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'Star Trek: Picard' review: Patrick Stewart returns in smart, well-crafted drama

(l-r): Orla Brady as Laris, Jamie McShane as

(l-r): Orla Brady as Laris, Jamie McShane as Zhaban and Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard on the CBS All Access series "Star Trek: Picard.". Credit: CBS/Trae Patton

SERIES "Star Trek: Picard"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on CBS All Access


 

WHAT IT'S ABOUT A mysterious team of Romulan assassins has come to Earth to dispatch a certain woman, Dahj (Isa Briones), who seeks out a retired Starfleet commander for help. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) quit the Federation decades earlier, furious over a broken promise that resulted in the deaths of scores of Romulans. A captain without a ship, he needs to set out again to help her. A crew is assembled, including an old Starfleet colleague, Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd), "synth" — or synthetic human — expert, Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill). The ship's captain, Cristóbal Rios (Santiago Cabrera), is colorful and not unlike Picard himself.

This spinoff of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1987-94) also stars (in dream sequences) Brent Spiner's "Data," the almost-human android. Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon is showrunner.         

 

MY SAY TV critic's log, Stardate one-twenty-three-two-oh-two-oh. And what have we here? Another "Star Trek?" The return of Patrick Stewart? This makes eight TV series, 12 movies, and one celebrated actor who swore he would never reprise his celebrated "Trek" character. That's fine. We didn't believe him back then anyway — 18 years by my count, or since 2002's lamentable big-screen "Nemesis." 

 But still, after all these years, we have moved on, my dear Jean-Luc — to other galaxies, or other franchises that sometimes seem like galaxies, with their own boundless canons, wikis and spinoffs that fill boundless networks. We call those "streaming services" now, by the way. We've kindled new love affairs, obsessions, and habits. We must rekindle this one all over again?

We must, and we just might. The first three episodes are good in the way they have to be, but another franchise spinoff on another service has already figured out this "rekindle" puzzle. "The Mandalorian" keeps the story straight, the "Star Wars" canon simple and — added bonus — stars an internet meme and plush toy. 

"Picard" has a lot going on, lots of characters to do it, and not a plush toy in sight. There are callbacks (Data), a complex Romulan subplot and a Federation one too. By the end of the third episode, when Picard finally has his new ship, you almost forget why he needed one in the first place.

Critic's log correction: I almost forgot. You may have better luck. 

But what we never forget are first loves, and great actors know how to rekindle those. The minute Stewart appears on-screen there's a visceral thrill, which redoubles when Data appears. 

Picard has aged. He huffs his way up the stairs. He has no moves, or at best nominal ones. He couldn't punch his way out of a paper bag, if they still have those in 2390. There's an autumnal feel to the opening episode, of time past, of time lost. Space is no country for old men, so he gazes out at his French vineyard instead. "I haven't been living," he concedes. "I've been waiting to die."

Words to disprove, and "Picard" quickly does. Those classic sturdy "Trek" themes drive the story — that humans are two sides of the same coin, both good and evil, with the capacity to overcome the latter. Gene Roddenberry demanded that "Trek" — all of them — reflect both his optimism and despair for the world we live in. The feckless Federation of "Picard" says something about our current politics too. 

Some beloved characters aren't back for this ride, like LeVar Burton's La Forge or Michael Dorn's Worf (Jonathan Frakes' Riker turns up later). But the new crew does seem like fun, especially Cabrera's Rios. He's the breakout here, and just might give Baby Yoda a run for the money. 

 BOTTOM LINE Smart, well-crafted, layered — verging on over-layered.

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