Retired Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) unexpectedly discovers a startling connection to the long-dead Data and a new mission with old connections.
The most anticipated "Star Trek" launch since the premiere of "The Next Generation" back in 1987, "Picard" brings back Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard as a battle-worn old man who suddenly finds a reason to start living again.
If that doesn't sound like typical Trek fare, that's because there is absolutely nothing about this episode that is typical. This is a slow burn character study that shares more in common with the X-Men peripheral movie "Logan" -- perhaps not coincidentally also starring Stewart -- than it does any of the six series that have preceded it (or the dozen "Star Trek" films across both timelines).
It's an intentional decision and one that shows just how much room there is yet to explore in this space fantasy Gene Rodenberry created more than 50 years ago. Of course, it helps if you have an actor as incredibly versatile and gifted as Patrick Stewart at the helm, so to speak.
While this premiere lacked a specific impetus or urgency to carry us into future episodes, the teaser for the entire season served to do that job well enough. Still, it would have been nice to get just one more scene or two to emphasize that hook that brings Jean-Luc fully into the upcoming adventure and perhaps offers some of the danger we'll be in for as we follow our favorite captain again.
Something like having the Romulans beam in again to where Picard is, maybe drawn to the necklace, or even to the surprise (yet familiar) character at the end so we could get a sense of genuine danger there instead of a slightly creepy guy we only mistrust because this isn't the first television show we've ever seen.
It's always said that the best science fiction reflects the era in which it is created, and that can definitely be said about "Picard." This is a world that's lost the optimism and hope that defined the Roddenberry era of "Star Trek." In its place are a people untrusting of those markedly different than them.
This isn't to say that the Earth we find Picard in is one that's for humans only, but it's one that is willing to openly talk about Romulans as if they are something less than people simply because they have a history of enmity with the Federation.
Perhaps the best emphasis of how Starfleet reflects our modern society came in its opening interview with Picard, which also served as a way to bring viewers up to speed on what's been happening since last we saw Picard. There is apparently open derision (perhaps even disgust) that he went out of his way to save Romulans from the supernova destruction of their sun.
Even the word Romulans is thrown around as if it's a dirty word, and this by a reporter giving a live interview being broadcast throughout the Federation. It's an incredible statement as to how far this society has fallen that they've stooped to seeing another sentient race of beings as inherently "less than."
On the fear side, we learn that a synthetic uprising destroyed Mars, and as a result all synthetic life (think Lt. Cmdr. Data) was outlawed. Had Data not already been destroyed (see "Star Trek: Nemesis"), perhaps he'd have been forcibly deactivated as well, even though he had nothing to do with it.
Starfleet never bothered to find out why those synths did what they did, nor did they realize that not all synths are the same. They simply banned and outlawed their existence entirely. That kind of blanket policy based on fear and generalization is incredibly dangerous and was just one of the reasons Picard walked away from Starfleet.
"Because it was no longer Starfleet!" Picard spat when asked why he resigned his commission and retired to his vineyard in France.
It's a challenging perspective on how to deal with two different groups of people that the Federation either fears or hates. But it's not an altogether unfamiliar perspective (though perhaps taken to extremes) when compared to our current political and social climate. And so, the creators are free to make commentary and explore something familiar through the lens of the fantastic.
This episode did almost nothing except to set the stage for the next nine hours of this first season, and yet it did everything right. We needed to be welcomed into Picard's world again and it was important to take the time to show us how this is not quite the man we last saw at the helm of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
If anything, Picard is a ghost of the man he was, "sitting here all these year nursing my offended dignity," as he so eloquently described his self-imposed exile from the more active parts of the Federation and Starfleet.
All it took was one frightened girl to change all that, as well as a little bit of investigative work. And here's where "Picard" does a great job of creating a problem within its new world with a visceral connection to Jean-Luc that perfectly explains why he's suddenly so invested in getting off his vineyard and flying again.
It all comes back to his dear friend Data, now outlawed to the point we learn that the synthetic division of Starfleet is only allowed to work in the theoretical now. But it may just be that Agnes' (Alison Pill) former boss and mentor may have done some practical work after they effectively shut down his life's work.
The young woman who runs to Picard in terror for her life had become "activated," which meant that she suddenly had incredible hand-to-hand combat skills, could hack and track Picard across the planet and apparently could leap a hundred feet or more. Superhuman abilities? Or not human at all.
The crux of the whole thing was the revelation (which "TNG" fans already knew) that Starfleet has still not been able to replicate an android as complete or as sentient as Data. But Agnes' boss was extremely close. And it could be that he got there after all.
But, as Agnes explained to Picard, his theory was based on the notion that Data's full neural net could be extrapolated from a single positronic neuron. It wouldn't be Data, but any synth thus created would hold an "essence" of Data.
Add to that the fact that Picard found an old painting of Data that bore the same young woman's face from 30 years ago entitled "Daughter," and he theorized that Agnes' mentor had not only cracked the code of creating synthetic life, he'd managed to make them look completely human and he'd modeled them after Data's painting.
"If you are who I think you are, you are dear to me in ways that you can't understand," Picard told Dahj, the woman from the painting brought to synthetic (probably) life. Unfortunately, he didn't keep his promise to never leave her as she was killed shortly thereafter by what turned out to be Romulan agents.
And so, like good fiction, it all comes together into a single thrusting narrative to carry the story forward. The key twist was Agnes' revelation to Picard that synthetics are made in pairs. Data had his brother, which means that Dahj has a sister.
That's all Picard needed to know to find the motivation to find this woman and protect her, because she too holds within her the "essence" of Data. And if he can be reclaimed from just one positronic neuron, could that be extracted or copied from her? Then he could have his friend back.
And yet, twist of twists, viewers were already introduced to her in the closing moments of the episode within what's dubbed the "Romulan Reclamation Site."
That site? It certainly looks like a reclaimed Borg cube being repurposed and fixed up by the remains of the Romulan Empire like some sort of Star Trek Death Star. What's weird, though, is that Romulans were so determined to capture and/or kill Dahj when they had her sister Soji already.
Do they not know what they have in Soji? Why is she on the Cube anyway, other than serving as some sort of therapist or psychiatrist?
And so, synthetics and Romulans, two distinct entities the Federation hates and fears, somehow now connected. And thanks to Dahj being programmed to find Picard, somehow, he finds himself enmeshed in this larger sociopolitical issue with the most personal of motivations, that connection to Data.
How did Dahj's mother know that she had been to see Picard and why was it so important that she reconnect with him? Does her other know she is a synth? Is she working with or against the Romulans who went after her and ultimately killed her?
Is Dahj actually dead? Clearly she is a more advanced model, so is it possible to download her consciousness into another body, as Data tried and failed to do with B4?
Was she accepted at Daystrom Institute because someone there knew she was a synthetic, because Agnes (who works there) didn't believe she was even possible? Perhaps her boss hired Dahj.
Are Picard's dreams of Data just dreams or are they projections being put into his mind by some outside force? If so, who?
Is Data's consciousness somehow aware somewhere, either at Agnes' boss' secret lab or even perhaps within the bodies of Dahj and Soji?
What do the Romulans want with a Borg Cube, and what of the Borg drones and technology that is still surely there? How can they hope to control the Borg without suffering assimilation?
Are the Romulans who came after Dahj affiliated with the ones in the Borg cube or a separate faction with a separate motivation? Why were they willing to kill Dahj, or did she not die from whatever the Romulan spat on her? Why haven't they gone after Soji on the Borg Cube?
"Star Trek: Picard" airs new episodes every Thursday on CBS All Access.