Using what little strength is left in his shivering knees, Picard lifts the bleeding ensign off his chest. He watches as the young girl nods in gratitude before laying on her back. She is alive, for the moment. The same, however, is not true for the ocean of corpses that surround him. The corners of his tattered robe dance in the burning air. The boiling sandy ground sears his bare feet. Yet, somehow, none of that registers. The emotion running through him, the only one he remembers feeling – despair – crashes over him in an instant as he looks up at the sky.
Up there, against a rain of tumbling starships covered in halos of fire and smoke, a billboard as wide as the Titanic itself reads: MAKE STARFLEET GREAT AGAIN.
The 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica was originally going to be a very different show. While conceiving it early on, Star Trek alum and show-runner Ronald D. Moore, along with billions of others, witnessed 9/11. Apart from the emotional devastation it caused, 9/11 became the reality that Moore decided his BSG would mirror. It would feel hopeless at times, it would not be afraid to be dark, but most importantly, it would never forget the question beating at its very core: how do we as a species confront something that is different from us, and yet fundamentally similar to us?
I sat among the thousands in the Main Theater at STLV 2018 in wordless awe as Sir Patrick Stewart graced the stage. After announcing his return in a new series he gave us clues about where Picard is. “He may not be a Captain anymore,” he said. “He may be someone who has been changed by his experiences.” My imagination immediately zoomed at warp speed to the possibilities. He could be a Starfleet Academy professor! He might be in the Mirror Universe! We finally could see his deep-sea diving adventures with Livingston!
Then Battlestar Galactica jumped at me. It fused its sci fi future with our grim present successfully (so successfully, in fact, BSG was presented in the United Nations as a study on diplomacy) without sacrificing narrative integrity. Star Trek today, for better or for worse, is at the same crossroads that BSG was in ‘03. The world feels hopeless, darkness lurks in every corner, and two terrifying questions demand to be answered. The first: how did America, the supposed Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, mutate into the Land of the Oppressed and the Home of the Silenced?
But the second and perhaps the more important question is: where do we go from here?
From when I was a kid growing up in India who favored the monotone communicator beep to the pew-pew of a blaster to now a twenty six year old immigrant living in the US, Star Trek has always been a good teacher to me, and Starfleet was obviously a metaphor for America. An institution where everyone is welcome, every lifestyle is accepted, everything else is secondary to hard work and dedication, why, that was America! I had never been here and yet somehow I felt like I knew America, because I knew Starfleet.
But as I write this in August 2018 America is gladly separating children from their mothers. She is gleefully shooting innocent black men in her streets. She is proudly shutting her doors to the rest of the world. She is hurriedly abandoning the olive branch in favor of the military-grade submachine gun available at your local Walmart!
This is America. By extension, to me, this is also Starfleet. It is high time Star Trek confronts it in a way that is not hidden in deep-space star systems or complex metaphors.
Bring me back to earth. Systematically unravel the legalese of Starfleet to show how humanity’s greatest aspiration – to discover, befriend and coexist with all life in the universe – could be turned into a sick, twisted ideal that pits us all against one another and drives us to our own destruction. Explore the idea that the universe can go from being the greatest community to the most violent battlefield in a surprisingly short time, and that this can happen quickly and legally. Before our naked eyes, mold Starfleet into Trumpfleet.
Viewers argue rightly that the biggest reason for Picard being the Greatest Captain of All Time is because he is a true everyman. It is his self-doubt that enables us to see ourselves as we are. But it is his quiet, unbreakable grip on his morality, one that leads him to cry out “There are four lights!” while imprisoned in a room surrounded by his enemies on a hostile planet that enables us to see who we can be.
What happens when someone with such ironclad conviction breaks? What happens when Picard, the most hopeful of us, succumbs to despair? Realizing he does not recognize Starfleet anymore, he abandons it and disappears from the world, and is forced to confront it when it ends up setting of a forest fire that burns down the universe.
This would be a spectacular Trek story to me, not because I am yearning particularly for an apocalyptic, doomsday version of Star Trek. It is also not just because I, like many of us, feel myself being drawn closer every day to despair or because the Starfleet I chose to enroll in – the one draped in red, white and blue – is becoming a far cry from the shining, hopeful beacon I thought her to be.
It is because Jean Luc Picard taught me that if my moral code tells me something has become an evil version of itself, even if it is something I am a part of, that I break it. And break it not for the sake of breaking it, but break it so I can build something better.