One funny thing about Star Trek obsessives is that the rules of the fandom oblige them to understand and accept people who aren’t Star Trek obsessives. Infinite diversity in infinite combination is written into their bumpy-foreheaded, triple-stranded DNA. (Thanks a lot, Vulcans!) It’s also true, though, that on-ramping to Trek ain’t easy. With decades of content in the can, the makers of every new Star Trek show fret about appealing to newbies. With Star Trek: Picard premiering on January 23 on the streaming service CBS All Access, the problem is even more acute—lots of never-Trekkers love Patrick Stewart, revisiting here his role as Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the USS Enterprise in the Star Trek: The Next Generation years. Lots of people love the season-one showrunner Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay as well as a moving New Yorker article that closed the door forever on “tear-jerking essays about Star Trek and fathers and sons.” (Thanks a lot, Chabon.)
The trailers for Picard look good. Sci-fi TV has gotten better and better-looking since TNG ended in 1994. Stewart’s an ace. And nerds and the nerd-adjacent are going to be watercoolering about this thing. But judging by advance press, the show is gonna be allusive. So the question is, can a person who hasn’t engaged with Trek’s five decades of TV and movies still climb aboard? As someone who is the other kind of person—which is to say, a person who has watched all the Star Trek—I’m here to help. Yes. The answer is yes.
At one level, it's not that complicated. Three decades ago, Picard led a close-knit crew on a spaceship. They had problem-solving, intellectualized adventures with laser guns, go-fast rockets, and aliens. That’s all you really need. Don’t worry about the silly names. (“Phasers” are ray guns, “warp drive” is rockets, “communicators” are phones.)
At another level … whoooo. OK. See, when Next Generation premiered in 1987, fans had only known one kind of captain—James T. Kirk, a swaggering cowboy, something of a Cold Space Warrior in a two-front fight against the aggressive Klingons and the inscrutable Romulans, and a pansexual adventurer who never didn’t have time to chase alien orifice. (This is all canon!) Picard was a change. Older and more measured, he was a stalwart defender of the nonviolent, inclusive ideals of the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet, the organizations he worked for, even when his bosses weren’t. Kirk never met a spaceship he didn’t want to shoot at; Picard fretted about the pronunciation of diplomatic greetings. The actor who played Kirk, William Shatner, was a journeyman TV professional with two of the best episodes of Twilight Zone on his résumé; Stewart was a trained Shakespearean with a typical Brit actor’s filmography—high art interspersed with an occasional Excalibur or Dune.
Like a lot of actors who get pulled into Trek’s orbit, Stewart came to see beyond the obsessive fandom and silly techno-babble. Somewhere around the third season, which is when Trek shows generally find their footing (if they ever do), he turned avuncular gravitas into a philosophical conscience. Partially that’s because Stewart can deliver one hell of a monologue, a skill on which the writers leaned hard, but whether through self-examination or just plain good acting, Stewart managed to transcend dopey sci-fi TV convention and convey—sometimes with just a gesture or a glance—lessons about leadership, family, and integrity. Here are a dozen hours of video, all gettable on various streaming services, that prove it.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: ‘The Measure of a Man’
A scientist’s order, backed by Starfleet, that Picard’s android science officer Data turn himself in for dissection and eventual replication provides the opportunity for one of TNG’s favorite tropes: a courtroom episode. As counsel for the defense, Picard sums up sentience, intelligence, and the meaning of life and freedom. (“The Measure of a Man” will also give you a sense of Data, played by Brent Spiner, and first officer William Riker, played by Jonathan Frakes—both of whom show up on Picard.)
Star Trek: The Next Generation: ‘Who Watches the Watchers’
Starfleet’s Prime Directive is one of noninterference when it comes to cultures without the ability to build spaceships that fly faster than the speed of light—the warp drive. Gotta let ’em develop without interference. Kirk honored that directive more in the breach, but after an accident reveals the Enterprise’s existence to a pre-warp culture, Picard shows he’s willing to die to correct the mistake and defend the principle.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: ‘Family’
The finale of season 3 and the premiere of season 4 were a two-parter called “The Best of Both Worlds,” culminating years of setup for an invasion of the Federation by collectivized zombie alien cyborgs called the Borg. As part of that attack, the Borg kidnap Picard and cyborg-alien-zombify him into leading their assault … which is all you really need to know to understand this episode, which deals with Picard’s PTSD and culpability in the disastrous war. It also shows Federation-era Earth, the family that Picard essentially gave up on to go to space, leaving a vineyard very much like the one where Picard picks him up (if it's not Chateau Picard itself).
Star Trek: The Next Generation: ‘Darmok’
One of Trek’s genius elisions is the Universal Translator, which does exactly what’s on the label for almost every alien Starfleet runs into. In this episode, the translator works, but still doesn’t allow communication—because the aliens of the week speak entirely in metaphor and cultural references. (“Mirab, his sails unfurled!” Like, what the hell is that?) I can’t do better than Ian Bogost’s Atlantic article “Shaka, When the Walls Fell” at explaining why that’s awesome, but this episode also challenges (and ultimately rewards) Picard’s commitment to communication and diplomacy rather than pew-pew.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: ‘The First Duty’
Among the weird Trek decisions that the movie Galaxy Quest expertly parodied was putting a kid in one of the Enterprise’s driving seats. That kid was Wesley Crusher, played by Wil Wheaton, and his evolution was another series-long thread. In this episode Wesley, about to graduate from space school, has been involved in a fatal accident. It’s another courtroom episode, but it also gets at Picard’s pre-Enterprise life, and the Picardian monologue clarifies the key difference between the science-y, traditional American self-improvement values of Trek from, say, the magico-romantic chosen-one narratives of Star Wars. “The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth. Whether it's scientific truth, or historical truth, or personal truth. It is the guiding principle upon which Starfleet is based,” Picard says. “If you can't find it within yourself to stand up and tell the truth about what happened you don't deserve to wear that uniform.”
Star Trek: The Next Generation: ‘I, Borg’
The crew of the Enterprise find a wounded Borg—individuals are called “drones”—and, despite their enmity, nurse him back to health. As the Borg starts to regain his individuality, taking the name Hugh, Picard and his wise bartender Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg; yes, I know, and she’s great) debate the ethics of using Hugh to carry a genocidal computer virus back to the aliens. They don’t, and Hugh rejoins the Borg, eventually (in later episodes) leading a rebel offshoot. As episodes go, this one is perfectly fine, but Hugh, played by Jonathan Del Arco, also shows up in Picard, apparently. So this is him.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: ‘Inner Light’
A mysterious probe shows up and shoots Picard—pew pew! And then … it ain’t Trek anymore. Picard wakes up on a distant planet, his own memories intact, with everyone around him recognizing him as someone else. In a typical episode that wasn’t almost six years in with a Stewart in full flourish, Picard would find a computer, figure out he was stuck in a simulation or a mind game, and bust out. Here, none of that happens. And Picard eventually just lives his new life. For years. I’m not going to tell you anything else about this except it’ll make you cry.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: ‘Chain of Command Part II’
In part I of this two-parter, Picard gets involved in some covert military shenanigans fighting aliens called the Cardassians. Doesn’t really matter what’s what, except that he gets taken captive. His vicious interrogator is another British actor who’d been around forever, David Warner, and despite the requisite funny forehead, Warner brings the same courtly evil to the part that he did to Jack the Ripper in Time After Time, Sark in Tron, and, well, Evil in Time Bandits. Warner and Stewart lock their jaws onto the scenery, and Picard's will remains (almost) indomitable.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: ‘Starship Mine’
Die Hard on the Enterprise. Picard goes into action-movie action more often than you’d expect for a thespian on the mature side of 50—I’ve still never really bought him being able to defeat a Klingon in hand-to-hand combat, honestly. Here, for science-fiction reasons, Picard is alone on the ship while a crew of thieves try to steal a valuable and dangerous space MacGuffin, and he has to rely on his guts, stunts, and knowledge of the ship to beat them.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: ‘All Good Things’
Is it cheating to recommend the series finale? Eh, probably, but it’s a great Picard-centered two-parter that, thanks to time travel, links the series’ debut with one possible future. It’s also a better two hours of Trek than most Trek movies, and gets at the drive Picard has to solve problems and the evolution of his relationship with his crew. Also, since it’s where the universe left off with Jean-Luc, it’s a satisfying bridge (sorry) to Picard.
Star Trek: First Contact
The Trek movies have only rarely had the spirit of the TV show—an interesting difference between the narrative demands of hundreds of hours of television versus, back then, the self-contained two hours of a film. First Contact comes as close as any of the movies have, though, recapitulating the entertaining relationship stuff but adding hot outer-space action and turning the Borg into a credible epic-movie threat. Picard’s PTSD and guilt from “Family” are his motivation here, not entirely to his credit, and watching Stewart work all that character stuff out while hefting a phaser rifle is the fun part.
Star Trek: Voyager: ‘Relativity’
The woman with blond hair and Borg-ish implants who also shows up in Picard is Seven of Nine, a Borg drone who gets re-individualized on Star Trek: Voyager, two TV shows down the line from TNG. Voyager followed the adventures of the eponymous starship, lost a zillion light years from Earth and trying to get home. (It was in some ways the prototype for the next job of one of its writers, rebooting Battlestar Galactica). Seven of Nine joined Voyager in its fourth season in the Spock/Data job, arching eyebrows at human foibles and acting as both a source of and target for exposition. But Jeri Ryan, who played the part, brought more to it; her sense of humor managed to escape her character’s corset and facial-expression-dampening prosthetics, as in this episode, where multiple versions of herself travel through time to solve a mystery. The plot’s light, but it’ll give you a sense of how Ryan plays the not-quite-human Seven, coping with her own guilt and trauma about the roles she played in Borg militarism.