Star Trek, when it's doing its job, has something to say.
TL;DR: Picard has something to say.
Sometimes, that thing begins with an ‘f’, at least when said by one of his co-adventurers.
The Measure of a Trek
Star Trek and The Next Generation tell the classic Trek story: humanity — and sentient life in general — can better itself, defeat its demons, achieve utopia, and go on missions of exploration, diplomacy, and finding truly weird stuff, with the occasional laser battle.
Deep Space Nine brings a new lens to the Trek universe. They solve the puzzle of the week, but then — horror of horrors — they have to deal with the consequences, instead of watching them disappear in the aft sensor array at warp 8. There is actual, lasting conflict that Sisko needs to negotiate. And he is not Picard.
Right from the first episode, we know this isn't the Star Trek we know. First, it's possible for someone to actually dislike Picard. Second, the non-religious and deeply skeptical commander is the local religion's Emissary of the Prophets.
As the show develops, though, it reveals a deeper character. It is driven by a question: ‘what does the glorious, utopian Federation do when its back is really against the wall?’ While The Next Generation made the Borg an existential threat, that was mostly off-screen; DS9 has a front-row seat for the Dominion War. It starts to deconstruct Roddenberry's vision, probing its edges and revealing more of the contradictions that lie beneath its surface and the lies that hold it together.
Voyager likewise embraces conflict, and also has a question. ‘What does the Federation do when no one is looking?’ Will they uphold their ideals, or compromise to shorten the journey home?
I'm pretty early in Enterprise, but am a little spoiled. It fills in more of the picture: how did we get to the Federation in the first place?
The movies do their own things; they fill in stories, but I don't draw great lessons from most of them. Into Darkness perhaps had the most to say, with Kirk's closing speech calling us to leave the apocalyptic darkness that defines so much current sci-fi and return to the path to utopia. I will note that Nemesis also has a question, namely, ‘what happens when you let someone who has no idea what they are doing make a Star Trek movie?’, which worked about as well as letting William Shatner direct one.
You can only tell the story of utopia for so long. At some point, you need to ask what makes it tick, and whether it really works as well as everyone says. In different ways, DS9 and Voyager did that, and did it admirably.
But Voyager missed the landing. The time-travel transwarp-conduit nonsense that brought Voyager home was too simple. The details would be different, but they could have pulled that rabbit out of their hat any time after the first season or two. It cheapened the entire show, in my opinion — if all it takes to get home is Future Janeway playing a little loose with the temporal prime directive, why did we put the crew through these seven seasons?
Discovery was full of promise. Fascinating characters and meaningful conflict. Michael Burnam, the human reaching for Vulcan logic, a mirror of Data. Characters neither white nor male at the center of the show.
Then they killed Phillipa Georgiou in the pilot.
And spent a half a season in the Mirror Universe, for no particular reason. But at least we get Georgiou back, and Captain Killy was splendid.
Then they put Pike in command of the ship, and showed that ‘stranded in the Delta Quadrant’ isn't the only reason the Federation doesn't ensure fleet-wide rollouts of new uniform designs.
The second season of Discovery did have some of the better character and relationship work I think we've seen in any Trek. The writing and acting as Michael and Spock's troubled relationship unfolded was brilliant. Control provided a new lens to address synthetic intelligence. We get some backstory on Section 31.
But Discovery still faced the problem of its pre-written future: a propulsion system far more advanced than any Enterprise we've seen could boast, Spock's human sister, and no one said anything about either of these developments.
They wrote their way out of this problem, and set the stage for seasons 3 and later to explore truly new territory, but at the expense of what came before. When Discovery followed the Red Angel's wormhole to the 32nd century, and everyone with knowledge of it — or Control — swore themselves to silence, it meant the first two seasons were just stories. The had no significant impact on the broader universe.
I like stories, and I look forward to seeing where Season 3 goes. But I also look for what Star Trek tells me about its world, and by extension ours, and Discovery hasn't really delivered yet.
Picard opens perfectly: Picard playing poker with Data. It quickly moves to its question: what did the Federation do that Picard could no longer wear its badge?
Picard's fundamental goodness and unshakeable commitment to life become the lens to tell of a Federation that failed its ideals. The virtue he showed on the Enterprise, specifically but not only when he defended Data's personhood in ‘The Measure of a Man’, becomes a foil for the fear that drives a beacon of freedom and universal dignity to abandon refugees and outlaw an entire class of life. The retreat from evangelistic utopia is accented by Seven, who has gone vigilante to provide some safety, and if possible a little justice, to people the Federation left behind.
Much of that is background — crucial background, but background — to the show's face story about synthetics fighting for a chance to live. Their ‘humanity’ is never in question for Picard, or for Riker and Troi (who we visit for a little while), but they are outlaws to the Federation and anathema to the Romulans.
So we see Mass Effect in the world of Trek. Beyond the edge of the galaxy is a race of super-synthetics, and if synthetic life opens the portal, they'll come and destroy
the Quarians all organic life. Synthetic and organic life cannot live in harmony.
Brother Adrian is going to help them.
It's a gritty romp with a bit of nostalgia — besides bridge officers we love, Hugh is back leading the project to free Borg from a disabled cube and Icheb returns just long enough to die. It has some great new characters, like Raffi and Rios. And Seven is queer.
Not exactly original, but it worked.
A Broken World
The world in which this story unfolds is deeply broken. Much of that is well-told, with Rios, Raffi, and Picard each living in a different way with the trauma of the Federation's failures (and some Romulan treachery).
But someone really needs to give the writer's room some reading material on mental health communication. The show displayed multiple suicides on-screen, clearly implied the means of more, and had supremely unhelpful comments from both
Maggie Agnes and Narissa about the value of life.
Could we not? I don't mind dark tales, but it doesn't mean we need to throw best practices out the window. And they didn't need to show Icheb's torture multiple times.
At the end of the day, Picard has something to say. It explores new angles of the Star Trek universe and gives true closure to the song of Picard and Data, especially now that Picard is synthetic too. It matters.
We'll see what Discovery, the new Section 31 show, and Picard do next. I'm still a bit skeptical but more optimistic about the future of the Star Trek than the shows seem to be about their universe.