Lots of people have said this already, but I think I wanted to summarize a bit.
I was really excited when I heard there was a new Picard show coming out. I’ve been feeling for the past few years that the future just keeps looking more and more bleak, and what culture could really use was a positive vision, like we had in the 90s with Star Trek. Something that was part-escapism, part-challenge to us to be better, offering a positive vision for what humanity could look like in a few hundred years if we all just come together and figure it out. 90s Trek isn’t perfect, but it grasped firmly to that core concept: in the future, we will be better.
I don’t see anything better about the people of Star Trek: Picard. Among our main cast we have:
Raffi, An absent parent, recovering addict, who hates Picard because he tried to save billions of lives and this hurt her career.
Rios. Malcolm Reynolds/Han Solo. Mercenary for hire, nihilist.
Seven of Nine, here to conduct a revenge-killing for a truly cruel and disturbing depiction of the murder of a beloved Voyager character.
A Lothlorien Elf.
And that brings us to Picard himself. There are shades of our old Captain Picard here. The plot for this series traces back to a moment 20 years in the past when our captain attempted to do a Captain Picard thing: save the Romulan race over the objections of Starfleet brass. This didn’t work, and it somehow caused a group of Androids to destroy Mars. It’s not perfectly clear how these two plot points are related. In any case, our captain is humbled, publicly humiliated, and retreats to his vineyard for 20 years. From the moment we pick up his story he is constantly apologizing for his past attempts to do good.
Suffice is to say, aside from warp travel and replicators, there’s nothing here to look forward to.
If I think hard enough, I think I can see what the writers were going for. We are seeing a Fallen Federation. Traumatized by war with the Borg, the Dominion, and now catastrophe on Mars, the Federation turns inwards, becomes selfish. No longer cares about its mission of exploration and humanity. Perhaps the arc is for Picard to redeem this society, convince people once more that cooperation and communication is better than grumpy isolation.
There’s something interesting there. Sometimes writers use a utopian setting to actually beg-the-question. Look at the edge cases of the world they’ve constructed, look for the slaves moving in hidden passages in the walls, or the colonial exploitation. Iain Banks’ Culture series is an entire exercise in this. The world is a dreamland to humans, where they can go anywhere in the galaxy, have any food/resource, or even live on a continent to themselves. The series itself concerns itself with the edge cases. This world is directed almost entirely by ultra-intelligent AIs, human influence over society’s affairs is limited. No Prime-Directive here, the culture is explicitly interventionist and constantly manipulating the affairs of lesser species’/societies. There are also conspiracies: Excession is primarily concerned with a conspiracy of certain famous AI’s to overwhelm the democratic decision making apparatus of the Culture. All of these are interesting scenarios that ask us “What would Utopia actually look like?”
Star Trek has gone here before, as well. Deep Space Nine showed us the federation at war. What compromises would they make to win? How far do their morals go? Captain Sisko participates in a targeted killing of two people in order to trick the Romulans into the war. Pretty sketchy, what do we think about that? Possibly the most challenging long-term arc in the entire show is the Maquis, a group of federation citizens who find themselves on the wrong side of a Federation-Cardassian treaty. How would the Federation treat its own members when they refuse to play ball? The answer it turns out is: cruelly. Captain Sisko conducts a campaign of chemical warfare against their planets to force their adherence to the treaty, and those that aren’t won over are eventually slaughtered by the Dominion anyway. Even in utopia it doesn’t matter how right you are if the other side has more guns.
These plots are some of the best Trek that’s ever been made. The reason that they are good is that they take place within the utopian framing. They ask questions about it and in so doing, ask us to clarify our own ideas about what the world should look like. If you give up that framing, dark, morbid plots don’t mean anything. They might as well be set in the middle ages. We might as well be watching Game of Thrones.
I’ve taken a pretty harsh tone here, but not everything is bad, and there are plenty of people highlighting the good things about the show, so I’ll leave that for now. Some of the issues with Picard we can put down to production rather than conception. The writing hasn’t been stellar. The same plot could have been executed better than it has been. Maybe there are budgetary constraints and that’s why we’re getting so many “Tell, don’t show” moments. No first season of Trek is good. Maybe they’ll get there eventually and this will seem like an annoying blip we don’t talk about (like Threshold).
Star Trek isn’t mine. Other people are enjoying it for what it is, and that’s great. I don’t want people to not enjoy something that they can.
My purpose here is to express a sadness. There has been a hole in my life, for Sci-Fi television that gives me hope, and I thought that hole might be filled by Picard, but it is not.
But there are other things. I’ve found in the last few years that there is good utopian and semi-utopian work out there, much of it in novel form. I mentioned before the Culture series, I’m only halfway through but it is deeply thought-provoking, eerie, and fun. Start with Player of Games and then go straight to Excession. The Dispossessed, by the great Ursula Le Guin, is an exploration about what a lunar mining colony might look like if it was run as an anarchist commune. Brilliant imagination and not overly sentimental about it’s politics. Kim Stanley Robinson has two series’ of semi-utopian speculative fiction, the Mars Trilogy and the California Series. I finished Red Mars the other day, and I found it’s depiction of a utopian project on a young Mars colony very compelling and thought provoking. There’s an entire genre developing called Solarpunk, formulated at a optimistic counterpart to Cyberpunk, that has great potential.
Let’s find some good dreams.