“You Are a Stranger to History”: Star Trek: Picard Reminds Us to Remember
**Spoiler Alert: This article makes direct references to early scenes of Star Trek: Picard’s premier episode but avoids spoilers for later plot details.**
Since the announcement of CBS All Access’s Star Trek: Picard at the Las Vegas Star Trek Convention a year and a half ago, many Star Trek fans have waited with bated breath for the first episode to drop. CBS’s streaming service first tested the waters with Star Trek: Discovery, a series to which I am generally favorable but whose reception among critics (and especially fans) has been mixed. Star Trek: Picard, on the other hand, has the potential to transcend at least some of the objections to Discovery. It is set further in the future than any other canonical Trek incarnation, so there is little threat of anachronistic technology. Its connection to beloved past shows is more concrete, with Patrick Stewart reprising the role he embodied in Star Trek: The Next Generation, joined in guest roles by past actors from the universe such as Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Jeri Ryan, and Jonathan Del Arco. Trailers and promotional materials played up these connections, as well as linkages to past Star Trek images and storylines—Starfleet headquarters, Romulans, Borg, even Picard’s French vineyards.
Star Trek: Picard is poised to move into the future with an eye to the past.The series dropped its premiere episode on January 23. Preliminary reactions among critics and viewers seem generally—if not universally—positive. As a longtime fan myself who appreciates every Star Trek series—even Enterprise (!)—I too found the pilot to be well-made and moving, interacting fluidly with the history of the future in which it is set, while still establishing its own distinct tone, pacing, and aesthetic. Indeed, this interaction—between past and future—clearly plays a dual role in Star Trek: Picard.
On the one hand, it represents a canny promotional and artistic move. Shows that work too hard to “make it new” in the Star Trek universe will invariably run afoul of the many diehard fans with encyclopedic knowledge of their beloved secondary future, with its pre-established rules and their own expectations of how those rules ought to play out. Yet raw nostalgic fan service, populated by contrived cameos and in-house references, running aground on technobabble and worn-out plots, will alienate thoughtful television viewers and critics, who rightly insist that any new series should make more of a contribution than simply “more Trek.” Any producers and writers daring to add to the already-existing hundreds of canonical Trek episodes must look backward enough to confirm their bona fides but forward enough to satisfy the demands of great TV art.
That is what Star Trek: Picard is trying to do on the practical level, and the ways it moves forward while looking back will become evident in my discussion. Yet this back-and-forth also appears to function as a thematic glue within the context of the series. Its creators have crafted a storyline in which the past of Jean-Luc Picard (and the Federation more broadly) are integral to the events that occur in the show. Yet it also emphasizes that looking backward is fundamentally insufficient, that indeed one of the roles of looking backward is precisely so we may forge ahead with clearer vision.
Star Trek: Picard begins with its eponymous hero living in his ancestral vineyards in La Barre, France. He is joined there by his faithful dog, Number One, along with Laris (Orla Brady) and Zhaban (Jamie McShane), two members of the Romulan race whom he helped rescue and resettle following the destruction of their world. A contentious encounter with a reporter (Merrin Dungey) leads Picard to admit that he left Starfleet in shame for its abandonment of the Romulans after a group of synthetic beings attacked both his rescue fleet and Mars’s Utopia Planitia Shipyards. Picard’s interview, however, draws the attention of a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones), who is being chased by mysterious pursuers and sees in him an oddly familiar (and safe) figure. The plot advances as Dahj meets with Picard and they begin the process of learning not just her pursuers’ identities but her own as well.
Star Trek series have always been invested in history. Gene Roddenberry created from the start what might be called in Tolkienian terms a “secondary world,” but as science fiction it is more formally a future history, one which series writers (under fans’ vigilant eyes) must attend to with some care. But even among its peers, and notwithstanding its episodic nature, The Next Generation was always thoroughly imbued with a sense of history. It was the first series to extend the Trek timeline beyond Kirk’s crew—significantly so. It began with a cameo of The Original Series’s Leonard McCoy as an old admiral. Its first feature film included an appearance of Captain Kirk, in which Picard tells the villain, “Don’t you read history?” The second film traveled backward into Roddenberry’s history, to the first contact between humans and aliens.
One of the finest moments in the whole show comes in its greatest episode, the first part of “The Best of Both Worlds.” In a conversation with Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan shortly before the Enterprise engages in combat with the seemingly invincible Borg, Picard invokes both the Battle of Trafalgar and the fall of the Roman Empire. All Star Trek captains are smart, yet the erudition on display makes this a quintessentially Picard moment, interpreting a perilous moment in the life of himself and his ship in the grander scope of history, trying to step back and gain greater perspective.
And this sense of perspective is what Star Trek: Picard navigates so well in its opening hour. On the one hand, the series is certainly forward-looking. The technology on display is beyond what we saw in Star Trek: Voyager or Star Trek: Nemesis, the last entries into the canon as far as internal chronology goes. And since it isn’t a prequel like Enterprise or Discovery, there should be no rankling about continuity errors. But the characters are also in different places. Picard himself is retired and, it seems, embittered, Data is gone, and we know from trailers that other members of the Enterprise crew lead lives very different from those we saw them occupying twenty years ago. Star Trek: Picard will take its hero into adventures that promise to alter the future of the Federation and Starfleet, as well as other nonaligned groups.
Tonally, the show also differs from any of its predecessors. Under the direction of novelist Michael Chabon and several dedicated directors, every image and line of dialogue crackles with import and symbolism—it is appropriate that the premiere hinges in part on understanding a painting, because it is an artistic product itself, every detail and nuance carefully placed. Appropriately, given its cerebral protagonist, Picard is slower, homelier, more meditative than any prior Trek incarnation, even The Next Generation (though with its kinetic fight sequences, only the most cynical critic could call it slow-paced).
And so Star Trek: Picard is indeed “new,” looking forward. But it is also supremely conscious of its past. Some of that past exists in the interstices between Star Trek: Nemesis and its “present day,” gaps filled in both through suggestion and the occasional info-dump. Yet there are also countless nods to the past with which viewers are already familiar, the kinds of allusions and Easter eggs that make Trekkies squeal with delight.
Indeed, Star Trek: Picard suggests that cognizance of history is vital toward moving forward rightly, so much so that the first episode is even title “Remembrance.” In his testy conversation with the Federation reporter, Picard realizes that she has entirely missed his allusion to the Battle of Dunkirk in World War II, and he castigates her: “And you, my dear, you have no idea what Dunkirk is, right? You are a stranger to history.” Picard has already been introduced as the “author of many widely-praised books of historical analysis,” and history informs his judgment that Starfleet “was no longer Starfleet” when it “dishonorably” abandoned the Romulan refugees.
Picard asserts to the reporter that he resigned from Starfleet because he “was not prepared to stand by and be a spectator.” Yet as “Remembrance” progresses, he realizes that he has in fact become just that. His understanding of history has allowed him to diagnose the problem, and his resignation was intended as an act of protest, yet it has sidelined him from action. Unlike many around him, he knows more can be done—but now, he seems to have lost the opportunity to do it.
And this, then, appears to be the way in which Star Trek: Picard is poised to move into the future with an eye to the past. Jean-Luc Picard’s knowledge of history—personal, global, and galactic—has been indispensable, but now it must be acted upon. He must go back to making history.
This dynamic is one to which the thoughtful Christian should be no stranger. Many in the contemporary evangelical world are wary of undue emphasis on the past. They note that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (1 Corinthians 5:17). They seek to emulate what they see as Paul’s singular vision, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14). The Christian faith, they might contend, is a forward-looking faith. Such beliefs are not wholly without merit. Jesus rightly excoriated Pharisees for adopting traditions of their own that had become shallow or hypocritical, and any application of the faith that becomes too backward focused is likewise probably self-focused.
Yet Christianity is also a religion deeply invested in its past. The Old Testament remains in the Bible because Jesus came “not . . . to abolish” it (Matthew 5:17). From Genesis to Revelation, our faith is a faith in time, one that moves diachronically across the ages. God rescues his people from Egypt, and subsequent Scriptures return to that story again and again and again. It helps form the very matrix of Jesus’s work in the New Testament, as do the Law and the Prophets that Jesus fulfills. If an insular obsession with the past can be the hazard of traditional churches, a myopic ignorance of history is the peril of less institutional evangelicalism, and it is no less pernicious.
Indeed, in his incarnation Jesus redeemed history by entering it, affirming its significance. The Christian story, like its Savior, is embodied in history, and so “remembrance” is a vital aspect of the faith. Recognizing this aspect of the incarnation, Bradley G. Green has observed, “In an age that does not place a high premium on the past . . . Christians must see themselves as countercultural in their emphasis on memory and must be particularly diligent to cultivate and practice the habit of remembering. Remembering is—ultimately—a virtue” (51).
Green is likely right that our age in general doesn’t place much stock in remembering, but Star Trek: Picard appears to. However, at times remembrance by itself, though essential, may be insufficient. Those with the memories long enough to see the patterns of truth in history may at times be called to act on that remembrance, whether in grand ways or small, to try to create a future.
In the humanistic world of Star Trek, characters face a daunting constraint: the future they create is all there is. Christians ought to be rightly wary of imbuing our work within history with some eschatological sense to grandiose that we neglect the radical transformation of the eschaton. But that theological realism is no call to despair, to pull back in disgust and watch sanctimoniously while the world burns, just as we knew it would. It is rather a call to know that we ought to seek the good of our city, even as we know God does not expect us to complete this change single-handedly or perfectly.
When Star Trek: Picard has run a few more episodes, I will look back on it (and this review) to gain more perspective on its history. But if the details remain to be worked out, I think the general direction is clear, and it’s a good one. With one eye on the past and one on the future, Jean-Luc Picard will boldly go forth to change the galaxy. Make it so!