The final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “All Good Things…” was the best way to finish one of my favorite shows of all time. So I was thrilled, but also wary, of revisiting these iconic characters again. For the most part, I’ve been happy with Picard so far. The acting is superb, the writing is topnotch, and it’s amazing to be back with a character I really cared about. But wow, Starfleet has changed a lot.
For me, the Federation and Starfleet’s utopian vision of a future where humans have transcended the petty differences that have marred much of their history wasn’t just bold; it was deeply inspiring. There are so many incredible episodes throughout Star Trek where the characters act primarily to help others, even at the cost of self. It is true, having a post-scarcity society where people no longer have to worry about survival frees them up to follow their principles. Even in The Next Generation, there are outliers, like when Captain Maxwell, a veteran from the Cardassian Wars, goes rogue. But for the most part, Starfleet officers act with dignity, respect, and tolerance for all cultures. I remember many times throughout my life I’d ask myself, how would Picard act? How would someone from Starfleet behave in this situation? I don’t always live up to the ideal, but it’s there to remind me to aspire to something greater.
So as I was watching the first episode of Picard, I was shocked to learn that Starfleet had turned its back on a Romulan Empire that was facing a supernova. It seemed to go against everything Starfleet stood for.
At the same time, after finishing that episode, I realized, context is important. The Next Generation ended with “All Good Things.” But Star Trek didn’t. There were multiple movies and series following TNG. The two most significant ones, in my opinion, are the Dominion War, as shown in Deep Space Nine, and the Romulan attempt, led by Shinzon, to use a thalaron radiation weapon to exterminate all life on Earth as shown in the TNG film, Nemesis.
The Dominion War that played out in Star Trek: Deep Space 9 changed the core nature of the Federation and Starfleet. There were countless casualties, both civilian and Starfleet. Some of their finest officers were lost in battle. Captain Sisko carries out acts that would have been unthinkable under Captain Picard. In the episode, “In the Pale Moonlight,” Sisko’s actions lead to the assassination of a Romulan senator that they falsely blame on the Dominion. This was primarily done to bring the Romulans into the war on the side of the Federation. Though Sisko does it out of necessity (and I do concede that Garak did sort of take matters into his own hands), it hardly seems in line with the values of Starfleet. Sisko’s treatment of the Maquis in “For the Uniform” was even more shocking as he launches biogenic weapons at one of their settlements, poisoning their atmosphere. It’s not just Sisko who’s acting this way. At one point, the threat of shapeshifting founders resulted in the Federation imposing martial law on Earth in the “Homefront” episode. When anyone can be replaced by a Founder, extreme suspicion isn’t just paranoia anymore.
Another really important factor is the Battle of Wolf 359 that took place in The Next Generation. The Borg, having assimilated Captain Picard, engage Starfleet in a battle that is catastrophic for Starfleet. Almost eleven thousand lives were lost. That means all these officers had to be replaced. For those who grew up pre-TNG times, there were conflicts, but nothing like this, especially considering the Federation had made peace with the Klingons. The fresh cadets joining the academy would know about the destructive capabilities of the Borg and their training would, understandably, be geared towards a more militaristic approach (it’d be fair to say that the Defiant-class warships, designed to fight the Borg, would be part of their education too). Add to that the compounding losses in the Dominion War, and it’s not a big leap to assume that once these officers moved up through the ranks (which would put them around the time of Picard), their stance would be a lot more aggressive against non-Federation forces.
To top it all off, in Nemesis, the Romulans, who were the Federation’s allies in the Dominion War, decide to launch an all-out attack on Earth. The Romulan/Reman leader, Shinzon, wants to exterminate humanity with his supersized warbird, Scimitar. Though the Enterprise, assisted by other Romulans, stops them, it was a wake-up call for Starfleet. Maybe it was time to question their principles, especially in the face of enemies bent on the annihilation of all the things they held precious.
Putting aside a political or sociological perspective and focusing purely on a storytelling one, Starfleet had to change. Ideally, I would have liked to have seen them opt towards a more optimistic and non-isolationist stance. But after a major war, a failed Romulan attack, the constant existential threat of the Borg, and beings like Q putting humanity on trial for their past, it would make sense that the Federation would transform and take on a more hawkish stance. For it not to have would have been ignoring the rest of Star Trek continuity. Violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it would have been a disservice to the rest of the Star Trek to gloss over the numerous tragedies and pretend like everything was dandy.
I think of the TNG time as a sort of golden era, established largely in part by the efforts of the Starfleet from Kirk’s era. But the original generation had their struggles too. In Undiscovered Country, the Klingons, facing a disastrous threat of their own, turn to Earth for help. Earth does extend its aid, but a massive conspiracy carried out by Federation officers almost undermines the whole effort. Even in the original series, the Klingons and Federation were at each other’s throats.
In Errand of Mercy, Kirk and company were ready to fight to the death with the Klingons if it wasn’t for the super-powered Organians staging a divine intervention and forcing both sides to stop fighting. Let’s also not forget, it is James T. Kirk who famously yells at Spock in Undiscovered Country about the Klingons, “Let them die!” It’s only because Kirk and company make peace with changing times and the undiscovered country of the future that they’re able to give the TNG crew a time of comparative peace.
Even in “All Good Things,” there are glimpses of the future which doesn’t look so hot. The Federation and Starfleet have changed due to a war with the Klingons. When Admiral Riker rescues Picard and Crusher, he doesn’t start with diplomacy with the Klingons. Phasers light the way first. Their future is in some ways even bleaker than the one portrayed in Picard.
As for Picard, while he is a hero, he’s also done a lot to engender distrust in Starfleet and the Federation. Though his role in Wolf 359 wasn’t his fault, there are those who still hold him accountable. When Commander Sisko (from DS9) meets Picard for the first time, he has little love for the famous captain. It only takes an epiphany inspired by wormhole deities/aliens to make Sisko come to terms with Picard and even shake his hand.
There are other reasons members of Starfleet could be bitter against him. During Star Trek: Insurrection, the Federation tried to collect particles that would essentially grant long life and health to its members. Admiral Dougherty, under orders from the Federation council, tells Picard, “We’ll be able to use the regenerative properties of this radiation to help billions” and double people’s life spans.
After all the conflicts Starfleet has engaged in, the particles seems like they could be pretty useful. But Picard and crew still stop the admiral. I know Picard was trying to protect the Ba’ku and loved his speech, “How many people does it take, admiral, before it becomes wrong?” but wasn’t there a way to work out some kind of compromise?
On top of that, the fact that Shinzon, the one who tries to destroy Earth, is a Picard clone, didn’t do the original Picard any favors. It’s no wonder that when he becomes a civilian, a news reporter might challenge his priorities and moral code.
So while it’s true this Starfleet isn’t the one I watched in The Next Generation, I can understand why it’s changed so much. It serves as a reminder that we need to be vigilant about the ideals and principles we hold, and that it takes a lot of effort to safeguard those values.
Perhaps this new next generation in Picard can help the Federation find its balance? It’s hard to say without seeing the rest of the series, but I’m appreciative to the creators for taking Picard forward as I’ve always wondered what a post-Dominion War Starfleet would look like. Then again, maybe Q’s waiting at the end of the series with a big, “Just kidding, Picard. You actually died in Tapestry and this is all just in your head.”