“I wonder what people in Star Trek will think when they look back on this time,” my mother reflected during one of our COVID-19 FaceTime calls.
I immediately laughed. This was the most Baby Boomer way to think about the future; that the version of tomorrow she grew up with watching Star Trek was not merely a creative vision of what the future could be, but an actual glimpse into what the future will be. It’s as though the Star Trek continuity is the actual timeline of human history and we’re all just waiting to catch up with it. We joked about Spock looking into his little computer viewfinder on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, explaining to Captain Kirk what life was like in Orange County during the early 21st century, but it got me thinking about my favorite sci-fi franchise.
It’s as though the Star Trek continuity is the actual timeline of human history and we’re all just waiting to catch up with it.
Until Picard, all of the recent Star Trek iterations have been prequels to the titular Captain’s “next generation” of Star Trek adventures, obsessed with fitting into the future history of Star Trek continuity in ways that pleased old fans while still charting new frontiers. Enterprise, the Kelvinverse and Discovery have had their relative merits, but have each been hampered by the fact having a prequel about the future is a contradiction in terms. These adventures may take place in our future, but they take place in the past of the Star Trek universe itself. The pleasure of watching shows about the future is that we don’t know what the future holds. In the case of the “classic” Kirk era of Star Trek, we know exactly where it’s going. For years, fans have been wanting to see what happened after Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies transitioned to Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek theme and the Next Generation officially hung up their pips.
With Picard, the Star Trek universe has not only taken us back to the future, it has firmly established that the future is now. Instead of beginning scenes with Stardates centuries ahead of us, they begin with chyrons telling us that these things were happening only a few days before now. This is not a vision of the future, Picard is taking place now and we are right there with our titular Starfleet legend. This immediacy reminds us that good science fiction is never actually about the future, it’s about what’s happening in our society now. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek understood that and used the show to discuss the societal and geo-political issues of the day, often to the point of beating audiences over the head with broad cultural analogies. Perhaps it’s why Picard’s dark storyline has been jarring to some fans of the series. It’s hard to imagine Roddenberry approving a story about Starfleet becoming xenophobic isolationists. But considering the era of “American Carnage” we live in today, it’s not surprising.
The optimism of the original Star Trek was a product of the gee-whiz wonder of the Space Age, the courage of the Civil Rights movement and the liberation of Second Wave Feminism. Conversely, the run of the Next Generation straddled the collapse of the Soviet era, and the tone of the series reflects the sense of moral authority the United States projected during her brief period of unrivaled hegemony between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the toppling of the Twin Towers.
Picard meanwhile lands on TV screens as millions of workers see the threat of automation and artificial intelligence to their livelihood, the world reels from cataclysmic natural disasters caused by climate change and the President of the United States casts the refugees and immigrants fleeing a world engulfed by violence and suffering as foreign invaders. It makes sense that Jean-Luc Picard lives in a world where collapsing stars swallow up whole worlds, sentient artificial beings are driven to near-extinction and his beloved Starfleet has abdicated its once-vaunted ideals. It makes sense because the American ideal itself is in question.
Picard reflects our current condition not only on the galactic scale, but in the small ways as well. Riker and Troi’s family life offers us a glimpse into what “normal” life is like in the 24th century. Riker tells his smart home to turn off the music and turn on the home security system while his daughter slyly sends text messages under the dinner table. This technology, which seemed so futuristic when we first met the Next Generation, is part of every-day life now. Star Trek’s gadgets have often become self-fulfilling prophecies. Communicators and Tricorders became smartphones, Holodecks became VR and replicators became 3D printers. Many scientists, inventors, astronauts and innovators credit Star Trek with inspiring them to pursue their goals. So maybe Mom was right, maybe Star Trek is our future.
Despite bouts of dystopia, Picard still offers precious glimpses of Roddenberrian hope and optimism. Picard himself is that beacon of hope. As the series goes on, our beloved Captain becomes something of a galactic Bernie Sanders. Like Bernard, he’s a remnant of another era of who remains dedicated to peace and compassion and trying to rally a new generation to take up that torch. He’s become a bit crusty in his old age, getting irritated during news interviews and going against the status quo of the establishment, often to his own detriment. But his frustration never darkens the purity of his heart. More than the starships and the transporters, Picard’s dedication to empathy and diplomacy is the most futuristic part of this new series. He’s an old man whose heart remains, as the great Dr. Carol Marcus would say, “young as when the world was new.”
Like Bernie Sanders, Picard is a remnant of another era of who remains dedicated to peace and compassion and trying to rally a new generation to take up that torch.
There’s a moment in the show when Picard turns to one of the characters and says “I’m proud of you.” But the shot is framed with Patrick Stewart in close-up looking towards the camera, as though he is speaking to me. As someone who was bullied on the bus for reading Star Trek books, who has learned so much about leadership, friendship, loyalty and courage over the years from Star Trek, who has leaned on the comforting sound of the Enterprise’s engines while nursing broken hearts and dreams deferred I realized how much I needed that moment. As our world starts to feel slightly dystopian, with millions of us cooped up in our little starships tapping away at the tablets and phones that Star Trek inspired, yearning for leadership, inspiration and a glimmer of hope for the world we will leave for the next generation, perhaps we all need to hear that. Maybe we all need Jean-Luc Picard, the great captain, the legendary peacemaker and the selfless ambassador of what could and must be, to look us all in the eyes and say, “I’m proud of you.”
But remember, even though Jean-Luc Picard is the wizened old sage of the Star Trek universe, we are all older than him. We are not his children, we are his ancestors. The universe he inhabits is ours to create. It’s our collective responsibility to leave Picard a world as hopeful as his. Picard is not a perfect show, but as I gaze towards the stars and see all the impossible things the still-unborn Captain Picard will accomplish after I’m long gone, I am heartened to say, “I’m proud of you too Jean-Luc.”