Warning: Spoilers for the Picard series finale follow. If you haven't seen the episode, look away now!
For over 40 years, Star Trek has been living in the long shadow of The Wrath of Khan. Still widely regarded as the long-running sci-fi franchise's finest two hours, Kirk and Spock's second big-screen outing remains the standard against which all subsequent Treks have been judged. But now, courtesy of Star Trek: Picard's thrilling third season, it has some serious competition.
Measuring a TV season against a movie is like comparing Romulan ale with Klingon blood wine, but there are plenty of reasons why this has become the first Trek outing to make an appearance in Nielsen's Top 10 streaming rankings (opens in new tab). While the Next Generation spin-off's first two seasons were hit-and-miss affairs, Picard season 3 operates at maximum threshold from start to (almost) finish, and crams pretty much everything you could want from a TNG reunion into its near-perfect 10-episode arc.
Moments of humour and emotion mingle with big sci-fi ideas (it's great to see Geordi and Data chewing the scientific fat again), as old wounds are reopened in the midst of some jaw-droppingly cinematic space battles. There are also nods to The Wrath of Khan, of course – most notably the "in the 25th century" title card and the subtle echoes of James Horner's classic soundtrack – but mostly this is a story that exists on its own terms.
Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) sending a distress call to her former captain (and old flame) Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), is the catalyst for an adventure that spirals out in all sorts of exciting – and unexpected – directions. Within the first three episodes alone, Picard has teamed up with former Number One Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) to commandeer a Starfleet vessel, learned he has a son (Jack Crusher, played by You's Ed Speleers), and taken the USS Titan into a lethal, nebula-based game of cat-and-mouse with an enemy vessel. But where many other TV shows might feel like they'd peaked too early, this is only the beginning. In fact, the pace rarely lets up as earth-shattering revelation follows earth-shattering revelation.
That the lead antagonists for most of the season should be Deep Space Nine bad guys the Changelings is only obvious in hindsight, a "why didn't I think of that before?" surprise that also makes perfect dramatic sense. In Trek canon the Dominion's feelings of vengeance ad resentment have been simmering for decades, yet for Picard and co – on screen, at least – they're an entirely new threat.
These genetically engineered, almost undetectable shapeshifters are smart, powerful and utterly ruthless, and their leader Vadic (played with relish by a cigar-chomping, scene-stealing Amanda Plummer) has genuine reasons to be aggrieved after her appalling treatment at the hands of Federation scientists.
But they're not even the season's biggest bad, as Picard saves the biggest rug-pull for its penultimate episode, 'Võx'. The Borg have felt like an increasingly spent force in Star Trek since their ’90s heyday, but Picard season 3 (albeit briefly) restores the Collective to full power, after the revelation they've been the ones pulling the Changelings' strings all along.
After Jack's superhuman psychic and physical abilities have been teased throughout the season, the explanation – that the Borg added something to Picard's DNA when he was assimilated as Locutus – makes ingenious, logical sense. And when the Borg Queen (Alice Krige, reprising the role she originated in First Contact) uses Jack to turn the younger members of Starfleet into a new generation of drones, it not only restores the Borg's status as credible villains, but also turns the ageing Enterprise-D crew's advancing years into a strategic advantage. It's just a shame that defeating this new-look Collective essentially boils down to ‘blowing up a thing‘ – the season's rushed, consequence-free conclusion is arguably its only significant misstep.
If bringing together the Borg and the Changelings feels like a piece of unashamed fan service – Trek's answer to uniting the Daleks and Cybermen in Doctor Who's epic series two finale – that's because, well, it is. But – in contrast to many of the gratuitous Easter eggs in Star Wars TV shows – Picard season 3 justifies the nostalgia overload because every single callback feels earned. Cameos from TNG-era veterans Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes), Tuvok (Tim Russ) and Elizabeth Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy) make total narrative sense, while the trip to the Federation Fleet Museum is a brilliant excuse to reminisce on some of Star Trek's most iconic vessels. Even the resurrection of the USS Enterprise-D – last seen crashing on the surface of Veridian III in Star Trek: Generations – seems justified, more or less.
As any Starfleet captain will tell you, however, all the guest stars and spectacular fireworks in the universe count for little if you don't surround yourself with a great crew. Luckily, with 10 hours of TV to play with, this story provides time for most of them to shine. Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) and Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd), both survivors from previous seasons of Picard, fit in seamlessly with the TNG vets, while new characters – such Geordi's pilot daughter Sidney (Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut) and the Titan's jaded commanding officer, Liam Shaw (Todd Stashwick) – soon become integral parts of Trek lore. Even the supporting crew feel like convincing and rounded individuals, to the point that it really hurts when Vadic executes Vulcan science officer Lt T'Veen (Stephanie Czajkowski) in very cold blood.
But the returning Next Generation crew are undoubtedly the main beneficiaries of the long-form storytelling. Showrunner Terry Matalas must have been tempted to reunite the shipmates in episode one, but the decision to drip-feed their hotly anticipated returns throughout the season pays massive dividends later on. The Next Generation was never a show purely about Picard, and the entire run is a poignant reminder that this is the greatest ensemble in Star Trek history.
The decades since their final voyage together in the unsatisfactory Star Trek: Nemesis haven't necessarily been plain sailing for the characters, but – with the possible exception of the underused Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) – each one has their fair share of meaningful moments. Indeed, when the Enterprise-D command crew are finally united around a ready room table in episode 8, it's a genuinely iconic moment – and if that's not enough to ensure TNG fans notice a little something in their eye, the final poker table scene in Guinan's Ten Forward bar definitely will be.
Just as The Wrath of Khan used space opera to explore themes of ageing, sacrifice and death, Picard season 3 leans into the importance of family, whether your bonds are biological or built around the people we work with. Across 10 memorable episodes, it sums up everything that's great about Star Trek, and who knows – in 40 years time, we may just be mentioning it in the same breath as The Wrath of Khan.
Every episode of Star Trek: Picard season 3 is now available on Paramount Plus in the US. Episode 10 streams on Prime Video in the UK from Friday, April 21.