In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy's ailing titular character is confronted by the realisation that his family are not waiting for him to recover, but rather, for him to die.
A few episodes into Star Trek: Picard, I realised that Star Trek was not about to make a miraculous recovery from its post-JJ Abrams malady. The Star Trek I loved was dead, but for my acceptance.
Since Star Trek (2009), directed by JJ Abrams, the franchise has taken on a new form, with CBS/Paramount eager to cash in on their intellectual property. Re-dressed in a sleeker look-and-feel, the creators have replaced morality plays with high-speed chases and theatrical dialogue with quipy modern banter in order to target a new, "younger" audience. Picard Executive producer Alex Kurtzman declaring,
"If you really want Star Trek to reach people, then you’ve got to start young."
Despite my lowered expectation after recent Trek outings, with the announcement of Picard came some hope that Star Trek's recovery would be tied to it revisiting the Rick Berman produced era I had become enamoured by in the 90s. As if the setting would force a change in style and tone.
Alas, in title alone does Picard continue the legacy of The Next Generation, which it sequels. At a time when we could use a splash of hopefulness in pop-culture to contrast widespread divisiveness, Captain Picard's return instead floods us with malicious and brooding characters in an ill-conceived, illogical plot.
Picard attempts to be edgy by presenting contemporary phrasing in its dialogue and brutal violence in its action. These binge-watch era tropes fail to juxtapose or challenge any current television norms, but rather conform to them. Tearing at the very fabric which made Star Trek, well, Star Trek.
** SPOILERS **
Set approximately 33 years after Star Trek: Nemesis, and 13 years after the Romulan sun has goes nova in Star Trek 2009, Picard crosses the threshold between the "Prime" timeline and the "Kelvin" timeline, created by the JJ Abrams film series, muddying both.
Through flashbacks we learn that a Federation fleet, led by Admiral Picard, was readying to support the Romulan evacuation effort until an attack on Mars' Utopia Planetia ship yards by "Synths" (Androids) leads the Federation Council to de-prioritise the mission, and ban all synthetic life throughout the federation.
The ban raises a lot of questions since previous incarnations of the franchise had explored the individual sentience of Androids, Holograms and other forms of Artificial Intelligence in great detail. A kin to genocide, a blanket ban might have used some explanation. Similarly, it isn't made clear why the Romulan Star Empire was so desperately reliant on the Federation. These sorts of details are glossed over through-out the season as we are asked repeatedly to go with it.
When Admiral Picard offers an last ditch alternate plan to help evacuate Romulus, it is rejected and he resigns in protest.
Cut to the present and Admiral Picard—retired to his family chateau—laments that Starfleet and the Federation had lost its way when a news reporter presses him about his insistence that "Romulan lives" were a priority.
Her tone reflects that of a modern day Fox News anchor, yet exactly how the multi-planet, multi-species Federation, built on a foundation of science, collaboration and interstellar peace is now led by a council of xenophobes is not explored beyond surface level quips and Picard's delivered exposition.
The writers force the Star Trek universe into an ill-fitting Dystopian mould to parallel the rise of isolationist and populist movements, such as Brexit in the UK, or the Trump administration in the US. This might have been interesting if it was explored as the plot, rather than a thinly painted backdrop.
The very foundation of Star Trek was that humanity had evolved past internal disputes, racial divides, the accumulation of personal wealth, prejudice and above all, fear of the unknown. Choosing to venture out into the final frontier, "To seek out new life and new civilisations..."
In Picard, the Federation has regressed three centuries, with the show depicting an Earth society which is very contemporary; in both speech and behaviour. One which has become xenophobic because a few Androids went hay-wire. That same society which survived two attempted Borg invasions and the Dominion War, among countless other conflicts which threatened its way of life. I don't buy it, not without richer world building.
Against this less-than-hopeful backdrop, Picard is searching for Soji, the daughter of Data who he believes is in danger from a super secret society of Romulans, the Zhat Vash.
The Zhat Vash are hell-bent on destroying all Synth life in the galaxy, and have conspired over the centuries to ensure there are no artificial beings in the Romulan Star Empire. A curious addition to Star Trek canon. Their motivation comes from having glimpsed a vision from an ancient culture which shows a powerful artificial species will come and destroy all biological life in the galaxy if synthetic life is permitted to reach a certain point of consciousness.
Curiously, once a member of the Zhat Vash sees this vision they are likely to go crazy and kill themselves by smashing rocks on their own heads or peeling their own faces off.
Did I mention that Star Trek was targeting kids?
Anyway, Picard learns of the Zhat Vash conveniently, for his ex-Tal Shiar Romulan housekeeper Laris knows all about it;
"The sole purpose of the Zhat Vash. To keep a secret so profound and terrible, just learning it can break a person's mind."
Picard is made aware that Soji is Data's daughter after her sister, Dahj, comes to him for help. After Dahj is killed by Zhat Vash soldiers Picard is motivated to uncover the mystery around his ex-Lieutenant Commander's offspring. His investigation leads him to Dr. Jirati at the Daystrom institute who informs him that the cyberneticist Maddox had discovered a way to build twin Androids from a single particle of Data's Positronic Net.
Picard decides its time to get back into space and pay Maddox a visit. He requests that Starfleet give him a small ship and crew but this "sheer fucking hubris" gets him lambasted by Admiral Clancy who promptly denies him.
This forces Picard to take matters into his own hands and assemble a ragtag crew of characters who have rather convenient back stories all tied to the unfolding mystery. Raffi, whose Starfleet career was also up-ended when the Romulan evacuation plans were laid rest, hesitantly joins Picard and they hire a ship, La Sirena, from her friend Rios. Dr. Jirati tags along and on the way they pick up Elnor, a Romulan body guard for Picard.
It takes three episodes to begin the star trekking and the layer upon layer of intrigue ensures that the audience spends a six episodes waiting for a feeble Picard to catch up with what is going on. It was quite disheartening to witness the lack of agency Picard has in his own series. He is reliant on others, being blamed or yelled at when not completely ignored. At times either completely useless, or worse, clueless.
The short, yet drawn out season focuses on Picard's journey from Earth, to Freecloud, to the Borg Reclamation project and finally to the hidden Synth home-world as he searches for Soji while simultaneously uncovering the Zhat Vash plot.
Throughout, the writers are desperate to explore adult themes but everything is surface level. Strange hints at an incestuous relationship between Narek and Narissa (the Zhat Vash operatives after Soji) is awkward at best. Raffi's alcoholism and familial problems are overshadowed by her comical swigging at booze which never gets in the way of her abilities.
The concepts the show introduces, such as the rights of synthetic life were explored in greater detail previously in Star Trek, be it Androids, Borg or holograms. Romulan subterfuge too, was explored in interesting and poignant ways in episodes such as The Enemy and The Defector.
The Borg plot-line in Picard serves little more than a plot contrivance to introduce our Romulan villains, and oddly has no connection to the introduction of Seven-of-Nine. Rather we learn that she is something called a Fenris Ranger.
This is one of the main problems the show faces, juggling The Romulans, The Zhat Vash, The Borg, The Fenris Rangers, a Dystopian version of The Federation and the fate of the Synths. It's a lot to jam-pack into the first season's unfolding plot and none of it is in any way compelling. The reliance is on violence, gore and cussing to give the show some street cred, but these tropes don't make it deep, modern television, they just make it derivative.
Ultimately, the complex plot machinations are continually initiated and resolved by introducing MacGuffins. Speeding through action sequences and pausing when exposition is needed. A scene in the penultimate episode where Raffi lays out everything that is happening is a dazzling display of poor writing; giving a character the omnipotent all knowing abilities of a narrator.
With this style of writing, the very science fiction of Star Trek is replaced with mysticism and magic, giving writers quick and easy resolutions. Toward the season finale the crew is literally given a magic wand by the Synths, first used to fix their damaged ship and later to help defeat the Zhat Vash fleet.
Star Trek however, was never about easy answers, it was about tough questions, and it used science fiction as a framework for exploring complex philosophical topics. In Deep Space Nine's pilot episode Emissary, Captain Benjamin Sisko explains humanity to the Prophets (or Wormhole Aliens),
"We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers. We explore our lives, day by day, and we explore the galaxy, trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here. Not to conquer you either with weapons or with ideas, but to co-exist and learn."
Michael Piller could not have been more eloquent.
The line, "Not to conquer you either with weapons or with ideas" is especially pressing and one which would be explored deeply throughout Deep Space Nine because Sisko and his Starfleet personnel are far from Earth and the federation, seeking to win the hearts and minds of the Bajorans and their "frontier" neighbours. This idea of co-existence despite differences carries all the way through to the final stand-off between The Federation and The Dominion.
Star Trek was at its best when it explored issues from two sides, and came up with a third. In Picard however, three-dimensional antagonists have become two-dimensional moustache twirling villains.
The thinning out of antagonists presents both cold-blooded revenge—the conquering with weapons—through Seven of Nine's vengeful vapourising of Bjayzl, and the conquering through ideas, when Picard, confronted by the reporter, lashes out at her for her ignorance of history, not to teach, but to prove her wrong.
The writers and producers opt to bend Star Trek to their point-of-view, rather than use Star Trek as a framework to explore it. This lack of exploration culminates in a lack of consequence for the characters as decisions are justified by ideology alone. Whether it is Seven's revenge, or Jerati's murder of Maddox, all but forgotten by the end of the series.
Juxtapose this with consequence in The Next Generation, when Captain Picard discovers Wesley is partially responsible for the death of a fellow Cadet in The First Duty;
The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it's scientific truth, or historical truth, or personal truth! It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based, and if you can't find it within yourself to stand up and tell the truth about what happened, you don't deserve to wear that uniform.
Truth is no longer relevant to Star Trek, Picard is not exploring new worlds or ideas, he's meandering in his own tale, disillusioned by what has become of the future.
The design, the canon, the characters, the science fiction concepts, Star Trek became important to the popular culture zeitgeist and has now been repackaged with none of the substance. Demonstrated perfectly by the literal copy-and-paste Starfleet ships in the season finale.
Sadly, Star Trek is no longer significant. There are no references to "new-Trek" in mainstream culture, and nor should there be. The removal of its alternate, hopeful future, which the diplomatic Captain Jean-Luc Picard perhaps best exemplified, goes against its very nature. The very premise of Picard suggests that Utopia can only be attained, but not held and that Gene Roddenberry's promise of an evolved humanity is simply naive.
Make no BONES about it, Star Trek is dead (Jim), resting in re-runs and memories.