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‘Star Trek: Picard,’ cargo cults and the perils of success

And why Trek can’t escape from Nicholas Meyer’s shadow.

Trae Patton / Paramount+

The following contains spoilers for Star Trek: Picard, Season Three, Episode Two: “Disengage.”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a 1982 movie that arguably saved Star Trek as a going concern. It was a cheap movie, but writer-director Nicholas Meyer made thriftiness a virtue, building a paranoid submarine thriller out of steely glances and jousting phone calls. Despite having no love of Trek, Meyer painted a broad sweep of an older Jim Kirk, his life, death and rebirth with the help of a son he never knew he had. It’s a sumptuous movie, full of smart dialogue and characterisation, with a drum-tight plot and great acting, not just a great Star Trek film, but a great film, period. And sometimes, I feel that its critical and commercial success was so big that it’s been to Star Trek’s overall detriment.

Whenever the creative well runs dry, Trek runs back to old comforts, and the Next Generation movies were perpetually looking for its own Khan. First Contact flipped the Moby Dick narrative, making Picard the Ahab against the Borg’s white whale. Insurrection borrowed the setting of Khan’s climatic finale, while Nemesis borrowed its plot beats; a wounded ship only saved by the heroic sacrifice of each series’ Tin Man character. Into Darkness then winkingly inverted those same plot beats, with Kirk nobly “dying” in place of his best friend.

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Picard’s been telegraphing its intentions from the get-go, dropping every nod to fans about where we’d wind up. The Bennett-era movie callbacks remain en vogue here, and to my memory this is the first use of the Blaster Beam, or a soundalike, in a streaming era soundtrack. Much like all of the other nods, we’re watching a cargo cult being assembled in real time, boldly serving us up something we’ve only seen, oooh, four or five times at this point. So: Wounded hero ship facing off against a more powerful enemy? Check. Inside a nebula that’s disrupting normal starship functions? Check. With our lead suddenly presented with the news he has a son he never knew about? Check check check.

This week, Picard and Riker make it to the Helios to find Beverley in her stasis pod, guarded by her son, Jack. He’s a rakish Englishman who has already spoken two whole words in French while negotiating with a corrupt Fenris Ranger. After being rescued by the Titan, Riker starts hinting about the younger Crusher’s parentage, as if being the world’s most English Frenchman is a genetic trait. It isn’t long before Crusher is outed as an intergalactic con man and fugitive, and Shaw has him sent to the brig. He also, after several hours of allowing her to remain on the bridge giving orders to people, dismisses Seven for indulging two people we keep being told are “legends” and “heroes.”

There’s plenty of furrowed brows as Picard initially refuses to consider that he might have a son, and at no point does anyone suggest running a paternity test. You might expect it would be easy enough to whip out a tricorder or hypospray, or even the transporter records, and find the truth. But, you know, that would be too efficient, so we’re left with Picard and Jack facing off in the brig. Now, credit where due, Patrick Stewart and Ed Speelers sell the hell out of this scene, the first that feels in any way real so far.

All the while, the Titan is menaced by Amanda Plummer’s villain, who we know is evil because she’s smoking on the bridge of her ship, the Shrike, indoors! I wonder if this, too, is another nod to those older films given Plummer’s father faced off against Kirk in The Undiscovered Country. Maybe this is why I’m so out of step with so much of the (positive) critical consensus around this run. I find this raiding of Star Trek’s own text and paratext to be insular and repetitive, with it more interested in placating disaffected fanboys than telling a story with a point of view. If you want strange new worlds, new life forms and new civilizations, you’ll need to watch the show set 142 years earlier.

Then there’s Raffi. Last week, she uncovered that some nefarious type had stolen some deep tech from Aperture Science Starfleet. At the end of that episode, a Starfleet recruitment building big enough to fill the donut hole in Apple Park gets Portal-ed into dust, killing (just) 117 people. Now, looking to make amends for her, uh, failure? She’s looking into local crims in order to find out who exactly was responsible for the seemingly-unwarranted attack.

Now, this is the plot beat I alluded to in my preview, when Raffi, who is in recovery, is forced to do drugs in order to prove she’s not an undercover agent. The portentous music and Michelle Hurd’s acting sells the notion this isn’t a great idea, but Raffi’s committed to the cause. But while she’s incapacitated, her handler comes in to rescue everyone with some good, old-fashioned Mek’leth carnage. I couldn't help but feel a punch in the air when Worf popped up in all his glory, but the tonal jump doesn't sit well with me.

You could be wondering why the Federation Ambassador to the Klingon Empire is doing covert intelligence work. But, by the end of the Next Generation movies, it was clear that Worf would just show up for a visit whenever the plot required. And even I’m not going to harp on about this too much, because it is never a chore to watch Michael Dorn do his work. As EW’s Darren Franich said in his definitive Star Trek essay series, “Michael Dorn knew Worf only got cooler when the show made him look goofy.” As goofy as he is here, he’s still Worf, and you just wish that Paramount had greenlit a Worf show three years ago instead.

I had hoped this episode, for its laggy table-laying, may be looking for a way to attack a well worn but fundamentally strong Star Trek trope. That being if it’s right and proper to hand over a potentially-innocent man to frontier justice, and if not, why not? There’s plenty of angles for the argument given the many shades of gray that most people can now comprehend. After all, the Titan is outside Federation space, and so you can’t, or shouldn’t, impose your values on those beyond your worldview. That can be countered by someone saying that natural justice is, or should be a universal virtue. And that these debates must sit side-by-side with the notion that the needs of the many (the 500-plus souls on the USS Titan) outweigh the needs of the few, or the (Jack Crusher) one. You could even have the supposedly “right” argument, the one aping Spock’s famous aphorism, espoused by the character most seen as an asshole, too. But no.

Unfortunately, Picard remains bad for all of the same reasons that pretty much every other Khan copy is bad: It has almost nothing to say. In fact, this episode seems to hinge on every person in the narrative suddenly becoming incapable of doing even the basic parts of their jobs. Since when would a security officer not search a prisoner for hidden technology before putting them in the brig? Since when would a ship at Red Alert be taken by surprise when a hostile vessel in front of them starts attacking? And why did nobody have the presence of mind to run a paternity test, which surely at this point in history could be done with the ship’s internal sensors? Not to mention, why didn’t Jack just tell the security guard he’d like to hand himself over rather than knocking him out? Maybe so we could have a few more moments of tension before the Titan chooses to make a break for the nebula and we roll the credits.

You may think I’m banging on unnecessarily about The Wrath of Khan but I think it’s justified here. If the production team weren’t looking to invite comparisons to a vastly superior project then they were unwise to take so many of its plot beats as its own. I mean, in Wrath of Khan, Kirk has sixty seconds to find a way to even things up between the wounded Enterprise and the Reliant. And he does so with a little bit of theatrics, some ingenuity, and by showing that he was a little cleverer than anybody gave him credit for being. When this version of Picard is placed in the same situation but given a whole hour to come up with something, what does he do? He marks time on the bridge while the younger actors with plausible-looking stunt performers can do the now obligatory punch fight so that the audience at home doesn’t start getting bored.