It’s the end of the 24th century. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) of the Starship Enterprise has been in retirement for 14 years, tending his family’s vineyards, reflecting on his time in Starfleet. Despite his elder statesman status, his adventure is beginning again on CBS’s new iteration of the “Star Trek” franchise, and Picard is at its center.
Some tales take an old man to tell. This — about the demise of the Starfleet Picard once knew and loved, and the change in society from open, egalitarian, and inclusive to rigid and authoritarian — is one of those tales.
The show finds Picard at his vineyard, ordering “tea, Earl Gray, decaf” from his food replicator. He’s preparing for an interview about his departure from Starfleet all those years ago and what he’s been up to in the interim. The separation is mysterious, and no one quite knows why he left.
He doesn’t want to tell them, either. His two acolytes entreat him to “be the captain they remember.” He tries, but when pressed, he reveals Starfleet changed for the worst, going so far as to ban synthetic life forms, and he could no longer wear its badge.
The Federation has been corrupted, and for Stewart, this is part of the message of the show. The change in the Federation and Starfleet came about after the destruction of Romulus, a twin planet to Vulcan, and the refugee crisis that spurred. That planetary demise was from the Kelvin timeline, which J.J. Abrams wrote into existence in feature films that reopened the narrative from “The Original Series.”
Patrick Stewart Is Stepping into a New ‘Star Trek’
Stewart promises that “Picard” will tackle some of our most confounding political issues, such as Trump and Brexit. Stewart is intentionally not stepping into the same “Star Trek” as the one that ended in 1994. His take is that things in society have changed for the worse, that our collective faith in humanity has faltered. In an interview with Variety, he said, “The world of ‘Next Generation’ doesn’t exist anymore. It’s different. Nothing is really safe. Nothing is really secure.”
It isn’t only the change in Starfleet that the elder Picard is dealing with, but also the loss of his friend Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner). Together, these put him in a drastically different mindset than the gung-ho, take-charge guy we saw at the end of “The Next Generation.” Stewart didn’t want to play that guy anymore anyway.
The series is darker, less hopeful, and the moral viewpoint is less stalwart than it was before. With Starfleet no longer the beacon of virtue, Picard isn’t bound by the same constrictions. As the story line unfolds throughout this first season, he’ll be forced to color outside the lines in a way that Jean-Luc of “The Next Generation” just wasn’t accustomed to doing. Charting his own course was more Kirk’s purview than Picard’s.
A classically trained Shakespearean actor, Stewart had little time and less respect for science fiction before he took on the role of the iconic captain, but there’s no denying this is where he’s reached his widest audience. A young Ian McKellen had advised him against taking the role. “Do be very careful,” he told Stewart. “You’re having such a wonderful career here; to stop it to go off and do a telly that might not work is a very dangerous step.”
“Thank goodness he didn’t take my advice,” McKellen quipped.
Picard Searches for Meaning in Life
As we are reintroduced to Picard, he is now a great man of world renown. His legacy lives outside him, but he doesn’t feel it. He feels old, feels a longing for new adventure with a disbelief that it will ever come for him. Until it does, because it always does, he is Jean-Luc Picard, and no matter how much life slows down, it always picks up pace for him. At the crux of every grave decision, in the middle of all the most meaningful negotiations, Picard has stood like a divining rod of command.
He is haunted by dreams of old friends and colleagues, the family he built for himself aboard ship, the many lives he’s led across galaxies. But mostly, he is haunted by the loss of Data. And when an inkling comes that he may not have fully perished, but that a small piece of his irreplaceable positronic net lives on, Picard knows he must search it out.
Data was more than an android; he was a conscious, synthetic life form. The achievement that created Data has been unable to be replicated, although may scientists have tried. Picard is a man who will seek until he finds.
He realizes that since leaving Starfleet, he hasn’t been creating a life for himself, but wallowing in his loss. “Sitting here all these years nursing my offended dignity, writing books on history people would rather forget. I haven’t asked anything of myself. I haven’t been living. I’ve been waiting to die.” Once he finds out that a piece of Data still lives, he ventures back into the only life he’s ever truly known, command of a deep and meaningful mission.
As always with “Star Trek,” it’s delightfully engaging to see our cities with the sheen and gloss of a fantastical future. For all its attempts at presenting a gritty reality here and there, “Star Trek” excels at showing us our best selves, what we could be if we think the most of our collective intellect and capability instead of sinking down into our worst impulses.
San Francisco, Boston, hover cars, and glistening skyscrapers shine in brilliant sunlight, beckoning us into our glorious future. This is something “Star Trek” does so well. While the moral underbelly of the Federation will be fun to track through this season, as we encounter the flaws we all knew were in there somewhere — because utopias don’t exist — it would be a shame if we lose that guidepost that tells us we’re going to make it to the future and we’re going to be all right.
It Doesn’t Get Much Bigger than ‘Star Trek’
Since “Star Trek: The Next Generation” went off the air in 1994, the franchise has undergone big changes. Films helmed by Abrams have fully altered the “Star Trek” universe, creating this new Kelvin timeline. “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager,” “Enterprise,” and, since 2017, “Discovery” have introduced new characters and stories, showing just how malleable and imaginative the world that originated with Gene Roddenberry truly is.
Roddenberry’s legacy has gone beyond just the “Star Trek” universe and his legions of fans. The documentary “Trekkies” introduced us to a woman who served as a juror on Hillary Clinton’s Whitewater trial — all while wearing her homemade “Star Trek” uniform. For her, this uniform was a symbol of integrity, and it showed her commitment to honestly and fairly judge the facts of the case.
“Star Trek” conventions have given way to nerd culture meet-ups of all kinds, where fans take ownership of the content. Fans are even working on their own movie, “Axanar,” funded through Kickstarter. In a wild meeting of fiction and reality, the newest branch of the American military, Space Force, has adopted an insignia that could only have been inspired by the iconic crest of “Star Trek.”
The administration has been getting bashed for it, but we must give credit where credit is due. We imagine a humane, disciplined, intelligent, well-mannered space militia because Roddenberry made it so.
In talking about the legacy of “Star Trek,” Stewart said to Variety, “I’ve been doing some really interesting work for the last few years. … There was not a corner of my life, public, private, that wasn’t touched by this sudden transformation. And I so enjoyed it. ‘X-Men,’ ‘Star Trek’ and then, having come back 18 months ago to do ‘Picard,’ I’ve just —” He took a moment. “God, this is going to be difficult to say. It’s wonderful work, but it’s not enough. The challenge is great, but I want something bigger.”
But “Star Trek” is part of our common parlance. It inspires reality as much as it opens our minds to imaginary worlds. The truth is, there’s not much bigger than the “Star Trek” universe. “Picard” is more than the continuation of one man’s journey, but the movement of a narrative that spans and inspires generations.