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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

‘Star Trek: Picard,’ Fancy Sheets, and the Meaning of Home

Star Trek: Picard, the new reloading of the Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) universe, explores contemporary disasters—refugees denied havens, racist paranoia, travel bans, genocide—but, if I may, I’d like to land into this world on its soft furnishings. One often disappointing element in science fiction is the lack of warm, homey decor. The interiors of the distant future tend to be glassily austere, as cozy as a skyscraper boardroom. TNG did offer some creature comforts, but let’s just say Architectural Digest’s 24th-century editors won’t be hailing the Enterprise-D for a YouTube tour. If you watched the old show, you’ll remember the standard-issue puce armchairs, puce banquettes, puce mattresses. You might have gotten a glimpse of iridescent bedding before your favorite crew member bolted up from an uneasy dream. I’d have nightmares, too, if my pillow and comforter looked like I’d descaled a mermaid.

But the set designers of Picard, which concluded its first season on Thursday, have some serious hipster taste. We rejoin Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played once again by Patrick Stewart, 18 years after the events recorded in the fourth and final TNG film, Nemesis. He has retreated to his ancestral French chateau, complete with vineyard. We find him awaking from uneasy dreams. He lifts his head from a snow-white pillow whose high thread count you can sense empathically through the screen. There is a cream couch in the corner and exposed brick walls. Even the shadows are handsome.

All of this loveliness, though, can’t make Picard forget his troubles. “I haven’t been living; I’ve been waiting to die,” he says churlishly. He has resigned from Starfleet under a cloud, after a calamitous attempt to evacuate the Federation’s longtime enemies, the Romulans, from their dying home world. For unknown reasons, a group of synthetic life-forms went berserk during the rescue, costing thousands of lives. Since then, a Federation-wide ban has been placed on the development of artificial sentience. Picard’s final mission is to protect a surviving synth, Soji, who, along with her twin sister, was born from one of his old friend Commander Data’s positronic neurons.


To help Soji, he must find a ship, so he enlists a fellow ex-Starfleet officer named Raffi to help. She lives in a modest eco home in the desert. On her porch, shells strung with twine waft humbly in the warm air. In this meeting with Raffi, class differences between old friends are made explicit in a way they never were in TNG. She brings up a recent media interview Picard gave about the Romulan disaster. “I saw you sitting back in your very fine chateau—big oak beams, heirloom furniture,” she says bitterly. “I’d show you around my estate, but it’s more of a hovel.”

These few words tell us we’re in a landscape very different from TNG. In Picard, people are riven with human frailties, so they need a bit of taste to comfort them. The old show was able to sidestep questions of social equality as being too vulgar to ask. Thanks to the replicator, a technology that turns energy into the matter of your choosing, life was blissfully moneyless: Anyone could have a chateau if they wished, which meant that humans could spend their time worrying about loftier things, like propagating Diomedian scarlet moss, mending tectonic plates, and delivering delegates to far-off peace talks.

In the TNG two-parter “Time’s Arrow,” Samuel Clemens, a k a Mark Twain, comes aboard the Enterprise from 1890s San Francisco. Realizing he can’t get a good cigar onboard, he lashes out, asking Counselor Troi rude questions about who paid for this flashy vessel. He assumes that the affluence of the ship is built on the exploitation of other races and the oppression of the poor. In a turbolift—that whooshing box of transport and self-growth—Troi explains that “poverty was eliminated on Earth a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it—hopelessness, despair, cruelty.” Clemens is shocked; he explains to Troi that he comes from a time when prejudice is commonplace. “You’re telling me that isn’t how it is anymore?” he asks. With all the earned smugness of her evolved century, Troi replies, “That’s right!” To which Clemens grunts and remarks that all this social justice is “maybe worth giving up cigars for after all.”

Rewatching this turbolift lesson today, I found it chilling to learn that liberalism and progressive politics can still be dismantled, even if they’ve been in place for centuries. Just a few decades after Troi’s speech, we’re back in a world of hopelessness, cruelty, prejudice, and, by extension, money. Because Starfleet has turned its back on Picard, he is no longer insulated from the grubbiness of capitalism. Raffi hooks him up with a ship, La Sirena, whose owner and pilot, Chris Rios, is another haunted ex-Starfleet officer. Raffi is helping Picard ostensibly because she wants a ride; Rios wants payment. They’re both reminiscent of that other kindly space scoundrel Han Solo (“I’ll take you this far, then you’re on your own, kid”). And yet Picard’s wounded buddies ultimately stick together. This is a show about allies coming and going and saving each other in the nick of time. No one is duty-bound in the ways they used to be. No one is pinned behind an insignia.

TNG generally took a dim view of those who were still scrabbling around in the muck of money economies. The Ferengi, a species of traders, were physically grotesque, deceitful, and always looking for a profit. In fact, I can’t think of a plucky, wholesome entrepreneur in that entire universe. In Picard, one of the Sirena’s first ports of call is Free Cloud, an urbanized planet that promises all the pleasures and sins of the big city, for the right price. You can often tell a sci-fi dystopia by how much the advertising has gotten out of hand. When Jean-Luc & Co. reach orbit there, holographic ads infiltrate the bridge and accost them.

Back in the cashless past, Picard’s old Enterprise crewmates were pillars of virtue, incentivized by their shared commitment to decency. When they did fall from angelic grace, it was usually because of external forces acting on the ship—psychic possession, infections from weird space viruses, alien-induced madness. In the subtype of “Data gone wrong” episodes, Chief Engineer Geordie LaForge invariably had to flip open a panel in his friend’s hair, tinkering between the gaudy Christmas lights of his circuitry to figure out how the android had been hacked.

But for most of Picard’s new allies, the demons are indigenous to their inner selves. Raffi tells Picard that her “entire life for the past 14 years has been one long slide into humiliation.” She swigs liquor and vapes weed. Rios has his own head full of bad memories, chewing rakishly on the stub of a cigar while flying into peril. Sometimes cigars might just be cigars, but in this franchise they signify that all isn’t well with the world.


As Samuel Clemens leaves the Enterprise to return to his own time (and, presumably, to spark up a real Havana), he tells the crew how pleased he is to see that humanity “turned out pretty well.” The odd past perfect verb tense here—“turned”—vouches for a perfect future whose permanence is a done deal. Clemens’ sentiment reflects the optimism of the 1990s. “Time’s Arrow” aired the same year that Francis Fukuyama published his political treatise, The End of History and the Last Man, which argued for the enduring triumph of Western liberal democracy in the aftermath of the Cold War. But science fiction has always known that neither time’s arrow nor progress always travel in straight lines. Back then, the future turning out well meant the unstoppable spread of both democracy and free-market capitalism. Just 30 of our own years later, we’re feeling the fragilities of both.

In 2020, TNG’s dream of a stable, virtuous “conclusion” to the human story can feel sadly passé. But this feeling is part of the game of temporal cat-and-mouse that science-fiction fans must play. If your love for a particular universe endures, one day you’ll likely wake up in a present that is more technologically advanced than the show’s dated vision of the future.

The TNG crew, for instance, was well ahead of its 1990s audience in its adoption of e-readers—but just as you’re about to be impressed, Riker hands Worf a report loaded up on what now looks to be a Gameboy. Touchscreen controls, first rolled out on Earth in the late 1980s, were another signal of the Enterprise’s futuristic sophistication. Yet this was still the age of the button, and so the crew at work resembled a team of court stenographers. (A fun TNG drinking game would be to take a shot whenever you see a cocked knuckle.)

The TNG showrunners knew touchscreens would be big, but what they didn’t imagine was the delicate touch-swipe of our Tinder age, all that daily enlarging we now do with our fingertips, all the casual flicking left and right. When Raffi or Rios are working the controls of the Sirena, they use their hands like one of us, dragging text and images into and out of view. How will Raffi’s physical engagement with her controls seem to us in another 20 years? Will fans of the future laugh at her cobwebbed pawing and wonder why she isn’t using her optical implants to run her searches and background checks?

Following a show over a lifetime allows us this strange, teasing hindsight. As we grow older beside those Dorian Gray reruns of TNG, we can whisper to the younger Picard from our “future” and tell him that his e-reader won’t actually look like that. Likewise, we can correct TNG’s approximation of the captain’s geriatric destiny. In the finale of that series, “All Good Things,” we find Picard (what else?) tending to his grapes, his wispy glued-on beard meant to distract us from his robust shoulders. The middle-aged Stewart no doubt used his Shakespearean training to invoke some of King Lear’s lost potency. Now at 79, he doesn’t have to act elderliness in quite the same way; as he has pointed out, both he and Picard have aged the same amount since he last played the role. So much of Star Trek is about how we live in time, and a moving byproduct of this new series is that fans get to think: So this is actually how Picard got old; this is what happened to his shoulders, his gait, his vocal chords.


Stewart has said that part of his reason for returning to his most famous character now was the grim state of world affairs. “We are living in dark times,” he told journalists at the Los Angeles premiere of Picard. “And I think it behooves us in a show like this to at times reference some of those challenges and difficulties.” When first approached by producers to reprise this role, he had been watching old episodes of TNG, some of them for the first time, and they reminded him of the show’s moral seriousness, the way it reflected the social injustices and ethical dilemmas of its audience’s era.

The first season of Picard is less memorable than TNG for its political allegories, because, although our times are surely dark, much of the darkness doesn’t come from moral complexity. It’s clear that children shouldn’t be separated from their families and kept in cages at borders. The base rhetoric of populist demagogues around the world is terrifyingly simple. The question of whether or not to enable xenophobia and neo-fascist hatred shouldn’t pose much of a dilemma.

Far more memorable is the show’s philosophical meditation on homes and belonging. What does it mean to be at home? Picard has always been a character who is most at home when wandering among the stars; he’ll always choose to leave the Egyptian cotton pillows behind. On these new adventures, though, he visits the homes of old friends and tells them, with a very un-TNG openness, that he loves them. The reunion with his former Enterprise crewmates Troi and Riker offers the most beautifully rendered vista of lifelong friendship that I’ve seen in some time.

And all through this season, Picard is searching for Data, the friend who, in the final TNG movie, sacrificed himself to save his captain. To find the heroic android again would be Picard’s ultimate homecoming. The season begins with him dreaming of Data. Later, he meets his old friend’s daughters, who share their father’s idiosyncratic head tilts. These visions, resemblances, echoes, and decoys all orbit around the real Data, the season’s absent center, whose final home Picard must seek to discover.

In depicting this journey of friendship and remembrance, Picard subtly merges the personal and the political. For as much as the former captain wants to reunite with the being who saved his life, he’s also trying to return home to those values of reason, tenderness, and unwavering progress that Data embodied so forcefully. In the season finale, Picard reflects that “it says a great deal about the mind of Commander Data that, looking at the human race, with all its violence and corruption and willful ignorance, he could still see kindness, the immense curiosity and greatness of spirit.”

But this feels like another game of cat-and-mouse, not fully in step with its proper timeline. The human family into which Data was welcomed in TNG was all kindness and curiosity; violence and corruption was, in those years, considered a closed chapter of the history books. Here Picard is clearly talking to us from the future, asking that we see human nature in the round, so that history might come to an end all over again.

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