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For the record, the Next Gen theme played on the flute at the end of this rendered me into a weeping mess every single time.
I always fight a little shy of nostalgia, given the genre community’s fondness for it. Like I spent a lot of last year saying, we shouldn’t face backwards on the rocket. Unless, it turns out, we’re re-configuring the rocket to get to good stuff faster.
This week, two of the most venerable SF franchises on Earth did just that.
Picard, the much vaunted return to the screen for Starfleet’s premier Sheffieldian Frenchman did not disappoint. At ALL. Much like Discovery’s functional re-pilot, “Brother”, it focused its attention on what family, love and duty mean in this future. Where “Brother” found those answers in the chosen and discovered family of the crew (#teamcaptainspacedad), Picard finds it somewhere far more personal and, in many ways, darker.
This Picard is a near shut-in, working the family vineyard twenty years after resigning his commission. In short order, we find out that Picard was set to lead the largest evacuation fleet in history to save the Romulans from an imminent supernova (everyone wave at the Kelvin timeline!). This was thwarted at the last minute by a horrific attack on the Martian shipyards building the evacuation fleet by rogue ‘Synths’ or artificial workers. 93,000 people died, the atmosphere of Mars was set alight and Starfleet turned inwards. Picard, a man always defined as much by his compassion as his intellect, resigned in disgust,
There’s an element of the Old Lions syndrome I talked about last week to be sure, but the show very quickly disavows both us, and Picard, of that notion. Instead, it focuses on the incredible difficulty of waking up to the world you walked away from and, more so, re-engaging with it. That re-engagement comes in the form of Dahj (Isa Briones), a brilliant, terrified young woman who has never met Picard before but knows she’s safe with him.
These two are the North and South of the show. The Starfleet veteran, his magnificent dog and even more magnificent Romulan carers in tow, seemingly content to leave the world. Until he’s confronted not just with a young woman in need of help but one intimately tied to both one of his oldest friends and his greatest tragedies. Briones is fantastic in the role, balancing a pleasingly solid physicality with real vulnerability. One of the best scenes, by far, is her slowly realizing her memories may be fake and Picard talking her down. It works because Dahj is a raw nerve and works more because Picard never once undermines what she’s feeling. Instead, he emphasizes her ownership of the memories over their validity. Dahj is who she is, and that, at least, is true. Or true enough. It’s an endlessly kind, gentle sequence that teaches you how far Picard has come. It also sets up just how different the Star Trek universe now is.
Minutes later, Dahj is killed. Picard fails to protect her and in failing, wakes up.
There’s a very valid criticism to make of the show that the two significant deaths are both people of color and it’s not one you’ll see me even try and refute. But Dahj’s death, and especially the episode closing reveal that Dahj has a ‘sister’, connect the show both to the past and to the structure it will presumably build in the future. Picard, briefly, meets Data’s child. Picard loses her, just like he did her father. This time, he refuses to stand for it.
Like the man himself said, the line must be drawn, and while the show is clever enough to not say this out loud, the implications are clear. If Picard can find out why Dahj was created, why she was sent to him, then maybe he can understand the loss of his friend, the Mars catastrophe and the loss of the Romulans. In other words, for the first time in decades he’s given the opportunity to take actions which are more than theoretical. Of course he grabs them with both hands.
The show is almost impossibly tidily plotted, combining Picard’s personal reawakening with this young woman who seems key to everything from Starfleet’s moral failings to the development of artificial life. They’re all colossal ideas too but are all dealt with in a deeply personal way. Picard here is less concerned with his own old glories as with the glories of the society he grew to serve, and how he can help them return. Given the closing reveal of the episode, it won’t be easy. Given everything in the episode, it should make for some extraordinary television.
Picard is building the future from components not just of its past but of the past failings of its universe. Doctor Who, it could be argued, is building the future from the past failings of the program itself or the culture in which it was created.
This week’s episode ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ really did accomplish three impossible things before breakfast. The first was make everyone’s favorite (well, mine) RhinoCops even more adorable. The second was return the best pansexual uncle in fiction to the show in the form of Captain Jack Harkness and just as you’re going ‘What the Helen of Troy?‘, the last and best reveal.
Like she said, she’s the Doctor.
There have of course been howls of ‘HOW?!’ ‘WHY?!’ and, well, just howls. Change always seems weirdly difficult for elements of fandom for a protean show like this. There’s frantic discussion of whether she’s an alternate universe Doctor, or whether she fits into the past in a specific slot which seems likely.
What there hasn’t been discussion of, quite yet, is what she means for the show. Because this series of Doctor Who has been built on some delightfully uncertain ground. We’ve had the Master back, Gallifrey slaughtered, the Doctor told their lives are a lie and a new incarnation all in five weeks and there’s over half the season left!
Whether the show can keep up the pace and execution of these reveals is naturally a question. What isn’t is their willingness to go all-in or how successful each one to date has been. Last season was about getting to know this new, kind, cheerful Doctor. This season is about how that Doctor fits into a universe that has, increasingly clearly, been lying to her.
This is what a show that has lasted five decades has to do, and they’re leaning into it with the sort of wide-eyed glee Thirteen herself would be proud of. Make no mistake, this is a show unpicking what’s been widely believed to be it’s own DNA to make something new and that’s incredibly brave. It’s doubly so given the volume at which conservative voices tend to demand civility. Civility in this case meaning another white man, preferably early forties, ginger if possible but not a requirement.
There are two very positive conclusions to draw here. The first is that for the first time in a long time, massive properties like Star Trek and Doctor Who are embracing narrative uncertainty as a means of making something new. Is it all going to work? Odds are no but I’ll take a brave attempt over another cover version any day of the week.
The second conclusion is even more hopeful. These are merely the highest profile examples of a process that’s been going on for a while. Picard, Doctor Who, the upcoming remake of Adam Adamant Lives! and so many more are all intimately concerned not just with doing something new but with making something kinder with it. The world is still a dark, often terrifying place. But fiction, and big ticket fiction especially, is starting to talk about how we build something better. I’m looking forward to hearing what it has to say.