It is a strategy of which, I’m sure, even the legendary Picard himself would approve.
A man who happily mixed calculated insight and intuition, compassion and tenacity, whit and whimsy and steely-eyed resolved, Picard, as played by Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: The Next Generation, subsequent movies and recently to greta acclaim, Star Trek: Picard, you get the feeling that he would be manifestly okay with reading the prequel comic book series of his television revival after the actual series itself.
Granted, it’s not ideal, and even Picard himself might argue everything has its assigned place and time, but the man who was turned into and then turned back from Locutus of Borg (“The Best of Both Worlds”) and who lived an entire life on the planet of Kataan while he lay comatose on the bridge of the Enterprise (“Inner Light”) might understand that things don’t always go to plan and that you must pivot accordingly.
So it is that weeks after the end of the superlative ten-episode run of Star Trek: Picard, I find myself reading the three-issue run of Star Trek: Picard – Countdown, which establishes with richness of story, sublimely good characterisation and a compelling efficiency of narrative, how the so-called “Saviour of the Federation” (said with affection or scorn depending on how annoyed you are with Picard at the time) ended up racing across the galaxy to solve the compelling case of two Data-like lifeforms who pop up, independently of each other, out of nowhere.
It might only be a very short series but like the very best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it tells the series’ set-up in such an exemplary way that it feels like exactly the right length.
While you can watch the new Picard series without reading the comic books, there is an extra dimension of understanding and insight you are afforded by taking in Picard’s unexpected visit to the Romulan colony of Yuyat Beta, a world on the edge of the blast zone that the impending supernova, which it is expected will take billions of lives with it and decimate the Romulan Empire almost in its entirety, that reading it, in whichever order you come to it, is a very good thing.
Much like the subsequent series itself, Countdown beautifully captures the complexity of Picard’s character, honouring who he was and those who he knew then and now and who he currently is, an admiral in Starfleet commanding the U.S.S. Verity, overseeing the evacuation of the Romulans and their resettlement on a worlds far from harm.
As we know from the series, this well-intentioned evacuation, masterminded and spearheaded by Picard who is as honourable a man as you’ll find anywhere, is not as straightforward a proposition as most people might think.
To anyone looking on, saving billions of people from certain death and a civilisation from near-inevitable annihilation might seem the simplest and most noble of humanitarian endeavours.
But humanity never fares well or without complication in the labyrinthine world of geopolitics and so it is in Countdown, and later Picard, where Picard’s mission to save one of the Federation’s most trenchant and vociferously violent enemies is treated as a thing of suspicion and contempt by some people who would rather die it seems that accept help.
It is a maddening situation but one Picard has navigated a thousand times before so his arrival, with first officer Lieutenant Commander Raffi Musiker (played in the series by Michelle Hurd with a beguiling mix of brashness, fast-talking cleverness and aching vulnerability), at Yuyat Beta is not treated as anything other than routine.
It is, of course, anything but with Picard and his crew encountering an unexpectedly fraught situation on the planet, one preceded and superseded by the appearance of Commander Geordi La Forge, now in charge of the Utopia Planitia Shipyards (which play a pivotal role in Picard) that the very real potential of derailing the admiral’s mission of mercy.
To explain why would be to give away too many spoilers, and as a key character in an iconic British sci-fi series always intoned, that is best avoided especially in a story as tight and revelatory as Countdown, but suffice to say the very best of humanity and the Romulans who see wisdom in seeking assistance from their enemies comes hard up against the very worst of paranoia and eons-old hatred and mistrust.
It is an utterly immersive story that reveals not simply key reasons why Picard proceeds the way it does, but more insight into the eponymous character who has become one of the most loved characters in Star Trek, and deservedly so.
One of the things that is so compelling about now-Admiral Picard is the way in which he has managed to keep the most idealistic of outlooks and the most optimistic of vantage points even when the most terrible things have happened to him.
He hasn’t emerged unscathed from these character-searing episodes, and indeed Countdown as much as the series that follow it, makes it clear he is neither perfect in spirit nor infallible in his actions; what he is, however, is a man of great decency and forthrightness that follows through on the core principles that guide him in a way that less honourable people simply can’t understand.
While he is a keen student of history and politics and has learned their lessons well, he is also unwilling to surrender to cynicism or expediency and so when he discovers there is far more to the evacuation of Yuyat Beta than he has been left to believe, he acts more from a position of good and noble intent than the playing of grubby politics.
Leave that to the politicians on both the Romulan and Federation sides, thank you; Picard can certainly swim more than ably in their metaphorically shark-infested waters but he is not driven by such negatively prosaic pursuits, preferring to elevate the very best of who we are ahead of the darker, more calculating angels of our nature.
It is this Picard who emerges strongly and unapologetically from Countdown, which offers us a bracingly good, rip-roaring story, salient facts which add to the enjoyment of Picard, compelling characters old and new and artwork by Angel Hernandez, who together with writers Kirsten Beyer & Mike Johnson, in a three-issue instalment which encapsulates the epitome of Star Trek idealism and its appreciation of the stark realities of the world in and around it, but just as importantly the character of one Jean-Luc Picard and the people who matter to him such as Musiker and Romulan refugees Laris and Zhaban.
By any measure, it is taut, beguiling and unmissable storytelling that deserves to be enjoyed, no matter which order you happen to read them in.