But we’re already plenty engaged by then. “Picard,” the CBS All Access streamer debuting Thursday and rolling out in weekly hourlong increments, is off to a fine start based on the three episodes made available for advance review.
Extending a fiercely loved chapter in the “Star Trek” mythology means a director, practically speaking, cannot win with everyone. The first three “Picard” episodes were directed by Lake Forest College undergraduate alum Hanelle M. Culpepper, who made the feature films “Within” and “Murder on the 13th Floor,” and has racked up dozens of series television credits.
These first three episodes have been shrewdly tailored to fit Picard’s elder-statesman status, now that he’s a forcibly retired lion in winter, forced by his conscience and sense of duty to take on an authorized, this-time-it’s-personal mission. It’s just like “Rambo: Last Blood,” in other words, without the sadism, the Borg or the cruddy, lowest-common-denominator nostalgia.
At the start, Picard tends his vineyard and lives a quietly swank existence in the home shared by Romulans Zhaban (Jamie McShane) and Laris (Orla Brady), and Picard’s pitbull, Number One. Then—apologies for the intergalactic mixed metaphor—there’s a disturbance in the Force: a young woman, Dahj, shows up to seek help from Picard. Isa Briones plays what is soon revealed to be a crucial dual role. Romulan assassins want Dahj dead; something in Picard’s dreams of his old android friend and second-in-command, Data (Brent Spiner), suggest unfinished business to which Dahj holds the secret.
On Earth, “Picard” teleports from the Bay Area to Okinawa to high desert country. New characters emerge: Alison Pill in a pale blue overcoat portrays a key Picard ally, while 14-years-earlier flashbacks reveal the Starfleet political machinations leading to Picard’s ill-fated career-ending mission. His trusted colleague Raffi is once again, and very valuably, portrayed by Michelle Hurd, whose bitter desert-rat existence appears to be one road over from “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
The long-view plotting in “Picard” ties into another familiar character: Bruce Maddox, robotics and cybernetics genius with serious ambitions. Jeri Ryan is coming back as Borg drone Seven of Nine, fan favorite from the “Star Trek: Voyager” series. The executive producer ranks for “Picard” are formidable, with Stewart and Michael Chabon among them. The first three episodes build steadily to the moment when Picard and company, including a delightful Santiago Cabrera as a cigar-puffing pilot-for-hire, set their course for adventure and their minds on true romance. “Romance” is evoked by the Bing Crosby version of “Blue Skies” introducing the first episode.
Stewart’s just lovely in this. He has spent his post-“Next Generation” and post-“X-Men” career staking out various corners of the indie and studio film world, to mixed success. Picard suits him wonderfully, still. Just as the first round of “Star Trek” movies, the ones with William Shatner and the gang, made hay on the old idea of old dogs learning new tricks, “Picard” too has some of that in its synthetic DNA. And it works, because the actors are the right actors, and it’s treated seriously but without a crushing sense of solemnity.
We’ll see how the rest of the first season pans out. The early episodes look really good; the effects are sleekly managed, and the interiors have that patented CBS house style of low, flattering light, so much so that you half-expect Mark Harmon and the entire cast of “NCIS”CQ to show up in space on the Bord cube. The Borg cube figures prominently in the nefarious doings in “Picard.” The action/dialogue ratio feels about right throughout, though occasionally the writers settle for some banter better left to the imdb.com comments section. By 2399, I’d have hoped the phrase “don’t give up your day job” would’ve run its course. A couple of expositional catch-up sessions in the second episode threaten, briefly, to go on forever.
Small matters. Soon enough we get back to business, and to how “Picard” hooks us in the first place: with an autumnal, dream-haunted mood that is nonetheless full of hope and hard-won optimism. And a first-rate actor embodying the best of the “Star Trek” ethos with every syllable.
Season 1 episodes of the 10-episode “Star Trek: Picard” will be available Thursdays via CBS All Access in the U.S., on Bell MEdia’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and OTT’s Crave in Canada, and via Amazon Prime Video internationally.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.