Brainiac On Banjo #071: To Baldly Go…

Star Trek Picard started up a couple days ago, so if you know any ViacomCBS executives, now it a good time to hit ‘em up for a loan.

I can’t say I’m a huge Trekker. I saw the first episode at broadcast and thought it was decent but not particularly compelling. The next day, a young lady who held my interest told me she thought it was the Citizen Kane of television (I paraphrase) so, in order to show her how hip I was, I became a regular viewer. Look, I was hardly the first 16-year-old whose hormones determined his television-viewing decisions.

Sadly, the show held my attention longer than my puppy lust. There were some extremely weak episodes, particularly in the third season, and often I was afraid Captain Kirk was going to leap out of the boob tube and run away with my dinner. But as television went back in those days, it was pretty good and, at times, excellent.

Two decades later, Paramount launched Next Generation. I thought it was a very interesting idea, but I saw the broadcast at a Brandeis University comics convention under less-than-perfect circumstances, in a room filled with college-age fans who were pre-ordained to perceive every fart as a rose – and vice versa. I liked the show, loved the tribute to the original series, and found much of the cast to be first-rate. The writing was a bit weak in the beginning, but it improved around season three.

But this Patrick Stewart guy who headed up the show was magnetizing. In a room filled with Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts graduates, Stewart could grab your attention and imprint himself onto your synapses. I’m not a sucker for the British accent – at least, not when deployed by the male gender – but this man fit the Del Close definition of subtext. And most things Star Trek have a lot of subtext.

As writing improved, the Trek universe began to expand and I found Deep Space Nine to be gripping. The next spin-off, Voyager, much less so: they boldly went where I didn’t give a damn. It didn’t get much better until their final season. Of course, these are my opinions and your mileage may vary.

I liked Enterprise, particularly the final two seasons. I think this puts me in the minority. It lasted four seasons, which really isn’t bad at all. When CBS (which now owned the television rights) then used the franchise to launch its pay-to-watch service, at first, I couldn’t decide if I liked it. It was a mess. Once again, the cast was solid. The Spock connection was cheap, desperate and almost offensive and I generally loathe prequels, but I’m such a huge Michelle Yeoh fan I stuck around to watch the writers slowly write their way out of the blender.

When she was killed off – more or less; nobody in heroic fantasy is dead forever – and replaced by Jason Isaacs, I found his character to add the touch of mysteriousity that Trek often lacked. The Captain Pike stuff was a well-conceived fan pleaser, and when they made it a no-longer-prequel they had me. Of course, by then they had resurrected Michelle Yeoh’s character(s), so they already had me.

The CBS folks commissioned a series of 10 to 15-minute shorts that each focused on one or two characters – some from Discovery, some from Star Trek the Unmade Original Series, others new additions to the canon. These required an entirely different style of writing, more personal and more revelatory. These Short Treks got into the nooks and crannies of the Trek universe and, by and large, sported excellent scripts. A nod here to the award-winning novelist Michael Chabon, who stroked his inner-fanboy by joining the organization and rearranging the alphabet in ways unique to the franchise.

Somewhere on that road, they came up with this idea: what the hell happened to Jean-Luc Picard, that compelling captain guy from ST:TNG? And, better still, what could Michael Chabon do about it? And… how would they convince Patrick Stewart to put the co-opted badge back on? I mean, look, you could do Picard with another actor – Ian McKellan comes to mind – but that would be rude. These questions have been asked by many a Trek viewer and, while the teasers teased tauntingly, the proof is in the broadcasting.

Which happened a few days ago.

When death comes to Patrick Stewart, as it shall to us all (or so I’m told), the first line of his obituary will conflate Stewart with Picard. He knows this, and so he surely wanted what would likely be one of his last big projects to be worthy of his reputation. Putting it all on the line for this Picard+18 series must have been quite a difficult decision. He said he went to the pitch meeting strictly out of curiosity with no compulsion to return to the character that made his bones. That must have been one hell of a pitch. I wish they filmed it, although Schrödinger’s Cat probably would get in the way.

Well, it was worth it. Picard was compelling. That first episode was unlike the typical Trek show in that it had a one-person lead and not an ensemble, although it’s clear they are enable-building. That’s swell, but Patrick Stewart’s aggressive yet subtle performance is what this show is all about.

Live long and prosper, Jean-Luc Picard. And Mr. Stewart, if you could convince your friend Mr. McKellan to join you for an episode or two next season, I would be grateful.

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