The Travesty of Picard

Still from Picard 3. Source: Paramount.

Captain Jean Luc Picard was one of the greatest characters in the sci-fi pantheon.  Which is why, when they brought out the series Picard, more than thirty years after Star Trek – The Next Generation was first aired – it was something I approached with high-hopes.  The first series of Picard, however, was a car crash.  Just terrible.  The eponymous character faced a death visited upon him worse than any supplied by the most brutal, blood-thirsty Klingon.  Or to say the same, Jean Luc Picard was made to endure death by writer.

I couldn’t watch the second series.  Feelings of disgust, resentment and self-loathing, visited upon me by having forced myself through the first series, meant it would have been too painful, psychologically speaking   Recently, however, the third and final series was launched.  And it arrived to a torrent of acclaim.  Cameron Black writing for Fansided declared it ‘could not have been more perfect’, Scott Collura writing for Redfall deems it an ‘emotional, exciting, and ultimately fun journey for Jean-Luc and his family’, while Digital Fix waxes lyrical on the ‘five things we loved about Star Trek Picard Season 3’.  The plaudits were as infinite as space itself.

So tentatively, and with great reluctance, I prepared to get back into the water, never knowing the writers had once again chosen to jump the shark.

For Picard Season 3 is bad.  Not as bad as Season 1 – which is much like saying a particularly painful haemorrhoid is preferable to the Black Death.  But it really is genuinely bad.  First off there are the lazy inconsistencies (traditionally I would offer a spoiler alert at this point, but I am not sure it is possible to ‘spoil’ something so diabolical in the first place).   So phasers operate in a rather bizarre fashion – when Worf or Beverly Crusher are hit by them, they get injured but survive; when the bad guy ‘changelings’ are hit by them, they instantaneously evaporate in a burst of blood cloud. Unless it is the main bad guy, the changeling Captain Vadic.  She gets phasered multiple times and yet nothing happens to her (they require the character for the next episode you see).

Then there are the nods to humour.  Worf, the quintessence of a Klingon warrior, is now devoted to a life of pacifism, spirituality and meditation, and while this raises a smile the first time the joke is delivered – it is also undermined by the fact that Worf slaughters on average fifteen people per episode.

Then there are the more significant clangers.  Jack Crusher has some kind of Borg neuro coding in his system and is thereby able to read the minds of other people and even control their actions by way of some weird Jedi mind trick.  But when were the Borg ever able to do that?

Crusher is the prodigal son – the child Jean Luc never knew he’d had by Beverly Crusher, the latter disappearing from his life with his son for some twenty years.    Quite a stop gap, and Picard is understandably miffed, but Beverly explains that the reason for her absence was she knew being the great man’s son was fraught with danger; Jack would inevitably have been a focus for the attentions of Picard’s many lethal enemies and in light of this, Beverly absented him from Jean Luc’s life.   Only a moment later, however, she explains how ardently she encouraged Jack to track down his absentee father, pretty much urinating on everything she has said only moments before, without missing a beat.

Speaking of Jack, it turns out he is some kind of superweapon.  The Borg need to get him on their ship, but that’s not going to be easy because Jack is now surrounded by protectors including Picard himself.  And plus, the Borg haven’t been seen for years and are probably buried in the deepest darkest depths of some galaxy millions of light years away.

A problem for the writers? Not at all.  They simply make Jack escape Picard’s ship in a fit of pique, and where does he head?  Straight for the Borg cube.  But surely he is not going to reach it in his lifetime? Again, not a problem.  There is one hidden in the rings of Jupiter – yes that’s right, a Borg ship of vast size and almost infinite power has managed to cruise right into the heartlands of Federation space without being detected in order to nestle behind the planet.

Once Jack reaches the Borg ship it appears he intends to kill the Borg Queen and thus put an end to the whole sorry episode.  You might wonder how one young man in a shuttle craft is going to be able to resist the vast power of the Borg cube, circumvent its defences, slip past the millions of Borg on board in order to execute the Borg Queen?  Don’t worry, the writers have got you covered.   You see … Jack has a phaser!

And indeed Jack does manage to get within striking distance of the Borg Queen.  He has her in his sights.   He is about to fire.  When, suddenly, he decides not to and is promptly assimilated.   Thus, have the writers set up his rescue by the heroic and wizened Picard.

Now the Federation have a problem though.  Because the Borg have Jack, they can use him as a superweapon.   This works in the following way.  Because the Federation fleet are now using a system where all the ships’ computers are networked together, this means that Jack can penetrate the minds of all crew members and instantaneously turn them into Borg.

How? Why?  I don’t know.

But … this too presents a problem.  If all the Federation peeps have become Borg, who is going to fight the Borg?   Again an insoluble contradiction one feels, but the writers once more come up with a lively solution.  The Borg mind conversion programme only affects those over 45.

How? Why? I have no idea.

But luckily, guess what?  All the central characters apart from Jack happen to be over 45.  Which is totally amazing as it frees them up to make a great rescue and save the universe, something they have done – Picard and Riker fondly reminisce – many times before!

The writers have created a desolation and called it a plot.  But even the way in which they warp and twist the storyline, without care or compunction, in order to yield a wholly artificial resolution – even this might not be the end of the universe.  More than this, however, the most terrible violence is done to the Picard character himself.

And here we should remember what a finely wrought and delicately portrayed character he was; just how great some of the very best episodes of The Next Generation really were.   For example, the two-set episode where the Federation fleet engage the Borg for the first time (The Best of Both Worlds) and Picard is assimilated by the Borg collective.  It’s one of those episodes that seems to transcend genre; even though it is set in a fantasy galaxy, nevertheless the real human horror of war is rendered palpable, not just the loss of so many lives, but also the bellicose generals, blind to the realities on the ground, swollen chested, belching patriotic platitudes in the moments before they lead the masses into the inferno.

There is something Shakespearean about the way Picard takes one last walk around the ship’s decks, before the terrible battle commences.  He is thoughtful and soft-spoken, and while his tone is not one of hopelessness, he understands in a way that perhaps the generals don’t, that there is little possibility of victory, and thus his tone is one of gentle but profound melancholy.  In an understated speech to perhaps his most intimate confidante, he reflects on what they are facing, and on history more broadly, ‘I wonder if the Emperor Honorious, watching the Visigoths coming over the seventh hill, could truly realize that the Roman Empire was about to fall. This is really just another page of history, isn’t it? Will this be the end of our civilization?’  One senses a man who is in the grip of great sadness, but hopes too.

Or consider the episode where Picard is tortured by the Cardassian Commander, Gul Madred (Chain of Command Part 2).   The episode is set in a small chamber, dimly lit except for four blindingly bright lights which often obscure the features of the interrogator.   Again there is something Shakespearean about the encounter; it is sparse, threadbare, and even though there are moments of actual torture, the episode relies most heavily on the dialogue between the two men.  It has the aroma of a theatre performance, the chiaroscuro style contrast between the light and the dark – as the deeper into the men’s psyches the dialogue, and the suffering, leads.

The episode lays bare not just the humanity of the victim but also the brokenness and the dehumanisation of the person who does the torturing; how in doing violence to another, they ultimately do violence to themselves.   To my mind, it exhibits the strange and grotesque logic of totalitarianism as finely as anything penned by Solzhenitsyn or Koestler and it is worth noting that some historians concur; the Argentine historian and historical novelist, for instance, who was born in the aftermath of the generals and their fascist dictatorship reflects on the aesthetic power and realism of the episode: ‘When I am re-watching the whole series, I skip it … I can’t stand the torture scenes’.

I am raising this not simply because I want to make clear just how great the select few best episodes of The Next Generation were, but also to provide an insight into the Picard character.  Here we are dealing with someone deeply intellectual, someone grounded in philosophy and books, someone remarkably logical and dispassionate to the point of being repressed.  He finds it exceptionally difficult to be in the same room as children, for he doesn’t know what to say to them; one feels he doesn’t know how to relax, such is the controlled and intensely disciplined nature of his mind.

And yet, underneath the surface, one never doubts the great warmth of his humanity.  Having been assimilated by the Borg, having been forced to inflict violence and death on vast numbers of his comrades, he retreats to his childhood home in La Barre, France where his older brother continues to operate the vineyard that has been in the Picard family for generations.  His brother is surly, resentful of Picard’s success, and constantly snipes at him.

Eventually, in the midst of the vineyard, the two middle-aged men get into a fight, a slightly absurd spectacle which has them rolling around in the mud, before they both burst out laughing, and for the first time the tension that has existed between them abates.  But as Picard laughs the sound changes into something else, his voice breaks and he begins to sob, ‘You don’t know, Robert. You don’t know. They took everything I was. They used me to kill and to destroy, and I couldn’t stop them. I should have been able to stop them! I tried. I tried so hard, but I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t good enough. I should have been able to stop them. I should! I should!’

It is intensely moving.  Picard, self-contained to the point of being repressed, breaks down under the most terrible of pressures and it is one of the rare flashes into the deep emotional life of the Captain that runs underneath a regulated and controlled surface.  It is this which makes the character compelling, and in some sense fundamentally real. For despite his intellect and great achievement, the Picard character always conveys the whiff of loneliness – someone who, at a more protean level, is unable to emotionally engage with those around him, and yet the viewer never doubts the deep commitment and value he feels for others.

Now flash forward to Picard series 3.    The Picard we encounter here is a travesty of the original. Apart from the physical resemblance one struggles to find any kind of unity between the two.  The Picard here emotes constantly; he is this one gloopy melting slop of overheated feeling, dribbling, trickling, oozing, but along with the interminable sentimentality – this Picard also exhibits a bellicose gung-ho ‘into the breach one last time old boy’ mentality that has more in common with the patriotic militarism of Captain Kirk.

In the third episode, for instance, when they are once again facing ‘certain death’, he looks at Riker before declaring bombastically, ‘We’ve been here before, Will. If this is the end, let’s face it together. Doing what we know we do best.’   Here human life is treated as something casual, a throw-away commodity to be discarded before the one-liner bravado of the all-action hero.  This is so out-of-sync with the real Jean Luc Picard who was, more often than not, cautious and deeply analytical; who did not simply seek to cast himself into the fray on a whim – because the lives of the crew and the danger he sometimes had to place them in were moral and spiritual issues with which he wrestled, often agonizingly.

But the gushing emotion is worse.  Sometimes it is displayed by Picard energetically relating the tales of his own heroism and wisdom to a group of wide-eyed admirers in a bar.  But it reaches its zenith with the Picard-Jack storyline.  Writing father-son relations – the estrangement, the oedipal angst, the possible redemption – requires a deft and delicate touch, precisely because it can lurch into saccharine sentimentality if mishandled.  And the writers for Picard actually start off well enough with the Jack character.  He is smart, manipulative, goodhearted underneath; an outsider and a rebel, a non-conformist and someone who also harbours a strong streak of anger.  He is, in a word, an interesting character.

But the problem is that the reconciliation with his father is brought to its resolution so rapidly; within a week, Jack goes from being antagonistic and wilful to slavishly embracing all the wonderful qualities that inhere in his famous father along with an immense sense of gratitude for having had some of these bestowed on him.  ‘I can also be brave, loyal and far wiser than I have any right to be.  Until a week ago … I didn’t know where those traits came from’, Jack says, addressing his father with what is supposed to be subdued and sincere feeling, but just feels a tad sycophantic.

He hasn’t really ever known this man – feelings of hesitation of awkwardness, of resentment, of anger or even abandonment perhaps; feelings accumulated over a lifetime, are simply boiled down into a few sentimental lines acknowledging Picard’s importance and greatness, something all the characters in the story spend an inordinate amount of time doing.

One imagines that the real Picard would be baffled by such a display, would find it awkward and difficult to reciprocate – especially given they are still so unknown to one another.  But in the final episode, all this Picard does is lay on thick the most cloying fatherly-son tenderness.  During the inevitable rescue scene at the climactic moment – after Jack has gone and Borged himself – Picard rocks up on the cube (again none of the millions of Borg seek to stop him) and begins to leek emotion profusely, ‘I joined Starfleet to find a family I didn’t have. And I found it. I let them in. But there was always a barrier … there was something wrong with me, and I waited. Waited in that vineyard. Waiting to die, alone.  But now, Jack, I realize … you are the part of me that I never knew was missing.’ (The Last Generation)

Because such emotive dialogue is delivered in the context of a dramatic rescue, the fact that the writers simply haven’t done the work on the relationship between Picard and his son in order for them to genuinely reach this kind of rapprochement is, to a limited degree, disguised.  But the sentimentality is nevertheless pervasive.  That is because when the relationship between characters isn’t cultivated in a careful and authentic fashion, there is only one other option available to the writer.   You amp up the dramatic feeling and thrust of the language, you make the proclamations all the more theatrical, all the more histrionic; and this is what the moment of sentimentality in writing truly represents – it is the moment where a heightened emphasis on dramatic style endeavours to cover the paucity of any authentic emotional content.

The Picard character is a travesty of Picard; the writers have created a chimera, a replicant, a changeling – more horrific than any of the evil villains who populate the Star Trek multiverse.  But the character of Jack is another victim of Picard’s carnage.    This character starts off as being intriguing and thoughtful, someone riven with internal contradiction – someone both sly and confident and yet at the same time sensitive and vulnerable.  He is also thoroughly pig-headed, instinctively rebellious and anti-authority, and quite courageously determined to forge his own path.

When it is first suggested that he join Star Fleet he demurs with a wry, sarcastic smile, saying that it is really not something for him.  But guess what?  By the time the season ends, there he is taking his place on board a Star Fleet vessel no doubts as tribute to his great father’s legacy (and the commercial possibilities of yet another series).  Every internal characteristic and contradiction, everything that made Jack an interesting character has by this point has been dissolved in a blank, banal establishment cut-out ready to take his place and do his duty just as his father wills.   Everything subversive, everything of depth, everything of character has been thoroughly eradicated from Picard in favour of a saccharine style and self-congratulatory reunion peppered with increasingly tired jokes and sloppy sentimentality.   The real Picard would be rolling in his holochamber!

Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press), Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art  (Zero Books), The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution (Bloomsbury) and The Face of the Waters (Vulpine). He can be reached on twitter at @MckennaTony