Making a Difference Again – First Impressions of Star Trek: Picard

“Let me tell you something: don’t. Don’t let them promote you. Don’t let them transfer you. Don’t let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship because while you’re there… You can make a difference.”

Ever since I caught my first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation over twenty-five years ago, I’ve been a huge Star Trek fanatic. Through thirteen films and seven television series, the show has displayed a faith in humanity and optimism in our prospects that’s conspicuous by its absence in a popular culture soaked with irony and cynicism. Indeed, most other familiar science fiction franchises like Terminator, Blade Runner, and Battlestar Galactica veer toward the dark and ominous in both atmosphere and substance. These dystopian worlds tell us not just that humanity can’t get things right or make progress, but that we’re bound to actively make matters worse if not destroy ourselves and the things that matter most to us in the process.

In this dismal milieu, though, Star Trek’s perpetual optimism andenduring faith in humanity stands apart. This hopeful outlook shines through most clearly in The Next Generation, my favorite among all the series produced to date. That’s in large part due to the character of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played with aplomb by Patrick Stewart for over three decades. Picard’s nigh-impregnable moral core and ability to express it with remarkable and forceful eloquence grounds The Next Generation’s belief in humanity’s capacity to change for the better.  

So I’m very much sympathetic to complaints and criticisms that the show’s latest iteration, Star Trek: Picard, falls short of the idealism that’s driven Star Trek for more than five decades. As critic Devin Faraci puts it, “it’s become clear that the people running Star Trekthese days want it to be cool” rather than “corny as hell” – and that that desire undermines Star Trek’s core ethos. Beyond question, there’s a real aesthetic dissonance between Picard and its 24th century predecessors. On certain points of style like fashion, for instance, Picard feels more in line with contemporary sensibilities than the admittedly “weird” things we saw on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. More important, however, is that Picard takes place in a Federation that’s failed in spectacular ways to live up to the ideals articulated by Captain Picard himself during the halcyon days of The Next Generation.

But that’s precisely why I find Picard so captivating. It’s hardly a groundbreaking observation to note that Star Trek has always crafted its interstellar morality plays in ways that reflect and refract current events and contemporary conditions. The original series, for instance, featured an episode that illustrated the madness of racial prejudice, while The Next Generation demonstrated that historical enemies could become present-day friends by placing a Klingon character on the bridge of the Enterprise and made the Klingon Empire one of the Federation’s closest allies. In “Duet,” Deep Space Nine shows the futility of holding on to hatred and the necessity of forgiveness for even the most heinous crimes.

The list of episodes and storylines could go on and on, but it’s important to recognize that these themes remain nested within Star Trek’s broader optimism about humanity and its future. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Star Trek: Picard falls directly in line with this tradition. If Picard feels less utopian than its direct predecessors, that’s due to the timely nature of the narrative it tells and the profound questions it sets out to explore. Namely, what do we do when the we’ve failed, the world is broken, and nothing seems to matter any more? What happens when things fall apart in spite of best efforts?

These are the kinds of existential questions Jean-Luc Picard confronts in his eponymous series. When we first come across him again, it’s apparent that Picard isn’t the same confident captain of the starship Enterprise we last saw at the end of 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. This Picard has been puttering away in self-imposed exile on his family’s ancestral vineyards for nearly a decade and a half, writing books of history and tending to the vines with help from a pair of former Romulan intelligence operatives Laris and Zhaban (played by Orla Brady and Jamie McShane, respectively) as well as a pitbull terrier named Number One (portrayed by a rescue called Dinero).

The reason for Picard’s retreat soon becomes clear: Starfleet and the Federation have fallen far from the high ideals of The Next Generation era. Asked in an interview with a Federation news media network why he left Starfleet, Picard first quietly and then angrily responds, “Because it was no longer Starfleet!” Indeed, Picard resigned in protest when the Federation failed to live up to its own ideals and canceled the mission he commanded to rescue hundreds of millions of Romulans from an interstellar natural disaster [1]. Haunted by the most profound personal failure of his career and disillusioned with the institutions to which he had dedicated his life, Picard withdrew to his family’s vineyards and walled himself off from a society that, in his view, betrayed its own fundamental principles.

The fallen Federation we glimpse in Picard nowhere near as as bleak as the dystopia depicted, say, Logan. Most importantly, neither the Federation nor Starfleet have crossed the thin and invisible line into permanent dysfunction and despair. By comparison with other fictional worlds, moreover, the Federation remains a fundamentally optimistic place in possession of more or less functional institutions. Paradoxically, however, it’s on this very account that the Federation of Picard feels much more real and visceral than the relentlessly grim and hopeless fictional universes that tend to occupy wide swathes of our popular culture. Given the high esteem in which both Picard and the Star Trek fans held Starfleet and the Federation throughout The Next Generation era, even minor shortcomings in these previously respected institutions lend Picard and its main themes a moral gravity that’s not truly possible in otherwise comparable narrative contexts. When Starfleet abandons Picard’s mission to save the Romulans, for instance, it’s impossible for us to disagree with his lament that he “never dreamed that Starfleet would give in to intolerance and fear.”

Making matters worse for Picard, the rhetorical brilliance and moral force so often on display in The Next Generation failed him at the worst possible time. Hundreds of millions of lives perished as a result, driving Picard into a paralyzing and isolating spiral of self-doubt and second-guessing. Just before his volatile interview halfway through the first episode, his Romulan caretakers take pains to remind Picard of his own character and history. “After so long, sometimes I worry you have forgotten what you did, who you are,” Laris instructs him.  “We have not.” Zhaban provides more friendly counsel: “Be the captain they remember.” 

As Laris and Zhaban insist, Jean-Luc Picard proves one of the best characters available to explore these themes of personal disillusionment and failure. Throwing an individual with such high moral and ethical standards back into a world that has let those standards down in spectacular ways makes for compelling and engrossing drama. What’s more, having Picard navigate this disenchanted environment without the same respect he once commanded – witness the dressing down the head of Starfleet Command gives him when he requests reinstatement – only reinforces the existential questions Picard raises.

Indeed, the first four episodes of Picard go a long way toward providing answers to these questions. In the premiere, it’s Picard’s encounter with Dahj Asha (played by Isa Briones) that spurs him back into action. He quickly discovers that Dahj is the synthetic daughter of the late Commander Data, the android officer and friend who sacrificed himself to save Picard at the end of Nemesis.

Dahj’s own ensuing death at the hands of a secret Romulan death squad propels Picard forward, forcing him to conclude that he still has a moral obligation to act. “She came here to find safety,” he tells Laris and Zhaban. “She deserved better from me. I owe it to her to find out who killed her and why.” When Laris assures him that he asks to much of himself, Picard retorts that “sitting here, all these years” on his family’s vineyards while “nursing his offended dignity” and “writing books of history people prefer to forget,” he “never asked anything of myself at all. I haven’t been living. I’ve been waiting to die.”

This brief dialogue serves as the moral fulcrum for Picard the decorated but disillusioned former Starfleet captain. But it also serves as a manifesto, a clear statement of purpose for Star Trek: Picard the television series. Picard comes to realize that it’s his duty to take action and make a difference as best he can – even if he’s unable to fix everything or even anything that’s wrong with the universe. He understands that his principles don’t allow him to mark time until his inevitable demise, and that they require him to make a difference in whatever small way he can. This rekindled sense of moral purpose Picard balances against and ultimately wins out over his disillusionment and disaffection with Starfleet.

In due course, Picard learns that the particular method involved in creating Dahj also birthed a twin sister, Soji. Intent on protecting Soji from her sister’s fate, he assembles a crew far removed from his old Enterprise comrades and sets out on a rough-and-ready rescue mission. Intriguingly, Picard goes from trying – and failing – to save hundreds of millions of lives on his final Starfleet assignment to trying to save just one life with a small crew of unusual rogues and flotsam. This turn of events echoes a remark Picard made to Data in an episode of The Next Generation: “You’re a culture of one, which is no less valid than a culture of one billion.” One life or a billion; Picard advises us it doesn’t matter how much of a difference we make as long as we do our best to make a difference.

As much as anything else, though, Picard’s process of personal and moral rediscovery reflects Star Trek’s long-standing view on the central value and importance of human connection. It’s Picard’s relationship to Data that catapults him into action, motivating him to seek out and protect Dahj and, later, Soji. As he tells Dahj, “If you are who I think you are, you dear to me in ways that you can’t understand.” In this way, Picard maintains Star Trek’s traditional faith in humanity. It doesn’t do so via abstract and flawed institutions like Starfleet or the Federation, but instead finds grounds for hope in individuals like Picard and the personal relationships he’s forged. What really matters in a world that falls well short of our highest ideals, Picard tells us, are our moral obligations to ourselves and others – especially those we care about.

Without doubt, Star Trek: Picard leaves plenty of room for criticism – much of it justified. Nor is it difficult to understand why the show might prove divisive among long-time Star Trek fans. But the Starfleet without illusions itdepicts betrays neither Star Trek as a whole nor The Next Generation and Jean-Luc Picard in particular. Indeed, Picard carries on the show’s best thematic traditions, dealing with contemporary issues and grappling with the difficult moral questions that lay at the heart of the human condition. It’s hard to believe otherwise after watching Picard tear down a “Romulans Only” sign at a bar and trample on it despite the rather obvious personal danger involved. 

Ultimately, the strengths of Star Trek: Picard far outweigh whatever weaknesses and deficiencies die-hard fans and casual viewers alike point out. Wherever the rest of the series may go – and I’m eager to find out – Picard has already proven itself to be a worthy addition to the Star Trek canon.

[1]  This mission aimed to relocate some 900 million Romulans – the Federation’s oldest enemy – before their home system’s sun unexpectedly went supernova, an event that served as the catalyst for the trilogy of alternate timeline Star Trek films that began in 2009 and starred Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. Starfleet called off the mission after an apparent uprising by synthetic workers helping build the rescue fleet at the Utopia Planitia shipyards on Mars left tens of thousands dead and prompted Federation member worlds to talk of secession rather than continue to rescue operation. As with many things Star Trek, it’s complicated.