Star Trek Picard and the Road Not Taken
This is not about escapism.
This is not about escapism because, at its best, Star Trek wasn’t really offering escapism. It was a show that explored the issues of the present using a framework of a bright, optimistic future — a future where we had solved the major social problems of our day, and in which there was a place of dignity and respect for everybody, no matter who they may be.
When we tend to think of the future as depicted in Star Trek, what we usually think of is the future from Star Trek: The Next Generation — a post-scarcity utopia in which we had grown beyond the need for money, and anything could be acquired through the nearest replicator of sufficient size. But, the future of the original series was not a post-scarcity utopia — humanity had solved the interpersonal problems holding us back from the stars, but still had money and capitalism, as well as mining colonies and even famines. At the edges of explored space where the Enterprise often travelled, Federation control was often more of an idea than a reality, leaving room for rogues like Harry Mudd to ply their trade. Interstellar politics could be difficult and complex, and the Federation had its share of obstructive and petty bureaucrats.
This was a vision of a positive future borne out of one of the darkest periods of the 20th century in American history. When the first episode of Star Trek aired in 1966, it had only been 4 years since the world had come within hours of a nuclear war. Every day, Americans were being drafted to fight in the jungles of Vietnam, which appeared to be a never-ending quagmire. The year before the show aired, peaceful Civil Rights marchers from Selma to Montgomery had been brutally beaten by Alabama police on live television. Topping it off, every American knew that a nuclear war could break out at any time, leaving less than half an hour’s warning before the bombs fell. For the American viewer in 1966, it must have seemed that the question was not how long it would take for civilization to solve these problems, but whether civilization had a future at all.
The answer that Star Trek provided was a positive “yes!,” made all the more powerful by the fact that this was a message that every viewer really needed to hear. But this was not a vision of the future that promised that the worst was behind us — in fact, it promised worse days to come, hinted at with the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s in “Space Seed.” But, Star Trek assured, humanity would survive this, and every other catastrophe along the way. And in the end, it would be the better angels of our nature that would triumph, and not the darkness that everybody carries in their souls.
The brilliance of this approach is perhaps best appreciated in hindsight. Star Trek never shied away from exploring the issues of its present, but most of this was done through proxy, using alien cultures who just happened to have similar problems. By abstracting these issues, Star Trek gave them a universality that they would not have otherwise had. The exploration of racism in an episode such as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” which in current American society was politically charged and associated with the Civil Rights Movement, could be appreciated by anybody, regardless of where in the world they lived or what side of the political divide they occupied. The future setting in which these explorations were set assured the viewer that, no matter what, these issues were solvable, even if we didn’t yet know the solution.
This is not to say that Star Trek did not occasionally have its characters venture into the world of the 1960s — this happened twice in the original series. But these were both relatively lightweight episodes (the second, “Assignment Earth,” was an attempted backdoor pilot for a spin-off show that never got off the ground). Time travel was used to carry a more issue heavy episode in Harlan Ellison’s “The City on the Edge of Forever,” but there the characters were sent to the 1930s. The show generally left exploration of major social issues in the abstract.
And this brings us to Star Trek Picard, and the decision to place the action of its second season in the Los Angeles of 2024.
Although some might complain that the darkening of the setting presented in the first season of Picard is an abandonment of the optimistic future, in many ways it was a return to form, bringing the setting back into line with the more nuanced and less utopian setting of the original series. Humanity has still solved its major problems, but it is facing very difficult challenges in terms of interstellar politics that are without easy or clear solutions. The synth storyline reflects modern issues with the rise of AI and how we will interact with it. The negative changes to Starfleet are revealed to be the result of infiltration and interference from Romulan intelligence, reflecting modern information warfare. The Syrian refugee crisis was abstracted into the Romulan refugee communities, rendering it universal in the best traditions of the original series — anybody could connect with the plight of the Romulans, or even see themselves in their shoes. And, the show allowed Picard to become old, and experience what it is like to be left behind after the torch has been passed to the next generation, as almost all of us will. The season had its problems, but what it attempted to explore, it explored pretty well, and in a manner that just about anybody could connect with, regardless of who they are or where they lived.
All of this has been discarded in Picard season 2.
The greatest misstep was to bring the action into the Los Angeles of the 2020s at all. Having brought the characters into 2024, episode 3 of the show then gives a what comes across as a checklist-based speedrun tour of Southern Californian societal issues. In close succession the viewer is shown a homeless community, told about the ongoing water shortage, shown wildfires, a community clinic for those who can’t afford health care, and an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raid. There is no abstraction — all of these issues and the form they take are located in a specific time and place. This, in turn, means that those who are not already engaged with these issues are unlikely to connect with them, or at least have difficulty doing so. The universality that made the Romulan refugees so easy to identify with is completely absent.
To make matters worse, with the season 2 overall story arc, the series has once and for all abandoned the optimistic future that characterized Star Trek as a whole. In 1966 Star Trek declared that no matter how dark humanity’s world becomes, our better natures will win out in the end, and we will solve our problems — it is something that we, as a species, have always been capable of and will achieve, regardless of how long it takes. But, Picard season 2 revolves around Q preventing all of this from happening by altering a single event in the early 21st century. The bright future with a place of dignity and respect for everybody, no matter who they are, is now the result of a stroke of future historical luck, and easily thwarted.
The true tragedy is that none of this had to be. The road Picard season 2 ventured down is infinitely worse than the road not taken. The more nuanced and complex Federation of the first season was a compelling setting, with lots of potential stories to be told. Every single modern issue addressed in episode 3 could have been explored in abstract in a way that everybody could appreciate and connect to, just like the Romulan refugees — universal issues, instead of just Southern Californian ones. The positive message of the show — a message that in our dark modern world we need just as badly as those in the 1960s — could have been preserved.
But, sadly, that is the road not taken.