Is Picard The Last Jedi of the Star Trek Universe?
In a world where every new addition to an established franchise is scrutinized beyond belief, it’s no shock that Picard enters the realm of The Last Jedi. Critically acclaimed, yet contentious at best among their respective fanbases.
To some, they’re fascinating new artistic takes on old material. To others, they’re incoherent and sacrilegious. It’s also easy for both sides to dismiss each other. Critics and fans are shills. Haters are neckbearded edgelords. Generalizing is easy. Thinking about why is hard.
Of course, there are people who are just dead set to hate everything that they feel has a “PC Agenda”. Of course, there are also people who are suckers for everything Disney and CBS release. But I do believe the broader problem isn’t centred around the political angle, but rather, a question of their respective approach to fiction.
While Star Wars and Trek are completely different beasts when it comes to their approach to storytelling, they both share a sort of rigidity. It’s not that the originals never jumped the shark (Ewoks! Tribbles! Lizard Sex from Voyager!), it’s more that the franchises were always very grounded… at least as grounded as things about space can be.
Yeah, sure, there’s nothing grounded about hyperspace, warp, transporting, the Force or lightsabers. The grounded part is, of course, the storytelling. Simple and effective, laser-focused on its message.
There isn’t a lot of room for subtext with what both franchises are doing. In a way, their bluntness is what made a lot of people love them. If you really think about it, both Star Wars and Star Trek love both showing and telling. After all, one starts every movie with a damn title crawl of exposition, while the other starts every episode with some voice-over narration.
This means that we suddenly have two different groups you have to account for. Modern critics love subtext. The fanbases are used to these particular franchises avoiding relying on subtext. Both also get run-of-the-mill rehashes of old storylines, safely guided home by J.J. Abrams.
Yet, suddenly, the reins are handed to Rian Johnson and Michael Chabon. One, a trope-defying madman. The other, a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist. Both absolutely enamoured with the power of subtext. Chaos ensues.
Mind you, I’m not saying that disliking The Last Jedi or Picard makes a person an uncultured idiot who can’t appreciate subtext. I think it does make them someone who doesn’t expect their favourite franchises to be full of it. That’s not the entertainment they’re looking for. Both aren’t perfect, either.
It actually took me a long time and a lot of introspection to appreciate what The Last Jedi did right, perhaps that introspection is also what led me to love Picard.
The story of The Last Jedi isn’t actually about Rey, Kylo, Leia, Luke or Snoke. It isn’t about their battles. It’s about what defines us as people. Is it our upbringing? Is it just our actions? Are we bound by destiny?
Similarly, Picard isn’t really about Jean-Luc’s rescue mission. It’s about a righteous man seeing the world stray from righteousness. It’s about the optimism of the early 90s fading into the cynicism of 2020. It’s about a man full of regret who wants to make at least one thing right.
There is one particular scene that prompted this realization. As Picard and the gang are arriving at a station outside Federation space, they’re greeted by a bunch of annoying hologram pop-up ads tailored for each member specifically.
My inner Trekkie (or Trekker, whatever, I don’t care) screamed: “Oh come on, that is so not Star Trek.” Yet my inner film critic really appreciated it as a big part of the subtext. The world has changed. Sci-fi has to change with it. Yet here’s Jean-Luc, awkwardly waving a holographic ad away, foreign to this strange new world. In that regard, I adored it.
It’s a hard sell for a franchise to undermine itself the way The Last Jedi and Picard undermine the very foundations of their own fictional worlds. It’s an even harder sell when you consider that these franchises are very much a communal experience. Breaking the rules is much worse when countless people have tirelessly documented and debated them.
Sci-fi and fantasy are two genres that are particularly prone to nitpicking. Perhaps it’s because of how expansive and detailed the lore in them is. Perhaps it’s because they draw in people who are nitpicky by nature.
Critics are nitpicky too, but they don’t really care whether the warp nacelles are positioned correctly, or if Force-Skype is a thing. They care about the general technical execution of the film or show, its flow and the themes it explores.
Therein lies the conflict. What is sacrilegious to some, might be a nifty storytelling trick to others. A couple exploring their feelings through a cheesy montage? Untrekky, yet ever symbolic of their budding romance. Luke being a grizzled old man? Unstarwarsy, yet emblematic of the movie’s anti-heroic theme.
These are not comic book movies, where the source material has seen so many different iterations for each character that the audience is attuned to their symbolic nature. This is Star Wars. This is Star Trek. For some, changing the canon isn’t unlike changing The Bible. Sacrilege.
It’s hard for people to accept that other people don’t like what they like. It’s just human nature, enjoying something is more or less a communal experience. We fear that if somebody doesn’t enjoy what we enjoy, they may think less of our opinions. In a way, people validating our tastes validate our existence.
Perhaps it’s time to stop seeking that validation. When I started writing this piece, I wanted to write a scathing rant about sci-fi snobs destroying entertainment discourse. Instead, I decided to accept my own inner sci-fi snob.
I still love Picard and I’m still on the fence about The Last Jedi. But I can safely say I understand where the criticism is coming from. We can keep calling each other snobs and shills forever, or we can accept that different people look for different things in entertainment.
The sci-fi strongholds are now geared towards larger audiences, as they flock to shows that are more “their” thing like The Orville, and that’s ok. Whether we’re “true” fans or casual watchers, we don’t have to like everything Hollywood puts out.
Our tastes don’t define our intelligence, empathy or compassion. Just our expectations. We can either keep arguing about what’s good and bad or accept that art is designed to be subjective and broaden our horizons by listening to the other side’s gripes.
This was supposed to be a rant about a group destroying entertainment discourse.
I just never thought that I was a part of it.