One More Adventure: Thoughts on Star Trek: Picard
I watched the first few episodes of Star Trek: Picard this spring, and then stopped. I could blame a lack of time, too many shows on my schedule and not enough hours to keep up with all of them (this was the reason that I similarly ended up dropping the most recent season of Legends of Tomorrow, which I wrote up on my tumblr last week). But really, the reason was that Picard made me anxious. All new Star Trek does. I find it impossible to watch these shows without the constant awareness that the people who are the franchise's current stewards have, at best, a teaspoon's-depth understanding of what it is and why it works, and I end up feeling constantly on guard against the next travesty they're sure to commit. Which also makes me kind of sick of myself, for watching like that, being unable to let go, unable to trust the story to take me where it wants to go—even if that distrust is well earned. It's for this reason, I think, that I found this summer's new animated foray into the franchise, Lower Decks, so relaxing. The show is wall-to-wall fanservice, with absolutely no pretension of doing anything new with its material. So while the result is, inevitably, uninvolving, it's also easier to trust.
Picard, in contrast, seems designed to agitate my NuTrek anxieties. It's the first Star Trek series since Voyager went off the air in 2001 to advance the universe's story forward in time, as opposed to reaching back into the past (Enterprise, Discovery) or starting the whole thing all over again (the Abrams movies). It's written by people like Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman, hardly names that inspire trust when it comes to thoughtful science fiction or worthy continuations of the Star Trek story. It bills itself, almost from the first moment, as a series that is trying to poke at the foundations of the franchise and of the Federation, searching for weaknesses in what had originally been sold to us as a utopia. Not an unworthy project, to be clear, but every time NuTrek takes a stab at it I get the definite impression that it emerges not out of a genuine understanding of Star Trek and its limitations (what Deep Space Nine did, in other words) but because the people at the helm find Gene Roddenberry's utopia confusing and maybe even boring, and don't know how to write good stories within it. Most of all, it's a series that returns to a character who, for many people—myself very much included—embodies Star Trek: its values, its outlook, and its shortcomings.
I wish I could say that Picard, once I finally got around to watching the remainder of its first season, allayed all my fears, and finally proved to me that the new team helming Star Trek knows what they're doing. That I can relax as they shepherd the franchise into the 21st century. It doesn't, but neither does it fail for any of the reasons I might have expected. Far from being bored with Star Trek, The Next Generation, or its title character, Picard feels deeply in love with all three. Its storytelling is firmly rooted in some of the earlier show's best episodes—"The Measure of a Man", "The Offspring", "I, Borg", and perhaps most of all the series finale, "All Good Things..."—while also incorporating elements from Deep Space Nine, Voyager, the TNG movies, and even the reboot movies. Nor is this a series that feels excessively fanservice-y, in love with references for their own sake. When Will Riker and Deanna Troi's daughter turns out to be named Kestra, it's not just a reference to a seventh season episode that only Real Fans will spot. It speaks to a warm family dynamic rooted in characters we once knew and loved—Deanna, after all, doesn't remember her older sister, and naming their daughter after her is something she and Will would do to make Lwaxana happy.
And yet somehow it never quite pulls together. In part this is simply a matter of execution—Picard runs the gamut between mostly OK with a few bright spots (the episode in which Picard hides out with Riker and Troi is a highlight of the season, but also largely irrelevant to the season's plot) and genuinely dire (the finale, unfortunately, which can't help but reflect backwards on the season as a whole). It has serious problems with pacing—the earlier episodes are stately, almost plodding, while later ones rush through plot and leave many loose ends untied, as if the writers had been taken by surprise by their episode order. While some of the new characters are fun—chiefly Alison Pill as awkward cyberneticist Agnes Jurati, and Santiago Cabrera as Starfleeet officer turned freighter captain Cristóbal Rios—others feel like half-complete sketches—Evan Evagora as the Romulan ninja elf Elnor, who "binds his sword" (no, really) to Picard's cause—and others still would have worked given enough space, but end up merely gesturing at something resembling an arc—the best that can be said of Seven of Nine's storyline is that at least she didn't end up married to Chakotay in this timeline. Worst of all, absolutely nothing here is exceptional, not even Patrick Stewart's return to the character who made him a star, which feels much more like an encore than the next chapter in his story. And yet for all these problems, I think the real issue with Picard is that it doesn't know what it wants to be, what it wants to say about its title character, its world, and its franchise.
Picard starts out as a sort of riff on "All Good Things...", with a bit of the 2009 Star Trek thrown in. Like the Next Generation finale, it catches up to Jean-Luc Picard decades after he stopped being captain of the Enterprise. He's now retired in his vineyard in France, supposedly an old man of leisure. But there's something slightly off about both the man and the situation. A convenient news interview reveals that fourteen years ago, Picard was spearheading the evacuation of the Romulan system, following the explosion of their sun, when the human settlement on Mars was destroyed, apparently in an attack by synthetic lifeforms. The response was not only to halt the Federation's help in evacuating and resettling the Romulan refugees, but to outlaw all synthetic lifeforms in Federation space, and in general to turn inward, abandoning Starfleet's mission to render aid to those in need and make the galaxy a more peaceful, lawful place. Picard, disgusted and demoralized, leaves Starfleet and shuts himself away from the world. Until, in the series's opening episode, he's sought out by a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones), who turns out to be an android, and Data's daughter. Almost as soon as Picard realizes who she is, however, Dahj is killed by members of the Romulan Tal Shiar, and he is left to seek out her twin sister Soji before she suffers the same fate.
There's no shortage of holes you could poke in this premise—the Romulans, like the Federation, were a multi-system civilization, so why would they need anyone's help to find new homes for the refugees from their home system? Why would the Federation immediately leap to the conclusion that the synths who destroyed Mars had gone crazy in some way, instead of the far more plausible explanation, that they were hacked by someone else? And why is this franchise still drawing a distinction between androids and self-aware holograms (who remain legal in Picard's setting) that might have been excusable in 1987, but today feels positively arcane? But if you're willing to handwave those problems (and let's not pretend that this isn't something Star Trek has required of us with some regularity), there are the bones of a good idea here. Perhaps even a necessary one, if Star Trek is to survive and thrive.
Star Trek is a product of the Cold War. Its liberalism is Cold War liberalism, which is to say that it is driven, in large part, by the need to "prove" that we, the West, are better than totalitarian regimes because we are free, egalitarian, and progressive. We can (and should) point out all the ways in which that worldview was a lie, how Western liberalism was founded in the oppression and disenfranchisement of minorities both at home and abroad. But the further we get from the Cold War, the more it seems to me like even that pretense had value, that wanting to look like we valued freedom, human rights, and equality was still better than not caring. At its best, Star Trek's optimism was rooted in the conviction that we could live up to that image of ourselves, and in the belief that aspiring to do so was a worthy pursuit. That aspiration seems to have fallen by the wayside post-9/11, replaced by vice signaling. We now live in a world where torturing people makes you strong, running roughshod over human rights and liberties is savvy, and closing your borders and relinquishing your role in the community of nations is a necessity of survival. Dreaming a bigger, better future is too often treated like a luxury.
It is not a betrayal of Star Trek's utopianism for the 21st century version of the franchise to address these shifts and reflect them in its setting. It is, on the contrary, probably a necessity, if we want the franchise to have any relevance going forward. The idea that the Federation, coming off a costly, drawn-out war with the Dominion, smarting from a terrorist attack in its own back yard, suddenly paranoid about a fifth column within its populace, and with its last major enemy brought to its knees by a natural disaster, would forget its core values, turn inward, and abandon its role as the galaxy's caretaker and arbiter of justice not only makes a lot of internal sense, it also feels like the right story for Star Trek to be telling right now. And Picard feels like the right character to tell that story with.
As I wrote when I rewatched The Next Generation nearly a decade ago, there was always a sense that Picard believed in the Federation at least a little more than it believed in itself, and always moments where that idealistic belief and the more mundane reality clashed against each other in ways that, even if they didn't cause a permanent rupture at the time, seemed to promise one in the future. If Picard embodies Star Trek to fans like me, within the franchise's universe it sometimes feels as if he embodies the ideal version of the Federation, and that this burden of righteousness and virtue is too much for the real, flawed society to shoulder. Picard, as an old man, surveying the regression of the society and institutions he'd given his life to, surrendering to despair because he's now too old and powerless to do anything about it, and being stirred out of his depression by the promise of one more (last?) adventure, feels not just like the right story for Star Trek to be telling, but like a really good story.
It's a shame, therefore, that this isn't the story Picard turns out to be interested in telling. The show sets up its premise, reveals the depths to which the Federation has sunk, and then... forgets about it. There are some solid worldbuilding details here and there—when Picard tries to alert Starfleet brass to the conspiracy he's discovered, clearly expecting to simply be handed a ship and a crew, he's treated at first with condescension, and then with outright hostility. Who is he, the new guard demand, to tell them how they should run their organization, to lecture them about the values they've lost sight of? Later on, the series brings on Seven of Nine, now working as a vigilante in one of the parts of the galaxy the Federation has abandoned (and which, in a clever twist, has become a regulation-free, libertarian haven, where all the communication lines are clogged with ads). Even small details give one a sense of how the galaxy looks now that the Federation has lost sight of itself—Riker and Troi's older son, we learn, died of a disease that could have been cured with a positronic matrix, except that there are no positronic matrixes anymore now that synths are banned.
But once it establishes this world, Picard isn't interested in talking about it, and much of the show's story takes place outside of Federation space. Rebuffed by Starfleet, Picard recruits one of his former officers, Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd), who connects him with Rios. They're joined by Agnes, a former colleague of Bruce Maddox, the man who once tried to dismantle Data and who has now apparently created new androids from his leftover positrons. In other words, it's a crew of non- and ex-Starfleet people, most of whom don't have very fond feelings towards the organization, none of whom feel very strongly about how the Federation has changed (except Agnes, who is mad about the synth ban because it put her out of a job). None of them—not even Riker and Troi, whom you'd expect to be hopping mad about it—are particularly bothered by the synth ban, and the idea that it represents a form of discrimination is given little or no space in the narrative.
A secondary plotline takes place on The Artifact, a defunct Borg cube floating in Romulan space, where Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco), the original liberated Borg drone, is running a project to rescue others who have been assimilated. It's a fascinating concept, but one that the series quickly grows bored with, and the question of how Federation society might view former drones, especially in light of the synth ban, is given very little space. Instead, the Artifact is important because it's where we find Soji, who is employed there as a researcher, and where she becomes the objective of a Tal Shiar operative, Narek (Harry Treadaway), who is trying to probe her memories and get him to lead her back to her homeworld without awakening her latent awareness that she is an android (and with it, her super-strength).
Narek's superior officer, Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita), just happens to have infiltrated Starfleet and become its head of security—yet another major development, with ramifications for how the Federation defines itself, that is introduced in a manner that can only be described as offhand, and handled only inasmuch as it feeds the season's adventure plot. It comes as no surprise when Oh, and her faction of the Tal Shiar, turn out to have been responsible for the attack on Mars, but the show has very little interest in discussing how terrorism can destabilize a liberal society, and what its success in doing so says about the depth of that society's commitment to liberalism. On the contrary, Oh's guilt feels like a way of shifting the blame away from the Federation and onto an Outside Agitator.
So Picard, having established that the Federation has Lost Its Way, then removes most of its characters from the Federation and its bodies of government and law enforcement, and seems to expect its audience to think about those bodies as little as possible. What then, is the show about? For most of the season, the answer seems to be parents and children. Or more precisely, orphaned children and bereaved parents. Once again, this feels true to the character and its history. Picard was famously introduced to us as a man who disliked children and couldn't relate to them, and by the end of the series had not only forged strong relationships with several of them, but had come to deeply regret not having a family of his own—in Generations, he weeps for his lost nephew, and for the children he'll never have. Picard gives him yet another shot at parenthood, which he somehow manages to fumble—he bonds with Elnor, who was orphaned during the Romulan evacuation, then abandons him when the full extent of his failure to help the refugees becomes clear to him. Agreeing to join Picard's quest to find and protect Soji is Elnor's way of allowing the older man back into his life, and perhaps repairing their broken bond. But Elnor is quickly separated from Picard again, and spends more time with Seven and Hugh, helping them to rescue the liberated "ex-Bs" from the same Tal Shiar sect who are hunting Soji.
The half-hearted handling of Elnor notwithstanding, it's through this theme that Picard circles back to discussing the Federation, because what ties its broken families together is how the loss of parents, and the loss of children, both mirrors and causes the loss of ideals. Once again, this is something we saw already in The Next Generation. Picard's two protégés, Wesley Crusher and Ro Laren, were orphans who clearly saw him as a father figure, and whom he thought of as spiritual children. And when they left him, it was because the Federation had failed to live up to the image he'd taught them to believe in. The idea of a Starfleet mentor as a parental stand-in through whom the "child" takes in Federation values appears again in Picard. Rios, it turns out, is still traumatized by the death of his captain, whom he also thought of as a father, and who took his own life after being forced by Starfleet brass (specifically, as we later find out, by Commodore Oh) to murder two synth emissaries.
Bereaved parents, too, end up losing sight of Federation ideals. Raffi has a son whom she has alienated through her determination to prove that the attack on Mars was a false flag, and that loss has caused her to lose her way, to become, as she puts it, "the wreckage of a good person". Will Riker took leave from Starfleet when his son became ill, and then just never went back. And Seven of Nine lost faith in the Federation after her adopted son, Icheb, was stripped of his Borg parts and left dying by a mobster in a region of space Starfleet had cleared out of.
What it comes down to is the idea that Federation values—any values, really—are something that parents hand down to their children, through word and example, and something that children inspire their parents to live up to. These children can be biological, or adopted, or the junior officers you train up, who will one day replace you. It's in the disruption of that chain—through loss or through the abandonment of ideals—that the seeds of the Federation's undoing are sowed. On the whole, Picard takes its parenting theme a bit too far—did we really need to hear that Rios called his captain "dad" in his head? Is it not possible for a close mentoring relationship to have elements of the parent-child bond without making it quite so explicit?. But it also feels like an exciting spin on traditional Star Trek optimism.
For decades, the franchise took its utopianism for granted, including the assumption that people in the future would just automatically grow up to believe in all the things that a citizen of the Federation believes in. To come out and acknowledge that those values are things that can be lost when parents fail to teach their children, and can only be regained when those parents become determined to teach by example, feels right not just for Star Trek, but for our moment in time. These days, it often feels as if the conflicts in our society are generational, with young people feeling abandoned by previous generations who have pulled the ladder of democracy and liberalism up after them. It's refreshing to find a story that argues so strenuously that it is the job of older people to model the ideals they want their successors to live up to.
Or it would be, if the entire thing didn't hinge on one final orphaned child, Soji, and her relationship with Picard. And Soji, unfortunately, is not a good character, either as Data's successor, or as the latest in a long line of Picard's protégés. We're told that she was made from Data and has some of his personality and memories, but none of that shows up on screen. Briones is styled to recall Lal, Data's first child, but possesses none of that being's strangeness, naivete, and depth of emotion. There is, in fact, nothing terribly remarkable about Soji, and given that she spends most of the season catching up to things that the audience learned episodes ago—her own nature, Dahj's death, her relationship to Data and Picard, Narek's manipulation of her—it's hard for the audience to become invested in her as a driver of the story. Some lip service is paid to the notion that she is still a child—in chronological age, she's only three years old—but that, too, is something that doesn't show up on screen. For all intents and purposes, Soji is a generic human whom the Romulans want to kill and Picard wants to protect, but who is rather uninteresting in her own right.
This all comes to a head when Picard and his crew find Soji's homeworld, a colony populated by androids created from Data. Much like Soji, none of these androids feel particularly Data-ish—they lack his curiosity, kindness, and gentle strength. It's here, also, that we learn why the Tal Shiar have been bent on exterminating synthetic life, and why they orchestrated the attack on Mars—a ancient message in which synthetic beings from hundreds of thousands of years ago warn their modern counterparts that peace between them and organics is impossible, and offer to show up in our galaxy and cleanse it of all non-synthetic life.
And then Soji agrees to this. She clothes it in the guise of having no choice, of us versus them, but the truth is that there is an alternative—Picard offers to evacuate the androids ahead of the Romulan fleet that is on its way to sterilize the android colony, and to argue on their behalf with the Federation. This is not a great option, as everyone agrees, but it's also so obviously preferable to galactic genocide that the very idea that there's a dilemma here is obscene. If Soji were a better written character, if the show had done more to establish her rage and grief at being hunted, manipulated, and at having lost her sister, if more had been done to establish how young she is, I might have accepted this choice as something that emerges organically from her character. But as it is it feels like a decision that should put her (and the rest of the androids, who go along with it) beyond any reasonable pity, a choice that proves their unworthiness to live in exactly the way that the anti-synth bigots in the Federation and the Tal Shiar have been arguing all season—and as such, fundamentally un-Star Trek-ish.
Even worse, the show deprives us of the satisfaction of Soji changing her mind out of moral consideration. Picard decides to sacrifice his life to try to stop the Romulan fleet, and in so doing prove to Soji that organics can be trusted. But what makes her change her mind isn't that sacrifice. It's Will Riker showing up with an enormous fleet, announcing that the synthetics on the planet have been granted diplomatic protection by the Federation, and that he's willing to go to war to protect them. So just like that, and offscreen, the Federation has been fixed, and both it and Soji have been robbed of anything resembling a moral arc, simply because the show needs a grand climax that it has done nothing to earn.
Along the way, several characters, and perhaps even Starfleet itself, are flattened beyond recognition. What does it means for Starfleet, for example, that someone like Oh was allowed to rise through the ranks unimpeded, spreading her bigoted, violent poison to underlings and fellow leaders alike? How does Rios feel knowing that his captain compromised himself, and died, for nothing, and how many other officers were similarly destroyed? For that matter, how does Riker feel about the fact that his son died of a treatable illness because of a false flag attack orchestrated by the very woman whose ship he has photon torpedoes locked onto? These are all questions far too complex and thorny for Picard to deal with, and so it brushes them aside with the glib announcement that the synth ban has been lifted, so everything is fine.
So, with one fell swoop, Picard collapses all of its interesting ideas—the Federation losing its way, the complicated bonds between parents and children, Soji and the other androids' haphazard progress towards personhood and morality—into one unsatisfying, parachuted-in, so-called happy ending that is as unconvincing as it is abrupt. And all for the greater glory of Picard, who somehow manages to save the day through the sheer force of his awesomeness, and even sacrifices his life while getting to live anyway (he's a robot now; don't ask). What Star Trek: Picard ends up being about, then—and maybe I shouldn't be surprised by this—is Picard, and nothing else. And instead of one last adventure, it is clearly setting itself up as a new series, just at the point where it forces us to wonder whether it has any actual stories to tell, or whether it will only ever be about the glorification of this one character. And that, in the end, is why I have trouble trusting NuTrek. It has some good ideas, but when push comes to shove it will always opt for shallow storytelling that confuses fanservice for substance, over saying something new and different with its character, setting, and franchise. Picard—and we—deserve better.
 At no point is it acknowledged that this is an extremely creepy, invasive thing to do, especially coming from Maddox, who as noted does not have the best record of respecting Data's bodily autonomy.↩
 In conversation with Rios, Picard reveals that he knew his captain's own mentor, making him Rios's grand-captain, and reinforcing the slippage the show tries to create between command relationships and parental ones.↩
 This is, however, one of those places where Picard's worldbuilding doesn't bear much scrutiny. It's one thing to say that the Federation has turned inward, and another to claim that a Starfleet officer could have been vivisected without the perpetrator suffering any comeuppance.↩
 Also present: Noonian Soong's heretofore unheard-of son. This is obviously bad news—in the history of Star Trek, no one with Data's face who was not Data has ever been on the up-and-up. Still, it's a chance for Brent Spiner to appear sans makeup and looking his age.↩
 Aside from all the other problems here, everything is clearly not fine. The show has established that any synth can access the alien message, signal the ancient synths, and end all organic life, and that at least one community of synths was willing to do this. It only takes a moment's thought to realize how untenable this situation is.↩