the others just felt muddled. I think there were opportunities missed to make more connections to the previous series so there was more familiarity for everyone.

I suppose I should talk about the plot a bit, but it almost feels like it doesn’t matter. It certainly felt to me that the writers were mostly making things up as they went along in order to get characters together in locations that suited them. It starts off very slowly with a lot of mysteries, and then has to wedge in a lot of exposition later on – lots of flashbacks or explanations of something that happened offscreen previously. It felt clumsy and gave a very uneven pace. The level of mysticism also felt a little heavy for Star Trek (certainly the amount demonstrated by groups/races that are usually shown as more pragmatic). And I didn’t like the way it ended at all.

I’m disappointed I can’t write a more favourable review. When it was announced, the concept sounded amazing and there were plenty of Star Trek alumni in front and behind the camera to give any Trekkie a warm glow. But I think it was let down by some depressing story choices and some inelegant writing.

Star Trek: Discovery – Season 2

I was unsettled by the first season of Discovery, unable to quite decide whether I liked it or not. I even watched it a second time before watching the second season and I’m STILL not sure whether it was good or not. I think if I can’t decide, it probably wasn’t; but the cast, spectacle and nostalgia for the franchise make it watchable. What did give me a bit more confidence was the series of shorts that were released between the seasons, which were not only very well written, but are eventually revealed to be quite important backstory for season 2.

Thankfully, that trend was continued and I’m a lot more confident in saying that season 2 was Good. It felt more like Star Trek, both in terms of the stories and the way the characters behaved. The crew actually felt like they were all pulling in the same direction and wanted to be there, that’s not a requirement for all series, but for me it’s a crucial part of Star Trek. Anson Mount as Captain Pike was the Captain that the crew and the show desperately needed – charismatic, leaderly, and fun. Trying to have the series without the Captain as the main character can work, but the Captain still sets the tone for the show. The set up for the first season didn’t work because Burnham was not only not in charge, but she was disconnected from everyone else. There was no one leading and bringing the ensemble together, they were just disparate people, few of whom really wanted to be there. In one of Pike’s first scenes he actually asked the names of the bridge crew and immediately the show became more about an ensemble of people. The ship was actually a real place.

Michael Burnham also finally felt settled in, she has found the crew and the position that she needs – she has responsibilities, respect and connections. From there she starts to come to terms with her family and her past. It felt a bit of a cheap trick at first to make her Spock’s never-before-referenced sister, but the complex relationship between Sarek, Amanda and Spock was interesting to see revealed. It also gave an emotional thread to the early episodes which were otherwise a bit random chasing mysterious red lights. Sonequa Martin-Green had some great scenes throughout the series and she’s a powerful leading lady creating a fascinating character. The setup for next season should provide plenty more interesting opportunities.

I’m still not convinced about whether the series really fits in with wider canon, even with the get out of jail free card that’s played at the end. To be honest, I’m not going to bother to look up what fandom thinks, I’m sure there’s a lot of well thought through analysis (and a lot that isn’t so coherent) but I don’t care that much. I guess that’s part of the problem with Discovery, I still don’t care that much. I look forward to the episodes each week, but I don’t feel particularly invested. I think that may be because of the way it sits in the middle of all the canon that makes it feel slightly irrelevant to the bigger picture. Future characters never mentioned Discovery, so it’s like the series is in a bubble. Making me care more about the crew as a whole is a good start though and the set up for next year looks like it has lots of potential for continued improvement.

Star Trek: Discovery – Season 1

I’ve been percolating this review for a while, and even a couple of months after the season finished, I’m still not entirely certain whether the show is any good, and whether I enjoyed it. It’s going to be hard to review this without spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

I’m a Star Trek fan of old, but I’m not blind to the fact that previous series have their strengths and weaknesses. I’m not holding Discovery to any gold standards. Star Trek has always had phases of dark and powerful drama, and phases of cringe-worthy cheesiness. I’m not sure I remember any of the previous incarnations swinging quite back and forwards as widely or as quickly as Discovery does, but I could easily be miss-remembering that.

The set up for Discovery is tricky. It’s set in the television timeline (not the alternate one the new films are in) and chronologically between Enterprise and the original series. That placement is immediately tricky because they’re constrained by existing ‘history’. Except they’re not. I never really worked out how it’s supposed to fit because it seemed to me that there technologies and events that just didn’t fit into the chronology. I did try not to get distracted by things like why the magic instant-travel thing had never been mentioned, but I found it very hard, I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop the whole time.

Beyond that, the series had a few other problems too.

Star Trek is always about characters, about a crew that’s working together to make things better. That’s Roddenberry’s vision and whether it’s realistic or not, I do believe that it’s a fundamental criteria for being a Star Trek series. The crew of Discovery struggled to jell. Just as the tone of episodes swung across the spectrum of gruesome to daft, so did the characters, each of whom was playing a different tone, making it hard for them to bond. Particularly given (VAGUE SPOILER ALERT) so many of the characters ended up being deceptive or fundamentally changing over the 14 episodes. The whole “what’s going on with Lorca” thing got a old quite quick and fundamentally left the series feeling a bit rudderless. Michael’s mixture of human and vulcan felt muddled and frankly a bit of a low budget Spock. Stamets wandered all over the place thanks to the ridiculous mushrooms. Tilly was almost exclusively played for comedy (although she did it very well) and Saru was sorely under-developed. Then there was a revolving door of other characters where I was never sure if they were supposed to be important or not, having set you up for that failure in the pilot episode.

There were moments and episodes that could easily be classic Star Trek episodes (Mudd and the timeloop was absolutely outstanding), but there were also too many episodes that left me rolling my eyes and wondering what the writers were thinking (space mushrooms? Really?!).

Fundamentally I think the series moved too quickly. Jumping to the mirror universe was done too soon, we’d barely got used to this universe. Nothing ever felt settled, so no ‘change’ ever felt earned or impactful to the audience. There was a lot of good potential here, and things could improve if the second season takes it a bit more gently, although they need a strong presence to replace the captain (Hello, to Jason Isaacs). I remain almost as mystified and intrigued about where this series is going to go as I was before it came out.

Enterprise: Season 3

Season 2 concluded with 6 million people on Earth dead following an attack by an unknown alien race and Enterprise as humanity’s last best hope for.. erm.. bloody and violent vengeance by the sounds of it. Enterprise sets off into The Expanse, some wibbly bit off space to stop the Xindi before they can finish the job of destroying Earth. It all sounds very noble, heroic and not a bit like a thinly veiled metaphor for anything at all, oh no.

So we start season 3 with the lingering threat of a long drawn out arc story and the hopes that it can return Star Trek to the quality of late DS9 rather than the doldrums of early Voyager that it seems to be languishing in. 24 episodes later and rather bizarrely I think it may have done both simultaneously.

First the good. The arc storyline was definitely a Good Thing ™. Moving Enterprise away from constant whining about Vulcans worked well, T’Pol splits from the high command and almost no more is said about the whole “you held us up for 200 years” fiasco. Seeing the ship utterly out of it’s depth without being able to go run to the parents made for some interesting situations, with traditional thinking going out of the window in favour of radical moves that are needed to get the job done. The gradual unveiling of the politics of the region and the apparent threat was nicely handled and interesting to follow. My only complaint about the arc is probably that I wish they’d moved it forward a little more quickly, although things were gradually found out throughout the season it wasn’t until about 6 episodes from the end that everything suddenly exploded and moved at a real pace. Maybe spreading the ending out a bit more may have helped, although that would have led to more of the bad…

Filler. Firstly the pure filler episodes with little or nothing to do with the arc were for the most part moderately well done. North Star, Twilight and Doctors Orders were Enterprise doing a western film, Memento and Sixth Sense respectively and they were all ok. More thoughtful episodes like Similitude and Chosen Realm lectured us none-too-subtly on cloning and religious fanaticism, but were ok. The real thing that I believe killed many episodes and possibly even the season overall are the filler scenes, particularly those between Tucker and T’Pol. By the time you have the 3rd or 4th episode starting with scantily clad “neuro-pressure” sessions it really does kill the episode for you. Although T’Pol’s random behaviour is eventually explained it’s all a bit late, they may well have done irreparable damage to her character.

Under use is another criminal waste. Hoshi and Travis are having a good day if they have more than 4 lines each and judging from Linda Park’s performance in the finale this is a criminal waste of talent. Phlox generally manages a scene an episode which he generally steals, but at least he gets to appear with a diverse range of characters. The MACOs are an interesting group of new blood, but after the first couple of episodes they mostly hide in the background being competent, with the exception of their leader who gets to deal with an increasingly grumpy Reed every now and then. Tucker’s purpose for the start of the season appears to be as the personal face to Earth’s disaster, someone to have ‘interesting interplay’ with T’Pol for the middle of the season and spend the last 1/4 of the season generally looking haggard. T’Pol seemed to at some point forget that she was a highly trained Secret Service agent and turn into the damsel in distress and have some kind of emotional breakdown. Once the explanations for this are made and she actually starts dealing with stuff she’s back to being interesting again for the end of the season.

That just leaves the Captain. He’s at least showing more competency than for the previous 2 seasons where I generally felt that T’Pol and Reed should mutiny and throw him and his bloody puppy in the brig. As his ship falls apart around him he does seem to decide that he’d rather not explain to Starfleet why it’s quite so banged up and hence finds a spectacular number of suicide missions to go on. (Incidentally – I loved the fact that the ship suffered and it wasn’t all fixed next episode, although I think they may have wanted to look at all those sparking things a little faster.) He really needs to learn to shoot and stop getting beaten up quite so often, but he’s getting better.

Looking back over the episode guides the synopses remind me of the core of the episodes and I remember the good bits. However I also remember that by mid-season I was hugely unimpressed with the whole thing. I think this stems from the fact that the core stories are good and well told, it’s the filler and diversity that let them down. Much like The Phantom Menace is an ok film if you remove any scene featuring Anakin and Amidala, I wonder if season 3 would be better removing any scene with just Trip and T’Pol. I’m glad that it’s got another series, but it’s got a hard battle to get back anyone that it’s already lost and I really don’t think it’s going to manage it.

As for the end of the season, it’s a very satisfying end to the arc, have no fear, it is worth the wait. What happens *after* that though is just one great big huge “what the…?” to keep the message boards buzzing over the summer.