As Star Trek: Picard is released on DVD and Blu-Ray, Donal O’Keeffe offers a must-see list of recommended episodes and movies before you watch 80-year-old Sir Patrick Stewart’s triumphant return to his most famous character.
On the eve of the 25th century, 90-year-old retired Admiral Jean-Luc Picard lives out his days in bitterness and regret on his French vineyard, haunted by dreams of his fallen friend, the android Data (Brent Spiner).
In theory, you could enjoy this series without being familiar with most of the multiple iterations of Star Trek, but you probably do need to have some idea of Gene Roddenberry’s future universe, where Earth is a founding member of the peaceful and progressive United Federation of Planets, and Starfleet explores the galaxy in starships like the USS Enterprise.
Picard is set more than a century after the time of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, and peace with the warlike Klingon Empire has reigned – more or less – for decades, while the secretive Romulan Star Empire – home to Spock’s pointy-eared cousins – has collapsed in the wake of a natural disaster. The universe has turned colder in the two decades since Data gave his life to safe his friends, and Picard has resigned his commission, disgusted that the Federation has failed in its duty of care to Romulan refugees.
Here is my personal list of ten recommended episodes before you watch Picard, with the obvious caveat that another fan would probably give you a similar list containing at least eight completely different episodes.
I wish I could have included episodes like the superb 1966 Cold War submarines-in-space classic Balance of Terror, which introduced the Romulans, or comic gems like Voyager’s Body and Soul, where Seven of Nine actor Geri Ryan was allowed to show just how funny she could be, or Child’s Play, showcasing Seven’s adopted son Icheb. It’s also a pretty unforgivable oversight not to include Patrick Stewart’s sublime performance in TNG’s1992’s The Inner Light, with Picard living out a full life over the space of an episode.
- The Measure of a Man (Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) season two, episode three, 1989). This was the episode where TNG surpassed Kirk, Spock and McCoy. The rights of android officer Data (Brent Spiner) are threatened when Starfleet Commander Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy) wishes to dismantle Data and mass-produce similar synthetic beings. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) defends Data in court, even as Data’s friend and commanding officer Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is forced to act as counsel for the prosecution. African-American actor Whoopi Goldberg is devastating as Picard’s alien counsellor, Guinan, seemingly untroubled at the thought of an entire race bred for slavery.
- The Offspring (TNG season three, episode 16. Data builds a daughter, and Picard defends – reluctantly at first – Data’s right to be a parent. This episode marks Jonathan Frakes’ directorial debut, and Data’s family will continue for decades to haunt Picard.
- The Washington Post calls The Best of Both Worlds (TNG season three, episode 26 and season four, episode one) the best cliff-hanger in television history. Picard is assimilated into the cybernetic Borg collective and forced to wage war on the Federation. One reviewer described this story as better than most Star Trek films. It’s brilliant, and it would form the basis for the backstory of Benjamin Sisko, the protagonist of spin-off series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Unusually for network television at the time, these episodes left the series’ lead character permanently changed. Picard is, 30 years later, still trying to deal with the scars of this episode.
- Family (TNG season four, episode two). Unheard of then, this episode deals with the fall-out of the preceding The Best of Both Worlds. A traumatised Picard returns to his family vineyard, where old rivalries emerge when he and his bullying older brother spend time together. A beautiful character study, with the late Jeremy Kemp shining as Robert Picard.
- I Borg (TNG season five, episode 23). When the Enterprise crew recovers an injured Borg drone (Jonathan Del Arco), plans are drawn up to use it as a weapon against the Collective. When the drone begins to exhibit signs of individuality, he is nicknamed “Hugh”. Picard is faced with a moral dilemma when it becomes increasingly clear that Hugh is not a faceless monster but rather a sentient being.
- Descent (TNG, season six, episode 26, season seven, episode 1). Hugh returns, and with him comes Data’s deranged brother Lore, now the leader of a twisted cult of disconnected Borg drones. Stephen Hawking guest-stars for a poker game with Data.
- All Good Things… (TNG season seven, episodes 25 and 26). In the series finale, Picard finds himself shifting between the past, present and the future: seven years ago, he assumes command of the Enterprise, while 25 years in the future, he has retired to his vineyard and is displaying the early effects of dementia. The god-like Q (John DeLancie) had put humanity on trial in the TNG pilot, and seven years on, the trial is at an end: all of humanity is to be erased from time and space.
- The Raven (Star Trek: Voyager, season four, episode six). The character Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan, in a skin-tight metallic catsuit) was introduced to Voyager as a cynical (and successful) attempt to boost ratings, something which greatly rankled with the series’ star, Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway). Ryan would confound her critics with her acting talent and brilliant comic timing. Seven became the break-out character of Voyager, eclipsing even Robert Picardo’s acerbic Emergency Medical Hologram. She returns in Picard.
- Star Trek: First Contact (1996). Jonathan Frakes directs the finest TNG film, and one of the greatest Star Trek films ever. Picard faces his ultimate nightmare, as the Borg return, with the cybernetic zombies attacking Earth and – via time travel – attempting to undo the entire history of Star Trek. Also, Alice Krige’s Borg Queen tempts Data with humanity, and, well, sex.
- Star Trek: Nemesis (2002). The film that killed the TNG cycle, and almost finished Star Trek. Picard’s evil clone Shinzon (Tom Hardy) seizes power in the Romulan Senate, while Data’s prototype brother, B-4, shows up. It’s a terrible mess, and the repeated “psychic rape” of Commander Troi is almost unwatchable. Nemesis would have been an ignominious end for Picard and crew, if not for Star Trek: Picard, and the new series calls back to a lot of Nemesis’ story. Picard also follows on from the destruction of Romulus in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek (2009).
Star Trek: Picard is not without its flaws, with plot contrivances becoming sometimes too apparent. Violence is sometimes gratuitous, and one scene, involving a well-loved minor character, is the most graphic in Star Trek history.
Brent Spiner’s wig is simply wrong, ruining Data’s every scene, but the beloved android does get to enjoy a more fitting requiem than ever he did before.
The new cast members are great, with Irish actor Orla Brady deserving special mention as Picard’s magnificent Romulan assassin-housekeeper (“the sneaky feckers”) and Jeri Ryan kicking ass as Seven.
The universe is darker as the 25th century dawns, but (SPOLIERS) for all that, Gene Roddenberry’s optimism does win out in the end, with Patrick Stewart never more magisterial than as a Picard who pays the ultimate price but recovers his soul.
A second series is promised, assuming we all survive Covid-19.
Make it so.
All episodes of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek; Discovery are on Netflix. Star Trek: Picard is on Amazon Prime.
Star Trek: Picard is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from October 6th