Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Picard Plotting Problem

Way back in the prehistoric mists of 1999, the creative team behind Deep Space Nine closed out the show's seven-year run with a ten-episode finale arc. It was a ridiculous challenge, especially with the hectic pace of 1990s TV production. The writers had never done a ten-episode arc before, and this one had to not only be internally coherent but also wrap up all the threads from the previous seven years of storytelling. And while DS9's finale arc isn't 100% perfect, it's very well-executed. The story hangs together pretty well, and all of the character's actions flow naturally from their pre-existing motivations and personalities.

The writers of Star Trek: Picard were in a much better position. Their ten-episode arc was a standalone story, not the back half of a 26-episode season, and they had much more time to develop it. The majority of the series regulars were original characters, and the few regulars that came from previous Star Treks (i.e. Picard and Seven of Nine) hadn't been seen for years, which gave the writers some creative "wiggle room" in how they'd be portrayed.

So how would this new creative team tell the story of Jean-Luc Picard's twilight years? By giving us a very convoluted, mystery-box story full of flashbacks. Is it good? To help us answer that question, I created this list of all the show's major events in chronological order.

  1. The planet Romulus is threatened by a supernova, so the Romulans ask the Federation for help to evacuate their solar system. The Federation agrees, somewhat unwillingly, and Admiral Picard oversees the construction of a fleet of transport ships at the Utopia Planitia shipyards on Mars.
  2. The Utopia Planitia shipyards are using "synths" (i.e.mass-produced not-quite-sentient androids) as unpaid labor. Picard is 100% okay with this, even though he strenuously argued against using androids as slave labor in one of TNG's most pivotal episodes, "The Measure of a Man".
  3. The head of Starfleet Security, Commodore Oh, is a secret Romulan spy and the leader of an ancient and very secret Tal'Shiar splinter group called the "Zhat Vash" whose sole purpose is to eliminate artificial lifeforms. Her assistant, Lt. Rizzo, is also a disguised Zhat Vash agent named Narissa.
  4. Why do the Zhat Vash hate androids? It turns out there's a planet in an 8-star solar system that has this laser table thing left behind by a long-dead civilization, and when you touch it it puts images in your brain of an AI-induced holocaust very similar to the one they were trying to prevent in season 2 of Discovery. Anyway, going to the planet and receiving the laser table vision (which they call the Admonition) is part of the Zhat Vash initiation ceremony; those who aren't driven insane by it are left with a fanatical desire to wipe out all artificial life forms to keep them from destroying all the organic life in the universe.
  5. At this moment of maximum peril for the Romulan people, Commodore Oh and the Zhat Vash decide it's time to scare the Federation into banning all synths. They do this by hacking the synth laborers on Mars to make them attack and destroy the Utopia Planitia shipyards, the very place where the fleet of ships to rescue their people are being built.
  6. It's safe to say that the synths weren't manufactured overnight. There was probably a long R&D process, too. If the Zhat Vash really believe that the presence of any artificial life will inevitably lead to a universe-spanning Skynet, wouldn't they have sabotaged the project to keep the synths from being created in the first place? Why do they wait until a whole bunch of synths are already built, then hatch a plan that mainly just gets a bunch of Romulans killed? These are excellent questions that nobody (least of all the writers) seem to have considered.
  7. As a result of the Mars attack the Federation Council immediately bans synths and never conducts an investigation into what caused them to go haywire in the first place. Even though the attack killed millions of people and led to the near-death of an entire race, no one but Picard's former attache Raffi is interested in figuring out why it happened, and everyone treats her like she's crazy. She even loses her Starfleet career. 
  8. The Federation was never that crazy about helping the Romulans anyway, and now that the rescue fleet they were building is gone, they cancel the Romulan relief effort. Picard resigns from Starfleet in protest.
  9. Since his life's work is now banned, Dr. Bruce Maddox leaves the Daystrom Institute on Earth and sets up shop on the remote world of Coppelius, where he starts building androids based on Data. At some point, Noonien Soong's hitherto-unknown twin son Altan joins him. The Soongs obviously have the same weird genetic condition as the McFly family that causes all male descendants to look exactly alike. 
  10. Five years later the USS ibn Majid encounters two representatives from a unknown race of androids. When the Captain reports to Starfleet, Commodore Oh orders him to kill the androids immediately without trying to learn anything about their origins, threatening to destroy the ibn Majid unless he obeys. She then immediately classifies the incident. I guess the head of Starfleet Security has broad dictator-like powers that are never subject to review by any other Starfleet or civilian authorities. The location of the android's home planet remains a mystery.
  11. Fifteen years after the attack on Mars, Bruce Maddox sends twin android sisters Dahj and Soji to discover the truth behind the attack and resulting synth ban. However, he erases their memories and implants false ones to make them believe they're human. Supposedly this is to protect them from whatever shadowy anti-synth forces orchestrated the ban, but because they closely resemble one of the androids encountered by the ibn Majid ten years earlier the Zhat Vash instantly recognize them. 
  12. Commodore Oh and the Zhat Vash are suddenly very interested in finding Dahj and Soji's home planet, even though they've known about its existence for the last ten years and haven't bothered trying to find it before now.
  13. After sending Dahj and Soji on their mission, Maddox leaves the safety of Coppelius and borrows a bunch of money from an underworld figure named Bijayzl (whose main business is chopping up ex-Borg and selling their implants) to set up a new lab on a different, easier-to-find planet.
  14. The Zhat Vash agents on Earth attack Dahj and try to extract the location of the android homeworld from her brain, but this only serves to "activate" her and she kills them all thanks to her automatic defensive programming. However, this does not restore her memories of who she is, where she came from, and why she was sent to Earth. Instead it triggers kind of a post-hypnotic suggestion to seek refuge with Jean-Luc Picard, a 93-year-old retiree with no idea of what's going on.
  15. Dahj shows up on Picard's doorstep. He quickly deduces that she's an android "relative" of Data, but because he's just an elderly retired civilian he's unable to stop the Zhat Vash from assassinating her.  
  16. Meanwhile, Soji has been given a job as a guest researcher on a deactivated Borg cube in Romulan space. Maddox placed her here so she could hack into Romulan databases for clues about the truth behind the synth ban. Since a direct, brutal approach failed to get any information from Dahj, Zhat Vash agent Narek (Narissa's loser brother) decides to try a different approach with Soji: he'll use his penis.
  17. A note about the Borg cube. Narissa and her aunt both underwent the Admonition, but it drove the aunt insane. She was on her way home to Romulus when a Borg cube assimilated her ship, but the effects of the Admonition caused the Borg cube to "break" and it was severed from the Collective. Now it's a dead artifact, and the impoverished remnant of the Romulan Empire makes money by harvesting and selling its tech. They also host research teams from other planets, and even administer a reclamation project where the drones are de-Borged, brought out of suspended animation, and helped to live normal-ish lives.
  18. Picard learns that Dahj had a twin and resolves to save her from suffering the same fate as her sister. But there's just one problem: he doesn't know where she is. Somehow he figures out that Bruce Maddox may know, if only he can be found. He hires a civilian ship, the La Sirena, recruits his old attache Raffi, and is joined by former Maddox colleague Agnes Jurati.
  19. The Zhat Vash destroy Bruce Maddox's new lab. He escapes and runs to the shady Borg-butchering criminal he owes money to. It doesn't go well for him.
  20. Raffi discovers that Maddox is on the planet Freecloud.
  21. Instead of going directly to Freecloud, Picard orders the La Sirena's Captain Rios to set course for the planet Vashti where a bunch of Romulan refugees live. You see, his motley crew has a traumatized ex-Starfleet pilot, a computer hacker, and a scientist lady, but since they're likely to encounter fanatical Zhat Vash agents who want to kill them with phasers, Picard decides they need a guy who's good with a sword.
  22. On Vashti, Picard finds his sword guy: a Romulan named Elnor that he abandoned as a child. They also pick up Seven of Nine during a battle with a Romulan pirate ship.
  23. Picard and friends rescue Maddox from Bijayzl, and Seven kills her in retribution for butchering Icheb years earlier in a horrible, torture-porny scene that has no place in Star Trek.
  24. Maddox tells Picard where Soji is. When they're alone, Agnes kills Maddox. But she only did it because of a compulsion put into her head by Commodore Oh via mind meld, so she doesn't get in trouble. Apparently "Your Honor, my client only killed that guy because a Romulan mind-meld made her do it" is a valid murder defense in the 24th century.
  25. Meanwhile, Soji is freaking out as she realizes she's not human. You think this would be a good time for her memories to come back, since full awareness of who she is and why she's on the Borg cube could help her protect herself and maybe even accomplish her mission. But that does not happen. Instead, the gaps in her memories and need for answers allow Narek to get the location of Coppelius from her before abandoning her in a death trap.
  26. Fortunately, Soji's android abilities kick in and she escapes from the death trap, runs into Picard, and through an extremely fortunate series of events is able to escape with him to the Planet of Rikers.
  27. After a warm and fuzzy TNG reunion, Picard and Soji rejoin the La Sirena for the trip to Coppelius.
  28. Also en route to Coppelius: a 200-ship Romulan armada led by Commodore Oh. Up until this moment the post-supernova Romulan Empire has been portrayed as a loose assemblage of third-world refugees. How they were able to build 200 advanced warships isn't explained. It's like if Somalia suddenly had a huge navy of Virginia-class nuclear submarines. Also, if the crippled remains of the post-supernova Romulan Empire are able to build and crew a fleet of 200 giant warships, the full-strength pre-supernova Empire should have been able to build their own evacuation fleet. Why did they need the Federation's help at all? This excellent question is (surprise!) never addressed.
  29. And now I need to back up a little, because while Picard and Soji were kicking it on the Planet of Rikers, Elnor and Hugh (formerly of Borg) were fighting Romulans on the Cube. Narissa kills Hugh, and then Seven of Nine shows up and leads Elnor to the Queen's chamber. Her plan? To plug herself into the cube and reactivate the dormant Borg drones. Finally, the thing that they've been teasing since the second episode! But it's a huge step. Will Seven be able to retain her humanity? Or will she again be consumed by the Borg? She makes her choice. She plugs in. And then Narissa opens a giant door and all the Borg are blown into space, so Seven just unplugs herself and there are no ill effects.
  30. Meanwhile, the La Sirena arrives at Coppelius ahead of the Romulan armada, but they've been followed by Narek in a one-man fighter. They fight, and Narek has the upper hand until the Borg cube under Seven's control comes barreling out of a transwarp conduit. Suddenly all the ships are enveloped by giant space flowers and they crash on the planet.
  31. Picard and friends walk to the android settlement (with a brief detour to the crashed Borg cube to say hi to Elnor and Seven) and meet Dr. Altan Soong and the android Sutra, who looks like a gold-skinned version of Soji and Dahj. Sutra mind-melds with Agnes to see the Admonition for herself and realizes that the Romulans had misunderstood it. They believed it was left by a society that had been wiped out by androids to warn others from suffering the same fate. But was actually left by a society of androids to warn future androids of the danger posed to them by organics, and to promise that an alliance of synthetic life from some extradimensional realm stands ready to rescue them from all organic oppressors. 
  32. Picard wants to evacuate the Coppelius androids on the La Sirena, take them to the Federation, and give an impassioned Picard Speech to compel the government to protect them. Sutra wants to use the information encoded in the Admonition to build a giant antenna to send an SOS to the extradimensional AI alliance, even though there's a very real chance that the Super-AIs will exterminate all the organic lifeforms in the galaxy and maybe even the universe. Not surprisingly, the androids opt for Sutra's plan over the nonagenarian French vintner they just met five minutes ago.
  33. Also, Picard's terminal disease that we learned about at the beginning of the show is finally starting to take its toll. Dr. Soong shows off a "golem"--basically a blank unfinished android body-- and mentions that he's working on a mind-transfer process. Gee, I wonder what'll happen with that?
  34. Soji comes around to Sutra's way of thinking and helps her build the giant antenna thing. Meanwhile, Jurati helps Picard escape confinement and they hurry to the La Sirena to try to head off the approaching Romulan fleet.
  35. On the Borg cube, Narissa is still alive and well. Her and Seven fight, and Seven knocks her into a bottomless pit. 
  36. The La Sirena and the giant space flowers face off against the Romulan armada, and there's lots of flying around and phaser firing. Picard FaceTimes with Soji and gives her an inspiring Picard Speech about what it means to be human. Then a giant Starfleet armada made up of hastily-rendered low-resolution CGI ships warps in .
  37. The androids briefly activate the antenna, and it shoots an energy beam into space, creating a sky hole through which evil robotic Doc Ock tentacles begin to emerge. But then Altan Soong deactivates Sutra by pressing the Off button on what I assume is a universal remote, and Soji has a change of heart provoked by Picard's "what it means to be human" speech. She turns off the antenna, and the sky hole collapses.
  38. The Starfleet armada, led by Captain Riker, hails Commodore Oh and tells her to stand down or he'll kick her "treacherous Tal'Shiar ass". The Romulans warp away.
  39. After Riker has a brief exchange with Picard, the Federation fleet also warps away. Not even one ship hangs around in case the Romulans come back. Picard finally succumbs to his illness and dies.
  40. Everyone is super sad and depressed because Jean-Luc Picard, star of the show Star Trek: Picard, is dead. CBS has already announced that the show will have a second season, but obviously, season two of Star Trek: Picard will have no Picard in it, because Jean Luc-Picard is dead. Nah, they weren't setting up anything with that blank android body and the mind-transferring machine. We, the audience, are supposed to sit through several sad and weepy scenes with Raffi and Elnor and Seven and Rios as they give voice to the grief that we feel at the irreversible loss of this great man, and believe that his illustrious life has finally come to an end.
  41. And then Picard wakes up in his study on Earth. Data is there too! A strange, uncanny-valley-looking Data that reminds me of the "young" Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy. Is this the afterlife? No, Data explains that it's a "quantum simulation". Drs. Jurati and Soong scanned Picard's brain and downloaded his consciousness here just before he died. As for Data, Dr. Maddox re-created his consciousness from the memories he downloaded into his less-advanced "brother" B-4 in the worst Star Trek movie ever made and he's been "alive" ever since, hanging out inside a futuristic Mr. Coffee on a table in a lab. This raises all kinds of fascinating story possibilities. Maybe Data could download into a new body and meet his "descendants" on Coppelius. Maybe his consciousness could be "rebooted" in the process, allowing the role of Data to be recast as a younger actor. We could see Data live again in one of the more humanlike bodies that Soji and Dahj had, experiencing the human condition instead of merely observing it. But instead, we go back to that old Star Trek trope that there's nothing more human than dying, and Data wants to die. He asks Picard to turn off his simulation when he gets back. He never asks about his best friend Geordi, or any of his other friends from the Enterprise. As far as this show's writers are concerned, Jean-Luc Picard was Data's best and only friend.
  42. And then Picard wakes up again on Coppelius. Soong and Jurati modified the golem to look like him and then downloaded his consciousness into it. It's implied that Soong might have a terminal illness and had intended the golem for himself, which would mean he made quite a sacrifice for this guy he just met yesterday. But like most interesting plot threads in this show, it's not addressed at all. Now, if you or I were downloaded into an android body we'd want to be younger or better-looking. But not Picard! He still looks and feels like a 90-year-old man, and he likes it that way! No android superpowers or extended lifespan for him! Now reborn, Picard fulfills his promise to Data by turning off the Mr. Coffee that contains his consciousness. Inside the quantum simulation, we see Data grow old and die with Picard at his side.
  43. We learn that the events on Coppelius have caused the Federation Council to rescind the synth ban. One wonders how, in the space of like two days, the entire Federation learned the whole truth about the events on Coppelius and the Zhat Vash's conspiracy, then went through all the political debate and drafting and passing of legislation necessary to reverse a longstanding policy. Of course, the writers did not wonder about this. They wanted the synth ban to be gone, and so it is with a magical dialogue handwave. What are the implications of this? Does it mean a resumption of android slave labor? And what about Commodore Oh? Will she be brought to justice? Is Starfleet going to conduct some kind of investigation to find out how a Romulan agent managed to worm her way to the top of their organization and find how much damage she did? None of these questions are addressed or even mentioned.
  44. Picard and his cobbled-together crew are reunited on the La Sirena. Picard looks around appreciatively, and gives the order to "Engage!"
  45. But wait, where are they going? This isn't a Starfleet vessel on an open-ended exploratory mission, it's a cargo ship for hire. The job Picard hired Captain Rios for is done, so everybody has to go their separate ways now, right? Like, are they just going to fly around and randomly do stuff until the ship runs out of fuel because Rios isn't doing jobs any more and couldn't afford a trip to the gas station?
I can't believe that professional writers are responsible for this horrible mess of a story. So many characters do so many nonsensical out-of-character things simply to move the plot along. If the answer to the question "Why did this character take this action?" is always "So the story can happen" then your story needs more work. 

The true behind-the-scenes story of how the first season of Picard was written and filmed may never be told. Heck, some of the behind-the-scenes stories from the Original Series didn't come to light until some of the people involved had died of old age. I strongly suspect that Michael Chabon came up with the final Picard-Data scene first, and then he and the other writers worked backward to construct a plot around it. You can see the needlessly-complex mystery-box plotting that Alex Kurtzman lifted from J.J. Abrams here, and I think it's very telling that Patrick Stewart had a measure of creative control, too. Stewart had significant story input on the TNG movies, too, and in almost every single instance it made the movie worse. Kristen Beyer is the only member of the writing staff I have any faith in; she established her Trek bonafides with a successful series of Voyager novels before CBS revived Star Trek for TV. The rest of them all claim to be Star Trek fans, but that's probably just publicity. Their work is proof that they don't understand the universe they're working in.

I'm rapidly approaching my mid-40s, and I've been a Star Trek fan all my life. But this may shock you: I don't care much about Star Trek canon. What I want is to see believable and compelling characters in interesting, well-told stories that stay true to the spirit of Star Trek. All in all, I think the best piece of advice ever given to Star Trek writers appeared in Gene Roddenberry's show bible for The Original Series:


... translate it into a real life situation. Or,
sometimes as useful, try it in your mind as a scene
in GUNSMOKE, NAKED CITY, or some similar show.
Would you believe the people and the scene if it
happened there?


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