Eventually, the passage of time will get to you. Last year, as I was watching Ira Steven Behr's DS9 documentary, What We Left Behind, the thing that struck me the most — even more so than watching the writing staff "break" a hypothetical eighth-season premiere — was how much older everyone in the cast looked, and by extension, how much older I was than when I was watching them during the airing of the series. Sadly, since I watched that doc, both Rene Auberjonois and Aron Eisenberg have died. Time is the fire in which we burn.
In "Remembrance," the premiere episode of Star Trek: Picard, the predator that is time has not permanently claimed Picard, but it has in a way left him in limbo. It's a limbo he is fortunately able to recognize he must escape, realizing he has wasted so many years "waiting to die" because he took the route of disgruntled passivity. He comes to this realization after a series of intense and intriguing events that give him reason to suspend retirement at his family's vineyard in France and take up a new purpose. What exactly that purpose is remains to be seen. There are mysteries at work here and many things still to do.
Picard plays like a just-right balance between fan service and staking out new territory. Opening with a dream sequence on Ten-Forward of the Enterprise-D, Picard plays poker with Data. After some familiar chit-chat, Data observes Picard is stalling, who responds by saying he is doing so because "I don't want the game to end." The details of the sequence are interesting because they use the familiar visual cues of TNG (Ten-Forward, a game of poker), but twist them with a certain dream logic (Data is anachronistically wearing the Enterprise-E-era uniform he died in, and Ten-Forward, where poker was never played, is lit in a way that makes it feel askew).
At the core of the episode is Picard being haunted by the dreams and memories of his fallen comrade. When I learned of Brent Spiner's involvement in this series several months back, I feared some sort of retcon that would resurrect him, perhaps through the B-4 escape hatch the writers built into Star Trek: Nemesis. But "Remembrance" does not cheat — and indeed leans heavily into the fact that, yes, Data very much died at the end of Nemesis, which took a very real emotional toll on Picard and now results in strange, mysterious dreams that have Meaningful Reasons.
(B-4 does eventually figure into this — as he should in order to answer questions we would obviously have — but it's with the reveal that he never had the capability to properly process Data's downloaded memories and was deactivated, disassembled, and shelved shortly after Nemesis. Perhaps the oddest thing about Star Trek: Picard is how it almost makes Star Trek: Nemesis into essential viewing.)
"Remembrance" plays out almost entirely on Earth, much of it in the naturalistic confines of Picard's vineyard and chateau, where we catch up with what he's been doing — or not doing — for two decades. This setting feels more grounded and familiar than, say, Discovery, because we are re-entering a universe we are familiar with, and are in the orbit of an iconic character, now much older and narratively treated as such.
The visuals are every bit as polished and eye-popping as other 21st-century Trek productions, featuring lush photography and crisp visual effects. But the cinematography stylistics are considerably toned down from (read: less obtrusive than in) Discovery, as is the pace, which takes its time just sitting with Picard and contemplating his emotional state. Obviously, when you have an actor of Patrick Stewart's caliber you would be well advised to do that as much as possible, and the writers and director Hanelle Culpepper wisely exercise patience and do so.
The plot involves a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones), who is attacked in her apartment by unidentified, black-clad soldiers wearing masked helmets. After killing her boyfriend, they mention she has been "activated," at which point a switch in her head is somehow flipped and she is able to wipe them all out with impressive fighting skills she was not aware she even had. In the middle of this, she has a vision of Picard, and is compelled to seek him out.
Meanwhile, the expositional need to catch us up on the most pertinent highlights of the last two decades are economically accomplished by way of a rare media interview of the famous, now-reclusive, former Starfleet captain and admiral. We learn he resigned in protest following a massive attempted Federation rescue operation (which he compares to Dunkirk) of 900 million Romulan survivors of the supernova that destroyed Romulus (see Spock's ill-fated mission in Star Trek 2009). Using the destruction of Romulus as an entry point into the Federation's current political situation is intriguing. Working at Picard's chateau are two Romulan refugees, which serves as an effective shorthand for the plight of the decimated empire and where it now stands.
Also woven into this backstory are crucial details about an uprising of "synthetic" AI laborers who destroyed the Utopia Planitia shipyards at Mars amid this rescue operation, leading to the mission's cancellation and Picard's eventual resignation in protest — as well as a ban on all artificial lifeforms. Late in Voyager's run we started to see some "rights of AI lifeforms" as a theme surrounding holograms, and Picard now brings it back by way of androids. The question of "AIs rising up against their masters" and "what responsibilities do we have regarding AI" were sci-fi issues at the core of the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, and it will be interesting to see if Picard can bring yet another spin to the concept without being redundant.
But the details are intriguing, especially once Picard meets Dahj and is inspired by her familiarity to go search through his personal archive at Starfleet Headquarters to uncover the mystery of who she might actually be. This mystery, with clues provided by Data's old paintings, is actually pretty well constructed and has some compelling implications — that somehow, we're not sure how yet — Dahj is an android created from human flesh and blood and also Data's "daughter." (And any search through an archive that also shows us the hilarious "Captain Picard Day" banner from "The Pegasus" is an archive search worth witnessing.)
If there's a place where "Remembrance" steps wrong, it's the sequence where Picard and Dahj are attacked by the black-clad soldiers, revealed to be Romulans, which results in Dahj's demise so suddenly, just as we were getting to know her as a character. Picard is knocked unconscious and wakes up back in his home, in a narrative shift so jarring I'd assumed it had all been a dream or some kind of premonition. When it becomes clear what we saw, yes, actually did happen, I had questions, like: How could this shootout and explosion have happened on a rooftop and not be witnessed in some way by anyone or any kind of surveillance equipment and not leave behind a ton of forensic evidence? (This happens in the heart of San Francisco right next to Starfleet Headquarters, no less.) The police chalk it up to "the old man hit his head" and say there was nothing on the security feed except Picard. This is either an incredible plot convenience or there's way more going on here than they are telling us. (Neither would surprise me.)
Dahj's death feels emotionally glossed over but motivates Picard to dig deeper. He goes to the Daystrom Institute, where Dahj had just been accepted for a fellowship, and there he meets Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), who shows him the disassembled B-4 and explains how she and Bruce Maddox (yes, that Bruce Maddox, from "The Measure of a Man") had — before the synthetics ban — been working on some new android technology that would've theoretically been able to clone an android from a single positronic neuron. The two of them conclude Dahj was somehow created by Maddox, and that she has a twin out there somewhere. (The details for how exactly they jump to this conclusion escape me, possibly a result of my lack of time to watch this more than once, or possibly because of convenient narrative shortcuts.)
Of course, no episode of any serialized show begotten of this century would be complete without a teaser setting up the season's mystery through a Big Shocking Reveal (or at least a Big Shocking Reveal already hinted at in the trailers), which is that some project at a "Romulan reclamation site" is doing something, and this site happens to be in the wreckage of a Borg cube. As Big Shocking Reveals go, I found it to be suitably intriguing. Dahj's twin, named Soji, is at this site. She has a brief conversation with a Romulan named Narek (Harry Treadaway) who is notable because he has lines of dialogue and appears in the opening credits. These are introductions, nothing more.
"Remembrance" is a very promising albeit not always riveting start to this series, and as is always the case with these serialized slow builds, it's hard to know where this is truly going. In terms of substance, we may get another sci-fi analysis of artificial intelligence within the context of a Federation that's not currently on great terms with "synthetics." And in terms of social commentary, the status of the Romulans as a former empire reduced to refugees — and how the Federation views them (which is not entirely clear at this point) — could have some interesting contemporary parallels.
Meanwhile, Picard's dreams and memories are evocative, and every minute spent in this universe is a pleasure, and shows why reboots and nostalgia can work when a creative team really taps into them. Stewart's chemistry with Isa Briones shows promise (which made it all the more disappointing to see her character so unceremoniously discarded, even if she has a twin sister), and as for the Borg connection teased at the end — well, what's more central to Picard's character than his relationship with the Borg?
Some other thoughts:
- An early working title for this series was apparently Star Trek: Destiny. I'm pretty sure I like that better. I get you want to market your show, but Picard as a title is just so ... prosaic.
- Beyond the connection drawn through the paintings, does Picard's connection to Dahj have something to do with his assimilation into the Borg collective, and if so, how? Or does it have something to do with this theoretical ability to retrieve an android's essence from a positronic neuron and perhaps Picard's proximity to Data at the time of his death? I'm just throwing things out there.
- Is there any connection between Dahj and Lal?
- A wounded Romulan spits acid/blood/something that disintegrates Dahj and causes a phaser to overload and blow up real good. Explanations, please. (I'm willing to wait, but I want them.)
- Why did the synthetics destroy the Utopia Planitia shipyards at a cost of 92,000 lives, clearly-not-coincidentally during the Romulan evacuation? And why are the Romulans now apparently hunting synthetics? And how do the Borg figure into it? There are connections and reasons for all of this. At least there'd better be.
- Speaking of What We Left Behind, the hypothetical season-eight DS9 premiere they broke had the same sort of serialized-build-out-with-teaser-ending structure this had. Like I said, that's just the architecture of a TV episode today.
- The opening titles seem to offer some clues into what this season is about. Cryptic clues at best, but probably in there somewhere. I'm not sure if I'm sold on the theme, but I wasn't for Discovery right away either, and it ended up growing on me quite a bit.
- In the opening poker game, Data lays down five queens. All I could think of was that TNG spliced-up parody video, created in the early-to-mid 1990s, where Data announces, "I have six aces!" and then laughs maniacally (using the audio from "Deja Q"). One of the earliest of all Internet video memes.
- I went back to trying CBS All Access using the Android app via Chromecast, and for the first time ever, I had no problems with video stutters. Maybe they've finally fixed it.
- My wife really needs a refresher on the major TNG backstory points that really give this episode more meaning. She felt lost at times, and I had some explaining to do. She didn't feel this way with Discovery (even though I was always explaining TOS backstory) which I think speaks to how this show really is designed for old-school TNG fans.
- Despite my ever-alarmist self-doubting qualms, this turned out to be a full-length review — much longer than average, even. I guess I just can't help myself once I get started. Perhaps this will go more smoothly than I planned. Perhaps things will get shorter as the season goes on. We'll see. I'll shut up about my process now and just let things do what they do.
Next episode: Maps and Legends