Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
Star Trek used to be one thing. There was only one starship, the USS Enterprise. And there was only one captain, James T. Kirk. Oh sure, we would see other ships and other commanding officers on the show and in the movies, but when the iconic opening narration said, “These are the voyages,” we knew whose voyages really mattered.
All that changed in 1987, when Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) debuted in syndication. Suddenly, the Trek franchise opened up to allow the adventures of others. Jumping farther into the narrative’s future, we met the USS Enterprise-D and its new crew. From that point forward, there would be other ships and other officers. We got to know Commander and later Captain Benjamin Sisko, Captain Kathryn Janeway, and we even bounced back a bit in time to meet Captain Jonathan Archer. However, the captain that opened that door and proved that Trek could be something new and leadership could be something other than Kirk was Next Gen’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Fans like to compare, and the question of who was a better captain, Kirk or Picard, is somewhat irresistible. Despite that temptation though, the decision will be dutifully dodged here. The point is that Picard was new, not a duplicate of Space Age adventurism we had seen before.
As played by Patrick Stewart and written by countless creative people, Picard was the most English Frenchman in popular culture. Measured and patient, his leadership style was team-based and he often took counsel from the capable group of officers he cultivated around him. Picard is sometimes criticized as staid and stoic, but he had the deep spirit of an explorer and a passion for creativity. Yet, he was also an effective action hero. Picard could win a fistfight or a starship battle, but only after he did everything he could to avoid it.
Now, a bit over three decades later, we are about to touch base with that captain once again. On Jan. 23, the CBS All-Access streaming service is going to launch the new series, Picard. I am very excited to catch up with the captain again. It is not like he completely vanished. The Next Gen crew appeared in four motion pictures between 1994 and 2002. And, of course, he is always there in re-runs.
This is something different, though. The Trek franchise has not re-visited this era of Trek with new stories in quite a while. It is a bit too complicated to explain, but when J. J. Abrams rebooted the adventures of Kirk and his Enterprise, the twisty time travel narrative involved may or may not have altered Picard’s future. More importantly, the latest Trek series Discovery (2017-present) was set in an era before Kirk’s time.
Distilling that complicated narrative and production perspective down a bit, what this all really means is that we are coming home. Maybe not to the original Trek home the franchise grew up in, but rather the home Trek built for itself when it matured.
The trailers for Picard have made it clear that the good captain will be in a very different position. No longer with Starfleet, but still ready to fight for what is right and save the day. It is good and exciting to know that he will be out there among the stars again.