DeFlip Side #200: Pride, Privilege and Picard

DeFlip Side #200: Pride, Privilege and Picard.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

The launch of Star Trek Picard on CBS AllAccess has me thinking a lot about heroes lately. Specifically the idea of the lapsed hero.

It’s a shift from the antiheroes that have recently dominated pop culture, the Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites, bad people selfishly working toward bad ends. In Picard we see a man who is still fundamentally good, but who has lost the societal framework that gave him purpose, and more insidiously, that gave him status and authority.

Think of the Picard you’ve always known: the self-assured philosopher explorer, a renaissance man, right down to the horseback riding and swordplay. Now contrast that captain with the Jean Luc we meet in Picard–an all but broken man hiding in his chateau, by his own admission waiting to die. This dramatic shift stems from his break with Starfleet. Without the institutional clout to smugly mold the galaxy as he sees fit, Jean Luc finds himself adrift and in decline.

This probably doesn’t sit well with many Trekkers who grew up on NextGen, idolizing Picard and the ideals he embodied. If you’re one of them, I feel you. The same thing happened to me a long time ago with my favorite fictional hero, Ged in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy.

Stick with me. At the end of the original Earthsea trilogy, Ged spends most all of his magic to save the world, mounts a dragon and flies to his home chateau – I mean island – of Gont, never to leave again. End of story. But then Le Guin picked up the tale decades later in a new Earthsea book called Tehanu, which catches up with Ged, now a broken man lamenting the loss of his power. A character named Aunty Moss sums up Ged’s plight like this:

“A man’s in his skin, see, like a nut in its shell.” She held up her long, bent, wet fingers as if holding a walnut. “It’s hard and strong, that shell, and it’s all full of him. Full of grand man-meat, manself. And that’s all. That’s all there is. It’s all him and nothing else, inside. That’s how it is with him. And that’s all. When his power goes, he’s gone. Empty.” She cracked the unseen walnut and tossed the shells away. “Nothing.”

This line made me see red when I first read it. And I used to think my anger was about Le Guin tearing down my hero just to take a swipe at all men. But I’ve come to realize that she wasn’t aiming at men, but at the notion of entitlement.

As with Ged, entitlement looms large with Picard. Consider Jean Luc’s fall. When Starfleet halts the Romulan resettlement, Picard gives them an ultimatum: continue the rescue or I resign. So they call his bluff and accept his resignation. What does the great Jean Luc Picard do then? Muster up a groundswell of support to fight the power? Use his own considerable pull and social standing to continue the rescue independently? Nope. He slinks home. Gone. Empty. Nothing.

Not only that, he severs contact with former friends and colleagues who depended on him, to languish in ignoble decline in a palatial estate in the idyllic French countryside. But while he abdicated his power, he never gave up the entitlement.

Because when Le Chevalier Mal Fet finally snaps out of it and embarks on a new quest, he goes forth under his banner of privilege, cluelessly trying to rally those he spurned and abandoned, only to be knocked down. He’s forced to learn humility, again, and again, and again.

It’s a counterintuitive place to put Picard, and I’m sure a big part of the reason Patrick Stewart finally agreed to return to the role. We’ve certainly never seen a Picard quite like this.

We’ve also never seen a Federation quite like this–economically stratified, dealing with a humanitarian refugee crisis and mired in willful political ignorance and indifference. The once vaunted institution–and the man that exemplified it–are in decline. Sound familiar?

But putting aside Science Fiction’s traditional role of holding up a mirror to our current problems, does Picard’s darker slant betray Roddenberry’s vision of a human utopia among the stars? In short is it Star Trek?

Well, when you consider that Picard is recognizing his foibles and striving to correct them, that the lapsed hero is reconnecting with the ideals that he once clung to and defended so fiercely, and is working for a better future through introspection and positive change?

It doesn’t get any more Star Trek than that.