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According to a 1988 article in the Los Angeles Times, the average cost of a single episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” ran about $1.3 million. That would account for the show’s many special optical effects, makeup (for aliens), original costumes, and the usual costs devoted to the cast, the crew, the lighting, and the overall filming. This seems like a lot, but, as with all things “Star Trek,” the series was often seen pushing back against its budget. Even as the franchise became more successful and the budgets began to rise, there were always obvious cost-cutting measures that a viewer could see with their naked eyes.
Most notably, Trekkies may recall the bland, flat alien worlds whose only feature was a vast monochrome sky. Occasionally, multiple potted Ficus trees would be used to represent a lush alien forest. The boring world design was a money-saving technique borrowed from the original “Star Trek” series, a show that featured no small amount of corny-looking Styrofoam rocks and exteriors that were clearly interiors.
The budget was also helped by the fact that the show’s central action took place on an enclosed starship. There were only so many places the characters could convene, with the most important conversations taking place in a conference room, main engineering, the Enterprise bridge, a turbolift, a hallway, or in Ten Forward, the ship’s common area/bar. Maybe audiences would see into a character’s quarters. It was only the holodeck that could provide an organic break in the visual monotony of a starship interior.
In spending so much time in these limited locations, however, “Star Trek” was actually enriched. Trekkies got to know the inner workings of the Enterprise intimately, allowing them to vividly visualize how everything functioned.
“Picard” seems to be following a similar ploy.
The budget for “Star Trek: Picard” is said to run in the $8 to $9 million range. That’s still massive for a television show, providing Trek with all the slick, professional CGI effects it might need to visualize starships and spatial phenomena. And while larger budgets are going to make production easier for the “Picard” showrunners, it’s the limitations that force creativity into the equation. Indeed, if the showrunners can shoot a few scenes inside Guinan’s Earthbound bar — frustratingly also called Ten Forward — then why not have a sojourn there? It seems that every episode of the third season of “Picard” has had a scene in Ten Forward, either to establish action, as the setting of a flashback, or on a holographic recreation.
Is it cheap? Yes. Does it work? Yes.
Even though “Picard” is set in the early 25th century, Ten Forward looks very much like any bar one might find on Earth today. Same neon signage, same lowlights, same collection of high-end spirits against the wall behind the bartender. There are even haphazard physical photos stuck to the walls, something that might seem moribund in 2410. Like sharks, bars seem to have reached their evolutionary peak many years ago.
Ten Forward is where Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Picard (Patrick Stewart) meet to toast benchmarks in life, to reconnoiter when the season’s plot kicks in, and to relax when they’re on board the U.S.S. Titan’s holodeck. It’s where Picard will regale cadets with his adventures in the past, and where he will bond with his son Jack (Ed Speleers) when all seems lost. The reliance on Ten Forward may have been due to budget concerns, but, lo, it also gives the show a home base.
Indeed, that “home base mentality” is something that had been sorely missing from previous seasons of recent “Star Trek” shows. Many Trekkies might tell you that the central appeal of Trek is that one can easily visualize themselves living on the Enterprise, on the Voyager, and on Deep Space Nine. In using limited sets — however large and elaborate — viewers quickly get a good sense of the shows’ geography. We see where turbolifts open and where they exit. We understand where we would need to go in order to find food, our quarters, and our workstation. We can jump right to specific stations on the bridge, or how to operate a replicator. “Star Trek” is incredibly tactile.
An “open world” Trek show — like the first two seasons of “Picard” — rob the franchise of that ineffable-but-vital sense of place. The new season of “Picard,” in being set largely on a starship, retains its limitations and, as a result, its clarity. The U.S.S. Titan-A has a bridge, a sick bay, a conference room, a captain’s mess, and crew quarters. There is no reason for the action to take place in too many other places (at least in the “A” plot).
In a previous article, I whinged about how “Star Trek: Discovery,” while set on a starship, didn’t spend enough time there. The Discovery could teleport across the galaxy, robbing the series of, well, trekking. That meant less travel time, less time on board, and a reduced sense of what everyday life was like on board. There was no sense of “homebase” for “Discovery.” It was always just a rush to the next thing.
This season of “Picard,” in staying in fewer rooms — and spending more time in them — is restoring vital cogency to the franchise. It’s a massive blessing.
Read this next: 14 Underrated Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes
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