“I’ve Never Been So Happy to See So Many Wrinkles”: How Star Trek: Picard Aged Gracefully
***Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for season three of Star Trek: Picard. It assumes viewer familiarity with the season.***
Since launching Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, Paramount Plus (once CBS All Access) has had some ups and downs in its slate of “new Trek” offerings. Some fans eagerly made the jump while others did so with hesitance, and some scorned the new offerings entirely. Eager to draw more explicit ties to its existing fanbase, the site introduced its sophomore series, Star Trek: Picard, in 2020, with the promised return of the legendary Patrick Stewart to his signature role. By design, however, Picard was not simply a revisiting of its predecessor, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Stewart agreed to the show in part because of assurances that it would be something very different.
And different it was. Supported by a largely unfamiliar cast, Stewart’s Picard faced off with Romulans and rogue AIs in season one and got flung by superbeing Q into the early twentieth century in season two. The reception to these seasons was mixed. Judged abstractly by Rotten Tomatoes ratings, both look relatively positive, but scratch the surface and you’ll find more ambivalence from critics as to how the two ten-episode arcs concluded. The writing, many critics claimed, was inconsistent and the plots incoherent (particularly in season two), thus leading many to dread the third and final season (which was filmed immediately after the second). Fan reaction was even more dismal, as reflected in some atrocious audience scores.
I’ve watched every episode of new Trek and had some generally positive things to say about Picard’s inaugural season. I appreciated the way its premier situated the eponymous protagonist as a historical figure in Gene Roddenberry’s mythical science fiction timeline, and I liked the beauty and artistry of its finale. But as I wrote in my piece on the finale, I found its philosophical perspective uncompelling. Against the outright haters, I have some interest in many of the components of season two, from the exploration of Picard’s psyche to the many in-universe ties to long-running Trek storylines. Yet at the end of the day, it’s hard to deny that the charges of incoherence are warranted; while the second season’s finale wraps up its storylines well enough, they just don’t really make much sense when put together. The season’s unanswered questions come across, not as mysterious, but just sloppy.
What would we get for season three, then? The rumors and subsequent trailers indicated a reunion of the TNG crew. This was promising, given the arguably failed experiments in season one and especially season two, the departure from the classic formula. But were we looking at a narrative step backward, a win for nostalgia at the expense of genuine storytelling? For those who love Star Trek canon but legitimately want it to be more than extended fan service, the concerns were real.
Now that the full ten episodes have aired, with critics and viewers alike having time to digest them, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that writer Terry Matalas and his team have pulled off one of the greatest comeback stories in recent television history. Picard‘s third season successfully introduces a complex serialized storyline that organically draws together the TNG characters to resolve an exciting crisis that is satisfyingly appropriate to their journey and their past. There are Easter eggs aplenty for the hardcore Trekkie, but the characters aren’t static reproductions of their 1990s selves. They have changed in surprising yet fitting ways, and while they dominate the action, the show’s writing staff makes ample space for a younger generation to step into their own as well. Even so, the writers make certain to emphasize the value and wisdom that only age and experience can provide, a refreshing perspective in our youth-fixated culture.
The Star Trek universe has been around a long time by TV standards—over sixty-five years at current count. But as a franchise, it, like most other media products, subsists by at least attempting to court young audiences. This has been an aspect of it from the beginning, when William Shatner’s James T. Kirk was established as the youngest captain in Starfleet at the time. Though Patrick Stewart was in his late forties when TNG debuted, his first officer—Jonathan Frakes’ Commander Riker—eagerly assumed the mantle of rogue ladies’ man, and, as in The Original Series, the cast skewed young. Every one of the ’90s-’00s series brought in young cast members for sex appeal, such as Deep Space Nine’s Dax (Terry Farrell), Enterprise’s T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), and, most relevantly, Voyager’s Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan).
In theory, the Enlightenment progressivism that animates Star Trek’s philosophy may incline it toward an appreciation of the flexibility and forward thinking associated with youth. For a fictive universe built on positing that humanity can and does get better, we should expect each “next generation” to be an improvement on its predecessors.
This isn’t necessarily the case, though. Ever since 1977’s cinematic Star Wars, Star Trek has always lived in the shadow of George Lucas’s franchise as a more cerebral show incapable of commanding the eye-candy budget of its blockbuster rival. While ’90s Trek did gain the franchise some new fans, even those fans have aged, and as we have seen, they do not always take kindly to perceived threats to canon and continuity. Since the end of Voyager, even many of the new Trek titles have been “backward-looking” prequel series.
But this is not as inimical to the heart of Star Trek as might be cursorily expected. Though creator Gene Roddenberry was indeed progressive (at least for his time), he retained a healthy respect for the ways in which the human past can both positively and negatively shape culture and the people within it. Despite some chronological snobbery, Star Trek has always been deeply humane, drawing from mythic and literary story patterns in a way few other media science fiction universes have. This may be why his characters, who can often be seen reading print works and listening to classical music, frequently reacted against the transhumanist leanings so many other science fiction writers have found themselves drawn to.
With a show so heavily invested in its universe’s mythology, charges of fan service and nostalgia will never be far away. Certainly some have complained of such violations in Picard’s final season, labelling it everything from “incestuous” to “pornographic in its use and misuse of franchise iconography.” More particularly, some contend the season demonstrates an unhealthy attitude toward the younger cast: “This mistrust of youth goes hand-in-hand with a fetishization of the past that goes beyond nostalgia and into paraphilia.”
These objections deserve to be taken seriously. Nostalgia simply for the sake of looking back into some idealized mythic past is deleterious, in popular culture and in any other area of life, for the nostalgist’s past is necessarily an artificially constructed one, valorizing (or even constructing) virtues while downplaying or entirely eliding vices. And certainly age in and of itself confers no special insight into the elder; who among us does not know men and women all the more foolish because they are old fools?
Scripture endorses the value of the past while never sliding into nostalgic indulgence. Of course, there is a mythic (and true) golden age, the unfallen Edenic garden of our forebears. But this is a distant memory even by the time Genesis kicks into high gear; it is a helpful reference point theologically and personally, and perhaps an ideal, but one toward which our striving will always fail if our expectations demand a full restoration. A sword of flame always stands at the gate of this nostalgia.
Beyond this, Scripture’s picture of history is one of inescapable complexity. First Israel, then later the church, are charged with the task of keeping alive the memories and traditions of past generations, through their documentation in the Bible itself and through the lived experiences of ceremonies and sacraments. These actions glorify God, but not necessarily the humans through whom he works. No event receives more attention in preincarnate salvation history than the Passover, yet apart from Moses and a few faithful leaders, the people God redeems prove intractable and headstrong; they are denied access to the Promised Land for their intransigence and it falls to their children, led by Joshua, to make good on God’s promise.
Biblical history demonstrates an oscillation between generations. What we see often looks more like a sine curve than either an optimistic climb or a constant degeneration. In Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, an older generation often fails its youth who react back to the stability of God’s Law, only to have that stability betrayed a generation or two later by their amnesiac descendants. Many of the Bible’s most commendable figures show virtue in their youth, from Joseph to Ruth to Samuel to David to Daniel to Timothy—and, of course, Jesus himself. Often, their virtue is shown in pushing back against their less righteous elders.
But when biblical figures act this way, they do so within a specific context. Young agitators situate their calls for reform within the currents of biblical history and tradition. Tradition isn’t dead but vital, and innovation is valuable only insofar as it brings society and individuals closer to God’s established designs for human flourishing. Even as Paul tells Timothy, “Let no one despise you for your youth,” he spends an entire chapter enjoining respect for elders; Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, not to abolish them. “Tradition,” as G. K. Chesterton so aptly put the matter, “means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”
Star Trek: Picard began its run as though it were almost embarrassed by its past. Indeed, Patrick Stewart only agreed to reprise his role under “two conditions . . . I didn’t want to wear a uniform, and it must not be a series that is fundamentally a sentimental reunion of The Next Generation.” Despite plenty of TNG cameos and interactions with Starfleet, the first two seasons largely kept faith with these conditions. At times, it seemed as though the series’ producers were primarily interested in little more than deconstructing the meditative, wise Jean-Luc Picard fans had known from their past. Season one portrayed Picard as a man whose ostensible principles obscured a degree of pomposity and a desire to escape from his problems. Season two further located that escapism in childhood trauma that somehow he had avoided facing for nearly a century. Whatever those seasons were, they were not nostalgic. They seemed almost resentful of the Picard that fans had grown to love.
If season three embraces rather than dismisses or scorns the TNG cast, this to me represents a welcome compensation for its prior overemphasis on the folly of age. There may be no fool like an old fool, but there are also wisdoms that simply cannot be achieved without experience, and there are relationships that cannot be forged without the passage of real, raw time in community. These are the aspects that Matalas and his crew embraced in their swan song to the Enterprise-D crew.
Like its predecessor (and most television of its day), Star Trek: The Next Generation was episodic in nature. This approach had its very real drawbacks: events that ought to have transformed the characters’ psyches were quickly left behind in pursuit of the next adventure. It was a significant triumph that the show’s writers were even able to get a single episode (“Family”) that dealt with the fallout of Picard’s assimilation in “The Best of Both Worlds.”
But recent shows have demonstrated some of the hazards of serialized storytelling. They lean too heavily into manipulating characters’ arcs and emotions, become overly dense in plot, and lose the integrity of individual episodes. It turns out there’s not really a substitute for a group of people working long hours together day in and day out for years. The development of the TNG’s characters came not from scripted storylines but from the emotional beats of actors growing together across the seasons. The weakness of the formulaic approach on a per-episode basis became its strength cumulatively by the end.
So when our core seven at last reunite in the final episodes of Picard, they are joined by bonds that seem almost impossible to establish within the context of contemporary peak television, where shows keep limited runs and often change cast. Yet they unite not as static legends or fossils of their ’90s incarnations, but as people who have evolved, gaining wisdom and emotional depth. Picard begins the season by claiming, “I am not a man who needs a legacy,” which indeed seems like the lesson the first two seasons were trying to hammer into us. Yet by the end, Matalas has suggested that legacies are in fact incredibly significant aspects of our lives. The friendship Picard has established with his old crew is important; yet so too is his actual family, including the son he didn’t know he had and didn’t know he needed. These connections—both biological and familial—stand in stark opposition to the tantalizing-yet-soulless connectivity promised by the Borg, a false community that Jack finally rejects.
Whether through skill, wisdom, or emotional insight, each member of the core seven gets moments to help save the day precisely because of their age. However contrived, it was a stroke of genius on the writers’ part to create a scenario in which Starfleet’s older members must become the saviors. We’ve seen plenty of occasions when corrupt old Federation or Starfleet bureaucrats are the enemies; it’s about time we see the elder statesmen as the heroes.
It is telling that the Borg plan is implemented in part through the shortsightedness of Admiral Shelby. Her role in “The Best of Both Worlds” decades earlier represented a headstrong young counterpart to Riker, leading him to reflect on his own position in conversation with his then-friend (and ever imzadi) Counselor Troi:
Riker: She comes in full of drive and ambition, impatient, taking risks. I look at her and I wonder what happened to those things in me. I liked those things about me. I’ve lost something.
Troi: You mean you’re older, more experienced, a little more… seasoned.
Riker: “Seasoned?” That’s a horrible thing to say to a man.
Troi: I don’t think you’ve lost a thing. And I think you’ve gained more than you realize.
The episode “Võx” shows us that while Shelby may have achieved the pinnacle of her ambition, she never learned the wisdom that Troi noticed in Riker.
It is essential to note that this insistence on age, wisdom, and tradition in Picard’s final season is not simply fan service and navel-gazing, and it is most assuredly not some crotchety rejection of youth. It is about the very thing Picard once attempted to dismiss, and which Matalas has passionately lobbied as the theme of a possible spinoff: legacy, that which is passed down from one generation to the next.
When younger Starfleet officers are compromised by the Borg, the more seasoned officers, including the Enterprise-D crew, are fighting for the youth. Seven of Nine embraces Sidney La Forge when she recovers her humanity even as Jean-Luc Picard embraces his son Jack when he frees him from the Borg Queen’s truly insular pull. The wisdom of the old guard perseveres to protect their younger counterparts, passing down to them a legacy that may lead to greater flourishing.
This, to me, is what keeps Star Trek: Picard from degenerating into self-reflexive bathos or a breakfast diner’s worth of Easter eggs. Its writers present the Enterprise-D crew as fallible people who have changed over the years, not as relics to be discarded. We may move on, but we dare not move on without looking back. At its best, Star Trek has always kept this steady journeying pace, and if it continues to chart the course laid out at the end of Star Trek: Picard, its legacy could be bright indeed.