This article is part of our ongoing Picard Explained series, featuring the insights of our resident Starfleet officer Brad Gullickson.
Last week, during the premiere episode of Star Trek: Picard, we met a nearly unrecognizable Starfleet. As a result of the Romulan supernova (first referenced in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek) and the Synth rebellion on Mars, the uniformed space force controlled by the Federation of Planets has radically retreated from the far reaches of the final frontier. Starfleet concerns itself with Starfleet and those outside its jurisdiction are looked upon with a skeptical, fearful eye.
As such, the former Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) could no longer operate within the institution. He chose retirement, and his colleagues were happy to see him slink into his family vineyard. Grumpy isolation was never going to last, and when Data’s daughter (Isa Briones) popped up on his doorstep only to be eradicated by a Romulan hit squad, Picard got off his duff and back in action. For there is another daughter of Data, operating aboard the Romulan reclamation site, or, more importantly, operating on those Borg disconnected from the collective. The Nameless.
Episode 2, entitled “Maps and Legends,” reveals an even greater threat percolating inside Starfleet. Picard’s Romulan refugee houseguests Laris (Orla Brady) and Zhaban (Jaime McShane) are convinced that the assassins are agents of a mysterious organization born from their nation’s deep-rooted hatred for synthetic beings. No, not the Tal Shiar (although the Romulan Star Empire’s nefarious intelligence agency does get several name-drops). Laris tells Picard that the tampering of Starfleet databases is “too audacious” for the usual spook suspects, and only the Zhat Vash could be so bold.
Huh? Wha? Who? The Zhat Vash have never before been mentioned within the 50 years of Star Trek canon, but if Laris is to be believed, these paranoid superspies supersede the command of the Tal Shiar. Their sole purpose is to wipe synthetic lifeforms from existence, and it looks like they’ve either infiltrated Starfleet or simply partnered with certain officers, to keep artificial lifeforms in check.
When Picard returns to Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco and informs Admiral Clancy (Ann Magnuson) of his concerns regarding Data’s daughter, the missing positronic scientist Dr. Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy), and the possible involvement of the Zhat Vash, he is nearly screamed out of her office. (By the way, her disgustful dismissal of “How dare you lecture me?” is straight out of the Tom Clancy adaptation of Clear and Present Danger, in which Magnuson played a small role and earned her moniker here.)
Picard is barely out the door, and Admiral Clancy is on the horn with Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita). Upon hearing Picard’s concerns, Oh alerts her second, Lt. Rizzo (Peyton List). The two discuss Picard’s snooping, and in the process, we learn that Rizzo, acting on Oh’s orders, is responsible for the killing of Data’s daughter.
Oh and Rizzo are not the first villainous Starfleet members. Since the original series, we’ve encountered many murderous Admirals, Commodores, and officers. See anything from the original series episode “The Doomsday Machine” to The Next Generation episode “Chain of Command” to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: Into Darkness. Adherence to the greater good has caused many a swell fella to wander into sinful deeds, but we’ve always had a Kirk, a Sisko, a Janeway, or a Picard to slap them with reason or put them in the brig.
What’s significant about Star Trek: Picard is how the organization as a whole is acting in conflict with the values that originally brought these Captains to their ships. It’s not just one or two bad apples conspiring with hateful Romulans. Starfleet has withdrawn from deep space. They reject artificial intelligence. They view Picard’s insistence to assist the Romulan people as a betrayal against those that fall under their flag. Twenty years after Star Trek: Nemesis and Starfleet is practically building walls around their territory.
To see the fleet in such a state is painful for the longterm Star Trek fan. We’ve spent decades idolizing the best they have to offer. When folks ask us about the franchise’s appeal, we tell them it represents hope. At some point in the 23rd century or the 24th century, the human race will get their shit together. Now, what we have here is a future that’s as scared and closed-minded as our present. No, thank you.
Don’t worry. The dream is not dead. It lives on, if not in the institution, then in the man. Having faced a decade of despair, the emergence of Data’s daughters reminds Picard of his friend’s sacrifice as well as his pursuit to achieve humanity. Picard must honor Data. He must find his surviving child. He must fight for the life that his friend lost through sacrifice.
Picard may be a frail old man, finally experiencing the first stages of Irumodic Syndrome, as promised in The Next Generation series finale “All Good Things,” but Gene Roddenberry‘s ideals still thrive inside. It’s on him to remind Starfleet of its purpose. While he will not be gallivanting about the cosmos aboard a Federation starship, he will still carry on their mission of compassion and knowledge whether they’ve forgotten it or not.
The episode concludes with Picard looking for passage beyond Earth. He could call on old favors from William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) or Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), but he’s afraid to drag them back into the fray. Donning his USS Enterprise–E combadge, not the current model offered by Starfleet, Picard seeks out another possible ally in the seemingly distrusting Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd). We’re left to assume she’ll help the Admiral gather his team of pirate explorers.
All institutions are challenged and often lose their way. Steve Rogers fought the good fight of World War II, went into the ice, and arose in an America he did not recognize. When you have the pride or brass to make a nation your uniform, don’t be surprised if you’re going to be called upon to defend that nation to the nation. Jean-Luc Picard is Star Trek‘s Captain America, and Star Trek: Picard is his The Winter Soldier. Starfleet has lost its way. Picard never did. Look to him for guidance and salvation.
The Starfleet Academy motto reads, “Ex Astra, Scientia” – “From the Stars, Knowledge.” Out there is where we find ourselves. Jean-Luc is going to drag us back into the frontier of self, where we belong.