Star Trek Guide

Star Trek: Picard Gets Star Trek's Economics Wrong

The latest entry in the Star Trek universe, Star Trek: Picard, consistently gets the future’s economics wrong. Star Trek: Picard picks up Jean-Luc Picard’s (Patrick Stewart) story years after his resignation from Starfleet when he encounters an android, Dajh (Isa Briones), who is murdered by elite Romulan assassins. Filled with guilt over his inability to save her, Picard enlists a group of mercenaries and an old friend to investigate Dajh’s origins and the plot to have her killed.

Originally conceived in 1966 by Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek presented a hopeful, optimistic future where science and technology were key to solving humanity’s most pressing issues. Though its depiction of women – clad in 60s-style short skirts and having few positions of authority – was not up to today’s standards, Star Trek the original series was a groundbreaker, featuring the first interracial kiss on network television and confronting important societal ills like greed and racism. The series’ television follow-up, Star Trek: The Next Generation, continued that idealism throughout its seven-season run.

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Of all the series, Star Trek: Picard is the furthest in the future, and yet its economics is the most regressive. Star Trek imagined a post-scarcity world, one where replicators made anything possible, but three separate characters’ decisions and motivations in Star Trek: Picard run contrary to Star Trek’s world-building and economic framework.

In Star Trek There’s No Such Thing as Scarcity

Scarcity, the economic principle that there are limited resources but unlimited needs, underpins almost all of modern economic study. Most commonly, food is an example of a scarce resource. However, in the original series of Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise has a food synthesizer, and almost 100 years later in Star Trek: The Next Generation, this technology is upgraded to a replicator, which is capable of producing anything – from Picard’s famous “Tea, Earl Grey, hot” and its mug to a full-course meal. Running on the seemingly infinite energy supply from dilithium crystals, replicators turn energy into any kind of usable, consumable matter.

Such a technology would fundamentally change how societies function. Assuming that everyone would have access to replicators, which is a safe assumption given Roddenberry’s idealism, food shortages, economic inequality, social classes, and even the necessity of gainful employment could all be phased out, creating a post-scarcity society. After all, if anything can be created out of pure energy and if that energy is in infinite, accessible supply, who would want for any material good?

Throughout Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are oblique references to replicators’ inferiority. The food tastes duller, and Federation officers still transact purchases with a futuristic currency called latinum, which is only used to acquire luxury items. Vestiges of modern economics remain in the 24th century, but primarily, the ambition for exploration and discovery replaces money as humans’ motivation.

Raffi’s Anger at Picard Is Based on Social Class

When Picard begins to assemble his crew, he first visits Raffi (Michelle Hurd), his former first officer when Picard commanded the U.S.S. Verity and attempted to evacuate the Romulans’ endangered homeworld. In the series’ third episode, “The End Is the Beginning,” Raffi says, “I saw you sitting back in your very fine chateau – those big oak beams, heirloom furniture. I’d show you around my estate, but it’s more of a hovel, so that would just be humiliating.” Indeed, the show’s visuals support Raffi’s characterization: she appears to live in a futuristic trailer while Picard has a functioning vineyard.

A flashback scene reveals that Picard’s resignation from Starfleet ended Raffi’s career when Starfleet’s brass ended the Romulan rescue expedition. While the specific details of Raffi’s departure from the Federation are not entirely clear, Raffi’s animosity toward Picard is reasonable.

However, what part of the scene’s dialogue focuses on is the material differences: the chateau vs. the hovel and the heirloom furniture vs. the sparse table that separates Picard and Raffi during their conversation. Such social class differences wouldn’t apply in the world depicted in Star Trek: The Next Generation. After all, even though the replicators have trouble with complex machinery or rare, dense materials, there is nothing is Picard’s living room that wouldn’t be available to Raffi.

As a result, the scene as written misses an opportunity to discuss what really matters about the relationship between these two characters: Raffi’s sense of purpose, her career, and her relationship with her family (as revealed in episode 5, “Stardust City Rag”) all deteriorated after Picard’s resignation. The true consequence of Picard’s absence lay not in the things they have but in who Raffi has become. That is a far more interesting conflict than talk about furniture.

Star Trek: Picard’s Characters Act Based on Economic Interests

During “The End Is the Beginning,” Picard recruits Cristóbal Rios (Santiago Cabrera) the captain of La Sirena, the ship that Picard eventually takes on his investigation. A Han Solo-type, Rios offers his ship for hire. He is not entirely driven by a quest for money; he says, “I’ve already had one grand heroic captain in my life.” And his eventual agreement to accompany Picard implies that he’s willing to follow another hero on a noble mission. But Rios doesn’t abandon his monetary motivations. In “Absolute Candor,” when the crew is unable to gain clearance through a planet’s defense shields, Rios suggests, “A cash gift is always appropriate.”

The fifth episode, “Stardust City Rag,” features an appearance by Star Trek: Voyager’s Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). After her time on the Voyager, Seven joined the Fenris Rangers, a group of vigilante outlaws who “maintain order in worlds the Federation left.” She describes Freecloud as where the Rangers store their money. And as Picard’s crew approaches that planet, hologram approximations of pop-up ads appear on board, one which Agnes (Alison Pill) must literally punch out.

The 24th century of Star Trek: The Next Generation was not a completely moneyless society. But as a whole, money and economic interests are far more ubiquitous in the first five episodes of Star Trek: Picard than in all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The focus on money-based conflicts in Star Trek: Picard can be seen as a betrayal of Gene Roddenberry’s original utopian vision (Roddenberry died in 1991), but to be fair to Star Trek: Picard’s creators, the world he created was substantially different. A scarcity-free economy is difficult to dramatize when so much of what motivates contemporary people’s daily grinds revolves around money and material goods. That’s just one of the reasons so much of the original series took place in faraway locales. But the absence of a materialistic focus allowed the original shows’ creators to explore humans’ motivations more deeply , and while Star Trek: Picard has its moments of resonant reflection, it still falls short of returning to the same economic utopia of the franchise's previous series.