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Star Trek: Picard is a fresh look at Trek with phasers set to angry

Review: A sci-fi legend returns, and he's swapped the Enterprise for a bold new look at Star Trek's essential values.

Jean-Luc Picard returns.

Trae Patton

Star Trek is a vision of a bright, shining future -- but that future is under threat. In Star Trek: Picard, a brand new and very different Star Trek show, if the legendary Jean-Luc Picard wants to protect his utopian ideals, he's going to have to fight to make it so.

The show sees Patrick Stewart reprise his role as The Next Generation's iconic leader joining a crew of new faces -- plus a couple of old favorites -- as he tackles the Borg, the Romulans and a dark conspiracy that may be entangled with his former shipmate, the android Data. 

And the former captain may be aging, but the show is perhaps even more relevant than ever as it scathingly examines the real-life need to protect the values at the heart of Star Trek's bold and bright future.

The premiere episode hits Jan. 23, streaming every week on CBS All Access in the US and Amazon Video elsewhere in the world (Disclosure: CNET is owned by ViacomCBS.)

Picard begins right where you'd expect to find this beloved Starfleet icon: on the Enterprise. But even when we see the familiar Enterprise-D from the beloved TV show, things are different. Television has changed since Jean-Luc last graced the small screen, and right from the start Picard has a more cinematic feel than previous Trek series. In addition to the cinematic editing, close-ups and lighting, it also has moments of violence and even cursing that wouldn't fly in the old days.

The intriguing question burning in the background is why Captain Picard isn't Captain Picard anymore. What could have pried this Starfleet legend out of the captain's chair and out of uniform? A mysterious cataclysm in the past drove him out in disgust at what Starfleet had become. And that's the underlying driving force of the show: It explores the notion that the utopian ideals of Star Trek don't just happen. They have to be reinforced and protected every day.

What cataclysm could cause Jean-Luc Picard to leave Starfleet -- and what threat would bring him back?

Matt Kennedy/CBS

It's a fascinating expansion on one of the themes glimpsed in previous shows: the idea that Starfleet has it pretty good in its gleaming starships, but the rest of the galaxy still struggles with the same problems as we do today. Often, the Enterprise crew encountered people whose lives were a million light-years from Starfleet's fabulous technology and high-minded ideals. In Picard, we're shown some of the future's more down 'n' dirty corners, and it's this shadowy world that Jean-Luc Picard must navigate. There's no crisp white Enterprise in this morally ambiguous vision of the future. As people fall prey to fear and self-interest, the blackness of space reveals a lot of gray.

When things seem to be OK, it's easy to become complacent, to ignore the suffering of others, to close your eyes to sections of society backsliding into darkness. Jean-Luc Picard has always been a beacon of decency and fairness, and when he sees those values erode, his fury is palpable. Stewart's anger radiates off the screen, his aging form still vital and dynamic when he's standing up for the good in humanity.

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Stepping outside of Starfleet is a risky move for a Star Trek show, but it works as we spend time with the venerable admiral investigating a deadly conspiracy on Earth -- giving us more of a look at life in the future than we've ever had. And of course, Picard does end up boldly going: While Picard delves deeper into a conspiracy that permeates even into Starfleet itself, the show also cuts to a sinister project on the other side of space that tantalizingly unites two of Trek's biggest villains.

As the story unfolds, Picard feels more reminiscent of Westworld than old Trek. And not just because it's about cybernetic beings examining what it means to be human -- it also features interlocking narratives and mysteries within mysteries, a structure very different to the mission of the week seen in The Original Series, The Next Generation or even Star Trek: Discovery.

There are still numerous links to earlier Trek, however. As well as establishing its own backstory, Picard draws on a fair amount of continuity. For example, Trek fans will recognize the name of Bruce Maddox, a cybernetics expert who appeared in one episode when he attempted to take possession of Data in the second season of TNG. The show also calls back to the final Next Generation movie, 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis. You don't have to rewatch it, although it's worth reminding yourself about B4, the inferior prototype of Data that featured in the movie.

Striking a balance between new story and continuity is tough when rebooting a show after such a long absence. Nemesis was 18 years ago, and The Next Generation finished back in 1994. Even the biggest fan could be forgiven for letting some of the details slip their mind. So it's a bit of an odd choice to lean so heavily on Nemesis -- a film that surely nobody is rushing to rewatch -- and a single episode from way back in TNG's second season. Still, new viewers shouldn't be put off as the fan-pleasing easter eggs don't get in the way of the adventure's forward motion. And you can always catch up with our shortlist of essential Trek episodes to bring you up to (warp) speed.

And of course there's plenty of sci-fi action wrapped round the fan-friendly backstory and timely themes. Fighting off assassins and getting mixed up with spies inside Starfleet, Picard recruits a ragtag band including expert Alison Pill and smoldering Santiago Cabrera playing amusing multiple roles. Not to mention some old faces from the TNG days.

Even with a familiar figure at the helm, Picard charts a bold new course for Trek. It's something a bit different, but that gives it the space to examine and reiterate the values that have always been at the heart of Star Trek. Consider us engaged. 

Originally published Jan 23, 12 a.m. PT.