Culture on My Mind
Star Trek: Picard
May 16, 2022
I have been wrestling with my thoughts on Star Trek: Picard since the second season wrapped on May 5th.
The series overall has been frustrating for me. It is laden with some great philosophical and socio-political ideas – a hallmark of Star Trek since 1966 – but it frequently misses the mark when actually exploring these ideas.
First, I want to point to the excellent season reviews by Jessie Gender. She has captured a lot of my conflict with this series in these analyses, highlighting many of the elements that I loved and disliked.
In Season One, I loved seeing civilian life in the Federation and the aftermath of the destruction of Romulus, something that was born rather hand-wavedly in 2009’s Star Trek film. The world-building grabbed me as it showcased complicated interstellar politics and a Starfleet that had moved on from the troublesome climax of Star Trek: Nemesis.
I rather liked the deconstruction and organic redemption of the former Borg. I liked the idea of the Federation trying to help the fractured and displaced Romulan people, following on from the ground laid in Star Trek: Nemesis. I liked that Jean-Luc Picard actually stuck to his principles and resigned from Starfleet when they refused to back that program. I liked that Starfleet rejected the former captain’s hubris when he demanded a starship to solve the mystery because of who he was.
I liked the Star Trek exploration of Brexit, Trumpism, and the Syrian refugee crisis. I loved the Troi-Riker family and the exploration of trauma. I loved Picard having to face the skeletons in his closet by examining and reconciling his failures. I loved the conclusion of the Picard-Data relationship.
But then we get a Romulan anti-synth religious cult, a lack of resolution on threads like Seven’s adaption of the Borg Queen persona and Narek simply fading into the background, handwaving “space magic” tools and fixes, huge fleet space battles, and yet another galactic-scale conflict teasing a Lovecraftian big bad that we’ll likely never see again. It’s representative of the writers having far too many ideas and not enough time to implement everything to their full potential. That’s where the frustration started for me because each of these ideas ends up half-baked by the final episode.
At the end of the season, the entire synth ban is resolved far too quickly, but Picard’s status is right up Star Trek‘s alley with the mission to seek out new life. I really liked the idea of Picard being resurrected into a synth body that is virtually indistinguishable from “real” life.
Season Two starts off well enough with Picard back in true form and Starfleet being… well… Starfleet. The gang gets back together just in time to meet up with the Borg Queen and consider her application for provisional status in the Federation.
Then everything goes boom and Q pops up, leaving our heroes in an alternate fascist universe that is definitely not the mirror universe.
It’s a decent starting point. I could do without using the Borg once again, but John de Lancie is magnificent. However, it starts to slide downhill from here as the next two episodes rely on nearly the exact same plot as we go from the Prime Universe to this fascist universe to Los Angeles 2024: Figure out the new setting, get everyone back together, develop a plan, and move to the next episode.
The rest of the season is spent in 2024 (with hardly a mention of the events of Deep Space Nine‘s “Past Tense”) exploring various tangents and failing to analyze the effects of the time jump.
- The team rescued the Borg Queen from the Confederation future in order to slingshot around the sun and travel to 2024. Even though she shares some kind of temporal link with every universe’s Borg Queen, she’s not the Prime Universe’s Borg Queen, so her existence could very well create a paradox when our heroes succeed.
- The team is obviously from a future alternative to the Prime Universe because Guinan has no idea who Picard is. The events of The Next Generation‘s “Time’s Arrow” never happened, and given the Confederation’s aggressively xenophobic nature, the Devidians were probably slaughtered anyway.
- But, wait! The Kirk Thatcher guy on the bus from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home seems to recall getting nerve pinched by Spock. The planet also remains intact, so something had to stop the whale probe. Did Kirk and company still travel back to retrieve George and Gracie?
- Finally, do our heroes have the right to “fix” the universe? Star Trek‘s “fix the timeline” stories usually stop a bad thing from happening so that the starting and ending points are the same. The crew starts in the normal timeline, someone goes back and breaks something, and our heroes go back and fix it to keep the timeline as it should be. The deviation here is that our heroes started in the Confederation’s future. In order to put events in 2024 on the path to the Prime Universe, a handful of time travelers have to decide the fate of billions of people and eradicate an entire existing timeline. Those ethical implications were never discussed.
Q claims that he dropped the cast in the Confederation timeline to teach Picard a lesson. The key to fixing everything was ensuring that Picard’s astronaut ancestor successfully launched on her mission and discovered an alien microbe.
Strangely, Q attempted to snap Renee Picard out of existence halfway through the season. Why? Who knows.
We also meet more of the Gary Seven-style observers (yay!) and tie them into Wesley Crusher and the Travelers (I can buy that, though there was zero build-up to that revelation). Rios has an adventure with a local doctor and immigration officials (but we never explore the sociopolitical implications of immigration in the United States of 2024) before deciding to remain in the past. Seven and Raffi explore their own traumas, as well as plumb the depths of the relationship that was spawned by a random (and unearned) hand-holding flirtation in the first season.
One of Raffi’s traumas? Elnor, who was brutally murdered in the second episode and popped up periodically to justify keeping Evan Evagora in the opening credits. Seriously, he was criminally under-used in the second season.
Picard also faced his own trauma by uncovering the memories of his mother’s suicide. That came with a host of good and bad issues. The good was a discussion of mental health and using it as the framing device for Q’s lesson on Picard’s anxieties. Star Trek has done some good work in the last few years to address trauma and mental health. It’s a reminder that mental health is important for all of us, and also how we need to understand how it shapes us so we can unlock our potential.
On the downside, they dragged that storyline on forever with nary a mention of why it never came up before during his long self-imposed exile at the chateau.
We also spent an entire episode with Picard and Guinan in FBI custody running through a throwaway sidequest. I haven’t even mentioned the Adam Soong storyline because… yeah… yet another Soong means yet another Trek trope. Brent Spiner plays evil so well, but this story thread did nothing for me.
Oh, and the trauma Jurati experienced in Season One? Hand-waved away. That made me angry.
Where Season One started frustrations with half-baked and abandoned ideas, Season Two capitalized on it in spades. Season Two had a ton of potential to explore, but it did not flow gracefully from idea to idea. Instead, it introduced concepts and then rapidly resolved them through easy yet uninspired tropes.
The whole thing resolves in a predictable manner with the Borg Queen needing Picard to lead a defense against yet another galaxy-killing event.
The end of the season brings a huge cast shake-up leading into the final season of the show. Isa Briones, Eva Evagora, Alison Pill, and Santiago Cabrera are done, which leaves room for the TNG regulars to come aboard.
Where I would normally be excited to see these characters back in action for what is essentially TNG Season 8, I temper that excitement with the show’s performance so far. The characters and franchise deserve far better than a collection of loose story threads that defy cohesion.
While I have loved the new characters in general, I would have rather seen a single season of this show with the TNG characters on a final mission with Picard as he rectifies his mistakes and even sacrifices himself to save the day.
Will I watch Season Three? Yes, but with trepidation, because Star Trek: Picard has definitely been my least favorite series in this modern era of the franchise. It might even be my least favorite overall.
The storytelling potential deserves better.
Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.
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