Monday 10 February 2020

Review - Picard: Countdown comic miniseries

Coming to a conclusion by the time the second episode of Picard was released, the Picard Countdown comic series sheds a little light on events prior to the series, most notably Picard's relationships with Raffi Musiker, and his Romulan pals Laris and Zhaban. Continue below for my thoughts on the series.

The three-part series (each issue slightly longer, at 24-story-pages, rather than the normal Star Trek 20-page book) was brought to us by writers Kirsten Beyer and Mike Johnson; a team that have previously worked on all of IDW's Discovery comics. Johnson has been busy tying into the leading edge of Star Trek productions since IDW's first Countdown series for the first Kelvin timeline movie (subsequently writing most of the numerous Kelvin timeline comics that followed), while Beyer is no less than the co-creator of Picard, a writer on Discovery, and has a highly regarded run of Voyager novels to her name too. They are joined by artist Angel Hernandez, who has worked with them on several of the previous Discovery and Kelvin timeline comics too. So we enter this story in safe hands, very familiar with IDW's Star Trek house style, which baring a few more experimental tales is normally very screen accurate in visual style, and adapt at teasing out a prequel story to a new production.

This particular story jumps right to the point: We are joining Picard, and Raffi, as they work to bring to reality the Romulan evacuation in preparation for the Hobus supernova (not so named in the series), and before the attack on Mars that halted that mission. We are fairly quickly introduced to Laris and Zhaban, and then there are a few hiccups, due to a lot of sneaky twisty Romulan antics. What the story does best is set up Picard and Raffi's relationship, and give a rewarding backstory for Laris and Zhaban. Where I'd have liked more, is giving us a wider view of the Romulan evacuation effort; as this story is contained to one planet, and has a surprisingly upbeat ending; I suppose that works well for everything to then unravel after, as we've seen in the series so far. It's hard to talk about that without some spoilers though, so proceed with caution from here on.

The story opens with Zhaban and Larris newly settled on Earth, and so sets the scene for this being their origin story as much as anything. They're background as a Tal Shiar agents is expanded upon in a surprisingly low key way; they have been resident on a Romulan colony world for many years, working in vineyards and monitoring the peace between the Romulan colonists and the native Yuyati people, who seem to be slave labour on the vineyards. It's not quite the high espionage background I would expect from the characters as they appear in the series; but maybe they had more eventful earlier careers. What's really interesting here though is a flirting discussion on colonialism; the language of colonialists is briefly touched upon in the second issue, before Picard himself shuts down a debate on the issue, but comes back forcefully in the third issue when Zhaban's choice to support Picard, and trust the Federation, is based on his acknowledgement of the Romulan subject races being as much Romulan citizens as any Romulan - This point isn't laboured in the book, but says a lot about Zhaban's character, particularly in contrast to the Romulan governor, and villain of the piece, who is very much a Romulan exceptionalist. This touches upon issues of nationalism and nativism that are prevalent in our current real-world political discourse around the globe, in a fairly subtle but poignant way, very much following the lead of similar analogy in the TV series. As a consequence we see Zhaban and Larris aren't just refugees that have come to admire Picard for saving the Romulan people, but very much on the same ethical footing as him.

In order to paint that picture of the good-Romulans, there is some slightly over the top if-she-had-a-moustache-she'd-twirl-it Romulan antics from Governor Shiana, who over the course of the story manages to imprison Picard, and capture his ship, the USS Verity. Picard's captivity gives us a moment of self reflection at the end of the first issue which has some real impact, as Picard considers his hubris as being so sure of his mission and abilities to carry it out - Strongly foreshadowing the state of his older self in the TV series. The Verity capture and return happens ever so briefly, although the defeat of Shiana is handled quite entertainingly, and gives Picard good reason to have faith in himself and his crew again. 

The existence of the Verity here (an Odyssey class ship, complete with amusingly gigantic bridge, otherwise seen a couple of decades later in Star Trek Online as the Enterprise-F) is an interesting tease in itself, as there is mention early in first issue of an unspecified new captain of the Enterprise; but what that ship is up to we don't know. Pulling Picard away from his familiar crew means the spotlight is shone firmly on Raffi. It's not clear how long Picard and Musiker have been working together - There is mention the Romulan evacuation has been ramping up for four years already by the time of this story, in 2385 - But it's clear they've developed a firm bond, that has given both of them great respect and familiarity with each other. Seeing them at work together here, and the obvious strength of their friendship, makes the reveal on-screen that Picard just cast Raffi aside when he left Starfleet all the more powerful. 

The story is framed with scenes of Geordi in charge of the fleet building work at Utopia Planitia. I was rather surprised the final shot didn't bring us the Synth attack on Mars and the loss of La Forge. I found the ending we did get surprisingly upbeat, knowing what's to come, but can appreciate the choice to go that way: Picard faced adversity from a historical opponent that he was determinedly trying to help, and found allies within that let him do so - He overcame the problems of working with an enemy, only for the Federation to then be the ones to undo that work by cancelling the mission. The outcome of that is seen in the TV series, so I guess it didn't need to be here; this just sets the scene.

Throughout the book Hernandez provides his usually highly detailed artwork, making the USS Verity particularly pretty, and having a very good eye for Picard and Raffi. I found Zhaban and Larris a little less distinctly recognisable, although it didn't help that they blend in a bit with all the other same-hair-styled Romulans! The new 2380s Starfleet uniforms look fabulous throughout, brought to life vividly by colourist Joana Lafuente, and I think really suit being in comic book form - I'd welcome more stories in this era just to see more of their poppy colours and pointy lines. 

The series is a great set up for Raffi, Zhaban, and Larris, and I certainly felt enhanced viewing the first few episodes knowing some of their backstory, and the nature of their relationships with Picard. I would have enjoyed learning more about the Romulan evacuation (and seeing how this version of events contrasts with the original Kelvin Countdown series, where the supernova was not nearly as long-foreseen); we learn at least that it's been going on for some time, and several planets have already been cleared - I wonder how much more we might learn on-screen, or in the forthcoming Picard tie-in novel; maybe some of my curiosity will be sated. Like I'm sure everyone else, I'd also love to know what has become of the rest of the TNG characters, but that's not at all what this series was for, and having even got a couple of moments with Geordi was a welcome surprise. 

For character building alone, this series is worth picking up. The individual issues are all available now, and while I think you'll lose some of the impact of the backstory to wait, if you'd prefer to, the omnibus is due out in June.

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