The social isolation due to the spread of COVID-19 has afforded me one advantage. It has given me a chance to catch up on books and television. One of the things I’ve gotten around to is Star Trek: Picard. In the past few days, I have managed to finish the series.
… Sort of.
I started it over a bowl of lamb stew with Ross. The first two episodes held promise. I had some initial reservations, but I thought it did a good job of setting up the chess pieces.
Earlier this week, I caught up on episodes three through five. I then skipped ahead to episode seven because I knew Riker and Troi would return. Then, I skipped to the final episode and skimmed it. So I think it is accurate to say that I have watched and digested about six-and-a-half episodes of Star Trek: Picard.
RED ALERT!!! SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
Like many fans, I was left unimpressed. Part of the reason was the poorly paced, overly-convoluted narrative. I don’t think I’m an unintelligent viewer, but I can’t really give you the gist of the plot of Star Trek: Picard. It had to do with ex Borg, Romulans, a rag-tag crew patched together by a frail, embittered old man played by Patrick Stewart, and a quest to rescue the descendants of Star Trek TNG’s most beloved character, Data, in the wake of the banning of all synthetic life forms by Starfleet.
Beyond those basic, overly simplified plot points, I can’t really give you a lot more. I can tell you that, in addition to a couple of cameos from a dream/simulation vision of Data, the return of Seven of Nine from Voyager and the return of Hugh, the renegade Borg from TNG, there are no appearances from any other major characters from past Trek other than Riker and Troi.
None of this would have mattered. If Picard had been a well told, compelling series, I might have stuck with it, despite the overt foibles of the supporting characters and the use of profanity that often seemed more gratuitous than edgie.
I have two major problems with Star Trek: Picard. Both are fatal flaws baked into the structural premise of the series. One is the wanton destruction of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. The other is the unfortunate assassination of the character of Jean-Luc Picard.
First, about Roddenberry. If we’ve learned anything from history, it is that a person can excel at world-building without necessarily being a good writer. Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas are the two best examples. There is a reason why Roddenberry’s first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” was a flop. Roddenberry was the sole author and the story contains all of his trademarks. The concepts are interesting, but the execution is stiff and preachy; much like the first season of TNG. By comparison, the second original Trek pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” was written by Samuel A. Peeples. Nearly all of the original series was written by authors other than Trek’s chief architect; D. C. Fontana, Richard Matheson, Gene L. Coon, etc. They were edited and often revised by Roddenberry, but the core of each story was not conceived in his imagination.
Yet, Roddenberry’s hopeful, optimistic vision of the future of humanity reverberated throughout every scene of Star Trek. His conception of the United Federation of Planets, Starfleet Command, the U.S.S. Enterprise and the dozens of alien races humans encountered within the framework of the original series echoed throughout the next two generations.
One of the criticisms of Star Trek: Picard was that the writers were not fans of Star Trek and had no true appreciation for the canon of the Trek universe. I would agree, but that didn’t mean that Picard couldn’t be a good series. As evidence, I offer you the best movie in the Trek franchise, The Wrath of Khan.
Khan was written by Nicholas Meyer, who made it clear that he was not a fan of Star Trek. Yet, he authored Khan, which turned out to be a massive hit. Meyer also wrote The Undiscovered Country, which was also a resounding commercial and critical success. All of the early movies in the franchise were marinated in Roddenberry’s ideology, regardless of the level of his creative involvement.
IN fact, given the legacy of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, one might argue that the success of the subsequent three sequels was achieved in spite of Roddenberry. If William Shatner’s biographies of Star Trek are to be believed, Roddenberry screamed his objections to the rafters, but to no avail. The producers of the films and executives at Paramount brushed them (and him) aside.
After Roddenberry’s death in 1991, the second franchise spin-off, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was commissioned. As the series progressed, the writers became more comfortable in the occasional thumbing of their noses at Roddenberry’s conceptions. Commander Sisko refers to Earth as a paradise and, in more than one Picard-style speech, he chides the Federation for sticking to its black-and-white moral code within the safe boundaries of its territory while grey areas abound in the far corners of the galaxy. Yet, despite a few shots across the bow of the Good Ship Roddenberry, his vision of an evolved human condition remains intact throughout DS9, as well as Star Trek: Voyager, which takes place far from the home of the Federation.
Showrunners and writers could ignore Roddenberry or take mild umbrage with his ideals without inflicting damage upon his legacy. But Michael Chabon and Akiva Goldsman, the producers and writers for Picard, took their game to an entirely new level. They willfully set a torch to Roddenberry’s mythology, turning it from a bright star of hope to a black hole of despair. In this Trek universe, set 20 years after the final film featuring the TNG crew, Starfleet has become a paranoid, hostile organization that has banned the existence of all synthetic life forms in the wake of a massive android attack on Mars, as well as the destruction of the planet Romulus. In Roddenberry’s utopia-tinged future, humans have finally evolved after thousands of years of adversity. In Chabon’s world, it takes 20 years for them to devolve. Only one man stayed sane during this period.
That leads us to my second major objection, the assassination of the character of Jean-Luc Picard.
In the seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, we learn a good deal about Captain Picard. He likes earl grey tea, hot. He is uncomfortable around children. He was in love with Beverly Crusher, even though she was married to his best friend. Her son, Wesley, thinks of Picard as a surrogate father figure; a reality that Picard is never entirely comfortable with. He lost command of his first vessel, the Stargazer, during a battle with a Ferengi ship. Beverly’s husband Jack Crusher was killed in that engagement. Picard’s only remaining family are a brother, a sister-in-law and a nephew on Earth. They live in France and tend the vineyards that Picard couldn’t wait to get away from when he was a child. Long before he was a captain, he was given an artificial heart after he lost a bar fight with a couple of Nausicaans. He loves to read, listen to classical music, study archeology and he doesn’t get laid as much as his first officer.
Oh, and one other thing we learn about Picard. He’s not a quitter. He has an indomitable spirit that helped him to forge his path as captain of the Enterprise D. This is the man who faced down Q, the Romulans, the Klingons and countless other hostile and misguided species with a combination of strength and reason. He survived assimilation by humanity’s most lethal enemy, The Borg. He survived intense torture by the Cardassians and never broke. He served as the arbiter of succession for the Klingon Empire, met Mark Twain, learned how to talk in metaphor, fought for the rights of androids as sentient beings, learned how to play the flute after being zapped by an alien probe, and so on.
Yet, we are expected to believe that, after the Federation faces its most daunting challenge, Picard would resign from Starfleet in protest, take his marbles and go home? Poppycock! The Picard that we all came to love back in the ‘90’s would have stayed the course, using both public channels and private means until he either turned the tide or died. I don’t buy the notion that his enmity would grow to such a degree that he would retreat to his family vineyard to fade in obscurity. He certainly never would have turned his back on Raffi and left her in the lurch.
In other words, the Admiral Picard that we all came to know would have done exactly what Admiral Kirk did; move heaven and earth to save his friend and preserve the Federation that he spent years defending. Kirk and Picard were very different in temperament and style, but at their core, they were the same. Kudos to Nick Meyer, who had the sense to tweak Roddenberry’s world without altering the fundamental makeup of its core characters.
Star Trek is an escapist fantasy. I knew it when I was 16 and I know it now. I don’t believe that Roddenberry’s vision will ever come to fruition. The crooked timber of humanity will always be too nebulous to evolve to such perfection. Yet, Star Trek was a beautiful realm of fiction to visit, populated with a rich, vast cast of characters who endeared themselves to my heart for decades. Jean-Luc Picard was one of the chief jewels who made that world glimmer with possibilities. Yes, he was a fantastical figure steeped in idealism and pseudo perfection, but that’s how the protagonists of most fantasies stand. To see him degraded from a strong, noble hero to an angry, feckless old man is dispiriting to behold. Commander Riker was the only character who seemed to retain his old spark within the new paradigm. I would be delighted to watch another series centered around his adventures.
There are other nitpicks that range from accurate to spurious. Is the series overly violent? We are living in a time when shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead seem to wallow in bloodshed. Yet, The Wrath of Khan was pretty violent. Think about those ear worms and try not to shudder. And how about the flying blood in The Undiscovered Country? The latter half of DS9 concerned a great galactic war. Yet, in the face of darkness, humanity didn’t lose its light.
The new series did seem to rely more heavily on action. The value of life did seem to be cheapened in this new postmodern Star Trek reincarnation. The extraneous deaths of Hugh and Bruce Maddox exemplify this point. In Trek of old, violence was always contextualized and usually bore emotional consequences.
The best of TNG always had a philosophical core to it. Top-notch stories (usually from seasons three through six), always contained some thought provoking message about the state of humanity. Many of those stories weren’t action centric. Even DS9, a show that contained more action than its predecessor, took a lot of time to breathe in between battles. In Picard, any philosophical messages are lost in the muddled plot. Sure, you have ideas about fear and xenophobia woven into the narrative here and there, but they are never explored in a thoroughly Trek fashion.
Did Picard serve as a doormat or punching bag for other characters, particularly females? Often, yes. The thoughtful, self-assured inner tranquility that informed the former space explorer of TNG was replaced by equal portions of anger, despair, doubt and guilt. This made it difficult for him to act as an authority figure to a crew who were plagued by their own demons. During his reunion with Riker, Picard says, “They seem to be carrying more baggage than all of you ever did.” In this post Roddenberry future, brokenness and failure are not a starting point for positive change, but a comfortable station for edgie character development.
Even Deanna Troi gets her licks in, scolding Picard for not understanding the depths of Soji’s trauma. It’s as if Chabon and Goldsman are attempting to rectify a female character who was, admittedly, poorly served on TNG.
I didn’t care about any of the new characters; not even Data’s daughter. Each time I watched, I wondered how Worf, Geordi, O’Brian and Ensign Ro might react if they were with Picard. The most glaring absence was Dr. Crusher. She was closest to the captain during the run of TNG and, although his visit to the Rikers was the high-light of the series for me, I found the omission of any mention of Beverly to be flawed.
As for Data, his brief story arc was too abstract for my taste. It seems that they brought his character back…just to kill him again? Hmmm. His final conversation with Picard is emotionally poignant and heralds a brief return to the spirit of classic Trek, but the resolution of the scene is strange and random. Picard ultimately dies as well, succumbing to an incurable brain ailment, but is resurrected in the body of an android. Double hmmm. Neither death was a fitting end for such a grand character.
Sidebar: Some fans speculate that Picard was, “Gay for Data,” because they speak of their love for each other in their final conversation. Nonsense! Picard might very well have spoken the same way to Riker, Worf or any of the rest of his comrades from years ago. I interpreted his sentiment as a deep, platonic love that a friend might have for another. Picard was never emotionally expressive with others and this was his way of voicing his regret for that particular character trait while bringing closure to his grief for Data.
Seven of Nine, on the other hand, appears to be in a relationship with Raffi.
How will the legacy of Star Trek: Picard endure? I have no idea. We’re going to get a season two of the further adventures of cyber Picard and his not-so-marry band of followers. I can’t imagine that any of these newer Trek incarnations will endure in the hearts of the young as Trek did back in its peak years. The show’s bleak tone and cynical sensibilities do not distinguish it from most other science fiction and it fits right in with our modern culture of political turbulence.
I have often been tempted to say that Star Trek has finally outlived its time. But why? Look at the tumultuous events of the mid-1960’s that ushered in the age of the original Star Trek series. Look at the wayward culture of the 1970’s when that previously canceled series mushroomed in popularity through syndication. I can’t believe that there is no place for such wide-eyed optimism today, but I do not believe that Star Trek: Picard is the appropriate vehicle for it.
When season two of this show drops, I won’t waste my time. Instead, I’ll be kicking back with all of the reruns from the first three series from the Star Trek universe. As I watch, I’ll be paying quiet homage to Gene Roddenberry. IN many ways, those who came after him cast him aside, viewing his ideals as obsolete. Yet, now more than ever, perhaps we need him more than we realize.