Star Trek is back, and its new series Picard, starring Patrick Stewart, asks explicitly political questions. What does it mean to be alienated from society? What does it mean to be a stranger to yourself? These are old questions, asked in a new way on the canvas of a science fiction series set in the late 24th century. In answering these questions, Picard makes arguments about alienation, trauma, and solidarity that resonate with the politics of today.
In the 50 years since the debut of Star Trek its various iterations have often mirrored the political concerns of American society. The original 1960s series took explicitly anti-racist stance at the height of the civil-rights movement. Such positions combined with the hope for emancipation through technological advance gave Star Trek an optimism about the potential for humanity to outgrow the chains of poverty and oppression. This optimism gave Star Trek an inherent progressivism.
The progressive politics of Star Trek deepened over the decades as the franchise grew. Twenty years after the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation built upon this foundation with increasingly complex mediations on the meanings of humanity, compassion, and enlightenment. Much of this was personified in the character of Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, presented by the new series as a paragon of learning, reason, and leadership. Like William Shatner’s Captain Kirk of the original series, Picard became iconic and emblematic of Star Trek itself.
Fans have clamoured for Picard’s return since his last appearance in a Star Trek film in 2002. Twenty years later, Picard is back but the life of a starship captain is long behind him. What does science fiction constructed around a retired icon look like?
Humanistic ideals were always at the forefront of Jean-Luc Picard’s story in The Next Generation. In a relatively sanitized future, the idealism of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek was honed to a fine point. Humanity had evolved towards the pursuit of science and truth through exploration. This was the broad semantic meaning of much of the series featuring Jean-Luc Picard, and when his crew faced challenges, individually or collectively, it was often in the form of an assault on these ideals. This was a sort of fuzzy liberalism in many instances, frequently wedded to scientific pursuit or the resolution of conflict.
At times, The Next Generation reached for something higher. The most famous storyline involved a conflict with the Borg, a race of cyborgs with no sense of individuality, bent on assimilating all others into their collective. In the course of fighting the Borg, Picard himself is captured and assimilated in a shocking episode that sees him stripped of his humanity and agency. When Picard is ultimately rescued, the series dealt briefly with the consequences of these events as he recovered. Picard experiences profound trauma and alienation, having been for a time a different person, and indeed, something beyond human. For the first time, Star Trek grappled seriously with the notion that the price of upholding peace and security might include debilitating personal trauma.
In another famous episode, Picard acts as an advocate for the rights of Commander Data, an android, to live as a fully autonomous and sentient being. It was Picard at his most persuasive and commanding, and his defense was successful, giving Data control over his own life. The series Picard finds the retired Admiral lamenting Data’s death, a sacrifice he made so that Picard could live. This too is a trauma addressed in Picard’s return, but without maudlin sentiment. It asks what is the meaning of life when another has been sacrificed to preserve it?
Picard brings something new to Star Trek. The idealism and optimism of The Next Generation is subverted in this new series. The latent themes of trauma and grief come to the fore and set Jean-Luc Picard on the path towards confronting them.
The new series finds Picard alone and reflective upon the battles and loved ones lost. Here it becomes clear—a life of idealism and conflict comes at tremendous costs. We see this first in Picard’s ongoing individual trauma. He is haunted by his past and is also largely shunted aside as a figure of public importance.
Picard was not a revolutionary or a visionary, but rather an idealized standard-bearer of a humanity that is being discarded as the future moves forward. The series presents him with a challenge and a conflict he must resolve, and Picard attempts to overcome trauma, indifference, and indeed his advanced age (the character is 92 years old—Stewart himself is 79) in order to resolve it. Picard must return to outer space. A friend asks him, “do you really want to go back out into the cold?” In this series, space is not the muted tones and comforts of the starship Enterprise; it is an empty and dangerous expanse where people can get badly hurt.
There is a new message at the core of Picard that suggests an evolution in the politics of Star Trek, reflective of our own political moment. Star Trek has frequently used stories about interspecies conflict as an allegory for racism, but in Picard the device becomes even more pointed, tackling not just only questions of racial unity but the explicit spectre of white supremacy. This takes place in a plot about the fate of both aliens and artificial life-forms who face a threat to their very existence. Starfleet is portrayed in a wholly unflattering light by making the choice that some lives in the universe are more important than others. Picard will not stand for this but is powerless to effect change. The anti-colonial politics implicit in his stance are clear and reflect our own struggles to value lives and human agency of colonized and oppressed people around the world.
Picard shows the retired Starfleet Admiral looking back on his failed attempt to stand up for the rights of all life forms and dealing with the pain of understanding that the very principle of universal rights in the 24th century has failed. This alone is traumatic to Picard, and for viewers a stark confrontation that the great Starfleet Captain could not sway politics towards the greater good. His world is imperfect, and like our own, appears to deteriorate over time towards oppression and strife. Where is the optimism of Roddenberry’s Star Trek?
The series inverts many of the political landscapes of old Star Trek. The most notable is in Picard’s encounter with members of the Borg race who have escaped the collective. He is astounded to meet former Borg who are struggling to regain their humanity, and indeed, to overcome their own trauma. Where Picard once saw intractable enemies, he now sees victims who, like himself at one point, lost their agency and their freedom. He is no longer alone with the trauma of being violated—his is a grief that others share.
Picard comes to see that Starfleet has acted as the military aggressor and that progressivism on the side of the strong can be pressed into the service of imperialism. These are hard lessons for Picard to accept. He also must accept that solidarity in opposition to these forces can only come from outside the structures of the state to which he devoted his life. This shift in allegiance aligns Picard in solidarity with those who champion his fight for the dignity of every life, both biological and artificial.
Star Trek: Picard is more reflective of leftist activism than liberal idealism.
Aged and increasingly infirm, Picard alone cannot turn the future towards an enlightened path. His traumas and weaknesses are too great. Picard realizes that through love, friendship, and solidarity, resistance and a path forward are possible. The series assembles a crew for Picard, both new characters and former crewmates from his time in Starfleet, to support his quest. Solidarity is also necessary for his crew, as each member is attempting to overcome a central trauma in their lives. The message is clear. Pete Dexter’s novel The Paperboy concludes with the line “there are no intact men.” Picard starts with this premise but suggests that being in pieces is not the end of a life. Here is a Star Trek series with one foot firmly in the politics of 2020 and the possibilities for the future.
Ted McCoy is a historian and an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Calgary. He is on Twitter at @tedmccoy.