Where I think a lot of the current genre material, on both television and film, gets into trouble is that it often feels a bit like trying to get square blocks into round holes- it doesn’t really fit right. I don’t know if its a general lack of imaginative, new thinking creatively or just the Corporate pressure to keep resurrecting old properties (because its easier to update/reboot/sell old stuff than come up with something genuinely original) but when you think about it, a lot of the genre stuff we see now is Star Trek or Star Wars or based on Marvel and DC comics we read as kids back in the 1960s or 1970s. Its rather like the old saying, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, after all, I’m not adverse to anyone making a show or movie based on a 1920s Lovecraft story or bringing back Conan or Tarzan or John Carter. But Star Trek was a 1960s show and of its time, retconned somewhat in the 1980s for The Next Generation, and Star Wars likewise was a 1970s/1980s film series. Bringing them back in the 2010s and now, crikey, the 2020s… well, its certainly causing a friction because a lot of our ‘wiser and more progressive’ thinking , as it is often referred to, is pretty much a bad fit for some of our genre classics.
Moreover, people rather forget that back in the day, there wasn’t a dozen other shows competing with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and while there were a few sci-films etc (The Black Hole, Star Trek: TMP, Battlestar Galactica, take a bow) there wasn’t really much competition with the Star Wars films either. These days there are so many genre shows and films being made I think the talent pool is really pretty thin, and I think we’re getting films and shows written and made by people who just aren’t up to it, but are finding careers easy to pursue in an arena where Netflix and Amazon and Disney are throwing so much money into it. Genre stuff is too popular now and I think as we’re getting so much of it general creativity and the quality of writing is sinking fast.
I don’t think JJ Abrams was a proper fit for the Star Trek reboots and I don’t think he was a proper fit for the new Star Wars films either. His Star Trek films tried to refit so much of the old shows mythology but never seemed right, with characters and plot-devices (teleportation to ships in warp or across star systems) that just weren’t correct to established logic or mythology. I know, I sound like a raving geek all the time raising that stuff, but it gets to a point at which Star Trek stops being Star Trek, and it may as well be something else entirely, but of course the Corporate heads want to exploit already established and easily marketable IP. What, after all, does Star Trek: Discovery really have in common with Star Trek that isn’t just in name only, if the Klingons don’t look or act like Klingons, the Vulcans don’t look or act like Vulcans, and Star Fleet doesn’t look or behave like Star Fleet proper? Its the same thing with the new Star Wars films, which I have frequently berated elsewhere on this blog- if characters or events are so indistinguishable from what was established before in the Original Trilogy or elsewhere, when is it frankly no longer Star Wars and something else?
Its happening now with the current iteration of the BBCs Dr Who, with established cannon being sacrificed, far as I can tell, to just excuse bad writing or lack of creative responsibility to the franchise. Fans and critics are being blindsided by a lot of ‘progressive’ and blatant ‘social agenda’ material being thrown in, but on the whole its disguising the real tragedy that is a really crummy, lazily written show that is really Dr Who in name only.
Its not that everything is creatively redundant. Ironically some new stuff is very good- The Expanse, for instance, is terrific and is perhaps thriving because it isn’t beholden to decades of established mythology and fans who are experts on those decades of material. Characters in the show can be fresh and exciting and challenging because in behaviour they don’t have to be true to anything established decades before, only what has been written in novels written by genuine talented sci-fi writers who know what they are doing.
Which brings me, finally, to the subject of this post, which is the second episode of Star Trek: Picard. Yeah, I got here eventually. Its not that I dislike this show, its certainly watchable (if only much of that is simply from the presence of Sir Patrick Stewart) but it certainly has its problems, and a lot of this is the writing, the creative choices. Its not a disaster on Dr Who levels, but it does have the feel that the core idea for this series is from some other franchise. Maybe somebody at Alcon had an idea for a Blade Runner series on Netflix and retconned it into a Star Trek story, because all this talk about synths and rebellions Off World (sorry, Mars) feels more Blade Runner, or maybe Westworld, than it does Star Trek. I can almost imagine a pitch meeting where one of the suits responded “yeah, nice idea but that Blade Runner flick flopped, can you maybe write it for the bald guy from Trek, I hear he’s looking for a gig?” I’m sure that’s not how it happened but it feels like it could have. Or maybe the suits looked at HBOs Westworld and thought, “yeah, I fancy a bit of that on my streaming channel, what IP do we own that we can retcon?”.
The result is something that looks good, and can even be entertaining, but doesn’t quite feel right. I enjoyed the first episode because for all its issues, it at least felt more like Trek ‘proper’ than Discovery did, but with its second episode that feelings getting a little stretched. Moreover, returning to my point about the talent pool getting thin, some of the writing here is really pretty atrocious and slipping to Dr Who levels. The rooftop fight (and explosion, remember) of the first episode, has been cleared up, the evidence disappeared, we are told, as if it never happened. Picard doesn’t wake up in hospital but in his villa back in France and his testimony apparently the ravings of a crazy old fool. Going back to the apartment of Dahj we see that it has been cleared up, all traces of the fight (and murder of her boyfriend) all gone, until some magic gadget can recreate what happened in a 3D Hologram until some point at which even that has been erased clean (my sorcery is more powerful than your sorcery!). If it wasn’t for the charisma that Stewart had, or the fact that this show would still be watchable if it was just him reading names out of a phonebook, I doubt I’d be sticking with it. You see, in the old days of Babylon 5, Fringe, the BSG reboot etc, when shows like this had mysteries or multi-episodic arcs, they were often worth sticking with, because I could have confidence in the creative team and the main arc winning through, but on the evidence of so much current genre stuff I really have my doubts here.
And really, I don’t know if its the writing, but other than Stewart, some of the acting is really pretty bland and dire.
Here’s hoping it gets better!