Star Trek: Picard Season 3 Review: The Best Next Generation Movie We Never Got

It's worth remembering, even with some of the franchise's better shows, that no "Star Trek" series started strong ("Strange New Worlds" perhaps notwithstanding). "Star Trek" might serve as the prime example of the old television criticism cliché "It doesn't get good until season three." Luckily, the characters and settings were typically strong enough to keep casual viewers interested until the shows improved. 

As detailed in the documentary "Chaos on the Bridge," "Star Trek: The Next Generation" famously stumbled for two seasons as writers and producers jockeyed for power behind the scenes. It wasn't until the show underwent a massive restructuring at the start of its third year that it hit its stride. A new writing ethos dictated that "Next Generation" was going to be more character-focused, often centering individual episodes on a single member of its ensemble. Through such an approach, viewers saw how each character developed a unique working relationship with each other character. Cmdr. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) are going to have different conversations than Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner). 

The individualized approach also gave viewers a better sense of how the U.S.S. Enterprise worked, allowing them to reside extensively in each department. It's also important to note that Trekkies are massive vehicle fetishists, and exploring the technical operation of a starship is just as important to fans as getting to know the characters. 

"Star Trek: Picard" may now also be said to follow the unspoken "Star Trek" rule of threes. After two utterly abysmal seasons — seasons marked by inappropriate violence, terrible writing, and the introduction of weird, dumb technologies (there is a magical bottle that can summon Q) — "Picard" seems to have finally hit its stride as well.

Familiar relationships in familiar settings

The third season of "Picard" wisely flees into the arms of comfort, putting its characters in more familiar settings, reiterating their relationships, and drawing the story to a more intimate level. This season has famously been advertised as starring most of the "Next Generation" cast, reuniting on screen for the first time since "Star Trek: Nemesis" in 2002. "Picard" will catch up with each NextGen character one by one, explain where they have been for the past 20 years, and reunite them very gradually and in an organic way. It won't be until the show's sixth episode that all the characters will finally appear in the same episode. That restraint is greatly admired. 

Previously, "Picard" has been a very violent show, with every single character regularly committing murder. Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) previously on "Star Trek: Voyager" had transformed into a violent bounty hunter who says things like "Never again will I kill someone just because they deserve it." Raffi (Michelle Hurd) was a miserable drug addict. Capt. Rios (Santiago Cabera) was a drinker left marked by murders in his past. Even the mild-mannered Dr. Jurati (Alison Pill) poisons an old boyfriend. The characters had no reason to relate on a one-to-one basis, there were no episodes devoted to any one department or field of expertise. Importantly, the character didn't have a centralized workplace where they would regularly convene, often fanning out into the galaxy, separated by circumstance. The first two seasons were sprawling, violent messes that had none of the hallmarks that make Trek Trek. 

Season 3 of "Picard" takes place largely on a Federation starship, and most characters are in uniform, behaving professionally. It's astonishing how refreshing that feels to an old Trekkie like me.

The setup

The ship in question is the U.S.S. Titan, Riker's old command, now captained by a new character named Capt. Shaw (Todd Stashwick). Shaw is a fascinating and wonderful new character, in that he's a rude, pushy jerk and self-described a-hole. His command style is curt, and he often berates his inferior officers. I wouldn't want to work for Capt. Shaw, but I admire a different look at starship command styles. One can tell that, once you are trusted, Shaw would soften a smidge.

The third season doesn't begin promisingly. Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) has been on board a tiny vessel of her own, living with a mysterious young man named Jack (Ed Speelers). She is being hunted by mysterious aliens in masks and has to kill off a few of them when they intrude on her ship. She sends a distress call to Picard (Patrick Stewart), asking for help. One might immediately assume that the showrunners have transformed her and perhaps all her returning co-stars into violent murderers. Luckily, that will only prove to be true for one other character. The third season of "Picard" will not be about how everyone has devolved into bitter, angry death machines. 

The elderly admiral Picard reunites with his old first officer Capt. Riker on the eve of a massive Federation anniversary (they are both to make speeches at an upcoming gala) to discuss how they might rescue Dr. Crusher. Thanks to subterfuge, and the help of the Titan's new first officer Seven of Nine, they will attempt to commandeer the ship. When they arrive at Dr. Crusher's remote location, they find her beset by a mysterious new murderous supervillain named Vadic (Amanda Plummer) who will chase them into a nebula and engage in battle.

Wrath of First Contact

In a subplot, Raffi is working by herself to investigate the theft of a powerful, portal-based weapon that has been stolen from a Federation storehouse. Who she's working with and the true nature of the storehouse will be revealed later in the series. She will also discover the presence of an old "Star Trek" antagonist that hasn't been seen in any series for many years. 

This season of "Picard," perhaps eager to prove how Trek-like it can be when compared to its previous seasons, cribs very, very heavily from "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and "Star Trek: First Contact," the two most action-packed of the pre-Kelvin Trek films. In addition to the villain-who-wants-revenge trope (also used in "Nemesis," the 2009 Trek, "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "Star Trek Beyond"), there is an extended sequence inside of a space cloud where the two ships can't necessarily see each other. Additionally, a huge amount of Gerry Goldsmith's old scores are used, including his entire closing credits orchestration from "First Contact." "Picard" also employs a recognizable BWAAAM-like musical sting not heard in Trek since the 1980s.

Despite these obvious callbacks and familiar locales, however, "Picard" is not resting on its nostalgic laurels. It has, in its first six episodes, been quite ginger with its references and guest stars, meeting them out carefully and organically. This is not an Easter egg hunt like "Lower Decks." 

Fan service

Indeed, the fan-service Easter eggs might be this season's weakest element. In episode six — perhaps the show's most unabashedly embarrassing — the series will dive headlong into nostalgia, and attempt to milk emotions out of mere familiarity. There will be a sequence where some familiar vehicles make notable guest appearances, and several recognizable theme songs will play on the soundtrack. "Picard" has, until that point, not had many rib-poking "remember this??" moments. It seems that six hours into this "First Contact"-like movie, the showrunners couldn't help themselves. This episode also. has some references and background gags that will elicit more cynical eye-rolls than nostalgic exhilaration. 

Luckily, it's only been a small moment in an otherwise striking solid season, full of great characters, good relationships, and blanket-like Trek comfort. 

Additionally, the show knows Trekkies are ship fetishists, and spends a lot of time looking at ship exteriors, letting the audience memorize their lines and details. This is wise and also refreshing. After the first two seasons of "Picard," I still couldn't recall what the La Sirena looks like. Indeed, there is a scene early in the first episode of "Picard," called "The Next Generation," where Riker, sitting in a bar, notes that it is selling starship collectibles. The collectibles on screen are none other than the scale models currently being sold by the recently-shuttered collectible company Eaglemoss. It's rare that "Star Trek" will attempt to hawk its own merch. 

Overall, the third season of "Picard" is a head and shoulders above its predecessors. It may be more predicated on action and mayhem than NextGen, but so was "First Contact," and, well, that film wasn't terrible. This is, essentially, the best NextGen movie that we never got. This old Trekkie is grateful for it. 

"Star Trek: Picard" season 3 premieres February 16, 2023 on Paramount+.