A long time ago now, it seems, I wrote a post about how the then-new Star Trek: Discovery was #NotMyStarTrek. I haven’t watched later seasons, but I stand by the post in general. You can imagine my delight when Patrick Stewart agreed to star in a new Star Trek series that is actually a sequel. He reprises his role as the venerable Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I like Star Trek: Picard much, much more than Discovery. For some people, this show still won’t be “Trek enough.” There’s a lot more violence (which I don’t like) and profanity (whatever); the show is definitely trying to appeal to what audiences have come to expect since the Star Trek I remember from the late ’90s, early ’00s. Nevertheless, about 8 or 9 episodes into the season, I finally realized why I was enjoying this series so much: it reminds me of Mass Effect.
Spoilers for the entire first season of Star Trek: Picard, , as well as the Mass Effect trilogy, follow!
With some notable exceptions, like the time Star Trek: Deep Space Nine visited Earth for a two-parter, the Star Trek universe has always carefully avoided portraying too much of civilian life in the Federation of the 24th century. This is understandable: it’s really hard to reify a functional post-scarcity society in a way that is interesting and believable, especially on a television budget. The shows always tended to focus on the immediate stories of the ship/station and its crew.
Picard deviates from this model because, as the name implies, it is much more about Picard’s personal quest to redeem himself for what he perceives to be a career-ending failure. He is a man on a mission. He is a force to be reckoned with. And as with Shepard in later installments of the series, Picard’s reputation precedes him.
When Picard and crew visit Freecloud, the Mass Effect comparison finally crystallized. Picard is effectively in charge of a small starship (like the Normandy). He is nominally affiliated with a galactic power (Starfleet) yet functionally on his own. Like Commander Shepard, he sometimes finds himself in seedier places than he’d like, attempting to recruit, cajole, persuade, or otherwise deal with people who are less savoury than he’d like. Picard shows us the dirty underbelly of the 24th century in a way that we’ve only glimpsed before (in episodes like “Gambit” from TNG and “Honor Among Thieves” from DS9).
It also shows us quieter, happier moments, like the love letter to TNG fans that is “Nepenthe.” This, too, is consistent with the Mass Effect experience, which balanced the threats to Shepard and friends with moments of unexpected humour and even heartbreaking tenderness: “Had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.” (MORDIN, I LOVE YOU FOREVER.)
Story-wise, there are also striking parallels. Both series deal ultimately with the existential conflict between organic and synthetic life. Picard implies and Mass Effect outright features a cyclic view of life in the universe, with synthetic life ultimately rising up and extinguishing the organic life that created it. In both series, synthetic characters and their creators wrestle with the moral and ethical obligations they have to their species and to lives in general. Antagonists who seek to enlist the help of ultra-powerful synthetic life-forms do so because they believe they are in the right.
The season finale of Picard was suitably epic. While some people might find saving the day with a Picard speech a little too gooey and heartwarming, I loved it. The writers pulled themselves back from the temptation of unleashing a hell of synthetic monsters onto the Star Trek universe, instead choosing to appeal to the very human prerogative to choose a better way forward. That is quintessential Star Trek to me.
Certainly, there were elements of the series that I didn’t enjoy as much as others might have. The idea that Star Trek needs to be “grittier” to be more modern doesn’t sit right with me; it’s one of the reasons I rejected Discovery. I don’t object to violence in TV in general, but there was quite a lot more of it in this show than I expected. Moreover, I can’t deny the part of me that really misses episodic TV and the exploration focus of Star Trek—that is, the whole idea of “boldly going” and allowing writers to focus on a new “what if” premise each week. I don’t think I honestly expected that from Picard, of course, given that its eponymous protagonist isn’t going to come out of retirement to lead an exploration mission. And maybe it’s unrealistic for me to expect that Star Trek can reprise that style ever again: part of the evolution of any franchise involves changing in ways that preclude going back to what it once was. That is ok too. Maybe I should just look forward to what Star Trek can continue to become.
I’ve been replaying Mass Effect and its sequels while we’re all staying home. It remains my favourite series of video games ever. They are the perfect balance of interactive storytelling, characterization, and fun shooty-times. The story and world of the games is so obviously crafted with love and attention to detail. Star Trek: Picard captures that, albeit in a less interactive form. In some ways, it’s a little like Mass Effect: Andromeda: perhaps not as good as the “classic” version of the franchise, yet still worthy in its own way.