What Star Trek isn’t

Like many from the TNG Generation, I’m enjoying the third season of Star Trek: Picard, although — like, I’m hoping, at least a few of us — I feel a bit silly about it. I’m aware that, for example, my visceral glee at the prologue of the first episode was largely due to the fact that my brain wouldn’t stop screaming holy shit that’s Dr. Crusher — my favourite character when I was a boy. Once I allowed myself that self-deprecating self-awareness, I also allowed that I was about to happily spend my time Glup Shitto-ing my way through a series that would spare no expense in the nostalgia fire sale.

There’s a lot of the Star Trek equivalent of Glup Shitto (…Guinan Sheliak?) in Star Trek: Picard Season 3. It brings to the table a dizzying array of references and connections; some textual, some not. It’s in the identity of the Big Bads (who I’ll not reveal here, cuz spoilers; but also, it’s awesome); it’s in the further Eaglemoss models we get to see, on further shelves. There are Reman assassins, and a Captain Rachel Garrett statue. Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner scream at us from the score, the orchestra swelling and swooning in perfect time to the stealing of the Enterprise back in Star Trek III. There’s a La Forge at the conn of the new starship (although everyone seems to have forgotten that Geordi, himself, was also once a conn officer, and that this is therefore not an unusual career trajectory for a La Forge); and Amanda Plummer is spinning around in her big evil chair, just like her dad did way back when. It’s the most Trek-saturated Trek to ever Trek.

So this is the part where cranky old men like me have to do the thing that people in the “just let people enjoy stuff” crowd really hate, myself included, which is to firmly state: this isn’t Star Trek, and isn’t even doing a passable job of trying to be.

Or, to paraphrase a point I’ve been making since the Abrams movies started: if you have to write every character on this show like they’re a 30-year-old living in modern-day Los Angeles — with 2021 vernacular; unresolved personal baggage; shouting matches with colleagues; self-destructive impulses; saying “shit” a lot — you’re not making Star Trek, and I’d even go so far as to posit that you don’t actually know what Star Trek is.

An important clarification before proceeding: Yes, at this point (closing in on a thousand individual episodes of storytelling), Star Trek is no longer “one thing.” So perhaps, my requiring that its fundamentals retain some kind of consistency is simply not fair, or credible. I’m of a mind, however, that if you have to so completely rebuild a premise that it no longer resembles itself — if you “Ship of Theseus” the premise of Star Trek, as it were — you might be better off just building something new. Identifiable IP counts for a lot these days, far more than it should; but (to extend the analogy to a different franchise) if the only way you can make a Superman movie is to have your Superman be a brooding thug with a Jesus complex, maybe you didn’t actually want to write a story about Superman… and maybe you shouldn’t have tried?

Let’s start with a thought experiment: what if Jean-Luc Picard told Captain Liam Shaw that he, Picard, wasn’t actually responsible for the massacre at Wolf 359, and that Shaw needed to speak to the ship’s counselor immediately, to work through his unresolved grief?

In “No Win Scenario,” the fourth episode of this season of Picard, Shaw takes Picard to task for the deaths he witnessed at Wolf 359, which would have taken place some 35-40 years prior to this episode. (How old is Shaw? Jesus.) Shaw is, perhaps, the tenth or twelfth person we’ve seen directly attack Picard for the cost of the Borg invasion over the course of the past 30 years of Star Trek. It’s everyone’s favourite thing to bring up when they need to call into doubt the idea of Picard’s commitment to… well, anything really.

The most notable example came only a couple of years after the fact, in the pilot episode of Deep Space Nine, as part of Sisko’s character setup. But that increasingly trope-ish moment, where some asshole ambushes Picard in the middle of a conversation about something else in order to remind him that Wolf 359 is a thing that happened and that Picard alone is responsible for it, has been trotted out reliably ever since. In fact, it’s been trotted out more and more since; in increasing, rather than decreasing, frequency.

This is because, since Star Trek: First Contact, Picard’s abduction by the Borg has ceased to be a Star Trek: The Next Generation story point, and has become something else: a kind of ur-text or creation myth for the character of Picard, conveniently ignoring (here comes that “age” thing again!) the fact that Picard was fifty years old at the time of his abduction, and was a character on Star Trek. Those are both pretty important aspects of how we approach Picard as a character; but now, any writer who wants to do anything with Picard seems to think that sooner or later, you need to address the Locutus in the room. Picard has to be flagellated again and again for something that happened that was beyond his control; re-traumatized in the pained look in those grey eyes, so that audiences around the world get to have fun remembering how cool “The Best of Both Worlds” was.

It was. But this sucks. And it needs to stop.

Let’s address two points above, one by one:

First, Picard’s age: it’s important and I think, rather imaginative, that Jean-Luc Picard was not presented as a young pup straight out of Starfleet Academy when we met him in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was created as a man of years, and thereby some established wisdom and experience; he served as a father figure to his crew (a stern, authoritarian one at first; a deeply empathetic, philosophically curious one, once you get to know him). “The heart of an explorer and the soul of a poet,” as Tasha (still!) best described him, in her self-euology. Those are not the qualities of a scrappy youngster just starting out. They are the gifts of age and grace, and they are intrinsic to the man’s character. Picard spends TNG less learning and changing than helping those under his command learn and change — so that they can become the best persons they can be.

This is not to imply that, by 50, you’re done learning and changing (god, I hope not!); merely to state that, at the point of his abduction in “The Best of Both Worlds,” Picard had a well-established foundation of principles and beliefs. He was a man of deep philosophical conviction and moral certainty. Being assimilated by the Borg didn’t turn him into the man he is today, because by and large, he was already that man. Locutus is not Picard’s origin story, nor is he the skeleton in Picard’s closet.

Point two: Picard is a character on Star Trek. Star Trek does not take place in our world, where yes — particularly on midbrow television — buried traumas can fester for decades unaddressed. Within the text and foundation of Star Trek, we know that Picard has the means to deploy next-level psychiatric and psychological care to heal from trauma, and that he would, because stigma around such things no longer exists.

One of the five best episodes of The Next Generation, “Family,” explicitly states the point. Picard references his post-traumatic counselling with Troi (before retiring home to have a good cry with his older brother, for good measure). While it would be too pat to say that Picard’s trauma is resolved by the end of “Family,” that episode — and, by extension, the rest of TNG, where Picard does occasionally bump up against the Borg again, with a refined viewpoint — clearly proposes that this forthright, moral man has found a place for that grief in his life. It isn’t buried, and it isn’t ignored. It is part of his complex psychology now; it isn’t a trap waiting to spring shut anytime someone says the word “Borg” near him.

Well, until First Contact. When a suddenly, and rather bizarrely, a newly kill-crazy Picard decides to take the fight to the Borg, echoing no other big screen action hero more than John Rambo in First Blood Part 2, who decided it was time to do Vietnam over again, but to win this time.

Very American. Very not Jean-Luc Picard.

Let’s leap forward to the present day. Back to my thought experiment: will there ever come a point where someone like Shaw can taunt Jean-Luc about the tragedies of Wolf 359 and have Picard simply reply that, with all due deference to how devastating those events must have been for Shaw, it’s more than a little backwards to continuously blame the victim of a clear and documented assault for the crimes of his assailants?

Because that is what every single person who has held Picard to account for the actions of the Borg has been doing. And it’s an absolutely bonkers reversal of the core premise of Federation society, as envisioned by Star Trek’s creator.

I am here referring, of course, to the “Roddenberry Box.”

See, whether the writers of Star Trek like it or not — and all the way back to the late, great Michael Piller*, clearly, they do not like it — a key plank of Star Trek as both a story structure and a philosophical premise is the idea that by the 24th century, all of the things that pull against modern-day humans, keeping us from reaching our full potential, have been solved for. They don’t even get headaches anymore. People don’t carry around deep-seated psychological burdens in the 24th Century, not because humans have evolved into alien superbeings that never experience burdens, but because our people have, at some point between now and the future, grappled with the fact that all those traumas and harms are the causes of suffering that does not need to be borne, by anyone — and they have therefore solved for it.

*Shortly after posting this I was thumbing through Piller’s book about screenwriting, and I came upon a chapter about this very thing. It seems I’ve mischaracterized his relationship to the Roddenberry Box: he made it part of his work ethic, as head writer on TNG, to uphold it, and thinks it led him to more innovatively solve certain story problems. Carry on reading below.

Now, you can either believe that such things are possible, or you can reject the premise. (“I don’t want my pain taken away; I need my pain!” grunts Captain Kirk in Star Trek V, proposing that holding onto those traumas and harms isn’t just his right, but that they are necessary to his existence.) Maybe a future where humanity has solved for hangups in general sounds dystopian, creepy, or just outright dull.

But, if you reject that premise, as far as I’m concerned, you’re rejecting the idea of Star Trek. I believe that humans are fucked up and weird too — never more so than in the past three years — but if I believed that bettering ourselves against our own fucked-upness was fundamentally impossible and contrary to human nature, I wouldn’t watch Star Trek. If I believed that bearing trauma without aspiring to heal from trauma was what, to use a gendered phrase, makes a man a man, I wouldn’t watch Star Trek, and I certainly wouldn’t write it. Here’s a foundational premise to which I’ll return: Star Trek was never about suffering.

Star Trek was always intended, not as an outright fantasy of an impossible utopian dream state, but as an aspirational outline of one. It proposes models, imperfect though they are. For example, it asks: what are some things we’d need to get rid of, in order to have a more equitable, more perfectly-functioning society? And it answers: capitalism; racism; misogyny; sexual shame; belts.

Or, it asks: what are some adjustments we’d need to make to the way we live and the way we think, in order to ensure that the people living in that society are healthy and happy and able to pursue their goals without obstruction? And it answers: family support has to be central (the Enterprise-D had families aboard, complete with child care and full-service schooling); high-level psychiatric care is normal and valuable (the ship’s counselor equalled only the First Officer for status on the Bridge); complex, non-aggressive means to solve disputes between team members are critical to success. Sorry, writers of the world: you may think that all of this means “no conflict,” but, I think it just means “imagine something better.”

Again: Star Trek was never about suffering. It was never proposed, in Star Trek, that pain was a virtue. Pain happens — it happened to Sisko, and Picard, and Geordi, and Tasha, and a whole host of other characters — but the powers and means of the Federation gave those characters the tools, and the support, to integrate their pain and move past it. It veered on the edge of ableism a lot of the time — a future where everybody is “normal” because we can solve for all the “other” stuff — but it was intrinsic to the vision.

The Roddenberry Box, by the way, is basically no longer in play. Berman and Piller started easing Star Trek out of its obligation to Gene Roddenberry’s bible before the man had even died (and accidentally created one of the best pieces of Star Trek of all time, in their first attempt to do so). As of the ’09 reboot, I think we can firmly say that the idea that the characters within Star Trek are anything other than wish-fulfilment avatars for a modern audience — i.e. us, if we happened to get thrown onto the command chair of the Enterprise — ceased to be a thing. A lot of writers still like to talk about how the Roddenberry Box limits them, but as an ethos, it’s being upheld with about as much rigour and accountability as the budgetary reviews at an arts organization.

But, for as long as I’m still here doing this, it will bug me that the only way certain writers seem to be able to write Star Trek today is to imagine primal scenes in each of the characters’ backstories, unseen until now (unless you were at Wolf 359, which apparently everybody was), which wait spring-loaded in the text and subtext before their jaws snap shut at any given triggering moment, allowing Starfleet officers to yell at each other. It’s writing by way of the “Men would rather” meme. Michael Burnham said something mean to Spock when they were both 7-year-olds, and neither character got over it. Picard’s mother suffered from mental illness, and nobody helped her, and nobody got over it. Riker lost his son, and never got over it. (His wife is a psychiatrist. He left the wife, rather than get over it.) Liam Shaw, like hundreds of other trained Starfleet professionals, lost comrades at Wolf 359. Afterwards, nobody talked about it, nobody checked in, nobody helped him, and he never got over it.

It’s just so fucking mean.

Star Trek was about something other than this. It was, in part, about the idea that we’d turn our attention to fighting suffering, rather than fighting ourselves. It proposed the idea of a compassionate society, which certainly, I think we can now agree is not everyone’s cup of tea, as of this writing. As futurism, Star Trek kicked capitalism off the bus of human history in, like, week 3 of its original run; and yet as IP, it remains a high-value brand, owned by a capitalist conglomerate in a capitalist country. Star Trek is, for want of a better way of putting it, very un-American, and is becoming more so by the day, at least in terms of how America thinks of itself now.

Perhaps that circle is simply becoming too hard to square; maybe it’s just too difficult now, for writers working for Paramount+ in Joe Biden’s post-Trump America, to sit down and figure out a way to tell a story of a socialist, humanist utopia 400 years ahead of us, where less people suffer, because more people help. When writers talk about evading the Roddenberry Box, they talk about making characters who are identifiable and accessible to a modern audience; what I think they mean is, it’s becoming harder and harder to imagine that we’re ever going to be anything unlike what we are now — and that the entire premise of Star Trek was too pure, too dangerous, to be kept alive in a future that seems more and more stuck in the sore and distant past.