"I should have done this a long time ago."
Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation, "All Good Things…", 1994I think it's safe to say that if it hadn't been for Patrick Stewart, there would be no modern Trek, and we would still think of the franchise as a cult TV series from decades ago that spawned a couple of movies and, in the late 80s, a short-lived spin-off. In The Next Generation's first season, Stewart is the only member of the cast with both acting chops and the opportunity to use them, and he makes Picard, and the show, his own, elevating the cheesy material and blatant speechifying. In his hands, Picard's wanderlust, his geekish enthusiasm, his commanding presence, and his deeply held and frequently expressed convictions, become genuine and heartfelt. Stewart brings Picard to life--that fascinating, complicated mixture of whimsy and stolidness, humor and gravitas, thoughtful diplomacy and indomitable will. There is a popular theory that the show improved so dramatically in its second and third seasons because Stewart kept acting above the material the writers provided him with, and whether or not that's actually true, the fact that The Next Generation ever achieves the magic of slipping into the world of Trek and making it its own, becoming part of a grand storytelling tradition rather than just a bunch of bad actors traipsing about in ugly spandex, is largely down to that one man and his performance.
It's easy to lose sight of Picard's complexity when you watch the later Star Trek films, which reconfigure him as a shoot first, ask questions later action hero. Part of me thinks this transformation happened as a sop to Stewart's vanity, was maybe even instigated by him, and if that's the case then I suppose that after all he did for the franchise he's entitled to have his ego stroked--after all, it's not as if Insurrection or Nemesis were ever going to be masterpieces. But it's worth keeping in mind that this is not who Picard was, that the real character was a great deal more complicated--a man defined, in fact, by his contradictions. In "Samaritan Snare" Picard tells Wesley about the incident that caused him to require an artificial heart (the significance of which, for a man so invested in controlling his emotions, is surely obvious), in which, as a young cadet, he picked a fight with three Naussicans twice his size. Picard tells the story as one of a hard lesson well learned, a punishment for his arrogance and devil-may-care attitude, an experience that taught him to buckle down, as well as a bit of humility. But in "Tapestry," when Q gives Picard the chance to undo the fight altogether, to become that more humble, more serious man he thinks he needed to be ahead of schedule, the result is a small, grey life as a mid-ranking science officer. The lesson of "Tapestry" is that it takes the two men--the adventurer who laughs in the face of danger, and the thoughtful, reserved nerd, who on their own are just a silly child and a stodgy old man--to make Jean Luc Picard.
Of all his contradictions, perhaps none defines Picard as much as his conflicting desires for adventure and a more quiet, ordinary life. As the series opens he's chosen the former, and a lot of Next Generation episodes revolve around Picard considering the roads he chose not to take on his path to a stellar career in Starfleet--the lover he abandoned in "We'll Always Have Paris," the career he might have had as an archeologist in "The Chase." But as the show draws on The Next Generation seems determined to shake Picard's conviction of having made the right choice. In my posts about Deep Space Nine I wrote that that show's deliberately mundane tone allowed its writers to inflict losses--of lovers, children, homes, jobs, and sense of self--on its characters that in a more dramatic story might have seemed over the top, and The Next Generation takes the same approach with Picard. He starts the series gruffly telling Riker that he has no room for children in his life. Seven years later, in Generations, he's weeping for the children he'll never have. Along the way, there is much loss. He seems to discover a son in "Bloodlines," only to learn that he has no claim on him. He bonds with a child in "Suddenly Human" but must give him away. He falls in love in "Lessons" but is forced to give that love up for the sake of his duty (the same might be said of "The Perfect Mate"). In "The Inner Light" Picard, after a long struggle, surrenders to the kind of life he has always sought to escape. He becomes a loving husband and a doting father and grandfather, living a small life in a small village. And just as he's grown not only to accept but to love this life, it is snatched away from him, leaving nothing behind but memories and a single keepsake. Perhaps worst of all, Picard forms relationships that place him in the role of mentor and surrogate father with Wesley Crusher and Ro Laren, whom he shepherds on their Starfleet careers, but both of these "children" choose to leave Starfleet, and thus to sever their ties with Picard.
Wesley and Ro leave Starfleet for largely the same reasons. "Journey's End," Wesley's farewell episode, is terrible, an early harbinger of Ronald D. Moore's penchant for prioritizing real-world references over the integrity of his world, in which Native Americans--in space!--are still suffering the effects of European colonization in the 24th century. Ro's goodbye, "Preemptive Strike," meanwhile, despite some mawkish plot points, is one of the few strong episodes in the seventh season (Michelle Forbes and Wil Wheaton's respective talents play a part in the episodes' relative quality as well). But in both stories, Wesley and Ro are disillusioned by Starfleet's actions and its policies--relocating settlers on the Cardassian border and hunting down the Maquis who attack Cardassian settlements on that same border. That Picard sides with Starfleet, however reluctantly--he is conflicted about relocating the colonists and sympathizes with the Maquis, but in both cases ultimately decides that preventing war with the Cardassians is the greater good--shatters his bond with his two protégés, permanently in Ro's case, ambiguously in Wesley's (it is one of "Journey's End"'s many flaws that it doesn't give the two anything like a proper farewell but also isn't willing to cap their relationship on the negative note that "Preemptive Strike" ends on).
This is interesting because, though in its early years Picard stands for the Federation as much as he stands for The Next Generation, there is a sense as the show draws on that Picard and the Federation are falling out of step. In "Too Short a Season" Picard discovers that a Starfleet admiral traded arms to aliens in exchange for Federation hostages, and prolonged a costly civil war. In this first season story, the tone of the episode makes it clear that what the admiral has done is beyond the pale. Later seasons return to the well of the shady admiral who betrays Federation principles and is exposed by Picard, but each time the story repeats his staunchness seems less convincing. When the admiral in "Ensign Ro" agrees to break Federation neutrality in the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict in order to appease the Cardassians, or Riker's former commanding officer violates a treaty with the Romulans that prohibits the Federation from developing illegal cloaking technology in "The Pegasus," it's hard not to wonder whether Picard is the only honest senior officer in Starfleet--and if so, what that says about Starfleet. There's a compelling reading of late Next Generation in which Picard is regarded by his fellow officers and the Federation's top brass as an increasingly out of touch throwback, a moralist who won't recognize the difficult realities of the political situation in the quadrant, and who insists on clinging to his ideals come hell of high water, and regardless of what his principled actions, such as exposing the forbidden cloaked ship to the Romulans at the end of "The Pegasus," cost the Federation. (Insurrection, in which the Federation council is so shattered by the Dominion war that they conspire with a race of arms dealers and bioweapon manufacturers to displace an entire people, only for Picard to commit mutiny against them, really only makes sense if you apply this reading to the show.)
In this take on The Next Generation, the Enterprise is a fool's paradise that keeps flying about to diplomatic missions and scientific studies, even as the events of Deep Space Nine unfold and the rest of the galaxy burns. This is probably taking it too far, but it's hard not to watch "Journey's End" and "Preemptive Strike" without concluding that for Wesley and Ro, Picard is Starfleet and the Federation. They would love to serve in his fleet, on his ship, in furtherance of his ideals, but when they get a taste of the real thing (and when Picard falls in line with that reality) they recoil. Nor are these the only occasions on which Picard's Enterprise is held up as an ideal. In "Ménage à Troi," Wesley is stunned to realize that there's no guarantee he'll be returning to the Enterprise when he graduates from Starfleet academy, and the ship's convivial atmosphere is what halts Riker's previously-meteoric career in its path. The Next Generation got a lot of guff over the years for keeping the ship's senior staff static for so long, in contravention of the reality of most military bodies (and most workplaces, for that matter). Though this stagnation was obviously driven by the producers' fiat and 80s TV mentality, within the show it seemed believable that no one on the Enterprise wanted to move on, because they were all too happy and too comfortable where they were, in a working environment that suited them all to a T (by all accounts the cast felt this way as well).
Which is why "All Good Things…" is such a perfect cap to the series. Despite a plot that hinges on the destruction of the human race, that's not where the story's emotional core is to be found. "All Good Things…" is an episode about the Enterprise crew. It switches between three time periods that describe that crew's lifecycle--the present, in which the Enterprise is an ideal working environment, all its parts moving together in perfect synchronization; the past, when the crew is just on the verge of coming together; and the future, when it's all come apart. Which is what happens in any workplace, of course. Even if you're lucky enough to find a job you like with people you enjoy working with, sooner or later someone will leave, or die; close friends will quarrel or drift apart; others will try to transmute their camaraderie into more intimate relationships, with mixed results. And if by some chance you manage to hang on through all those changes, eventually you'll get to be too old and feeble to do the work. This is the great tragedy of The Next Generation, and of Picard's life--in lieu of the family he'll never have, he forms one with his crew, but it is ephemeral and doomed. The series ends with that famous, lovely scene of Picard joining the other officers at the poker table, reaffirming their unity in the face of the knowledge--now more certain than ever--that its days are numbered. In its gentle sadness, its deceptively light tone, and its inherent contradictions, this is the perfect ending to The Next Generation. One of these days, the crew will be dispersed. The Enterprise will be put in mothballs. Starfleet will complete its transformation into a body that none of them particularly want to serve in. But for now, their voyages continue.