Star Trek: Picard

A wonderful sci-fi series even if not the best of Star Trek. Hope lies ahead.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

My wife and I finished watching the first series of Star Trek: Picard earlier this week and we both enjoyed it, as did a lot of others. As someone who discovered Star Trek through Picard, my wife enjoyed the series for what it was. As someone who has been a Trekkie for a long time, though, I found it missing the charm of Star Trek. To me Star Trek: Picard is a great sci-fi show, a great successor to the likes of Star Trek: Discovery, and a welcome return to Picard’s mind and world, but it fails to embody in its entirety what Star Trek has always been about.

When someone asks me what Star Wars is, I describe it as the age old battle between good and evil, in space, between a ragtag group of rebels and an organised and powerful empire, in an attempt to save the universe and keep it free. When someone asks me what The Avengers are, I describe it as a group of superheroes who have taken it upon themselves to save humanity and the rest of the universe from various supervillains as the needs arise.

But when someone asks me what Star Trek is, I describe it as a utopian future for mankind where everyone is content and we live in reasonable harmony with a multitude of races across the universe, discover new life forms, make first contact, ensure respect for one another, where the strong support and uplift the weak, where ignorance isn’t feared but patiently understood, and where good and evil exist but we do not resort to war unless absolutely necessary and finally where everyday life is about one’s own personal conflicts and conflicts between individuals and societies, not unrealistic sagas that exclusively involve saving the entire universe.

Watch any episode of The Original Series or The Next Generation or Voyager or Deep Space Nine and you realise the immense emphasis placed on diplomacy, on talking things out, on arriving at amicable conclusions. Entire episodes dedicated to philosophy and where phasers are almost always set to stun, not kill. Star Trek has always been about discovering the unknown without fearing it and about accepting differences without division. It was never about war, never about destruction, it was always meant to be a feel good show where mankind was portrayed at its best both in terms of having the greatest ideals and in terms of weaknesses from which we rose unabashed.

Boldly going, not boldly stating

Captain after Captain has faced the most Trekkie question ever: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? And every Captain approached it differently, be it Pike or Kirk or Janeway or Picard or Sisko. Such explorations were what Star Trek was about.

Trek never attempted to deliver vague answers about ongoing problems. It built a world of beauty and gave people the answer. For example, when racial tensions were high in the 60s, Star Trek did not enquire about the equality of races or the intermixing, they just went ahead like that had been the norm all along; they made no statement, no grand gesture; when a black woman sat on the bridge of the Enterprise among white men, Star Trek never highlighted it. There was nothing to highlight, it was the norm.

When women were not allowed in the army and when women were not allowed to fly planes in the air force, Star Trek had a female pilot, a woman head of security and a female captain of a starship. And none of this was highlighted like something strange—although for its time it was strange. All of this was treated as usual because Star Trek believed it was a perfectly normal thing to do. For Star Trek, it was not about making bold statements to its viewers about how something was supposed to be. For Star Trek, this was the norm and there was nothing strange about it.

When in the 60s Russia and the US were in a cold war, a Russian ensign was piloting the Enterprise and no show was made of it because that was the norm. When Picard’s crew explains in TNG about how money is now no longer the great selector in society since everyone is guaranteed all they need allowing them to focus on how they live rather than what they live with, it is a simple sentence that is delivered matter-of-factly. (Picard says, ‘The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.’) Star Trek did not make statements about an equal, just and fair world. It embraced that world without fuss because that was how the world was supposed to be. It showed us such a world and made us want it.

Picard the wise

Among all this, Picard and Kirk remain arguably the most exemplary captains—although the others are by no means lacking in substance. Who can forget Picard defending Data’s humanity in court, or Kirk’s famous statement, ‘The prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other’, or Janeway’s crisp line, ‘There’s a difference between respecting the spiritual beliefs of other cultures and embracing them myself,’ which encapsulates acceptance in its most realistic form?

To better understand Star Trek, it helps to see where its creator the late Gene Roddenberry came from. He once said, ‘We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.’ When Mr Roddenberry described Star Trek when it came out in the sixties he had said, ‘Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms … If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.’

And that is the depth of Star Trek that newer series have failed to capture.

Modern shows of Star Trek have consistently been getting one thing wrong: they are catering to an audience born in the era of epic onscreen battles and are delivering a battle-filled Trek which is not staying true to the core purpose of Star Trek. They are attempting to make Star Trek a ‘progressive’ show, while it is much more; it is, as David Banks put it, ‘a Utopian show’. When you are in near-Utopia, life is not about being progressive: being progressive is commonplace in Star Trek; it is the baseline, not a height to rise to.

I still remember how ending an episode of Star Trek was akin to washing my face and feeling refreshed mentally. That is no longer true. Perhaps the new format is partly to blame: old Trek was episodic, newer Trek relies on story arcs across seasons. Again, this is simply a case of studios bending to the market which is not wrong per se, but why should this alter the fabric of Star Trek itself?

On the shoulders of Sir Patrick

It is no exaggeration to say Patrick Stewart’s portrayal of Picard holds the new show together even as it deviates from the old Picard by a visible margin. Right in the first episode, for example, Picard faces more physical action than he did in any single season of TNG. In TNG, moreover, every step Picard took, every other word he spoke, was so full of substance, a character which the new show undoubtedly tries to revive—and does well when it actually does it—but does so quite rarely thanks to being bogged down by too much physical action and too little mental flexing.

There is some good news, though. The word is that the new Star Trek show, Star Trek: Strange new worlds, according to its creators, will be more episodic and more optimistic than the current breed of new shows. I hope against hope that some of this brightness seeps into Star Trek: Picard too. ‘Star Trek,’ reported Variety, ‘is boldly going back to its roots’. A new generation discovering such a Trek show would really understand what it was about Star Trek that appealed to us in the older days. Amidst films of war on land and in space, amidst foul language and violence, Star Trek was a beacon of peace and unity and a spirit of discovery where learning to speak another culture’s tricky language properly was a key challenge in one episode while in another an entire war was prevented by two people who were coaxed into talking to each other openly.

None of this is to say Star Trek was perfect. It was a product of its time when, for example, for a while women dressed in more revealing clothes than men, but the show quickly corrected its course itself without pomp and show. And modern Trek is far from perfect in being true to the original. One might then argue: is modern Trek merely a product of its time?

Things are only impossible until they are not

I will not be as harsh as Molly Harris who pointed out that, ‘Every character on this show was introduced, given anywhere between 45 seconds to three minutes of backstory, and then thrust into an action scene that did not deliver on any real action,’ wrapping up her criticism by kicking a hornet’s nest she says, ‘This is not Star Wars; these relationships should mean something.’ Her tone changes somewhat as she concludes with a perfect description of what Star Trek was back then and what it is now. It is good enough that I will reproduce her entire conclusion here—

It makes sense for Picard to be more serious than the eternal optimism of TNG (especially in this current climate), but while the world may be darker, the characters should not be.

We love Star Trek because it idealizes humanity, and what we can do if we set aside prejudice and judgment to work towards a better world. Picard needs to remember that the heroics of TNG were frequently quiet moments of bravery, rather than mindless explosions. They might not be as loud, but they mean more in the long-term.

The producers of Picard are not in the dark about how most of us enjoy episodic Trek. In show runner Michael Chabon’s own words, ‘You really have to “bingewatch” the whole thing in ten episodes … And it’s a tricky thing because of the whole episodic versus serialized way we watch things, and how especially Star Trek audiences are sort of trained [to expect] more of that episodic, mission-of-the-week structure. And that’s not what this show is.’ What I find contradicting is that the same group of people also said, ‘the plan—and Sir Patrick’s plan from the beginning—was “let’s tell more stories with Picard.”’ Well then, make it episodic because if it is serialised, you will only ever tell a single story all year.

Of course they did get a lot right so perhaps I am being too demanding. For example, the introduction of Seven of Nine to interact with Picard was a golden opportunity and they pulled it off beautifully. And when some scenes do settle down with a weighty and slow pace—such as Data’s death or Picard’s various reflections—we get glimpses of the character-driven plots that made old Star Trek so timeless.

But then, in wanting to tell Star Trek stories in ‘new and emotionally challenging ways’, Mr Chabon gets things wrong. He is attempting to fix something that was never broken. There is a reason why old Star Trek stories do not seem dated even sixty years after they first came on television: they are timeless in the aspects of humanity that they address, aspects that will always be with us and that we will always do well to question. What bothers me above all this were the following words from the show runner: ‘It’s never going to be just a show about the crew of a starship that’s part of Starfleet and everyone’s wearing uniforms and they’re flying around, encountering alien life and weird planets.’ Mr Chabon has clearly watched a lot of Star Trek but never understood any of it.

Indeed among the lot I think an older William Riker in Star Trek: Picard is perhaps the only character to remain true to his origins in TNG. In the next season we will hopefully get back some of the old TNG flavour with returning characters like Worf, Geordi, Guinan and … dare I say … Q. But it was sad that even the two episodes Mr Frakes himself directed did not carry the TNG charm.

Sure, there were plenty of moments my wife and I both loved. There were plenty of lines that struck us as deeply meaningful. But, to put it succinctly, if I had to introduce her to Star Trek, I still would have her watch TOS or TNG, not Picard. Beautiful as it is, it is not as beautiful as TNG; and happy as I am that she waded into Star Trek thanks to Picard, I still would urge her to watch TNG to really appreciate Star Trek. That is a void newer Star Trek shows must hope to fill.

All said and done, if you got into Star Trek through Picard or Discovery, feel free to take my opinions with a grain of salt until you explore TOS, TNG etc. for yourself.

Come Season 2 of Picard my wife and I will no doubt watch it with the same eagerness as the first season. We will no doubt both love the characters and the show itself. We will no doubt enjoy Picard for who he is. But for my own part, I will keep my fingers crossed that the mindless deviation from classic Star Trek is kept to a minimum and that good old Picard returns—hopefully in command of his own starship—because, in every way, that has the potentially to make modern Star Trek immeasurably better than every other show currently on the telly. Why not? Star Trek has always questioned the status quo respectfully. And as TNG-era Picard himself famously said, ‘Things are only impossible until they are not.’

Postscript First: What was that finale battle with hundreds of identical starships? I do not recall it ever happening in Star Trek before; ships in Star Trek have always been unique. Perhaps this is a new feature of the Curiosity-class starships as Riker calls them. Second: Riker calls the Zheng He the Federation’s flagship except … it is not? By Star Trek canon, the Enterprise-E currently being captained by Worf is the Federation’s flagship. Still, it was fun to see the new laser-rich interiors of the new ships and, boy, do they look terrific from the outside. Three: It was great to finally see Daystrom Institute in Picard, which had only ever been spoken of multiple times throughout Star Trek but never shown.

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