Essays, Star Trek: The Next Generation

Making it So: the Return of Jean-Luc Picard & Star Trek’s Nostalgic Future

A couple of months ago, I pontificated on whether the pursuit of nostalgia was a good thing for my second favourite entertainment franchise, Star Trek, in the wake of rumours that Sir Patrick Stewart may well be reprising his iconic role as The Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard. This weekend, at the Star Trek Las Vegas fan event, those rumours became reality. The second captain of the USS Enterprise is, officially, on his way back.

What does this mean, now, for the future of Star Trek?

The fan reaction to Picard’s impending return was, understandably, largely positive from the hardcore Star Trek fandom who have felt starved for post-Star Trek Nemesis material since 2002 (bar a few, dissenting, typically trolling voices). For almost two decades, Trek fandom have wanted to see what happens to the characters in The Next Generation-era, which to date has only happened in the non-canonical (and it has to be said, very good) tie in novels. Most fans feared we would never see the future of what is now known as the Prime universe again, particularly after the JJ Abrams-reboot of the Original Series characters in 2009 actively pointed towards the future of Trek being, resolutely, geared by a nostalgic reimagining of the past. And yet, here we are.

This could be because that future has not quite panned out as people may have expected. Though Abrams’ successful reboot saw two sequels off the back of it, fan response and even box office of those endeavours have not quite set the world alight. A significant part of the Trek fanbase simply refuse to acknowledge the ‘Kelvin Timeline’’s (as Abrams named it) attempt to hark back to the pop culture icons of Kirk & Spock, while still honouring the original timeline, is valid Star Trek. Where in 2009 or 2010 fans may have expected a legion of TV spin off shows set in the Kelvin timeline, or even a whole new universe of novelisations, this never really happened. IDW Publishing admirably kept the flame burning with some strong, partially canonical tie-in comic issues, but that is really the extent of that expanded universe.

Discovery’s arrival, set back in the Prime timeline (if before the Original Series) seemed to confirm that the producers keeping the Trek flame burning understood the core fanbase did not want a whole new universe being explored when the original one worked just fine. Abrams’ nostalgic revival, from a creative standpoint, was much more about marketing a brand which had faded; Kirk & Spock particularly have passed so deeply into popular consciousness that relaunching them as characters, with the equally iconic original Enterprise, only with a fresh, action adventure aesthetic, meant far more guaranteed dollar signs than new characters or new crews, or even trying to resuscitate the ailing cinematic beast that was The Next Generation.

We have to be honest about that, too. Arguably, The Next Generation’s move to the big screen was not nearly as successful as that of the Original Series crew. When you put the movies next to each other, The Next Generation pictures often feel smaller scale, akin to beefed-up TV episodes with a bigger budget (Insurrection is the biggest culprit of this), and work if anything too hard to simply reflect their TV origins rather than evolve into genuine motion pictures. The Original Series movies have the spirit of the 1960’s series but they are different beasts and often have the heft and visual brevity of bigger, bolder adventures (even the poorer ones). By the time Nemesis limped into cinemas, the middle-aged crew of The Next Generation looked tired. At the same age, the Original Series crew at the movies were just getting started.

This wasn’t entirely the fault of those involved in The Next Generation. It’s easy to forget that Star Trek spent ten years largely devoid of content before The Motion Picture, which catapulted the franchise not just into a brand new series of big-screen adventures, but into a very different decade to the one the TV series had taken place in – the films were always going to look and feel different to Gene Roddenberry’s decade-defining show. The Next Generation had no such luxury, launching into cinemas *the same year* as the TV show ended, with the mixed bag that was Generations in its attempt to bridge both, well, generations, together and launch a new era for the Trek movie franchise led by Patrick Stewart in the way William Shatner led the Original Series relaunch.

The difference with The Next Generation is that while Stewart easily had the charisma and power to spearhead Trek at the movies, what he never had around him was nearly as iconic a crew. Shatner had Leonard Nimoy, who let’s face it was the *real* star of the Original Series and Spock to this day remains the main, signature iconic Star Trek character. He had DeForest Kelley and the irascible Bones. He had Jimmy Doohan and the jolly, grumpy Scotty. Every single one of that cast slipped, in their own way, into popular culture. Can you say the same about TNG? If you asked anyone who wasn’t a Star Trek fan who Riker was, or Troi, or Crusher, could they honestly tell you? Maybe they could name “the blind guy” but would they know his name was Geordi?

Only two TNG characters come close to Picard, and Stewart, in transcending those TV origins: Data and Worf, and it’s telling that they both became the most important characters from TNG apart from Picard once the TV series ended. Data arguably ended up the second most important player in the successive films (he gets a big arc in First Contact, Insurrection *and* Nemesis), before getting the signature heroes’ death (of sorts) in Nemesis. Worf went on to be an even more successful character in Deep Space Nine than he was in TNG, and his arrival as a main character in that show was one of the key reasons it became Star Trek’s strongest TV series. Worf’s actor Michael Dorn, to this day, is still championing Worf getting his own spin-off series.

The point is this: The Next Generation was hampered from the start in its attempt to keep the future of Star Trek shining brightly because the movies were being produced in the midst of much the same writers, actors, crews and directors producing upwards of three TV shows almost simultaneously (DS9, Voyager and Enterprise), and for the fact they offered little new and fresh in a franchise which had grown stale after over a decade of milking dry the trends and aesthetics of the 1990’s. If we’re being honest, First Contact is the only TNG movie which really gives Picard a powerful, mythological character arc that truly satisfies, and really as a piece the picture deserves to stand up there with the best of the Original Series movies. The other three have their moments but are ultimately forgettable.

Jean-Luc Picard, also, deserves a much better send off than Nemesis gave him – mainly because Nemesis doesn’t give him a send off at all.

Perhaps you could suggest Picard heeding Kirk’s advice when they met in Generations to not let Starfleet promote him and take him away from the Enterprise is fitting, that we can just imagine Picard leading largely a new crew into more adventures across ‘the final frontier’, but audiences love endings. They might make out they don’t, but they do. Even temporary ones. Even ones with the promise that they could bear a new beginning. Look how fondly remembered Deep Space Nine’s definitive *ending* is considered, in which Captain Sisko gets a true conclusion to his arc, even if there was space for the tie-in novels to do more with him and continue that story. For many fans, What You Leave Behind was enough.

By the same token, we were robbed of real endings for Captain Archer of Enterprise and Captain Janeway of Voyager, given the poor way in which that largely underwhelming series concluded in series finale Endgame, leaving the audience satisfaction of seeing those lost crew members reconnect with their lives to optional tie-in book fiction; granted, Kate Mulgrew gets a cameo in Nemesis whereby we learn she’s now an Admiral, but it’s a token gesture. Archer barely gets any sense of a conclusion given Enterprise’s hasty cancellation, despite suggestions he would go on to be one of the Federation’s formative Presidents. As it stands, the only closure outside of Sisko we’ve ever had is Kirk’s demise in Generations and, well… let’s try and forget that, shall we?

Could it be, then, that Stewart has agreed to reprise the role of Picard after over 15 years, in order to give him that missing sense of closure?

During the Las Vegas announcement, it was revealed that the new show—to be spearheaded, incidentally, by Discovery writer and Trek novelist Kirsten Beyer—will take place twenty years after Nemesis and see Picard in what has been described as a ‘different time and place’ to when last we saw him.

Nemesis took place in the year 2379. This was after the events of DS9, of Voyager, and before the events we would see in Star Trek 2009 in 2387 whereby the Hobas supernova would be stopped by aged Ambassador Spock, after the destruction of Romulus, and would lead to the Kelvin timeline of successive pictures in a universe where Vulcan was destroyed instead. The new series will skip past that, taking place around the turn of the 25th century, long after Romulus is gone and, surely, the Federation’s galactic map looks quite different as a result (Romulus being destroyed is the equivalent of China suddenly being wiped off the map in our world). The Picard we see in 2399 or around that year will be much older and exist in a very different era.

In my previous piece, where I voiced some uncertainty as to whether Picard front-loading a new series would be a good idea, I brought up how narratives within TNG (and tie-in comic Countdown) suggested Picard would be dying of a neurological disease in old age, and at some point end up as Ambassador to Vulcan. Both of these could still end up coming into play in a narrative whereby Picard would be, canonically, in his 90’s and almost certainly no longer be Captain of the Enterprise. We know nothing about what shape the new series will take but if Picard is an ailing old explorer, could this series allow one last adventure for a man considered put out to pasture? Would it put him back on the bridge of a new Enterprise?

These are all open questions but it would make creative sense, if CBS All Access are hoping to relaunch a Star Trek series in the post-Nemesis era, to use Picard as the device to introduce a bevy of potentially new characters who could move Star Trek into the 25th century. Let’s be honest – Stewart is 78 and unlikely to commit to a long-form project. We ain’t getting seven years of Picard and if I were a betting man, I would venture this new series won’t have Stewart as the conventional leading man. It would make sense to have Picard the key draw for Trek fans as a tether to Star Trek of the 90’s, before giving him an adequate goodbye and allowing maybe even for a new Enterprise crew with a new series to sail off for adventures anew.

Discovery, too, is looking backwards now once again as it attempts to move forwards into what could well end up much more of a conventional Star Trek series as time wears on – given the second season, now filming, will see Discovery for some of it encountering the pre-Kirk crew of the USS Enterprise, reimagining classic 90’s characters from Star Trek’s original pilot The Cage such as Captain Christopher Pike, the mysterious Number One, and even a younger Spock himself. Star Trek is leaning heavily on the nostalgia factor as the ballast to propel the series into new territory and a new era of storytelling.

My thoughts on this have changed lately. The news about Picard was wonderful and it made me realise that Star Trek has always used the past to inform its future. The Motion Picture takes a lot of cues from storylines that would have formed a sequel series in the 1970’s called Phase II, while The Wrath of Khan’s success is directly thanks to the fact it is a sequel to the Original Series episode Space Seed, bringing back one of its most popular guest characters as a result. The Next Generation’s pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, has a cameo by an aged Leonard McCoy, while Deep Space Nine’s pilot, Emissary, uses Picard himself to inform Sisko’s initial arc in that first episode. Enterprise as a series is built on exploring aspects introduced in Trek’s past every episode. Star Trek’s style and presentation may change, but nostalgia always remains front and centre as to how it reinvents itself for successive generations.

There is also the fact that we may *need* a character like Picard right now. Star Trek has always worked to reflect social and political aspects of the times it has been culturally part of, with Discovery itself being both a comment on extremist fundamentalism and the danger of resurgent fascism, but perhaps Beyer, Alex Kurtzman and those running Star Trek these days realise Picard, as perhaps the most dignified, honourable example of a human we can all aspire to that Trek ever gave us, is needed right now. We are finding it hard to look up to, and be inspired by, our leaders right now so maybe they hope Picard can shine something of a light into that encroaching darkness. It may just work, too.

While it may be another marketing ploy by CBS, in a different way to how Paramount saw Abrams’s 60’s reboot, to cash in on key aspects of Star Trek’s past to help drive its future, if you’re a fan of 90’s Star Trek, it would be hard to deny that Stewart once again on screen as Picard—easily one of the best characters the entire franchise ever gave us—is going to be a wondrous thing to enjoy. It may trigger the same sense of nostalgia fans would have felt in the late 70’s/early 80’s for the 60’s show, for those of us who grew up on the 90’s Trek era and have spent years hoping we may see it, in some form, again. Picard may not save Star Trek for another few decades, but he can absolutely do it no harm.

Now how about that Captain Worf series while we’re at it…

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