"The Next Generation" is an intriguing title, because it cuts to the very heart of the matter. This is an episode singularly devoted to refocusing our attention on the idea that this final season of Star Trek: Picard will be about the Next Generation characters. It does this when these characters would be more accurately described with a title like "The Previous Generation" or maybe even "The Old Guard." If there's an actual next generation to be established in this final season of Picard, that's not yet apparent (unless the man accompanying Beverly Crusher offers a clue).
No, the title is about looking back rather than forward, and in doing so, this episode provides reason for optimism — at least as much, if not more so, than "The Star Gazer" did at the beginning of last season. Naturally, no one can blame us for being cautious, even suspicious, after season two burned us badly by trapping its characters, and us, for eight episodes in an uninspired and plodding 21st-century time-travel plot, immediately after teasing us with what seemed to be the absorbing atmosphere of the early 25th century. But now we have a storyline that promises — for real this time! — to be just that.
The opening teaser shows Beverly Crusher on a ship, with only one other person, under attack from unknown aliens who attack with fierce phaser fire. She fends off the attackers and locks her companion away for his safety before sending an urgent message to Picard — whom she hasn't spoken to in 20 years — asking for help. Her message says to Trust No One™, including Starfleet. Picard receives this message on an old Enterprise-D combadge that he has stashed away in his study in Chateau Picard, at the very moment he's packing up his stuff to move to Chaltok IV to be with Laris. (It seems like a bad idea to transmit an urgent distress call to an ancient device that very likely could've been thrown away 20 years ago, but I'll allow it on the grounds of wayback-machine fan service, along with the other TNG-era stuff in Picard's house he is determined to give away — although surely, I hope, he is not giving away the flute from "The Inner Light.")
Picard contacts Riker, and together they quickly break the code that provides them the coordinates in the Ryton System where they need to go. All they need is a ship. Fortunately, they have an avenue in through Seven of Nine, who is the first officer on the newly retrofitted USS Titan, which of course was Riker's old ship, which we never got to see in action after his promotion to captain at the end of Star Trek: Nemesis. (Unless you count the brief animated detour in Lower Decks' "Kayshon, His Eyes Open.")
What most heartens me here (for the most part) is the modulated tone this is pitched at. This is an episode that, like "The Star Gazer," works in large part because it drops us into a future version of a familiar universe and allows us to marinate in the pleasures of simply being here, while remembering the things from past Treks it parades in front of us. It's fan service, but so what? It works. The devil is in the details, and the details are right.
The production design is what we would expect of a TNG movie post-Nemesis. And although the lighting is too relentlessly dark, the look of the show is crisp and clean. The use of familiar sound effects from the shows and movies (hey, the evening chimes from Star Trek VI!), the LCARS displays, the uniforms — all of it is flawlessly rendered to add up to a world we didn't get to experience much of for Picard's first two seasons. There's a departure sequence of the Titan from the starbase that lays out the callbacks to Star Trek III (always one-quarter impulse power). And it works.
The story's stakes are mostly personal. Picard, of course, has to find Crusher. Riker is along for the ride, but welcomes the diversion, saying that Deanna and Kestra "will appreciate the time away from me." (What are they unhappy with him about? For going back to Starfleet?) Just hanging out with these two guys and their naturally played friendship is worth the time spent, aside from anything that happens.
Seven of Nine has a good arc in the episode. Serving under Captain Liam Shaw (Todd Stashwick) is no picnic. The guy is an aloof douche (an "aloosh"?) who insists Seven go by "Commander Annika Hansen," invites Picard and Riker to dinner in his quarters only to start before they even show up, and mostly acts kind of dickish. Later, he puts Picard and Riker in a shared room with bunk beds. It's fun to watch. Still, the episode doesn't overdo it, and Shaw has a good point when he refuses to take the ship to the edge of Federation space for the purposes of Picard's supposed "inspection"; he didn't get to be in his position by pulling stupid stunts.
Seven puts two and two together and figures out what Picard needs and agrees to get them to the coordinates where they can take a shuttle to make the rescue attempt, at great risk to her standing with Shaw and her career. Seven still has a huge, angry chip on her shoulder about not fitting in or being where she wants in her career, but it's a characterization that works because Jeri Ryan does such a good job playing it honestly. Most of what happens on the Titan works excellently.
The larger plot is nothing to write home about; it's early and typically inconclusive as these serial mysteries go. Why Crusher is being chased by the aliens is not to be answered here. The episode ends with Picard and Riker finding and boarding Crusher's ship and finding her enclosed in a medical stasis pod. Her companion is a young man who says she is Beverly's son, which raises many questions (and eyebrows) just before a much larger alien ship comes looming.
Meanwhile, a subplot involving Raffi working as an undercover operative for Starfleet Intelligence — where she learns how the clue of a "red lady" turns out to explain a forthcoming terrorist attack which she is unable to stop — is for now disconnected from everything else and plays with much higher stakes (an attack with a crazy superweapon on a massive Starfleet facility surely results in many, many thousands of deaths), and is somehow — predictably — the thing we care the least about. Michelle Hurd is still overacting the key emotional beats for this rather overwrought character (who is still drawn to the drugs she pretends to buy while on the job), and it's something I hope the creators will dial in so it fits with the rest of the show's tone.
But overall, this is good stuff that gives me hope for this season. Yeah, we were in similar spots with how the first two seasons started, but hope springs eternal and I'd rather be an optimist than a naysayer. We'll see how I feel after five more episodes. This season promises to stay in the 25th century where the show belongs, and we have a lot of catching up to do as we gradually get the rest of the band back together.
Some other thoughts:
- Based on what we see here, you could very easily pick up season three of this show without having seen the first two, and not really miss much at all. It would play like the next thing in line for TNG after Nemesis. There's no mention of the mysterious anomaly that was in "Farewell" (although my guess is that will eventually play into things), and there's no "previously on Star Trek: Picard" to highlight past episodes.
- Ensign Sidney La Forge (Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut), daughter of Geordi, is on the bridge of the Titan.
- Raffi meets her drug-dealing information source on M'Talas Prime. The episode was written by Terry Matalas. I guess he's getting out of here with a planet named after him.
- Raffi's ship obviously reuses the set of La Sirena, but surely it's supposed to be a different ship, since La Sirena was taken by Borg Queen Jurati 400 years ago and presumably assimilated into her collective.
- No one wants the models of the "fat" Enterprise-D being sold at the bar for Frontier Day. I guess everyone wants the newer, sleeker models.
- By the way, what is Frontier Day commemorating 250 years of? The founding of the Federation was my first thought, but Memory Alpha says that happened in 2161, which would make this episode take place in 2411, which is almost 10 years too late for when this realistically takes place, since last season (the parts not in 2024, that is) took place in 2401. The Enterprise NX-01 under Captain Archer was launched in 2151, and 250 years later would be 2401, so maybe that's it?
- More callbacks: The statue of Rachel Garrett, the captain of the Enterprise-C, is the "red lady" Raffi desperately searches for and discovers is at the site of the impending attack.
- Still more callbacks: The opening title card, "In the 25th century..." referencing the similar opening card in Star Trek II.
- The closing titles break out the original TNG font, the Jerry Goldsmith ST:TMP/TNG and First Contact themes, and tons and tons of LCARS designs. The TNG homage is strong with this one.
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