The Disastrous Worldbuilding of Star Trek: Picard
Spoiler Warning: This post discusses key events and plot points in both Discovery and Picard.
Watching Star Trek: Picard was an emotional rollercoaster for me, not necessarily because it’s good (it has great moments; it has many more stupid ones), but because of my history with the world and character. I grew up watching The Next Generation, and many of the Picard-centric episodes (e.g. “Sarek,” “Darmok,” “The Inner Light”) stand among the greatest. “The Inner Light” in particular remains one of the best episodes of television ever written, not only deeply moving but somehow able to convey the weight of passing decades in a mere 45 minutes, an astonishing feat of writing and pacing.
Alas, almost all Star Trek after Deep Space 9 left me cold, while Discovery left me downright hypothermic. For that reason, I had no faith left that the corporate machine could handle the emotional and psychological nuance of an older, more world-weary Picard. Curiously enough, that may be the one element they actually did a half-competent job with, for which I have to assume Patrick Stewart deserves most of the credit. On the whole, however, this show has made a complete bloody mess of (what’s left of) the Star Trek universe. If it were simply a matter of petty continuity errors I wouldn’t waste time with them, but we’re talking about enormous and nonsensical thematic shifts that effectively destroy Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future, a vision we sorely need in our time.
Before getting into the meat of the issue, I want to head off one argument at the pass. The creators of “Newtrek” have attempted to delegitimize criticism of their work by pointing out that people also hated Deep Space 9 when it first launched, and for many of the same reasons: too dark, too political, too radical a change. While true, comparing Discovery or Picard to DS9 is ludicrously disingenuous. While it’s darker than TNG1Which, by today’s misery-porn standards, still makes it look no heavier than a sitcom., and does put enough pressure on the Federation’s usual idealism that it breaks a handful of times, the Starfleet and Federation of DS9 still remain essentially themselves. The show doesn’t destroy Roddenberry’s vision so much as develop and stress-test it. Even the most principled organizations have hard choices to make when faced with annihilation, as they were in the Dominion War. Throughout the show, we can see Sisko and Starfleet struggling to stay true to their ideals. Mostly, they succeed. Mostly. What’s more, all this rests on Star Trek’s usual foundation of excellent characterization and (mostly) good writing. For those qualities, it has since received the praise and recognition it deserves.
As we’ll see, Newtrek’s writing hovers somewhere around the level of Star Trek: Nemesis…which received well-earned derision (even from the main cast) and quite rightly got no reprieve.
So, all that said, let’s get into it.
Modern Star Trek seems hell-bent on transforming Starfleet and the Federation as a whole into your dime-a-dozen sci-fi dystopia. This trend really began with Star Trek: Insurrection, wherein Starfleet makes its debut as a colonial power, attempting a “forced relocation” of the Ba’ku, but Discovery brings this dystopian vision into full focus2Which makes zero sense, as it’s a prequel to TOS. The Federation hasn’t faced the horrors of the Borg or the Dominion yet. At least Admiral Dougherty’s misguided desperation to give the Federation a new lease on life in Insurrection follows logically from the trauma of those conflicts.. In the second season, the show flies in the face of both continuity and common sense when it has Section 31, a rogue cadre of genocidal maniacs, work openly for Starfleet. The writers even attempt to portray them as…well, much as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare portrays Price’s gang: the good guys who do the bad things for The Greater Good(TM). Paramilitary thugs are, in Discovery’s grimderp reality, simply misunderstood badasses.
Picard does much the same thing to the Federation as a whole, although it is (mercifully) less loud about it. In the first episode, for example, Picard sits down with a reporter from the Federation News Network who proceeds to attack him with bad-faith gotcha questions and violates the terms under which he agreed to the interview, which forbade her from asking why he left Starfleet. Apparently, Federation culture has devolved to the point where this Fox News clone is considered reputable journalism. Seriously, this isn’t entirely dissimilar from what recently happened to Cornell West on Fox, albeit less brazen and more insidious. Appallingly, everyone Picard meets considers his response wildly inappropriate; his doctor even suggests that a degenerative brain disease, not moral outrage, triggered his tirade! This (apparently successful) gaslighting of both the audience and Picard himself is disturbing.
I could spend all day dissecting that interview, but we have to move on. In a pitiful attempt to introduce moral complexity to Starfleet’s position on the Romulan rescue, Admiral Sheer Fucking Hubris3Incidentally, she accuses Picard of hubris right before affirming the Federation’s right to decide whether entire species live or die. The hypocrisy is staggering; TNG Picard would have called her on it without hesitation. tells us that 14 Federation member races threatened to withdraw if the operation went forward even before the attack on the Utopia Planitia shipyards…which is ludicrous. First of all, the Romulans were Federation allies in the Dominion War. Second, Picard’s actions in Nemesis only strengthened that relationship. Third, the Federation has a history of aiding former enemies at great cost to themselves, as they did in DS9, sacrificing their alliance with the Klingons4And no, the Federation wasn’t betraying the Klingons, who had no legitimate cause for war. The Federation was taking a moral stand as much as making a strategic decision. to aid the Cardassians. Hell, they went as far as rescuing their civilian leadership from a Klingon attack and providing them with humanitarian relief throughout the war. The Federation doesn’t pull shit like this, period5Even the situation with the Maquis was more complicated than “The Federation was stupid and evil.”.
As for the admiral’s “We didn’t have enough ships left. We had to make choices” remark…I don’t even know where to start. First of all, the Federation has way more shipyards than just Utopia Planitia, half a dozen of which also happen to be in the Sol System. Second, this would be like the U.S. refusing to help Europe against Hitler (and 14 states threatening to secede if we did) because, “Well golly gee, the Japanese sure did a number on our fleet at Pear Harbor.” No, wait, it’s dumber than that, because the Federation wasn’t walking into a massive fucking war.
Now, the last nail in the Federation’s coffin comes when we first meet Raffi. After the the rescue effort is abandoned and Picard resigns in protest, Raffi’s career goes to hell, leaving her jobless and apparently destitute. She even makes a quip about it, bitterly comparing her tiny hovel in the California desert to Picard’s luxurious chateau6Yeah, did I mention the series makes Picard look like a complete jackass? He’s always been pompous, could be an arrogant prick on occasion, and dogmatic about Starfleet regulations, but he’s never just abandoned people he cares about..
Cool. So I guess the moneyless, post-scarcity society that has eradicated poverty, hunger, and greed is just out the window7Yes, it’s more complicated than that. There’s a great reddit thread addressing the inconsistency of Star Trek canon on the Federation’s economic structure, but the overall bent is definitely: within the Federation’s borders, currency doesn’t mean much if it exists at all.. Now we have a Federation not only rife with xenophobia, journalism as corrupt and pitiful as our own, and admirals who arrogate to themselves the power of life and death over entire species, but also somehow divided along class lines! The Federation has become, at best, another generic sci-fi dystopia. At worst, it’s now the United States in space: a nominally democratic, imperialistic, narcissistic political force that keeps its citizens poor, divided, and hateful of outsiders.
Look, as someone with more than a few anarchist leanings, I’ve got my own problems with the TNG-era Federation as a political entity. It seems to me a highly idealized, highly advanced version of the social democracy we find in Nordic countries today. Still, its bureaucracy often gets in the way of actually doing the right thing, the incompetence or downright malevolence of its admiralty has its own TV Tropes page, and the Prime Directive (while a decent default) often becomes immoral in practice. Indeed, one of the best criticisms in this vein comes from the terrorist Kyril Finn in the TNG episode “The High Ground” when he says to Picard,
Captain, the Federation has a lot to admire in it, but there’s a hint of moral cowardice in your dealings with non-aligned planets. You’re doing business with a government that is crushing us, and you say you’re not involved—you’re very, very much involved. You just don’t want to get dirty.
A devastatingly accurate observation, one Picard can only answer with empty rhetoric. Incidentally, this episode was initially banned from running in the UK, and when it did finally air, a scene between Data and Picard was cut for its reference to Irish unification.
This is how Star Trek once confronted contemporary political issues.
Where the Federation is concerned, I’d much prefer a society more in line with anarchist principles. That is, as J.R.R. Tolkien (of all people) broadly describes it, anarchism “philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs.”8The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #52. Nevertheless, there’s a reason why Nordic countries consistently rank among the happiest in the world, despite remaining essentially capitalist. What’s more, the Federation has matter replicators—meaning that all the necessities of life can literally be conjured from thin air—so certainly by the TNG era, they can’t be called “capitalist” in any modern sense. That’s what the Ferengi are there for, and they’re ruthlessly mocked for a reason.
Even in this context, though, you’ve still got plenty of ways to explain why Picard’s life might take a darker turn. For example, we know nothing about his Dominion War record, making it fertile ground to touch on in a new series. We’ve also never seen his reaction to the existence of Section 31, an organization that couldn’t be more abhorrent to his ideals, or those of the Federation. In fact, here’s a concept for a new series just off the top of my head:
Sometime after the events of Nemesis, Picard accepted a promotion to admiral, partially to acquire the authority and influence he would need to conduct an investigation into Section 31, and partially to combat what he saw as increasing militarism in post-Dominion War Starfleet9It seems plausible they might go in this direction given the massive shift in the balance of power the war caused, especially if Section 31 has taken a more active role in shaping Federation policy.. However, after a time, he found that Starfleet was beginning to stonewall him, dragging their feet and outright refusing requests for more resources and personnel. Alas, this was typical of their behavior throughout DS9, and Picard becomes more and more frustrated, experiencing a crisis of faith in the institutions he once championed. The Dominion War was bad enough, threatening to destroy the Federation from without; now, after a victory bought with countless lives, Picard must face the possibility of destruction from within. This forms the backstory for the new series.
As the show kicks off, he receives a visitor in the person of none other than Miles O’Brien, still a professor at Starfleet Academy, who has himself noticed some disturbing patterns of activity even in the academy itself. He brings Picard evidence that Section 31 is maneuvering officers they approve of (i.e. the more militaristic, pragmatic variety) into positions of power while also subtly manipulating the flow of public information in a way that favors their interests, extending their influence into the political realm10Hell, you could even hint that they were behind the (otherwise inexplicable) decision to forcibly relocate the Ba’ku in Insurrection, retroactively improving that movie!. Picard and O’Brien decide to begin quietly assembling a group of trustworthy officers to bring down Section 31 once and for all. The first thing they do is recruit former Section 31 asset Julian Bashir and his wife Ezri Dax to the cause. Together, these four form the core of their makeshift counter-insurgency team. Picard considers this the most important mission of his entire career, and reveals that, succeed or fail, it will be his last in Starfleet11This seems to me fitting, as Picard would recognize it as the culmination of everything he has worked for throughout his storied career. It also allows for that sense of melancholy that works so well in the show..
Such a story could and should continue DS9’s work in exploring the nuance behind Section 31’s philosophy while still condemning it in the harshest of terms. Throughout, Picard must confront the flaws in the Federation and Starfleet that rendered them vulnerable to its influence in the first place and deal with the crisis of faith this sparks in him.
Again, just off the top of my head.
Instead, we got a nonsensical retread of the tired “Synthetics vs. Organics” cliché, complete with a ripoff of Mass Effect’s Prothean beacons (seriously, compare Commander Shepard’s vision to the Admonition—the similarities are obvious), set in a Federation that has already succumbed its darkest impulses.
Gene Rodenberry was a visionary who strongly believed in humanity’s potential for goodness. Whatever his flaws (and there were some), he genuinely believed that a better future was possible for us, and strove to show what such a future could look like. Some might say that all the horrors of our modern age, the deliberate mismanagement, rampant militarism, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and general disdain for human life and dignity prove that such idealism is naive to the point of delusion. They are fools. The Guardian’s review of the show puts it beautifully:
The hope, optimism and sincerity of the original 60s series was in itself a radical act: a way of portraying the future as it should be (a multiracial cast in a time of civil rights struggle; peace and cooperation in a time of nuclear terror), rather than merely wallowing in things as they were.
Our culture seems to have two settings these days: wallowing or denial. We have never needed Star Trek’s sincerity and optimism more than we do now, and we certainly need the thoughtful, articulate Jean-Luc Picard back, embodying the same wise, principled leadership that has always been his hallmark. We have no such examples to look to in the real world, not even imperfect ones12Nope, not even Bernie Sanders. I wish he were the Democratic nominee, I love what he stands for, I love what he’s done for our politics, but even he can’t seem to speak out against the war industry or the rampant corruption in the Democratic Party establishment. For all his radical policies, he still wants to be “in the club.” In that respect, Picard’s 5-minute interview in “Remembrance” is more subversive than Sanders’s entire political career.. They exist now only in stories.
And with that, I think I’ll leave off for now. We’re not done, though: next time, we’ll talk more about Picard’s plot and characterization, as well as the show’s few truly wonderful moments. It does, thankfully, have a handful of them.