Jean-Luc Picard Is Back, But Is the Star Trek He Left Behind?

By James Whitbrook on at

He’s a little older. He’s not on a starship. He’s haunted by tragedies of years past. He’s drinking a lot more wine these days. But it would be fair to say that, deep down, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is not a man truly changed when we meet him again in the premiere of Star Trek: Picard. That’s not the question we should be asking, anyway: Is it the Federation that’s changed instead?

That is the key question that lingers throughout “Remembrance,” Picard’s deftly handled opening episode, one heavy on twists and eager to establish where the show will head over its first season. It also bears the brunt of re-introducing us to a present Star Trek hasn’t actually been to since we saw awkward glimpses of Will Riker and Deanna Troi in “These Are the Voyages,” the controversially framed final episode of Enterprise, or chronologically speaking in Trek’s timeline, the equally dire Star Trek: Nemesis.

It’s the late 24th century and the Federation at large is still reeling in the wake of a deadly attack by rogue synthetic workers on Starfleet shipyards at Utopia Planitia on Mars. Buffeted by this and the shocking destruction of the planet Romulus, the galaxy is in an uneasy state of rest. And most crucially, one of Starfleet’s most ardent champions is no longer Starfleet.

Both these pieces of context lace the Picard we meet in this opening episode with a haggard, weary tragedy. He’s not just aged from the passage of time – although, Patrick Stewart being Patrick Stewart, it almost feels like he’s having to act that Picard has aged, the twinkle in his eye as he dances from charming joke to commanding speeches still shining bright – but burdened by tragedies that he could not prevent as a Starfleet Admiral. He is also, as the opening dream sequence reminds us, still unable to move on from the death of Data in Nemesis, a grief compounded by the Federation’s ban and now total distrust of synthetic life in the wake of the Mars attacks. And so now, so very tired and away from it all, the former captain of the Enterprise spends his days as a vinter.

Laris and Zhaban seem to be the only two people Picard can turn to in his new normal.

Despite this weariness, the principled man we know Picard to be still lingers, even as he aimlessly wanders the vineyards of his family’s estate in La Barre, pestered by carers to make sure he eats and keeps his schedules. Those carers, for example, are two Romulans, Laris and Zhaban (Orla Brady and Jamie McShane, respectively) – clearly Picard’s way of supporting refugees in the wake of the loss of their homeworld. Those principles come forward even more starkly early on in the episode when Picard conducts an interview with a Federation news outlet to mark 10 years since the Romulan supernova disaster – his apparent first since retiring.

It’s here that we learn, for the little Picard himself has changed, it’s really the Federation undergoing an existential crisis in this series. What begins as a laudatory news piece thanking Picard for his service quickly sours, as he’s needled with pointed question after pointed question by his interviewer (guest star Merrin Dungey) that reveals some shocking points of view, giving us insight into the state of the Federation at large. It, like Picard, is weary and beleaguered by shocking event after shocking event – it bears reminding that even without Romulus’ destruction and the Mars attack, at this point it’s just over two decades since the end of Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War. But whereas it would seem that these tragedies have only forged Picard’s moralistic core even stronger, the Federation is instead broken, and has turned to isolationist policies.

Why should Picard have immediately offered to help the Romulans evacuate their people, the reporter, standing in for the Federation at large, asks the former Admiral? They had been enemies of the Federation for centuries, the cause of an entire fringe of neutral territory between their civilisations. They’d initially stayed out of the Dominion War, only brought in thanks to Benjamin Sisko’s deception. Why waste resources upholding their legacy as a bastion of protectors of galactic civilization if the only lives that could be lost were Romulan? It’s horrifying to hear from a mouthpiece of an alleged utopia, a chilling line of thought that speaks to discontent and discords of our current moment in time.

It’s one made more chilling as the interview’s subject matter turns to Mars – much to Jean-Luc’s surprise and chagrin – and hits a more personal matter for the old man: delivered with a harsher tone over the 92,000 lives lost than the thought of caring for nine million Romulan refugees were, Picard’s interviewer invokes Data’s death in relation to the former’s advocacy against the ban on synthetic life. It is the most profoundly emotional moment of the entire episode because, suddenly, Picard’s mask falls, and it’s not out of sadness, or tiredness, or anything you might expect a retired old soldier to feel in the moment. It reveals his passion. It reveals his fury. Asked directly why he did not just retire, but quit Starfleet, Picard barks that the organisation was no longer the same one he’d championed his entire career – cowardly, isolationist, reticent to extend aid, and eager to safeguard only its own interests, no matter the cost, ethical or otherwise.

It’s safe to say that the Picard we know and love is alive and well in this continuation of his journey, but the Starfleet we knew of Star Trek’s past, even in its most profoundly dire crises, isn’t. It lingers, clearly – an unseen specter throughout most of “Remembrance,” its color-coded uniforms and dazzling starships left in the background. But if anything has changed in this re-imagining of Star Trek’s future, it’s that even the most idealized utopias can decline. The cracks have long been there. The aforementioned Deep Space Nine interrogated them for all their worth, but that was in a time of war. That they linger so deeply in Picard, in peacetime, is perhaps one of the most damning things the series already has to say about Star Trek’s future.

Barging into his life, Dahj gives Jean-Luc renewed purpose.

In reminding us of (and re-galvanising) Jean-Luc Picard’s heroic core, the premiere gives us its second major arc to focus those still-strong morals on: the mysterious Dahj (Isa Briones). Her story runs parallel to the episode’s early exploration of Picard’s current status quo – a young woman chased by deadly masked assassins for unknown reasons and finding herself far more capable, with abilities she never knew she had. It’s only Picard’s firestorm of an interview at the halfway point of the episode that propels her into his path (as much as it is a sudden, internal feeling she gets knowing she’ll find answers and safety with him, another mystery to add to her increasingly long list of mysteries). Colliding with Dahj as she turns up haggard and scared at his vineyard is what, after having found it lost in the upper echelons of Starfleet command, regifts Picard his purpose.

It turns out that Dahj’s link to Picard runs much deeper than the previously speculated potential ahead of the show’s debut that she was, like him, a former Borg. Prompted by another dream of Data, Picard searches through his personal Starfleet archives at HQ – a place he suddenly feels far less at home in than La Barre, restless as he is there – only to find a painting Data had completed of a woman that looks eerily like Dahj... a painting titled “Daughter.”

Dahj is a synthetic, and Data’s legacy. As quickly as “Remembrance” tosses this bombshell at both us and Picard, however, it has another prepared. Just as you think Picard’s about to pull a Mandalorian (or, perhaps more appropriately a Logan) and put us on an arc of Picard looking after his dead friend’s daughter, no sooner do Dahj’s assailants catch up with her – Romulan assailants, at that – leading to a rooftop duel that leaves Picard battered by an exploding phaser rifle and Dahj tragically killed.

The failure to protect her hits Picard harder than anything else this episode can fling at him – even the realization of just how far his beloved Starfleet has fallen, so focused on protecting its own interest it has somehow let Romulan assassins waltz into its heart to murder a young woman (secret synthetic or otherwise) in the light of day. But Picard is not done delivering twists as it lays out what we can expect of the show going forward. No longer content, like the Federation he has come to be dismayed by, to sit aside in the wake of Dahj’s death, Picard puts himself on a mission to find out who’s really behind her murder. He heads to the Daystrom Institute – the Federation’s premier scientific research outlet – in the hopes of asking its scientists about the possibility of such an advanced form of synthetic life having existed in the first place, especially in a world where any form of synthetic life has been outlawed for years.

Doctor Jurati has a few surprises for the former admiral.

It’s here the episode concludes with one final, enticing reveal. Meeting with frustrated synth researcher Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), Picard learns that a being like Dahj shouldn’t exist for at least another thousand years, much to her dismay or the dismay of her former boss, Bruce Maddox, a deep-cut namedrop that will have many TNG fans reeling. But the fact that she does (or at least did) is proof that Data’s mind, his android essence – or, to give it is Star Trek technobabble term, his positronic neural net – didn’t just survive in some form, but was replicated to create a new synthetic life. Jurati believes that only Maddox could do it, sending Picard along on a quest to find the man that once tried to deny Data’s right to exist.

But she also gives Jean-Luc another mission inadvertently: If Maddox’s theories were true, Jurati insists, this being would’ve been created as a pair. Dahj has a sister who is now suddenly in as much danger as she was, a sister that Picard now desperately cannot give up on. A sister named Soji (likewise played by Briones), who we learn as the episode closes, is already surrounded by Romulan threats – a scientist entirely unaware of her true nature, working with them reclaiming the remnants of an abandoned Borg Cube. Turns out it was she, not Dahj, that we were following in Picard’s pre-release footage, and now Picard’s sense of duty, not just to Starfleet’s abandoned morals but one of his oldest friends, depends on keeping her safe.

It’s a fascinating premise – one enmeshed in the intimacy of Picard’s relationship with Data, but also one that clearly has much to say about the Federation and its values on a macro scale. But for all its twists and turns, for all its need to establish a new normal for Star Trek at large, Picard’s opener makes one powerful thing very clear: Times have changed, but Jean-Luc Picard certainly hasn’t.

Just who is Narek (Harry Treadaway), and what does he have planned for Soji?

Assorted Musings

  • It’s honestly kind of impressive just how quickly this episode shuts down literal decades of speculation of whether or not Data successfully transferred his memories to B4's body before his death in Nemesis. You can see why, considering Dahj and Soji’s storyline. But still, having Doctor Jurati just immediately cut Picard’s questioning about it off with a more psuedoscientific version of “yeah, nah” was quite funny.
  • Speaking of which! Rusty fans who may not have re-watched in a while, or those coming to Picard fresh, might not remember that Bruce Maddox is a very important name in Star Trek when it comes to Data and synthetics in general. An important figure in the stellar episode “Measure of a Man,” it was Maddox’s refusal to accept Data into Starfleet Academy as a sentient being that kicked off that episode’s entire preponderance with android rights. Data eventually kept in touch with Maddox after their initial disagreements, encouraging Maddox to continue his research into androids. It’s interesting that Maddox, at first a denier of Data’s sentience and individuality, may now be the key to him living on.
  • I never particularly liked that Discovery’s title theme ended with a repeat of the original series fanfare – it just felt out of place, too oblique a reminder that yes, it was a prequel to That Thing You Know. But Picard’s haunting string piece is not just gorgeous standalone – suitably intimate for this kind of story – but feels made by its airy flute rendition of the TNG theme at the end. The fan service not only makes more sense here, given the context of the show, but it’s also just a really nice musical reminder of Jean-Luc’s heroic, idealistic core.
  • Already calling it: I love Laris and Zhaban so much that I am out of this show if they get got by the Tal Shiar (that’s the Romulan secret police, for those rusty on their shadowy Trek operatives) or something. Give me more gentile Romulan couples to whom there is clearly more than meets the eye because a) they’re the only ones who get to call Picard out on his shit, and b) they’re Romulans. They’re maybe my favorite new characters so far and I hope that, even if the trailers have made it seem like they don’t join Jean-Luc for the ride, we see more of them down the line.