In 1989, political scientist Francis Fukuyama penned an essay called “The End of History?” which said Western liberal democracy would become the dominant form of human government on earth, leading to a lasting state of peace, prosperity and tolerance. Two years earlier, Star Trek: The Next Generation aired its first episode, imagining a 24th century that embodied those same ideals. Continuing the utopian vision of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, the show’s writers presented a world where scarcity had been eliminated, old enemies were now allies, and no one cared about male pattern baldness.
Both works quickly became viewed as hopelessly naive. As Fukuyama’s theories were disproved by the global rise of authoritarianism and religious extremism, coupled with the corruption of democracies through greed and apathy, Star Trek struggled to stay relevant in a rapidly changing political and entertainment landscape. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine experimented with serialization and darker plots about the impact of war. Star Trek: Voyager tried to up the stakes by cutting its crew off from the United Federation of Planets. As the real world seemed to be growing darker, Star Trek dug into its universe’s past to tell stories of a closer, more imperfect future in Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: Discovery.
Star Trek: Picard, which premieres on Jan. 23 on CBS All Access, rejects that retreat. Its title character, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) acknowledges that the world seems worse now than it was when he was captain of the USS Enterprise, but he believes the utopian ideals he came to stand for can still be achieved by people who are willing to fight despair and complacency.
Picard is set 14 years after Picard resigned his post as admiral within the Federation’s space exploration force, Starfleet. At Picard’s urging, the organization assembled a fleet to rescue the population of the planet Romulus from a supernova, as referenced in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek film. But when an attack by synthetic humans similar to Picard’s friend and former crew member Data (Brent Spiner), destroyed those ships and killed their crews, Starfleet abandoned an evacuation that was already unpopular, due to the Federation’s longstanding enmity with the Romulans. “It was no longer Starfleet,” Picard says in the show’s pilot. “We withdrew. The galaxy was mourning, burying its dead, and Starfleet slunk from its duties.”
It’s a poignant parallel to America’s retreat from the world stage as a leader of the democratic ideals it embodied in the 1990s, particularly in regards to welcoming refugees. Dealing with his disappointment in the organization he devoted his life to serving, Picard has retreated into the comforts of the past, tending a vineyard in his native France, and writing books on history. But he’s spurred back into action by a visit from Dahj (Isa Briones), a mysterious young woman whose existence provides evidence of a tangled conspiracy involving Data, the Romulans, and corrupt elements within Starfleet.
While trailers for Picard have leaned heavily on nostalgia, with guest appearances by TNG and Voyager characters, including Picard’s first officer William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and former Borg collective member Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), the writers are devoting most of their time to a ragtag crew of new, younger characters that Picard assembles to help him on his mission to uncover the truth. In the process, he gives each of them the chance to hope again. Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill of American Horror Story: Cult) is looking for a chance to persuade Starfleet to abandon its ban on synthetic life. Conspiracy theorist Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd) wants to prove the failed Romulan evacuation attempt she helped Picard coordinate was sabotaged.
Some of the characters are less willing to accept Picard’s inspiration. Cristobal Rios (Santiago Cabrera), a former Starfleet pilot willing to work on Picard’s unsanctioned fact-finding mission, is introduced while taking a shot of booze to numb the pain from the piece of metal sticking out of his shoulder, due to some dangerous incident he refuses to explain. Picard sees right through Rios’ Han Solo-like scoundrel vibe, pointing out that Rios is still keeping his ship perfectly maintained by Starfleet regulations. While Rios brushes him off with an anecdote about the sad fate of the last captain he served, Picard’s point is actually a treatise on the show’s aesthetic. His new crew is a little rougher than his old one, but the clean, uncluttered spaceships are still a vibrant contrast to the grittier, grimier look of so much modern science fiction.
Where TNG was largely episodic, Picard is a fully serialized science-fiction conspiracy thriller. There are a few thrilling fight scenes, but Stewart isn’t an action star. The writers play to his strengths by having him serve as a sort of motivating, protective grandfather. There are hints of his excellent performance in the X-Men swan song Logan, as he occasionally gives in to moments of despair at the state of the world, and his perceived failings. It’s a profoundly human portrait of a great man crippled by regret, and a personal quest for redemption that becomes something far greater.
A powerful hero like Picard needs equally menacing villains, in order to not feel like straw men. Unfortunately, the ones in Picard are cartoonishly evil. Harry Treadaway fit in beautifully as Victor Frankenstein in the campy Penny Dreadful, but his sexy, secretive Romulan Narek feels like he’d be more at home as a nemesis of Captain Kirk. That’s especially true when he’s accompanied by his sister Narissa (Peyton List), who’s vamping even harder.
Picard is full of references to previous Star Trek plots and characters, but they’re incorporated in a way that lets the writers address old mysteries and new possibilities, rather than just feeling like fan-service Easter eggs. Casual fans might miss some nuance, if they don’t know the significance of Data’s daughter Lal, or the ex-Borg Hugh. But the show stands on its own while returning to Star Trek’s original mission statement.
The past 20 years of science fiction have been dominated by dystopian stories exploring what humanity fears most, and realistic dramas imagining the deeply flawed futures we expect. Picard addresses viewer anxieties about the role of government, the treatment of refugees, and the potential of artificial intelligence, then asks us to imagine that better answers exist. We might want to avoid Battlestar Galactica and expect to end up in The Expanse, but Picard is a reminder that it’s worth continuing to strive for the utopian future of Star Trek.
In the decades that followed the publication of “The End of History?,” Fukiyama’s critics pointed out that his optimism was based on the inherent goodness of Western liberal democracy, in spite of the system’s inherent racism and wealth inequality. Similarly, while Star Trek was a leader in pushing for ethnic diversity in its cast, and in tackling social issues like racism, pacifism, and religion, it also was riddled with sexism, clumsy about its moralizing, and slow to integrate LGBTQ characters. At times, it abandoned its idealism in favor of moral relativism or meaningless action.
Today’s world isn’t what Fukiyama or Roddenberry dreamed of. Both writers were fundamentally focused on the Cold War, and couldn’t really imagine the politics beyond it. But that doesn’t prevent some version of their vision eventually coming to pass. Picard dares audiences to avoid wallowing in despair or nostalgia, and asks them to take action to build a world that’s even better than anyone could have imagined.
Star Trek: Picard premieres on CBS All Access on Jan. 23. The rest of the show’s 10-episode first season will be released weekly on Thursdays. It has already been renewed for a second season.