A Brief Review of “Star Trek: Picard”, Episode 2

This is not a rant. This comes from a place of love and concern. Also, it’s barely about episode 2 of “Picard”, rather more generally about contemporary Star Trek.

“I never really cared for science fiction.” I’m pretty sure that the writers of “Star Trek: Picard” have shown their hand with this phrase, said by Picard in Episode 2 in the eponymous series. And maybe not in the way you think. I heard comments that this was a way of trolling Star Trek fans, but I honestly heard Picard’s comment on sci-fi as a candid admission of what Star Trek used to be and its divorce from what it has become. Picard’s reaction to science fiction was perfectly in character, as far as I’m concerned. He’s always looked to the past (archaeology) and focused on the present (“The line must be drawn here! This far and no further!”). And this is precisely the problem with “Star Trek: Picard”, unless it takes a radical turn from the direction it is developing.

For a bit of context and my take on what has happened in “Picard” thus far: the first episode of “Picard” was about fighting and action sequences. The second episode was about (new) conspiracies. Somewhere in the background, there’s something about androids and neural disease. And Romulans and Borg. I suppose all of these things have some tradition in Star Trek in varying degrees, but none of them was ever really the point of Star Trek, and I think that’s why I’m not very excited about “Picard” right now.

I love action sequences and they certainly have a place in Star Trek. Don’t believe me? I’ll remind you that my favorite Star Trek series is “Deep Space Nine”, which I would assume has the most action sequences because of the wartime plots that dominated the final four seasons of the series. I don’t have the statistics, but am just generalizing here. Correct me if I’m wrong. Apparently Kirk was created to be a more action-oriented captain than Christopher Pike was in the pilot of the original series (you know, when Spock still had emotions). Some of the greatest episodes of the “Next Generation” feature excellent action (“Best of Both Worlds”, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, anyone?). “Voyager” with all of the Borg stuff? Right on! “Enterprise” was also apparently a Star Trek series. “Discovery” featured so much action, it had no discernible plot that I felt like following. So, action certainly has its place in Star Trek, and always has.

Conspiracies and conspiracy theories are fun. At least, they were until 2016. They’ve been around in Star Trek for a long time. “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”. The end of “The Next Generation”, season 1. The Tal Shiar in TNG and DS9. Section 31 in “Deep Space Nine”. The constant tension between the Star Fleet crew and the Maquis in “Voyager”. “Enterprise” was also apparently a Star Trek series. “Discovery” probably is a conspiracy, full of conspiracies and conspiracy theories. But I haven’t had the patience to figure it out. So, conspiracies have an important place in Star Trek lore. That’s great! But do we really need to add another conspiracy to the Star Trek canon? A multi-millennial Romulan conspiracy behind the Tal Shiar… is that not really just overkill? I would say yes; the writers of “Picard” appear to think, “no”. My knee-jerk reaction is that’s it’s totally superfluous. The Star Trek optimist in me hopes that it will turn into something that adds a new, exciting contextual layer to its predecessors. More likely, I fear, it will turn into a silly or embarrassing retcon. Still, conspiracies have always had a place in Star Trek.

Robots and brain stuff in Star Trek. The original series: robots come up repeatedly and the mind meld. Androids and brain issues are certainly most firmly embedded in “The Next Generation”. That’s because of Data, but also because of Picard’s living someone else’s life in “The Inner Light” and his suffering from a neurological disorder in “All Good Things…”. “Deep Space Nine” explored this in some different ways, with Dax’s different personalities, Doctor Bashir’s genetic enhancement (making him like an android, in some respects), and repeatedly putting the viewer into Bashir’s unconscious mind (in episodes of markedly diverging quality…). Tuvok fulfilled both of these roles in “Voyager”. “Enterprise” was also apparently a Star Trek series. On “Discovery” they featured a robot crew member, who’s name I may have never heard and who’s being an android or robot or weirdo in a wonky costume was never explored in any episode I made it through (at least that I can remember). So, androids, brains, Star Trek: check.

I’m not going to go into Romunlans and Borg because that would be totally unnecessary. Anyone who doesn’t know that Star Trek features Romulans and Borg in important ways probably hasn’t watched much Star Trek produced since the 1980s. So, Romulans and Borg are fundamental features, particularly to more modern iterations of Star Trek.

Each of those things is part of Star Trek. But none of them is sufficient to be Star Trek on its own. I would argue that all of them together still do not suffice to make something Star Trek. So, what do I think Star Trek was, or – at least – should be?

Sometime in the mid ’90s I went to a Star Trek convention (yeah, I was one of those guys) and saw John de Lancie. You know, Q. He spoke about what Star Trek is and what it is not and it really resonated with me. In terms of genre, Star Trek is not really science fiction. Star Trek is a morality play. That was at least the way John de Lancie described it, and I think that’s accurate. Star Trek has always had an optimistic vision of the future and a strong ethic, a moral(izing) center. In that sense, Star Trek never was entirely sci-fi, certainly not sci-fi for the express purpose of writing about potential scientific developments. It wasn’t really ever merely a vision for the future; it was always prophetic in the classical sense: it was about criticizing the present by looking to the future, grafting the present onto the future and contrasting the disparity. The moral center and optimism about the future are the defining characteristics of Trek. They haven’t shied away from difficult issues, particularly as the times have changed. Star Trek has always had a homiletic character, encouraging things like justice, equality, and peace.

But this optimism and moral grounding is something that the newest series seem to lack, while attempting to make up for it with better (digital) production values, plenty of action, and extraneous violence. There is no real moral compass. The only character that seems to have any moral interest in “Picard” thus far has been Picard himself, who peripherally at least, was interested (14 years prior) to saving the Romulans. Nobody else really cares about anything like that, and Picard’s only other motivation, thus far, is personal: connection to his deceased friend Data, through any connection, regardless of how thin or marginal. To that end, Picard’s statement in the eponymous series just points toward this developing chasm in the contrast between the newest series (“Discovery” and “Picard”) and the classical versions. Picard was never really a fan of science fiction; even the character Picard recognizes, perhaps even subconsciously, that Star Trek is now something it hadn’t been before: it is moving away from well-packaged morality tales towards dystopian science fiction.

Does that make “Picard” bad? Not necessarily. It just makes it hard to recognize it as Star Trek.

But perhaps I’m too quick to judge after only two episodes. I’m a junky, so I’m sure I’ll be watching it again next week. Maybe I’ll even write more about that, if you’re interested. Feel free to leave a (moderated) comment or drop me a line in some other way (if you know me IRL).

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