Sunday, February 16, 2014

#684. Next Generation Rewind: A Most Redeemable Man

When you think of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you probably consider Jean-Luc Picard to be a pretty sober individual who was about as in control of himself as someone can get.  And you'd be pretty accurate in that assessment, except the thing is, he wasn't always that way.  By the time of "Encounter at Farpoint," he had indeed become that man, but before that, and possibly leading up to that very moment, Picard was in fact in desperate need of redemption.  Simply put, if you think James T. Kirk was a pretty wild guy, the Picard prior to when we got to know him would have put Kirk to shame.

And the thing is, even when he was at his best, Picard still needed the challenge to his worst impulses to keep him there.

As any fan of the series knows, Picard lost his original heart not long after graduating from Starfleet Academy after picking a fight with a Nausicaan, a surly brute of an alien he tried to hustle in a game of futuristic pool.  If that weren't bad enough, Picard actually welcomed a fight not just with one Nausicaan, but several of his friends as well.  He ended up stabbed through the chest.  Luckily for him, the doctors of his time didn't consider that a fatal condition.

Yet even after that, he was hardly the model of the perfect officer.  The first starship he ever commanded was the Stargazer, a ship Picard lost in a encounter with an unknown enemy (later revealed to be the Ferengi), which he abandoned as derelict.  More damning, however, is the unhealthy relationship he fostered with the wife of an officer serving under him, who was even a good friend of Picard's.

All this, presumably, because he was always he told he shouldn't pursue his dreams.  Picard's brother Robert considered it a betrayal to the family when the young Jean-Luc decided to enter Starfleet Academy.  Picard didn't even successfully pass the entrance exam the first time.  Not only did this create a man with something to prove, but someone desperate to strike out and rebel.

Surely this attitude made him stand out among his peers.  Starfleet would have been willing to overlook Picard's more self-destructive behaviors, after all having already experienced the career of Jim Kirk he might have seemed like exactly what the captain of the flagship needed to be.

And yet, somehow, by the time he assumed command of the Enterprise, Picard became an entirely changed man, a redeemed man.  He no longer resembled the man he once was in the slightest degree.  He now appeared to be the polar opposite of that man, in fact.  Age doesn't have anything to do with it.  Kirk proved decades into his own career that growing older didn't temper his wilder instincts.

So what happened to Jean-Luc Picard?

Well, for one thing, he picked the only first officer who could from the start promise to keep him in check.  William T. Riker wasn't even graded a commander yet when Picard selected him, but he'd already developed a reputation of questioning his commanding officers even if it meant jeopardizing his career.  With a man like that under him, what else was Picard to do?  Surely an older and more experienced man at this point in his career, Picard would at least know exactly what he was doing.  Knowing there is someone watching your every move can sometimes be enough to curb your worse instincts.

There was also Beverly Crusher, the widow of Picard's best friend, serving as chief medical officer.  This was a tempting affair that had long haunted Picard.  They'd never acted upon it, and the presence of Crusher's young son Wesley was itself reason to reconsider whatever Picard had once thought of the relationship.  Picard hated kids.  And yet, there was something about this boy that reminded him of himself, looking for challenges that were more self-imposed than real, a need to prove he was good enough and not just that but better than those around him, not out of arrogance but a yearning to fill a void.  Wesley's void was his father, Picard's best friend.  What else was Picard to do but recalibrate in that way, too?

The bartender Guinan first appproached him years earlier, as if she'd known him all her life, and Picard felt the same from the moment they met.  In another lifetime they would have been lovers, but this mutual understanding was more an unspoken bond of survivors.  What had Guinan survived?  Without ever asking her, he always knew she understood him, and it was this quiet compassion that helped give him the strength to improve himself, too.

In fact, Picard surrounded himself with a host of such figures.  He wouldn't learn the extent of Data's journey until later, but there was something about the android's humble service in Starfleet that intrigued Picard.  He was the only one of his kind, and was capable of great things, but chose to serve as just another officer, and until the Enterprise, that was exactly what Data was.  It was Picard who elevated him to a level of importance, and Picard alone who continually championed him.

Worf was a similar figure, the only Klingon officer, and a survivor as well, who had been raised by humans but never lost his love for a people he never knew, him too searching for someone who would accept him for who and what he was.

Geordi La Forge, the blind officer whose ambition was to become chief engineer, but perhaps had never been taken seriously due to his handicap, artificially corrected or otherwise.  What else would Picard see in him but a reflection of the family who told him he should stay at home and conform to more common dreams?

Deanna Troi, who perhaps for Picard was Riker's answer to his own Beverly Crusher dilemma.  Perhaps it was a way to test his first officer, see if he could still perform to the best of his abilities if confronted with a past relationship he'd never found resolution with, in the form of a woman who also knew what it was to stand between worlds, from her human father to her Betazoid mother.  As ship's counselor, Troi's empathic abilities would negate the ability to lie of nearly everyone Picard would encounter.  It would also force Picard himself to be truthful.

Tasha Yar, the final member of his senior staff, knew what it was to be a survivor as well.  Had she lived long enough, her attraction to Picard might have led to a relationship he could tolerate.  Her absence in later years created a void first recognized by Data, as powerful an acknowledgment as any coming from an android more commonly known to operate without the benefit of emotion.

The last and truest test came from Q.  Who else but Q challenged Picard so thoroughly, not physically but intellectually?  Who else but Q constantly forced him to think of some other way around a problem but the wild impulses Q himself so outlandishly embodied?  Who else but Q could manifest the kind of individual Picard had once been?  Who else but Q to ensure Picard finally did become the best version of himself?

All these figures forcing Jean-Luc Picard to complete his redemption.  Starfleet gave him the chance.  It was Picard who completed it.

The movies have a funny way of reflecting this journey.  In Generations, Picard's bond with Data is solidified when they're both forced to handle the culmination of their life's journeys.  Picard loses his family and his sense of rebellion, Data finally obtains emotions.  Yet neither of these developments come happily to them.  Their journeys mutually conclude in First Contact, when they're confronted with the easy way out, the perfect oblivion of the Borg, and opt for something greater, the noble ideal that they have come to recognize in each other.  Insurrection reveals how Picard always had the strength within himself if only he'd trusted his instincts instead of rebelling against them.  On an idyllic world where time can literally stand still, he meets a woman who challenges all his preconceptions, at a time in his life when even Picard believes he's matured because he's aged rather than for any qualities he's possessed all along.  Nemesis is the mirror he never wanted to confront, the inner turmoil he outgrew rather than confronted.  And what are the results?  They're ugly, in fact.  Perhaps that's another reason fans never liked this one.  Yet the movie also affirms how he overcame his demons, by trusting those around him. Ironically if Picard had ever trusted himself, he might have trusted Shinzon, too, and the resulting crisis averted.  Shinzon's suicidal fury, his need to challenge the entire universe in order to feel vindicated in his righteous rejection, is an exact copy of Picard's earlier years.  The Reman caretaker Shinzon trusts so implicitly is the opposite of the groundskeeper Boothby who befriended Picard at Starfleet Academy.  Picard himself might have still corrected Shinzon's errors, if he had become the troubled youth's Riker, or Guinan.

Picard was at his best when challenged to be the best.  At the height of Next Generation's popularity, he came to overshadow Kirk in the imaginations of the fans.  He wasn't just Kirk's opposite, but the very ideal of the Star Trek vision that humanity might one day perfect itself.  Yet Picard himself didn't reach that point easily.  He was by no means a perfect man, but certainly a most redeemable man.  And perhaps that's the best that could be said of him, that even if the best version of himself came late in his life, Picard still managed to project an image that suggested he'd always been that way.  So what if he wasn't?  But thanks goodness he wasn't.

Because as role models go, he's better that way.



Excellent post!
The show had a great way of revealing his redemption over the course of its existence.

Remembering Grace said...

Oh, I love it when you write essays like these!

This is an awesome look into Picard's character. I've never given a lot of thought to how he chose the rest of the senior officers beyond Riker. Fascinating!

What always bugged me was how Generations killed off his family...I thought it was unnecessary. His brother, SIL and nephew were given five minutes of time and then we've moved on...and now when I watch a rerun of the TNG episode "Family" I feel so empty.

Tony Laplume said...

David, thanks!

Grace, I don't think they were given short shrift by any means. On the contrary, it forced Picard to complete the journey begun in "Family," where it was Robert who had to accept what his brother had become. Generations was a long-in-coming moment for Picard to admit that he'd willingly sacrificed a considerable part of himself all those years ago, only to learn it was another thing he came to regret. It was a moment of clarity, and fits in with everything I tried to argue here, the redemptive arc that saw Picard in his later years confront everything that was lacking in himself previously.

Stephanie said...

What a great Picard-centric rundown of TNG! It would be interesting to do an essay of the show from character's POV. Well, not POV, really, but with them as the hero of that journey. Picard, of course, really is the center. Were you as big a fan of DS9? I'd love to see this approach applied to Sisko.

Tony Laplume said...

I'm a bigger fan of DS9 than TNG. It'd certainly be interesting to examine each of the characters like this. I hadn't considered it. Perhaps something to think about...


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