But what’s more noticeable are the differences. “Picard,” the second streaming “Star Trek” series (after “Discovery”), is a peak-TV experience, and it immediately feels — on the surface, at least — as if it could be the franchise’s best small-screen offering.
“Next Generation” put out mostly 26-episode seasons from 1987 to 1994, back in the day when ambient mediocrity went along with bulk production and modest budgets, and a show could succeed handsomely on the basis of Stewart’s Shakespearean assurance, Spiner’s winsome mugging and the enduring appeal of Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s utopianism. (Also, really tight uniforms.)
The new show, created by a committee that includes the executive producer Alex Kurtzman and the novelist and screenwriter Michael Chabon, is a modern animal, beginning with its short season and, most likely, bigger episode budgets. It’s a single serialized story, partly in the ubiquitous form of the procedural mystery, with a former Romulan agent (Orla Brady) putting all that futuristic technology to use in helping Picard investigate ominous events.
It also nods to our current politics, incorporating a refugee crisis, terrorism and threats from a superpower fallen on hard times. Picard, thundering that Starfleet and the Federation have abandoned their humanitarian responsibilities, could be positioning himself for the Democratic primaries. (On the other hand, “Picard,” with its focus on Romulans and androids, has a distinct lack of non-humanoid faces in its early episodes.)
And along with this comes the style you’d expect: polished and restrained writing without the flat-footed corniness that marked “Next Generation”; credible, if routine, action scenes without the hilarious stiffness of decades of phaser battles. No dry-dock scenes of giant starships set to stirring theme music. (Yet.) Stewart is as charming and naturally charismatic as ever, but the general level of the performances around him is significantly higher, and appealing actors like David Paymer, Jamie McShane, Michelle Hurd and Ann Magnuson pop up in roles large and small.