All Good Things

Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, Media, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

Last night I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall asleep, so I did what any normal person would do: I lay in bed in the dark and fixed Star Trek: Picard.

Picard was a hash, the obvious product of too many cooks combined with network pressure to turn a show about a retired near-centenarian in a Utopian future, in which starship captains teach androids to play Cyrano de Bergerac more convincingly as a hobby while they whisk across the galaxy faster than the speed of light, into a hack action feature, Flash Gordon meets  The Expendables. But Michael Chabon, the American novelist who became, in Hollywood’s dour argot, the “showrunner,” had at least a glimmer of a good idea. Utopias only remain interesting for so long; eventually, the capacity for drama is exhausted by the absence of internal conflict.

The problem: Star Trek already examined—and already examined better—the “darker” side of its universe in Deep Space Nine, which set its characters on a frontier and considered what happens when this advanced society brushes against remnant capitalism, labor unrest, the fallout of previous wars and occupations, the rebellions of its own borderland citizens, and finally faces a war of near total mobilization and all the compromises and crimes it is willing to commit and suborn in order to win and to survive. Against the latter seasons of DS9, Chabon et al. didn’t stand a chance.

Well, they were either too clever or too arrogant to recognize that, and so they tried, depicting a Federation exhausted by its own principles, closing its borders to refugees and fighting an internal conflict against a class of artificial un-people and swearing and generally enacting an incredibly on-the-nose, Very-Special-Episode, Have-You-No-Decency-Mr. Trump version of Earth and the Federation at the turn of the 25th century. With a sword-wielding warrior monk. In Star Trek. It . . . did not engage.

But Chabon’s instinct wasn’t entirely wrong. There was an interesting story to be told about an exhausted Utopia, but it required a subtler touch. The setting should not be that different. The Romulan homeworld has still been destroyed, but unlike Picard, which imagined that the destruction of a single world in a vast “Star Empire” somehow sent every Romulan fleeing toward the neutral zone, this was a terrible but localized catastrophe: a Hurrican Katrina of the galaxy’s future. Ever since the Dominion War, a fraught but durable peace has prevailed. Many Romulans have ended up resettling on Earth and throughout the Federation. Picard can even have his former Tal Shiar friends and caretakers.

Picard is still old and grouchy, frustrated with what Starfleet and the Federation have become, but emphatically not because they have become Space MAGA. Rather, he is exhausted because, contra the Picard that was made, true artificial intelligence has become commonplace. Bruce Maddox unlocked the secrets of the positronic brain, and with Voyager’s return, The Doctor’s sentient holomatrix has been replicated thousands, millions of times. There are not automatons; they are full, independent people. Moreover, they are more than people, and far from the race of super strong, super intelligent slaves that Picard fretted about in the courtroom drama of Measure of Man, they have come to dominate those areas of the Federation—Starfleet in particular—where once the highest peaks of human achievement were attained. Picard is not prejudiced against them; he is not an anti-android racist. He just looks at a society that more than ever has sunk into mere luxury—travel, food, consumption, fine wine—without the countervailing force of achievement and exploration, of striving and struggle for knowledge, and feels . . . exhausted. Has humanity become little more than a tired race of cosseted pets?

Then, in flashback, we see a precipitating event: a Borg Cube (yes, the same Borg Cube that the actual show cursed us with) en route to attack the Alpha Quadrant. But this time it is dispatched with almost comical ease. A fleet of Federation ships—neat-sentient ships, crewed by superhuman androids and holograms—sets upon it near the former Romulan neutral zone and easily defeats it. (Before, by the way, the Romulan sun goes nova.) It founders in space. Humans and Romulans begin the Borg Reclamation Project. Only . . .

Years later, in the show’s present, a slow-dawning and then terrifying realization. AI is beginning to die. A (apologies for the gross topicality) sort of virus has entered their systems, incurable and seemingly contagious. And then . . . Bruce Maddox disappears.

And then mad, bad Admiral Janeway calls Picard out of retirement to pursue the mystery. For who now can command a starship, at least among the mere humans. And here Picard puts together his ragtag team on an old, pre-AI ship. Seven of Nine, who instead of a new character we don’t care about is the one living in ragtag isolation, so far from her former place in a collective! Hey, a couple of the kids from Below Decks, now All Grown Up. His Romulan friends, who may have motives of their own. And thus they quest out into the galaxy, a crew on a ship trying to solve the mystery of what happened to the androids, what happened to Bruce Maddox, leading them eventually to the Borg Cube, the mystery of the android plague, the destruction of the Romulan sun, and the question of whether a Utopia can remain vital forever.

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