Patrick Freyne: Where did a Star Trek space person learn to say ‘Sláinte’?

Star Trek: Picard is lost in nostalgia and doing its best to be no fun

In Star Trek the Next Generation, the fact that Patrick Stewart was a respected Shakespearean actor playing a space sailor never really came up. It sometimes felt like a lowbrow pop cultural prank. "Oh you've trodden the boards with the RSC, have you? Well, now say these gibberish words to a man with green face paint and a rubber glove taped to his chin."

Stewart was of course brilliant in it, facing up to bluescreened space anomalies with a completely straight face as though the space anomaly was from William Shakespeare's Space Anomaly IV Part II. The creators had imagined Picard as a sort of sci-fi hipster, dropping the names of intellectuals and insisting on drinking Earl Grey tea (the far future equivalent of riding a penny farthing and taking snuff). Instead of seeking out brave new worlds and then riding them, like his Trekkian predecessor Captain Kirk, Picard was more inclined to give new species a stern talking to about the inevitability of space social democracy, like Francis Fukuyama.

At times I dare to hope Star Trek is drifting into Last of the Summer Space Wine territory

The glory of the Star Trek franchise in its midlife period (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager) was that they were programmes made by nerds for nerds and, in among the shaky props, dated effects and sometimes thin characterisations, there were genuinely mind-bending sci-fi ideas, moral conundrums and big philosophical questions.

But franchises never die now. They just go on interminably, weighed down with their own plot baggage. The beauty of the original Star Trek, the Next Generation was that the makers came up with new aliens and challenges almost every week for 26 episodes a series. Amazon's Star Trek: Picard (Friday), on the other hand, has decided that they invented enough stuff back in the olden days and thinks that what's needed instead is lots of introspection. The golden age of television has apparently taught production companies that what people want is shapeless dramas where people look pensive for long periods of time.


At the outset of Picard, our elderly hero is wandering the fields of his vast estate. Part of me wants a whole series that features Picard pottering around like Jeremy Clarkson on Clarkson’s Farm, marvelling at the beauty of his space grapes and his space vineyard.

Back at the big house Picard's housekeeper/bodyguard, played by the excellent Orla Brady, bonds with him over a glass of space wine. She has an Irish accent and weird ears which means, of course, that she's playing someone from Carlow. Actually, she's playing a Romulan, which is a type of space person. But she does say "Sláinte!" while raising her glass (seriously), something I am mentioning here because they will use it in the headline and that's probably why you're reading this article.

Picard and his employee nearly kiss but Picard resists and looks worried. Later, after giving a speech to some literal space cadets, Picard visits space barwoman Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) who, though an ancient and ageless alien, informs him that she has chosen to age in sympathy with humans. Star Trek: Picard is partly all about cameo appearances from elder Star Trek characters fondly recalling days past. At times I dare to hope that it’s drifting into Last of the Summer Space Wine territory. But the wine Picard makes is called Chateau Picard not Space Wine, because modern Star Trek is doing its best to be no fun.

Why do all modern telly heroes need to be broken in some way? Why can't Picard just prefer being single?

Guinan sees that Picard is troubled and asks him why he’s never found love as they gargle space hooch. She suggests that all along the “final frontier” was in his heart. To which I shout: “NO! NO! NO! The final frontier is SPACE and space monsters and weird science stuff. If I wanted the final frontier to be someone’s heart, I’d read a stupid boring book or go to a play.”

Unfortunately, it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a space vineyard and an interstellar starship must be in want of a wife. And the subtextual question running through this series is: Why has Picard never found a space wife (or, because it's the future when people are more open minded, several space spouses and a sex robot)? Why do all modern telly heroes need to be broken in some way? Why can't Picard just prefer being single? It never seemed to bother him much in The Next Generation, what with his holodeck escapades, poker nights and best friend Commander Ryker who was great at sitting backwards on a chair.

It makes me feel defensive of Picard. The question: “What is this human emotion, ‘love’?” was something that pointy-eared aliens, Pinocchioesque androids and cyborg ingenues asked. Characters like Picard were meant to answer that question knowingly with a raised eyebrow and nerds like me were meant to scribble down the answer, then dramatically fail to get a girlfriend/boyfriend with it.

I really, really want to see a Star Trek show that doesn't focus on big psychological journeys and epic stakes and instead explores weird sci-fi ideas

While Picard and Guinan are reminiscing, across the galaxy plot points are unfolding. There’s a robot dinner party going on, Seven of Nine is fighting space bandits, and a starship captain whose personality is that he chomps an unlit cigar, encounters a strange space anomaly. Ah yes, the generic space anomaly of yore. Now you’re talking, Picard.

But it’s the space anomaly who’s talking and it turns out to be Picard’s old frenemy the Borg queen. Before they’re quaffing interstellar grog and saying, “Remember series four episode seven?” she’s firing tentacle things around the ship and everyone is running about being terrified. Then another old character appears. He also “chooses” to look older despite being an ageless trans-dimensional being. Frankly I’m thinking of using the same excuse myself: “I’m only aging so you’ll feel less bad about your own haggard visage,” I’ll say to you the first time we meet post-pandemic.

Look, Gene Roddenberry and the creators who followed him have built a great universe to wander through and Stewart is never anything less than watchable. I will stick with this because I live in hope, but I really, really want to see a Star Trek show that doesn't focus on big psychological journeys and epic stakes and instead explores weird sci-fi ideas and episodic philosophical conundrums. And seriously, the Borg? Again? They were a sparingly-used exotic spice in the original series but they're like hydrogenated fats these days. They're in everything.

Somebody Somewhere

This week I also watched Somebody Somewhere (Now TV), a funny, raw and moving show about a forty-something friends in rural Kansas. If Picard had stayed hanging out on his space vineyard with Guinan it might have looked like this. Sam (Bridget Everett) finds herself washed up in her hometown due to a family tragedy and bonds with a co-worker Joel (Jeff Hiller). What's beautiful about this show is that while sad issues lurk within, everything is filtered through a joyful friendship. It's all the more powerful because of that. It's rare to see characters on screen laughing at each other's jokes in a way that's remotely plausible. But when Everett and Hiller crack each other up you believe it and you want to be friends with them. It's great. I'd add nothing to this show, not even a space anomaly or a man with pointy ears.