Waking up in the middle of some hard Trekking — my review of Star Trek: Picard
(Number One, go to Yellow Alert — there are spoilers throughout this review)
Well, it only took 20 years since the conclusion of Deep Space Nine, but finally, FINALLY, we’ve got a worthy successor to the Star Trek line.
Ok, maybe you could count Voyager (which ran until 2001), which was decent Trek, although I found the many plotholes, technobabble that pushed even Trek’s suspension of disbelief and general lack of character evolution frustrating.
But what did we get since then? First Contact aside, the NextGen movies ranged from uninspiring (Generations, Insurrection) to terrible (Nemesis). The series Enterprise, with the exception of most of its final season, was a combination snooze-fest and jingoistic forced 9/11 parallel. The JJ Abrams films were enjoyable but more Hollywood-does-Trek than actual Trek. And Discovery? The less said the better…from the flagrant disregard of continuity (super advanced tech, lobster-headed Klingons, tons of 21st century slang) to the ridiculous premises (a system of mushrooms allows instantaneous travel anywhere in the universe? Really?)
But Star Trek: Picard….this show finally got it right. And by “right” I mean, true to Trek while also true to the zeitgeist and expectations of the times in the real world. That harmony was always the secret to Trek’s success, all the way back to the original series taking on the Cold War, fear of nuclear annihilation, racism, etc. People forgave the cheesy makeup and ridiculous Shatner overacting because this show was saying something important about the times in which people lived.
The Next Generation, the Trek I was raised with, was a love song to the neoliberal dream of an empire of benevolent philosopher kings spreading peace and security through the galaxy. The crew of this Enterprise were not meant to be reflections of us, but rather the promise of our best selves that would emerge in the future. Their clear moral fiber somehow negated the dark underside of empire.
To their credit, later series did try to take on that dark side. DS9 flirted with it during the Dominion War arc. Enterprise addressed it with an attitude of, “Earth, f*ck yeah! 9/11 justifies everything!” Discovery, for all its faults, did make clear that the Klingons’ motivation for war was their not-entirely-unjustified fear of cultural imperialism that lay beneath the Federations’ guise of peace, and forced its sympathetic protagonists to be unable to look away from Starfleet’s many moral compromises during the war. The season two antagonists (the AI called “Control”) may have been a Borg rip-off, but they were a Borg rip-off with an important change: this was a genie the Federation had created as a “tool of surveillance and oppression for peaceful purposes only,” only to find themselves predictably consumed by it. It was the very desire to “control” that, however nobly intended, all-but destroyed its creators.
And even though the movie Star Trek: Beyond was poorly written and pretty racist in many ways (see my review) , it DID hit on the fact that Starfleet preferred to sweep its nastier side under the rug, only to find that side coming out to bite it. In the only good line in the whole movie, the villain says, “Here’s where the final frontier pushes back.”
But now we have Picard, both the series and the character. Patrick Stewart’s amazing acting has only improved — you can really believe this principled, compassionate yet flawed man, forced to face that dark underside of the world he spent a career promoting, and refusing to be a part of it any longer. “Starfleet was no longer Starfleet,” he says. Yet if Enterprise and Discovery are to be really accepted as canon, then Starfleet never really WAS Starfleet. Probably the most powerful moment in Discovery’s run was when Captain Pike, displaced refugee from Trek’s very first episode, complains to an admiral that the Enterprise was sent far away from the Klingon War and couldn’t take part. She replies, sadly but unapologetically, that this was intentional…that Starfleet took its brightest and most idealistic and moral members and put them on a five-year mission far away from home, because if the Federation was destroyed, “our best would still survive out there.” But you could be forgiven for thinking — and it seems Pike even suspects — that an additional reason was that “the best” would be too far away to see the dark side back home, and the dark side in turn wouldn’t have to worry about its more conscienced members chastising it. Pike, however, doesn’t really do anything to act on this…it’s almost a throwaway line.
In Star Trek: Picard, it’s the whole premise of the series.
This man, Jean Luc Picard — the idealistic, cultured, liberal gentleman hero — came home to a Starfleet that had either grown more nativist and ruthless, or which had always been nativist and ruthless but only now is he close enough to the core of it to notice. And it hurts him — it traumatizes him, even — to see his ideals so stepped on by the nation that he thought embodied them.
Can you find any more relevant hero for our modern American times? We had our next-gen utopian vision in the 1990s we grew up in, and then so many gaping holes got punched through it — 9/11, Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the utter impunity with which our leaders lie and harm people and get away with it, the growing rejection of America as a globalist, multicultural force for good in the world (not sure if it ever was, but at least we could believe it was, so long as we were the beneficiaries)
The pilot episode is all about Picard realizing that walking away, as he’s done, is also a privilege. In his idyllic vineyard, he can pretend it’s all not happening, and rest on his moral haunches knowing he’s not an active part. He finally realizes by the end that “I’ve just been nursing my offended dignity,” and is determined — old and frail, devoid of official authority, limited as he is — to get back out there and make a difference. We see very little of Starfleet — the Federation, like the contemporary USA, has withdrawn inward, and, in an analogue for the Chinese or the Russians, the Romulans have moved in to fill that gap. THEY are the ones doing the scientific exploration, unlocking the secrets of the Borg cube, while the Federation is the one BANNING cutting edge research within its borders (hits way too close to home). The Romulans prove, as Russia and China are trying to do, that, yes, autocratic states are capable of playing the humanist game when it suits them — e.g., trying to help the abandoned Borg reclaim their old lives — but it is clearly with sinister ulterior motives in mind, and their very process of reclamation leaves horrible scars on the recipients. The “saved” Borg wander around in a confused daze. Narek, seemingly the defender of Soji against the cruel machinations of his sister, has no compunctions about murdering her once he gets what he wants from her.
So yeah, the writing is strong — hell, they have Michael freakin’ Chabon as one of the two showrunners — and everyone’s actions are more or less believable. Blessedly, this show — like Stranger Things — abandons the horrible trope of characters being slower-on-the-uptake than the audience. Dahj tells Picard her story, and it takes him all of two seconds to realize she’s an android. Dahj herself, Agnes at the Daystrom Institute, none of them go through that tedious process of denial and slowly putting things together and overcoming disbelief — nope, they are right there with the audience, so the actual plot always keeps advancing. Thank heaven.
Respect for continuity, down to the last detail, has always been what many Trek fans have valued, and Star Trek Picard hews (Hughs?) close to tried and true Trek (uniforms, buildings, ships and shuttles), a really nice synthesis of Next Gen, JJ Abramsverse and Discovery’s visual aesthetics.
Yet we also get a harsh reminder of newer aesthetics: the scene in the pilot where the Romulan assassins first assault Dahj is brutal and disturbing. Such a raw scene never would have appeared TNG, and it actually works well to shock viewers into sharing Picard’s discomfort with the darker world in which he is living.
Unlike the “mass market appeal” attempt, this show is clearly aimed at Trek fans — minimal explanations given, background knowledge assumed, if you’re not in the know then too bad. Fortunately, I’m in the know, heh, so I appreciate not only the thorough integration, but thorough synthesis, of continuity plot elements: Dahj’s ill-fated boyfriend was from a race introduced in Discovery. The destruction of Romulus was from the Abramsverse. Bruce Maddox is a character from NextGen who was indeed obsessed with Data even back then; there is no need to invent some new character whose motivation would look forced and we would have to be “sold on” it. We see an EMH in the style of Voyager. We finally get to see the oft-mentioned Daystrom institute, which in turn was named for a TOS character. We see Hugh again! Good old Hugh! We hear an offhand reference to Quark, the lovable Ferengi ne’er do well from DS9. The scene where Picard reconnects with Raffi was unapologetically established as “Vazquez Rocks,” which any diehard Trek fan knows was the go-to filming location for like a full third of the TOS episodes.
Raffi is the first of the many characters in Picard’s Trek universe who are believably human, struggling with their deep flaws and inner torments and not always winning, either. It’s what we’ve come to expect from all our shows in the post-Netflix/Hulu era, when writers are no longer bound by pitching to the lowest common denominator. Discovery’s chief error as a series was attempting to make Trek more “relevant” by having their characters “act just like us” by cursing, making anachronistic 21st century pop culture references, and engaging in habits (social media, etc.) more typical of our own era. It felt so out of place in Trek that, if anything, it distanced me from these characters, made me feel like the writers were just pandering.
Picard, on the other hand, makes these characters human (and not just the humans, either!) through their character-driven attitudes and behavior, not just their habits. They suffer from the angst, disillusionment and cynicism that so characterizes our present era, searching for hope while not truly believing it exists. Picard, with his Quixotic code of honor, gentlemanly mien and unshakable faith in people’s best natures, stands in stark contrast. On the one hand, he is clearly portrayed as an artifact, a man out of touch and out of place in this world. But that’s also his strength — he’s not bound by the paralysis everyone else suffers from. He can be the beacon of hope, and how the other characters react to him tells you a great deal about them: Raffi is outwardly cynical and broken but clearly still caught up in his charisma. Agnes is intimidated by him, as he throws her own flaws into even starker relief and makes her self-conscious. Hugh, for all his gratitude and affection for Picard, also sees him as a potential opportunity and tool (could there be anything more sinisterly Borg-like?). Seven of Nine seeks to protect Picard’s naïve faith in justice and mercy by letting him think he’s pulled of a TNG-style resolution to an episode, beaming back in after he leaves to blast the bad guy into a bloody mess…no clean, high tech vaporizations here.
Saddest of all is Elnor, who has suffered from the mistakes of the real man — and not a god — that Picard is…yet continues to engage in denial and idealization. That it makes Picard squirm guiltily shows you that he himself does not always buy into his own con, or at least, he browbeats himself for failing to live up to it. “We failed you,” he cries out to the Romulan refugees. “I failed you.” It’s the apology of neoliberal America — “honestly, guys, we thought that having you all strive to be like us, to believe we would treat you as equals, would lead to good things for you. We f*cked this up.” The message is as useless in real life as it is when Picard says it, in a moment that renders him both sympathetic and pathetic.
There are clear limits to Picard’s “wokeness,” as we see, for example, in the flashback scene where Raffi chides him for his irresponsibility in inspiring her to stand up for his cause when she lacked his privilege and protection (all the more convincing as she is a black woman saying this to a white man). He stands up for principles, gets chewed out, resigns and retires to a wealthy estate to live a life of luxury. She gets fired and ends up a drug addict living in a trailer park. Yes, the Federation apparently has those. It makes you wonder if it had them all along, and we just never saw them in TNG because the camera lens was always focused on the elites. Picard is trying, really trying…but he’s also never going to understand what it’s been like for those on the margins. Maybe the show will be his journey towards that understanding, an exploration, not of uncharted space, but of the spaces he has never personally noticed until now.
He’ll also need to explore his own suppressed trauma from his Locutus days, which has been a developed throughline from TNG to First Contact to here. Patrick Stewart does a good job showing the moments when Picard is struggling to keep himself from coming apart at the seams. Saving the universe, perhaps, is a good way for him to avoid having to deal with saving himself.
Some other touches that humanize the Trek universe successfully: we finally have it firmly established that characters are not speaking some “Federation standard language” — the Romulan thug says, “speak English!” The signs at the Daystrom Institute in Okinawa are written in Japanese. The Romulans speak Romulan, and Soji gains some cred with them by doing the same. This is a MAJOR change in Trek from the “universal translator somehow makes us all speak the same language” (yeah, Picard always spoke French here and there in TNG, but somehow that didn’t seem jarring…)
And I was extremely pleased to see how nicely Boston has fared in the Trek world.
I am curious to know if Dahj and her ”sister” have anything to do with Lal, the “daughter” Data created in TNG. Picard references her obliquely but for some reason never names her. Also, the whole “we won’t figure out how to make bio-tech androids for a 1000 years” strains credibility…we’ve seen SO MANY androids in Trek. Tons of them on various planets in TOS. Did no one in the Federation ever seek to reverse engineer some of that tech? Also, WHY try and create, essentially, Cylon “skinjobs” as opposed to Androids made of plastic? I hope the show addresses some of this. I’m even okay with some hand-wavey-ness about androids needing to be made in twin pairs, especially since Data himself was twinned with Lore. Maybe we’ll explore more of the reasoning behind that in future episodes.
But the thing is, I *want* to see future episodes. In a way that no previous Star Trek series since DS9 has had me feeling.
Picard, like the Mandalorian, is a new breed of show unapologetically pitched at us 80s/90s kids, now grown up and wanting to see our old favorites through the lens that seems consistent and resonant with our present times. Like Picard, we too have lived to see our world change out from under us…and I have a feeling he’s going to show us a model, however flawed, of trying to fight for our old beliefs in a way that adapts to this new reality.
To which I say, “Engage!”