Picard and Skywalker: The Trials of the Legendary Hero's Journey in Modern Sci-Fi
I have been watching the new streaming Star Trek series, Picard, and thus far have been very impressed with it. One of the elements that has taken some re-adjusting was this new interpretation of Jean-Luc Picard. Any fan of Next Generation remembers him as the intelligent, passionate, and decisive captain of three starships. While not perfect, he still seemed to perfectly embody the ideals of the Federation in the 24th century.
By the present day, an older and slightly more anxious Picard goes back to reinstate himself so he can get a ship and crew to search for Dr. James Maddox, the creator of the Synths, artificial/biological androids. They served throughout the Federation until they orchestrated an inside-attack on Mars. Maddox has been missing since the attack. Picard is flatly rejected, forcing him to seek more non-traditional methods of transportation and crew.
Throughout his journey so far, the former Starfleet captain has found himself in a far different galaxy than the one he left behind. It is revealed to him that the main reason behind the Federation’s abandonment of the Romulans was that they had been difficult with previous overtures and several member planets wanted nothing to do with them to begin with. Threatening to leave the centuries-long galactic organization if they continued to try, Starfleet chose Picard’s resignation-stunt over continuing with the operation.
That is not all either. Picard is also shown to have made several mistakes in the interim 15 years that now come back to haunt him, from not communicating with his faithful second-in-command, Raife, to Romulan refugees being very pissed at him for failing to come through on the Federation’s promises. Picard still holds the same ideals that made him famous in Next Generation, but now they feel dated and out of place, often leaving the former captain clueless to the ulterior motives of the people helping him. Nevermind the natural effects of age and an unknown ailment slowly affecting him.
It’s a drastic departure from the captain of the Enterprise D, who could talk his way out of most fights with impassioned speeches and reason, make hard moral choices, and could fight when the situation called for it. I've read many comments online about how many fans are not happy with this new, darker, edgier Star Trek.
Up and Coming Trope
Stepping out for a moment, the idea of subverting a franchise by deconstructing the established hero is nothing new, especially in sci-fi. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was considered by many to be a darker turn because of how Captain Sisko often pushes the limits of Trek morality and other times flat out breaking them to achieve victory. Game of Thrones was considered early on to be the dark side of Lord of the Rings because its heroes came in a mix of three ways: noble and foolish, dead, or compromised.
Basically, when it comes to compelling storytelling, peace is boring and the perfect, moral hero is not relatable enough, which ironically were the very elements that made the franchise so endearing to people. Simple as that. A cocktail of nihilism and commercialism.
Look to the Person Beside You
There is a comparison to be made with Star Trek’s longtime rival, Star Wars. Star Wars has also found itself in a similar position when the franchise was continued through Disney. Or more specifically, Luke Skywalker.
Instead of leaving off with the happy ending of Return of the Jedi, the new trilogy instead pulls the rug out by having Luke disappear after a failed attempt to train future Jedi, even considering killing his own nephew because of the dark side in him. A hard 180 turn from being the guy who wanted to spare his father not decades before. Now a hermit, Skywalker abandons all his familial connections and actively resists getting back involved with the galaxy before finally doing so.
Both Picard and Skywalker have legions of fans who adore their original portrayals in shows and movies that spanned decades. Both represented the ethical and moral peak of what their franchises were about. That effectively made them more myth than actual people. And apparently to a certain degree, both got similar treatments when trying to be brought into the modern context.
Old men who are now rough around the edges and out of touch with what's happening around them because they abandoned their purpose after a monumental failure. The parallels are uncanny, if not commercial. Yet, Picard so far has not suffered the outrage that the new trilogy has in its portrayal of this trope. Why is that?
Who Are You
I believe that it's largely due to how the two characters were approached, as both fan bases are equally as passionate. When I watch the sequel trilogy, as conflicting as they were with each other, they all shared a desire to alter the core of who Luke Skywalker was. Two were for money and as a proxy for younger heroes to replace him, while the other set out to create a more philosophical and some say nihilistic interpretation of the hero, with elements of social awareness thrown in on the side.
Either way, outside forces sought to change what made Luke Skywalker the hero from the OG trilogy. What allowed the character to connect with generations of fans. Mark Hamil has said he did not like this change because it was not the character he made famous so long ago, but he agreed to it because he’s a professional. In his view though, Luke Skywalker was a Jedi and Jedi don’t just give up. However, he had little input into the treatment of the character. Therefore, many longtime fans barely recognized their hero, even despite the movies trying to retcon that in Rise of Skywalker.
Picard treated its titular character differently. Patrick Stewart has said multiple times that he initially didn’t want to do the show and when he finally agreed, it was on the condition that it would not be the same portrayal of Picard from 30 years ago. The actor became an active part of the character’s development rather than just being paid to fill out a suit for fan service.
Therefore, the older version of Picard feels more like a natural progression rather than a radical hard right from out of nowhere. The show takes aspects of the character and applies logic to where it would go under certain conditions, while at the same time still being fundamentally the same guy. Old Picard has a hard time controlling himself, demands to be taken seriously to the point of forcing his voice on others, and is somewhat self-entitled. Yet he also still has a strong, moral center and strives to do the right thing. As a darkly, cynical Seven of Nine points out when speaking about him,
“Picard still believes there's a place for mercy in the universe. I didn’t want to disillusion him...someone out here has got to have a little hope”.
These are characteristics that the character has always had, but were more controlled when Picard was younger and not as vulnerable . Seven’s comment also says a lot in that it’s exactly this out of touch aspect of Picard that makes him a beacon of hope in a galaxy that has lost its ability to hope anymore. People yell or laugh at him on the surface, but underneath they either deeply respect the man or know what he’s truly capable of despite his age. There ‘s a respect for the character that balances out the deconstruction. Old Picard is still Picard.
The difference is subtle, but it's there. The writers paid more attention to Picard’s nuances that made the character who he was and worked that progression over a 30-year period. Meanwhile, the writers of the sequel trilogy did not work together with the actor who portrays Skywalker in order to craft an aged version of him that was still him at his core. They did not pay attention to what made Luke develop into who he was by Return of the Jedi and then take that idea, asking themselves,
“What would this character do if this circumstance was thrust on him, based on what he’s done before?”
Aspects of the man would have changed over 30 years. I would argue though that the old Skywalker they came up with was based on general stereotypes, personal philosophies about how life works, and marketing instead of the character’s core personality.
Only Up From Here
Of course, a hero is still a hero. And even with the level of care taken with Picard, there are still fans who don’t like seeing the utopia and hope that the character personified now becoming old, obsolete, and irrelevant. However, it's not like all the times Picard is being told off are not unwarranted nor treated candidly. They are speaking a point about both the man and the Federation itself for failing their ideals and surrendering to the encroaching and more cynical worldview. They both started out in a good place and then stopped when their ideals were not seemingly able to keep up with the darker side peoples’ nature. I think the next season, however, will show Picard starting to adjust to his current reality and trying to improve it rather than just accepting it.
Between financial backers and fan expectations, it's a tricky tightrope to walk. Picard has so far worked that balance very well. So I find this official version of him palatable, if challenging, because they respect the fundamental personality, while at the same time introducing new elements that could alter its trajectory.
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© 2020 Jamal Smith