Tuesday, November 17, 2020

ARTICLE: Reflections On Star Trek Picard

(This article was originally published on the website Some Kind of Star Trek in July 2020.  You can read the original article here: https://trekclivos79.blogspot.com/2020/07/guest-starring-reflections-on-picard.htm)

Like so many fans, I came to Star Trek as a child in the mid-90s. Unbeknownst to me, the franchise was in the middle of a renaissance with overlapping series and movies being released at the same time. It truly was the best of times. Trek fans were spoiled, and we didn’t even know it.

James Patrik Star Trek Picard

At the heart of this new resurgence, of course, lay Gene Roddenberry and his philosophy. After his death in 1991, the onus fell upon Rick Berman who tried his best to create television that Gene would have approved of. It was an approach that Berman himself has, at times, been critical of. Should he have permitted more serialised storytelling on The Next Generation and Voyager? Would darker themes have yielded higher ratings and therefore greater commercial success? Time certainly has been good to Deep Space Nine – once the ugly duckling of the franchise it is now experiencing a long overdue critical re-appraisal.

So, when Star Trek returned to television after more than a decade away, it was clear that many of the tropes of contemporary storytelling would be employed to bring the ageing franchise into the 21st century. The result was 2017’s Star Trek: Discovery.

I’ll admit it – I’ve never warmed to Discovery. It's certainly not for lack of trying (having watched every episode of the two seasons presently available). Sure, I could point to the unlikeable characters or the dour wartime storyline, but the cause of my discomfort lies deeper – it doesn’t feel like Star Trek.

When it was announced that Patrick Stewart would be returning to his iconic role as Jean-Luc Picard, I was elated. Not only was I excited to see one of the most beloved characters in all of science fiction return, but it symbolised a return to the 24th century (the first since 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis) and a re-engagement with established canon. As the first season of Star Trek: Picard unfolded, I began to sense a growing unease – not only in myself – but in certain segments of the fandom as well. This wasn’t the show we had hoped for, and it sure as hell didn’t feel like Star Trek. 

What follows is my personal laundry list of why Star Trek: Picard fell short of my expectations:

Patrick Stewart himself:

Patrick Stewart’s very name is synonymous with thespian excellence. His rich timbre and dedication to his craft have allowed him to create some unforgettable characters both on stage and screen. I’m saddened to say that I was less than impressed with his performance in Star Trek: Picard. His voice – one of his more formidable acting tools – is shot. No one is immune to the passage of time, and, without wanting to appear ageist, I believe he has simply aged out of the role.


Episode five featured the now infamous eye gauging scene – it was the one and only time I have turned my head away from the screen during an episode of Star Trek. It wasn’t just the scene itself that I found distressing, rather the context. The audience watches as a familiar character has his eyeball forcibly extracted as he is restrained on a bloody bed, screaming in agony.

Some in the online fanbase were quick to respond: “Star Trek has always been violent; they were just hindered by network TV censorship standards”. Others cited Harry Kim’s spaghetti-like wound in Scorpion, Part I as precedent, or, better yet, Remmick’s exploding head from Conspiracy. It’s true, Picard is not beholden to the censorship standards of the 90s, but just because they can show gory content, it does not mean they should.  At this point, I feel the need to qualify my critique by identifying myself as an ardent horror fan. I’m not “against” gore on television, but that kind of imagery is not what I want from Star Trek. 

Swearing & Contemporary dialogue:

Many reviewers have taken umbrage with some of the language used in the show (one foul mouthed Admiral in particular). I personally didn’t care for it, mainly because I feel it was it was used clumsily. Swearing for swearing’s sake. 

It reminded me of the scene between Kirk and Spock on the bus in Star Trek IV. Spock notices that contemporary speech is peppered with profanity. Kirk waves it away as a vernacular artefact of centuries past. In the Star Trek universe, this is the way humans on earth used to speak to each other. Swearing in dialogue and the use of contemporary phrases (like “dude” and “hell yeah”) shatters the illusion that we are in a future time. Which brings me to…

It breaks the reality of Star Trek:

What happened to the post scarcity utopia of the 24th century? It appears to have been supplanted by a much more cynical and nihilistic zeitgeist, almost completely embodied in the character of Raffi. Her entire motivation is driven by the trauma of her losing her “job” and her slow descent into poverty. She even compares her home to Picard’s – making reference to his “heirloom” furniture. The ugly image of a drug addicted black woman living in a trailer seems especially miscalculated given the current wave of social change that minorities around the world are attempting to initiate.

It’s depressing as hell:

Who would have thought that Seven of Nine, upon her return to the alpha quadrant, would  become a cynical, hard drinking murderer? Or that poor, gentle Icheb would be so brutally butchered that he would beg for euthanasia? The world of Star Trek: Picard is a frightening place populated by damaged characters. As the credits rolled on each episode, I was filled with a sinking feeling, disturbed by images of murder, poisonings, suicide, panic attacks, vomiting, insanity and vivisections.

On social media, many of my criticisms of the show were shouted down or dismissed derisively as “you just want old Star Trek” and “OK Boomer”. Fair enough. The show is different, radically so in places. I accept that. I often try to remember what a shock it must have been like for viewers in 1987 tuning in to see Encounter at Farpoint for the first time. But this iteration of Trek doesn’t feel right.

So, what does Star Trek feel like to me?

It feels like a slice of media that challenges me with bold science fiction ideas. It feels intellectual, and at times, a little high minded. But mostly, it makes me think about the future – a time when all of the resources our planet currently devotes to war and interpersonal division will be funnelled into the exploration of space.

At least, that’s what Star Trek means to me. Here’s hoping season two can offer a less depressing vision of the 24th century.


No comments:

Post a Comment

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins