Monday, January 1, 2024

Star Trek: Picard Season Three—The TNG Finale Band-Aid

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Star Trek: Picard Season Three, which as of this writing has been out for the better part of a year.

In the spring of 1994 Star Trek fans were treated to the wonderful TNG finale "All Good Things". It was a little technobabble-heavy, but it was still an affectionate send-off to the TV adventures of the Enterprise-D crew as they made the jump to the big screen.

And then the movies made a concerted effort to shed everything audiences liked about The Next Generation. The first movie unceremoniously disposed of the Enterprise-D, and the next one replaced it with a sharp-edged warship. First Contact also jettisoned the TV show's bright and peaceful ethos to go in a much darker, more violent direction. This seemed cool in the mid-90s, but it didn't really age well. Insurrection was the only movie that really felt like The Next Generation, but at the time it seemed like more of the Rick Berman-branded risk-averse blandness that so infuriated us on Voyager. But the final insult, the nail in the coffin of The Next Generation era, was 2002's Star Trek Nemesis. Instead of a well-crafted farewell like The Undiscovered Country, we got a mean-spirited, cynical ripoff of The Wrath of Khan that ended on a depressing note with Data's pointless death.

It was as if the people in charge of making Star Trek: The Next Generation movies didn't really like Star Trek: The Next Generation. And that wasn't too far from the truth, because Sir Patrick Stewart had a tremendous amount of creative control on them. Sir Patrick spent most of the TV show's 7-year run complaining that his character didn't get to do enough action, and he was the driving force behind turning Movie Picard into a phaser-rifle-toting, dune-buggy-driving action hero who bore only a superficial resemblance to the character audiences enjoyed on TV.

But old-school TNG fans somehow forgot about this in 2018, when Star Trek head honcho Alex Kurtzman announced that that they were bringing back Patrick Stewart in a new streaming series called Picard. Sir Patrick's heavy involvement in the show's creative process was highly publicized, but we somehow imagined that the new show would undo the damage of the movie series--the very damage that Patrick Stewart helped to do in the first place. Unsurprisingly, our hopes were crushed like a Fudgesicle on a Florida interstate highway when Picard's first two seasons were (and here I am being diplomatic) a steaming pile of rhinoceros crap.  It turned out that Sir Patrick's number-one condition for reprising the role of Picard was that his character would not be sitting in the Captain's chair of a Federation starship and doing any Star Trek stuff that audiences might actually want to see. It was like if Peter Cullen would only voice Optimus Prime on the condition that the character not turn into a truck, say "Roll out", or fight any Decepticons.

But for Season Three, producer Terry Matalas was like "Hey, what if we put some Star Trek: The Next Generation in this Star Trek: The Next Generation sequel show?" and Sir Patrick amazingly went along with it. And the season was a hit. Even people who had been throwing nonstop tantrums since the Discovery premiere enjoyed it. But why? Was it because the show rejected tightly-serialized storytelling in favor of a more episodic approach, like TNG in the '90s? Actually no, it was basically one long ten-hour story. Ah, but was that story at least more straightforward, rather than the convoluted, contrivance-ridden storytelling of most other streaming shows? 

Again, no. It starts with our characters confronting a mysterious threat that turns out to be rogue Changelings who were captured during the Dominion War and subjected to cruel experiments by either Starfleet or Section 31 to turn them into the perfect spies. (Why they would agree to work for the Federation, especially after being horribly mistreated, is never explained)  But then, with only two episodes left in the season, it's revealed that the Borg Queen was behind it all as part of a plan to use Picard's heretofore-unknown son Jack to mind-control all Starfleet officers under the age of 25 so they'll destroy Earth.

So why did middle-aged Star Trek fans who have hated all the other new productions enjoy Picard's third season? I think it's because we finally got a Star Trek: The Next Generation thing that was made by people who actually like Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's the first TNG production in thirty years not made by people who were way up their own butts the whole time. Picard Season Three is basically a professionally-made fix-fic. A fix-fic is a piece of fan fiction written to "fix" a boneheaded creative decision made by clueless studio executives, producers, or actors with too much creative control who didn't like or understand the source material. And that's exactly what the season does. 

Right away it brings back Beverly Crusher and explains her absence from the show thus far. It brings Riker and Troi out of their retirement living in the woods and making pizza. It brings back Geordi and gives him a family, thus undoing the damage done to the character by the Leah Brahms episodes that made him look like a creepy incel. We get to see an older version of Worf doing cool Worf-related things, and his relationship with Raffi Musiker greatly enriches that character. We even get to see Ro Laren again, and we get some wonderful closure to her and Picard's relationship. Best of all, Data is finally rescued from years of breathtakingly stupid creative decisions and restored in a new form that's unmistakably Data, while finally giving him the humanity he'd been seeking all along. This leads to some wonderful moments between Data and Geordi, whose friendship was mostly ignored in the movies. Last of all, the season restores TNG's most horribly-treated character, the Enterprise-D. The beloved starship is finally depicted as something precious and worth preserving, rather than a boring old thing that the show can't wait to ditch in favor of something sleeker and pointier. The season ends on an "All Good Things"-inspired high note, with our beloved TNG family enjoying each other's company around the poker table.

At last, The Next Generation has gotten the well-crafted ending it deserved, and the fans are finally satisfied.

Ha ha! Obviously I'm kidding about that last bit. Fans are never satisfied. When we get something we like, we demand a never-ending stream of that exact thing to be continuously shoveled into our content-consuming orifices until the heat death of the universe. For his part, Terry Matalas whetted our appetites by using the last moments of the Picard finale to set up a potential new series called Star Trek: Legacy with Captain Seven of Nine, First Officer Raffi, and Starfleet Nepo Baby Jack Crusher-Picard on the Enterprise-G. I'm going into Bold Prediction Mode here to say it'll never happen.

As I write this in January 2024, the Internet Streaming Revolution is in a similar place as the dot-com boom in the late-90s. Back then, the Internet was this exciting new thing and there were tons of new Internet-related companies with the following business model:
  1. Do something Internet related, with a website and stuff.
  2. ???
  3. Profit!
You know how that went. Streaming is the same thing. Hollywood has been trying to replace their old business models with streaming services, but no matter what they do the services can't make a profit. Even worse, when they try to attract subscribers with popular intellectual properties like Marvel or Star Wars, the streaming versions of those things tend to dilute and cannibalize the formerly-profitable films. This has led to studio executives like Warner's David Zaslav frantically throwing newly-completed films and older legacy productions into the shredder in a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding. Which is kind of like demolishing the entire east side of your house so it won't be damaged by the electrical fire on the west side. Eventually studio mergers are going to leave us with two or three streaming services that offer no TV shows or movies.

All this is to say that we'll be lucky to get any new Star Trek beyond the stuff that's in active production as I write this. And if the rumored Paramount-WB merger happens, there's no guarantee that even those things will see the light of day; David Zaslav might burn them down for the insurance money. 

So buy physical-media versions of all the stuff you love. And don't hold your breath for Star Trek: Legacy.