DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. CBS All Access, the online streaming service of CBS, has already tapped into the "Star Trek" fan base once by presenting a spinoff series, "Star Trek: Discovery," now about to start its third season. But this week, CBS All Access doubles down by launching a new "Star Trek" series, one that harkens back to the original series' first TV spinoff, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." This new show, premiering today, is called "Star Trek: Picard" and features the actor and character at the center of "The Next Generation," Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE SKIES")
BING CROSBY: (Singing) Blue skies smiling at me - nothing but blue skies do I see.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The music you just heard opens the premiere episode of "Star Trek: Picard." A hardcore Trekkie I know tells me that this same song also figured prominently in one of the "Star Trek" movies at a wedding or something, but I'll take his word for it. I've seen and remembered enough from the "Star Trek" canon to recognize a Romulan when I see one, but a lot of the quick and often playful name-drop references in this new series are lost on me. But that doesn't bother me or even matter because what counts is Patrick Stewart as Picard, and catching up with him is what makes this newest "Star Trek" franchise entry so intriguing.
The franchise is, by now, a huge one. The original NBC series began in 1966 and was cancelled after three seasons, never once ranking even in the top 25 for any of those seasons. "Star Trek" seemed fated back then to vanish into the TV universe and become a mostly forgotten '60s sci-fi genre trivia answer like "Land Of The Giants" or "The Time Tunnel," except the original "Star Trek" episodes began being televised heavily in syndication. And "Saturday Night Live" demonstrated the show's ongoing appeal with a brilliant "Star Trek" spoof featuring John Belushi as Captain Kirk and Chevy Chase as Mr. Spock. A theatrical movie was released in 1979, then two more in the '80s. In 1987, a sequel TV series was produced, "Star Trek: The Next Generation," featuring a new crew headed by Stewart's Captain Jean-Luc Picard. That lasted seven years and gave momentum to all the series and movies that have come since, including the recent theatrical reboots and such small-screen spinoffs as "Deep Space Nine," "Voyager," "Enterprise" and "Discovery."
And now there's "Star Trek: Picard," which begins on Earth in the year 2399. Picard is living the good life, long-retired and tending to his European vineyard, when the anniversary of the tragedy that led to his retirement prompts him to revisit that issue on live television. He had tried to show compassion for some galactic refugees seeking asylum, an unpopular decision at the time and since.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: PICARD")
PATRICK STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) The Romulans asked for our help. I believe we had a profound obligation to give it.
MERRIN DUNGEY: (As interviewer) Many felt there were better uses for our resources than aiding the Federation's oldest enemy.
STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) Well, fortunately, the Federation chose to support the rescue efforts.
DUNGEY: (As Interviewer) Yes, initially.
STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) I have been known to be persuasive, but the Federation understood there were millions of lives at stake.
DUNGEY: (As Interviewer) Romulan lives.
STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) No, lives.
DUNGEY: (As Interviewer) You left the Enterprise to command the rescue armada - 10,000 warp-capable ferries, a mission to relocate 900 million Romulan citizens to worlds outside the blast of a supernova - a logistical feat more ambitious than the pyramids.
STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) The pyramids were a symbol of colossal vanity. If you want to look for historical analogy - Dunkirk.
BIANCULLI: As the plot thickens in this new series, we learn that all so-called synthetics, the type of humanoid hybrid represented by Data in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," have been taken offline. There's all sorts of intrigue on Earth and beyond, which eventually prompts Picard to leave his vineyard and leave behind his sour grapes to seek answers from a scientist who's a specialist in synthetics. She's played by Alison Pill, who portrayed Zelda Fitzgerald in Woody Allen's "Midnight In Paris" and Maggie Jordan in Aaron Sorkin's HBO series "The Newsroom."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: PICARD")
ALISON PILL: (As Agnes Jurati) Admiral Picard, it's an honor.
STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) Dr. Jurati, thank you for giving me the time.
PILL: (As Agnes Jurati) Oh, Agnes. How can I help you?
STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) You can tell me if it is possible to make a sentient android out of flesh and blood.
PILL: (As Agnes Jurati) No, really. How can I - is that why you've come here?
STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) It is.
PILL: (As Agnes Jurati) Even before the ban, that was - well, a flesh and blood android was in our sights, but a sentient one - not for a thousand years.
STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) That makes it even more curious that recently, I had tea with one.
BIANCULLI: There are plenty of other new characters and subplots in "Star Trek: Picard." There's a deep state conspiracy inside the federation and a mystery to solve and someone to find and rescue, all of which takes a few episodes to establish. At some point, Picard takes to the bridge and says, engage, and we're off into outer space again. But by then, because we care so much about Picard and about reuniting with him a third of a century after "Next Generation" first appeared on TV, we're engaged already.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of television history at Rowan University.
If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Bryan Stevenson, one of the leaders in the fight against racial injustice within the justice system, whose memoir is the basis of the new film "Just Mercy," or with Washington Post journalists Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, authors of "A Very Stable Genius" about President Trump, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Thea Chaloner. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.