But is it Star Trek?


Last month the latest Star Trek series premiered and, naturally, I have thoughts.

Like the other currently-in-production series, Star Trek: Picard is a streaming-only, online-delivered product doing its part to make Lt. Cdr. Data's declaration that television as we've known it will only last until about 2040 come true. To save ourselves a bit of coin, some friends and I get together to watch episodes here, depriving CBS of several individual subscription fees. (They're doing OK, though.)

There is a difference of opinion about this show. Both in my Trek Night posse and in the wider culture. Some, even, in my own head. It's a complicated production. By and large it seems accepted that the show is a good piece of sci-fi, but does it rise to the level of Star Trek?

It's the same criticism that Star Trek: Discovery gets. On Discovery it's a more understandable complaint. They chose to play fast-and-loose with established canon in a prequel series and had to do some damage control on it; they canned the initial showrunner, Bryan Fuller, who is a huge fan and knows his Trek, and gave it to Alex Kurtzman, who, fairly or unfairly, has the taint of J.J. Abrams on him from their collaboration on the feature films Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness, both of which were decidedly not up to Trek standard and the latter of which is a truly awful piece of work; and while the correctives in the second season were welcome, the show still has a bit of a doom-and-gloom aspect to it that rankles when the Star Trek future is supposed to be positive and hopeful. I still like it, lots of stuff there is good, and with year two I do think it counts as "real Star Trek."

Kurtzman is in the mix on Picard as well, but the writing staff here is led by one of my absolute favorite novelists, Michael Chabon. Someone who knows how to write and craft a story, someone who respects the Trek legacy, someone who knows about building characters. So already Picard is way better than Disco in some basic structural ways. But is it Star Trek?

I say yes, though I see some validity in the counter-arguments. In Picard, the story suggests failures on the part of the generally-utopian United Federation of Planets, hints at conspiracies to undercut the values our heroes are supposed to embody, and there's great disillusionment with the noble Starfleet organization that has been home to Trek heroes prior. And—in stark contrast to Star Trek: The Next Generation—it features characters that are deeply damaged: Raffi's conspiracy theories drove her family away and drove her to addiction issues; Rios had an as-yet-unspecified Starfleet experience that gave him some form of PTSD that left him a bit fatalistic; Picard himself has been nursing an outrage that damaged him; and Agnes...well, she's profoundly guilty about something and has probably been victimized by a Romulan spy. Even one of our villains seems to be conflicted to some degree. There are also relatively minor things that seem a bit "wrong," with references to individual wealth and Rios lighting up cigars here and there. (Nick Meyer may have thought smoking was a thing in Star Trek, but in that respect he was an idiot.)

But Star Trek has always been a vehicle to reflect issues of present-day society in a science-fiction wrapper. We had allegories to topics including the Vietnam war, segregation, and birth-control in the late ’60s; species extinction, ozone depletion, drug abuse, and traumatized veterans in the ’80s; glaznost, homelessness, gay acceptance (sort of), and terrorism in the ’90s; and a rather heavy-handed 9/11 reflection in the ’00s. So why not have Picard reflect the troubles of today—the United States has lost its way and has withdrawn from the world and become more isolated, so having the Federation abandon its humanitarian (I'm sure the Federation has a better word for that that isn't speciesist) mission to aid the Romulans and institute overreaching new laws in the name of security could make for a fine story, depending on the resolution (still to come). And our heroes—Picard himself and his motley crew of misfits—are upset with this. Jean-Luc Picard is probably the single-most idealized character in Trek canon and though here in his later years he is a bit jaded it's largely because his culture is not fulfilling his idealism. He is still the embodiment of moral goodness even if the civilization around him is stumbling a bit.

Plus, political conspiracies are nothing new to Star Trek. The difference (so far) is that when they've been story points before they were resolved heroically and to the culture's benefit. Is there even a political conspiracy afoot in Picard? Undoubtedly so, but it's not yet been revealed, and when it is how will it resolve?

There's also been a bit of confusion in my group here about what all has been drawn from Treks previous and what has not; Picard uses a fair amount of canonical Trek as its foundational bedrock, but most of the characters are new. There's a lot of implied backstory that assumes you know this history and can use it to fill things in. (There's a prologue novel—The Last Best Hope, by Una McCormack—that spells out a lot of that backstory, but it's not a necessity, just a rich supplement.) For someone like me, that's a plus; I'm steeped in this world and know all the deets better than some real-life history I should probably be up on. But I can see where it might bug others.

I've also seen objections to the fact that some of the characters swear in Picard, which is a silly criticism, and to some of the gore, which is not. Frankly, I'm more perturbed by Rios' smoking.

I like the show a lot. Whether it lives up to the high ideals expected of it remains to be seen, that's the nature of a serialized story. But I have faith in Michael Chabon. And I recommend it highly.


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