This piece contains spoilers for Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard…
How quickly we forget the past. A sentiment deep rooted in the conceptual framework of Star Trek: Picard and, more broadly, how Star Trek fans approach their own franchise.
Picard, the long-awaited sequel to the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation, last seen in the oft-maligned final Next Gen movie Nemesis (about which I’ve just finished a ten part examination), has divided people with the same level of brio that Star Trek: Discovery has since late 2017. For some, it has been an unmitigated delight seeing Sir Patrick Stewart back in the role of Trek’s most noble Captain, Jean-Luc Picard, as he battles a new threat in his emeritus years. For others, it has disappointed after the enormous hype ever since Stewart announced his return at Star Trek Las Vegas back in summer 2018. Nobody expected to see Picard again, given Stewart’s age and that Trek appeared to have moved solely to a point of retro-futuristic 1960’s nostalgia given the J.J. Abrams led reboot films and Original Series-era set Discovery. Picard, therefore, came loaded with huge expectation.
Whether it delivered will depend entirely on your tastes as a fan of Star Trek. Some might say it could depend on age but you will find people who watched The Original Series on first broadcast who love Picard, and new Trek viewers brought in from Discovery who dislike it, so that’s not a reliable aggregator. As with most art, Picard’s charms will lie in simply what kind of story engages you. Are you lapping up Stewart back in his most iconic role? Are you enjoying the serialisation, which is even stronger than in Discovery? Are you charmed by the cast of broken rogues, former Starfleet officers and assorted androids or Romulans that make up the crew of the La Sirena? Are you thrilled by the central story and how it is grounded in the long lamented character of Data, synthetic artificial intelligence, and secret ancient prophecies of machine apocalypse? You will have your reasons and they are all valid. Some, like me, are perched very precisely on the fence over these choices, arcs and storylines. I will delve more into them in my podcast, Make It So, in due course.
The question being asked by many is one that was levelled at Discovery, was levelled at movies such as Star Trek Into Darkness, and indeed as far back as Deep Space Nine: is Picard truly *Star Trek*? If history is cyclical, the fact this question comes up again and again is proof of that, and the answer again depends on what you want, or believe, Star Trek to be.
Star Trek: Picard is founded on the approach to Star Trek that it is designed to reflect the world in which we live, as opposed to the world we expect the 24th century to be.
The Original Series in the 1960’s is celebrated often for its progressive view of a brighter future for humanity of exploration and harmony, but the Enterprise crew constantly ended up in stories and adventures which tapped into the social and political ructions of that decade – civil rights, the Vietnam War, sexual liberation and so on – and often had a push-pull between libertarian views on the one hand and conservative politics on the other. It didn’t always believe the 23rd century had cracked everything, even if it was always primitive alien species who had most of the problems (though they always looked like human beings). The Next Generation doubled down on Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful, and some might say naive, belief that 300+ years hence Earth would be a social and political utopia, free of war, strife, inequality, even money. That was the world Jean-Luc Picard served as a steward of (or a Stewart – sorry!) between 1987 and 2002, a span of time in which the world rapidly and massively changed.
Between the beginning of TNG and the arrival of Nemesis, the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Iraq War took place and finally the 9/11 attack on New York shattered the American psyche, one built on the security of their nation, a believe that they were the dominant, inviolate superpower. The Next Generation was born at a time when Ronald Reagan was negotiating a massive de-scaling of nuclear missile power with the Soviets, when America was amidst a huge economic boom after the depression of the 1970’s, and a colourful future looked bright.
Sure, the AIDS crisis cast a shadow, but Star Trek resolved that allegorically through the Borg, and Picard was able to survive them. America was in a place that Star Trek could reflect an optimistic, utopian future and audiences would believe in that sense of hope that old conflicts could be resolved, that Worf—a Klingon—being on the bridge could be a possibility. In the 60’s, a Klingon on the bridge of the Enterprise would have been shot on sight. TNG may have told stories that reflected what people came to see as the ‘Star Trek ethos’, about tolerance and humanity, but it did so within a calm, safe, controlled box. Roddenberry’s box, if you will, and one positioned at the so-called ‘end of history’.
I would invite you to keep an eye on Trek FM’s podcast Primitive Culture because in an upcoming episode, I’ll be discussing the idea that the ‘end of history’, as propagated by Francis Fukuyama, is represented in the point the Federation have reached by the 2360’s. History has ‘stopped’, in essence, and Picard and his crew sail around the galaxy exploring issues through alien cultures or human outposts with the remote, controlled distance of humans who never fear these worries – be they racism, terrorism, war, genocide etc… – can again happen to them. We’ve figured it out, the entire human experience, and now characters like Picard get to see it through the eyes of a Data, or later Janeway and co through Seven or the Doctor on Voyager.
The human condition becomes something in the 90’s to strive for by aliens, or machines, or holograms, at least on TNG and VOY. That’s why DS9 was the outlier, and why Trek fans at the time struggled to get behind it, and some never did, because while the first two seasons place the Federation in the observation role—looking back at the Holocaust through the Bajoran recovery and Cardassian aggression—eventually DS9 drags the Federation and Starfleet *back into* history with the Dominion War, and the message at the end of the 90’s that everything is cyclical, history repeats, and the world of TNG is an impossible, perfect utopia to maintain.
9/11 validates that thinking, in many ways, and transforms Enterprise from a meek, safe show which attempts to replicate TNG and VOY’s style of a safe, future world of ‘better’ humans (even if the universe is a bit more wild and cowboyish in the 22nd century) into a reactive, haunted exploration of 9/11 and the consequences of such a psychological change. Arguably, the show only finds its footing when it stops pretending we still live at the end of history, and admits we’re very much inside it.
While Abrams’ films, on a blockbuster scale, attempt to largely replicate the nostalgia of the 1960’s, Star Trek Into Darkness builds off the angry, fearful shock experienced by the later seasons of Enterprise, and suggests for the first time that maybe the Federation and Starfleet wouldn’t react, in the future, as perfect, removed humans when faced with a massive existential threat. Admiral Marcus is probably one of the more realistic examples of a future military officer we’ve seen in recent years; a conservative hawk who sees prevention against Klingon aggression as preferable to reaction, willing to get into bed with an extremist terrorist like Khan to protect Earth. That’s the first seedling of an anxious, isolationist Federation, and this is during the relative optimistic security of the Obama Administration.
It is worth remembering, however, that Into Darkness was the first Star Trek project produced following the shock and fallout from the 2008 economic crash, one which arguably triggered the resurgent wave of nationalism across the West which is deep rooted in seismic economic fear. Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Orban, Salvini – these are not leaders elected by millions of xenophobic people, they are capitalists who built their rise to power on the rhetoric of channelling the anxiety of nations who are seeing wages stagnate, austerity deepen inequality, climate change increase and, now, government state mismanagement allow for the terrifying spread of a deadly flu it may be difficult to entirely contain.
Contrast the powerful fluctuations in global politics, fused together with emerging technology of the like TNG writers believed we would only have *by* the 24th century (Picard on his ‘iPadd’ for instance), and you have a world almost unrecognisable from 1987 or even 1994. 30 years may have passed but in some ways, they might as well be 300. The powerful churn of history has made TNG, as enjoyable as much of that series is, a living artefact. A reflection of an age you could not possibly replicate in the same way today for a show like Picard, or a Star Trek series as a whole in any manner.
Do detractors of Picard truly believe that Star Trek can visualise a utopian future realistically on screen in 2020? Stephen Kelly, writing in the Guardian, considers Picard fundamentally flawed because it invalidates the strides made by humanity in the 24th century, citing TNG S1 episode The Neutral Zone, where the Enterprise finds a bunch of ‘primitive’ 20th century people in cryo-stasis, and Picard’s speech to them, as a direct example of what Picard the series has betrayed: “A lot has changed in the past 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy”.
Picard said this to these humans in 1988. A year before the Berlin Wall came down. Three years before the end of the Cold War. At a time of economic growth. Ahead of the 90’s, in which retrospectively Western democracy came the closest to a form of peaceful, co-existent progressive politics it ever managed. Democrats in the White House & Congress. Centrist-socialists in Parliament. No great ideological struggle between superpowers. A reforming Russia. A relatively stable Middle East. Granted, all of this was a powder keg that exploded in the 2000’s and beyond, but TNG existed in a space where we felt freer to believe this status quo might exist for as long as the gap between the end of WW2 and the end of the Cold War. We had no idea the geopolitical map would shift so rapidly. We didn’t anticipate the impact social media and corporate technology would have on our everyday lives.
Is Star Trek supposed to ignore all of this and project forward to an age where Jean-Luc Picard stands as a bastion of peaceful, utopian success for humanity? Should the show have seen Picard as Federation President presiding over a crusading Starfleet bringing peace and exploration and prosperity to the galaxy and beyond? Or even back on the Enterprise, as a 90+ year old man, still going boldly where no one has gone before? The answer, for many, is yes. We should be looking ahead and trying to imagine and reach for this idealistic, Roddenberry-esque future.
It is worth considering, however, that TOS and TNG were created in spaces when optimistic was part of the American and Western philosophy, even in times of social and political strife. The 60’s saw Americans look at missions to the Moon as a totem for their post-war progression toward a society built on growth and expansion. The 80’s, conversely, saw the end of the Cold War and economic growth as examples of positive change, as reflected in the hope of the otherwise conspiratorial and gloomy narrative of The Undiscovered Country. “People can be very frightened of change” Kirk opines in that film but the 90’s, for a time, saw an embrace of that. Picard, and Discovery before it, are examples of a hopeful future being made in a hopeless time.
We are more likely, as a global culture, heading toward a form of the post-atomic horror from Trek’s ‘future history’, or perhaps more accurately a post-climate horror in the 21st century, maybe even as recent events have attested a post-pandemic horror. These could wipe us out with greater loss of life than the “800 million dead” that Riker quotes in First Contact about WW3. We may never reach the Federation future all Star Trek fans spend their lives hoping their descendants will see. So why can we expect Discovery or Picard to reflect that world, when TOS or TNG or VOY or ENT, all in different ways, were reflections of their own time and place? It’s less acute with Discovery than Picard. Fans expect Picard to be an unchanging foundation. A rock of goodness and fortitude in an idealistic future. But where is the drama in such an approach? How is that exciting for a writer or an actor to perform? What would an unchanging Picard, in a utopian society that feels more like fantasy than science, say about who we are now as a culture? Which, as we know, is what Star Trek has always done.
The idea of utopia as fantasy really felt acute to me in the season finale, Et In Arcadia Ego pt 2, when a re-enlisted Admiral William Riker shows up at the head of a glistening Starfleet armada to scare off who had been established as an ancient, powerful, fanatical sect of Romulan society–one behind their entire intelligence network–with apparently enough resources to build hundreds of ships, even within a society which appears to have fallen apart due to natural disaster. Riker might as well have been a space wizard here, and his ships magic wands. Starfleet seem so alien to the lawless, degraded and scratchy world of 2399, and the world Picard has reflected, that as cool as it was to see Riker (in an alternate vein to the future version we saw in TNG finale All Good Things in 1994), he is one gigantic deus ex machina (and how ironic *that* phrase is in relation to Picard).
Starfleet come in, bark enough at the supposedly terrifying fundamentalist bad guys to send them packing with their tails between their legs, and disappear into the night. They almost feel now, certainly in this future, equivalent to the Time Lords of Doctor Who – arch, self-righteous, imperious and not a little bit ridiculous in the context of what the franchise is about, perhaps because we as a human culture have drifted so far away from them being a logical future reality. Star Trek was always rooted in scientific possibility and cultural likelihood, however fantastical the stories became. They were about people. In that, Picard is no different.
The exception is that they, quite deliberately, sound more like you and I. One of the reasons TNG particularly was renowned as a hard show to write and had such a large staff turnover is that the dialogue, even technobabble aside, was stylised to fit a fairly anaemic of character future humanity. People talked like advanced future humans and less like human beings on TNG and on VOY in many ways. DS9, again, often bucked this trend and blurred the edges where it could, leaning as much as possible into 20th century worlds and stylistics – Far Beyond the Stars, Vic’s bar, baseball etc… and ENT arguably, in working to make Archer & co sound a bit more rough and ready with more contemporary reference points, was aiming to do the same thing.
This has simply evolved to the point that on Discovery, and especially Picard, people curse. They smoke weed. They have casual sex. They act like *us* and to many, that’s a regression that betrays the vision of the future. Roddenberry no doubt would have disliked much of Picard intensely, even though it is true to a world-view of a less streamlined, less detached and princely future where people act like people. Raffi isn’t a bad person because she is a drug addict, indeed she is full of compassion & love for her friends. Rios has a fractured, Starfleet nobility and while grumpy, you could absolutely trust him if the chips were down. Put these guys back in Starfleet uniforms, pull the swear words out, and you absolutely could have featured them in DS9 at least without missing much of a step.
Picard himself though has probably been the biggest bone of contention in this regard. He has, admittedly, morphed into an amalgam of Jean-Luc and Sir Pat in the last twenty years. The performance is not the same, and at times it may not be deliberate. Stewart is older, his style of performance has slowed and changed, perhaps more acutely than Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis and especially Jeri Ryan, who has barely aged a day since 2001. Picard the character, however, is absolutely still there. What the show has done through him, however, is display just how outdated the TNG model of utopian distance has become. Picard at various points has a principled entitlement which is shouted down by Starfleet’s Admiral Clancy, and is laughed at by Dr. Soong & his colony of human synthetics.
To ignore this is to fundamentally ignore a key aspect of Picard, and that is to show that Star Trek’s future vision isn’t, and shouldn’t be, inviolate. The show has always been about exploring the human condition and what is more human than the struggle? Picard is struggling – with a deadly brain disorder, with his mental health and sense of futility, with his survivors guilt and losing Data, with his frustration at Starfleet’s fearful, unprincipled reaction to their own 9/11 in the attack on Mars. It is far more engaging (pun intended), and powerful, to see him overcome those human difficulties than remain a fixed point. Picard has to adapt to a world that has moved beyond him and that is rewarding to observe.
Picard as a series doesn’t fall down in these precepts. It doesn’t necessarily make it as joyful to watch as earlier, more overtly optimistic Star Trek, but it doesn’t invalidate the idea. Picard is no longer the example of a future human observing and voyaging through the world, he is the example of the future human for us to *aspire to*. If perhaps the world of Trek has shrunk somewhat in the focus of these new shows on particular character journeys, Picard’s shows that the characters have *become* that world, perhaps more so than ever before.
That’s perhaps why in the next season of Discovery, it appears Burnham and the crew of that ship, from a distant part of human history where Starfleet’s principles dominated, will be working to bring the Federation worldview back through who they are as people in a distant future that has become scattered, lawless and perhaps even brutal. Star Trek’s hopeful message has become as repressed and beaten down as progressive strides in our modern world against climate abuse, against nationalist propaganda, against rampant inequality, against corporate hegemony. Instead of pretending its message shines brightly in an age of rapidly encroaching dystopia, Star Trek rather suggests through Picard particularly that it is a future we will have to fight for, rather than simply expect we are entitled to.
If that’s not a Star Trek message that makes Picard worthy, for all of its flaws and all of its ostensibly harder edged, anti-Trek sentiments, I’m not sure what is.