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Star Trek Picard season 3 is inspired by The Motion Picture, not TWOK

Though there are clear parreles between Star Trek Picard season 3 and The Wrath of Khan, its real source of inspiration comes from The Motion Picture.

Leonard Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek The Motion Picture

The blind nebula fights, the secret son, the impending revenge: the fingerprints of The Wrath of Khan are all over Star Trek Picard season 3. That shouldn’t come as any big surprise.

Showrunner Terry Matalas has spoken openly about thinking of Star Trek Picard season 3 as a final TNG Star Trek movie rather than a typical season of Star Trek. It brings the TNG cast back together on an epic space adventure, filled with action, heart, and drama, to face down some great threat on – what is broadly – a victory lap.

So if you want to make a de facto Star Trek movie, what better place to look for inspiration than The Wrath of Khan? Not only is it the best movie in the series, it’s one of the best movies of all time, period. But peel back the layers, and you’ll find Star Trek Picard season 3 takes more inspiration from The Motion Picture than it does from its celebrated sequel.

Star Trek The Motion Picture has always been the ugly duckling of the TOS-era Star Trek movies. From when it was released up until today, the movie is viewed as a strange, slow, pseudo-2001 prototype for future Star Trek movies. In so many ways, it stands out among the science fiction movie series as being discernibly different from its peers.

There’s not much use trying to get into the plot of the movie, really, because it’s remarkably simple. The crew of the Enterprise reunite to stop a mysterious oncoming threat to the Federation. What’s new?

William Shatner as Kirk in Star Trek The Motion Picture

So it’s neither the thin plot nor the strange, sometimes tedious setpieces to which Star Trek Picard season 3 looks at The Motion Picture for inspiration. Instead, it’s the unsteady atmosphere and – most of all – warped character dynamics.

From the word go, something about The Motion Picture feels different. It’s not the triumphant return of the Enterprise crew that audiences may have been expecting. Kirk is no longer the captain of the Enterprise, Bones doesn’t want to be part of the mission and hates the new design of the ship, and Spock (having just failed the Kolinahr ritual) is more aggressively Vulcan and cold than ever before.

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This all helps to generate a sizzling sense of friction that underlines The Motion Picture as it works its way towards its conclusion. When that conclusion eventually comes, in time, is when the three characters settle back into their old routine. But they had to fight to get there. Plodding and ponderous, The Motion Picture is glorious precisely because it builds to triumph rather than beginning with it.

Star Trek Picard season 3, too, has not started with the TNG crew being one big happy family. In The Motion Picture, as in Picard season 3, the single greatest source of tension is between the admiral and his ex-first officer now that time has passed and the chains of command have shifted.

Patrick Stewart as Picard in Star Trek Picard season 3

These characters, who we’ve watched getting along perfectly well in a professional environment for decades, now find themselves firmly at odds with each other upon their reunion. When the strain of the situation really kicks in, Riker kicks Picard off the bridge of the USS Titan for his stubborn belligerence, insisting that Picard’s choices may have just doomed the ship.

This is the best moment of the series so far because it relishes the chance to explore how these old characters react in new situations when really put to the test. It’s not just a retread, and it mirrors the friction in The Motion Picture.

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The angst between Picard and Riker, in Star Trek Picard season 3 episode 3 especially, is more heated and dramatic (though consequently less subtle) than anything The Motion Picture ever mustered between Kirk and Spock, but that central sense of frustration – and the ambiguity of how this old relationship will cope in a new setting – is the same. It’s all surmised in a single quote from Jack Crusher: “Is anybody you know still the person you knew?”

There are further parallels too. The choice to position Picard, Riker, and Beverly Crusher as the primary trio is akin to The Motion Picture, where (as in TOS) the leading three were the admiral, his ex-first officer, and his former doctor. Riker’s unease with Captain Shaw – a new captain aboard his old ship – is also begging for comparison to Kirk’s discomfort with the new captain of the Enterprise, Will Decker.

William Shatner as Kirk in Star Trek The Motion Picture

These dynamics, taken from The Motion Picture, influence Star Trek Picard season 3 on a more fundamental level than the Wrath of Khan-esque space battles. They add to a sense of frailty, uncertainty, and tension that is often rare in Star Trek, where we’re so used to seeing the same sets of characters interacting in the same ways.

After the embarrassing fever dream that was Star Trek Picard season 2, this final season is often referring back to the franchise’s greatest hits to define itself: The Best of Both Worlds, the Dominion War, and The Wrath of Khan. But, on a much deeper level, it’s really a spiritual successor to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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This is brave, and it’s to Star Trek Picard season 3’s benefit. This season of the Star Trek series has very few – if any – truly original ideas. Everything we’ve seen so far is overly-eager to pay tribute to the past. In that context, taking inspiration from The Motion Picture – a movie that is not looked back on with the fondness that it deserves – is a bold strength.

So perhaps the best outcome for Star Trek Picard season 3 is that it begins the rehabilitation of The Motion Picture. Especially in all of the visual glory of its recent 4K remaster, it stands among the best Star Trek movies because of its jarring internal friction: not despite it. To its credit, Star Trek Picard season 3 has recognised that.

For more, read our Star Trek Picard season 3 review. Or, check out our picks for the best Star Trek characters and Star Trek starships, as well as our ranking of the Star Trek captains. Alternatively, dig deeper into the lore with our guides to the Changelings, Rachel Garrett, Vadic, and the Shrike.