For fans of ‘Star Trek,’ this month is a very exciting time. After a seventeen-year absence from the universe of the television show, the legendary character Jean-Luc Picard is being brought back to life by CBS and actor Sir Patrick Stewart, and the first episode of the show will be available for streaming worldwide on January 24th. As the day is approaching and anticipation builds, we have only one question – will it be any good?
If we look to the network’s strength of feeling about the show for an indication of its quality, the signs are good. Before the first episode has even aired – and before eager reviewers have had the chance to see it and share their opinion – it’s already been confirmed that the show has been renewed for a second season. That decision may have been taken because someone at the network has already seen the show and is very happy with the final product – or it could just be because CBS believes they’re going to make a lot of money from it.
The issue of the ‘Star Trek’ franchise, CBS, and money, has been a thorny one ever since the network acquired the intellectual property. Fans were far from happy when they found out that they would have to pay to watch ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ rather than getting it on free-to-air television. CBS has also licensed the ‘Star Trek’ name to a series of online slots at casino websites such as Amigo Slots, based on the adventures on many of the best-known characters. There’s nothing necessarily unusual about that – if you log into any good online slots website, you’ll find no shortage of games based on many famous television and entertainment shows – but it adds to the feeling that CBS is more concerned with making money than making great television. To put it another way, they’re playing online slots with the goodwill of the fanbase, and if they’re not cautious about their output, they’re at risk of spinning and losing.
Are we being too cynical, though? Perhaps, but we can only base our assessment on the way that ‘Star Trek’ fans have reacted to the two seasons of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ that have aired so far. While some viewers have praised the show for its slick visual style and modern storytelling, others feel that it’s so far removed from the usual feel of a ‘Star Trek’ show that it shouldn’t really be classed as part of the ‘Star Trek’ universe at all. The first season proved to be particularly divisive, and the adjustments made for the second season didn’t meet with everybody’s approval either.
We probably shouldn’t draw too strong a connection between ‘Star Trek: Discovery,’ and ‘Picard.’ ‘Discovery’ is set in a different time period, and had the difficult job of introducing long-time viewers to a whole new cast of characters and trying to persuade us to care about them. The show is more diverse than any ‘Star Trek’ show made in the past, and the combination of a strong female lead, swearing, and more explosions and stunts than tense diplomatic stand-offs was always bound to alienate the more conservative elements of the fan base. ‘Picard’ is based on a character who is already known, already loved, and belongs to a universe we’re familiar with. That, in theory, gives it a much stronger chance of succeeding – but it’s far from a sure thing.
Even though ‘Picard’ is a direct continuation of the story of the famous captain of the Enterprise-D and Enterprise-E, we’ve already been warned that the character has been through a lot of changes during the near-twenty years we haven’t seen him. We’ve been told that the tone will be different and that the character has been fundamentally changed by some of the experiences that he’s had while we haven’t been able to see him. There’s also some crossover between the shows in terms of writers and producers. Comparisons to ‘Discovery’ are both inevitable and merited. The hope of fans of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ – especially those fans who’ve either not seen or given up on watching ‘Discovery,’ is that the changes haven’t taken away the aspects of the character that they know and love.
Ultimately, this show won’t be ‘The Next Generation,’ and nor should it be. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, but the way that stories are told on television has changed a lot since the series came to the end of its run in the mid-1990s. Re-making ‘The Next Generation’ wouldn’t work, and re-treading old ground would make for safe and stale television. We want to see Picard challenged, and we want to see something new. We just want the character to deal with these new challenges in the same way he dealt with challenges when we last saw him – with his wisdom, his mercy, and his sparkling intellect rather than through force, fear, and big explosions.
Bringing a long-lost and much-loved science-fiction franchise back to television after a long break isn’t easy, but there is a precedent. When the original run of ‘Doctor Who’ ended in 1989, the show looked cheap and tired, and the audience had long since stopped caring. Nobody expected it to be a success when it came back in 2005, and yet it became one of the BBC’s biggest exports and is still going strong fifteen years later. CBS has every chance of achieving the same level of success as Picard – especially with an audience of loyal fans willing it to be good – but they have to find a way to balance nostalgia with modern storytelling. Seeing Brent Spiner as Data and Jonathan Frakes as an aged Will Riker is going to be a fun treat, but if it’s the meat and bones of the show, it’s likely to fail. At the risk of sounding cliched, ‘Picard’ can only be a success if it dares to boldly go where no ‘Star Trek’ television show has gone before. We’ll get our first indication of whether CBS has done that in a little over a week.