Star Trek: Picard 1.01 – “Remembrance”

New year, new Trek! And I’m back on the blogging train!

(My novel was completed ahead of my self-imposed deadline, thank you very much for asking, and now I’m up to my elbows in revisions.)

“Remembrance” is an episode which does a lot of worldbuilding and sets up a lot of questions to be answered later. Reviewing it is like attempting to review a book based on the first chapter alone: entirely premature, and frankly a bit pointless.

But I’ve never let that stop me before!

I had a lot of hopes for JLP, going in. And some fears: that the return to Star Trek led by a white man, and the relative whiteness of the writers room compared to Discovery, would be a regression in terms of the diversity that Discovery has added to the Trek universe.

If nothing else, I’ve been wary of the fact that Kirsten Beyer conceived the show, but the showrunner job was given to Michael Chabon, who has a fraction of her television experience.

And based on this episode alone, those fears have been realised. I liked “Remembrance”, but it’s very much Scripted By Two White Guys. (Specifically Akiva Goldsman, responsible for some of Discovery‘s weaker scripts, and James Duff, who is new-ish to the franchise — he wrote “Fortunate Son”, one of the better Enterprise episodes, but his last job was showrunning Major Crimes, a procedural which killed its own lead character for shock value four episodes before its final episode.)

Here’s a quick list of my problems:

  • This is literally the second consecutive Star Trek premiere which presented an Asian woman as a lead character, only to kill her off and replace her with a duplicate.
  • And Dahj’s death is a straight-up fridging.
  • We have only two black people in this entire episode. One is on screen for thirty seconds, then murdered. The other is treated to a tremendously condescending speech by Picard, in a scene which has a bunch of implications beyond the racial dynamics, but let’s be clear: those racial dynamics are ugly.
  • We have a bunch of female characters, so we’re at least doing better than The Mandalorian at this stage in its run, but apparently passing the Bechdel Test was too hard.
  • This is not a show about Relationships, but nevertheless we’ve seen a lot of casual heterosexuality so far, and absolutely no queerness.

I’ve seen a lot of generally decent white men of my acquaintance reacting to “Remembrance” with joyous cries of “Finally! Real Star Trek!” And I think it’s worth stepping back and interrogating that impulse.

Let me dig into a couple of my problems in more detail before I move onto the things I actually liked. (Or loved. I am apparently capable of many simultaneous emotions.)

Putting dahj in the fridge

To be completely honest, I was a little bit wary of Dahj as a character — I liked her, but I’ve never felt like Star Trek needed to embrace the Lost Girl/Martial Artist Waif trope. We already have Joss Whedon, you know?

But I assumed, foolishly, that she would be allowed to expand beyond that, and become a fully fledged character. Instead of being unceremoniously blown up so that Picard can have some manpain, followed instantly by the convenient reveal that there is another.

Now, it’s possible that Dahj is still alive, being treated for her injuries as a prisoner of the Romulans. They were looking to capture, not kill, after all, and they clearly had access to sophisticated transporter technology that could beam her out mid-explosion. (Because Sometimes Reddit Is Good, a user there pointed out that there’s a lot of camera movement in that moment, too, possibly as a sleight of hand.)

I’m not giving up on Dahj, and I’m open to getting to know Soji (even though all we know about her so far is that she has ugly clothes and terrible taste in men). But the script pulls a bait and switch with a woman of colour, and I’m a little troubled that no one is talking about that.

(I’ve seen very little by way of substantial discussion of “Remembrance” at all, in fact — I assume that people are still enjoying the afterglow of PICARD! AND DATA! AND ROMULANS! AND HOLY CRAP, DAHJ IS DATA’S DAUGHTER! Don’t worry, I’m here to puncture that.)

“Ok space boomer” — I need to talk at length about the interview scene

“Media interview as vehicle for exposition and characterisation” is a tried and true tool, and frankly, it’s surprising how little journalism we’ve seen in Star Trek over the years.

I could write a whole essay on the depiction of journalism in SF, along with how strange it is that a lot of SF writers seem hostile to the idea of their characters being subjected to the scrutiny of a free press. Babylon 5 has some particularly notorious examples of this, and I’m sorry to say that Picard echoes that hostility to the media.

Here’s the thing: Picard’s interview tells us a lot about the state of the galaxy in 2399, and Patrick Stewart’s performance is magnificent, but that was not a well-written scene.

Comparing the evacuation of Romulus to the construction of the pyramids is so strange and unlikely that it jumped out at me as an excuse by the writers for Picard to correct the journalist and deliver a lecture about kids today and history and war and — look, this is the sort of thing for which “OK Boomer” was conceived.

Worse: we’re expected to dislike the journalist for asking why Picard left Starfleet. Now, if you give me a female character and tell me to dislike her, I’m immediately going to adore her, even if she is (probably) prejudiced against Romulans.

But more importantly — that’s journalism.

This is not Adam Driver promoting a film and asking that he not have to watch himself act. When a prominent senior member of a government organisation resigns in protest against that government’s policy, it is in the public’s interest to ask why.

Fun fact: I did a whole semester of journalism school at uni! I switched to history because I didn’t actually want to be a journalist (I wanted to write and edit, and no one told me that English lit followed by post-grad studies in editing and publishing was possible), and I quickly realised I wasn’t assertive enough to be a good reporter.

But the very first thing we learned — okay, no, the second, right after “Australian defamation law is fucking intense and you do not want to mess up” — is that, if you are asked not to pursue a line of questioning, you should immediately pursue it. Or at least consider whether it is in the public’s interest to do so.

So this journalist is doing her job, and doing so more or less professionally (even the “Romulan lives”/”Lives” exchange feels like she’s offering Picard a way to articulate his opinion, rather than stating his own — although we could also have a nuanced discussion about how journalists are subject to the same biases and bigotries as the general population).

And it’s deeply uncomfortable to see how this scene was received by the audience — I’ve seen a lot of jokes about Fake Federation News and calls to put that bitch in her place.

There’s an ugliness in our culture, and this scene reflected it instead of confronting it.

(Also, I just have a visceral reaction whenever a man addresses a younger woman as “my dear”. I don’t want the series to be the Admiral Picard Mansplaining Hour. ALSO, did I mention the racial dynamic? My notes just say “yikes”.)

Other problems

My other issues with the script are less about institutional bias and more to do with clumsy writing. There is a lot of exposition in “Remembrance” — more than in “The Vulcan Hello” (also co-written by Goldsman), but more neatly integrated into the storytelling. That is, no one is telling Picard things he should already know.

But there are also a lot of things which make less sense after the reveal about Soji. Why doesn’t Dahj mention that she’s a twin? Surely, if someone is telling you that you might be an artificial construct, you would say, “That’s impossible, I have parents, I had a childhood, I have a twin sister!”

In fact, some people theorised that Dahj is not Soji’s twin — that there are several of these android clone-daughters out there. (Consider the five Queens of Hearts that Data holds in the opening dream sequence — foreshadowing?) But TrekCore has proved us wrong:

So, no, it’s just bad writing, designed to support a Twist.

(I’m not opposed to Twists — they were almost my favourite thing about season 1 of Discovery! But they worked there because, if you go back and rewatch, knowing the truth about everyone, it still makes sense.)

Things which aren’t problems

I have a lot of unanswered questions, and that’s exactly as it should be. But, for posterity, here they are:

  • Where is Bruce Maddox?
    • I’ve seen Star Trek, I’m pretty sure he’s off on an isolated planet with an inappropriately young wife, doing some illegal mad science
  • Who created Dahj and Soji?
    • And if it was Bruce, did he have Data’s consent, or is this some sort of self-insert/Data babyfic scenario gone too far?
    • It would not be out of character for Maddox, as of his first appearance in TNG, to not bother with consent, but by the end of “The Measure of a Man” he is open to collaborating with Data instead of using him as a test subject, and a couple of seasons later, they’re still friends.
    • I would like to know who signed off on the ethics of this project and, indeed, the whole “synths” business to start with.
  • How much of Dahj’s experiences, eg her conversation with her “mother”, were real, and how much were simulations produced by her apparently-positronic brain?
  • What type of Romulan reclamation project involves moving into a Borg cube? WHO THOUGHT THAT WAS A GOOD IDEA? THIS CAN ONLY GO TERRIBLY WRONG SOMEHOW!
    • Is this a Federation-sanctioned cube-squatting project, or are Soji and her fellow humans (or … you know) there semi-legally?
  • What do the Romulans want with Dahj and Soji?
  • Was it really the police who brought Picard home (instead of to a hospital) after Dahj’s death, or does the conspiracy go beyond Romulans?

I’m also keen to learn a lot more about the synths and their apparent uprising.

Part of me is like, “Really? We’re doing Cylons?” Because a lot of SF in the last decade has dealt with AI, artificial people and the ethics around creating them, and based on his last foray into the subgenre, the Short Trek “Calypso”, I’m not convinced that Michael Chabon has anything new or original to say on the subject.

But, at the same time, the rights of androids and sentient holograms has been a recurring issue in 24th century Trek, and the Federation has been consistently bad at dealing with it.

I’m curious to know how we got from the status quo in Nemesis to having enough “synths” to attack and more or less destroy Mars in just a few years. I’m also curious to know why Dr Agnes P. Jurati still has a job at all, and why the Daystrom Institute is still hiring research fellows for what appears to be a dead-end field. But these are worldbuilding questions, and I assume we’ll either be given answers or enough hints to infer them.

I’d also like to know more about the synths themselves. Did they have a culture? Individual personalities? What led them to attack Mars? I’m already seeing theories that they were hacked, probably by an evil admiral — if a synthetic lifeform can be hacked, does that make them less deserving of what we still have to call “human” rights? Or can humans be “hacked”, too, via bad information, fake news, manipulative algorithms? These are interesting questions, and were almost touched on by season 2 of Discovery — but instead, we got time travel wank. That doesn’t seem likely to happen here.

21st century problems

When Picard says he left because “Starfleet was no longer Starfleet” — well, frankly, they’ve never been Starfleet. The grey areas that DS9 explored were introduced way back in TOS, and Picard’s whole thing in TNG was fighting to live up to the ideals of the Federation, even when the admiralty — not even the evil admirals — were pushing more pragmatic approaches.

But I can’t fault him for choosing to step back from that fight, especially when he has devoted decades to it. What I want to do, instead, is appreciate how contemporary the Federation’s moral failures are: turning their back on an environmental crisis and refusing to help refugees, and declaring a whole category of person illegal.

This is good Star Trek. Not “finally” good Star Trek, because Discovery has also addressed isolationism and xenophobia, but Picard is coming at it from a different perspective. And, importantly, a civilian perspective. These are problems which can’t be fixed by Starfleet alone.

(They also can’t be fixed by a team of ragtag weirdos alone, and I’m a bit wary of the way Dahj unironically referred to Picard as “the great man”, but I’m taking a wait-and-see approach.)

Characters

The following new characters have my eternal and undying loyalty:

  • Laris and Zhaban, Picard’s emotional support Romulans
    • the preview comic introduces them as Tal Shiar agents who fell in love with each other and out of love with their totalitarian empire, and I am delighted by the idea that Picard is basically hanging out with the equivalent of two retired KGB agents
    • I hope they’re pen pals with Garak
    • I’m always a bit weirded out when we see servants in Star Trek? But it’s an honest job, and it’s not like we’re seeing a super formal caste system here, and, well, Chateau Picard is a big house, it probably needs a lot of maintenance, even if a lot of stuff is automated
    • maybe Chateau Picard is on Space AirBnB and they’re also the managers
    • I want to see them being more alien, but we have nine episodes to go and also that’s what fic is for
  • Number One, a Good Doggo
  • Dr Agnes, a giant nerd who laughs in Picard’s face when he asks what appears to be a stupid question
    • look, after that “great man” business, I needed that
    • it’s just so nice to see civilians, you know?
  • Dahj, about whose death I am in denial
    • at least I’m consistent in my attitude of “yes, she was in the middle of a massive explosion, but what if it wasn’t fatal?”
  • Index, aka Starfleet Archives Janet

Final observations

  • Apparently Patrick Stewart speaks remarkably bad French, but I am monolingual and cannot tell; I’m mostly annoyed they’re making us think about the logistics of the universal translator again
  • I’m also trying not to think about the logistics of the Jedi Starfleet Archives; I think it’s just nice that we have a dedicated fanservice room
  • All the Romulans we’ve seen so far have used the actors’ own accents, so if Evan Evagoria doesn’t give us Aussie Romulan, I’m gonna flip a table
  • A lot of the problematic racial dynamics I pointed out could have been avoided by casting fewer white people; eg the Romulans, Index, even Jurati, did not need to be white
  • I choose to believe that Laris regularly sends Beverly updates on Jean-Luc’s wellbeing, and also dog pictures
  • I forgot to say above, I adore how modern Trek is leaning into the whole “secret female relative of an iconic male character” thing — this is the fandom which created both the concept of the Mary Sue and the taboo against writing them, and I’m glad the show itself is undoing that

In conclusion

I’m giving this three out of five Good Doggos — and honestly, it’d be two and a half except that Patrick Stewart is so good. I really hope the problems with the writing and representation sort themselves out, and fast.

Shameless self-promotion, again

The Ditmar Awards are now taking nominations! These are essentially the Australian Hugos. Nominations can come from “any natural person active in fandom” (so we, too, discriminate against synths?) although voting is limited to members of the Australian NatCon, which this year is … gosh, I don’t know where it is this year. SwanCon?

Last year I won Best Fan Writer for my Star Trek blogging, and although part of me is like, “Step back, Liz, let the other kids have a turn!”, I am pushing myself out of my comfort zone by ignoring that voice. My Star Trek blogging of 2019 is eligible for Best Fan Writer, and also the William Atheling Jr. Award for Criticism or Review.

If you are a natural person in fandom, or at least reasonably confident you’re not a synth, and you would like to nominate me, you can do so here.

(I guess I’m also eligible for the Hugo Awards? But, ummm, those are for real, big, substantial contributions?)

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