With Star Trek: Picard warping onto CBS All Access and Amazon Prime next week, Chin Stroker VS Punter’s Mike (our resident Trekkie) takes a look at a few choice eps to ingest that will bring you up to speed.
There’s a lot of Star Trek. No really, like a lot. If you were to watch it all, with no sleep or toilet breaks you would be looking at a month… and have soiled yourself many, many times. For over fifty years, seven TV shows, twelve movies and an unimaginable number of books, comics and assorted ephemera, Gene Roddenberry‘s universe has thrilled, informed, influenced and intimidated in equal measure.
I grew up on Star Trek but find it easy to understand how that volume of content can be a roadblock for many. I, for example, have had many attempts at getting into comic books but find the size and complexity of the DC and Marvel Universes off-putting. To put it simply, I do not know where to start. Every so often there will be a comic book event that makes me want to dive back in (DC’s New 52 reboot for example) but I always stall, confused in an ocean of continuity and assumed knowledge.
With Star Trek: Picard starting next week, continuing the adventures of the heroic lead character from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994), I assume that there are a number of casuals out there interested in giving it a go, but feel they will be lost in technobabble and allusions to obscure events that occurred in a TV show from 25 years ago. Fear not, I’m here to help.
First off, the good news is that while yes, Trek does have a huge universe or canon, filled with events, characters, races, technologies and the like, for the most part it is episodic. So, there are not huge story arcs that are required viewing. It wasn’t until the fourth iteration of the show, the underrated Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999), that the series started toying with longer form storytelling. In large part, this was due to the practicalities of telling a story set on a space station, as the show simply did not have the luxury of warping the crew off to another adventure every week, free from the consequences of their previous actions and decisions. However, it would not be until Star Trek: Discovery (2017 – present) that the franchise fully committed to this more modern format.
Indeed, it seems Star Trek: Picard is doubling down on this. Star Patrick Stewart has told anybody who’ll listen that this season is a ten-hour movie, but for those looking to watch Picard with some semblance of context, this is helpful. You should be able to pretty quickly and easily watch a few eps to get a sense of who the character is and his place in this universe.
I have also been able to extrapolate from the marketing of the show the story threads being picked up by the new series, however this raises a few key points. Firstly, this isn’t a ‘best of’ list, there are plenty of all time great episodes I could talk about (Yesterdays Enterprise, Chain of Command, The Inner Light) but that’s not the point of the list. Secondly, I’m assuming you have some idea of the concept of Star Trek. I don’t need to refer you to the TNG pilot to introduce Picard for example. He’s the Captain of a starship. There you go.
So, fire up your Netflix or CBS All Access and enjoy the following Treks in preparation for the return of an iconic character we need now more than ever.
The Measure of a Man. Season 2 episode 9. 13.02.89
With a first season plagued with production woes, power struggles (outlined in this fascinating documentary) and lack of precedent, it’s no surprise the first ‘good’ episode of TNG arrived in season two. Here we get to see Stewart giving good righteous indignation as he defends android Data’s ‘human’ rights on the basis of sentience. There’s not much in the way of essential plot or Picard-specific biographical information, but there are few better examples of who Picard is, and Stewart’s steadfastness in the role. Plus, there are bonus points for the subject of AI slavery in the Federation being given heavy play here, as it seems to be a major plot element in the upcoming show. This is 45 minutes that tells you everything you need to know about what makes Picard Picard.
Q Who. Season 2 episode 16. 08.05.89
If you can hand-wave the fact you might not know who the central character of ‘Q’ is (essentially an omnipotent version of Loki) this episode is a great, foreboding watch and features the introduction of The Borg; the almost Clive Barker-eqsue techno zombies who will have a huge impact on the good Captain’s life right through to the new show and perhaps beyond.
The Best of Both Worlds Parts 1 & 2. Season 3 episode 26 and Season 4 Episode 1. 18.06.90 and 24.09.90
Probably the most impactful event of Picard’s life is the centerpiece of this season-spanning cliff-hanger that is also the moment that TNG grew up and consequences were introduced to the previously cosy Trek-verse. The Borg threat continues, and it’s clear the events of this two-parter will continue to resonate in Star Trek: Picard.
Family. Season 4 Episode 2. 01.10.90
A rare example of a purely character-based episode of Trek, and probably the only time the crew do not find themselves in peril. We see Picard return to his family vineyard in France to recover from the horrifying violation he experienced at the hands of the Borg. It’s a sign of how far TNG had been allowed to push the boat out that we got what was essentially a 45-minute mediation on rape-trauma. The setting of the Picard vineyard is emphasised in the marketing of the new show, so there are a plethora of reasons to include this unique, tender and format-busting episode in your Picard prep.
Unification Parts 1 & 2. Season 5 episodes 7 and 8. 04.11.91 and 11.11.91
While a very high-profile two-parter (Spock in TNG!), Unification is a little on the bland side to be honest and not necessarily essential viewing. However, central to the plot is the relationship between the iconic Vulcans and their sibling race the Romulans. Picard’s role in the potential re-unification of these two races seems to factor into the new show, so it might be worth powering through. Hell, it’s always good to see Nimoy and there are some great moments buried in the politicking.
I, Borg: Season 5 episode 23. 11.05.92
Very key episode for several reasons. I, Borg was somewhat derided at the time for the way it seemed to de-fang the fearsome Borg by showing the emancipated Borg drone Hugh in a sympathetic light. This of course is nonsense. Trek has always been about empathy and negotiation and Jonathan Del Arco’s Hugh is a prominent character in the new show, so this is a must-watch
All Good Things: Season 7 episodes 25 & 26: 23.05.94
The two-part finale of TNG is a masterclass in how to end a show, and easily the best final episodes of any Trek. It also gives us a glimpse into Picard’s (potential) future on the family vineyard as we’ve seen previewed in promotional material for the new show.
BONUS VIEWING: Star Trek Short Treks: Children of Mars: 09.01.20
The streaming-only Short Treks minisodes have quietly been doing excellent work over the last year or so (the Michael Chabon penned Calypso is under 15 minutes and one of my favourite pieces of Star Trek in years). Initially set up as supplementary shorts for Star Trek: Discovery, they’ve spread their wings to offer entertaining and often experimental mini-movies set throughout the various eras and incarnations of Trek. Children of Mars is a direct prelude to the Picard series, and gives us a glimpse into the bad thing that Picard seems to be hiding from in his vineyard.
A few additional mentions for if you want to dig deeper into Picard’s story:
The Drumhead from season four is another great example of a full-power Patrick Stewart giving his best Atticus Finch. His moral indignation and disappointment in The Federation forgetting its own values looks likely to be a central element of the new series. The Inner Light is a great little character piece that offers little in the way of insight into Picard’s larger story, but is a great showcase for the sensitive vulnerability that Stewart exhibited in contrast to Shatner’s two-fisted testosterone. Chain of Command is a wonderful but brutal two-parter that sees Picard (in a tour de force from Stewart) captured by an enemy (a great head to head with David Warner) and tortured.
Technically I should have included the film Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) as that was where we left off with this crew and the fate of LT Commander Data from Nemesis seems to be a factor in the new series, but it is just such terrible, terrible shit (for reasons I won’t go into here) I just couldn’t bring myself to recommend it.
Perhaps it would be better to finish up with the three part comic series Star Trek: Picard Countdown which eases us into the less cosy, more uncertain world 25 years after the Next Generation. If only there was an intellectual, swashbuckling hero that could save us from the darkness…
Star Trek: Picard premieres January 23, on CBS All Access in the US and January 24th on Amazon Prime elsewhere.