A Whole Mess of Picard

A Whole Mess of Picard

Apr 23, 2023

I originally posted this on Cohost, but figured that I should put it here for redundancy.

Like the witty people say...

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

Accustomed as I've become to writing blog posts, this clocks in at around three thousand words...after chopping out some bits that didn't seem to go anywhere. And if you don't care about Star Trek, apologies in advance.

I want to preface this post by saying that, especially because Star Trek: Picard traded largely on nostalgia, don't take any of my attempts at analysis as telling you not to enjoy it. I didn't enjoy the show, but I also don't fit modern Star Trek's demographic of "nostalgic for the 1990s." While I watched it as it aired, I never loved TNG like a lot of people did, and as I rewatch it for my Thursday blog posts to try to figure out how people actually live in the Federation, I don't see that it has improved with age. If you love both shows, I have no objection to that.

Since I posted before about Picard — and modern Star Trek in general — I'll briefly recap my views on the first two seasons. And then I'll dig into the third season in some detail, assuming that readers have also watched or don't care.

  • Season one starts out by promising us a political thriller that would end in sweeping change, drifts through a weird story about a robot god that never comes together, and ends with Picard kinda-sorta learning that he shouldn't push people away. Also, Picard dies.

  • Season two starts out by telling us that the problem with dating your refugee employee begins and ends with your emotional problems, not the power differential inherent in employment or her refugee status. Somehow becomes an action-adventure therapy session for Picard, so that Q can heap praise on the former captain. Also, the Borg retroactively become good guys, letting Allison Pill do some actual acting for a couple of episodes before shuffling her off to her next gig where she'll undoubtedly play yet another nerdy, socially awkward sidekick character. 🤷

That brings us to the third season.

If you want a summary in the same style, I'd go with something like this.

Starts out by promising us another political thriller that would end in sweeping change, becomes a buddy movie, and ultimately mostly wants you to know that it watched all the films to prepare for this. Also, the Federation has nothing wrong with it, so please stop asking why the good guys keep planning genocide.

It really bothers me, though, that the season has some questionable politics that it would rather not talk about.

TNG's Final Frontier

In my blogging about life in the Federation, one post changed how I think about Star Trek: The Final Frontier.

Specifically, scrape away the comedic bits, the bits that they definitely intended to come off as comedic even though nobody laughs, and the awkward self-serious philosophizing, and you have a story about how some older folks (the crew) need to bash in the heads of some poor people, because an "outside agitator" (secretly Spock's half-brother) turns them into peaceniks by letting them (gasp!) talk about their feelings in a safe space.

Sure, Sybok ends up fronting for the cult to the most depressing god in the galaxy, but nobody knew that when the Enterprise-A flew in to intervene with the aforementioned skull-busting. Starfleet sent Kirk to deal with the uppity poor folks. In the time that it took the main cast to plan vacations to Yosemite during the refit in The Voyage Home, the main cast has gone from telling Starfleet where it can stick its regulations so that it can go back in time to save Earth by joining environmental conservationists, to planning to shoot poor people who have convinced some minor diplomats to join their sit-ins.

We ignore the intrusive fascist turn, though, because they want you to read the movie as a story about friendship. Don't worry, though. The intrusive fascist turn becomes the subject of The Undiscovered Country, in fact, when not-Chernobyl ends not-the-Cold War and a bunch of chicken-hawks stage assassinations to keep their jobs. The movies seem to want to tell a story about the Federation's moral decline.

How does this relate to Picard? Well, it turns out that our main plot secretly involves a bunch of older folks (the Enterprise-D crew) needing to bash in the heads of some young people, because outside agitators turn them into communists. Seriously, communists. In the '90s, we all looked at the Borg and said, "oh, how racists think about Chinese people," an inscrutable enemy that throws bodies at military problems, doesn't care about Intellectual Property, and lives communally, sharing everything in squalid conditions.

Both stories have our aged crew coming back for "one last adventure," that happens to look a lot like a fight to protect a not-so-great status quo against social progress.

Insecure Borg

The change in villain to the Borg, in my eyes, made no sense, for both straightforward and subtle reasons.

Most straightforward — and everybody has already picked up on this — the show ended the previous season, which they filmed back-to-back with this season, by reforming the Borg retroactively. The Borg had a new queen who saw Picard as a surrogate father, and they provisionally joined the Federation. Did that not happen? Did they massively oversell the change and Jurati only controlled a tiny commune? Do they not have a stake in a Borg invasion of their new allies?

Worse, though, their plan strikes me as simultaneously so brilliant as to have given them the option to quietly skip this entire season to succeed without opposition, so absurd as to let a handful of senior citizens stop and undo their plan over a weekend, and redundant enough that I wonder if they got drunk before setting everything into motion.

I mean, the Borg spent — presumably — years getting the super-Changelings to infiltrate Starfleet, compromising the security of the transporters, and turning a significant fraction of the Federation's population into bio-Borg. The transporters don't Borg-ify adults, but one imagines that the Borg organs (Borgans?) don't randomly explode on the subject's twenty-fifth birthday. And the Queen mentions that this will let Borg reproduce instead of assimilate.

And then...wait. Why doesn't this state constitute victory for them, exactly?

I ask, because they opt to...

  • Steal Picard's corpse, which they already had, because otherwise how did they put Picard's DNA in the transporter programming?

  • Turn Starfleet into the Death Star™.

  • Attack Earth.

In other words, they draw attention to themselves, when they could have hibernated for a couple of decades or traveled to the future and had control over everyone in Starfleet, every diplomat to pass through the Federation, most of their families, and the entire scientific community. From there, it would take maybe a week to convince the overwhelming majority of people to Borg-ify themselves, and they'd have assimilated the entire Federation and probably other cultures, with little to no actual effort. Instead, they take that perfect plan and drill a huge, Picard-shaped hole in it, apparently only so that our protagonist can foil their plot.

And I'll get to this from a different angle later, but if the Borg control all the young people on every Starfleet vessel, who cares that Starfleet networked its ships to act as a single unit? The Borg already do that.

A Changeling of Direction

What the heck did Vadic and her crew have to do with any of this?

They spend eight episodes beating us over the head with Vadic's similarity to Khan and General Chang. She monologues about how the Federation has mistreated her and her people. And then they kill her and...none of that matters. We pretty much forget about them, once someone says the word "Borg."

And I also have no understanding of the Changeling plan in all this. They steal Picard's corpse---which, again, they must have already had and used---from a facility that they...control? But they also steal the portal-gun, so that they can commit some random murder, even though killing young people works against the main plot, and they already had that weapon, I think they mentioned in dialogue.

Plus, in the final bickering, we find out that the Borg made "a deal" with Vadic, to make all this happen. But...what deal? What could they have gotten out of this mess? In some ways, it almost sounds like the Borg Queen sent Vadic a check to collect Jack Crusher, and everything else happened incidentally, but that makes even less sense.

We Won't Need This Anymore...

Personal preference, but I hate the wasted guest stars. Why haul in fan-favorite characters, for them to only deliver some exposition before killing them off?

It especially makes no sense, at least to me, to bring back Ro Laren for this. The episode gives Michelle Forbes some time to show that she can act circles around the rest of the cast. It gives her an enormous backstory that sounds like they should have given us a series about her, instead. She hands off her work to Picard. And then...💥 she go boom.

What the Hell, Seriously, Federation?

Maybe I have a cynical streak, but in my aforementioned blog posts, I often see the Federation as a fairly dark place, full of macho posturing, racism, and extreme pressure on children to succeed. As I've written before, Picard lectures us about how the Federation doesn't care about wealth and power, but he grew up in his ancestral castle that marks the centerpiece of a successful winery "now" employing large numbers of refugee laborers, so...I don't trust him any more than I trust any wealthy person today to tell me how poor people live.

Even with that grounded view, though, this season of Picard makes the Federation look bleak.

Vadic drops the bomb that the Federation genuinely intended genocide against the Changelings, and they only survived to the degree that they did, because some Changeling---presumably Odo, though she doesn't drop anybody's name, there---infiltrated Section 31 to steal the cure. And...nobody cares about the accusation of a literal war crime, because I guess that they don't mind some genocide as long as it happens to an enemy or two.

Vadic also drops the bomb that Federation scientists forced them to participate as subjects in medical experiments, planning to enslave them as super-spies, to explain their greater fidelity at shape-shifting. And again, this seems like a fairly big accusation, that everybody shrugs off as a normal thing that scientists do.

Oh, and I forgot that Riker made an offhand reference, somewhere along the way, to "lifting the ban on synthetics." I keep pointing out, because the franchise seems to want to forget, that this series technically started in Short Treks, Children of Mars, showing the attack by "rogue synths" on Mars. This led to the Federation disassembling and banning all synthetic lifeforms, which if it happened to characters that we cared about, we'd call---you guessed it---genocide. Riker's passing comment about "lifting the ban" feels like another attempt to show that nobody cares about fairly bad behavior. Sure, they engaged in genocide as a form of collective punishment a few years ago, but the "ban" ended a few months ago, so anybody who managed to hide for fifteen years can come home. Perfectly fine...

And...OK, does Starfleet have, like, one guy working in a basement, who has a personal mission of turning all of Starfleet into a network of self-driving cars? I imagine that he finally gets his way, spends a few months hiding in a supply closet while an enemy predictably takes over the fleet and uses it to destroy the Federation's defenses, and then crawls back to his desk to submit a new copy of his memo suggesting that they automate the fleet. I have to imagine this, because in six months, three season finales for Star Trek shows have featured this exact plot point.

  • October 27, 2022: Lower Decks (2381) introduces the automated and networked Texas-class ships, that turn out to have an evil AI that inexplicably has nothing to do with the other evil AIs in the series, because that show doesn't even try to make sense.

  • December 22, 2022: Prodigy (2384) has the Protostar's evil AI infect the now-networked Starfleet, which turns on itself.

  • April 13, 2023: Picard (2401) introduces the totally original idea that Starfleet has decided to network all their ships, so that they can act as one, which the Borg quickly exploit.

I realize that self-driving cars haven't lived up to the hype, but this seems like an extreme phobia manifesting.

By the way, regardless of the idea's originality or degree to which they mean to create an allegory for a real-world threat, what purposes can this new technology serve? I can only think of exactly what the Borg did with it, creating an off-brand Death Star.

Finally, we should talk a bit about the epilogue. In it, we learn...

  • The Federation continues to quietly cover up major crimes, as long as the perpetrator saves Earth from an attack.

  • They have automated stop-and-frisk, because decades after the end of the Dominion War, they still prefer a police state and arresting every member of a minority group to potentially making friends with a shape-shifter or Borg.

  • Everybody (except Data) thinks of therapy as a joke, where talking about your feelings frustrates the therapist who has important vacation-planning to do. The franchise has always hated therapy, from making Troi completely useless in TNG and Sybok's evil "talk about your pain to become a zombie" weirdness in the aforementioned The Final Frontier, so I don't know why this surprised me, except that our world's views have changed substantially on the topic.

  • Picard assures Jack that, no, nepotism has nothing to do with his assignment. But also, they renamed a ship in his honor and assigned all his friends to the bridge, so much like dude-living-in-a-castle lecturing us on the insignificance of money, maybe we shouldn't trust him on matters of corruption?

They play it as the happiest of endings, but it feels like such a downer.


I don't have much more to vent about, but I do want to mention that it comes close to infuriating me to see what a liberal hand Picard has with the Star Trek fanfare ("doo-de-doooo..." and so forth), to the point that it feels more like the substitute for a laugh track than a music cue. "We did a thing that you nerds will recognize. Get hyped," it seems to shout.

Granted, not many people will find this as important, but it seems especially strange after Michael Giacchino made such a big, public deal after writing the music for the 2009 reboot film, that he wanted to hold off on playing the fanfare until the moment when he thought that the story had earned it. By contrast, Picard uses it as punctuation.

And then we have the constant stream of Easter eggs pounding at us from behind the screen. I know that some people love this stuff, but it often felt to me like reading a Wikipedia article about Star Trek than watching Star Trek.

If Only...

As a bit of lighter humor for anybody who scrolled down this far (anybody who read all this, I don't know how I can help you...), I want to propose some Star Trek shows that I would rather have watched than Picard. I've mentioned a few of these elsewhere, and I assume that some lack originality, so I apologize if any seem familiar.

  • Sisko: Let's start with the elephant in the room. If they had built this series around Avery Brooks, he wouldn't have let it stop filming with any whitewashing of genocide or other unethical behavior. He also wouldn't have wasted time wondering if he should try to sleep with his employee.

  • Ro: Like I said above, they seemed to bring in Michelle Forbes to show off her overwhelmingly superior acting chops and give her the most interesting back-story of anyone in the series. I'd rather watch three seasons of that, if they can't convince Avery Brooks to come back.

  • Phase II and a Half: OK, I joke about the title, but The Animated Series and the original cast films created a bunch of characters that they hung out to dry, never to return to them. I say take M'Ress, Arex, a revived Will Decker, a revived Ilia, a revived David Marcus, Saavik, the injured kid who Scotty hauls up to the bridge instead of sickbay, and so forth, recast them, and give them their own ship. Though, admittedly, I'd rather watch that than the exhausting Strange New Worlds.

  • My Kingdom for a Sargh: You remember, "you have not experienced Shakespeare, until you have read him in the original Klingon"? I want the story about the old Klingon scout ship that crashes into Elizabethan countryside, and the survivors try to blend in by forming a theater troupe, each week combining a Klingon classic play with a continental European inspiration. Meanwhile, all the period writers that conspiracy theorists claim "really" wrote Shakespeare's plays form a secret society intending to murder the Klingons, so the season finale ends with bat'leth fight.

  • Cleanup on the Twentieth Century: Given how careless crews seem to act around time travel, I want the story of the team with a dedicated time-ship that follows up on each of these missions, quietly fixing the messes that the other crews made.

  • No Justice, No Peace: Since DS9, Star Trek has shown us a Federation that has planned genocide against at least three cultures---the Borg, the Changelings, and the Synthetics---imprisonment and persecution of Augments that goes back centuries, and we see that Romulan refugees largely act as migrant laborers to survive. I want the show where the various disadvantaged groups band together to demand equal rights under Federation law. I half-hoped that the final season of Picard might turn into that, but it has no interest in engaging with politics, other than casting change as something to prevent with violence. The attack on Mars presumably had a point to it, after all.

(Part of me wants to see if I can figure out how to make My Kingdom for a Sargh work without the Star Trek trappings...)

Honestly, though, I mostly only want a return to the time before Star Trek considered itself "comfort food" or "a love letter to" itself. Make us question our role in society's problems, like all enduring science fiction does.

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