Star Trek: Picard kicked off its season with a lot of ideas about its titular hero. What did it mean that a man like Jean-Luc Picard had not just retired, but quit the utopian organization he’d dedicated his life to? How did he feel about its decline? Is there space for a man like him in a modern interpretation of Star Trek’s future? In the end, sadly, the series was seemingly not as interested in answering as it seemed.
Picard’s first season came to a close last week, wrapping up its big ongoing plotline about the Federation’s ban on synthetics, and just what the next generation of Data-like androids were up to on the mysterious world of Coppelius. But after weeks of thematic back and forth, it also delivered its ultimate thesis: Jean-Luc Picard, decades after we last saw him? Still every bit the perfect hero we romanticized and evangelized since the heady days of The Next Generation. A hero so perfect in fact, he could not be allowed to die, too important a beacon for not just our hopes and dreams, but the dreams of the Star Trek galaxy at large.
It’s perhaps an unsurprising thesis to make. After all, there is a reason we have evangelized a character like Jean-Luc in the years since The Next Generation was on our screens. His optimism, his courage, his ceaseless appetite for exploration, the famed captain had come to embody all that we hold that is good and bright about Star Trek as an entity, not just a single character in a single show. But what makes Picard leaning back onto this familiar, nostalgic embrace of that mythos is that it had spent a not-insignificant part of its first season questioning if there was a downside to that kind of hero-worship, especially in a version of the galaxy beset by crisis and moral decline.
The show did this in the obvious ways initially, reflecting the discord between Starfleet as an entity and Jean-Luc as an individual. In the wake of the former’s recalcitrance to commit a relief effort to the Romulan Empire, as it faced the threat of a supernova that would eventually wipe out not just the Romulan homeworld, but myriad colonies in the process, Starfleet and Jean-Luc found themselves at odds. Dealing with its own problems—in the form of a synthetic-driven attack on its Mars shipyards, as well as an internalized skepticism for helping what had long been a rival power bloc in the galactic space—Starfleet turned its back on Jean-Luc’s rescue operation, and in turn, an embittered Jean-Luc played his last bluff: Help the Romulans, or one of Starfleet’s greatest champions quits. Starfleet chose the latter.
This in and of itself is already a fascinating usage of something else Picard began to examine over its season: the metatextual awareness that Jean-Luc himself has of his own mythos, and of how much our own deification of his character has now bled into the actual fiction of Star Trek as a whole. It was here at an individual character level, more so than with Starfleet’s own ethical failings—thanks to Deep Space Nine, the franchise had already done plenty of that kind of reflection in the first place—that the show really began to interrogate the man, the myth, the legend. It becomes clear very early on in Picard that Jean-Luc himself had bought into his reputation as a lion of the Federation. But it became equally clear how, when he’d cashed in that particular check to bite his thumb at Starfleet, his complete retreat into that image of himself—literally, in that he holes up in his family’s vineyard with little but his anger and two delightful Romulans named Laris and Zhaban—actively harmed his friends and (now former) colleagues.
Although we were reunited with some of those familiar colleagues (namely Troi and Riker, who had likewise gone through struggles in the years since Star Trek: Nemesis), Picard mostly showed that harm through the lens of two of its new characters: Evan Evagora’s Elnor and Michelle Hurd’s Raffi Musiker. When we first met Elnor—a Romulan orphan turned religious sellsword, who Jean-Luc befriended as a child as part of his rescue operation for refugees fleeing the supernova’s destructive path—in “Absolute Candor,” we are directly confronted with the emotional damage the man had wreaked on not just him, but the Romulan refugees he suddenly left on Vashti, when he first learned of the attack on Mars.
After presenting open arms to these people, positioning himself as their one friend among the untrustworthy Federation, Jean-Luc vanished from their new, tumultuous lives almost as quickly as he’d entered it, only returning when he needed to demand a favor of them (or more specifically, Elnor’s religious sect, the Qowat Milat). They were, rightfully, angry at him for positioning himself as their sole savior. And the only answer he could offer them as he once again ran off—now with a reluctant Elnor in tow—was not to blame him, but the Federation. After all, he’s Jean-Luc Picard. He did what he could, and then suddenly...didn’t.
But it’s perhaps Raffi’s arc across the earlier parts of the debut season that examined the damage Jean-Luc’s retreat into himself most pointedly. She was his former first officer while he attempted to build a relief operation for the Romulans, but where he got to resign his commission from Starfleet as an act of rebellion, Raffi was simply fired, her association with the now excommunicated admiral enough to taint her. So when we first properly meet her in the series, we meet a woman who is not the prim and proper kind of person we’d expect from a former Starfleet officer, but one utterly broken by having been turned out by it. Losing her career drove Raffi away from her family, saw her turn to drugs and drink, and become almost wholly consumed by not just her own theories as to the true nature of the attack on Mars, but disdain for everything Starfleet had become.
Crucially, however, it was a shared disdain she also pinned to Jean-Luc. When he shows up at the doorstep of her ramshackle abode out in the Vasquez Rocks—the first time she’s seen him since he quit, without a single follow up call or check-in to see how she was doing—with the promise of a new mission at his behest, Raffi instead angrily points a phaser at him and tells him to leave. When he doesn’t—because, once again, he’s on a mission—she angrily nails him for abandoning her in a moment of profound trauma, railing against the privilege that as the great Jean-Luc Picard he could afford to shut himself off at his palatial family estate, while people like her were left to suffer for his hubris. And unflinchingly, he never apologized for that hurt. Instead, he left their reunion assumptive that Raffi would help him, because he’s Jean-Luc Picard, and that’s what people did when he told them to.
It seemed like a vital moment for what Picard would have to say about its titular character, even as he began to wield that privilege within the show’s narrative. These were people undoubtedly hurt by Jean-Luc’s direct action—well, his inaction. Their feelings were validated, years of anger etched upon their characters that were brought up again and again. And yet, the man himself never really took that on board. Later on in the season, when he needs Raffi to call in a favor at Starfleet, he lets her lean in on the years of trauma that led to her becoming an addict, uncaring that there was real hurt behind that facade. He never mentions her earlier anger at him, but instead applauds her performance, encouraging the rest of his ragtag team to do so, even as she slinks away from the crew and retreats to her quarters to grieve in solitude. It’s shockingly uncaring, but raises that valid question once again: Is it a good thing that Jean-Luc has bought into his own hype?
This presentation of Jean-Luc, and the questions it raised, lingered in the background of Picard’s first season. They were asked explicitly, but never really asked quite loudly enough—especially when it came time to start unspooling the various plot dumps of advancing its core arc around protecting Soji and her fellow synthetics from anti-A.I. Romulan cultists. So when the season reached its climax with a seeming all-out scrap between Jean-Luc’s new crew, the androids of Coppelius, and the Romulans, it still felt like the series was undecided about just how right or wrong its titular hero was to have bought into his hype, if harming people like Raffi and Elnor, or turning away from old friends like Riker and Troi, had been worth it.
And so it just...simply chose to not consider those questions it had raised at all, putting Jean-Luc in the captain’s chair for a finale that was jam-packed with nostalgia. The last episode of Picard’s first season tripped up on so many of the thematic elements its predecessor had laid out, especially when it came to the value of sacrifice, but in the mess it made, only one thing was explicitly clear: Jean-Luc is a hero, and will always be right, and will not just save the day, but will do so with an “Engage” and a “Make it so,” just like we all remember.
Picard just couldn’t help but take the easy route out. It decided that anything our lead character had faltered on—especially his personal relationships—didn’t matter in the end. It decided that the Federation turning his back on him could be solved with a snap of its fingers, more than it could an actual reckoning of what even raising those questions in the first place meant for this galactic civilization. All that mattered was that the Jean-Luc we remember of all those years ago, the myth of him, was preserved at all costs, spiritually and literally.
There’s a moment at the climax of “Stardust City Rag”—which remains, arguably, the strongest episode of the first season—where, after bidding farewell to Jean-Luc, Seven of Nine ignores his early pleas for clemency and returns to the shady planet Freecloud to enact violent vengeance against the gangster (and Seven’s former ally) Bjayzl. When the latter is surprised that it had seemed, at first, that Seven was willing to give up her revenge to take Jean-Luc’s moral high ground, she simply replies that she didn’t want the old man to give up his illusion that there was still room for mercy. The Star Trek galaxy had changed, Seven argued, and so had the people trying to survive in the wake of unprecedented disasters. It wanted to let us know that we couldn’t go back sometimes, that the world had moved on, and thinking that it hadn’t was a dream only the privileged had a chance to dream.
In the end, however, Picard decided Jean-Luc’s illusion should simply, suddenly be a reality instead.
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