"Star Trek: Picard - Countdown #1": A vibrant, canon-challenging prequel

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

Writers: Mike Johnson and Kirsten Beyer, Artist: Angel Hernandez, Colorist: Joana Lafuente, Cover Artist: Sara Pitre-Durocher.

2020 is kicking off with arguably the most exciting Star Trek project in decades - Star Trek: Picard, the return of Sir Patrick Stewart in the role that has defined his career in popular culture, reviving the legendary Captain Jean-Luc Picard for an all-new adventure at the very end of the 24th century.

As with any new Star Trek project, IDW Publishing are mining the material for whatever they can get. The broader publishing arm linked to CBS & Viacom, who own Star Trek, have worked hard since Star Trek: Discovery revived the franchise on television to tether the broader media universe of books and comics to the on-screen, canonical storylines of the Trek universe, and "Picard: Countdown" is no exception.

On the basis of this first issue, it will expressly sketch in a key piece of backstory in Picard’s future history fans have been wondering about since the initial Star Trek: Picard trailer. The title of this prequel comic is by degrees a cheeky wink to how this series intends to deal with a potentially difficult point of canon.

Back in 2009, Star Trek was rescued from numerous years drifting in uncertain waters after the cancellation of prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise by TV and movie impresario J.J. Abrams, who revived The Original Series crew from the 1960’s, and morphed Trek into a new blockbuster series resolved on action adventure rather than the science-fiction drama of Picard’s Enterprise-D (and E) in The Next Generation. In reviving the franchise, Abrams and his creative team worked hard to resolve the issue of canon, always a sticking point in such long-running sagas as Star Trek, and thereby developed a narrative expressly concerned with stitching the original Star Trek timeline together with the newly created one.

This resulted in a tie-in comic project called "Countdown", released in the run up to Star Trek ‘09, and which served to tell a key aspect of backstory in a similar manner to "Picard: Countdown" here, both regarding the same galactic problem: the Hobas supernova. In Star Trek ‘09, the catastrophic cosmic event destroys Romulus, leaving their empire shattered, and "Countdown" reveals the events that prevented the shockwave it created threatening the entire Alpha Quadrant: namely the efforts of the legendary Ambassador Spock and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, here commanded by a revived Data, to inject a compound called ‘red matter’ into the supernova in order to destroy it. And a key player in the effort to destroy the supernova? Retired Ambassador Jean-Luc Picard.

Here’s where things get tricky. When "Countdown" was devised, nobody expected Patrick Stewart to reprise the role a decade into the future; no one either imagined Star Trek would be given the renaissance it is now experiencing on TV, one in which tie-in material is more directly connected to the wider on-screen universe. "Countdown" was designed to address questions about exactly what happened in the original late 24th century timeline that lead to the creation of a new mid-23rd century timeline, since explored through the J.J. Abrams produced films. They could do whatever they wanted with Picard because it wasn’t exactly canon. The difference now is that projects such as "Picard: Countdown" are more expressly connected to what we see on screen. This mini-series absolutely is filling in gaps, even in issue one, that Star Trek: Picard will likely reference or suggest.

Which leads to the question... Is the original "Countdown" comic still part of this continuity? "Picard: Countdown" establishes that in 2385, Picard has been promoted to Admiral and is temporarily commanding the U.S.S. Verity on a mission to help the Romulan Star Empire evacuate worlds in danger from the Hobas event. The Enterprise is mysteriously “in good hands” and while he is coordinating with Commander Geordi La Forge, in charge of constructing the rescue fleet, none of the established Next Generation crew are with him. Picard has in tow a new second in command, Commander Raffi Musiker, with whom he has a playful, respectful new dynamic - and she is a major new character in Picard, played by Michelle Hurd, so the comic here establishes the first significant connection between Picard and one of the new cast members. The question is whether or not "Picard: Countdown" will eventually connect to the 2009 "Countdown", which was also written by co-writer Mike Johnson, the majordomo of the Trek comic tie-in world for over a decade.

Right now, Johnson is keeping mum, admitting there is a deeper level of secrecy around this tie-in comic property given the mystery around what we can expect in Star Trek: Picard:

Even more so than in 2009, when we were doing the Countdown prequel to the first J.J. Abrams movie. I think it's because they're really putting an emphasis on the surprise, and it's such a big thing, the return of Jean-Luc Picard and the return of Patrick Stewart to the role. And everyone is speculating about where he's at and what he's doing. They just want to preserve that element of surprise, and that extends to any ancillary materials, like the comics and the novels. We're really lucky that we get to do a prequel comic, and I think the original Countdown is the reason why. That was very successful, and it alleviated some fears that a prequel comic would just spoil things.

What becomes clear in "Picard: Countdown" issue 1 is that the Picard of 2385 is a far cry from the retired Picard of 2399 on his French vineyard. This is a man, even into his 80s, still well in his prime as one of the leading lights of Starfleet.

What causes him to lose faith in the Federation and leave Starfleet? The trailer for Picard suggests a man haunted by past events. Could it be because he didn’t listen to James T. Kirk’s advice in Generations and accepted promotion to Admiral? "Picard: Countdown", which Johnson wrote in conjunction with Picard and Discovery staff writer Kirsten Beyer, suggests his disenchantment may also stem from a classic, Next Generation-style conundrum, one indeed that immediately recalled the stand Picard took for the Ba’ku in Star Trek: Insurrection.

Issue one sees the Verity diverted to a small, presumed uninhabited Romulan colony where they find a peaceful, agrarian society driven ultimately by an extreme, shocking element of indigenous slave labour, and instantly Picard recognises the deep injustice at the heart of a distaff colony that largely represents the broader socio-political Romulan Empire itself. Star Trek always presented the Romulans as a hybridised allegory for the Roman Empire and communist China; insular, secretive, mistrustful, yet advanced and sprawling, driven by a class system of elites and nobles. "Picard: Countdown" presents an ideological threat akin to US scientists helping Soviets behind the Iron Curtain clean up Chernobyl, or UN weapons inspectors inside war-torn Iraq; the powerful, democratic opposite an empire is forced to lean on, if not trust, in the face here of what stands as a major environmental disaster in the making. The Undiscovered Country forced the Klingons into a similar dilemma after their moon Praxis exploded, and its fertile dramatic, political and allegorical ground.

If we are to see Picard’s morality tested, and perhaps ultimately compromised by failing to save innocent lives, "Picard: Countdown" could end up more of a character study than a direct influence on the plot of Picard, even if the beginning introduces us to a pair of Romulan refugees on Earth in 2399 who also may be key to the series. Thankfully, Beyer and Johnson know their onions; Picard sounds like Picard, his dynamic with Raffi is already natural and enjoyable (perhaps enhanced by Raffi already having been written and portrayed on the show as the comic was produced), and the narrative feels like a tried and tested, Next Generation-style storyline. Equally, Angel Hernandez’s artwork is often stunning, drawing out and painting a Star Trek world familiar yet slightly more advanced than we remember from the end of Star Trek: Voyager or Star Trek: Nemesis.

At only three parts, "Picard: Countdown" will be over before it’s begun, but this is a strong—if fairly brief—beginning for a tie-in series that will likely enhance the experience of Star Trek: Picard, even if it leaves open to question certain canonical aspects. Mind you, it wouldn’t be Star Trek if it didn’t, right?

Star Trek: Picard - Countdown #1 is now available from IDW Publishing.

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