Star Trek: Picard’s Beautiful Failure of Imagination
**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Season One of Star Trek: Picard.**
I imagined I would have thoughts when CBS All Access’s ambitious Star Trek: Picard ended its inaugural season. The show began its run in January as a meditation on the roles we play in observing—and shaping—history, and that sense of the historical certainly remained throughout its first ten episodes. But the series took many surprising turns in its run leading up to the finale, which first dropped March 26, a climax that was kinetic, meditative, bewildering, and engaging.
Death has always haunted Star Trek: Picard.Star Trek: Picard is a tent-pole for CBS All Access, which is desperate to nudge its way into the market of major streaming contenders, so you knew it would have cinema-quality action and effects. But it’s also the brainchild of Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Chabon, so you knew it would have aesthetic and philosophical merit as well. While the show was generally praised by reviewers, those critics seem split in their assessments on how coherently the finale resolved its many strands.
When the show begins, an aging Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) leaves comfortable French retirement in an insane quest to rescue the “daughter” of his android comrade Data (Brent Spiner), who sacrificed himself for his crew two decades earlier. Without help from an insular and corrupted Starfleet, he is forced to rely on rebels or outlaws—Chris Rios and Raffi Musiker (Santiago Cabrera and Michelle Hurd), a couple ex-Starfleet ne’er-do-wells; naïve cybernetics engineer Agnes Jurati (Allison Pill), sword-fighting Romulan warrior Elnor (Evan Evagora); and, eventually, Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), who, like Picard, is a former cybernetically implanted Borg. Together, they race to save Data’s android offspring Soji (Isa Briones) from the treacherous Romulans, who have developed a deep-seated distrust of all synthetic beings (“synths,” as Picard terms them).
After myriad plot twists, Picard and company arrive on Coppelius, Soji’s home, a world with a small commune inhabited almost entirely by synths. In the two-part finale, “Et in Arcadia Ego,” the synth settlement is threatened by a massive Romulan fleet, which has been mobilized out of an ancient fear that these androids will make contact with another distant synthetic race and decimate organic life in the galaxy. And that fear isn’t baseless, given the fact that one synth leader, Sutra (also Isa Briones) plans to do just that. Admiral Picard risks himself—and indeed all sentient life—to give Soji the chance to choose, trusting (correctly) that she will abandon the plan to summon the synthetic invasion force. In the end, he dies, only to reemerge in an (aged) synthetic body, having been granted a temporary reprieve by Coppelius’s scientists, who transfer his consciousness into an artificial body. The stage is now set for a full crew to launch into Star Trek: Picard’s (confirmed) second season.
All in all, I found season one a delight, thoughtfully taking the Star Trek franchise in new directions while being scrupulously attentive to its rich mythology. As such, however, the season as embodied in its last episode ironically succeeds most where it fails. That is, Chabon and his other talented writers and directors have crafted a show that in many ways successfully dramatizes (and articulates) some of the core principles of Star Trek—and, in so doing, reveals the limitations inherent in those very principles.
My first ruminations on the show focused on the ways in which it situated itself in history. That theme may at first seem somewhat more muted as season one progresses. Certainly there is less overt discussion about it. This is perhaps necessary, as Picard has arguably learned fairly early on that he must act on his knowledge of history rather than write about it. Early episodes give flashbacks to the events between Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ending twenty years prior and the “present” world of the series, but these are dropped by the second half of the season.
Yet like all Star Trek iterations, even its darkest, Picard in the end assumes a progressive understanding of history. Gene Roddenberry wanted to envision a utopian future, with a Federation whose members were increasingly free from the conflicts that marked their pasts. Roddenberry’s vision assumed that there were lessons to history, that people could learn those lessons, and that, once they learned, humanity would create a better future.
Like CBS All Access’s other original Trek offering, Star Trek: Discovery, Picard has drawn the ire of some fans for its darkness in tone, for seemingly dismissing Roddenberry’s optimism. But the events of “Et in Arcadia Ego” reaffirm his vision. The Romulans fear synthetics because they have a mythology based on past encounters with synthetic beings. When the villain Narek (Harry Treadaway) narrates these myths in chilling detail, Raffi asks him, “[Y]ou really believe this is a prophecy?” “No,” he replies, “I believe it’s history. And the fascinating thing about history is it always repeats itself.” Synthetics have annihilated organic races before. Soji is the synth who seems poised to be the Destroyer, and the Romulans therefore must destroy her and those like her first.
In articulating his decision to “die,” Data presents a clear repudiation of transhumanism.Picard and Agnes hold off the Romulans long enough to allow Soji the choice—will she embrace the role of Destroyer and summon the army of mechanical beings across space, or will she make the “humane” choice to spare the organics, even when they don’t seem worth saving? Picard’s insanely high-stakes gamble pays off, of course, and thus proves Narek wrong—history doesn’t repeat itself.
But there is another lesson that remains to be learned, and here again Chabon affirms the Star Trek vision. Roddenberry’s skepticism toward organized religion or belief in the supernatural is well-attested, and all spinoffs in his universe (with the possible exception, in certain ways, of Deep Space Nine) share that skepticism. In the end, whatever direction history may arc broadly toward, on the individual level, it always ends the same way—death.
Death has always haunted Star Trek: Picard. The ninety-four-year-old Picard learns early on in the series that a brain abnormality will likely kill him soon, so his quest is always pursued in the shadow of death. The ten episodes of season one rack up a significant body count and allude to tragic deaths in its past: Icheb, Rios’s captain, Riker and Troi’s son. And the finale consciously reminds its viewers of death in its very title.
“Et in Arcadia Ego” is a Latin phrasing, meaning roughly “I am even in Arcadia.” It likely refers to a painting by the French Baroque artist Nicolas Poussin of the same name. The painting (existing actually in two versions) depicts pastoral shepherd folk congregated around a tomb bearing that Latin inscription. Notwithstanding some debate, scholars generally maintain that the “I” of the painting’s tomb is Death. Since Arcadia is a term used to describe an idyllic rural utopian environment, the inscription is a reminder that even in the seeming tranquility of this pastoral landscape, death cannot be evaded forever.
In Picard, as in the painting, “Et in Arcadia Ego” serves the function of a memento mori, a reminder of death. Chabon wants to deploy the thematic resonances of Poussin’s painting and its subject matter to draw attention to the subject of death, which will be front-and-center in the last episodes of season one.
Here, however, the chasm between Chabon’s Star Trek eschatology and that of the Christian faith yawns widest. The memento mori was commonplace in Renaissance art, but it was almost always executed for a tactical purpose: to remind viewers of death so that in reflecting on their mortality they would seek their hope in the eternal happiness of God rather than the pleasures of this earth. Such is the case for Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, in which encrypted human bones lie beneath the figure of God in a tomb bearing the Italian inscription: “Io fui gia quel che voi siete e quel ch’io sono voi ancor sarete” (“I once was what you are, and you too will be what I am”). The same is true of Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors, in which two proud Renaissance men and the devices of their learning and prestige dominate the space. Yet plastered directly in front of them, unrecognizable except on close examination, is an anamorphic image of a human skull, while a crucifix peeks out from the top left corner, reminders of the futility of such accomplishments in the face of death—unless they be performed for Christ.
Of course, Chabon’s memento mori cannot serve this same role, since there is presumably no true God to wage war upon death in the Star Trek future. What is the Arcadia that his episodes refer to? The obvious proximate answer is Coppelius, the synth homeworld, a small residential area nestled in an otherwise uninhabited planet—and the place in which season one’s final deaths will all occur. But implicitly, it may refer to the ostensibly utopian Federation as a whole. Lacking a transcendent eschatology, Star Trek’s writers have always been caught in the conundrum of envisioning a better universe within the immanent frame of our ordinary material existence. But within that frame, however much better life could possibly be, it must end. As Margaret Atwood so succinctly put the matter, “The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.”
There remains one other possible option for Chabon and company: the lure of transhumanism. More particularly, some thinkers advocate a theoretically endless transfer of human consciousness from artificial body to artificial body, prolonging human life indefinitely—perhaps even leading to the preservation of disembodied human consciousness one day.
Notwithstanding a few exceptions, Christians have widely rejected the transhumanist option as traditionally conceived, and as I have discussed prior, so too (to its credit) has Star Trek. While the Star Trek universe has allowed that artificial intelligences could be sentient—perhaps even with souls—it has largely spurned the transhumanist project of enhancing biological organism artificially, whether by genetic engineering (e.g., Khan or the Augments) or by technology (e.g., the Borg). These cautions rightly track with C. S. Lewis’s warnings in The Abolition of Man about the intrinsically coercive and imperialist power of any scientistic oligarchs who may try to “condition” humans in such a way.
The ending of “Et in Arcadia Ego” thus raises some fascinating quandaries. Picard dies bodily, only to have his mind transferred into an identical synthetic replica—aged, yet without the brain defect that killed him. Data, meanwhile, chooses to have his consciousness released, resulting in his own “death.” Has Chabon compromised on Star Trek’s proscription of transhumanism?
Maybe, maybe not. Because Picard’s new synthetic body is like his old one, frail and aged, it merely adds a few years (or decades) to his life. The underlying argument would be that, in principle, what has been done to preserve him is no different from his old artificial heart—using technology to extend meaningful human existence for a certain period of time. This procedure presupposes the idea that human consciousness is effectively little different from a computer program that can be downloaded and uploaded—which is likely erroneous, though all Star Trek series have affirmed this conception, so Chabon is hardly violating their principles in that regard.
The decision to “resurrect” Picard is counterbalanced by Data’s moving paean to the dignity of “natural” death. In the episode’s own memento mori, Picard and Data meet in a shared-consciousness simulation. Picard learns that just as his own consciousness has been preserved for future re-embodiment, so too has Data’s. But Data doesn’t want to remain “alive” indefinitely. Knowing that Picard loves him as a friend, Data makes this plea:
Data: When you leave, I would be profoundly grateful if you terminated my consciousness.
Picard: You want to die.
Data: Not exactly, sir. I want to live, however briefly, knowing that my life is finite. Mortality gives meaning to human life, Captain. Peace, love, friendship—these are precious because we know they cannot endure. A butterfly that lives forever is really not a butterfly at all.
Picard: Very well. I will do what you ask.
Data: Thank you, sir.
Picard: Goodbye, Commander.
Picard reawakens in his synthetic avatar and, shortly thereafter, fulfills his promise to terminate Data’s consciousness. And, with Isa Briones singing a cover of “Blue Skies,” a rapidly aging image of Data dissolves into stardust, before transitioning to Star Trek: Picard’s full crew back on La Sirena, heading toward those very stars.
This is all very symbolic and beautiful and moving. Moreover, in articulating his decision to “die,” Data presents a clear repudiation of transhumanism. His assertion that “mortality gives meaning to human life” in this visually rich and philosophically resonant scene are particularly artistic depictions of premises that every Star Trek series has shared—indeed, this may be one of the most perfectly Roddenberryan moments in the entire canon.
It is also, of course, deeply at odds with certain fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. Picard finally rejects any notion of an immaterial soul; whether through engrams or neurons or positronic matrices, consciousness is understood as an entirely physical product. For “Et in Arcadia Ego,” it is often connected to the autonomous will, to the ability to choose. Data shows he has a soul by choosing his death (harking back to one of the earliest great Data episodes of TNG, “The Measure of a Man”). Jean-Luc Picard insists of the synths that “they have life, but no one is teaching them what it’s for. To be alive is a responsibility, not just a right.” When Soji maintains that organic beings have given their synthetic creatures no ability to choose, Picard replies, “To say you have no choice is a failure of imagination”—and he engineers the episode’s climax to ensure that she is given a choice.
But if Chabon’s imagination fails where perfection is concerned, we Christians may in part blame ourselves, for our own imaginations often fail in that regard.Ironically, though, these emphases themselves—on a will-oriented material soul, on the preciousness of permanent death—betray in themselves a “failure of imagination,” one embedded deep in Star Trek’s mythology. Chabon and his writers reverse-engineer their interpretations to fit their philosophical conclusions. When asked why he portrayed a less idealistic Starfleet, complete with f-bomb–dropping admirals, Chabon responded, “Swearing is one of humanity’s most ancient, sensible, and reliable consolations. Personally I would consider any society that discouraged, banned, or abandoned the use of curse words to be a fucking dystopia.” Similarly, Data’s final plea for death depicts it as ennobling: human life is meaningful because of its finitude. Both suffer from a failure of imagination. However impressively framed, these conclusions are not in accord with a Christian understanding of sin and death. Why does Chabon accept them and write them into his narrative? Because he cannot conceive a vision for the good life without them.
In Chabon’s articulation, vulgarity and death (or at least life’s finitude) must be in some sense “goods” because he cannot imagine a good life without them. Even if Christians have at times been a little too obsessed with stamping out vulgarity, it is ultimately a highly limiting perspective to think of coarse language as a foundation to human happiness.
More importantly, though, Data’s view of death is inadequate, although it isn’t wholly without merit. There is a real sense in which a sense of death provides an urgency to human existence. This is perhaps what J. R. R. Tolkien was indicating when he suggested that death was the “gift” of men in his legendarium (unlike his immortal and at times spiritually calcified elves).
Yet one reason Tolkien could view death as a gift was that, with the weight of Christian doctrine and tradition behind him, he could also affirm it as the means by which the believer enters into eternal life—exactly the kind of existence Chabon appears to be dismissing. The Christian memento mori certainly reasserts human finitude, but it does so not just in the face of a vast cosmos but in light of the God who created that cosmos and who won’t lose his children. Data gets the metaphor slightly wrong—the human in this plane of existence is not the butterfly but the caterpillar. And our promised transformation at death is one even more radical than such metamorphoses. Or, to use a more explicitly scriptural image, we are now the seeds that will be reborn into a far greater harvest.
Who would know what becomes of the caterpillar or the seeds simply by looking at them? Chabon cannot imagine a worthwhile life free of human foibles or conflict or death because it is such a departure from our life now. But then, that is precisely the point. The Christian eschaton is an eternal age in which Christ “mak[es] all things new” from the germ of what was sown before. John maintains that “we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
When Data tells Picard that death gives human life meaning, he is making a claim that directly contradicts human spiritual instinct. Perhaps alone among all terrestrial animals, humans not only dislike death, they instinctually feel it as something wrong. C. S. Lewis famously reminded his readers of this in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was meant for another world. . . . I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.”
But if Chabon’s imagination fails where perfection is concerned, we Christians may in part blame ourselves, for our own imaginations often fail in that regard. Scripture uses various genres and images to depict the glory of the New Heavens and New Earth, from the New Testament’s seed metaphor to the psychedelic imagery of apocalyptic books. But in an admirable desire for biblical fidelity, Christians artists too often shy away from extending this project in our own arts. As a result, pictures that were radical and strange in ancient times appear tamed and domesticated to us, and safe and unappealing to audiences outside the church.
The best Christian artists have attempted to address this. As my earlier discussion here suggests, many great painters have taken the Bible’s themes and brilliantly visualized them. There has been less such work done in fiction, for reasons much like those Chabon seems to indicate. We can appreciate beauty of sublimity in a static canvas frame, but only narratives involving conflict are “relatable” to fallen humans. We have no framework for conceiving of compelling stories in an unfallen realm.
Dante tries this work of rehabilitating our imaginations in his Paradiso. Milton gives us glimpses of perfection in Paradise Lost. And Tolkien and Lewis themselves both do their part in trying to make goodness appear as glorious as it ought to be. Lewis especially gives some hints of perfect joy in the great dance of Perelandra and the final chapters of The Last Battle, with its memorable final lines, “All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has ever read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
This story, this hope—animated by the conviction that death has been defeated and Easter is real—is the ultimate answer to the memento mori, the true response to Data’s encomium on finitude. History is moving toward a greater point, one greater than some imagined advance of the human race in materialistic terms, one that transcends struggle and death, culminating in an end (and a beginning) so grand we quite literally can barely imagine it. But that “failure of imagination” is our problem, not God’s. What we can know, what we can abide in, is that after death, the seed will sprout, the chrysalis will open—we will see Christ’s face, and that in itself will somehow redeem every sorrow. In the words of Frederick Buechner, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”