Sunday 7 May 2023

A New Start to Finish: Picard Season 3

Ten weeks have passed by and fans have experienced what may be the single greatest season of the Kurtzman era and potentially one of the most spectacular runs in Star Trek history.

We are (of course!!!) talking about the recently concluded Picard third season so be warned if you've not finished it yet, there are SPOILERS ahead.

Very evident even from episode one was the seismic shift. There seemed to be more direction, a better focus and a real understanding of the core characters which had evaded the show during its earlier seasons. That could might have something to do with this final year being a 10 part long TNG movie. Maybe.

With a severe cast cull that only retained Patrick Stewart, Michelle Hurd and Jeri Ryan, season three looked to be doing everything that its star and exec-producer had said would be avoided from day one. Uniforms, an Enterprise (or five) and the full TNG cast reunion which has made Picard essential viewing each and every week.

From scouring the socials it's clear that fans couldn't wait to see the next episode in what may be one of the most drastic about-turns in the fortunes of a Star Trek series since the Jem'Hadar rammed the USS Odyssey.

Season three seems to have become something of a revelation and, monumentally, one that has lived up to the hype and as such it's well worth just reflecting back on what has been and potentially what's to come.

Opening with the moniker "In the 25th Century", the feel of the season seemed to be coming straight out of The Wrath of Khan. Not just in the hinted revenge of the trailers but in the more military sense that the second through sixth movies insinuated.

With the wonders of hindsight, the trailers really didn't give much away and in some respects managed the perfect magic trick by showing us one thing and yet actually presenting us with something else by the end of Seventeen Seconds.

And my god doesn't having the episode titles back make a difference?

Terry Matalas promised that each character would have their time to shine and that's been proven every week. Rather than opening on Jean-Luc himself, The Next Generation led with Beverly on the Eleos and opened up the apparent mystery of the season before returning us to ore familiar surroundings at Chateau Picard.

Time-jumping from 2399 to 2405, the opening episode insisted to trust no-one with Jean-Luc and Riker getting themselves aboard the brand new USS Titan-A with the hopes of rescuing Dr Crusher.

But this season has been much more than just a rescue plot. The introduction of a memorable foe in Amanda Plummer's Vadic really upped the game and while she wasn't, ultimately, the super-evil behind the overall arc, her tussling with the Titan was exquisite and supremely memorable. Character has indeed reigned supreme with some of the best moments in the entire franchise history for many of the seasoned players. If you need any proof, flip to the last fifteen minutes of No Win Scenario and say they isn't some of this era's best written and impactful scenes. In fact, scrap that, just watch the whole season and then make that judgement.

Riker has been in his element with Frakes at the very pinnacle of his game. Commanding the Titan while tackling Vadic or trapped in the gravity well, he has never been in better form, even leading to dismissing Admiral Picard from the bridge. There seems to be a greater depth to William T Riker here. A man who is back out in the galaxy to avoid the struggles in his homelife but facing threats that are just as significant, the retired, pizza cooking captain of Nepenthe seems a million miles way.

Seven too has been provided with a meatier role as the Titan's less than conformist first  officer. Oppressed thanks to Captain Shaw's decision to use her human name of Annika Hansen, Seven seems to be fighting the system initially but becomes much more the team player as we have gone along. But let's deal with that in a second.

The Worf and Raffi pairing is something that no fan could have expected or realised that they were missing until it came to pass in Disengage. Dorn has grown that little older but Worf seems to be even more compelling and I'm actually preferring this version to some of his younger years on TNG and DS9. Their mission on M'Talas Prime allowed Raffi a world of room to stretch before teaming the pair up with the main cast and taking her off to Daystrom Station alongside Worf and Riker.

The Picard/Crusher element is something that has been long overlooked and perhaps intentionally ignored even though it's been brought up again and again and even prodded on several occasions within TNG. But, if it hadn't then we wouldn't have received some of the outstanding pieces of this season. For one Beverly's arrival on the bridge of the Titan and the following series of looks and reactions between her and Picard confirm everything the viewer needed to know without a single word being uttered. Magical is an understatement but this, coupled with any point McFadden and Stewart are on screen together is Star Trek gold. Finally after over 30 years there's some expansion of this relationship which feels natural. That said, the reveal that the couple had a son is maybe the season's hardest pill to swallow.

Ed Speleers Jack Crusher is a startlingly good addition and the relationship between him and his long-distant father has been interesting to watch. In the back of the mind though there is that niggle of him being shoved into the pages of canon without much care and a good deal of the season does rely on his very existence. Was it ultimately a surprise that he was linked in to the Borg? Probably not given that viewers were reminded numerous times about Locutus. The concept of the receiver/transmitter abilities was a cool inclusion harking back to earlier episodes of Picard and more significantly to the opening battle of Star Trek First Contact in 1996. While Jean-Luc can "hear" the Borg, Jack is able to project his thoughts and get others to do his bidding. This all seemed a bit weird and X-Men until it was explained just how this was possible.

But, it's Captain Liam Shaw (Todd Stashwick) that seems to be the revelation of the season. brutally honest with a disregard for seniority, Shaw's only priority is the safety of his whole crew and, as we discover, this all stems back to his time aboard the USS Constance and its part at Wolf 359. In comparison Sisko was positively diplomatic when it came to facing Locutus of Borg in Emissary but Shaw doesn't hold back. Shaw's increasing realisation that he needs to work as part of a team to save the Titan does come to illustrate the ability for him to change although much to his chagrin. For some reason through the season I've suspected that someone in the ensemble wouldn't make it to the closing credits of episode ten and, well, I was right. It's a fitting redemption and mirror to how Shaw himself survived Wolf 359 although it does appear fans would have wanted him to stick around for future outings.

What we did anticipate from the trailer was that Amanda Plummer's Vadic would be the main villain of the season, hell bent on some form of revenge against Picard however within a matter of episodes that assumption has been overturned with her objective more a disruption and distraction.

And why? Because Picard chose to bring back one of the franchise's most important opponents ever; Changelings.

Note they're not called Founders at any point since this bunch of shapeshifters are a breakaway faction following the Dominion's crushing defeat at the conclusion of DS9. Bringing chaos and disorder was their forte for many years of the space station series but at this stage in Picard we are none the wiser to their ultimate goal. However, just having them back in the series has changed perceptions and definitely reignited the interest of many a Niner. Combine them with the Borg threat and it's like Doctor Who slamming the Daleks and Cybermen together for Doomsday.

Admittedly the back end of the season is ridiculously heavy on the fan service and while we can look at it in an overview it's difficult not to discuss some key elements so beware that there are not just SPOILERS but SUPER SPOILERS after this point.

So let's first touch on some returning characters because that's where the nostalgia really kicks in this final handful of episodes. The out-of-nowhere return of Commander Ro Laren is nothing if not emotional and ties up the dangled threads of TNG's Pre-Emptive Strike while proving that Michelle Forbes was horribly underused for two seasons in the 90s. It's an appearance that gives everything and the scenes of her and Stewart are just golden. I mean how could you better the season after that... let me hold your blood wine.

Just in fan service we have Captain/Shapeshifter Tuvok for two episodes, Admiral Elizabeth Shelby (for about four minutes), the voice of Walter Koenig as Federation President Anton Chekov (with a speech similar to that of the UFP in The Voyage Home) and then there's the rest of the TNG cast. There's one more but we'll get to that...

Fans have to wait until deep into the season for the return of LeVar Burton, Brent Spiner and Marina Sirtis and each is well worth it. Geordi's position as head of the Fleet Museum allows for an overload of 90s Trek adoration with just Spacedock alone before getting into the array of exhibits on show. The refit Constitution Class makes its first live action appearance since The Undiscovered Country, Voyager, Defiant and the NX-01 refit tick a whole series of fan boxes as does the inclusion of one stolen Klingon Bird of Prey named HMS Bounty

It's easy to be swallowed up in these episodes by all the nods to the past of the franchise and forget that there's actually a plot somewhere buried in the background! Geordi has aged and matured as a character and a father here, becoming a whole lot more than he ever was in TNG. There's more depth and believability to the role and his stance on family is, while not fitting the desire of the crew, probably very on point.

What makes The Bounty an even greater hour of Star Trek is the choice to split the crew with half on the Titan while Riker, Worf and Raffi tackle Daystrom Station.

Thought that the Fleet Museum was packed with references then think again because this place is rammed. Filled to the bulkheads with items from multiple series, the station is a treasure trove that has delivered some downright gobsmacking secrets; Project Phoenix anyone? Spare Genesis Device? Attack Tribble? All in there plus a load more that the production team just chucked in for good measure and to see if fans were really paying attention.

Now, given that he was teased in the trailers, the appearance of Daniel Davis' Moriarty isn't quite what one might have expected but it's still a glorious sequence that leads into a bigger reveal that restores some balance to the Trek universe.

Actually, The Bounty settles a few points that have been left sort of unanswered; what happened to Lore? B-4? Picard's real body? All answered right in one episode and somehow it doesn't feel rushed. The overarching conspiracy still weaves through the episode although it feels a little distant when faced with so much fan service. The resolution of that internal Soong conflict is satisfying and true Star Trek. How could this be a full reunion without Spiner playing Data in some capacity? It also aligns with the development of the android in the novel series of the last decade in which Data has super evolved. Naturally it means that Spiner doesn't have the excuse of being too old to play his iconic character but all the traits are there plus a few new ones that make him much, much more human.

It's at this point that it starts to feel that both Raffi and Seven are sort of superfluous to requirements. Reassembling the TNG cast was always the big prize and while it takes another episode to truly get to that point you can see their roles a little downsized the more of the classic cast are on screen. Perhaps their last big hurrah of the season comes from Vadic's takeover of the USS Titan in her attempts to secure Jack Crusher. No, actually, tell a lie. It's not. Seven has an incredibly sweeping character arc in this season which is a far cry from stepping out of an alcove in Scorpion as a full Borg. Shaw really did think she was awesome as we see from his evaluation and the promotion to captain and subsequent command of a starship proves that there is justice in the universe.

Ok... it seems we can't dance around it anymore. Let's just finish this piece out with some simple admiration, written sobbing and general appreciation for the last two episodes of the season and of the show as a whole.

With Vadic vanquished following her takeover of the Titan, the crew finally make it to Earth to witness the celebrations of Frontier Day. Cue the arrival (finally) of the Enterprise-F with Shelby sitting in the captain's chair only for it all to go proper bad as the Borg's clever little plan swings into action and assimilates everyone under the age of 25. Thanks for the DNA Jean-Luc, you've wiped out Starfleet.

Fine, that's a harsh line but without it we wouldn't have a finale which is the most fan servicey hour of Star Trek that has ever been. Go on, I dare you to find another that punches this high and this hard. I'll be a little critical in that some of the elements do feel as though they were borrowed from Battlestar Galactica (interconnected ships) and Star Wars (the run through the Borg Cube) but I didn't care by this point because it was just so stupidly good.

Of course Geordi was hiding the D in Hanger 12, of course it had to be the way this crew would see out their final adventure together. Was it everything fans could have hoped for? YES and in spades. The bridge was lovingly recreated from scratch (with the dedication plaque that had been on the original set from seasons five to seven), the grotesque return of the Borg Queen was stunning and voiced by Alice Krige which spins not just First Contact but Voyager's Endgame into play. Jack all Borged up as Vox was a startling echo back to Stewart's Locutus of The Best of Both Worlds and I'm sure that on subsequent viewings there will be even more to uncover and fully digest.

The closing poker game was filmed for a full 45 minutes and unscripted, meaning everything you hear and see is just the cast having fun in a scene that nods directly to All Good Things... All the feels you might say and just soaking up everything that happens in this episode and potentially the whole ten episodes is going to take a while.

Is the renaming of the Titan to the Enterprise-G a surprise? Apparently not if you listen back to all the musical cues as far back as episode one which all carry traces of themes that suggest nothing less. The Constitution III Class makes perfect sense in a neck aching nod to just about everything classic Trek. Plus, how can you not say that those last five minutes are a stamped, signed, sealed and very public announcement that Terry Matalas (who wrote and directed the finale) is looking to take the Enterprise-G right out there for its own series.

I mean, as someone puts it right in the closing seconds... the trial has just begun.

1 comment:

  1. They made a Star Trek and it was great. Not only did the Season 3 premiere perform well for Paramount+, topping the Season 4 premiere of “Star Trek Discovery” by more than 40%, but momentum built week after week.

    Same thing with SNW, which is clearly an alternative timeline but it's Star Trek writ large.

    And that is why they succeed.

    Someone should really cancel the Space Hitler movie of the week and the previously rejected Academy show.