On Saturday, CBS finally unveiled a full trailer of its upcoming show “Star Trek: Picard,” to gasps, cheers and squeals from Trekkies around the world. It hit all the right notes–Borg! Data! Seven of Nine!–for tingling fans’ dormant nostalgia and setting up what looks like a rip-roaring adventure. But while the notes may all be right, the music felt just a little too familiar to me. A year ago, I wrote a post for my blog on the new direction I hoped Picard’s return would take. Here it is, slightly revised.
Star Trek, all but left for dead in the mid-aughts, is now likely secure for another 50 years.
“Star Trek: Discovery” will warp into its third season next year, as Mike McMahan, head writer of “Rick and Morty,” brings his animated weirdness to Starfleet with the upcoming “Star Trek: Lower Decks.”
But it’s the return of Jean-Luc Picard that has Trekkies most invigorated. In the full trailer released at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con, the storied French tea-drinking admiral practically jumps back into action and seems to be headed to where he’s always been most comfortable—in command of an intrepid crew of adventurers.
This raises a question, though–is it believable that a 79-year-old could command the deck of a starship, hurtling through uncharted space at speeds several times what Albert Einstein thought was possible?
My answer: absolutely.
But he shouldn’t.
It’s time to force Picard off the telegenic bridge, preferably off the U.S.S. Enterprise altogether. If it were up to me, I’d make him an admiral, planning Starfleet’s movements from the comfort of California. Or maybe he should be an ambassador, negotiating a new order in the galaxy. A cranky Starfleet Academy professor, ushering in a new order of budding space-knights. An archaeologist discovering ancient histories of the galaxy. Hell, a retired war hero dipping his toe into politics, campaigning against a populist Vulcan for control of the United Federation of Planets.
Star Trek has survived for 50 years, sustained by reboots and reimaginings. In recent years it has struggled to find a raison d’etre, just as a pop culture of nostalgia and fan service has demanded it remain. But it’s still stayed stubbornly stuck on that bridge.
In 1966 the bridge was the perfect vehicle for the technological and set direction limitations of the time, a way to deliver Roddenberry’s vision. That vision was often pitched as “____ in space,” as in “a Western in space,” “Horatio Hornblower in space,” “Gulliver’s Travels in space.” The bridge gave you a bustling hive of activity for the cast on one side and a viewscreen of the universe on the other–everything needed for a sprightly space adventure.
And the bridge continued to serve its purpose through the 80s with “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But by the new millennium, it became creaky.
“These days it looks like a communications center for security guards,” Roger Ebert wrote in his (hilarious) review of the disastrous final TNG movie, “Star Trek: Nemesis.”
“Fearsome death rays strike the Enterprise, and what happens?” he asked. “Sparks fly out from the ceiling and the crew gets bounced around in their seats like passengers on the No. 36 bus.”
When he re-invigorated the franchise seven years later, J.J. Abrams transformed the bridge, sweeping the camera to show the full 360 degrees of a center filled with dazzling activity–including omnipresent lens flares, loathed by everyone but me. And it worked–the bridge in the Abrams-verse seemed real and exciting in a way that felt updated for our expectations of the future, the first truly 21st-century Trek.
But they were still stuck on the damn thing. The crews in the three Abrams-created Trek movies dutifully spent a majority of their screentime on the command deck. The biggest deviation from this was in “Star Trek Beyond,” which shuffled the deck a bit by destroying the Enterprise in its first act. But this was just a momentary change of scenery–the rest of the movie plays out like a familiar space adventure and Kirk was yet again on the deck of a yet another Federation starship soon enough.
Of course, I’m not just talking about the bridge.
Star Trek began as a great idea–Roddenberry’s aforementioned conception as a mix of naval adventures combined with Swiftian thought puzzles, updated for the age of thoughtful sci-fi. But it’s expanded beyond that.
What pulls in Trekkies and keeps them at convention halls today isn’t just the adventures, but the universe–its possibilities, its economics, its politics, its people. Trek has joined the sparse pantheon of serialized pop culture dramas that have endured long enough to rightfully call themselves mythology. Decade after decade, show after show, it’s created a place greater than what any of its one authors envisioned and really feels like it exists, somewhere.
As Manu Saadia noted in his book “Trekonomics,” an examination into the imaginary monetary systems in the Trek universe, the franchise is somewhat unique in offering an optimistic view of the future that still creates excitement and adventure. This wasn’t as easy as it looked–Roddenberry’s decree that TNG include no character conflicts between crew members had its writers tearing their hair out, until it was ultimately abandoned.
Trek imagined a version of utopia which felt like a natural product of human technology, logic and compassion. The United Federation of Planets was a creation of men (or human-like aliens), made possible not through fate but through ingenuity. It’s a mixture of the wide-eyed benevolent alien fantasies of the 50s with just the right amount of realism from “hard sci-fi” and the thoughtful metaphors from the best writings of the genre, producing a hopeful vision which has remained vivid through today. The best of the TNG episodes feel like love letters to rationality, which is not an easy feat in the format of an hour-long network adventure show.
Yet the franchise has been surprisingly uncreative about finding new ways to explore this universe, sticking to a time-honored format and template. “Deep Space Nine” is the only show to seriously deviate from it, and that was by necessity–it was created as TNG was still on the air, and producer Rick Berman found that it “seemed ridiculous to have two shows–two casts of characters–that were off going where no man has gone before.” Yet, through that constraint, it produced some of Trek’s biggest narrative advancements–season-long plot arcs and a darker look at the Federation’s utopia.
It didn’t have to be this way. When Philip Kaufman was hired to make a Star Trek movie in the mid-70s, he planned to jettison Kirk and focus on a dual between Spock and a Klingon commander to be played by Toshiro Mifune.
But that fell through, and Paramount fell into a comfortable system that worked–the familiar crew on the deck of the iconic ship. At this point, it’s hard to imagine Trek movies having been made any other way–but they could have.
One of the reasons I think Star Trek desperately needs to change is that the franchise reached the Platonic ideal of Roddenberry’s initial conception–Gulliver’s Travels in space–with TNG. It’s hard to imagine another show hitting the same notes as well or better, and this is part of why it finished out on top.
The show’s weakness was that it never created characters who were quite as endearing as their predecessors. Everyone on the U.S.S. Enterprise D was just a little too polished, a little too perfect, compared to the cranky Southern doctor, the level-headed but independent captain, and the faux-misanthropic alien science officer. It’s quite a standard–I still contend that Spock is the greatest TV character of all time–but there’s a reason no one was clamoring to see younger versions of the TNG cast in a movie.
This is one reason why I think the TNG cast never found the success of the original series in cinema. At one hour, TNG seemed bursting with ideas. At two hours, it seemed stretched thin, and its characters weren’t quite enough to keep it going.
Which brings us back to Picard.
Patrick Stewart’s return brings with it a certain grandeur, not just because he’s one of the most respected thespians to ever be involved in the franchise. He’s also probably the actor who’s found the most success after leaving Trek–not that it was easy.
He commented frequently that he found himself typecast in Hollywood as the unshakable commander. “Why would I want Captain Picard in my movie?” he claims one producer told him. And, as good as a character as Picard was, it wasn’t a great showcase of the actor’s range. The character is more remembered for pithy commands–“Make it so,” “Engage,” “Tea, Earl grey, hot“–than dramatic depth. It’s not that those moments weren’t there with Picard–watch “The Inner Light“–but that they were scattered all-to-infrequently into the space proceduralist drama.
For an actor with, to put it mildly, a shallower reservoir to draw from, William Shatner may have done a better job breathing a casual humanity into Kirk. To put it in political terms, Picard was the better commander, Kirk was the one you wanted to have a Romulan ale with after hours.
Yet despite the limited offers, Stewart found his way through Tinseltown and gave what may have been the performance of his career (cinematically, anyways) in 2017’s “Logan,” the coda of his work in the X-Men franchise playing Professor Xavier. Stewart dives head-on into the chance to play the wise old professor–once almost indistinguishable from Picard–with encroaching dementia, his dream of mutants living side-by-side with humans as helpers all but extinguished. (And, in a heartbreaking revelation, barely able to remember the role he himself played in its demise.) It’s a role brimming with world-weary sadness but also humanity–exactly what he could bring to Picard, with the right project.
Or maybe he could bring something else entirely. I just know that the character, and the universe, have more to offer at this point than what we’ve seen before.
To say that Trekkies “dislike” change would be an understatement of galactic proportions. Trekkies instinctively abhor change, with an acute sensitivity to any perceived theft of their beloved universe by outsiders.
Which is funny, because Trek has always required reimaginings and reconfigurations to survive. If it weren’t for well-timed reboots, it likely would be no better-remembered today than “Red Dwarf.” It was rebooted in 1979 with a motion picture that moved it a decade into the future and into a new era of sci-fi, and then was rebooted again three years later with “The Wrath of Khan.” “Khan” isn’t always seen that way, but listen to Nicholas Meyer describe his battles with the Trek old guard and you’ll start to recognize how he transformed the franchise, using just what the Trekkies fear–irreverence and an indifference to logic and continuity. (Meyer couldn’t have cared less, for instance, when his production designers told him it would be impossible for two starships to fight each other so close.) Roddenberry himself added a new layer with TNG in 1987, and J.J. Abrams found a new way to update it for the modern blockbuster age nine years ago.
Indeed, I think another problem with the TNG movies is that they never had the freedom the original series did–it leapt immediately from the small to big screens, and the fan expectations came along with it. It was never given the room to grow into its new format.
Those fans often put it another way–that TNG changed too much, and that Picard changed too, becoming an action figure instead of a thoughtful leader, reacting too often with anger. The biggest culprit is “Star Trek: First Contact”–what many others consider one of the best Trek movies–where Picard lashes out at the horrifying threat of the Borg, which assimilated him years earlier.
They have a point–TNG’s creators made a deliberate choice to beef up the special effects and action, going so far to destroy the familiar Enterprise in the first film and replace it with a version that was a “more muscular, almost warship kind of look,” according to Ronald Moore.
But as a complaint, I find it inane. Of course Picard responds to new situations and challenges with new emotions. “First Contact” presents Picard with an existential threat–a metaphor for unstoppable, emotionless death–with a unique personal history. Of course we see sides of him that have often been hidden. It’s no coincidence that Picard’s “this far, no farther” speech is remembered as one of Stewart’s best moments.
This is one of the more baffling areas of fanhood, this insistence that characters cannot change or grow. We change. We grow older, disillusioned, nostalgic for the past–but Picard must remain the same. That’s his purpose.
Kirk underwent a similar character transformation–as an admiral in “Wrath of Khan,” he’s no longer a cocky ship commander but an over-the-hill, past-his-prime bureaucrat facing his own mortality. In an ingenious twist on the cliché, his love interest isn’t a nubile young alien but an old flame who’s long since moved on. But to use the same standard, he wasn’t the same Kirk.
I have no idea what the 78-year-old Picard would be facing. One intriguing possibility is the destruction of Romulus–shown in flash-backs of the future (it’s complicated) in 2009’s Star Trek–which should have happened roughly a decade before this new show starts, if they’re sticking with the chronology. [Ed note: I left this in just so everyone knows I called this, the early teaser indeed shows that this will be a major plot point.]
Trek has returned to the small screen to find that much has changed. SyFy and the “Golden Age of Television” have raised the bar on science fiction programming, with “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Expanse” as two obvious examples. The Trek franchise is stuck in an odd crossroads, squished between the expectations of sophisticated television and the fan demands for familiarity.
The bridge and ship as an ever-present setting made sense in the 1960s, the 1980s or the early aughts for that matter. But today’s special effects and budgeting allow a freedom those Trek writers could only dream of, a chance to explore this world in new and profound ways.
And I can’t think of a better time to dig into a universe that’s not dystopian, but not exactly utopian either–just logical.