WARNING: Some spoilers of for Star Trek, particularly Star Trek: Picard, ahead.
“Jean-Luc Picard is back.”
Those were Patrick Stewart’s words in Las Vegas during a Star Trek convention in August 2018, and they electrified both the Trekkies in attendance and the wider fandom. Twenty-five years after the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation and nearly two decades after the ill-fated film Star Trek: Nemesis, the storied captain of the Enterprise-D and Enterprise-E was getting a new act.
The first episode of Star Trek: Picard made its debut in January of 2020 on CBS All Access, the same paid subscription service that has played host to Star Trek: Discovery and the present home of every Star Trek series. The season finale of Picard, the second part of a two-part episode, hit All Access in March, and the show has already been greenlit for a second season.
After watching the entirety of the first season, I would say that there is certainly promise. The show itself is deeply rooted in Star Trek lore, with references to almost every Star Trek series, even the animated one. The entire premise of the first season fuses together the characters and events of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its successive films with events described by the elder Spock in the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot film. Thus, we get to find out how Jean-Luc Picard tried to intervene during the destruction of Romulus.
The show has the benefit of being exceptionally well-acted. The old Trek actors are as good as ever, and the newcomers, on balance, do a good job. There are some truly rich characters here, with developed backstories and complex motivations. No less complex is Picard himself, who has been profoundly affected by the events that took place after Nemesis.
Unfortunately, the show doesn’t always execute its premise, or deploy its superb cast, as well as it could. Some episodes are pretty good, while others are flat. The finale, in my view, is convoluted and sloppy, wasting some truly spectacular opportunities and dropping new elements that just don’t play out well. The final ten minutes, for me, were a letdown.
Let’s be honest, though: Trek series don’t typically shine during the first season, Next Generation being the most conspicuous example. In the past, it has taken 3-5 seasons for a series in this franchise to get its legs, so I’m inclined to give Picard the benefit of the doubt while the show gets comfortable in its own skin.
Picard’s Content Rating
What I’m less forgiving of is the edge Picard chose to take on in the first series. I’m not talking about the darker tone or the way it explores the underbelly of Federation society in ways the utopian Roddenberry avoided: I’m talking about the show’s TV-MA rating, which is the rough television equivalent of an R-rating. I wouldn’t say that every episode warrants a TV-MA rating, but the series as a whole definitely earns the label.
The primary reasons are violence and language. On the language front, there are scattered profanities and expletives in the show, including a handful of f-bombs across the season. The violence is scattered but also pronounced, with blood and gore at different points through the season. The high point of violence is unquestionably episode 5, which features a torturer graphically removing a body part from a victim, a mercy killing of the aforementioned victim, an execution-style hit by a protagonist, and a cold-blooded murder by a member of the ship’s crew. The first of the four is particularly cringe-inducing scene — even knowing about it ahead of time, I was surprised how gory the fully on-camera scene was.
(Of note: there is some drug use and a few sexual references, but both are mild and there is no nudity beyond seeing a couple of people in sports-type undergarments.)
I’m no stranger to violence or language-laced science fiction. I’ve watched the Terminator films, the Predator films, the Alien films, and other franchises where there were plenty of f-this and f-that and no small amount of exploding body parts. Different people will have different opinions on the necessity of that kind of content, and I get that. I think some films handle it better than others. I would say, for example, that, as gory as the first Predator film was, that the war story background and the nature of the Predator itself was not disproportionate to the violence, though others may disagree.
So this isn’t necessarily a matter of being prudish about the content. It’s about something else.
A Brief History of Trek Content
The first Star Trek series made its debut in 1966. As a network television series, it was constrained by the censorship rules of the day. Blood was rare, offensive language was rarer, violence was mostly tame, and sexuality was restricted to a few revealing costumes and some implied sexuality. Even after making the jump to the big screen, the Star Trek films were mostly in the PG to PG-13 categories, with some language and violence (those worms in Wrath of Khan were a bit cringey), but nothing too serious.
Most of the Trek series that followed kept to a similar script. The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and even Enterprise all kept to broadly similar levels of content, again because of the constraints of network TV. If there was torture, it was generally toned down or off-screen. Same with, say, sexual content (although Enterprise pushed the envelope slightly more in that area). There wasn’t much blood in the violence — if it was it was as likely to be green as read — and language remained pretty mild.
In short, Star Trek was, like Star Wars, relatively family friendly. But that’s not to say that Trek was a kid’s show. Anything but. Trek was a show of big ideas, and sometimes big controversies: about religion, about identity, about good and evil, about morality, about loss and hope, about truth and deception, about living and dying, about what it means to be human. Kids could certainly follow parts of the story, but the deeper questions were for the adults.
When Gene Roddenberry died in 1991, the showrunners of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine felt they could reckon more seriously with the dark side of humanity, a subject the Great Bird had generally avoided. That gave us, for example, the Maquis, an insurgent movement against Starfleet.
But I think the bigger shift came after Enterprise, the Star Trek prequel series that ran in the early 2000s. The show ran for four seasons, and it wasn’t all that great. Fans were tired, and while the series improved in the last season, it was too little, too late. (The show ended with a really bad series finale, I might add.) That, combined with the dismal returns on the film Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002, led to a shakeup in the Trek hierarchy. Out was Rick Berman, the Roddenberry-appointed heir to the franchise. In was by J.J. Abrams, who in turn worked with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci in penning a script for the 2009 Trek reboot. This new Star Trek was more hip, more edgy, and less about some of the high ideas.
Kurtzman in particular was important, because he became a key figure in two subsequent Star Trek projects. One was Star Trek: Discovery, a series set 10 years before the original series. The other was Star Trek: Picard.
Because both Discovery and Picard are streamed on CBS All Access, they’re generally freed from the censorship constraints of network television. That has allowed the shows to introduce more adult content, including Trek’s first f-word, dropped in the Discovery‘s fifth episode of the first season, and some fairly significant (and disturbing) sexual content in Discovery‘s ninth episode.
Picard has, to date, less sexual content than Discovery. But the gore factor and language factor are both higher.
What — Or Rather Who — You Leave Behind
Both Discovery and Picard have diverged from their predecessors when it comes to the nature of their content. But I would argue that Picard‘s is more unfortunate.
Discovery, while part of the Trek universe, is more loosely connected to the previous franchises. It’s a prequel that borrows pre-existing characters mostly as a vehicle for its own plotlines rather than continuing earlier ones, and if you know anything about Season 3, you know that its direction is headed somewhere altogether different. If you don’t watch Discovery, I don’t think you miss out on a lot in the grander scheme of the Trek universe, a fact hammered home by the events at the end of Season 2.
Picard, on the other hand, is a continuation of flagship Star Trek properties. That makes it a sequel and heir to Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as Deep Space Nine and Voyager, while also continuing the threads we never thought we’d learn about in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. If you don’t watch Picard, you’re missing out on the next chapter of a saga has been unfolding since 1987.
I was 10 years old when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered. I remember watching the pilot with fascination but also not a little confusion, as this was a very different group of people than the people I’d watched in those old Star Trek reruns. Kirk and Spock were gone, and McCoy — a much older McCoy — was just a cameo. But I quickly grew to adore this crew, following them through cliffhangers and high drama. I still remember being shocked at the end of Season 3, and watching with nostalgia the series finale.
I’m not the only person whose childhood was tied to Trek. I’ve read many stories over the years of astronauts, scientists, engineers, and others who were inspired by Trek to pursue their vocations. (As a sci-fi author, my inspiration is probably self-evident.) Countless others have reveled in the storytelling and big ideas of the shows. My sister, who is 12 years younger than me, used to sit with me and watch syndicated episodes of Star Trek: Voyager when, as an adult, I’d come to visit during the summer.
It may seem sentimental to argue that Picard is a disappointment because, unlike previous Treks, it’s not suitable for kids. But try to imagine if this had happened in another high-profile franchise. Imagine if Star Wars: Episode VIII had been an R-rated film. Or if Avengers: Infinity War had been R-rated. Imagine the disappointment of kids who had watched a franchise through only to hit a chapter that their parents hesitated to allow them to follow, knowing that the kids would also miss out on Episode IX or Avengers: Endgame as a result.
Picard‘s showrunners have their reasons for this darker tone, including a desire to show life as it really is. But the result of that tone, and the violence, in particular, that comes with it, has altered the prospective audience. I am of the belief that Picard could still have been just as punchy with just a few small tweaks to its dialogue and perhaps its creative use of camera during some of the more violent scenes. Instead, by opting to be unfiltered, it has detached itself from its inspirations.
As a lifelong Trekkie, it makes me sad to think that, for the first time in generations, parents may not be able to bring their children along on a Star Trek adventure.