‘Now pour the tea’: An Aesthetic Evaluation of Picard’s Tea Sets
Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s famous drink order “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot,” is among the Star Trek universe’s most well-known sayings. It’s become synonymous with Patrick Stewart’s Picard. Along with the 24th century leader’s other catch phrases, “Make it so” and “Engage,” these lines convey to viewers that Picard is both reliable and decisive, if a creature of habit. But why does tea matter?
Because of what it represents. Despite his long, French name, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is the quintessential British captain.
Early in the series, Data gives viewers a line about how the French language has died out, ostensibly as an explanation for Picard’s noticeably British accent, but his French ancestry and cultural heritage (he grew up on the family vineyard in La Barre, France) are secondary to his representation of Britishness. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry has stated that Picard was based on Horatio Hornblower, the fictional 19th century British naval officer.
Picard is, in many respects, a 24th century extrapolation of a 19th century Royal Navy officer. A quick look around Picard’s Ready Room illustrates aspects of this characterization. A model of a constellation class star cruiser features prominently, as does a painting of his current vessel. A crystal sailing ship model rests on an end table. He keeps a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works and changes the pages on display throughout the series. When he steps outside of his Ready Room, he quotes and performs Shakespeare and sings naval songs like “Heart of Oak”. He embodies aspects of British culture (literature) and the means of its dissemination (naval/space empires).
He drinks tea.
Picard’s beverage of choice is not insignificant. British tea consumption is entangled in the birth of capitalism, the growth of the Royal Navy, and the global expansion of the British Empire. Tea was an essential element of settler colonialism around the world. In India, the British East India Company, an important tea trader, enforced its rule through military might and administrative control. Like literature, tea became an imperial “civilizing” tool. Tea helped drive the sugar trade and consequently the slave trade. It reinforced class distinctions as afternoon tea evolved for the masses and high tea for the upper class. It helped fuel the industrial revolution and the exploitation of workers.
The choice of Earl Grey tea should not be ignored either. Named after a former British prime minister, it’s come to be associated with the upper class and a 2010 survey suggested Brits think posh people drink Picard’s preferred beverage.
When read in the context of Britain’s history with the tea trade, it’s somewhat problematic to have a very British man, captain of a starship, exploring the galaxy in a heavily armoured vessel (it has a Battle Bridge for a reason), drinking tea. However, Picard’s relationship with the beverage is not as straightforward as his famous order “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” implies.
JLP is depicted drinking hot beverages as early as the pilot episode, “Encounter at Farpoint”. Yet he doesn’t specifically order Earl Grey tea until midway through the second season in “Contagion” (the Enterprise is experiencing system wide malfunctions so Picard receives a cup of plant instead). He drinks hot beverages of various hues throughout the series so he’s not as devoted to Earl Grey tea as we might think. His tea habit evolves over time, but his tea consumption also parallels evolutions in his personal and professional relationships.
Typically, he walks over to the replicator in his Ready Room and orders a single cup. He has a favourite. You know the one; it’s got a black handle that encircles the clear, glass, and beaker-like cup — a visual merger of high school chem class and glassware, creating the 24th century equivalent of the Ikea 365+ line. Unfortunately, even in the future your go-to-cup is occasionally unavailable forcing the most stoic starship captains to go to extremes.
Often, Picard serves crew members and visitors alike with individual cups or glasses of their preferred beverages. This is partly because coffee and Raktajino (its Klingon variant) still have a substantial number of devotees in the 24th century. Deanna Troi, in particular, seems to enjoy the popular beverage and Picard often hands her what looks like a cup of coffee with cream or milk. Picard shines in these moments. Few people match JLP in effortlessly balancing and passing a full cup on a saucer. What may seem like an insignificant skill is no doubt integral for the captain of the Federation flagship; a clumsy hand off or a shaky spill could sink a diplomatic negotiation or lead to Neutral Zone tensions.
Just as Picard’s tea consumption slowly evolves over the course of The Next Generation’s seven seasons, how and when he shares a hot cup with someone does as well. While a cup of tea is the captain’s go to beverage, on certain occasions he uses a tea pot. The switch to using a pot or a full tea set makes all the difference in the world. Except for on rare occasions, the tea pot represents a communal experience for Picard. As the captain of the ship, JLP maintains a distance from the other members of his crew, but often this gap is overcome, old friendships renewed or new ones forged, with a pot of tea.
What follows is a discussion of the tea sets used by JLP either as host or guest. Tea sets used by Picard make up the majority of the china and earthenware highlighted on TNG. In fact, only three tea sets appear on TNG that Picard doesn’t use (The set Moriarty uses when he has tea with Dr. Pulaski in “Elementary, Dear Data,” the set Pulaski and Worf use while participating in the Klingon tea ceremony in addition to the modern set on Prime Minister Granger’s desk in “Up the Long Ladder”).
“Encounter at Farpoint” tea set (“Encounter at Farpoint”)
This one looks like a coffee percolator and I suppose it’s possible that it is a coffee percolator. However, the pot shape (narrow body with wide base) is a standard, mid-24th century form later popularized on DS9. It’s especially prominent as a cup or mug design on the space station and is used to serve a variety of hot beverages. It’s particularly useful for space travel, as the wide base prevents tipping. In this way, it’s a sort of 24th century update of the Cube teapot, an early-20th century design ideal for naval ships. The pot is primarily white, featuring a crest detail (likely a Starfleet or Federation logo but it’s hard to make out) on both the pot and the cup. Picard never uses such branded tableware again. For its part, the cup features a utility of function. Its ergonomic grip is both minimal and stylish, but Picard resists its ease of use. This episode introduces us to the 24th century and this set communicates Picard’s place as an officer in a paramilitary organization.
This is as close as Picard gets to sharing a pot of tea with Will Riker. While the pair were introduced a bit earlier in the episode on the Battle Bridge, this is their first real interaction and it takes place in the Observation Lounge. Somewhat surprisingly, Picard doesn’t offer Riker a cup (I guess because there isn’t another one on the table?) and proceeds to question his new first officer about away mission protocols.
Yvette Gessard-Picard Heritage Tea Set (“Where No One Has Gone Before”)
In the fair reaches of the galaxy, where thoughts become reality, Picard encounters his mother, Yvette Gessard-Picard in a corridor with a table set for tea (aww he was thinking about his mom). While not technically real, it’s safe to say this tea set existed at the Picard family home, as it’s part of JLP’s memory.
Maman Picard uses a silver tea set here but unfortunately, it lacks the intricate ornamentation of earlier eras of French design. Over the centuries, French silversmiths and silverware production was negatively impacted by wars and political upheaval. Particularly damaging to the industry was Louis XIV revocation of the Edict of Nantes, forcing Huguenot silversmiths to flee France in 1685, a 1689 law forcing nobles to surrender their silver to the crown to pay for the King’s wars, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. The reemergence of French silver production at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries with the arrival of Art Noveau and Art Deco styles was significant. While this set mirrors the increasingly streamlined designs of these later eras, it lacks the asymmetry of Art Noveau works and the angularity of Art Deco forms.
Prime Directive Tea Set (“Pen Pals”)
Unfortunately, we don’t get a good look at this second season tea set. It’s probably for the best as it utilizes those everyday beaker cups and a black teapot Picard must have picked up at Canadian Tire before entering the Academy. It’s possible this is a kettle, but a kettle seems much more difficult to use in the 24th century without cooking elements and electrical outlets, so I’m going with teapot. This is an incredibly unremarkable set, but it works for the gathering — Picard’s invited his senior staff to his quarters to discuss if they should break the Prime Directive and rescue Data’s alien child pen pal. So this is a serious (if slightly more informal) meeting and the set Picard chooses is functional and entirely appropriate.
But it also works because the captain has laid out a pretty sweet sandwich spread and that should obviously be the culinary focus of the gathering.
Enterprise 365+ Tea Set (“Up The Long Ladder”)
There are a lot of tea sets in this episode (3!) but Picard only uses one and it’s a reliable model. This model could also be known as the “Beaker set”. It’s the same as those trusty, black handled beaker cups Picard likes. In this episode it contrasts with both the metallic tea set Worf and Pulaski use for the Klingon Tea Ceremony, and the modern, triangular, stainless steel set in the possession of Prime Minister Granger. I don’t have much to say about this teapot other than I’m glad these cups are part of a matching set.
Rishon Uxbridge Tea Set (“Survivors”)
This set is an unusual mix of styles but when you’re the only apparent survivors of a planet-wide attack even the captain of the Federation flagship will make due with whatever you have on hand.
This tea set is one part colour coordinated “I’ve got an organized kitchen with matching appliances” (24th century Cuisinart would be so proud) and another part “I picked these cups to try and convince you I’m a real person who spent 18 months in pottery class” (spoiler: Rishon isn’t real!). It’s an unusual mix designed to illustrate Rishon’s personality; she’s an artist and connected to nature (actually she’s a composer of Tao-classical music and a botanist). Since Rishon, her tea set, and the house are all recreated by husband Kevin after the planet is wiped out (and after he vengefully kills the entire Husnock race) this whole tea party is not only a façade but it seems to be in poor taste.
At least fake Rishon (Anne Haney) makes a nice cup of tea, eh Worf?
I would be negligent if I didn’t point out that this isn’t the most notable tea scene in Anne Haney’s acting career. She would later play Mrs. Sellner, a court-appointed social worker in 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire who loved a good cup of English tea.
The “Resistance Is Futile” Tea Set (“Best of Both Worlds Part 1”)
On the eve of the Enterprise’s second encounter with the Borg, Picard brings out this simple, streamlined, triangular, stainless steal pot and his favorite beaker glasses (a little boring JLP) to share some Earl Grey with Admiral J.P. Hanson. Aside: My brother-in-law’s name is Giancarlo and he has good friends named Gianpaolo and Gianfranco. Basically, I hope Picard and Hanson have their own “Jean” club: Jean-Luc, Jean-Paul, Jean Hajar, Jean-Luc Riker, the Val Jean.
I suppose it’s a measure of how close the two friends are (later in this episode Hanson says of Picard “ I’ve never known anyone with more drive, determination, or more courage, than Jean-Luc Picard”) that Picard’s comfortable using such a plain and unadorned set with a superior officer.
But wait, we’ve seen this teapot before! While JLP might not remember it, had Riker not left the Ready Room in such a hurry to go play poker with Commander Shelby and co., he might have noticed this pot bears a striking resemblance to the teapot we saw on Prime Minister Granger’s desk. Granger’s set also had a metal creamer and sugar bowl, but Picard seems to have missed that aisle at Bolian Home Sense and has opted for a black “beaker” creamer? Boring.
This moment is fairly bittersweet as well. Picard’s known Hanson since JLP’s Academy days but this is the last time these two friends get to hang out before Picard gets assimilated (later in the same episode) and Hanson dies commanding Starfleet’s forces at Worf 359.
The Ruins of Tagus III Tea Set (“QPid”)
This is another work tea set made up of JLP’s favourite beaker cups and a teapot that resembles a beaker but is slightly different from previous examples. The body of this teapot is still glass and shaped like something out of an intro to chemistry gift set (ages 8 and up!) but the handle is different. It’s an angular, stainless steel and black-handled pot that looks like a syrup dispenser you’d find at diner. Hey, if Picard was just downing vats of syrup at his desk, I wouldn’t blame him.
While the pot looks like it might contain coffee, when JLP drinks from his cup in this scene, the liquid is too transparent for coffee. What I like about this tea set is that it’s aesthetically consistent with most of the models he uses while on duty. Here, he’s a little stressed out while revising his keynote address for the annual symposium of the Federation Archeology Conference which took place on the Enterprise in orbit of the archeologically significant Tagus III in 2367. Serious archeology is happening.
It’s disappointing that Picard uses his glass teapots for Earl Grey, rather than capitalizing on the opportunity to brew a blooming flower tea or something with stylish leaves. Oh well.
The Morning After Tea Set (“QPid”)
The entire point of this set is to prove Picard is a competent adult in domestic matters. While JLP is comfortable mixing and matching his sets while on duty, he’s presenting a different image here. Look, when you hook up with someone on your pleasure planet-archeologically significant-with a bit of time travel-vacation it’s different then when you spend the night with them in your quarters on the ship you captain. Here, Picard is projecting that he’s reliable and mature, using a tea set that matches his tableware. However, I think a case can be made that his ramekin and creamer are actually part of a different set (he’s so eclectic). Regardless, Vash seems unconcerned.
This teapot signals an aesthetic shift for Picard. From this point on, the sets Picard uses are generally white, ceramic or porcelain, and used in his quarters. Of course there are exceptions to this, but these scenes show a warmer, more intimate Picard who is less isolated and more connected to his senior staff and visiting guests. He still occasionally serves his guests, but he also allows his friends (Bev Crusher) to pour tea for him, illustrating a slow relaxing of the command hierarchy that guides his actions while on duty.
Suspension of Civil Liberties Tea Set (“The Drumhead”)
In one of my favourite TNG episodes, we get two very distinct tea sets. The first is shared between Admiral Norah Satie and Jean-Luc Picard. With the spectre of conspiracy and sabotage hanging over the Enterprise, the Admiral and her very tall aids, come out of retirement to help investigate. Initially this is a good thing and Picard’s excited to work with her. It was under her orders that he took command of the Enterprise four years earlier and he’s always admired the writings of Satie’s father, Judge Aaron Satie.
It’s in the context of this pleasant working relationship that the two share a pot, or rather, two pots of tea. Satie serves Picard tea from the larger pot and adds lemon to it (I think this is the only time we see Picard take his tea this way but it’s a common way of drinking Earl Grey). Unfortunately, we don’t learn if Satie uses the smaller, one-cup capacity pot because she’s too busy talking about how she likes working alone but is happy to make an exception for Picard (for his part, Picard beams like a fool who has met his childhood hero without realizing they’re terrible). Both pots are multi-coloured and possibly enamel but it’s hard to tell. The pots have been paired with the beaker cups. This whole set feels like it was chosen to augment Satie’s personal style (think Olympic Open Ceremonies meets Dr. Seuss illustration). She’s presented as colourful, smart, determined, and generally agreeable. Unfortunately, she’s actually the 24th century descendant of Delores Umbridge in a dress with a stylized vagina neckline.
Simon Tarses Tea Set (“The Drumhead”)
Despite initial success, Admiral Satie’s investigation goes quickly south. She starts holding public hearings and persecutes crewman Simon Tarses, who works in sickbay, because he lied having a Romulan grandparent. Anyway, Picard tries to defend Tarses and in an effort to get to know him better, invites Tarses to his quarters. Tarses is nervous but eventually calms down and tells Picard some stuff pertaining to his upbringing, why he joined Starfleet, and his fears over losing his job. Standard stuff.
Here we see yet another example of Picard’s preference for mismatched sets which is a really interesting tendency for someone who has individually lit display cases for his books and can’t handle when his personal belongings are out of place. This is a great teapot for the situation: it’s simple, ceramic, warm, and traditional without being ostentatious and intimidating. It’s also as close to a Brown Betty teapot as Picard gets, but it lacks the manganese brown glaze (Rockingham glaze)that is the Brown Betty’s defining visual characteristic.
It’s disappointing that JLP doesn’t use an actual Brown Betty teapot at some point during TNG’s seven year run. The Brown Betty is a quintessentially British teapot; the pot originated in Stoke-on-Trent in the 17th century and utilized a local red clay with superior heat retention. The modern Brown Betty developed in the 19th century when the Rockingham glaze began to be applied and a more rounded shape emerged, allowing for a superior brewed pot of tea.
Can we talk about those cups for a minute? Now, as much as Picard chose the right pot for the occasion, he dropped the ball when it came to selecting the tea cups. What JLP is trying to say is “come to my quarters for tea and comfort as a zealous Admiral curtails your individual freedoms” but what these cups actually communicate is the opposite of that. They most resemble shitty, travel-sized, economy fare cups you get an a transatlantic flight, like the set my grandmother stole from a Polish airline a week before it went out of business. You might as well have offered him a plastic stir stick too, Picard. Nothing says “comfort” like no leg room and rationed cream.
The Duras Family Teapot (“Redemption Part 1”)
Here we get an example of a tea set from an alien race so that’s fun. If you thought the Duras sisters would make a tea party with Picard super awkward, you were right!
On the verge of Klingon civil war, the Enterprise has returned to Qo’noS so Picard can fulfill his obligations as Arbiter of Succession and the Duras sisters invite him to tea! They’re not just being welcoming, they’re actively trying to secure control of the High Council but it’s not like Gowron bothered to show JLP this curtesy or invited him targ hunting or something. Anyway, Picard handles this awkward engagement like a pro (B’Etor begins this scene by running her fingers along Picard’s head and gets progressively more obvious). I do like that they’ve bothered to find out not only his beverage of choice, but the specific type. And what’s Lursa up to while this is going on? She’s drinking blood wine and lounging on her couch, what a pro.
This tea set is aesthetically consistent with other Klingon design we’re familiar with (weapons, ships, and High Council chambers). It’s metallic, angular, rustic, and potentially repurposed. I suspect there aren’t any potters on the Klingon homeworld, but I like that their metalsmiths/designers (Klingons are super into tradition, so maybe the refuse to use replicators for this kind of stuff?) have created a tea set design that picks up the curves and straight lines of Klingon weaponry.
Spring Break Tea Set (“The Game”)
Wesley Crusher is back from the Academy to visit with the crew and JLP invites him for tea in his quarters. This is the most formal tea set Picard uses in the series. It’s ornate and antique and he’s paired it with his painted fine china. But it doesn’t feel extravagant for a meeting of this nature. For starters, JLP isn’t trying to impress or intimidate Wes with this set. He’s trying to add a sense of occasion to what has become a rare opportunity to connect and bond with the young cadet. I love that the sugar bowl is overflowing with sugar cubes as if Picard went “I know, kids love sweets!” in preparation for this meeting. JLP is fairly at ease in this scene and the pair talk easily about Wes’ schooling, professors, and Boothby. I’ve written about why I dislike Wes elsewhere, and with good reason, but this is my favourite episode with him in part because it allows us to see another dimension of both characters (I wish we had more scenes with Bev mentoring Wes but alas, the writers were fairly rigid with respect to gender in these moments, with the possible exception of Wes’ friendship with Guinan).
Design II Set — Saenger Porcelain (“The Perfect Mate,” “Lessons,” “The Chase,” “Attached,” “Journey’s End,” “Preemptive Strike”)
This is the most famous tea set in Picard’s collection and with good reason, it’s absolutely wonderful. It’s actually a real set you can buy from Saenger Porcelain for $295 USD and it’s available in black and in white. I’m glad they chose the white design as that feels aesthetically consistent with earlier choices (though I would also like to see the black one).
This set is simply superb. It’s instantly recognizable as modern but without the angularity or rigidity of some of the designs we see earlier in the series. However, the stylized curves which mark it as modern remind me of the sculptures of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe. It uses negative space tremendously well and has an interactive component that surely appealed to JLP given his appreciation for the Kurlan naiskos (another example of ancient sculpture).
We get a great look at how the set works in “Lessons”. We see how the cups are integrated into the shape of both the pot and the tray. But we also get a sense of how organic the shapes are as well, particularly the sugar bowl and creamer, which are somewhat gourd-like and pear-shaped.
This pot is a common prop as we watch Picard’s relationship with Crusher evolve. There are brief moments of intimacy when Crusher returns in season three, but it’s really in the final few seasons that these longtime friends move past the original parameters of their relationship (latent attraction/Picard best friends with her husband Jack/same social circles). While they both have a similar intellectual curiosity, Crusher acts more frequently as Picard’s confidant from “The Perfect Mate” on (building on the emotional support she provides in S3's “Sarek”). We see Bev lean on JLP the same way in episodes like “Attached” and “Sub Rosa”. “The Chase” is the perfect merger of their intellectual and emotional relationship, and the Design II Set plays it part. We watch as Bev becomes increasingly comfortable and at home in Picard’s quarters, helping herself to tea and food, discarding her lab coat. JLP for his part, is increasingly willing to relinquish this control and his authority while sharing tea with Bev.
This tea set is seen in “Attached,” the episode where Picard and Crusher are at their closest. Telepathically linked, the pair realize their romantic feelings for each other but ultimately decide not to act on them. In this one, Picard admits he prefers a more simple breakfast and Crusher replies that it’s “coffee and croissant for both of us from now on” but Picard never orders coffee himself and frequently drinks tea with his morning pastry. I think it’s fair to say that Picard never drinks coffee and sometimes drinks other tea blends; however, when we hear him order something specific, it’s Earl Grey.
Initially we see this tea set during scenes between Crusher and Picard in his quarters, usually while the two share breakfast. But late in season seven the tea set makes a couple of appearances in a new context. Picard transitions this tea set to his work environment in an effort to smooth relations with Admiral Alynna Nechayev. He succeeds in this goal with something we’ll call the Bularian Canapés Gambit. Prior to their meeting, Picard contacted the admiral’s aide and learned Nechayev loves Bularian canapés (a type of pastry or cracker) and watercress sandwiches. For her part, Nechayev isn’t weirded out that Picard went to this extra effort to make her feel welcome (the pair had a particularly unpleasant exchange in S5 “I Borg” and she abruptly relieves him of command in S6 “Chain of Command Part I”). The extra effort pays off as Nechayev happily accepts the canapés.
When she (and this tea set) makes her final appearance on TNG several episodes later, the conversation is much more pleasant, comfortable, and informal.
All Good Things Tea Set (“The Pegasus,” “All Good Things Part 1”)
We first see this set in “The Pegasus” and it’s paired with a meal of sushi. It’s a good look at the teapot, but the cup is partially obscured. The most distinctive elements of this pot are the short, skinny, spout and the curved top handle (not typical for JLP). It’s rare we see Picard have this level of coordination in his tableware but we also rarely see him eat a meal that isn’t breakfast nor do we see him eat solo (I think this is the only time he eats dinner alone in the series) so it’s possible this is the usual level of composition and organization his dinner place settings take).
We see this tea set again in the final episode of the series. Picard, after running about the halls barefoot and in his bathrobe, chats with Troi in her quarters. What’s nice about this scene is we get to look at the teapot from a different angle and have a much better view of the cup and saucer, including its wave pattern. I like this set, but the colour blends into Picard’s bathrobe in this episode, which isn’t ideal.
I also like that Troi uses this set, but it raises the question: how are these pots chosen? Nowhere in Picard’s famous order does he specify “use the beaker cup” or “the Saenger set this time”. When they order a pot of tea do they scroll through a set of designs and select sets that they like or are suitable for certain occasions? Maybe Troi just acquired this set at the JLP Annual Yard Sale and BBQ. Perhaps Enterprise tableware operates on a more formal basis, like the Enterprise Art Exchange Program (curated by Bev Crusher).
Touch of Grey Cambridge Tea Set (“All Good Things Part 1”)
This is the final tea set we see in the series and it’s possible we’ve seen elements of this set before. The cups may be the same design as the Spring Break Tea Set we saw Picard use with Wes. However, these cups are matched with a teapot, creamer, and sugar bowl of the same style in “All Good Things”. I think they function quite differently in this scene as well. This tea set, like the furniture, rugs, paintings, and books (as well as Data’s wardrobe and hair) are all used to adhere to, and project, the conventions of the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University. Basically, Data wants to look like a stereotypical academic from a bygone era and his tea set helps him pull that off.
Picard also slams the tea Data’s housekeeper, Jessel, makes (I mean, I assume it’s replicated so why bother), by asking if it’s Darjeeling instead of Earl Grey. It’s used in the scene as an example of the advanced stage of his Irumodic Syndrome but it’s also a moment where Picard’s tea habit comes full circle (in an early draft of S2 “Contagion” Picard originally ordered Darjeeling which was eventually changed to “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot;” the first time he ever uttered that phrase).