Roughly fifteen minutes into the first episode of “Star Trek: Picard,” an unnamed interviewer (who I was already sure I couldn’t stand) asked Jean-Luc Picard the question all viewers were wondering: “Tell us, Admiral, why did you really quit Starfleet?”
It’s a fair question. In all of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the closest we see Picard get to disowning Starfleet is in an expression of fatherly disappointment, the sentiment that he will not accept the state of things because he knows Starfleet can do better.
So, when Picard’s face curled into something resembling disgust as he responded, I was more than a little concerned. In fact, I was so caught up in that concern that I almost missed his muttered reply: “Because it was no longer Starfleet.”
And in one extremely Picard line, I found myself in an unfamiliar position: I felt like I understood Jean-Luc Picard.
In context, the line becomes even more powerful. Years ago, Picard led a campaign to save the citizens of Romulus from the supernova that would destroy their planet. As preparations were being made for the mission, tragedy struck. A group of synthetic life forms—which, here, can range from androids to accidentally-sentient holograms—rebelled and destroyed a settlement on Mars in an act of terrorism that killed thousands.
In the aftermath, synthetic lifeforms were completely banned from the Federation, and the resulting spike of cultural distrust inspired Starfleet to terminate their aid toward Romulus. It’s hinted for the rest of the episode that the few Romulan survivors are not well-treated by the Federation.
The rest of the interview scene shows Picard raging about the injustice of it all, including a particularly chilling pair of lines where his interviewer suggests that Romulan lives are somehow inferior to those of Federation citizens.
Jean-Luc Picard may be an old Frenchman from a utopian future, but at that moment, I couldn’t help but relate to him, even as a modern American college student.
Anyone who has paid attention to American politics in the past few years can see the comparisons. Romulans become equivalent to Middle Eastern refugees, discriminated against based on past conflict.
Synthetics do the same, as the government tries to enact a ban on them based on the actions of an extremist sect.
The exchange of lines about Romulan lives is reminiscent of certain statements that have been made regarding children at border camps.
Picard is horrified at the hate and indifference surrounding him, and he removes himself from association with the people who are enabling it, tearing at the world for its selfishness. Still, his fury seems to retain that strange undercurrent of hope that he is known for: We can do better. We must. We will.