This entry was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, this television series wouldn’t exist. To learn more, visit the SAG-AFTRA strike site.
“We’ve been here before.”
I’ve used the phrase “creative project” a lot while rewatching Star Trek: Picard. Many of my entries have gone to trying to solve for what the creative intentions of the producers — primarily Patrick Stewart and (in seasons 2 and 3) Terry Matalas — were with this whole thing. What animates this series, besides the base-level exploitation of a durable phenomenon in modern popular culture, the “legacy sequel”? What does Star Trek: Picard have to say, about Star Trek, Picard, or Patrick Stewart himself?
It is one of the primary frustrations (and therefore, failures) of this series that, even in its penultimate episode, I don’t think there’s any useful answer to those questions. Picard has seemed so at odds with both its source material and its primary character throughout the run of the show that it could well be interpreted as a wholesale rejection of Jean-Luc Picard, the captain we knew on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Certainly, the fussier, less American aspects of the man have been sanded away. There’s no longer a need for a “Picard maneuver,” because Picard no longer wears constrictive uniforms. There’s no longer episode time spent on grave speeches, because Picard no longer holds the moral balance; and as for Starfleet, it’s become downright sinister. There’s no “tea, Earl Grey, hot,” because Picard drinks whiskey now; and there’s no Ten Forward lounge staring into the final frontier, because Picard would rather hang out in a dive bar in Los Angeles.
But I struggle to call even this series-long antipathy towards the character of Picard the true creative project of Star Trek: Picard. As I’ve said, I don’t think there is one. There are competing overmaps of thematic intention that reflect or reject one another (the divide between season one and seasons two and three being, of course, the most stark); there is also one gargantuan Star Trek nerd at the heart of all this, and that nerd is Terry Matalas. In “Vox” (which, like next week’s series finale, Matalas directed himself) we finally see the endgame of at least one of his creative projects of the season, and it’s as childlike and childish as any wish fulfillment dreamed up by someone who (like me) had their tween and teen years shaped by Star Trek: The Next Generation. It isn’t even complicated: Matalas wants Star Trek: The Next Generation back. Not the movies; not the spinoffs; not (even) the first season of this very show. He wants Next Gen on the air again, the way it was when it went off the air in 1994, even if he can only have it for a moment. And that means retrieving one more key cast member from those seven years of syndicated broadcasting.
“Stay off the internet completely until you’ve watched it. And bring Kleenex.” That’s what I texted my friend Rob after I’d seen “Vox” and he had yet to watch it; because friends, the Enterprise is back, and that punched me hard in the feels.
There were a lot of surprises this season. Jack was a surprise. Ro was a surprise. Commander Elizabeth Shelby turning up, absolutely delightfully, was a surprise. But there was no bigger surprise in Picard season three than the reveal at the end of “Vox,” even though it had been somewhat telegraphed three episodes earlier: somewhere inside Geordi’s space museum, the dear old nerd has been patiently restoring the Enterprise-D from spare parts retrieved from Veridian III and elsewhere, for most of the last twenty years. Of course he has. Perhaps this is why Geordi’s return felt bigger than the other character returns this season; he’s Next Gen‘s memory, and its heart. He’s Terry Matalas. He’s the person whose nostalgia for the good old days on NCC-1701-D are so immense that he’s been building a ship in a bottle, like when he constructed the H.M.S. Victory for his old captain at the top of “Elementary, Dear Data.”
And let’s face it, that means Geordi is all of us. The Next Gen movies, to varying degrees, sucked. They weren’t a patch on the show, which — even with whole seasons that were unwatchable slop — was still one of the most beloved things in any of our lives. Geordi wants the same thing Matalas wants, which is for Captain Picard to stride out onto the bridge of the Enterprise-D followed by Riker, Troi, Crusher, Worf, Geordi, and Data, and save the galaxy one more time. Which is why he’s spent the entire season reversing all of the events following “All Good Things…” which would have made such a thing impossible.
Data’s death? Gone. The crash of the Enterprise? Gone. Worf, over on Deep Space Nine? Not anymore. Riker, captain of the Titan? Retired. There aren’t any Q snaps or multiversal shenanigans at play, but this is nearly the biggest reset button that’s ever been punched in the history of Star Trek. Only J.J. Abrams 2009 film, by dint of its very nature, keeps the prize.
Is it worth it? I don’t know. Why does the Enterprise-D mean so much to me that I warned my friend to bring tissues (and teared up, again, watching her soar free of the dock while writing this)? I’m not sure about that either, but if I had to guess, I’d argue that any storytelling space in which we spent so much of our formative time, and invested so much of our formative heart, becomes what I call “the ship of dreams,” to borrow a phrase from Titanic. Like Data in “Birthright,” I’ve dreamed myself flying through the corridors of the Enterprise-D in the form of a bird. I’ve seen her hop galaxies and travel nebulae; I’ve taken the centre seat, and know the command codes for the Battle Bridge. The Enterprise-D is our ship, my ship, in a way that the E could never hope to be. Or the F. Or the G. And yeah: I also missed the carpet.
To get there, we need to solve the season’s mystery box, and his name is Jack Crusher (II). We need to solve it in the only way it ever could have been solved, because (as I’ve written about too many times to functionally link to here), this is a Picard story, which means that it must therefore, by decree, be a Borg story. The Agnes Borg, from last season? Forget ’em. The downfall of the Borg Queen, in Voyager? Must have been another timeline. The Dominion, as this season’s Big Bad? Nope. Reset, reset, reset: the Borg Queen is back, and she’s even brought Alice Krige with her, and the Borg are behind everything, because it’s time for one “last” showdown between Picard and the cybernetic locusts who turned him into Locutus.
The reveal freaks Deanna out so much that she can’t complete her mental mind-walk with Jack, and runs to Picard and Crusher with the answer to the whole thing (and here comes that retcon): it was never Irumodic Syndrome. It was a biological assimilation, a part of Locutus deforming Picard’s brain (which nicely explains why Picard can hear Borg thoughts in First Contact), and now Picard’s passed it on to Jack. Jack doesn’t like that, so he uses his superpowers to bust off the Titan, so that the script can let him get imprisoned by the Borg. Up till now, Gates McFadden has been doing the voices in Jack’s head; from here, it’ll be Alice Krige, who has one of the best voices in the business. I hate the Borg Queen as a concept and always have, but I love Krige as an actress and always have, so, it’s a pickle. Picard’s being broody about what he’s passed on to Jack, and Data tries to help, and I just want someone to shout “HEY DATA YOU HAVE A DAUGHTER!” but that’s not what this season’s about, which is a pickle as well. It would be worth noting here — and I will certainly note it again next week — that the entire crew now has offspring, of varying levels of troublesomeness. The only one I don’t miss, this season, is Alexander.
Now, don’t get me started on the logic of either the Borg’s plan or Starfleet’s plan here. Starfleet has amassed the entire fleet around Earth for “Frontier Day,” and has decided to network all of the ships together rather than let them be run autonomously by their living crews, which goes exactly as badly as any living being with twelve firing neurons would have been able to predict. We do get to see the Enterprise-F as part of the celebrations — it wasn’t clear during the episode that the ship is, in fact, retired and not new, which is how the reveal plays — and our old buddy Commander Shelby is in the captain’s seat, which I enjoyed. (I always wondered why Next Gen never saw fit to bring Elizabeth Dennehy back; she was, surely, one of the most compelling guest stars to ever grace the show.) Shelby calls back to the voyages of the Enterprise NX-01, which has replaced Kirk’s Enterprise as every Starfleet crew member’s definition of “the first ship to bear the name.” (Check out that Strange New Worlds / Lower Decks crossover episode, for example.) I reject Star Trek: Enterprise in principle (and also because it sucked), but I do admire the fact that we’ve somehow safely arrived at a point in Star Trek as a pop cultural mythology where the Original Series is no longer the foundational text to which all other texts must deferentially refer. Archer’s NX-01 launched 250 years ago today, we are told, and that’s why Frontier Day is a thing.
The Borg plan, meanwhile, seems to revolve around putting Borgified DNA into anyone who’s ever stepped into a transporter; and if you think that means Starfleet organics are about to follow the Starfleet ships into being hive-minded right out from under our heroes, well, gold star. It’s zombie Starfleet officers and A.I. Starfleet vessels against seven old geezers who last saved the day in the ’90s, and any modern starship is vulnerable to the takeover, as is anyone who’s ever been transported, who’s also under the age of 25.
Sidebar: part of the reason I started this Picard project in the first place was this piece by Daniel Cooper, written about “The Bounty;” and it is absolutely god damn hilarious that three weeks later, his entire thesis proves correct: the kids aren’t all right; the very premise of these youngsters is weaponized against them. The only ones who can save the day are the geezers, with their half-reassembled ship. These kids today!!
Which, regrettably, brings me to a creative project that might be part of every legacy sequel: the Make America Great Again of it all. I don’t mean an explicit adherence to alt-right, fundamentalist values; but, there is a kinship there, any time you haul an old franchise out of mothballs. Legacy sequels, to an extent, must fundamentally propose that things were just better in a mythic “back then” that you are now hearkening back to. They propose that the heroes of yesteryear were just… better at it, because they come from points in our pop cultural history uncluttered by the nuance of our contemporary lives. This forms the entirety of the nauseating subtext of Live Free or Die Hard, for example; while its antithesis — the moral clarity of The Last Jedi — is the reason that half the internet filled their trousers with shit at the very idea that these stories must, if they have any hope, evolve past what they once were. (“We are what they grow beyond.”)
Picard is much too stupid a series to have any of this on its mind as anything other than structural subtext, but it is remarkable how cleanly it all comes off in “Vox.” To underline the point, Ensign Esmar, who is young, BIPOC, and non-binary — there were no queer or non-binary characters on Star Trek: The Next Generation — now commands the Titan, in their Borgified state, and is ready to blow up the Earth. The only hope is a nonagenarian and his pals and their gorgeous old ship, whose design is so quaint that they actually carpeted the deck plates and used warm earth tones for the bulkheads. And to my dismay, the nostalgia play even worked on me, because — gorgeous old girl — I, too, missed her, and all the good old days sailing the cosmos in her metal skin.