Where no one has gone before

I’ve always been a fan of the Star Trek franchise. I’ve watched with equal interest all the series since the earliest episodes featuring Captain Kirk wandering about the Galaxy and seducing alien ladies from unknown planets. Apart from J.J. Abrams’ three movies, we had to wait nearly 15 years from Star Trek Enterprise to see a new starship with a brand new crew bouncing (yeah, literally, given the spore drive) from planet to planet. And finally, 2020 has brought the legend back onto the screen: Star Trek Picard features Sir Patrick Stewart again in the role of the best Starfleet Captain ever (sorry Jim!).

I am not writing a review, we are only half-way through season one and I guess we have to wait till the end before judging the show. I will try to avoid spoilers though. Like Discovery, the style of the show is up to date. No more stand-alone episodes within a wider narrative arc. When last summer I found out that they were producing a new series with Jean-Luc Picard, I started binge-watching The Next Generation (once) again to be prepared. I must say that the contrast is striking but it is a testament to the passage of time and to the changing of our sensibility. Star Trek was revolutionary when it appeared for the first time in the 1960s. During the Cold War, the show featured a superbly diverse crew with a Russian pilot and a black woman in a senior position. It was not just about the warp speed, it was about us humans cooperating as equals in a world that had managed to put an end to all wars.

The optimistic spirit of Star Trek fitted the time. Next Gen was definitely more mature in its tones, just like its Captain. The key is the character of Data and his strive to become ‘more human.’ Humans are imagined to travel light-years away from Earth to find nothing else but themselves. You need to see something really alien in order to grasp the essence of your own nature. Whenever that nature risks being compromised, there is always someone who reminds you to remain true to your values. The image we have of all Starfleet Captains, and especially of Jean-Luc Picard, represents the embodiment of those values (and that’s why Discovery‘s Lorca is a bitter pill). The Captain of the flagship is the best that the Federation can offer. The best that humankind can offer. In the new series, Discovery and now Picard, we’re shown also the worst: rogue officers, corrupt departments, dangerous technology, secret death squads, clandestine operations.

Negative reviews – at least those I’ve read – lament that the original spirit of Star Trek has been lost in these new series. Some have noticed that even the lighting has changed: dark tones have replaced the bright colours of TOS and Next Gen. I don’t think this is random and – alas! – it matches the way we imagine our future. If fifty years ago the future appeared rosy and bright, now we are somehow disillusioned and this is reflected in the way we conceive science-fiction. Picard is disillusioned and disappointed. He has left Starfleet because it no longer represents the values he believes in. How many among us are disappointed in politics and its ability to tackle relevant issues? How many among us are ‘withdrawing’?

To be fair, the main quality of Star Trek was its being hopeful but not naif. Surely, I can empathise with those who believe that the new series have lost that very quality that made Star Trek so unique among science-fiction films and books. At the same time, however, it hasn’t lost its main purpose: exploration. Truth be told, we don’t see many strange new worlds, but we see many odd new aspects of the universe. This shift in tone and topic is beautifully encapsulated in Picard’s words ‘dreams are lovely, it’s the waking up I’m beginning to resent.’ This is what the new series is trying to tell us. But Picard, despite a fifteen-year-long pause, does not give up and faces reality as it is, imperfect. For if we want to find hope again and dream about a bright future, then we must hold on to our values and fight for them. One last time.

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