Patrick Stewart and Picard have finally relocated Star Trek's sense of fun

(L-R): Jeri Ryan, Stewart, Michelle Hurd, and Santiago Cabrera in Star Trek: Picard - Amazon
(L-R): Jeri Ryan, Stewart, Michelle Hurd, and Santiago Cabrera in Star Trek: Picard - Amazon

Star Trek has spent the past several years boldly going in circles. Star Trek: Discovery was a noisy reboot that might have made for agreeable sci-fi fodder were it not for the fact it had absolutely nothing to do with Star Trek (the “Klingons” looked like escapees from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings).

And then, in January 2020, came Star Trek: Picard (Amazon Video). Partnering a 79-year-old Patrick Stewart with Pulitzer-winning novelist Michael Chabon, its mission was to explore strange new binge TV formats by chronicling the post-retirement adventures of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s very own Captain Sensible, Jean-Luc Picard (Stewart).

It’s always a treat to watch Stewart don a Starfleet jumpsuit and reminisce about Romulans. But Picard nonetheless quickly fizzled out. Blame didn’t lie with Stewart, who was as reliably commanding as ever. The problem was that, just like Discovery, and in ways it was hard to put a finger on, Picard lacked that unmistakable “Trek” magic. And so it never really got past warp factor one.

However, if Trek diehards generally hated it, the show created enough of a splash to warrant a second series. And now, following a Covid-related delay, it beams down with Chabon still peripherally involved as co-producer. And with the perpetually up-for-it Stewart on the brink of 82 and yet continuing to get stuck into every scene as if he’s halfway through a 24-hour Beckett marathon on BBC Four.

This time, though, the producers have remembered the gosh-wow factor. And that has translated into a vastly improved season of galaxy-hopping and a sense of a franchise reconnecting with its true self. Star Trek was always at its best surfing along on a swell of ludicrousness. Remember those classic episodes in which Captain Kirk and Mr Spock pretended to be Thirties gangsters or wrestled a giant lava lamp on wheels? Good, because there’s plenty of that here.

The crucial new ingredient is John de Lancie as Picard’s old trickster nemesis Q. First introduced in the original TNG pilot, Q is a quirky quantum quack, whose only purpose in life is to taunt his greatest foe. With nifty timing, he materialises during an awkward deep space encounter between Jean-Luc and his other old enemy, the Borg (Facebook if it was an alien invasion fleet).

The Borg are a terrifying hive-mind constantly expanding through the universe: there literally is one Borg every minute. Still, that doesn’t detain Q, who immediately sweeps Admiral Picard off to an alternate dimension.

Star Trek has done parallel realities before – as recently as season two of Discovery, in fact. However, lots of fun is nonetheless to be had seeing Picard in a mirror universe where climate change has reduced the Earth’s atmosphere to a nasty streak on the horizon. And where non-humans such as Vulcans and Romulans are hunted to extinction.

He isn’t the only one trapped in this temporal aberration. Q has also kidnapped Dr Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) and Starfleet officer Chris Rios (Santiago Cabrera) – along with the “good” Borg, Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), who is surprised to discover she is fully human and President of the galactic “Confederation”. In a universe where humans are the wicked ones and the Klingons and Romulans misunderstood victims of non-pointy ear privilege, they must thwart Q’s schemes and escape to their own reality.

Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard - Trae Patton
Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard - Trae Patton

These are challenging times for the great, creaking sci-fi franchises that have defined the past 50 years of space battles and aliens with strange eyebrows. Star Wars, colonised by Disney, continues to desperately try to evoke the spirit of George Lucas. And Star Trek, more than three decades on from the death of its creator Gene Roddenberry, isn’t quite living long and prospering.

As already pointed out, some fans were aghast at Picard season one, feeling it had little in common with the beloved Next Generation character and that Stewart, with his dreary monologues about mortality and the incessant march of decades, was bringing to the screen a version of his real-life theatre doyen self. One early version of the script even began with Picard on tour performing a one-man show of Krapp’s Last Tape – the only surprise being that Chabon and company hadn’t engineered an Ian McKellen cameo.

Those misgivings may finally begin to recede. Nobody would mistake Picard for Star Trek in its prime. But it has captured some of that hard to define, easy to recognise Trek essence. And if not exactly at warp speed – there are still a few too many Stewart soliloquies – it has undoubtedly located its missing sense of derring-do and is hurtling satisfyingly towards interstellar overdrive.