The last time we saw Jean-Luc Picard was in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, a not-particularly-great film that ended with the legendary Starfleet captain striding through the corridors of the Enterprise with Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” swelling optimistically over the soundtrack.
In CBS All Access’ ambitious new series Star Trek: Picard, “Blue Skies” is the first thing we hear—but this time, the song is tinged with melancholy, pointing not to the future but to a past heavy with regret. These days, Picard—once again played by Patrick Stewart, and self-deprecatingly calling himself a “benign old codger”—wanders his dead brother’s vineyard, writes history books, and dreams, each night, of lost starships and absent friends. Despite the sun-dappled fields and the company of Number One, his excellent pit bull, his days are hollow. “The dreams,” Picard says, “are lovely. It’s the waking up that I’m beginning to resent.”
That, and the echoes of the man he used to be.
“Sir?” a friend tells Picard in the first episode. “Be the captain they remember.”
But he can’t. Too much time has passed, and too much has been lost.
This is, however, Star Trek, so the weary tranquility of Chateau Picard is promptly upended by Dahj (Isa Briones), a brilliant, terrified young woman who feels an inexplicable need to find Picard. Soon enough, there are planet-destroying supernovas and murderous robots, threats of a shadowy conspiracy, and, as with all Star Trek, some tongue-twisting technobabble. (“Fractal neuronic cloning”! “Forensic molecular reconstruction”!) Phasers fire, planets burn, and the Romulans are definitely up to something in that creepy, abandoned Borg cube.
Picard senses trouble, but even those closest to him question his urgency, wondering if his principles have ossified into self-righteousness. “There’s no peril here,” a Starfleet admiral sneers when Picard requests a ship and crew in order to investigate. “Only the pitiable delusions of a once-great man desperate to matter.”
A crack breaks across Picard’s face when he hears that, following lines that weren’t there before: Deluded or not, he is old. Stewart, at once mournful and driven, has never been better in the role he said he’d never return to; it’s to his credit that Picard isn’t the captain we remember. His voice is more tired. His steps can be unsteady. When a panicked Dahj pulls him into a chase, only seconds pass before he wheezes, out of breath.
At a time when it seems every actor gets their wrinkles erased with CGI—from the geriatric stars of The Irishman to the child actors of It—Picard’s embrace of its characters’ ages feels at once extraordinary and of a piece with the series. “Was Star Trek always supposed to feel a little old?” Darren Franich asked in 2016. “I don’t mean ‘archaic,’ although so much of Trek looks archaic now, and the phone you’re reading this on can accomplish greater technological wonders than any Enterprise console. But is Star Trek supposed to be about people of a certain age? Let’s say ‘over 35,’ just old enough to have regrets and long-lost friends and whole forgotten periods of their lives.”
Albeit for commercial reasons more than philosophical ones, some of the best Trek has embraced its aging actors—and examined the challenges that face once-strapping heroes when the universe keeps expanding, oblivious to their accomplishments. (In 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a clock gently ticks away as Bones wishes a morose Kirk a happy birthday with some contraband Romulan Ale—and a pair of reading glasses.) It’s probably not a coincidence that Trek’s most memorable characters—from Spock to Seven of Nine—are those who grow from their experiences, becoming, as they age, something greater than before.
The showrunner for this first season of Picard is Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who’s wrestled with the passage of time, slow and swift, in novels from Wonder Boys to Moonglow. And over its first few episodes, as Picard redefines his purpose, it’s hard not to remember an essay Chabon wrote over a decade ago, now collected in Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.
“As I get older,” he wrote, “I seem every day to give a little bit less of a fuck what other people think of or say about me. This is not the result of my undertaking to exercise a moral program or of increased wisdom or of any kind of willed act on my part. It just seems to be a process, a time-directed shedding, like the loss of hair or illusions.”
Stewart’s hair was already gone when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, but it’s not until Picard that one realizes Picard’s illusions have likewise vanished. Having realized some relationships will never return, and that some experiences haunt us as profoundly as they make us, Picard’s lived long enough to see his most valued beliefs falter. (“I never dreamed that Starfleet would give in to intolerance and fear,” a wounded Picard says, a line that aches with relevance.) That hard-earned clarity makes it all the more affecting when Picard, never one to soften a blow, faces the truth. “I haven’t been living,” he says. “I’ve been waiting to die.”
Shortly afterward, Picard lives again—once more standing on the bridge of a starship, surrounded by what seems like the beginnings of a sturdy crew. (Most notably, the excellent Alison Pill plays Dr. Agnes Jurati, an expert in artificial intelligence, while Michelle Hurd plays Raffi Musiker, Picard’s former second-in-command.) He isn’t in the captain’s chair—the time for that, it seems, has passed—but Picard still faces the stars.
“Engage,” he says, and the word feels—just as it did when Stewart first uttered it in The Next Generation—like a promise of adventure. But in Star Trek: Picard, the sentiment behind it feels richer. This trip isn’t only about where we’re going. It’s also about where we are, and where we’ve been.
Star Trek: Picard is now streaming, with new episodes released weekly, on CBS All Access.