Warning: Minor spoilers below.
Jean-Luc Picard is in a dramatically different place in Star Trek: Picard. When we last left him on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the final TNG film, Star Trek: Nemesis, there was still hope and belief in the Federation. Two decades later, Picard, played with full-throated vim and vigor by Patrick Stewart, instead rants about its failings and why he resigned.
“The galaxy was mourning, burying its dead, and Starfleet slunk from its duties,” Picard barks, a nod to the destruction of Romulus that sets off the chain of events from the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek film. He calls the Federation “downright criminal.”
“I was not prepared to stand by and be a spectator,” he said.
Surprising words from the former prototypical captain of the Federation, but it speaks both to the state of where Picard is, and the fact that the future isn’t as rosy as it once was.
The scene is also the clearest statement to fans that Star Trek: Picard, which premieres Jan. 23, isn’t just a rehash of TNG, which ended its run nearly 26 years ago. Like Star Trek: Discovery, the first Trek show to run on CBS All Access (disclosure: CNET and CBS All Access are both owned by ViacomCBS), Picard embraces the conflict and shades of gray that are common on contemporary television but that some fans may see as a departure from Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful vision of the future.
But some fans forget Star Trek has always reflected society. Picard likewise serves as a mirror, exploring real-life issues including artificial intelligence through the Borg and the rights of “synthetics,” like Data, as a new species. Having Picard, the standard-bearer for the ideals of the Federation, question the longstanding institution comes at a politically turbulent time when many are rejecting the idea of blindly following authority.
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“I’d say the leadership of both countries [the US and UK] is somewhat questionable,” Stewart said in an interview earlier this month. “And that is the same situation we find Starfleet in — and the Federation.”
But Alex Kurtzman, co-creator and executive producer, argues Picard isn’t a dark show. There’s a lot to be hopeful about, he said, and it all goes back to the main man himself.
“In the face of such adversity and in the face of tremendous moral gray areas, he always seems to find the right thing to fight for,” Kurtzman said in an interview.
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Star Trek has tapped into the gray area of Starfleet and the Federation before, at times uncovering some isolated injustice to tell a morality tale (think later episodes of Deep Space Nine or Star Trek: Insurrection), but the idea of challenging the Federation’s moral authority on a foundational level serves as a core theme of Picard.
It’s also one of the reasons Stewart wanted to return.
“It was not the same world. It was not the same man,” Stewart said. “The encounters I was to have with other characters in the series was a transformation of where we had been before The Next Generation. It was that more than anything else that convinced me that this was something that I must do.”
And it’s not just Jean-Luc who faces new worlds. The trailers suggest Picard and his new crew embark on a quest that goes outside the purview of Starfleet.
“You see a lot of characters come into the story having lost a lot of hope,” said Isa Briones, who plays a mysterious character named Dahj.
Michelle Hurd, who plays a security analyst and hacking genius named Raffi Musiker, describes her relationship with the Federation as “complicated.”
“If you think about art imitating life, our world is really in disarray right now and there’s a lot of questioning of authority figures,” Hurd said. “We have to do that. Sometimes to just be led by a powerful figure saying this is the way to do it, and not question it, can be dangerous.”
And Jeri Ryan, who returns as the former Borg Seven of Nine, describes the universe going “to hell in a hand basket.” Expect some tension with Picard, whom she sees as a representative of the organization that “screwed things up.”
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Artificial Intelligence: AI today, synthetics tomorrow
The show’s focus on the Borg and synthetics comes at a time when artificial intelligence is at the forefront of every major technology company. CES was abuzz with AI, with Google and Amazon sparring over which has the smarter and more helpful assistant.
Take Samsung-funded Neon, one of the buzziest startups at CES 2020. It boasted about creating “artificial humans.”
Neon’s artificial humans aren’t physical androids like Data, but computer-generated beings on displays designed to learn and become more human over time. Neon CEO Pranav Mistry even refers to them as a new species, raising the kind of ethical questions that this show is likely to tackle.
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Prior to the show, a group of synthetics are involved in an attack on Mars, destroying the rescue fleet intended to aid in the Romulan evacuation and setting the planet ablaze. The result is a galaxywide ban on synthetics.
As robotics scientist Dr. Agnes Jurati, played by Alison Pill, explains, the exploration of synthetics has been purely theoretical over the last 15 years. Scientists couldn’t figure out how to recreate a being like Data.
Or so she thought. And that kicks off one of the central mysteries of the show.
Further tickling the synapses is Akiva Goldsman, Star Trek: Picard co-creator and executive producer, who raises the idea that synthetics represent a population that’s been marginalized, a reflection of our own society’s tendency to exclude or diminish those who are different.
“Synthetics allow us the opportunity to explore that question in a way that may sneak up on some audiences,” Goldsman said.
Throughout it all, there’s Jean-Luc Picard, holding the line.
“He is that beacon of light in the darkness, and yes, things have changed and yes, this show is a reflection of our times in a different way and how divisive things have become in our world,” Kurtzman said. “But Picard is the great leader we need now more than ever.”
Originally published Jan. 21.