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 does introduce 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 Jiradi 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 finally 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 somehting 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!!!!!!

Confrontation: Klingon-Style

I first started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when it aired in 1987. I’ll admit it: back then, I just wasn’t that into Klingons. I didn’t mind them, per se, but I was not particularly intrigued by their aggression or their snarling politics. I was more interested in Picard’s eloquent speeches, such as in The Drumhead where he denounces witch hunts.  (Incidentally, Klingon Worf gets swept into the drama of the episode only to apologize later for not knowing tyranny when he sees it.) I also enjoyed the cool elegance of Vulcans. (Fun fact about Vulcans: they’re actually not so cool after all, or at least, they’ve learned self-discipline so that they don’t lose their shit like they used to, back when they let their intense emotions run wild.)

Vulcan Harp

Recently, though, I’ve gained a new outlook on Klingons, in general, and Worf, in particular. In this age of “alternative facts” and celebrated bullies, I long for Worf just to bust into Congress and announce that “This is not honorable!” Right now, I need a hero with a bat’leth and a firm grasp on ethics and transparency.

Screenshot 2019-09-01 20.22.16

I used to see Captain Picard as the main hero of STNG. He always seemed to know what to do, and he rarely broke a sweat. Lately, though, Worf and Picard seem to me like two sides of the same coin. Worf’s allegiance to honor and duty mimics Picard’s values, and Picard knows how to curse in Klingon like…well, a sailor. But lately, when I see Worf standing helplessly at his post, witnessing the dishonorable with his warrior mane safely bound, I identify.

Last week, I was summoned to jury duty, which I have never done before. I sat in a room that looked like a fairly nice bus station, with around 400 other people. Oof. Next to me on one side were two older women who complained incessantly about everything from the job market and family strife, to the supposedly disorganized jury duty process. (I actually thought it was well-run.)

Worf's had enough

The person on the other side of me got angry when I allowed two elderly women to exit a row in front of me during the slow, crowded walk out of the room and off to lunch. Of course, I channeled my inner Vulcan, but it was right then that I really wanted to bare my teeth and challenge her to a B’aht Qul.

Screenshot 2019-09-01 21.08.09

After lunch, I found a new location, hoping to be left alone. Instead, I was greeted by a new chatterbox with a bloodlust for child rapists. I mean, I get it; I do, but damn, was I the only one who brought a book?

Screenshot 2019-09-01 21.17.22

The next day (and blessedly my last on jury duty) I walked past Chatterbox and sat several seats away, used my long hair as a cloaking device, and fastened my earbuds like a teenager on family va-cay. Every once in a while, I’d tune into the garrulous public, complaining all around me. The mutterings, the wide-eyed guy who never stopped smiling in his workout shorts (even though he spoke to no one), the side glances, the snickering. I wondered what Worf—out of uniform—would have done to maintain his boundaries. Grimaced in his sharp armor? Cussed in Klingon? Bitten off the head of a raw meat slab that he had carefully packed for lunch the night before?

I am not a merry man

As for me, like an average, 21st-century human, I just bowed my head and turned up my podcast, until they finally called my name and sent me home.

This month, I’ve included Jane Hilberry’s “Crazy Jane Meets a Bear,” a poem about a woman who leaves her husband in romantic pursuit of a bear who finds her embarrassing. If you know of any good poems about maintaining authenticity in a rigid world, or if you just have some crazy jury duty stories, please let us know in the comments below! 

To read Jane Hilberry’s “Crazy Jane Meets a Bear,” click here.