In a massive surprise announcement at the Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas, Patrick Stewart announced what many fans of the franchise have wanted for over 15 years — he’s returning to the role of Jean-Luc Picard, sometime Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Unfortunately, like Star Trek: Discovery, the new show will be gate-locked behind the CBS All Access online service. There’s also no word of any additional characters from the franchise (or the actors that played them) returning in new or different roles.
But before waxing rhapsodic about Stewart’s return to the series, I’d like to know how serious the showrunners are about trying to capture the tone and setting of the Trek series that take place in the 24th century — TNG, DS9, and Voyager. While these shows were somewhat different in focus — TNG mostly avoided serialization, DS9 embraced it, while Voyager tended to take a middle ground, they shared a common grounding in technology, approach to conflict, and culture. Kathryn Janeway, Benjamin Sisko, and Jean-Luc Picard are very different people, with different backgrounds, but they also clearly graduated from the same “school.”
Paramount and CBS, in contrast, seem to have both spent the last decade moving as far away from this older, more staid version of Star Trek as quickly as they could, via both the Abramsverse and Star Trek: Discovery. I haven’t seen all of Star Trek: Discovery, but the few episodes I did see made it clear that the tone of the new show is vastly different. Starfleet commanders in the 23rd century were apparently far more willing to lead mutinies than I’d previously realized, and corruption, threats, and intimidation (or dubious ethical decisions) played a larger part in the day to day operations of starships than I’d previously been aware of.
I’m not saying the new show is bad because it’s edgy, or because its crew are more fallible and make worse decisions. Rather, I’d say that the ethical and moral dimensions of Jean-Luc Picard and the overarching Star Trek universe are often pointedly missing from Discovery, to the point that such views are rarely articulated at all. If you hated the way Star Trek characters sometimes moralized, this may be an improvement. If you valued it, it’s a noted absence. But either way, the tone and type of show that CBS is creating with Discovery doesn’t seem to have much room for a Picard-like character, and the claim that the show takes place in the “Prime” timeline are undercut as much by the differences in attitudes as they are by the differences in technology and costuming.
I will always be very proud to have been a part of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but when we wrapped that final movie in the spring of 2002, I truly felt my time with Star Trek had run its natural course. It is, therefore, an unexpected but delightful surprise to find myself excited and invigorated to be returning to Jean-Luc Picard and to explore new dimensions within him. Seeking out new life for him, when I thought that life was over. During these past years, it has been humbling to hear stories about how The Next Generation brought people comfort, saw them through difficult periods in their lives or how the example of Jean-Luc inspired so many to follow in his footsteps, pursuing science, exploration and leadership. I feel I'm ready to return to him for the same reason – to research and experience what comforting and reforming light he might shine on these often very dark times. I look forward to working with our brilliant creative team as we endeavor to bring a fresh, unexpected and pertinent story to life once more. #StarTrek @cbsallaccess Photo: @shervinfoto
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There are so many interesting places a show like this could go, it’s almost impossible to speculate. Moving the TNG timeline ahead by 16 years (the amount of time since Star Trek: Nemesis) would allow for new characters, political environments, and fresh technology development, without being so long as to make it impossible to revisit old characters and settings to catch up with them. But the tone of the show will have a profound impact on how much of a sequel it feels like to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and based on how CBS has handled the show to-date, we’re not all that optimistic about its future.