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Star Trek: Picard forced us to rethink Star Trek and its characters' legacies — and that's OK
Star Trek: Picard arrived with a literal bang in the Short Treks episode "Children of Mars," a prologue depicting a devastating terrorist attack on the Utopia Planitia shipyards that was allegedly perpetrated by Synthetic lifeforms. Picard has since continued to bombard viewers not with bombs, but with a non-stop nostalgia fest; every episode is littered with references to the TV series and films that came before. But even as it draws on our love of the past, Star Trek: Picard also demands that we look back upon that history with new eyes.
The series has taken the beloved title character, Jean-Luc Picard, and the benevolent interstellar government known as the United Federation of Planets, and fairly demands audiences question our assumptions about both.
Most revivals of this nature, like Will & Grace or The Conners, are content to return with the same characters, unchanged, and plop them back in the same scenario 25 years later. But Picard has steadfastly refused to be The Next Generation: The Next Generation. Instead, it revisits one character, Jean-Luc Picard. Long considered to be Star Trek's finest captain, Picard has been held up as the "best of humanity" for decades. He's a passionate, intellectual philosopher-king who nonetheless will fight the good fight with his bare hands when necessary.
But from the very beginning, Picard asks if Jean-Luc Picard is the man we remember as an ideal specimen of our values. It digs into Picard's faults in abundance, starting with the FNN interview in the premiere episode, in which Jean-Luc comes off as an angry, defensive, bitter old man; he rails at those who didn't treat his word as god and snobbishly sneered at those who disagreed with his worldview.
In nearly every episode, the series has managed to find some way to highlight Picard's egotism. This includes everything from his out-of-touch choice to tell Admiral Clancy about the Tal Shiar to giving away his plans to the enemy. And then there's the clueless applauding of Raffi's "performance" as a washed-up old sot to get him a diplomatic visa to visit the Borg cube. It's always there.
This recurring thread comes to a head in Episode 7, "Nepenthe," when Picard takes Soji to hide out at the Troi-Riker home, bringing back the former second in command and the ship's counselor from The Next Generation. These are two characters who lived through all 178 TNG episodes with us and know their former captain better than anyone. And yet it is striking to hear Will Riker poke at Picard's mission to save the people located in the Romulan Star Empire as getting himself "a**-deep" in Romulans, highlighting the messiah complex overtones of Jean-Luc's personalizing the mission.
Later Riker candidly assesses Picard's mission to rescue Soji as "classic Picard arrogance." He continues: "You get to make the decisions about who gets to take the chances and who doesn't, and who's in the loop, and who's out of the loop, and naturally, it always ends up with you."
Troi is just as blunt when Soji lashes out at Picard: "You had that coming," she says. Not that either of them is being cruel when they say these things; this is an episode full of love and good feelings, but within that love, both of Picard's one-time officers are gently reminding both Picard and viewers that when a man spends his life being called a "living legend," it does tend to go to one's head.
But Picard isn't the only thing the show wanted us to regard with fresh, critical eyes. The Federation was also up for evaluation and found wanting.
Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, imagined this union of planets as part of a "future perfect" world. Free from poverty, capitalism, and want, the Federation has always been the benevolent face of the ideal government. Even when it questions things, like putting Data on trial for his humanity in "The Measure of a Man," it always acts in favor of progressive good. Even when it forcibly moves the colonists of Dorvan V in "Journey's End," it's a choice of taking the best-worst option by choosing to protect people as best it can.
To be confronted with a Federation at the beginning of Picard that has outlawed all Synthetic life is a shocker. And it forced viewers, already having to rethink their impressions of Picard, to reassess if the Federation is such a bastion of moral decency.
Some will argue that this is a fluke. As the show has pulled back the curtain on the depths of Commodore Oh's deception, and the infiltration of the Federation's higher ranks by the Zhat Vash, one could lay the blame outside this institution. But even Picard himself rejects that easy cop-out, pointing out that it may have been the Zhat Vash who caused the terrorist attack on Mars, but it was the Federation that allowed itself to give in to fear as a response.
"We did this to ourselves," Picard says.
Evil triumphed within the Federation because good men did nothing. Not just Picard, tucked away on his vineyard, either. Raffi, Rios, Jurati — all of his crew — allowed the world to change under their feet rather than fight, convinced they couldn't make a difference even if they did.
Star Trek: Picard is the darkest entry into the franchise to date, but though it confronts viewers with a new angle on the beloved tale, one shouldn't confuse the more nuanced and complicated worldview for one without hope for the future. In fact, it makes it all the greater.
As the season ends, Picard has started to check his ego and recognized his withdrawal from the world as the selfish, narcissistic act it was. (Though he's damned if anyone will speak to him about his mortality, thank you, that is all.) And while she shuts Picard down with a much-needed "shut the f**k up" when he starts grandstanding, the Federation's Admiral Clancy has begun to see the truth of how far their institution has strayed.
In the end, Picard and the Federation realize in a "future perfect" world, the arc of the universe only bends toward justice if everyone keeps jumping up and down on it — together.
Here's to putting in the work come Season 2.