Am I the only one exhausted by the fate of the universe hanging in the balance? In our era of bombastic superhero movies, many films and movies seem to have adopted a catastrophic enemy or event approach, rather than a driving plotline that is more personal and closer to home. Star Trek: Picard suffers from trying to combat an ultimate threat that feels yawn-inducing.
I’m a conflicting mass of emotions about Star Trek: Picard. I like a lot of things about it, I dislike a lot of things about it, but after last week’s penultimate episode of the season, “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1,” my feelings crystalized. It’s hard to care about the final episode we’re gearing up to because the plot hinges on no less than preventing the extermination of all organic lifeforms in the galaxy. Even Thanos didn’t cause this much trouble.
***Spoilers for the first season of Star Trek: Picard ahoy***
Star Trek: Picard is at its finest when it plays on our nostalgia heartstrings and lets Sir Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard interact with people we adore from Treks past: Seven of Nine, Hugh, Troi, Riker, Brent Spiner in general. (Where are Geordi, Worf, Guinan, and Dr. Crusher? Where?!) The other “main” characters on the show are unfortunately not fleshed out enough to hold my attention for long, with the exception of Rios and his many holograms. When Rios told Dr. Jurati that she’s impossible to forget, my face did an Arrested Development thing and I said, out loud, “Her?”
Also unfortunate is that when Picard is not encountering someone from his past, it’s difficult to be invested in his mission, because I do not think all organic life in the universe is about to be exterminated. Some people will double-cross their allegiances at the last moment next week and the day will be saved. (My money’s on Narek, Soji, and Dr. Jurati, who still needs to make up for killing Bruce Maddox.) Or we’ll be taken right up to the moment of terrible crisis and then … tune in next season!
Nothing that we’ve built to could pack an ounce of the punch that The Next Generation’s “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1” did in 1990. The season finale of the show’s third season shocked fans with one of the finest cliffhangers in TV history: the abducted Picard is revealed to have been assimilated as Locutus of Borg—and Riker, in command of the Enterprise, is forced to fire upon his captain. Audiences were left breathless by the transformation of the show’s primary hero into an unwilling villain, and as the episode ended, we had no idea what could possibly happen next. No matter what, Jean-Luc Picard would be altered forever.
“The Best of Both Worlds” works so well as game-changing television because while the Borg are a scary and menacing threat, the real narrative thrust is highly personal. We know that the Borg won’t take over the universe, but we don’t know what will ultimately become of Picard. The star of the show, and the leader of the Enterprise, is compromised. Having one man that we care about in the balance feels infinitely more horrifying, realistic, and compelling than the looming threat being the total, impersonal extinction of organickind. Yawn.
It’s hard not to have grown callous and bored in regards to this sort of plotting. Countless superhero and action movies hinge on an unlikely threat to the planet or the universe, and we know that they’re always thwarted or reversed in the nick of time. It’s personal moments that matter, not boring fights for the fate of “everything.” One of the best moments at the end of Wonder Woman is when Steve Trevor sacrifices himself to save Diana (and the world) out of love; the worst moments are Diana’s awful final boss lightning fight with Ares who will reign malevolently otherwise or whatever his motivation was. My point is you have to have some skin in the game to really care about a threat, and it’s hard to see what skin there is in Picard we could really care about.
The only person with enough clout to make the audience care about their choices and fate on Picard is, well, Picard. That the show has already given him an incurable neurological condition seems tailor-made to make him a more tragic figure, perhaps setting him up for self-sacrifice—but it’s hard to believe that would stick, considering this show is called Star Trek: Picard and it will have a second season. It’s possible Picard will go for broke and set next season in a total dystopia where Sutra and the mystery “higher” synths have killed many organic life forms and taken over, but … I’m sad to say that I just don’t care enough about any of them to be bothered. And Gene Roddenberry would not be a happy camper.
Star Trek, for me, is at its best when it is a character-driven show, and even mass conflicts are mostly just a backdrop for seeing how characters develop and react therein. (Please watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.) The trend for the new CBS Star Treks seem to hinge on huge conflicts or catastrophes that threaten the nature of everything—yet rather than a slow-boil Dominion War, say, those problems can be reversed or eliminated in five minutes based on a single decision by a protagonist. It feels unearned and unexciting.
Considering that we’re suddenly in our own very real the-world-is-on-fire-and-under-threat moment, and there’s no way to snap our fingers and reverse it, I’m holding out hope we’ll return to more personal acts of heroism coming to the fore in our narratives. But while I’m on it: the only quick-snap fix I’ll take to Picard’s denouement is if Q shows up at the last second to change everything and whisk his beloved Jean-Luc to safety.
(image: CBS All Access)
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