“Millions of lives were at stake,” Picard tells a reporter in an interview clearly designed as an exposition dump. “Romulan lives,” the reporter scoffs. “No. Lives.” Jean-Luc answers with his trademark righteous conviction. As the interview continues, I knew one thing, Star Trek was actually back.
SPOILERS FOR PICARD AND OTHER TREK MEDIA INCOMING
I don’t hate the new Treks. The “JJVerse” had its moments and enough latent charm to produce entertaining content, even though it seemed to constantly miss the entire point of Star Trek. Discovery recovered quite well in its second season, introducing Captain Pike as a proper Starfleet Captain, yet none of the new stuff was able to capture the humanist message at the heart of Star Trek, yet, in that brief exchange between Picard and a reporter committed to making a hit piece on the Enterprise’s former captain, the message was once again spoken loud and clear.
The Next Generation’s magic to me has always been the writer’s ability to relay very complex social concepts and dilemmas in simple, and more importantly, memorable form. When Picard was tortured by Cardassians, his seemingly unbendable character was on display when he desperately shouted that there are, indeed, four lights in front of him. In the series finale, Q quips that the trial against humanity which started in the pilot episode will never end. There will always be another situation where humanity will have to expand their horizons.
The best of these kinds of moments comes in The Measure of a Man, the 9th Episode of the 2nd season of The Next Generation. It’s important to note that at this point, the show was still finding its footing, however, when faced with the need for a classic bottle episode, it found a plotline that I feel very much shaped its future as a worthy successor to The Original Series.
In the episode, Data, an android crewmember is put on trial by Starfleet, to determine whether he is a sentient being capable of self-determination, or simply the property of the Federation. Throughout the trial, a back-and-forth between Picard, representing data, and Bruce Maddox, a scientist fascinated by the opportunities disassembling the android might bring to the table leads to a closing speech that once again, so succinctly describes what Picard and Star Trek are all about.
“Starfleet was formed to seek out new life,” Picard says as he turns to Data, “well there it sits. Waiting.” The judge eventually rules that Data is a person and Maddox accepts the ruling, now turning to Data for help in his own efforts to develop a working Android, something that in the Star Trek universe, only Data’s creator was able to do. A small moment from what was supposed to become a filler episode on a monster-of-the-week show now lays the groundwork for its big comeback.
In Picard, Humanity seems to have failed another of its trials after a supernova-induced refugee crisis along with a terrorist attack by rogue androids created by Maddox cause Starfleet to abandon its principles, abandon helping the Romulans and ban all synthetic lifeforms. A disgusted Jean-Luc resigns his Admiralcy in the organization, retiring to a quiet life in his vineyard Chateau in France staffed by two Romulans and his trusty Pitbull, Number One, until a visit from Data’s “daughter” (a replicant-style Android embedded with Data’s… data?) and her subsequent assassination reinvigorate Picard as he departs to search for the truth, as well as her twin sister.
This Federation is one that Gene Rodenberry probably wouldn’t have liked. But it’s one Star Trek needs to grow. After all, Rodenberry’s Utopia was built on centuries of relative peace and safety in Federation space. Most of the conflicts were held out of the public eye, somewhere in the Final Frontier. Now with terrorists destroying Mars, multiple Borg attacks on Earth and a long war with the Dominion, it’s hard not to see the Federation trying to back off. Perhaps that Frontier is Final for a reason. Perhaps it’s best not to poke the bear.
Despite that, the character of Picard remains a shining beacon of the virtues that made Star Trek so wonderful to watch. From his answers to the reporter, at one point comparing the Romulan evacuation to Dunkirk, to the fact that he actually has Romulan refugees staffing his vineyard, one thing is clear, even if he left, Jean-Luc Picard still exemplifies Starfleet values. The values that have been basically absent from Star Trek for over a decade now.
I don’t know how the rest of the show will go, but if the pilot’s any indication, the gravitas Patrick Stewart brings, along with the show standing on the shoulders of his wonderful relationship with Data (perfectly portrayed by Brent Spiner in the pilot, again), there is a lot of potential to explore the sustainability of the Star Trek utopia in face of real danger.
What is sure for now, however, is that this show has filled a void for me, one that I’m not sure I fully realized existed. Star Trek always relied on complexity. Complex heroes, complex villains and complex plots. While Discovery tried and failed (most of the time at least) to represent the morality of “old-Trek”, and the “JJVerse” didn’t even dare to touch complex topics, Picard managed to recapture it with trademark simplicity. One line defining so much that the character, and the show, stand for.
That’s why I can’t wait for more.