Musings on Picard and the Star Trek Franchise

11 May

Picard failed to grab me.

It’s hard to say why.  Jean-Luc Picard embodies – or embodied – the ethos of Star Trek, in both his strengths and weaknesses.  Picard is both a highly-intelligent and highly-moral man, but – at the same time – he has a tendency towards both self-righteousness and a pollyannaish view of the universe that undermine his character.  Picard may be a better man than Sisko, in my view, yet I would sooner have Sisko in the captain’s chair if hard decisions have to be made.  Picard wanted to keep his hands clean.  Sisko had fewer qualms about getting his hands dirty if necessary.

This alone, however, is not enough to kill a show.  A series about a character who learned better – or reshaped the universe to suit himself – would have to start with a character in a poor position.  The real problems, however, are deeper.  To understand why, we must ask ourselves a simple question.  Why did Star Trek go mainstream in the first place?

I think the answer is fairly obvious.  The original series consisted of a number of individual episodes (there was only one two-part episode) that touched upon a wide range of themes, ranging from battles with hostile powers to humour, love stories and encounters with strange – and very inhuman – aliens.  If you didn’t like one, you might like others.  Star Trek itself embodied the IDIC principle, for better or worse.  The Next Generation followed the same basic idea, with a new crew and a new ship that did … well, pretty much the same as the original series.  There were a number of two-part episodes, but – by and large – you didn’t need to follow the series from the start to understand what was happening.  By the time all good things – hah – came to an end, this formula had played itself out.  The next series would have to be different.

Deep Space Nine was different – it was set on a space station, ensuring the crew could never drop into warp and outrun the consequences of their actions – but, for the first two seasons (and for some considerable distance afterwards) it remained bound to the episodic formula.  There was a story arc, but that arc didn’t become all-consuming until the final two seasons.  It worked, because of the arc; the arc had time to take root because of the episodic formula.  In theory, Voyager could have gone the same way.  There was no way the crew could drop in to a handy shipyard and patch the holes in the ship.  In practice, it didn’t do so well.  The writers seemed incapable of producing either a retreat to the Next Generation formula or striding boldly into the unknown.  That is not to say Voyager was bad, but the rot was starting to set in.  Enterprise failed for pretty much the same reason as Voyager, with a twist.  The fans wanted something that was both completely different (because it was set in the pre-federation universe) and the same (because it had to live up to the carefully drawn out timeline the fans held in their hearts).  It stumbled and fell. 

At this point, it became clear the producers no longer understood their own show – or what made Star Trek great in the first place.  The rebooted movies might have been spectacular, but they were not Star Trek.  They were conventional action movies that alienated fans without drawing in any new fans.  The producers themselves had reached the limits of the overall formula.

It isn’t easy to write stories set in utopia.  Iain M. Banks wrote the Culture novels, set within a far more advanced universe, but most of his stories featured the Culture’s enemies, the Culture’s misfits, or the Culture’s immigrants.  Only one novel can truly be said to feature mainstream Culture citizens.  It isn’t a coincidence that this happens when the super-advanced Culture is facing an Outside Context Problem, an issue it can’t solve with super-technology.  In some ways, Star Trek has the same problem.  It’s not easy to write stories when there is relatively little at stake. 

Discovery had all of Enterprise’s weaknesses, but added a few of its own.  It was a series of interlocking episodes, each one telling part of an overall story.  None of them were stand-alone.  Viewers had to start at the beginning, or be hopelessly lost.  This, combined with a flawed premise, badly weakened the show.  It might have done better if it hadn’t been Star Trek.  Again, like the movies, Discovery alienated fans without drawing in any new fans.  This was, I think, quite predictable, even before the political BS started.  It might have been wiser to set a story in the post-DS9 universe.

Picard should have been that story.  However, it managed to copy most of Discovery’s mistakes.  On one hand, it started another series of interlocking stories that locked out fans who didn’t get interested right from the start.  On the other, it played political games and overrode common sense in a bid to make political points.  It’s not unreasonable, for example, for the average Federation citizen to have qualms about providing a new home for members of a race that has been both an enemy and an ally over the last two hundred years (particularly as they had an empire themselves, with plenty of spare room).  The logistics of shipping billions of people across interstellar space would have been daunting, even without the political concerns.  And then we have the problem of feeding and caring for the refugees.  In theory, the Federation could handle it.  In practice, again, there would be issues.  It is easy to reduce the real-like migration crisis to politically-correct soundbites, but such soundbites rarely acknowledge the problems caused by uncontrolled migration.

Jean-Luc Picard himself suffers from a degree of character assassination.  It was in character for him to take a political stand, but unwise of him to stake his career on an all-or-nothing approach.  (Really, Picard should have been dishonourably discharged for failing to destroy the Borg when he had a chance.)  He should have realised this was a dangerous path to take, instead of being surprised when his superiors accepted his resignation.  This is also true of the Federation itself.  Why does it – now – discriminate against artificial life forms?  Why does it discriminate against ex-Borg?  Picard himself is an ex-Borg.  It feels, very much, as though the Federation has fallen into darkness.

Perhaps it got better.  But it wasn’t Star Trek.

It might have been better to develop a completely new show.  It wasn’t as if there wasn’t room.  A starship patrolling the post-war universe?  Perhaps trying to sort out the mess caused by the war?  Dealing with political factions, insurgents, terrorists … and other threats, trying to move into the former enemy space.  Hell, why not just turn the New Frontier books into a movie?  We could have had the grim awareness that life isn’t perfect, mingled with the dream of a rosy and idealistic future. 

And, at the very least, it wouldn’t have alienated so many fans. 

11 Responses to “Musings on Picard and the Star Trek Franchise”

  1. Wayne May 11, 2020 at 4:55 pm #

    I am in awe of anyone who can write a book, even a terrible book. (Yours are simply outstanding, though.) But to both write books and then take the time to muse about so many topics just blows me away. Thanks for the many hours of thought provoking musings and exceptional books.

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 11, 2020 at 4:59 pm #

    IMO The Original Star Trek succeeded because it showed a Bright Future at a time when we saw the Future as gloomy.

    It wasn’t an utopia (but that’s OK as I don’t believe in utopias).

    By the time NG started, Roddenberry had gotten into “The Federation Is An Utopia” thing and since nobody was going to tell Roddenberry to “but out”, NG got stuck with plenty of (IMO) Roddenberry nonsense.

    There were some good stories in NG (and even DS9), but the rot had entered the Star Trek universe. 😦

    • Bewildered May 13, 2020 at 10:54 am #

      Voyager likewise was very much not a Utopia. Perhaps they were trying to return to Utopia, but until they got back they were surrounded by unknown and frequently hostile aliens with no allies, no support, and diminishing supplies.

      STD as I understand it divided the universe into binary fashion – evil religious nationalists (Klingons), and the heroic Federation (Atheistic, LGBT, left-wing etc).

      B5 was better in that sense – more real world.

  3. AshleyRPollard May 11, 2020 at 5:56 pm #

    I enjoyed Picard, with caveats that I haven’t given a lot of thought to, but which can be summed up as “bland.”

    Unlike you, I enjoyed the serial nature of Discovery, even if the plot McGuffin made my eyes roll: ultimately I went with the flow, and suspended my disbelief; helped by the actors performances.

  4. Warren The Ape May 11, 2020 at 7:46 pm #

    “Enterprise failed for pretty much the same reason as Voyager, with a twist”

    They went episodic with the timeline starting in the 3rd season and it was too late. In particular their three episode story arcs were pretty good, I thought.

  5. Warren The Ape May 11, 2020 at 7:49 pm #

    Star Trek will always be a failure because the people who made good Star Trek are not around anymore. It’s #MeToo city…with Klingons that look like snicker bars.

  6. Michael Creek May 11, 2020 at 11:56 pm #

    Picard didn’t grab me at all. It seemed to me that a very thin premise was expanded to multiple episodes and, for me, it failed to build dramatic tension.
    Discovery, by contrast, I have enjoyed greatly. There is an overall story arc in each series, yet most episodes seems to have their own story that reaches a conclusion. The first series, with its themes of dissembling, betrayal, loss and redemption was engrossing.
    Performances have been strong. Looking forward to the next series and a new start.

  7. Scott Osmond May 12, 2020 at 3:30 am #

    It failed for one reason. They failed to entertain. It’s about the fan enjoyment. Once you go full message fic with a dose of modern politics talking points you alienate half the audience. Secondly the story ages poorly as events move on.

  8. Andreas May 12, 2020 at 1:52 pm #

    Discovery and Picard are so bad, because the Hack Kurtzman is responsible. He is destroying Star Trek and needs to be fired.
    The Problems with Discovery are mostly story related – the whole Klingon War was just bad. And the resoultion was even worse. And the execution of the war was equally bad.
    Season 1 was also bad, because it only concentrated on one character: Michael Burnham. Thats like making a whole show just about … Scotty. It doesn’t work. Star Trek is an ensemble show. Season 2 of Discovery was way better in thar regard – giving the other bridge characters at least some screen time and lines. But the whole storyline was again utter bullshit. Kurzman can only write all-or-nothing stakes. He is not able to write a story in which not the whole universe is at stake and he can only solve stuff with violence. Which is the oppositve of what Star Trek should be. But all Star Trek he has written is like that: Star Trek 09: Planet Destroying Romulan who threatens to kill earth! Star Trek into Darkness – the worst Movie of all times – at least here the stakes were “just” the destruction of the klingon homeworld. Discovery Season 1: Destruction of the whole universe trough spore drive. Discovery Season 2: Destruction of the whole galaxy through Super AI. Picard Season 1: Destruction of the whole Universe trough super advanced AI from another dimension.
    Star Trek was rarley about that. It’s like this Guy has no other ideas.

    The best Star Trek Films were Star Trek 2, 4 and 6. 2 was a very tense, but very small scale personal battle. Star Trek 4 had high stakes, but that was just the pretense for the fun adventure. Star Trek 6 was a political thriller. Than there is the worst movie of them all, Generations. Star Trek 8 is ok, but the time travel implications ruins it (if the Borg can time travel at will, earth is lost – time travel is the worst stark trek trope).

    Star Trek 2009 took everything that was bad in Star Trek and made it into a movie. Stupid Time Travel, stupid villian motivations (Supernova destroys Romulus and now he wants to destroy earth …? He got back in time and doesn’t warn his people about the supernova??? I know there is a Tie-In Comic that explains some of this stuff, but if you have to study third-party material for a film to make sense, the film sucks), stupid stakes. Except for the time travel part Star Trek 09 (and even Star Trek into Darkness) is just a rehash of Star Trek Nemesis. And Nemesis was the the second worst stark Trek movie after Generations. Now it is the fourth worse Star Trek Movie after Generation, 09 and into Dumbness.

    I’m drifting off in a rant here …

    The Problem with all the new Star Trek since 2009 is, that a super hack is at the helm, who seems to can only retell the same story over and over.

    Discovery has like maybe the greatest crew composition of all Trek Shows, but now for season 3, they are rehashing the plot from the probably most cheesy tv show of all times: Andromeda and by so ruining the whole of star trek by showing, that the federation is failing. If we know, that in 2900 years, the federation has failed, than we don’t need any show in 2400 that shows us, how good or bad the federation is. We already know the outcome. That was also why Enterprise sucked and the whole Xindi-Arc failed.

    And the failings of discovery and picard have nothing to do with being to preachy, but just with bad writing. The most succesful show, TNG, was way more preachy and till today it has the highest viewer ratings of any star trek show.

  9. Dwan Seicheine May 14, 2020 at 12:06 am #

    Scott Bakula and crowd did very well on Star Trek: Enterprise. The one who came before were utter shit except for the original. As for Picard? He was a strutting thespian pansy.
    The only reason Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005) did not succeed like the Big Bang was because of the waves of shit before it, that murdered it.

    This show went back to it’s roots and reinvented Star Strek. Better, stronger, faster!

  10. Fleeced May 23, 2020 at 11:59 am #

    Yeah, I lost interest in both Discovery and Picard. I just didn’t get back to it and now I don’t remember enough to bother. Picard did seem a overly sanctimonious to me. Trek was always lefty franchise from TNG onwards (left of me as a conservative, anyway), but still enjoyable.

    A serialisation with interlocking stories can certainly work. Babylon 5 was fantastic in that regards (season 1 was slow and season 5 had issues, but it was still the best sci-fi series of all time).

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