Sunday, 26 January 2020

TREK REVIEW: Picard 1-1: "Remembrance"

The first episode of a series can often be a difficult one to review. There's so much to set up, and little time to explore it all. Most Star Trek series are highly episodic, with the first episode functioning as a self-contained story, even as they set up elements to be continued in later instalments. Star Trek: Picard isn't like that. This is a serial, with episode one being the first chapter in a longer story. As such, we're left with more questions than answers, and the complete serial will no doubt throw "Remembrance" into a different light.

Nonetheless, as an opening chapter, and on its own merits as an hour of television, this is excellent. After years of Trek prequels on the big and small screen, it's wonderful to be looking forward again, even as the story reacts to elements that have gone before. The destruction of Romulus in 2009's Star Trek film was a huge event that was thrown in as background colour, a reason for the villain to be angry and vengeful. The aftermath remained completely unexplored until now. Equally, the previous film, Star Trek Nemesis, set up intriguing new elements regarding the relationship between the Federation and the Romulan Empire, as well as the nature of Data's artificial life. There was so much  that, outside the spin-off fiction, remained frustratingly unexplored.

It feels totally right that Patrick Stewart, one of the most outspoken actors when it comes to politics and human rights, should not only step back to star in the series, but develop the story as well. Stewart has spoken about how his anger at the world has informed this series, and it shows. While not everyone will be happy with another take on an ineffectual Federation and a corrupt Starfleet, at least this time there seems to be a point to it beyond cynical shock value. Once, the idea of a utopian future was enough to make the horrors of real life bearable. Pure escapism isn't enough now. To give us hope, you have to show a world where things are wrong, and show us that they can be put right. It's very hard to believe that our civilisation will ever reach the ideals the Federation is supposed to stand for. Better to address this and show that, while we will continue to make mistakes, we will also continue to learn from them.

Immediately, Picard looks different to other Star Trek productions. This is high-quality, prestige television. It looks more sophisticated even than Discovery, even as it remains, for almost all the first episode, resolutely on terra firma. Such a relief that, after bottling it with Enterprise, the showrunners of Trek have given us a version of the series that can spend some time exploring the Earth. Sometimes, you have to look inward to learn about yourself, even if you don't like what you see.

Stewart, now in his seventies and playing a man in his nineties, in a future that has only grown worse (echoes of Logan), is exceptional. Always the best actor to helm a starship, Stewart gives a mature, subtle and powerful performance as the aged Picard, now retired to his vineyard. His only connections to the wider universe are his two Romulan staff, Laris (the always wonderful Orla Brady) and Zhaban (Jamie McShane), no doubt refugees from the destruction of Romulus. We see a disastrous interview with the Federation News Network, where his desire to help the Romulans is attacked, in what amounts to a horribly xenophobic propaganda piece. Not only does this serve to drive Picard further into isolation, but it provides an uncomfortable reflection of our xenophobic, refugee-hating right wing news organisations in the UK and US.

Starfleet's failure to rescue millions of Romulans is complicated by the fact that the rescue fleet was destroyed by "rogue synths," artificial beings who attacked Mars. We don't know what drove them to do so, or what the extent of artificial life is in this future. Nonetheless, it's another element of today's world, the fear and hatred that both drives and results from terrorism, translated to a new future. Into this comes Dahj (Isa Briones), on the run from Romulan assassins, and somehow linked to Picard via (implanted?) memories.

I'd gone out and said that Dahj was actually Lal, and I was almost right. Picard describes her as Data's daughter, and she seems to be based on a painting of his that he named "Daughter," something which was surely a representation of his late offspring Lal. At present, though, Dahj's existence poses more questions than answers. The suggestion is that she is a flesh-and-blood being with a synthetic brain, perhaps more like a Blade Runner-style replicant than an android. Regardless, she's terrified, confused, and as a synthetic being, an outlawed and hated life form in this more defensive Federation. Although she is extremely capable - the action sequences in which she fights off Romulan agents are impressive - she seeks out a nonagenarian to help protect her, something he is incapable of doing. Still, it at least brings Picard back into the world, and serves to engage him with Starfleet again, and the oft-mentioned and now finally seen Daystrom Institute.

There are shocks to come in the first episode, even so, although Dahj's fate may not be sealed (if she is artificial, perhaps she can be reproduced). She even has a twin, working aboard the Romulan Reclamation Site - the Borg Cube seen in the trailers - presumably just as unware of her own nature as her sister was. The twin theme continues directly from Nemesis, even as we see that Data's brother, B-4, was ultimately a failed experiment.

Where this episode works surprisingly well is in its take on nostalgia. Both hardcore and casual fans are going to come into Picard with a rose-tinted view of The Next Generation, and this episode plays on that, with Brent Spiner back as a dream of Data with whom Picard can interact. The dream sequences show snapshots of the TNG-era, but there's nothing celebratory or self-congratulatory about them. There's a sense of real sadness for what Picard has lost as the universe has moved on without him.

"Remembrance" raises so many questions, regarding the Romulans, synthetic life, and the nature of the Federation in this time, but in itself, is a moving and gripping reintroduction to perhaps the greatest captain Starfleet ever had. It's Stewart's show, and he owns it, and I for one am absolutely hooked already.

Title-Tattle: This is the first major Star Trek series since The Next Generation to not be named for the ship or station that provides its main setting.

Aliens life forms: Dahj's unfortunate boyfriend is a Xahean - one of Po's people from Discovery and Short Treks.

Future history: The exact year of the series' setting isn't exactly clear, but it's suggested to be either very late in the 2390s or the beginning of the 25th century. If it's fourteen years since Picard left Starfleet, and he left as a result of the Hobus supernova in 2387, then it must be 2401 at the earliest.

The atmosphere of Mars has been burning since the attack by rogue synths, as seen in Short Treks 2-6, "Children of Mars," twenty years earlier. (This definitely suggests that the red planet has been terraformed by the 24th century - a carbon dioxide atmosphere wouldn't burn.)

Bruce Maddox is mentioned as the driving force behind the creation of synthetic life at the Daystrom Institute. Maddox appeared in the TNG 2-9, "The Measure of a Man."

Graphics: I like how the Romulan emblem has been tweaked so that it no longer features the two globes in the raptor's claws, reflecting the loss of the twin worlds of Romulus and Remus.

Musical cues: As in the final trailer, the episode features a rendition of "Blue Skies" by Bing Crosby. This was the song Data sang at the Rikers' wedding in Nemesis and had been passed on in his memories to B-4. As an aside, Bing was the grandfather of Denise Crosby, who played Tasha Yar in the first season on TNG.

There are musical phrases taken from the theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was reworked for the following original cast films and The Next Generation, and the first appearance of the Romulans, TOS 1-8, "Balance of Terror."

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