Blogging the Next Generation: Picard — FIRST CONTACT rewatch

We’ve been here before. Quite literally in this case — I covered Star Trek: First Contact, the second Next Generation feature film, as part of Blogging the Next Generation. More broadly, I started, and finished, that project a decade ago: a three-year tour through the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, then on Tumblr, now (as of this writing, partially) archived to Weekly revisits of hours of television I have known so well in my life that their lines, their shots, their musical cues might well have been tattooed on my DNA.

I wanted to try and tackle Star Trek: Picard, now that it’s done. Some of the reasons — the least important, by the way — are the obvious ones: especially by its third season, this sequel series abandoned all pretense of being a spinoff or expansion of the legacy of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s lead character, and became either Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 8 or Next Gen Feature Film Number 5, depending on who was providing which pull-quote to which fan web site. There are logical, emotional, and structural reasons why Star Trek: Picard belongs in Blogging the Next Generation.

But no, those aren’t the reasons.

What I really want to do here — because it is, regrettably or not, central to how pop culture has worked for the past ten years, and likely for the next ten at least — is to try to understand why Picard is the way it is*, and what that says about where entertainment, and audiences, are now. This has always been the prime fascination for me as an adult, a person who has theoretically “outgrown” the tween-targeted SF spectacles of his youth, and yet still surrounds himself with them. What do these mythologies and legendariums need to do to continue to appeal to their aging fanbases, and what do those choices, and our reactions to them, say about us?

*I should also set the stakes right from the outset: I think Picard was pretty bad. I can count the number of good episodes on roughly three fingers. Even “the good season” was a bad ten hours of Star Trek, even if it was a much better ten hours of generic television than the twenty hours which preceded it. I’ve written about the series in the past, here and here. But don’t worry, this project is also not intended as a hatewatch. For my purposes, whether Picard was “good” or “bad” is beside the point. This blog will not be non-stop grousing… or at least, I hope not.

I’ve also observed, at length, an almost overwhelming “oh my god it’s so wonderful” approach to covering this show from pretty much every site that covers it, as though simply stamping the words “Star Trek” on something neuters any assigned critic’s ability to interrogate an episode as a piece of drama which must succeed on merits beyond the ident (and I love that ident) that runs at the head of each show. There are, of course, exceptions; Darren Franich and Angelica Jade Bastien are reliable, as usual; and Daniel Cooper on Engadget wrote the piece that finally pushed me over the edge from thinking about this project to actually doing it. Here’s that piece, and it addresses some worrying elements of Picard‘s subtext with clarity and purpose. I hope to be equal to Cooper’s contribution.

Inevitably, this series is also going to be about Patrick Stewart. A lot.

That’s why I’ve decided to start with a rewatch of First Contact, and why I’ll do the same with Nemesis next week. Understanding Picard really requires understanding these two original sins as starting premises for both the narrative of the series as a whole, and (per Cooper) for what Stewart has been trying to do with, and to, Picard since the moment he gained enough creative control to have a say in the good captain’s destiny.

“Watch. Your future’s end.”

Since I extensively covered how stupid the First Contact script is the last time around (tl;dr: the Borg are on the defensive from the start of the picture and never regain the upper hand, eliminating all tension), and per the mission statement of this blog, let’s talk about Captain Picard.

In Star Trek: First Contact, Captain Picard goes crazy. He can hear the Borg talking in his head (a superpower niftily retconned in Picard‘s third season, not that it needed it), and with the benefit of hindsight, we can now say that this permanently, and near-completely, alters his personality. In the film, Picard announces “the line must be drawn here… this far, no further!” when referring to pushing back the weak-willed advance of the Borg through the Enterprise; but the man who plays Captain Picard, Patrick Stewart, was drawing a different kind of line. He was announcing that he would no longer be playing The Next Generation‘s Captain Picard. He’d done it for a decade at that point; he wasn’t going to do it anymore. This far, no further.

This, of course, did not mean Stewart was done playing Picard. Far from it. He was enjoying $5 million per picture at that point; a far cry from whatever pittance he and the rest of the crew were paid per episode to make Next Gen‘s first season. In the back half of the ’90s, Patrick Stewart was well on his way to becoming a big-screen star; not a Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis (though his biceps in First Contact nod towards the latter), but a franchise-anchor on the same level as a person who would become one of his close friends, Sir Ian McKellen. McKellen and Stewart were both éminence grises of two apiece of the biggest film franchises of the ’90s/00s (Lord of the Rings for the former, Star Trek for the latter, with X-Men shared between them). Hell, Stewart is still doing it, McKellen having left it all behind a decade ago. Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier was just killed in a Marvel movie for the third time, less than a year ago.

In Star Trek feature films, there is a requisite point of departure from the storytelling ambitions of the television series that spawned them, and that point of departure tends to alter the hero character in both series. For one thing, there’s the presence of a hero character: though Kirk and Picard were absolutely the de facto leads of their respective television shows, both series also weekly leaned on other members of the principal cast (Next Generation more so than the Original Series) to carry the episode-by-episode drama. Not so in the films: Star Treks I – VI are Kirk movies; and Star Treks VII – X are Picard movies. The rest of the cast are there, to greater and lesser extents. Spock and Data are good bets, always; if you identify as a woman, however, you may or may not have anything to do in one or more of the big screen adventures.

The larger point of departure, though, is that more often than not, these big screen adventures become action movies. Star Trek has never been without its ray guns and fistfights; but even its action-heaviest incarnations (Deep Space Nine would likely win that prize) also wove substantive tapestries of storytelling about ideas, personal and political ethics, science fiction conundra, romance, comedy, colonialism, and Weird Shit Happening. In the feature films prior to First Contact, this balance — somewhat — held. There were movies about artificial intelligence, the fall of the Berlin Wall, sentient space whales, and talking to the Almighty. One glaring exception stood out, however, and by the time First Contact was being made, that exception had accumulated a now-irrevocable status as the Star Trek feature film. That film, of course, was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The Wrath of Khan is an action movie. It’s a naval swashbuckler, and it’s a bloody good one; and it’s a Kirk movie, and it’s a bloody good one. It isn’t even the most profitable Star Trek movie; but, like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back or Alien and Aliens for their respective franchises, it’s the one that pretty much every Star Trek film has been trying to remake — sometimes blatantly — since. With First Contact, Patrick Stewart and the Next Gen creatives take their swing at it. (They swing again, even harder, with Star Trek: Nemesis, four years later.) First Contact is also where those creatives, including Stewart, begin to reconfigure The Next Generation for the big screen. (Amazingly, they did not attempt to do so for Generations, the feature film before this one.)

Here is an insight from Stewart on the writing process for First Contact, offered after the fact:





 He became

That’s from Fade In, Michael Piller’s (professionally) unpublished memoir of the writing of Star Trek: Insurrection, the film that followed First Contact. It’s an abundantly useful guide to the creative challenges of making the Next Gen feature films, even though it only covers one of them; it also addresses, in private letters like the one excerpted above, a bit of Stewart’s thinking around what kind of a character Picard needed to be in order to hold the centre of a big screen action adventure.

He probably isn’t wrong. Consensus-based moral heroism or episode-by-episode character spotlights work great in the medium of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the Next Gen feature films do not take place in that medium. For better or worse, it was a lot easier to believe television and cinema to be roughly analogous in the late decades of the 20th century, when The Next Generation made the transition from one to the other, than it is now, when Peak TV has happened and Star Trek has had to (awkwardly) re-integrate itself into the medium of its birth. As of 2023, I can’t imagine two media being further apart than television and film while sharing so much source code (they are both moving-image drama forms, after all). Partly by dint of being longform, television operates narrative, creative, and artistic mechanisms that are simply unavailable to feature films, which in turn operate entirely different, unique mechanisms to be anti-longform. Television strews pebbles along a beach; films compress magnitudes of stone down into diamonds. First Contact gets to be somewhere in the middle: as a film, it has 180 filmed hours of backstory that theoretically inform its 1 hour, 50 minute narrative. But none of that informing story, save one, is in the film itself.

The one exception, the one thing you need to know about Star Trek: The Next Generation in order to watch First Contact at all, is Picard’s abduction by the Borg. It’s treated in the film as clearly as it can be, for any poor bastard who wanders in unaware of “The Best of Both Worlds,” but I imagine the all-points expositional assault of Picard’s abduction, the existence of the Borg themselves, and the Borg’s imminent attack on the planet Earth — all of which happen in less than 4 minutes of screentime — are too high a bar to entry for the uninformed viewer. No matter. Even for fans and fanatics, First Contact has a new piece of information regarding Picard’s abduction by the Borg: First Contact proposes that he never got over it.

Does this track with what we’ve seen, elsewhere in Picard’s backstory? Mayyyyyyyyybe. (Picard’s pretty frosty to Hugh in “I Borg,” but he does come away from that story ultimately deciding not to murder the man and the rest of the Borg.) Does Picard’s lack of backstory coherence matter, in First Contact? Mayyyyyyyyyybe not. It’s hard to say. Again: this is a feature film. It could and should, theoretically, exist on its own. Does it really matter if Picard is behaving erratically, compared to how we knew him in the series? Does it matter that he orders his crew to cold-bloodedly shoot any assimilated Enterprise crew members they come across, instead of trying to help them? Does it matter that when it comes down to a tactical decision between destroying the Enterprise to defeat the Borg, or smashing his starship models and throwing a hissy-fit, Picard chooses hissy-fit?

Maybe it would be more helpful to ask a different question: which film would you rather watch? The one where Picard negotiates with the Borg, using the resources of his own cleverness and the clockwork capabilities of his crew to outfox them? Or the one where Picard stands alone against the Borg, dressed in a tank top and firing a really big rifle?

Picard, the series, is about a lot of things to greater and lesser degrees — but one of those things is the aging process, getting older, and the way perspective changes as one does so. I’ll throw in a perspective change of my own, then, which I probably didn’t have fully in mind when I wrote Blogging the Next Generation the last time around: sometimes, you can have two choices, and they both suck. And you still have to choose anyway.

So, in the devil’s bargain of graduating from a weekly television serial to four mid-successful feature films, Star Trek: The Next Generation ceased to be Star Trek: The Next Generation and became a clunky, wonky, never-entirely-successful movie franchise. In fact, that’s being generous: the Next Gen run of films actually shit the franchise bed so hard that J.J. Abrams had to rewrite a hundred years of in-narrative history to repurpose Star Trek into something that could sustain itself in the franchise ecosystem of the 21st century. By most yardsticks, Abrams succeeded: Star Trek is brand management par excellence, these days. There are five television series (or there were, until Picard‘s final bell was rung tonight), and they vary wildly in tone, intent, and creative direction. They appeal to different audiences, lean on different levels of fan-baiting and nostalgia, and they’re all replicable. Star Trek is doing great.

So who is Picard, and what is Picard, in all this?

The Picard of Picard (sorry — I did not approve their choice of title for the series!) began in First Contact. He began partly as a strategem to get into the feature film space using tools that were common to the American action-adventure films of the 1990s. (Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, who wrote First Contact, cashiered their success here to write the Mission Impossible sequel.) The reformatted Picard began subtly, almost timidly; in First Contact, Captain Picard goes crazy, but he immediately gets better. It takes exactly one reference to a classic work of English literature to reel him back in, and then he’s Next Gen Dad again. (Picard’s entire moral universe is a complex web of footnotes from and to Blake, Shakespeare, Melville, et. al., and those references can re-align cognition like Proust’s madeleines). Picard gets a gal-pal in this movie, but only gives her a single chaste kiss on the cheek; he doesn’t get a full-on snog till Insurrection, and sex — offscreen — isn’t a threat till the end of Picard‘s second season. Picard gets new clothes in this movie, and he removes layer after layer of them as the movie (and its successor) goes on, until he’s not wearing a Starfleet uniform anymore at all. This might not seem important at this point, but by the end of Picard‘s third season you’d be forgiven for wondering if Patrick Stewart wrote a line into his contract that made it legally mandatory that he only be dressed as a cool old dude in jeans and a leather jacket.

Picard, fully formed as though from the head of Zeus on Star Trek: The Next Generation as a man of principle, propriety, and deep moral clarity, has begun to transform into something else — and it starts right here.

The Borg get changed here, too. The Borg, when they are introduced in “Q Who” are a nightmarish spectre of an almost natural enemy, in spite of all their biomechanics; they are a plague of locusts descending darkly on your farm. That they have no people within them is the entirety of the point: you cannot negotiate with a single locust and hope by doing so to avert the swarm. First Contact, though, repositions the Borg as just another collectivist society that has fallen into the thrall of a despot, where the despot wants to kill us because we’re free. (AMURRICAH!!) There are interesting ideas inherent to the Borg, but from here, Star Trek is no longer about them. From here, Star Trek’s beef with the Borg is that the Borg subsume individuality (unless you happen to be the Borg Queen), and this matters because from here, Star Trek is really, really into individuals.

The individual vs. the collective was always a tension within Star Trek, which needed its ripped-shirted hero to do mano a mano battle with various Gorns and Mugatus in order to earn its read-blooded American pulp serial stripes, but also wanted to project a future where various “others” worked cooperatively to be a single human race. The Next Generation perfected the collectivism angle — how many wonderful scenes did it stage around that briefing room table! how often was the collective ethos of the crew the defining factor in their success! — before tearing it all down again in the feature films. Picard gets to headline the Next Gen movies, becoming (in turn) a madman, a renegade, and a general, before handing the ripped shirt back to (a new) Kirk. He retires to his vineyard, and evidently forgets all his friends’ phone numbers. Each season of Picard will attempt to (re-)teach him the lesson he presumptively learned in “All Good Things,” and put him back in a group.

One more thing changes in Star Trek: First Contact: Zephram Cochrane turns out to be a false idol. He reveals that he did not invent warp drive in order (as the crew of the Enterprise believes) to explore the cosmos or expand the reach of humanity. He did it to make money and have sex, because those are the things he likes. It ends up not mattering — simply by dint of doing the thing, Cochrane so amazes the human race that “poverty, disease and war” are wiped off the human menu in just the next fifty years. But, we don’t see that part. We never see that part. That part is the creation myth of Star Trek, and it has been offscreen for nearly sixty years. Like imagining God (or god), we could charitably say that imagining the process of ridding humanity of greed, violence, and self-destruction is simply beyond the minds of mortal writers — and that perhaps, if writers could imagine it, they should skip putting it in an episode of Star Trek and put it in a political platform.

Here’s what the writers start doing instead: they start kicking that moment, when human beings do something for altruistic reasons rather than selfish ones, further and further out of view. They start trying to focus Star Trek more and more on characters who are just like us, instead. Terry Matalas, Picard‘s ultimate showrunner, had his first screenwriting credits on Star Trek: Enterprise, a Berman production that spun off First Contact and showed mankind’s fledgling days as outer space explorers, based on Zephram Cochrane’s warp flight. On that show, the crew of Enterprise wears ball caps and NASA uniforms, to suggest (in spite of the series being set in the mid-2100s) that they are just like us. In First Contact, Cochrane gets Deanna Troi drunk on tequila and they listen to “Oobie Doobie.” In Star Trek (’09), Jim Kirk (age 9) drives a Corvette and listens to the Beastie Boys. In Picard, Picard no longer listens to Berlios, in which he takes refuge in First Contact. He listens to rock n’ roll.

A narrative line is being drawn — “the line must be drawn here!” — and it is starting to stretch from this moment, today, when you are watching Star Trek on television; to the future, as far ahead as the 31st century, when the stories within Star Trek are taking place. The Star Trek you’re watching on television is more and more weighted with nostalgic signifiers from Star Trek’s past; and the future envisioned by Star Trek, paradoxically, looks less and less like how Star Trek used to imagine it, and more and more like the world you live in, right now. Star Trek: Picard‘s second season takes place almost entirely in 2024 Los Angeles — next year.

At the end of First Contact, we do not return to the future. We do not time-travel back to the 24th century with the Enterprise crew, from whence we came; we end in Zephram Cochrane’s camp, in 2063 — forty years from now. The Vulcans have arrived, and the Federation has begun. The Vulcans do not understand our tequila or our music, and everybody laughs. Crane up to the stars, and the trek begins all over again.

Blogging the Next Generation: Picard will run Thursdays on, for 32 weeks, covering all 30 episodes of the show (plus Star Trek: Nemesis, next week). The original run of BTNG is being archived here.