Sunday, April 16, 2023

Star Trek: Picard, Season 3, Episode 9, "Vox"

For as creatively spotty and frequently frustrating as Star Trek: Picard has been, I have to admire its commitment to undoing some of the biggest missteps of the Next Generation movies. Not only has Picard resurrected Data twice (once to provide a more fitting sendoff than he received in Star Trek: Nemesis, and then again as a part of this third season’s effort to bring back all of the Next Generation characters), but now, in “Vox,” Picard has also -- at long last -- resurrected the Enterprise-D.

I was fourteen years old when I saw Star Trek Generations, and while I was certainly thrilled by the spectacle of the Enterprise’s saucer section crash-landing onto a planet, I also remember the powerful sense of loss I felt after the film was over. I had grown deeply attached to the Enterprise-D during my years of watching The Next Generation. The ship was alive in my imagination. More than just the home of characters I loved and the location of so many wonderful, horizon-expanding stories, the Enterprise-D was essentially another character in the series, its sights and sounds familiar and comforting. To see it wrecked in Generations, for the sake of some fleeting spectacle, was upsetting, and in some ways even felt like a betrayal. It was as if now that The Next Generation had "graduated" from television to film, the writers had suddenly considered the ship insufficient: not grandiose enough, not sophisticated enough, not new enough.* Certainly, the needs of a television series are different from the needs of a film series, and perhaps there were indeed good production-related reasons to move on from the Enterprise-D, but I grieved its loss nonetheless.

* If I recall correctly, it was longtime TNG writers Ronald D. Moore and Brandon Braga -- who also wrote the script for Generations -- that came up with the idea for crash-landing the saucer section on a planet.

Thus seeing it resrored on Picard was incredibly moving, the satisfaction of a desire part of me has harbored for nearly three decades. Here was my home in space, restored to it's former glory, and given a plausible explanation to boot: it was retrieved from its crash-landing spot in order not to interfere with the development of the planet on which it landed (thanks, prime directive!), and then outfitted with the star drive section of the USS Syracuse.

And yet, I can’t help but continue to be irritated by the contortions Picard has undertaken to arrive at this point, as well as the way in which this series continues to trade on nostalgia for the franchise’s history while often seeming to display only passing familiarity with it. Take, for instance, the appearance of the Enterprise-D’s bridge, which completely ignores the retrofit the bridge received in Generations. In revealing the ship to Picard and company, Geordi explains that he has been restoring it for many years, which I suppose includes reverting the bridge to how it looked on the television series, rather than maintaining its new look from the movie. However, a line of dialogue acknowledging this reversion would have gone a long way toward preventing this change from seeming like yet one more instance of Picard simply forgetting a detail from the past. It's an unfortunate lapse, since it undercuts the nostalgia the show is so clearly trying to leverage into emotional resonance.

It's easy to overlook this unexplained reversion of the bridge, given how nice it is to see it again in any form (and it does indeed look fantastic - kudos to the entire production team), but just like "No Win Scenario," "Vox" is full of other irksome issues characteristic of Picard overall, and that are much harder to overlook. One example concerns the Federation holiday “Frontier Day,” which has been a prominent deadline throughout the season, and which comes to a head in “Vox.” It’s a fine idea for the Federation to have holidays celebrating its history, but gathering the entire fleet in one spot for this particular celebration simply makes no damn sense.

For one, bringing the entire fleet together seems implausible, given the well-established breadth and scope of Starfleet’s ventures in the galaxy: surely there must be some starships engaged in time-sensitive, far-flung missions – be they diplomatic, defensive, scientific, or whatever – that would have prevented at least a few ships (or even many) from returning to Earth to participate in this celebration. Perhaps this is a pedantic criticism, akin to something to which The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy would object. But even if we were to grant Picard this creative license, it also makes no sense ideologically. The Federation’s entire premise is based on exploration, so why would a celebration of Starfleet take the form of retracting every vessel to Earth, thereby stymieing them from fulfilling the Federation’s core tenet? Military parades are the stuff of authoritarian regimes, not the exploration-based utopia that Star Trek is supposed to represent.

Gathering the entire fleet in one spot has yet another storytelling disadvantage in that it quantifies something that has been left purposefully ambiguous in the past: the exact size of Starfleet. Wisely, the greater totality of Starfleet has always existed only in the imagination, which allowed it to expand or contract to suit the needs of particular episodes or films. In a given week, no matter what was happening on the Enterprise, or on Deep Space Nine, or Voyager, or wherever, these events were always just one thread in the wider tapestry of Star Trek. Quantifying the size of Starfleet – as “Vox” does, at least visually – constrains that imaginative utility, shrinking Starfleet down to an exact size, and a rather unimpressive one at that (judging by the wider shots, there seem to be around three hundred ships in Starfleet).

Finally, one of the gimmicks behind this celebration of Frontier Day is that it will be the debut of a new automated fleet system that links starships together, which is a hilariously shortsighted premise that seems like an idea from a writer's room brainstorming session, one best left on the whiteboard. My first thought – likely most viewers' first thought – was about the catastrophe that would ensue should something go wrong, which of course it does, almost immediately: the Borg have infiltrated Starfleet by using the transporters to rewrite the genetic code of anyone under the age of twenty-five, and with Jack Crusher’s unwitting help (more on that later), all of the fleet’s young officers are assimilated on Frontier Day, and they immediately take over the now-linked and automated fleet (thus Picard and company’s need for an older ship, one not wired for automation, like, say, a restored Enterprise-D).

While there are certainly some problems with how Picard arrived at this development (most of them concerning Jack and the mustache-twirling Changeling villains), in isolation, this Borg assimilation plot is pretty interesting and suitably terrifying, just as any good Borg plot should be. However, its execution is marred by it being linked to the ridiculous "automated fleet" and "gather all ships together" ideas. Rather than feeling suspense over the sight of a Borg-controlled fleet poised above Earth, instead I felt the urge to scoff at the stupidity of the conditions that led to this threat even being possible in the first place.

Another problem here is that Picard pulls Elizabeth Shelby out of mothballs to act as the face of this fleet automation plan. Shelby was introduced in “The Best of Both Worlds” Parts I and II, a TNG creative zenith where Picard was assimilated by the Borg. Back then, Shelby was in charge of organizing Starfleet’s tactical defense in the event of a Borg invasion. Why, then, is her return all these years later predicated on her overseeing a technological system that seems like an enormous tactical blunder, one ripe for exploitation by the Borg? It’s as if the Picard writers are vaguely aware of the conditions of Shelby’s previous appearance on TNG, but lack any further contexts that would make a lick of sense out of her behavior on Picard. Fittingly, almost as soon as she appears, she's murdered by assimilated officers, seemingly for her hubris.

Ultimately, while it is wonderful to see the Enterprise-D return for one more adventure, and for it to be commanded by the crew I adore, I wish Star Trek: Picard had provided a less convoluted way of arriving at this point, and a better reason for Picard and company to be reunited with (most of) their beautiful old ship. I want to like Picard more than I do -- I've had nothing but goodwill and high hopes for the series from the start, and like I wrote previously, there are aspects of this season of Picard that I have enjoyed tremendously. Add to them Worf's stoic one-liners (which still land), Data and Geordi's reunion, Data and Lore finally receiving closure on their brotherhood, and now the return of the Enterprise-D. But unfortunately, the series has been almost as equally frustrating as rewarding, routinely tripping over its own feet in its attempts to soar.

Ah well. At least my favorite starship is back from the dead. Here's hoping it survives the series finale next week.

Other thoughts:

- The wrecking of the Enterprise-D in Generations also had the inadvertent effect of making moments in subsequent Next Generation films ring hollow, specifically any time one of the characters praised the newfangled Enterprise-E, a ship for which I had no strong affection. Imagine, for instance, how much more powerful Riker’s praise for the beauty of the Enterprise in First Contact would have been had he been referring to the Enterprise-D rather than the Enterprise-E, the latter of which was a ship that viewers had known for less than the span of two TNG episodes.

- As moving as the return of the Enterprise-D is, it is still not quite as moving as best pals Geordi and Data being reunited a few episodes ago, where Geordi was finally given a chance to express his grief over Data’s death. The absence of such a scene in Nemesis is one of that film’s many failings.

- If the entire purpose of the Changeling's attempt to capture Jack was to deliver him to the Borg Queen, then his impulsive decision to join her of his own volition in "Vox" really defeats the purpose of all of those episodes spent dealing with Vadic’s antagonism. Yes, Vadic provided a roundabout cause to gather all of the TNG characters together on one ship, but she never amount to much more than a cartoonish villain, and a lot of the conflict she generated seems moot in the wake of Jack misguidedly accomplishing the Changeling's goals for them, even after they've been defeated. Much like Vadic, Jack has turned out to be little more than a underwhelming excuse to pull all of the TNG characters together. Pardon me as I preemptively role my eyes at Jack's inevitable resistance to the Borg Queen's machinations in the series finale (thus repeating one of the many lackluster plot points of Picard season two).

- All of the California class ships from Lower Decks are conspicuously absent from this Frontier Day celebration. Have they all been decommissioned in the roughly twenty year period between Lower Decks and Picard, or are we meant to dismiss Lower Decks as non-canon? That the episode even prompts this question is simply further evidence that the "gather all ships" premise is misguided. Although it’s an animated comedy, I've enjoyed Lower Decks considerably more than Picard in just about every capacity: not only does it feature more compelling original characters and plots, but it also has a better sense of Star Trek’s history, and a better understanding of why the franchise is appealing in the first place. Indeed, the premise of some Lower Deck episodes wouldn't be out of place on more straight-faced series like TNG or Voyager. If it’s a matter of choosing which series is canon, my vote is for Lower Decks.

- It’s funny how this season of Picard keeps recreating moments from the Star Trek films featuring the cast of the original series. Previous episodes mimicked Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the ending of “Vox” clearly repeats the end of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, when the original Enterprise crew flies into a space station on a shuttlecraft to get a glimpse the new Enterprise-A. Despite all of Picard’s faults, the scene works better on Picard than it did in The Final Frontier because on Picard, the crew are being reunited with the actual Enterprise-D we all know and love (or at least, it’s saucer section), rather than a facsimile of it.

- Although really, Lower Decks beat Picard to the punch here: Lower Decks parodied this exact sort of sequence, where the crew is in awe of the beauty of their ship, back in "Crisis Point," a season one episode that more broadly parodied the notion of Star Trek movies by having its characters act in a holodeck simulation of one.

- Overall, I like the assimilation plot here, but I laughed at the notion that we’re supposed to care about these young USS Titan officers who have been assimilated. Given their lack of personality, can you really tell the difference between their assimilated and individuated selves? This is even true of Sydney, who doesn't have any distinguishing traits other than her being Georgi's daughter. Indeed, I had to look up her name just now, and I bet some of you wondered who the hell Sydney is until I mentioned the phrase, "Geordi's daughter." Generally, Picard, like Discovery before it, seems to mistake species-designating facial prosthetics for character dispositions.

- Why does Picard keep featuring ancillary or recurring characters from TNG, only to kill them off? It’s fine when it’s also-rans like Hugh or Shelby, but it’s not so fine when they are beloved characters like Ro Laren. Bringing back Ro just to kill her off, as "Imposters" did, is an infuriating waste of a great character. Ro was an integral part of some of my favorite TNG episodes (“Disaster,” “The Next Phase,” “Conundrum,” and “Rascals,” among others), and her demise here, much like the Enterprise-D's demise in Generations, smacked of yet more careless misuse of TNG's rich history, a cheap ploy to generate some unearned emotional gravitas. It’s as if the writers can think of no other way to suggest peril other than by killing off characters from TNG’s past. Ro’s death is probably angriest I’ve been at this season of Picard.

- I keep trying to come up with different metaphors for what the writing of this series is like. Here's another: it's like Picard is written by someone who dreamed up TNG, but then woke up and could only remember bits and pieces of the dream.

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