The Sunday Magazine: State of Star Trek 2020

I did overview posts on “Watchmen” and “Star Wars” examining where they are and where I hope they’re going. With the conclusion of Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard It seems like the right time to look at “Star Trek” in the same way.

The Star Trek shows can be categorized as “What If?” or “What’s Next?”. The first category follows plots which generally are prequels or in-between series. Examples are “Enterprise” and the current “Star Trek: Discovery”. The second category follows the continuation of the timeline begun in the original 1966 series. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or “Star Trek: Picard”. Each has its pleasures and its pitfalls. I presume each has its fans since they continue to produce shows in both categories. I’m going to look at the two current incarnations of each.

From the moment it started Star Trek: Discovery was a “What If?” show. Of any of this type of show it has been the one which has happily thrown out the previous Star Trek history, referred to by fans as Canon. It is that rich history that boxes in the writers. They are picking a blank space in a tapestry woven around them. Forced to try and fill that space without being a blot they mostly fail. They can’t help asking questions we know answers to. So interactions with different alien races happens decades before the first contact we saw in previous series. Other plot devices add in technology from later series into shows taking place much earlier.

My biggest problem with these series is they too often seem like something a bunch of fans were talking about in the food court at a Star Trek convention. What if Spock had a hidden sister? What if that sister was the reason the Federation and Klingons were at war? What is she served on a super-secret starship with technology that allowed it to travel faster than warp speed? On and on it goes. The thing that every Star Trek series has done very well is the casting. Every crew they’ve put on the screen has been played by actors who infuse them with the right amount of seriousness to make it believable. When the shows have failed it has been because the writers have given those actors dumb things to do.

Because I enjoy the characters, I’ve had to turn off my criticism of all the nonsense plotting on Discovery. I found that it made it more enjoyable if I just enjoyed the high-level fan fiction for what it was.

My expectations were higher for Star Trek: Picard because it is a “What’s Next?” series. It picks up with Captain Jean-Luc Picard after he has retired from Starfleet to oversee his family vineyard. The writers here are given much more freedom to choose which stories they want to add to. Which parts of Canon do they want to extend? In this case they took one of the running plot threads about synthetic life; as portrayed by the android Commander Data from The Next Generation and the villainous hive mind of the Borg. If Discovery is all about thrills and chills, Picard aims for a more cerebral tone. Asking high minded questions of morality. Which has been a Star Trek staple since the beginning. They also come with easier solutions than in reality, but that is what science fiction does.

The writers chose to surround Picard with a new rag tag non-Starfleet crew. This was a great decision on their part. The nostalgia of seeing Patrick Stewart play Picard again was enough. The previous characters brought back into the plot all made sense. There was plenty of callback to previous story from the TV show and subsequent movies. To credit the writers they made some of those previous episodes be seen with a new eye. Giving new motivations to things we had seen previously. That is when a “What’s Next?” show is at its best. For the most part Picard is one of those.

The future of Star Trek is on the streaming service of CBS. It is also going to continue with Discovery and Picard each working their side of the Star Trek street. I think it allows every fan to find a place where they can ask the question they like best.

Mark Behnke

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