Star Trek: Picard season 3 has set a forward-looking franchise back by light years.
When the soon-to-be-killed-off Admiral Elizabeth Shelby piloted the Enterprise NCC-1701-F out of spacedock during “Võx,” the penultimate episode of season three of Star Trek: Picard, I thought, “Yeah, the ‘F’ stands for ‘fan service.’”
This series’ third and final season has become an endless parade of callbacks, cameos, and curious choices that are winning rave reviews from many quarters, but which undercut the forward-looking, future-oriented perspective that Star Trek, at its finest, has always cultivated.
Admiral Shelby’s death perfectly crystallizes all that’s wrong about Picard season 3. Although our own Chad Porto argues Shelby’s demise is “the third pointless death” in the season, I contend both Ro Laren’s and Liam Shaw’s death carried much more weight. “Imposters” gave Michelle Forbes a lot of screen time, during which she acted meaty scenes with Patrick Stewart—scenes that brought their characters’ relationship to what felt like a natural close. And Ro nobly sacrificed herself so the Titan could escape.
Similarly, in “Võx,” Captain Shaw died to give Picard and his crew a chance to escape and save Starfleet. Todd Stashwick gave a compelling performance as Shaw this season, and his death felt like a worthy end to the self-described “dipshit from Chicago.”
But the Picard creative team brought back Elizabeth Dennehy as Shelby—one of the all-time most popular guest stars on Star Trek: The Next Generation, in one of its most masterful stories, “The Best of Both Worlds”—solely for the purpose of killing the character. Well, almost solely. They also gave her a mawkish monologue that started by paying clunky tribute to Star Trek: Enterprise and ended with a forced invocation of the franchise’s famed “final frontier” phrase. Shelby’s return—something fans have wanted for decades, so much so that Peter David’s New Frontier novels made Shelby a central character—became this series’ latest smug, self-congratulatory, self-referential indulgence, which was only made worse by serving as Shelby’s execution.
Picard season 3 unhealthily revels in the “same old, same old”
The first episode of Picard season 3 began with a Star Trek II-style title card—down to using the same blue typography, no less—and ended, for no apparent reason, with needle drops from Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: First Contact score rather than composer Jeff Russo’s theme for this series. I worried. Why was Picard going out of its way to ape Star Trek movies?
Clever tips of the hat and even some nostalgic references here and there are one thing. But virtually nothing about season 3 has been original. The overall plot has given Picard his own “David Marcus”-style father-son storyline. It gave us yet another one-dimensional villain driven by revenge (see Ru’afo in Star Trek: Insurrection, Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis, Nero in Star Trek 2009, and Krall in Star Trek Beyond)—and Captain Vadic didn’t even have the decency to be our main villain. That “honor” is reserved for the Borg—led once again by Alice Krige’s Borg Queen from First Contact and the series finale of Star Trek: Voyager—in cahoots with the shapeshifting Changelings from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
We had a field trip to the Starfleet museum, whose docking bays are full of nothing but Easter eggs for Star Trek fans to freeze frame and freak out about. (Although minor props for giving us a Constitution-class ship we’d never heard of before, I guess.) We got to see all the top-tier Trekkie trivia at the Daystrom Station, even the somewhat macabre inclusion of James T. Kirk’s corpse. And now, logic be damned, we have Geordi La Forge’s somehow secret restoration-reconstruction of the Enterprise-D, the bridge set of which in real life took the Picard creative team “three months and a team of around 50 people to completely rebuild,” according to Variety.
Ostensibly, Picard season 3 is finally giving us Star Trek fans what we want. Really? Do we want this? Our heroes from more than three decades ago, right where they were back then? Don’t we have reruns on H&I, the library on Paramount+, and our DVDs and Blu-Rays for that? Are we so unable to move on that we aren’t going to be happy with any Star Trek that doesn’t just keep giving us more of the same, forever and ever, galaxy without end, amen?
Yeah, yeah, no one is forcing me to watch Picard. Yes, I am going to see how this season and the series end. But then I will be going back to watch Picard season 1. When I first watched it in 2020, I didn’t like it. It felt “too weird,” “too dark,” “too different.” But then I saw how season 2—which was not without its strengths—spent too much time ringing changes on the franchise’s greatest hits (time travel, the Borg). And now I’ve seen how season 3 skips even the “ringing changes” part.
Picard season 1 will not ever be my favorite season of Star Trek, but at least it took a big swing at doing something different. I didn’t properly respect it for that three years ago. I’m certainly going to respect it a lot more now.