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‘Star Trek: Picard’ Revisits America’s Imperialist Dreams and Finds a Nightmare

The new Star Trek show is promising to build something new and different, but it may just be the same old sci-fi schlock.

by Matthew Gault
Jan 24 2020, 2:26pm

Image: CBS

Star Trek: Picard is all about nostalgia. It’s built into the premise. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a foundational television series not just for sci-fi fans, but also for what Star Trek would become throughout the 90s and early 2000s. It's the foundation the JJ Abrams movies pointedly demolished in favor of the more paranoid, militaristic visions of a literal 9/11 truther. The first season of Discovery, the first of CBS All Access's new Star Trek offerings, was in many ways a photonegative version of TNG as it explored what happens when a StarFleet captain, with all the power and discretion of that position, turns out to be the anti-Picard: violent, unethical, and vain.

By centering the latest series on the the return of Patrick Stewart's beloved captain, Star Trek: Picard promises both nostalgia and reassurance. One of fiction's great leadership figures is returning to duty. Picard can right the ship.

But nostalgia is a poison we feed ourselves to ease the pain of the present, and reassurance is an empty substitute for a reckoning. If Trek is going to have meaning and relevance again, it has to change. Star Trek: Picard seems to know that, rather than resolving that tension, it feels like a show fundamentally at odds with itself.

Eighteen years after his last adventure, retired Starfleet Admiral Jean-Luc Picard is sitting for an interview. It’s the anniversary of a tragedy—the supernova of the Romulan sun. Picard led a fleet of 10,000 ships in an attempt to rescue 900 million lives. Starfleet, in the end, did not support the effort and Picard resigned.

"It was no longer Starfleet. We withdrew. The galaxy was mourning, burying its dead, and Starfleet had slunk from its duties," Picard said. "The decision to call off the rescue an abandon those people we had sworn to save was not just dishonorable. It was downright criminal. And I was not prepared to standby and be a spectator.”

It’s a rebuke of Starfleet, a critique in keeping with a character often at odds with his superiors, and one that comes a little more than 10 minutes into Star Trek: Picard’s first episode. It sets a tone. Star Trek: Picard is not Star Trek: The Next Generation. This show will be something different. It absolutely trades on fan nostalgia, but it does so with an aim towards critiquing it and building something new. That something new, however, appears to be Firefly.

It's filled with elements that feel lifted directly out of Joss Whedon's beloved but short-lived space cowboy show. There’s a young woman with a mysterious past and the ability to kick ass for seemingly no reason. Dream sequences drive the plot forward. An expository conversation at the end of the first episode waves its hands and asks the audience to turn off its critical thinking and roll with the coming explosions and nonsensical plot twists.

I think I can see where all this is going. We saw this story in Firefly, and we even saw Stewart play a supporting role in another valedictory "iconic character mentors young murder-waif" film when he laid Professor Xavier to an uneasy rest in Logan. It's practically a trope in video games at this point. Everything on offer suggests that Picard will build a crew and protect the mysterious young, ass-kicking woman. He has to take to space one more time to solve a mystery and probably save the galaxy. Along the way he’ll meet a who’s who of aging Star Trek veterans. The show certainly seems to be preparing for this kind of action-packed adventure instead of cerebral introspection, and rather ominously, that is the exact direction that producer Alex Kurtzman took Discovery when he took charge for that show's second season

The biggest problem, however, is that Jean-Luc Picard is not Malcolm Reynolds. He is a product of the establishment that he now rejects, and if it has become unrecognizable to him in his hold age, he was deep in its machinery for much of his career.

Star Trek is an American dream, one born out of the hope for a better world and the often sincere belief that this Empire, the American Empire, would be different. Like all dreams, Star Trek is a complex web of truth and lies that reflects the desires and fears of the dreamers.

The Next Generation typified that dream. Running from 1987 to 1994, The Next Generation seemed to show a United Federation of Planets that could explore the stars, encounter and aid new and unknown civilizations (often by bringing them into the Federation's orbit), and colonize planets benevolently.

Captain Picard represented the best of what was possible with Starfleet. He was a man created by its system, but constantly forcing the system to do better. In “The Measure of a Man” he defends android Data’s right to self determination in court against Starfleet attempts to dismantle him. In “The Drumhead,” a Starfleet investigator accuses Picard of treason when he refuses to participate in a witch hunt on his ship. In “The First Duty,” he excoriates then-cadet Wesley Crusher for abandoning the truth in exchange for esprit de corps.

“The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth,” Picard tells Crusher. “It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based.” These moments, and countless others, build up Picard as an ideal. He is the perfect officer—forthright, intelligent, and compassionate. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is the dream of what Starfleet could be.

But dreams aren’t real and Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I love, is art created by a colonial power at the height of its power. It reflects the America of the 1990s, one that thought it could police the world, one that thought history had ended. The uncomfortable tension of The Next Generation, with its lofty talk of the prime directive and constant crises on far-flung colonial outposts, was that the dream wasn’t true. That America, and by extension Starfleet, was the project of—in the words of Next Generation antagonist Q—a “dangerous savage child race.” The less-popular but vastly more honest Deep Space 9 spent its seven seasons deconstructing the core conceits of Star Trek. It trapped its characters in a single place with a history and a context that characters could not simply fly away from at the end of each episode, forced them to live with consequences and compromise.

Picard wants me to buy back into that old Star Trek dream. Yes, it says, Starfleet is corrupt. It lets people die and imposes its will on the galaxy. But there are good people, great people, like Picard who flourish in that system. That’s what it seems to be selling. “Be the captain they remember,” a friend of Picard tells him before he sits for the interview.

Watching the first episode of Picard as a long time Star Trek fan—one of my earliest memories is of sitting in the theater next to my father, watching ropes of pink Klingon blood filled the screen in Undiscovered Country—I felt as if Jean-Luc, the aging moralist, was speaking to me as he derided Starfleet.

Then, it quickly asks the audience to turn its brain off and engage.

As the credits rolled on a decidedly silly plot twist, I thought of the serious and well-delivered monologue that kicked off the pilot. “You’re a stranger to history,” Picard told the interviewer. “You’re a stranger to war. You just wave your hand and it all goes away. Well it’s not so easy for those who died. And it was not so easy for those who were left behind.”

That’s the show I want to watch, the one about an aging imperialist trying to make peace with ideals that empire betrayed. But all of that good work seems to be in the service of a story where Picard awakens from the dream of the Federation and, confronted with its ugly, complicated reality, flies away to the stars to protect an innocent android murder machine. It seems too easy. Like a dream of redemption.

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