Star Trek Guide

Friday, February 21, 2020

Just as I can't un-see what I saw in the fifth episode of Star Trek: Picard, I wonder if the damage it has done to the Star Trek universe can ever be undone.

The episode opens with the most graphic violence in the Star Trek saga, by far.  It was the worst moment I have experienced in watching television for a half century.

But that wasn't all.  There was further shock-inducing violence.  There were fine moments and performances.  Michelle Hurd played an affecting scene as Raffi. Jeri Ryan played Seven of Nine with a new wit and panache, more like a character I saw her play since her Star Trek days, on the Bosch series.  She presented an ethical dilemma, and her scenes with Picard were excellent.  Though she engaged in violence that was less graphic, it was still shocking. It's not just that she vaporized her antagonist, but that she casually killed a number of others in the process.

And then the final act of wanton violence, in the twist, when the character that seemed to embody the audience's innocence--a kind of Wesley character--turns out not only to be a deceptive double agent but commits the cruel murder of a former lover, and watches him suffer and die, as we do.  And that was pretty much the end of it for me.

People die in science fiction, but the manner of death as well as the reason for their deaths are important.  This is but one aspect of this episode that seems to attack the very nature of Star Trek as a television and movie saga.  The other is the now unremitting bleakness of the future it portrays, the apparent moral corruption of Starfleet and the effective collapse of the Federation.

I was in the first audience for Star Trek in the 1960s.  The times had elements of hope and adventure, but they were also very bleak, and we felt the assault and despair, every single day.  We were just a few years from the day in 1962 when I went to school knowing that I might not come home, on the most dangerous day of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But the possibility of thermonuclear fire and fallout were also part of everyday life, and had been since early childhood, including the Duck and Cover drills of first grade.

It was a time not only of political strife but of political violence. I was in school when my hero, President Kennedy, was shot and killed, and I saw the gunning down of his alleged assassin on live television.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy--my hope for the immediate future--were killed within weeks of each other in 1968.  In between several other leaders were shot and most were killed.  In addition, there was racial violence, and several times there were entire areas of American cities that burned.

Above all there was the despair of the Vietnam War.  Leaders were lying, and my contemporaries were dying.  Taken by force of law into the armed forces, their lives were never to be the same.  More of us suffered trauma, disability and death than any generation since.

The point of this summary is to suggest that these times we are experiencing right now are not the only bleak times, though I won't try to make comparisons.  The 60s was when Star Trek began--and while it told stories involving then-current moral and political issues, it depicted a better future.

It did so through the political, economic and moral traumas of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  And there was plenty of despair to go around.

Star Trek was a beacon of hope to so many because it modeled that better future--not just the technology but the behavior, the culture of Starfleet and the Federation. As such it was also a guide for how people could live their own lives in the present.  There is plenty to document all of this.  Despite the bleak times, Star Trek showed how things could be better--and people could be better.

This is essentially, more than any other one aspect, the soul of Star Trek.  Crucially, it was also part of the experience of watching Star Trek.  One of many unique qualities of the Gene Roddenberry Star Trek (from the original series through Enterprise, and the first ten movies) was that it entertained and inspired viewers of all ages, from children to their grandparents.  Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation in particular were rare instances of shows that several generations of a family could watch, together.  

I can't comment on Star Trek: Discovery because I've seen very little of it.  But clearly this is no longer the case with Star Trek: Picard.  If I lost sleep over what I saw, I assume that even children of today could be damaged by seeing it.  I don't see a family watching this together.

I could let Discovery go by, and be watched by contemporary audiences used to this kind of television (the manipulation and contrivances, shock for effect, etc. that I've seen in the few episodes I watched of other popular sagas.)  Eventually I made peace with the Abrams movies, and what I didn't like about them.  For they were all the products of creators unrelated to the GR Star Trek.  They were of little relevance to me, but they didn't disturb the prior Star Trek TV and movies, which also remained the bedrock for many if not most Star Trek fans.

But I cautiously and somewhat skeptically looked forward to watching Star Trek: Picard, because of confidence in some of the people involved, especially those who carried with them the knowledge of that earlier Star Trek era.  Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes were of course a big part of it.

I was heartened as well as challenged by the first four episodes.  So I let myself look forward to Thursdays and a new episode of Picard. That ended with episode five.  A day after seeing it, I still feel that the nature of that violence, and the entire tenor of this episode, undermines the Star Trek universe.  It makes it hard even to see Star Trek's past in the same way.  If this is the future that follows all that we saw, what was the point?  The future is bleaker than ever.  Humanity has failed.  This may reflect what many of us feel about things at this historical moment, but except for individual commitments, it is no model.

Maybe that's the point.  But I repeat: Star Trek did not chiefly reflect the bleakness of the 1960s.  It modeled a possible future that gave some focus to the present, and some escape to a better world.  Many people watched it like they watched The West Wing during the Bush years, and some people--including me--watched Madame Secretary during these horrific years.

Of course there is dramatic justification for everything in episode five.  But for me Star Trek: Picard has become more 2020 television than Star Trek, and I will treat it as such.  I have no idea what the big secret is at the heart of this story, and I now no longer care enough to watch each episode as it becomes available. It's not worth it. My trust in this series and the people creating it is on hold.

More to the point, I will no longer innocently watch these upcoming episodes.  I will read the plot summaries after they air.  If I'm sufficiently interested, I'll watch them after the series concludes.

I gather from the day-after reviews and comments I've read online that this is a minority if not unique view.  People seem more upset that the same actor wasn't used for a couple of the returning characters than the violence of their demise.  So I'm also not confident that even spoilers will alert me to similar scenes in future episodes.  But for me this crossed a line that may not be able to be uncrossed, whatever happens in the rest of the series.  And it colors all of Star Trek with darkness, perhaps fatally.