Back to the Future
The final season of “Star Trek: Picard” remembers what makes the long-running science-fiction franchise great—and reminds us why it matters
The third and final season of Star Trek: Picard—featuring the return of the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation—easily stands as some of the best Star Trek ever made, a dramatic and consummate return to form for the wider franchise as well as an outstanding send-off to the beloved crew of the starship Enterprise. It’s a declaration that Star Trek: The Next Generation was great television precisely because of its unadulterated earnestness, a wholehearted embrace of what many critics and even fans considered the show’s flaws. Above all, this season is a vindication of the basic optimism and humanity at the heart of The Next Generation, one that reminds us why we adored the original show and its characters in the first place—and shows us why Star Trek still matters after all these years.
If this is nostalgia, it’s nostalgia for the future—a call to keep faith with our hopes for a better tomorrow. What could have been an elegy for The Next Generation and its optimism instead became a celebration that proudly asserts our decades-old dreams of the 24th century remain as relevant as ever. With the third season of Picard, showrunner Terry Matalas has done nothing less than restore Star Trek to its true, hopeful self after decades of absence—and done so exactly when we need it the most.
The show’s undying faith in humanity, limitless sense of wonder, and incorrigible optimism made for a powerful vision of the future, one that’s proven extremely attractive to me and many others over the decades. Whenever someone asks me how I got into aviation and space exploration, for instance, I always tell them that I watched too much Star Trek growing up—an answer that has the virtue of being true. And in many ways the final season of Star Trek: Picard amounts to the culmination of The Next Generation era of Trek that marked my own youth.
Over the past two decades, however, Star Trek seemed to have lost faith in itself and forgotten what made it special. Director J.J. Abrams was brought in to make a new, hip cinematic reboot in the late 2000s, an effort that yielded a trilogy of rote action films. Attempts to bring Trek back to the small screen later in the 2010s like Star Trek: Discovery reflected a dour if fashionable pessimism about the future more than Trek’s traditional optimism. Despite some moderate course corrections with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks, it’s been hard to find the old, hopeful spirit of Star Trek in this latest batch of shows—until now.
Star Trek: Picard’s final season single-handedly resurrects Trek’s faith in itself and then some. It honors the past and looks to the future all at once, charting a course ahead while anchoring itself in the optimistic humanism that’s always defined Star Trek at its best. The show reminds us what Star Trek once was and shows us what it can be once again—and makes a compelling case why we need it now more than ever.
That starts with the show’s superb score: composers Stephen Barton and Frederik Weidmann blend musical cues from across Star Trek’s history, ranging from Jerry Goldsmith’s classic themes from Star Trek: The Motion Picture—itself later repurposed as the theme for The Next Generation—and Star Trek: First Contact to movements from James Horner’s scores for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. The opening themes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager also arise at appropriate occasions, while even long-forgotten strains from Star Trek: Generations swell up at crucial emotional moments in the final two episodes.
As with the rest of Star Trek: Picard’s final season, this isn’t a mere exercise in musical nostalgia—Barton and Weidmann take earlier Trek orchestral cues, combine them together with work of their own, and manage to create something that’s much more than the sum of its parts. More than that, though, their magnificent score sets the tone for the season as a whole, using earlier musical themes to situate Picard’s last outing in a much longer tradition of Star Trek storytelling.
It's this venerable storytelling tradition that showrunner Terry Matalas brings back to life, effortlessly weaving Star Trek’s enduring humanistic themes and concerns together into a seamless, satisfying narrative that reunites The Next Generation crew at long last. Long since retired from Starfleet and decades after his command of the Enterprise, Sir Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard receives an emergency distress call from his one-time chief medical officer and sometime paramour, Doctor Beverly Crusher (played by Gates McFadden). With the help of his former first officer William T. Riker (portrayed by the always-charming Jonathan Frakes), Picard hitches a ride on Riker’s own old command, the USS Titan—coincidentally also the ship where Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan, reprising her role as the ex-Borg drone we first met on Star Trek: Voyager) serves as first officer.
Together, they rescue Crusher—and her and Picard’s son, Jack (played by a perfectly cast Ed Speleers). As they work to unravel a conspiracy involving two of Starfleet’s most dangerous enemies—the Founders, the shape-shifting main antagonists of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and the cybernetic Borg, first introduced in The Next Generation—the old crew of the Enterprise slowly but surely assembles: LeVar Burton’s Geordi LaForge, Michael Dorn’s newly-Zen and white-haired Klingon warrior Worf, Marina Sirtis’ Deanna Troi, and a new version of Brent Spiner’s android Data all eventually return to grace our screens.
We may be introduced to The Next Generation’s own next generation, but the show is no paean to youth. Indeed, it displays a healthy skepticism of our cult of youth that, despite the advanced age of political leaders, saturates our own society—or rather, it shows an appreciation for the maturity that comes with age and the wisdom we gain from our experiences.
That’s a theme inherent in the show itself, starting with the simple fact that it focuses on The Next Generation crew more than two decades after we last saw them on screen—and the fact that as audiences we remain interested in these characters and their stories so many years later. But more to the point, it’s built into the show’s plot: at its climax, the Borg take control of Starfleet officers under the age of twenty-five—while our older heroes remain effectively immune. As Deanna Troi remarks as the Borg plot reaches its climax in the penultimate episode, “I’ve never been so happy to see so many wrinkles.”
To save the galaxy, The Next Generation crew must take a rebuilt Enterprise-D into battle after all newer Starfleet vessels have been compromised by the Borg thanks to an poorly-thought-through decision to network them together. The return of the Enterprise—a supremely pleasant surprise for many Star Trek fans, one kept secret until the reveal at the end of the show’s penultimate episode—fits in with the show’s broader appreciation of age and maturity, its proposition that we’ve all got something to contribute no matter how many years we’ve clocked.
But it also offers our heroes—and by extension long-time fans and viewers of The Next Generation—an opportunity to reflect on what their time on the starship Enterprise meant to them, how it shaped and forged them as people. Leaving the bridge of the Enterprise one last time at the end of the series, for instance, Geordi remarks to Picard and Riker, “You know, it’s difficult to imagine what we all might have been without her.” To which Riker responds, “Different, certainly; but certainly not better.” It’s an exchange that reminds us that our pasts are part of who we are, and that there’s always time to be ourselves at our best.
Or as Picard himself puts it, “If ever there was better evidence that the past mattered, it’s right here.”
But if there’s any one single theme that runs through the final season of Picard, it’s the fundamental questions about the human condition the show meditates upon throughout its ten episodes—namely, how we make real connections with other people and find a place where we can fit in. Or in other words: family.
While family and human connection may be the show’s overt concerns, they’re handled in elegant and often subtle ways. They never feel forced or cliched or manipulative, instead flowing directly from the characters themselves and the stories being told—harking back all the way to the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Again, it’s inherent in the show’s structure: Picard discovers early on that he and Crusher have a son, Jack while Geordi’s youngest daughter Sidney (an engaging Ashlei Sharp Chesnut) serves as helmsman of the USS Titan, the ship on which most of the season’s action takes place.
But these themes almost immediately go well beyond blood relationships; we’re regularly reminded that these characters are in fact family to one another. As Seven of Nine tells Jack, Voyager was her home and its crew her family. Jack observes that since departing Voyager Seven has been trying to find another family: after all, he says, “we all long for connection.”
These threads all come together in the last three installments of the season, as The Next Generation crew assembles around a conference table for the first time in decades. Riker makes matters crystal clear as the crew reboards a rebuilt Enterprise and prepares to warp into danger, telling Picard: “We’re the crew of the USS Enterprise. But more than that, we’re your family…. Wherever you go, we go.” Troi chimes in, stating that their children are family as well. Each member of The Next Generation cast delivers a compelling and emotional performance, leaving no doubt that these characters view each other with genuine affection and consider themselves as family—reflecting the off-screen camaraderie the actors themselves have maintained over the decades.
It's a powerful contrast with the illusory promise of connection the Borg Collective offers Jack, one that brings the story to its climax in the final episodes. The crew of the Enterprise vividly illustrates what real human connection and close relationships between individuals actually looks like, while the Borg claim to provide “perfection.” But as Picard insists, “perfection is death,” a sterile alternative to the messy realities and imperfections inherent in human life and relationships. In the end, Picard saves the day by finally forging a meaningful connection with his son that breaks the Borg spell over him and saves humanity once again.
The series concludes with the Enterprise crew gathered together one last time, playing poker as we saw them do so many times over the course of The Next Generation. It’s a perfect farewell to this set of esteemed characters, one that captures why so many of us enjoyed their company just as much as their interstellar adventures.
There’s much more to this last season of Picard than that, of course, including Todd Stashwick’s curmudgeonly and often exasperated Captain Liam Shaw of the Titan. But just about every aspect of the show manages to tap into Star Trek’s venerable storytelling traditions and capture its essential spirit. The Titan manages to escape all but certain death by riding energy waves that accompany the birth of a clutch of space jellyfish, for instance, leaving both the crew and viewers alike with a sense of wonder at the discovery of a new lifeform. It’s a moment that beautifully conveys the underlying ethos Star Trek has carried with it for decades.
In the end, however, it’s the crew of the Enterprise and the ties that bind them together that best represent basic humanity at the heart of Star Trek—and tells us that we ignore the essential optimism and hope for the future of The Next Generation at our own peril. It’s neither naïve or misplaced, but absolutely essential for us as individuals and as a society. Watching The Next Generation crew assemble on the bridge of the Enterprise one last time reminds us that, no matter how old we may grow, our idealism and our courage need not grow old with us. It’s a vision that ought to push us to keep faith with the future—and, more importantly, ourselves.
Indeed, the nostalgia for the future conveyed by the final season of Star Trek: Picard doesn’t represent a wistful longing for former glory or a yearning for an illustrious past. Instead, it’s a call to rekindle our shared sense of possibility, the hope that the future will be better than the present. It’s an aspiration The Next Generation expressed so well, one the last outing of its cast and crew resurrected for our own day and age.
That’s something we all need now, more than ever: optimism in dark times, belief in the endless possibilities of tomorrow, and a sense that we can face impossible odds and desperate circumstances head on and surmount them. The enduring spirit of Star Trek provides a powerful antidote to the doomerism and pessimism that course like poison through our national life today—and reminds us to hold fast to our own ideals and better selves, no matter what.
Sometimes it takes some old friends coming back together to save the day to revive our own sense of optimism and possibility—and convince us that we just might be able to save the day ourselves.