There’s a lot of buzz on the Internet about Star Trek: Picard. It seems like the critics really love it, giving it an 87-90% on Rotten Tomatoes. The audience reaction seems a little more mixed with a 58% average. Some people love it. Some people thought it was okay. Some people didn’t like it, or even outright hated it.
I am… one of the ones who did not like it.
To be clear, I really wanted to like this show. I went in hoping, even expecting, to like it, even if it didn’t do things quite the way I’d thought they would. I figured it was going to be darker and grittier, at least at first, because Star Trek tends to explore and reflect the issues of the time in which it was made. (Plus, “dark and gritty” seems to be the modern aesthetic for film and TV shows.) When I saw the first two episodes back in January 2020, I was stoked. I was excited. I was interested. Months later, after watching through all of The Next Generation TV series and the TNG films, I finally got to finish watching Star Trek: Picard in mid-July 2020.
Throughout the show, I remained interested and engaged, but I slowly stopped enjoying myself. Rather than reflecting on or pondering modern issues and then giving us hope or optimism that we can overcome these challenges, Star Trek: Picard reinforced the feeling of overwhelming hopelessness and disillusionment that pervades modern culture. Regardless of the individual merits of parts of the show, for me, Star Trek: Picard left an overall impression of doom and gloom, of darkness and depression, even with the technically “happy” or “hopeful” ending.
So, strap yourselves in and grab your space-weed because this look at Star Trek: Picard (hereafter referred to as STP) is going to be a long one.
A quick caveat before we continue:
You’ll probably notice a recurring theme throughout this review, which is that Star Trek: Picard doesn’t feel like proper Star Trek. That it’s too dark and depressing and a lot of fans of classic Trek don’t like it because it feels like a betrayal of the tenants of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future. If you’ve only seen the new installments of Star Trek, like the J.J. Abrams movies, Star Trek Discovery, and STP, or if you saw classic Trek and didn’t like it, then this review might not resonate with you. It may be easy for you to say, “Oh, Kat, you just don’t like dark fiction or violent shows.” This is not true. I don’t mind violence or dark themes if it serves a purpose. There are plenty of science fiction shows out there, from The Expanse to Altered Carbon to Westworld, that can get pretty dark, gritty, and violent, and yet still are great shows. But that kind of cynicism and dystopian view of the future was never a part of Star Trek. Classic Trek shows have explored plenty of difficult topics over the years, but never wallowed in the trauma or used it as a throw-away scene for shock value. Star Trek always offered a sense of hope and optimism, which is sorely lacking in these new shows that seem to equate “dystopian” with “mature” and “idealism” with “childishness.”
The new series [Discovery and Picard] are so opposed to Roddenberry idealism that the messaging is no longer “we can be better and accomplish anything” but “no matter what we accomplish we’ll never be better”
— Sikozu (Mar. 28, 2020)
If you like NuTrek, that’s fine. You like what you like. But I hope that this article will help explain why I, and other folks like me, see STP as a betrayal of the guiding principles upon which Star Trek is based.
Table of Contents:
Part III: Shadows of a supporting cast
Part IV: Kill ALL the people…?!
Part V: Misery compounds misery
Part VI: Horrific implications of the finale
Part VIII: Conclusions
Before we get into the doom and gloom, is there anything that I did like about STP? Well, actually, there was quite a lot that I did like… at least at first.
Things I liked in Star Trek: Picard
- The intro! I think at least half of my excitement was from the gorgeous opening credits for STP. Beautiful, intriguing visuals and leading with the violin, Data’s preferred instrument, was just a lovely way to begin.
- The first two episodes were great. They set up this new, strange-yet-familiar world we’re in very well, introduced us to a familiar character, introduced Dahj well and made us like her, and gave us some serious mystery to consider and worry at. I was engaged both mentally and emotionally. Episodes 3 (“The End is the Beginning) and 4 (“Absolute Candor”) were also pretty good, moving things forward and kept me watching to see what would happen next.
- Dahj was wonderful. Perhaps it was because of what she went through, or the fact that because of her connection with Data she immediately turned to Picard for help, but I really liked her and felt sympathy for her. I wanted Picard to protect her, not just as “Data’s daughter” or as a newly awoken synth, but just for her own sake as an individual.
- I loved seeing Riker and Troi and their daughter Kestra (Eps. 7 “Nepenthe”). I have plenty of other issues with that episode, but the interactions between them and Picard and Soji were wonderful.
- Picard’s interactions with his Romulan friends, including Laris and Zhaban at the vineyard, and in the flashback when he was helping resettle the Romulans during the evacuation of their homeworld, were great.
- Seeing more Romulan culture in general was amazing, especially since we’ve never gotten to see too much of it. The Qowat Milat (Romulan warrior nuns) in particular were really neat, reminding me a little of the Bene Gesserit from Dune.
- HUGH! I can’t tell you how happy I was to get to see Hugh again, especially after coming straight from watching The Next Generation (TNG). Seeing him try to free and rehabilitate fellow ex-Borg (xBs) on the Artifact was fantastic. His relationship with Picard was clearly a good one, as probably one of the few people who can truly understand Picard’s complicated relationship and lingering PTSD regarding the Borg.
- The whole reclamation of the Borg into xBs was great. Creepy and sad and neat all at once.
- Raffi, Picard’s former first officer. She’s very different from the other Starfleet officers we’ve seen, and it was interesting (if sad) to see how not everyone can keep their life together after leaving (or being kicked out of) Starfleet. The decision to make her a druggie was a bold one, I thought, for Star Trek, which seems to pride itself on being more clean-cut and straight-laced.
- Elnor, who is just a big kid with a sword and no real social skills. We did not get to see enough of him adapting to life outside the Qowat Milat.
- Although I had heard of her, this was the first time I’d seen Seven of Nine (because I haven’t watched Voyager yet), and she was pretty awesome. I was especially fond of the part where she has temporary become a Borg Queen (and the show did not do enough to explore that, but I digress.)
- The existence of the android colony, all essentially children or descendants of Data, was an interesting base concept, and there was a lot to like about that idea.
- The super-secret Romulan police, the Zhat Vash, added another layer to Romulan paranoia. How they were worked into the story and their motivations was very interesting.
- I found Dr. Agnes Jurati surprisingly sympathetic throughout the show, even after she murdered Bruce Maddox. I always felt like she was an earnest person trying desperately to do the right thing, even when she did the wrong thing. Maybe it was because she almost always looked like she was on the verge of tears that engaged my sympathy, despite my better judgment.
- The holograms of Captain Rios could be pretty funny.
- There was a lot of tension and dramatic buildup in Episode 9 (“Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1”) and some harder ethical questions that got introduced which were very engaging and felt like they belonged in a Star Trek show.
But even all of the things I liked come with major caveats. “I liked it until this happened…” “I liked them until they did this…” Etc, etc, etc. It was like the writers had some really good ideas, really good set-ups, and interesting characters… and then didn’t know what to do with them or how to follow through in a way that got their message across (whatever that was) without sacrificing all positive feelings and logic along the way.
The biggest problem with Picard… is Picard himself
I know this is a controversial thing to say. And to be clear, I think Patrick Stewart is an amazing actor who has continuously put his heart and soul into the role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. This is not a criticism of his acting abilities, but rather of the decisions the show creators and script writers made for the character and/or the execution of that vision.
“But Picard is old now!” I can hear some people say. “People change when they get old. They’ve made mistakes. They have regrets. You can’t expect them to be and act the same at 80 as they did at 40!” These are all valid points. I did not expect Picard of STP to be exactly the same as Picard from TNG or the movies. But even though people can change, and not always for the better, I didn’t expect Picard to be quite this out of character. And I ended up not liking him for most of the show as a result.
To be clear, Picard was not out of character all of the time. But there were certain key times, certain key moments that made me think, “No. That is not at all how Picard would act. He would say or do something like this instead.” The level of inconsistency with the character was both bewildering and upsetting. It’s especially weird for me because, while a lot of people in the Star Wars fandom were unhappy with how Luke Skywalker was portrayed in The Last Jedi, I loved Grumpy Old Luke. I could understand why he became the way he did, why he retreated from the rest of the galaxy, and enjoyed a performance that I had not expected. But when I saw Grumpy Old Captain Picard… it didn’t work for me. So, let’s explore why.
While Picard admits in The Next Generation that he was an arrogant blowhard in his youth, over the course of the series, he tempered that arrogance with wisdom and humility. Even during his out-of-character moments in the TNG films, he still ended on a calm and mature note. But this is not the case in STP. Here, Picard throws his weight around a lot as if he was still in command of a ship or had any influence whatsoever, solely because he’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard. He threatens Admiral Clancy when she (understandably) refuses to grant him a ship to go wandering around the galaxy, which burns a potentially important bridge. He shows up at Raffi’s place, apparently after not speaking to her for fourteen years, and expects her to help him without reservation, which Raffi actually calls him out on. On Vashti, he deliberately provokes the Romulan refugees by pulling down a “Romulans Only” sign and sitting in their cafe. If Elnor hadn’t decided to help him (by killing fellow Romulans) Picard would have been badly beaten, if not killed outright. What happened to diplomacy? Most egregiously, Picard makes promises to the androids to speak on their behalf to the Federation, which Dr. Altan Inigo Soong rightly calls bullshit on. I can’t tell what the show was trying to say with this. Since Picard’s warnings all turn out to be right… is it okay to be a threatening, crotchety old person because someone else will always bail you out if something goes wrong? Perhaps the writers were trying to work in a “fall and redemption” kind of narrative, but since Picard is always proven right, it doesn’t feel like he learned a lesson in humility by the end of the show, so I really don’t know what they were going for with this.
Picard does not act out of character all of the time, but STP missed the boat on several key moments. After Starfleet refused to help the Romulans continue the evacuation when the androids destroyed the Mars shipyards and called Picard’s bluff by accepting his resignation, I could accept that he would be bitter and retreat from the world for a while. But I did have a few problems with how it was portrayed. First, just because Picard resigned didn’t mean that his name couldn’t still carry weight and have an impact, especially at that point. The Federation may not have money, but they must have some way to hire extra ships. (After all, Picard seems to have to pay Rios for transport on La Sirena.) He can own and run a vineyard, but he couldn’t put collateral down to hire other ships to continue the evacuation, even if it was on a smaller scale?
And second, even if that wasn’t the case, why did he apparently never go back to help the refugees who were already offworld, like the Qowat Milat warrior nuns on Vashti? In STP, it doesn’t look like Picard ever sent a message to Vashti, let alone visited. Was he too ashamed that the Federation was no longer willing to help? But if he was no longer a Starfleet officer, why would that matter? He could still help in some other way, or at least would do his best until it got to be too much or he faced too many setbacks and opposition. Frustrated by the lack of support, he would finally retreat into self-imposed isolation. If he had tried carrying on for a few more years but was finally beaten down by interference or lack of help from the Federation, that would better explain his bitterness and disillusionment, as well as his determination to solve the mystery of the new-wave synths himself.
Also, as a consequence of his resignation, his first officer Raffi lost her job. Her entire life went to hell after that as she was consumed with the search for proof that Romulans were behind the attack on the shipyards. And STP makes it sound like Picard never contacted Raffi after she was fired, that he didn’t bother to check up on her for fourteen years. Not until he needed something from her. Now, perhaps there was some periodic contact for a while that petered out, as some friendships do. Maybe he did try to contact her and was rebuffed. Maybe she tried to contact him, but he felt too guilty and embarrassed about accidentally dragging her down with him to face her, so he didn’t answer… but there’s no evidence within the show itself to support any of those theories. As far as STP is concerned, Picard retreated into his vineyard and didn’t speak to, visit, or otherwise contact any of his old friends, officers, or the people he’d promised to help for fourteen whole years.
And that… just isn’t Picard. He doesn’t abandon his people. No matter how bitter or upset or depressed he was, he always made sure to take care of his people. If there was a reason why that didn’t happen this time, or that this was a major regret he was trying to rectify, it isn’t firmly established or followed through with well enough to be certain.
3. Lack of empathy: Dahj vs. Soji
This point dovetails strongly with Picard’s inconsistency, which we explored above. His treatment of Dahj versus his treatment of Soji is a huge example of this. Picard shows a remarkable lack of concern for the the now-dead Dahj once he learns she has a sister and a lack of empathy towards Soji when he finally reaches her.
I liked Dahj immediately, but for some reason I never warmed up to Soji. Maybe this is because there was effort put into Dahj’s predicament, and Picard actually tries to break the news gently. He forms a connection with her, and so does the audience because they are trying to understand what is happening alongside the two of them. Soji does have an attempt made on her life, but I didn’t find it nearly as compelling or interesting as the attack on Dahj. With Dahj, we didn’t know what she was or how she knew what she knew, or why she was seeing visions of Picard and trusted him implicitly. With Soji, we already knew what she was and were waiting for her to catch up to the audience so the plot could move forward, which really killed any tension or investment in the revelation that she’s an android. We already saw a (far more dramatic) revelation and the consequences, so Soji’s journey felt like a drag on the plot at best and a massive let-down at worst. But when Soji finally does catch up with the audience, we get a very different reaction. Despite being in danger, she doesn’t trust Picard the way Dahj did. I don’t know if that’s just because she wasn’t on Earth or if the trigger wasn’t the same… But presumably, if they were both formed from the same base programming, then she should have trusted Picard when she was in danger as well, and no explanation is given as to why she doesn’t but Dahj did.
Not that Picard himself does a damn thing to reassure her. While he tries to connect with and explain things gently to Dahj, it’s like the writers just assumed that, because he connected with Dahj, they didn’t need to lay any groundwork for a relationship between him and Soji. “They look the same, so they are the same and everything should be the same!” Except that they aren’t the same person, and have not had the same experiences. Picard has had enough encounters with transporter doubles and androids to know that. Why the hell should Soji trust him and why would he expect her to trust him without any explanation? I can understand that, since they needed to get out of the Borg cube quickly, there was no time to explain things to Soji like he was able to with Dahj. He just had to get her out of there. But once they are on Nepenthe, he doesn’t bother to take a moment to explain who he is, why he’s there, or who and what she is. Soji learns that she’s an android, not from the grandfather figure who rescued her, but from a teenage girl who accidentally blurts it out. Maybe Picard was planning on waiting until they reached the house, but not even a single line of dialog is spent establishing that. And even when they reach the house, Picard seems to lose interest in Soji. Riker and Troi and their daughter Kestra do all the hard work of trying to get Soji to trust Picard. He seems to do everything he can to undermine that trust with passive silence at best and horribly insensitive comments at worst.
4. No clear motivation = no character arc
The inconsistency of Picard’s reactions and behavior makes it difficult to understand his motivations. And without a clear or understandable motivation, we can’t really go on a journey with that character. STP begins with Picard wanting to protect Dahj, both because she came to him for help and because she’s the daughter of his friend Data. When Dahj is killed, Picard’s mission changes to find out why she was killed, who killed her, and then to protect her twin sister from suffering the same fate. Then, almost three-quarters of the way through the show, suddenly it all becomes about him and fulfilling his own personal desire to have a mission. During the dinner at the Riker-Troi house, Picard flat out states that he’s helping Soji because it gives him meaning and purpose, and her reluctance to trust him will not stand in his way.
Like… how freakin’ selfish is that? No wonder she doesn’t trust him! It’s not only contradictory, but it’s also very out of character for him to say something like that. And, unlike before, when his insensitive, out-of-character comments to Soji prompted Deanna to chastise him, neither Troi nor Riker have anything except praise for their former captain. During that dinner, I really wanted him to address Soji’s concerns by saying, “I may no longer be in Starfleet, but my duty is still to the truth.” That is the Picard I know and wanted to see.
Now, I know it could be argued that a character isn’t required to have just one motivation. A character can be motivated to do something for both selfish and altruistic reasons simultaneously. It is entirely possible that Picard sincerely wants to protect and help Dahj and Soji, but at the same time also feels personal fulfillment from being useful again, having a mission and a purpose. I could even see him admitting that to Riker during their heart-to-heart conversation by the lake, confessing that, despite the horrible things that have happened, he’s perversely glad to be doing something again. Making a difference. I feel like maybe the writers and creators were trying to explore Picard in retirement in a way that couldn’t be done with Kirk in the film Star Trek: Generations because Kirk is killed only a few months to a year after he retired from Starfleet (at least from his perspective). If that was indeed what they were going for… I don’t think it was executed very well.
Shadows of a supporting cast
I want to make it clear that the following complaints or issues that I have are, for the most part, not meant to disparage the actors. Pretty much all of them performed beautifully, but there are some serious issues with development, presentation, and staying power that left many with potential just floundering. Overall, this collection of characters feels like a group of D&D tropes rather than like fully realized people.
1. Soji is a prop, not a person
I really wish that the plot had followed Dahj instead of Soji because the former established a much better emotional connection with the audience. Unlike Dahj, Soji never feels like a complete person to be helped and protected, but rather an object to be sought and passed back and forth between factions. She is the embodiment of a MacGuffin. If the show wanted to follow Soji, then they needed to do a better job of establishing an emotional connection with her and her struggle, which never really panned out.
I also didn’t understand Soji’s infatuation with the Romulan Narek. I didn’t like him from the start, nor could I see why Soji would ever trust him because… well, he pretty much admitted that he was part of the Tal Shiar. At the very least, she couldn’t be sure if he was or not, and even if the Federation and the Romulans were ostensibly allies on the Artifact, it would be prudent to be wary around him. She’s devastated when he betrays her… and yet aside from being good in bed (I guess?) we are given no explanation as to why she trusts him so much. Is it just an android thing because Data was so trusting? But if Soji was sent specifically to go looking for the truth about what happened during the attack on Mars, which involved synths and Romulans, then you would think that Maddox or Soong would have programmed her with some healthy skepticism of Romulan overtures.
Soji’s sudden antipathy towards organics makes little sense. Her decision to go along with Sutra’s plan to call the uber-synths to destroy all organic life seems like it comes out of nowhere. While I can understand her feeling confused and afraid, scared of the Romulans and angry at Narek, it makes no sense why she would jump to genocide of everything in the galaxy. Did she forget that Kestra and Riker and Troi, who only showed her kindness, are organics? There’s no indication that the new-wave synths can control the uber-synths and direct them to just kill the Romulans or the Zhat Vash specifically, so calling them means everything will be destroyed. Nor are the uber-synths there to either give the new-wave synths something to protect them from the organics, or to take them away from this hostile galaxy and into their android paradise in another dimension. Either of those options would make more sense than destroying all living things in this dimension or galaxy.
2. Raffi and Elnor never get properly developed
Out of all of the supporting cast, Raffi and Elnor were my favorites, and they had the closest connections to Picard. They both had reasons to be angry with him, to not want to help him, and to be sources of regret for him to try to make right. The choice to make Raffi an addict obsessed with conspiracy theories was an interesting one, and I really felt for her during the scene when she attempts to reconnect with her son. Unfortunately, STP seems more interested in showcasing trauma for shock value rather than actually leading to something or saying something about it.
Elnor is a remarkable mixture of bad-ass warrior and little kid. Raised by the all-female Qowat Milat, the closest person he’s had as a male role model was Picard, and the contrast between how competent he is in battle versus how out of depth he is in social situations was both sweet and funny. It can be hard to balance out an ensemble cast in just ten episodes, but these two in particular felt short-changed. I think I would have liked the show better if they’d focused on the trio of Picard, Raffi, and Elnor trying to solve all of these mysteries rather than cluttering up the canvas with extra characters.
3. Everyone forgets that Agnes is a murderer
Actress Alison Pill played Dr. Agnes Jurati with such skill that I found myself constantly feeling sympathetic towards her, even after she killed Bruce Maddox. However, although she’s clearly a naive person who is constantly trying to do what she thinks is best, that still doesn’t absolve her of what she did. And I was really disappointed, even angry, that at the end of the show, she’s standing on the bridge of La Sirena (apparently forming a relationship with Captain Rios), as if helping the synths made everything okay again. Only an episode earlier, she said she was going to turn herself in to the Federation. Now, I could see an argument being made for extenuating circumstances, that she was being manipulated or even mind-controlled to an extent by Commodore Oh… but she still should have faced some kind of consequence for it.
4. Rios is a non-entity
I swear, I did not know Rios’s name until I had to look it up to write this review. While his numerous look-alike holograms with different accents could be fun, there just wasn’t anything particularly interesting or compelling about him. This wouldn’t have been a problem if he was a background character, only made a short appearance, or got killed early on, but he’s part of the main cast from Episode 3 (“The End is the Beginning”) onward. It’s never explained why he had a shuriken embedded in his shoulder, or why he didn’t bother to have the EMH remove it or even give him painkillers. I suppose they were going for the dark, brooding, mysterious space captain, but we’ve seen that so many times in television shows and science fiction that, frankly, it’s boring. Aside from the holograms and the La Sirena itself, Captain Rios really brings nothing to the table. (And even the ship itself seemed devoid of personality.)
5. Seven of Nine’s empty cameo
Now, full disclosure: as of the writing of this review, I haven’t seen more than three episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. I do not have the background for or connection with Seven of Nine that other viewers of STP might have. This was essentially my introduction to the character. And for the most part, I liked her, but her role still felt rather empty. Like… she was a bad-ass fighter and former Borg and that was it. I was very curious when she temporarily became a Borg Queen and thought that would be an interesting avenue to explore. A Borg returning to the collective… to mobilize the Borg against the Romulans murdering helpless xBs? Fascinating! But STP drops the idea within minutes with no apparent hardship on her part, which killed the tension and drama of her decision almost before it had a chance to build.
6. No compelling villains
Creepy? Yes. Deranged? Yes. Annoying? Yes. Compelling? No.
I didn’t like Narek from the start and that feeling of greasy opportunism didn’t diminish over the course of the show. His sister Narissa and the criminal Bjayzl from Freecloud are almost indistinguishable from one another, and can be summed up with the descriptor “sadist.” (Also, I was getting some very incestuous vibes from Narek and Narissa, so… yuck.) While Commodore Oh is in a position to be the terrifying spider pulling the strings, she makes some serious blunders that make me wonder how she managed to go unnoticed by the Federation for so long. Sutra notwithstanding, the synths are clearly not supposed to be the villains, and the uber-synths from another dimension are too remote to be taken as a serious threat until the last two episodes. We could get into a debate about villain versus antagonist and all of those different types, but it seemed like there were simultaneously too many opposing forces, which diffused the overall sense of threat, and also none at all for Picard (the supposed center of the show) to really push against, either in the form of a particular person or a more nebulous force like bureaucracy or old age.
Kill ALL the people…?!
Okay, I have a major issue with death in fiction. Or at least, in fiction that historically keeps their body count to the absolute minimum… like Star Trek. Deaths do happen, but they are few and far between, and when they do hit, they serve a specific and important purpose. There is little to no gratuitous violence in classic Trek.
But the modern iterations seem to think that in order to be considered “mature” or “more realistic,” you need copious amounts of gore, violence, and character deaths. This is a major problem which dragged the story down and made STP so depressing. Not every show can, or should, be like Game of Thrones. Technically there aren’t that many deaths in STP, at least of named characters, but in my opinion the deaths that they had were largely grotesque for the sake of shock value and were, for the most part, utterly unnecessary.
The bloody death of Icheb as the intro to Episode 5 (“Stardust City Rag”) was the first unequivocal signal to me that STP was going downhill and wasn’t likely to stop. I didn’t even know who Icheb was, and yet was it really necessary for his death to be that violent? That gory? Maybe it was supposed to give Seven of Nine even more reason to want to kill Bjayzl, but I can think of half-a-dozen ways to convey the same motivation without lingering over shots of a man’s eyeball being ripped out of his face without anesthetic. This entire episode is bracketed with death, since Maddox is killed right after being rescued, and by a character who up until this point has been the sweetheart of the group. But no one seems too torn up about it (except his murderer, Agnes) even though he was a friend of Data and, in a way, was Soji’s and Dahj’s father too. And this is quickly followed up with a graphic sequence of Agnes attempting to commit suicide.
The graphic suicides and murders don’t stop there. In Episode 2 (“Maps and Legends”), we see a flashback of the Mars shipyards when a synth called F8 initiates the attack and kills its human crewmates before committing suicide. While shocking, this is not as gratuitous or unnecessary as the other deaths in STP. The sequence is also shot and edited in such a way that you know what is happening without lingering in detail. But it culminates in yet another suicide. Later, in Episode 8 (“Broken Pieces”), we see the Romulan women of the Zhat Vash receive “the Admonition” from a glowing ring, supposedly left by an ancient race to warn of the danger of creating synthetic life. All but two of them commit suicide in various, horrible ways, like clawing their eyes out or bashing their head repeatedly against a rock. Even Seven of Nine contemplates suicide while sitting in the wreckage of the Borg cube with Elnor after they crash on the synths’ colony world. Charming. Very optimistic of you, NuTrek. Those of us who have struggled (or continue to struggle) with suicidal thoughts thank you for the plethora of triggers you’ve managed to include in your show.
But for me, the worst death was Hugh’s. His death falls into the “completely unnecessary” category as far as I’m concerned. They had a fake-out where you thought that Narissa was going to kill him, but she didn’t, and I breathed a sigh of relief. At that point, I should have known better. In the very next episode, she knifes him in the throat. But… why? It isn’t enough to watch Narissa murder helpless xBs and then space the rest of the un-reclaimed Borg? No, they had to kill Hugh too because heaven forbid anyone decent or honest or sweet survive this show.
If I sound angry and bitter, it’s because I am. Star Trek trying to be dark and edgy is so not my thing and so not what Star Trek is about. I didn’t like it in Nemesis, I didn’t like it in Discovery, and I sure as hell don’t enjoy this fascination with body horror, torture porn, and shitty coping mechanisms continuing to be showcased in STP. This darkness and death pulled the tone of the show down, which only made the lighter or happier portions of it even more jarring, like they don’t belong in the same series. We get a brief reprieve in Episode 7 (“Nepenthe”), but this is overshadowed by Hugh’s pointless death… which takes place in the same episode! And even Riker and Troi’s mostly idyllic retirement is marred by the loss of their son to a rare disease, thanks to the Federation’s ban on building synths.
Misery compounds misery
I understand that not everyone can get a happily ever after. I understand the desire to make new shows darker or more realistic because the old way seems too naive or idealistic. But I really don’t understand the desire to just completely break and destroy beloved characters.
I’m not saying everything has to be perfect and full of roses, nor am I saying that every character should have a perfect future. There should be flaws or problems for at least some of them, in order to create tension and drama, to present goals to reach and obstacles to overcome. But literally every single character in this show, both new and old, either have had horrible things happen to them before STP begins, or have horrible things happen to them over the course of the show. Granted, a lot of bad things did or have happened to other characters in classic Star Trek, but STP takes this to a whole new level of mental and emotional trauma… all without having anything constructive to say about it. There is no real exploration, no healing, nothing new to be said about dealing with that trauma. Only a constant refrain of, “Look how messed up and unhappy everyone is!”
Cases in point:
- Picard retreats from everyone after Starfleet turned its back on him, and not only fails to keep in contact with any of his former comrades but also doesn’t seem to do anything else for fourteen years to help the very refugees he had lost his command for.
- Raffi was cut out of her son’s life due to her obsession with conspiracy theories, sending her spiraling into addiction.
- Riker and Troi lost their eldest child to a disease that could have been cured if synths had not been banned. Which also means that Kestra watched her big brother die.
- Agnes suffers from the visions Commodore Oh put in her head of the galactic destruction synthetic life would bring if left unchecked, driving her to kill her friend and lover, Maddox.
- Rios watched his captain commit suicide after killing a pair of synths under Commodore Oh’s orders during a first contact mission and was drummed out of Starfleet soon after. Now he lives alone on a spaceship with only holos of himself for company.
- Elnor was abandoned by the only father figure he ever knew and spent his entire life in a Romulan refugee camp.
- The Federation turned its back on helping the Romulans, becoming isolationist and xenophobic after a single (albeit horrific) terrorist attack.
- Millions of people died on Mars thanks to the Zhat Vash, and the planet is apparently still burning.
- Dozens if not hundreds of synths were either deactivated or “aborted” and banned from the Federation.
- Dahj watches her boyfriend get murdered and is then murdered herself.
- Soji watches her entire identity fall apart and then her boyfriend nearly kills her.
- Seven of Nine fights a losing battle against raiders and other bad actors out on the frontier, is forced to perform a mercy killing on a person who she sees as her child, and watches all of the Borg who might have been saved killed. (As temporary Borg Queen, she probably also feels them die.)
- Hugh sees the xBs on the Artifact nearly wiped out before being murdered himself.
- The androids in the colony seem harmless, but at least one of them (Sutra) is willing to kill one of her own sisters (Saga) in order to get the others to agree to call the uber-synths to destroy all organic life in the galaxy… which provides powerful justification for the Zhat Vash’s fear and loathing of synthetic life. And the other synths seem passively okay with this, despite being decedents of Data, one of the most passionate lovers of humanity.
- Dr. Altan Inigo Soong is an arrogant prick for the most part and doesn’t seem at all concerned about stopping Sutra from destroying all organic life in the galaxy until he finds out that Sutra was the one who killed Saga.
- Picard ends up dying, is replaced by a synthetic look-alike, and no one seems to care. (To be discussed further below.)
- Data’s consciousness has been trapped for at least ten years in a quantum simulation, and when finally we see him again, he asks Picard to kill him. (To be discussed further below.)
Not one single person seems to have attained any kind of happiness or stability or joy. STP continues to crush any hope of achieving that as it goes along and does little to try to bring it back to even bittersweet levels. Poor coping mechanisms such as retreating from society and drug abuse abound in multiple characters. Even the set design, lighting, and costumes make much of STP look dark and depressing, more like a detention level in Star Wars or the filthy levels of Downbelow in Babylon 5. It’s like STP is saying, “Everything turns out awful for these people so don’t even try imagining a happy ending.”
Again, the addition of some darkness, of some things not working out well for character,s wouldn’t be so bad… if there wasn’t so goddamn much of it. This misery compounded over the course of the show and combined with the violence, the gore, and some truly disturbing themes and implications, just overwhelms the good aspects that the show contains.
Horrific implications of the finale
There are two parts to this, and neither of them are good. It’s like the creators or writers took all of the bad things that didn’t work for Data and Picard in Star Trek: Nemesis and decided it would be a good idea to not just continue them in STP, but make them worse. To compound the indignity. Basically, the finale of STP feels like an episode of Black Mirror with Star Trek trappings. And it is both strange and disturbing to me that no one seems to be talking about it.
1. “You haven’t made me immortal, have you?”
I didn’t fully understand the importance of this problem until my friend Fox explained it to me. This section on the ramifications of Picard becoming an android is based on her explanation. Thank you Fox!
Episodes about copies, doubles, clones, transporter accidents, identity, and the nature of the self make me really uncomfortable at the best of times. And this entire thing was, in my opinion, not handled well in STP. Picard’s death was a double-fake-out. The entire sequence is just… weirdly put together. He dies on the planet, not in the hospital or lab, but out in the square with the others looking on. Then there are shots of them mourning what looks like hours later because the sun is going down that evening, or maybe coming up the following morning. There’s lots of crying and some lines that are supposed to be profound, I guess. Then there’s the sequence with Picard and Data in the quantum simulation where it is established that yes, Picard did die, but they made a copy of his consciousness and so he’ll be able to “live” again.
But not really because… Picard is dead.
You can argue that we’re just a compilation of memories and thus copying those over is in fact copying the same person, but it’s not a transfer. They didn’t move Picard’s brain waves or physical brain over into a new receptacle while he was still alive and allow the old, now empty, body to die. They made a copy of a dying mind, that mind died, and now the copy will live in a new synthetic body. (Although I’m not sure how they managed this because Picard died in the square before they could move him into the lab to scan his brain, so… insert technobabble solution here I guess?) But Star Trek has already established that copies are not the same as the originals. If the copy had been moved over to the android body and then Picard had recovered, there would have been two Picards that are not the same person. And then if the original recovered Picard died… his copy would live and still be a different individual.
So the writers seemed to want to have their cake (keep Picard alive) and eat it too (have a dramatic emotional death scene) and it just turned out like a horribly cavalier treatment of identity. Picard, our Picard, the one we’ve followed through seven seasons of TNG, four movies, and almost a full ten episodes of STP… did die. Now we’re following a copy and are supposed to respond to him as we would to the original Picard. And yet none of the other characters seem to have any qualms or concerns or discomfort with this. It makes me feel like we aren’t supposed to mourn at all, that as long as the person looks the same and has the same memories, then they are the same person. But are they? I don’t know, but STP treats a really deep and disturbing philosophical question as a throwaway gimmick. To me, it is disrespectful to a beloved character to not even acknowledge this issue.
2. “I would be profoundly grateful if you terminated my consciousness.”
Which brings me to a scene that gets a ton of praise for bringing Data’s story to a satisfying end. The most terrible and horrific part of this show comes when Data and Picard sit down in the dark living room of the quantum simulation to talk.
Now, I understand that the writers probably wanted Picard to be able to say a proper farewell to Data. I understand that. He misses Data. He’s been mourning him for twenty years. He never did get to say goodbye or thank him for saving the Enterprise. But early on in STP, Agnes said that, in theory, Data could be reconstituted from a single neuron. That Data’s essence, his self, would be stored there and thus he could still be alive. It seems that this essence, Data’s self and memories, are being stored on USB drives at the android colony, being used as a base pattern of some kind to create more (supposedly stable) androids. But the person Picard encounters inside the quantum simulation doesn’t seem to be a lifeless collection of data. Rather it’s actually Data.
Real, conscious, living Data is trapped inside a computer chip.
How long has he been stored like this? At least nine years, since Rios encountered androids in 2390 and STP happens in 2399. But it may have been longer, since we don’t know how long before that a neuron from Data was found, or how long it took them to make Beautiful Flower and Jana so perfect that when Rios met them he had no idea they were synths.
And yet… in all that time, despite having the tech to create fully operational synth bodies which can even age at a proper metabolic rate (as evidenced by the body they made for Picard), NO ONE MADE A NEW BODY FOR DATA. THEY COULD HAVE GIVEN HIM A BODY THAT AGED LIKE A HUMAN SO HE COULD EXPERIENCE DEATH NATURALLY. BUT THEY DIDN’T.
Instead he’s kept trapped in this box until Picard’s copied consciousness stops by. Then Data asks Picard to deactivate him because he wants to die. Forget Data’s speech about feeling that life is precious because it is short and finite. He could have been experiencing that life, and its natural end, in the real world. Even if they didn’t develop the bodies that aged naturally until just recently, they still could have made a more conventional android body and transferred Data’s consciousness into that instead.
Perhaps Soong and Maddox honestly didn’t know that Data was conscious in the quantum simulation. But I find it hard to believe, with their knowledge and technology, that they could be unaware that Data was conscious. Soong seems to have known because he is as solemn as the rest of them when Picard says he has to keep a promise to an old friend and pulls out the space-age USBs. And even if they didn’t know, wouldn’t Data have found a way to communicate to say he was “alive”? Unless Data wanted to stay in a box as just an electronic signal… but why? He was all about wanting to be human. He had friends from the Enterprise. A career in Starfleet. Why wouldn’t he want to get back to them? (Unless Soong wouldn’t let him go because he wanted to make more androids, in which case Data was held prisoner and exploited for a decade. I don’t really buy that explanation, but it is a possibility, and one that makes this entire scenario even more messed up than it already was.)
I am sincerely stunned by comments that state how moving and sweet and fitting this final end was for Data. All I could think about was how easily this entire situation could have been avoided. Was it nice to see Picard and Data sit down together and have a final farewell? Yes, but not with this kind of existential price tag attached.
Themes — What is Star Trek: Picard trying to say?
Honestly… it’s hard to tell. Sometimes you catch a glimpse or see a set-up for a theme or idea, but they are rarely followed through on in any clear or consistent way. And the themes or ideas STP does seem to support or present are… problematic at best. Many times, STP seems to be trying to undermine the themes present in the rest of Star Trek, most notably the idea of a hopeful future.
Themes/Messages STP tried to explore:
- Regrets are bad and should be dealt with? This seemed to be a major idea underlying this version of Picard, and I agree that exploring this could have been very compelling. Regrets can paralyze you and past mistakes can haunt you. The problem is that, in STP, it doesn’t seem like it takes much for Picard to overcome regret. The two main people who he needed to beg forgiveness from for abandoning them (Raffi and Elnor), help him without much fuss. He does apologize, but because of the circumstances, it feels more like he’s trying to get an unpleasant duty out of the way because he needs something from them, not because he is genuinely distressed by what has happened. The nature of the regret for Picard isn’t made very clear, and so we have no idea what he would need to do in order to come to terms with his past mistakes.
- Corruption of the Federation ideals? We’ve already seen elements of corruption in TNG, mostly from various admirals in Starfleet, but the entire topic is explored with much greater depth, finesse, and sensitivity in Deep Space Nine than here in STP. There’s a lot of darkness in DS9, but that is balanced out with light from the ensemble cast. It doesn’t drag you down. In STP, the Federation does an abrupt 180 when they refuse to help evacuate the Romulans, and then synths attack the Mars shipyards, prompting the Federation to ban the existence of an entire race. The reason they decide not to continue the evacuation is semi-plausible (other member worlds threatened to leave if they helped) but at the same time, wouldn’t an end to conflict with the Romulans have been a better overall outcome? And since when was a terrorist attack justification for the Federation to commit a form a mass murder (if permanently deactivating a synthetic life form against their will is considered murder)? Maybe this was all supposed to be a reflection of the United States’ reaction to 9/11… but that would have been a “reflection of modern issues” back in the early 2000s. In 2019-2020, we have some different, more pressing concerns. And in a time when everything seems to be stained with corruption, wouldn’t it have been nice to look forward to and aspire towards a future where that is less prevalent and more under control than what we have now?
- Even heroes have issues? Star Trek has never pretended that its characters are perfect. So many have fractured families, bruised or broken relationships, and plenty of other internal and external issues to deal with. But again, these have more often than not been explored with tact, taste, and a healthy dose of optimism. The characters were never superhuman, but they always persevered through dark times. Sometimes they had to break down, but they always got back up again. Maybe this was what STP was also trying to explore, albeit in what it considered a more “realistic” way. But as I mentioned in the “Misery Compounds Misery” section of this review, the sheer amount of suck that every character has to deal with starts to look less like an obstacle to overcome and more like an unassailable mountain of despair. As someone who has struggled with depression for years and always looked to Star Trek for role models to help inspire me to persevere to a better tomorrow, the decision to make the burdens of these characters too heavy for even them to shoulder kills any sense of optimism or inspiration.
What STP actually said… and maybe shouldn’t have
The show supports, or at least justifies, xenophobia, racism, and genocide. To be clear, I don’t think this is actually what the writers and creators were trying to say. They tried to come up with a compelling plot and villains and threw so much into the kitchen sink that they ended up with some pretty bad implications, most likely without meaning to. And STP does this not just once, but twice!
- Because most of us presumably liked Data in TNG, we are predisposed to have sympathy for the androids in STP. They are Data’s children. Dahj and Soji are presented as victims in need of protection. When we get to the synth colony, everyone seems very gentle and calm and peaceful. We’re supposed to believe that the Federation’s ban on developing synthetic life and the Zhat Vash’s mission to exterminate all synthetic life is wrong. Except that STP provides plenty of reasons why androids are in fact extremely dangerous and why the fears of both the Federation and the Zhat Vash are justified. The synths on Mars were able to be hacked and killed millions of people in their attack. Even though the synths were victims, the fact that it could be done and on such a scale with such a devastating effect is a huge mark against the synths and provides a plausible reason why Starfleet would stop the research. Maybe a total ban went a bit far, but imagine if that kind of attack had happened on a more populated planet. Or on multiple planets at once.
- We also find out that “the Admonition” (which is powerful and terrible enough to drive organics insane) was actually meant for synths… but it is not an unambiguous message of peace, or even a warning to synths not to be threatening towards organics or catastrophe would result. Instead, it reveals that when synthetics get tired of being persecuted and oppressed by organics, they should give the uber-synths from another dimension a call. And do these uber-synths then rescue their younger siblings by upgrading them to a point where organics no longer pose a threat? Or do they take them away to the other all-synth dimension? No. Instead, the uber-synths will destroy all life in the galaxy so that their siblings can control it. (Which also makes me wonder how many other dimensions have been “purged” and turned into synth habitats.) To top it off, calling the uber-synths is so ridiculously simple that a tiny, isolated colony is able to assemble a beacon within a few hours! Unless Soji had, at the last minute, been randomly moved enough by Picard’s sacrifice to close the portal, everything would have been destroyed. You could argue that if the Zhat Vash hadn’t pursued the extermination of synthetic life then the androids wouldn’t have felt the need to call on the uber-synths, but with that kind of threat hanging over their heads, I can totally see and even sympathize with the Romulan desire to eliminate the threat entirely rather than take the risk that a synth might get angry or spooked enough to call down literal Armageddon.
- Something that STP never addresses at all is the fact that the Federation, contrary to the decision made during Data’s trial in TNG Season 2, Episode 9 (“Measure of a Man”), is now using synthetic life forms as slave labor. We only get a brief glimpse of what that looks like on Mars, but the synths seem to be kept in cargo bins until they are needed and treated with a mixture of fear, derision, and pity by their human co-workers. Where was Picard when this was happening? Where was the outrage, the legal battle, the fight for synth rights? This is a timely issue that could have played out well in a “darker” and “more realistic” Star Trek, but it is treated as a done deal and no one really questions it, not even Picard.
- While the Romulans have been enemies of the Federation for years, it isn’t much different from how The Original Series was at odds with the Klingons. Every Star Trek series has at least one particular alien race as an antagonist. But eventually the Klingons and the Federation became allies. The Federation’s unwillingness to commit to helping the Romulans and then abandoning them after the synth attack on the Mars shipyards seems out of character, even with member races clamoring for the Romulans to be left to die. But then STP reveals that the Romulans themselves were responsible for the attack on the very Federation who was trying to help them evacuate their people before their sun exploded… which kind of retroactively justifies the Federation’s unwillingness to help them (although it’s still shameful because there was no way for the Federation to know that at the time).
- The Romulans we see the most, and who are the most powerful, are all presented as terrible people. Commodore Oh, Narissa, and Narek are all manipulative, often sadistic, and have no concern whatsoever for the well-being of anyone else. The mission to destroy synths is everything, and I don’t feel like the presence of Elnor, or Picard’s Romulan housekeepers Laris and Zhaban (who are bit parts with little to no power) are enough to counter the impression that the Romulan Zhat Vash operatives leave on the show.
- The Romulan refugees are simply abandoned by the Federation. No time is spent on their plight except when it directly impacts Picard, and we see very little of his actual advocacy for them. A topic that is extremely timely is used as mere window dressing for the setting. There’s a bunch of talk about the Romulan plight, and yet there is little visible change between Picard’s flashback with the Qowlat Milat and when he returns fourteen years later (“Romulans Only” sign notwithstanding). Perhaps this was intentional as a way of reflecting the lack of concern the United States has for fleeing refugees and other asylum seekers in the current political climate, but even if the Federation as a whole is supposed to reflect that, Picard’s lack of involvement after his dismissal from Starfleet does not create a very compelling reason to care about them either.
So after going through this very long, very detailed look at Star Trek: Picard… what can we take away from all of this? I can’t speak for other viewers, especially those who enjoyed the show, but there are a few things that I hope future iterations or continuations of Star Trek would keep in mind. I’m pulling some quotes from comments made on an article by Stephen Kelly in The Guardian entitled “Star Trek: Picard is the dark reboot that boldly goes where nobody wanted it to” (published Mar. 27, 2020), which I think encapsulates some of my own thoughts and reactions to the show.
Let’s get real – grit and gore do not profoundness make
A lot of people have praised STP for being “more realistic” and “more mature,” often calling it “Star Trek for adults.”
I strongly disagree.
Including gore, violence, and profanity does not make a show more adult or mature. It may give it an R-rating, but a rating is meant to keep little kids from seeing and being scared by graphic violence before they are emotionally and mentally mature enough to handle it. It has nothing to do with the quality of content within the show itself. You can present horror without gore. You can show violence without lingering. You can get a point across without swearing. And you can be mature, realistic, and up-to-date without using any of those things. In my opinion, a show is stronger if it uses those elements only when absolutely necessary. A little bit goes a long way.
Picard is not Star Trek for adults.
…Like Discovery before it, it is Star Trek in name only. Star Trek extolled the virtues of diplomacy, reason and compassion. Both of these new shows have abandoned that in favour of action, pessimism and spite. They have robbed Star Trek of its own essence and seek to make up for it with empty fan service.
—JacksSR (Mar. 28, 2020)
If hope and optimism are considered “unrealistic,” we are in big trouble
I personally think that seeing optimism and hope as “unrealistic” is a horrible failure of the imagination. Commentator Sikozu summed up my feelings on this matter far better than I could, so I’m going to let them explain it in their own words. (My only quibble is that I do think some fans of classic Trek may find something they like about STP. I also don’t think that fans of NuTrek only equate darkness with realism… but it seems like there is a high correlation.)
…[T]he message of Star Trek standing in contrast to trends of encroaching real-world darkness and nihilism is so important and sets the (past) series apart from most other sci-fi visions of the future. Trek has always weaved current-day themes and travails into its episodic allegories but it did so from the stand point of a humanity able to rise above those trials and tribulations and form a society not dragged down by them.
The societies and characters in such dark situations then would be aliens, ones we could see our current-day selves reflected in. That way the main characters/story can drink freely from the font of dystopian or violent lore while always returning to a vision of a future one would actually still long to inhabit.
Comments like “felt more real” are just proving the point of this article.
Many people who never bought into Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek are now running the franchise. In turn they’re making a show that can only be truly enjoyed by other people who equate this dark/grittiness with realism. They’re mired in the mentality our current dark times have created. To them a bright hopeful future with trustworthy institutions, and a humanity no longer saddled so heavily with the burden of our base, primitive drives is far more fantastical than mushroom powered intergalactic travel or space flowers that can drop a Borg cube like nothing.
I mean if you need to view hope and optimism as a fantasy element in order to suspend your disbelief that’d be a far sight better than multiple Trek shows replacing those elements with profanity, infighting, mass murder, and ‘splosions.
Disco/Picard fans commenting on how dystopian, casual murder and profanity-laden Star Trek feels “more real” than TOS/TNG-era Trek are really making the phrase, “New Trek is made for people who don’t like Star Trek,” a sad reality.
Consider the implications
I truly think that the writers and creators did not take the full implications of what they were making into account. So much of STP feels like it’s done to be deliberately edgy and dark and modern rather than focusing on making a good, tightly-woven story that fit within the Star Trek mythos. That doesn’t mean that they would have had no leeway to make their own contribution, but it does require some consideration of what went before. Blithely throwing decades of history and pathos out the window for flashy thrills and shocking imagery cheapens the Star Trek universe as a whole. Or at the very least, leaves the endpoint of The Next Generation at an even worse place than Nemesis did.
I feel like if STP was trying to say something about old age or dealing with mistakes and regrets, it gets completely swamped by the implications of what happened to Data and Picard at the end. I would have felt better, I think, if their last conversation was sort of a hallucination in Picard’s dying mind that allowed them both to finally let go of life together. I would have cried, but I would have been okay with that because Picard’s final regret would have been resolved in some way, even if it was only an illusion. It would have been a comforting one, I think, that would have let both Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner lay down their roles and characters with more dignity than Nemesis let them have. Season 2 of STP could then have the remaining characters deal with the repercussions of things like the lifting of the synth ban (which happened too easily with a line of dialog), dealing with the Zhat Vash, dealing with Sutra, or finally addressing the Federation’s failure to help the Romulan refugees. I feel like everything that the show was trying to do could still have been done in a way that was realistic, dealt with consequences of old actions, and even had character deaths… and yet still be looking forward with a sense of hope and curiosity. Instead, STP leaves a sense of soul-crushing depression in its wake, un-alleviated by the so-called “happy ending.”
Give us more hopeful Star Trek
In summary… please, please, please give us more hopeful and optimistic Star Trek. Don’t give in to the modern trend of making everything dark and depressing “for the sake of realism.” Give us a future to look forward to, a goal to strive towards, a way of looking at our own world differently that will encourage us to make it better. Give us characters who are role models, who are real people with real struggles, but who overcome them. Give us more life than death, more hope than depression, more optimism than cynicism. Rather than reinforcing how messed up things are right now, inspire a new generation to create a better future so we can boldly go where no one has gone before.