No future for you

Hello, it’s me, the madwoman of Chateau Picard.

In the first-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Battle,” it is mentioned as a minor plot point that headaches have so long since been eradicated by the 24th century that our chief medical officer, the delightful Doctor Beverly Crusher, cannot believe her ears when Picard reports that he has one.

This was the kind of “let’s show how ‘future’ the future is” contrivance that dropped all the time on Star Trek and Next Gen, or at least in the early days of the latter; before the writer’s room (probably under Piller) wised up to the fact that such worldbuilding positioning statements are all well and good, but they do put a layer of distance between the audience and the characters, who are, after all, meant to be identifiable human beings.

Now, one could argue, one of the primary screenwriting sins of the era of NuTrek (besides the thing where they pathologically refuse to earn emotional outcomes through properly-constructed storytelling, insisting instead that if they underline something with “this is a big emotional moment!,” the audience will agree) is that they have likely followed the “identifiable human beings” thing way too far in the other direction. This is true even on Strange New Worlds, which is otherwise easily and cleanly the best of the new Star Trek series; but it was true with Discovery’s wise-cracking f-bombs, and it’s certainly all over Picard. These aren’t just future-century humans with a veneer of identifiability to a 21st century audience. They’re 21st century humans.

They act like us, they talk like us, they dress like us (albeit shittier), they fuck like us, and they have advanced beyond us behaviourally and philosophically in absolutely no meaningful ways whatsoever. It doesn’t just fly in the face of the premise of the whole history of character creation in Star Trek; it also basically doesn’t make sense when you think about how much human behaviours have changed in just the time I’ve been alive.

Most of the time, NuTrek’s failing here is innocuous (and will make these episodes seem almost hilariously dated, I’d say, no more than five years from now). But it all comes to a darker head in Picard’s cruellest narrative beat, where the series doesn’t just allow, but insists, that lonely housewives still go mad and hang themselves in the 24th century.

Yes, I went back and finished Picard. Wasn’t going to, and a big part of me still resents the treacle-thick fan service of the setup for season three that has been rolling out since Comic Con. I thought I was better off just stepping out of it, but I have lately recognized that that’s not going to be possible. Instead, I will temper my expectations of the final season with the same advice I give everyone who’s excited about it: please remember that the writing in season 2 was awful.

(This is germane because of the other thing everyone needs to remember: seasons 2 and 3 were written and shot back to back. Nobody looked back at season 2 when it was done, gave a low whistle and said “wow we fucked that up, better do better next time.” Season 3 was in the can before season 2 aired. There is no reason, at all, to expect a quality differential between these two brackets of episodes.)

When I say the writing in season 2 was awful, I don’t just mean the thing above about how ridiculously “now” all the dialogue and behaviours were. I also mean that the various throughlines of the plot generally sucked. They reach their nadir at the point I jumped off the season initially — the one where human-Data runs out of ideas so he decides to hit Picard with a car — and I suppose there’s good news in the fact that the season rounds itself off better than I expected, but, woof. Those middle episodes are baaaaaaaad.

You can, I admit, at least see what the writers were trying to do, by season’s end. What they were trying to do is posit that human beings, as part of their very nature (I disagree with this, but I’ll allow it for now), are “stuck in the past,” the kind of writer’s room insight that probably makes sticking the motley Picard crew in 2024, with no way to go home, seem like it positively reeks of metaphor, even if it really doesn’t pull that connection together on a story level. Whatever: we’re stuck in the past, and that’s evidently what’s pissed Q off so much that he’s decided to teach Picard one last life-lesson by way of an elaborate, dangerous game.

Why is Jean-Luc Picard stuck in the past? Well, here goes nothing: at around age 7 or 8 or so, his chronically-depressed mother hung herself, and he blames himself, and this is the retconned inciting incident for one of the first things we ever learned about the man, which is that he’s a brilliant captain and leader but kind of emotionally distant (and bad with children).

Leaving aside, for the moment, the thing where none of the above needed to be dredged up and explained (boy, we’re leaving a lot of things aside to get through this post!), because Jean-Luc’s arc across the seven seasons of The Next Generation, concluding in the brilliant “All Good Things,” was a recognition and acceptance that his crew was his family; well, leaving all that aside, can I just say:

Positing that mental health care is so bad in the 24th century that Maurice Picard’s only solution to his wife’s illness is to literally lock her in the attic is absurd, insulting, and deeply, deeply unfair.

I’m told Patrick Stewart had greater direction of the narrative of Picard than he had on Next Gen, and if so, I’d say that the two seasons of Picard we’ve had are yet further proof that being good at one thing doesn’t mean you are inherently good at any other given thing. But fine, let’s allow (again!) that the elder actor wanted to incorporate an element of mental illness into the storyline as a way to address his own childhood traumas. Stewart’s what, eighty? So if he had any exposure to mental health care in his youth at all — which is a pretty big “if” — it would have been in the ‘40s or ‘50s or thereabouts? And that is the template upon which the actor, and his writers, decided to build a story about a woman with similar issues (it is never specifically described by name, but feels like bipolar or some similar manic depression manifestation) five hundred years in the future?

To return to the headaches with which I began: it didn’t stick, but the idea that headaches had been eliminated from human experience by 2364 has a baseline optimistic imagination to it that this season of Picard — and most of NuTrek, if I’m being honest — sorely lacks. It’s particularly true for this picture of mental health, which indeed breaks my heart in two ways, one obvious, one covert.

The obvious one: there’s no place for the mad in the 24th century. Poor Yvette Picard is sentenced to death in a Victorian-era nightmare that would make the episode where Beverly falls in love with a candle blush.

But when you look past the conceit that Picard was injured by some deeply-held trauma from his past, which was so important to the writers that they not imagine a future where a woman like Yvette Picard could have been cared for, you will see something worse: they also can’t imagine Picard, in a 100-year lifetime, as a person capable of addressing such trauma himself.

It’s ludicrous. Many of the characterizations of Picard, on Picard, are the weakest part of the show; at best, most of the time, he seems like Patrick Stewart playing himself, had Patrick Stewart been cast as the lead on a weekly murder mystery series. Gone is the conviction, the leadership, the self-awareness and moral fortitude that made Jean-Luc Picard so watchable as a truly revisionist commander on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series blessed/cursed by having only one antecedent, and only one prior captain, in James T. Kirk. In his place we have a amiable 21st century octogenarian, gambolling around in science fiction, a genre which even he — loudly — acknowledges he does not particularly care for or understand.

But what a startlingly unkind, and unimaginative, idea it is that at the age of whatever-he-is, Jean-Luc Picard would still be crippled by emotional wounds easily untangled in even a 21st-century context; one of his best friends is a psychologist, for goodness’ sake (and another’s a bartender). This isn’t unimaginative in the “they didn’t come up with a good science fiction thing” way. This is unimaginative in a far colder, outside-looking-in sense of mental health as a premise. This is “we can’t imagine people choosing to look at, and take the best available steps to heal from, their trauma.” This is trauma as plot point, not human condition. There’s nothing aspirational here. Picard only promises that our blindness to mental health will go on forever.

Strange New Worlds, at least, has given us back the zesty fun of the adventure-of-the-week model of Star Trek, which was sorely missing in these lugubrious season-long stories juggling multiple, ill-thought-out plot threads that never seem to “land” as the writers intend them to because they’re largely conceptual placeholders in search of some real characterization and storytelling. What’s still missing from NuTrek is the other half of the original model of Star Trek: the science fiction and speculative fiction, where ideas about things that could happen in the future, and ways we could think of ourselves then, lead the episodic narratives and test the characters’ ingenuity and ethics. I think that element of Star Trek is, sadly, quite done; we’ll never (in my lifetime, anyway) have a boon of science and speculative fiction like we had in the 1960s, when pulp was still dominant and the internet didn’t exist to shit all over everything.

There was a “10,000 pots” element to it all, back when you had twenty or thirty episodes to fuck around with just about any stupid idea you could come up with, as long as it got you to the following week’s production. Sure, those constraints gave us “Spock’s Brain” and “Angel One”; they also gave us “The Enterprise Incident” (one week after “Spock’s Brain”) and “11001001” (one week after “Angel One”). A lot of people are saying it all over the place but I’m starting to really feel it in my bones: Peak TV doesn’t feel so peak anymore. Once an art form buys into its own press, it stops trying and pushing and nudging and barely-scraping-by and surviving, passing the boundary line between “get busy living” and “get busy dying.” And then it’s cooked.