The Problem with Infinity–Star Trek: Picard Grapples with Life’s Meaning

The following contains spoiler alerts, so if you haven’t watched Star Trek: Picard, beam out of here, immediately!

When I first heard that there would be a spinoff series of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was elated. I have long been a fan, both of the series and of Captain Picard, the character that Star Trek: Picard would revolve around. However, the more I heard about the show’s darker concepts, the more I felt my inner Counselor Troi’s uneasiness.

In an interview with Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: Picard: Patrick Stewart on Why He Returned to the Final Frontier”) the actor claims that “The world of ‘Next Generation’ doesn’t exist anymore. It’s different. Nothing is really safe. Nothing is really secure.” Hmmm…I thought that was the point, though. I don’t think that a “secure” world has ever existed in our time; that’s why we were interested in living on the Enterprise, a place where justice stood a fighting chance. In the 90s, Stewart used to tell a story that illustrated this very point. A police officer wrote him a letter expressing appreciation for STNG’s portrayal of a “better world waiting for us.” 

Perhaps, Stewart objected to the cleanliness of STNG. I do admit that the show introduces some pretty amazing advancements in mental healthcare. Picard seems fully to recover from being physically disassembled, plugged into the Borg, and forced to kill 11,000 people, after some therapy and a trip to his family’s vineyard. Still, though, I never saw STNG as a safe place. Yes, the main characters strive to better themselves, morally and professionally—admirable qualities—but they are surrounded by actual racism (of beings that are actually not human), their own sexism and racism (the latter of which they occasionally admit to), and episode after episode of torture and mind-rape.

To name a few examples of the latter, there’s the time that an Ullian mind-probing historian, rapes Deanna Troi through a fake memory to get back at his father for being a bit of an ass to him (“Violations”). In “The Mind’s Eye,” Geordi gets abducted on his way to a vacation only to get tortured and brainwashed by Romulans. In another episode (“Descent”) Geordi again gets the short end of the stick when Data, controlled by his evil twin, inserts metal probes into Geordi’s brain. Fun stuff!

Let’s not forget “Conspiracy,” where several Starfleet admirals are controlled by parasites and forced to murder people and to eat bugs. Even Data gets controlled by his father, Dr. Soong, who has implanted in him a homing device (“Brothers”). Data, against his own will, risks the lives of the entire crew by succumbing to his father’s programming that brings him home for routine maintenance. Couldn’t Dad just have called him or sent him a space communication or whatever?

Star Trek: Picard, on the other hand, makes no bones about darkness. No one’s addictions, fears, or inner demons get a clean ending, wrapped in a bow. And yet, as much as the show allows its characters grit, I still found myself scratching my head at some of their behavior and dismayed at the ways that difficult scenarios were summarily dismissed as either pure evil or shiny enough to continue, unchecked. Without further adieu, here are some of my thoughts on Star Trek: Picard. 

1) Sutra, the Synth: I’m all for a bit of drama in, well, a tv drama, but honestly, they went so heavy-handed on this villainess. She slinks around like a cat or Jessica Rabbit. I can almost hear her say, “I’m not bad; I’m just programmed that way.” After she kills her own synth sister, Saga (with Saga’s own pretty, hummingbird brooch) Dr. Soong’s son kills her for it, without so much as a trial. After he presses a button, she crashes to the ground, and he tells her lifeless body “Turns out, you’re no better than we are.” Well, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, buddy. You were fine a minute ago letting her commit genocide against your own kind. This moment was so weighty, and yet, they moved on to a high-action scene without a second glance at Soong’s murder of his own android daughter. Sutra is terrible, but after this scene, I kind of can’t blame her for wanting to get rid of organics, when all they have to do is press a button to eradicate her.

2) Jurati murders an innocent, fellow scientist, but then saves the day and finds love: It does not appear, in the final scene of season one, that Jurati will be brought to trial any more than Sutra will be. This, of course, works to her advantage. What is in her favor, unlike poor Sutra, is that she’s blonde—uh…I mean—she’s turns over a new leaf and promises not to kill anymore.

The stark contrast between her situation and Sutra’s is breathtaking. Again, I don’t like Sutra, and she did try to commit genocide, but I can’t help but see her point about organics. Soong went along with mass murder but lived to tell.

Humans: can’t live ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.   

3) The Federation goes from a cluster-f of bureaucracy and treason to suddenly accepting synths back into the fold: The genocide of humanity almost happens; Picard gets a golem body with his consciousness implanted, and NOW the Federation lifts the synth ban? Is anyone else freaked out by the implications of transferring consciousness into a potentially immortal, mostly indestructible body (although Picard gets neither)? Who might receive this privilege? Is it a privilege? Data didn’t think so. He required technologically assisted suicide so that he’d know, “however briefly,” that his “life is finite.” He goes on to explain that “Mortality gives meaning to human life….Peace, love, friendship. These are precious because we know they cannot endure. A butterfly that lives forever is really not a butterfly at all.” Has no one thought of the repercussions of changing the very nature of humanity?

Also, do future institutions operate at warp speed, compared to now? This year, people have had to risk catching a potentially, deadly virus to protest around the country just for a few, offensive statues to come down. I can’t even imagine what it will take to dismantle the system that allowed the statues to be built in the first place, which is the ultimate goal. But ok, Federation.

The problem with infinity isn’t just manifested in Data’s desire for meaning, it’s imbedded in the way we expect Star Trek to be bold and contemporary (which, post-90s, apparently means dark) and yet, to remain faithful in its optimism. Show the darkness of the Borg but don’t let beautiful Seven of Nine die. Send Picard on one final voyage, except actually give him a healthy, golem body, with an expiration date, so that he can go on more adventures. Give Jurati some grit, but let her gleefully improve the Picard Maneuver and kiss her beau as she smiles, consequence-free, for her murderous transgression.

I don’t think anyone’s to blame. I think that, as organics ourselves, our inability to truly comprehend nonexistence collides with our understanding that we are mortals. The happiest among us allow time to pass through them and don’t cling to the past or worry about the future. It’s a big ask for any humanoid. And still, I wished for Picard to end, both the series and the man. I’m not completely sure why. Maybe I just wanted him to have one last meaningful adventure, to feel useful and like himself again. I wanted his impending extinction to ignite our understanding of what makes Picard—despite his human flaws—a great man and a great leader. 

For me, the most beautiful scene was of Data’s last moments. I watched it several times. During his life, Data fought alongside his human comrades and in his free time, playfully mimicked their behavior. He had to fight for his own autonomy and for the rights bestowed on “sentient beings.” But in this quiet, last scene, his body evaporates into ephemeral mist and his wish to “be a real boy” is granted, with his Captain by his side. He finally knew what it meant to be human, and the audience gets closure after his abrupt departure in Nemesis.

Of course, I don’t know what happens after we are “extinguished.” Is that the end, and if so, the end of what? Is there something else in the future? Do we cycle back into this reality? I found this last scene to be a happy, satisfying end for Data, but really, what do any of us know, for sure, about the “after life?”

Today, I leave you with one of Emily Dickinson’s many poems that ponder life and death. 

My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close
by Emily Dickinson

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven.
And all we need of hell.

P.S. One last thought on Star Trek: Picard: A cloned Spot? Hooray!!!! The cat I have now is only my third, but if I could clone my deceased cats, I would totally have three cats! I know! I know! Cloning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Just ask Ralph and Sandra Fisher, whose beloved bull-clone didn’t work out so great. I don’t care!

To infinity!!!!!!

Cocktails with Li Po & Frank O’Hara

This week, we hear from Dr. Raymond Wachter, my friend and colleague of 14 years. In this interview, we discuss journaling, the writing process, and the essence of  Zen poetry. Enjoy! 

You and I have discussed the helpfulness and the pleasure of keeping a journal. What role has journaling played in your own writing process? 

A huge role! Ha ha! I can think of nothing that’s been more central to my life–not just as a writer and teacher of writing, but as far as how I’ve constructed (and de-constructed!) my own identity.

The idea of keeping a journal was foreign to me, until it just sort of happened, organically. A day or two after my 26th birthday, I was at a low point in my life: I was living in Iowa City, bartending and feeling scattered. I was only about a year away from graduating from the University of Iowa, but I was extremely undisciplined about going to classes or even completing basic tasks like paying my university tuition on time.

At that point, in that rather dark phase of my life, I started writing my thoughts in a little notebook. The thoughts turned into entries, and, over the course of a few months, I began to develop a little bit of self-discipline in my personal life. Eventually, I re-enrolled at Iowa and soon after that found myself in a nonfiction writing course. The professor allowed us to choose our own textbook for the course, and I  randomly chose Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, although I knew nothing about it. Both for the book by Cameron, and as a requirement for the nonfiction class, I was required to write several pages a day; I wrote mostly stream-of-consciousness, in a journal, and have been hooked ever since.

Although you earned your Ph.D. in creative writing (poetry specifically) you have written mostly nonfiction in the past several years. How did this genre crossover occur? Has it changed your perspective on poetry or on writing in general?

Well, I’ve never stopped writing poetry, but after I received my PhD and came to Tuscaloosa, I felt very free as a writer, like I could do anything, be whoever I wanted to be as a writer. At first, I revised a (very bad!) novel that I’d written on a one-year break between my master’s and doctoral programs. After I revised the novel (in 2007), I worked hard to shop it around to agents in NYC. None of them ever bit, and they mostly responded in the same way, claiming that my main character was completely unlikeable. It sounds tragic, but I see it as funny now. Besides, with nearly a decade having passed, I can see now that they were on the mark. (The novel is still stored on my hard drive and a redundant jump drive, though I doubt it will ever get published.)

After the thorough rejection by literary agents, I was preparing to write another novel. I  felt it was some sort of badge of honor to keep moving forward. But I still remember quite clearly the way my girlfriend (at the time) scoffed at me, for wanting to continue writing in the same genre. Perhaps because it felt like more of a risk, or more of a jump into the unknown, I pretty much abandoned fiction at that moment. Now, I’m only interested in writing nonfiction & poetry.

What are you currently writing?

Currently, I’m writing a nonfiction book, but it’s not a memoir, and it’s not even “literary nonfiction.” It’s a book about the mind/body connection and how to make choices in your life that bring you happiness.

About seven years ago, the Department of English, here at The University of Alabama, began an initiative where the instructors would teach “themed” courses in First-year Writing. (I believe you and I were both part of that pilot program.) Out of the five themes offered, the one I chose was called “Advancing Mind & Body.” Teaching that course was really wonderful for me, professionally & personally. I began reading a number of authors and sharing them with my students, writers like Bruce Lipton & Larry Dossey, who both have rigorous academic backgrounds, but whose work might be considered “New Science” or “Mind-Body-Spirit” (as far as their publishing labels).  My initial teaching assignment, and the new authors I began reading, definitely changed the course of my writing projects.

So the book I’m currently writing, about the mind/body connection, is an explanation for New Thought concepts about Self-Awareness and the crucial importance of understanding your own inner monologue. I really can’t imagine wanting to write fiction ever again, or even “literary” nonfiction, now that I’m writing this book.

I know that you  have often favored Zen poetry. How has your view of this type of poetry changed over the years? What keeps you coming back to it?

I suppose I was always interested in poets who describe a moment of heightened awareness, which is probably what Zen is, once you strip away all the trappings of Buddhist theology. There’s this poem of Jorie Graham’s that I loved as an undergraduate, called “The Dream of the Unified Field.” Now, Graham is the last person in the world who would call herself a Zen writer, but the poem moves in and out of different moments in Graham’s life–as a mother bringing a leotard to her daughter’s overnight party, to  historical moments, including an entry from Christopher Columbus’s diary.

It’s a gorgeous poem, especially as it’s fairly long and (seemingly) meandering. I didn’t have a clue as to why I liked it two decades ago, but now I can see that I was attracted to Graham, and other poets as diverse as Frank O’Hara and Emily Dickinson, because they are all interested in moments of heightened awareness. Whether it’s a moment in their lives (Frank seeing Billie Holiday’s name on a daily newspaper, or Jorie walking through the snow in her neighborhood) or whether it’s a moment in their writing lives (Emily’s “slant of light,” “Winter Afternoons”), it seems to me that great poetry is an accurate rendering of  heightened consciousness. Then, as a reader, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Li Po poem from over 1,200 years ago, or a Sappho poem twice that age, you are able to momentarily enter into that state of heightened awareness that they left for us. Also, as I consider the diverse poets that I just mentioned in this answer, it’s clear too, that the best Zen poets don’t necessarily see themselves as Zen.

Well, if Frank O’Hara and Li Po were somehow able to read or hear this answer, I hope they wouldn’t be mad at me. Actually, if we were all somehow together on the physical plane, you and I and those two poets would probably love to have a cocktail right about now! I’d venture to say that drinks with those two, and a chat about poetry, would probably be the best dinner party one could imagine! 🙂

ray-at-bama

Ray Wachter grew up on a farm in rural, southwest Iowa. After serving two years in the U.S. Coast Guard, he attended the University of Iowa where he received a B.A. in English. He studied American Literature & Creative Writing at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he received his M.A. and PhD. For the past ten years, he’s been a faculty member in the English Department at The University of Alabama.

 

Featured image of man typing, by Joel Robison: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/04/06/joel-robinson-joy-of-reading/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+brainpickings/rss+(Brain+Pickings)&utm_content=Google+Reader