In these darkest of times “Star Trek: Picard” is a humane light from a distant, possible future

Lately when people ask me what they should be watching, my first response is “Star Trek: Picard.” This is true even and especially if said question is couched in a few qualifiers, as in: “Give me something smart and optimistic, thoughtful, and not too heavy.”

For my money, “Picard” ticks all of those boxes, an opinion that might seem odd to those watching its 10-episode first season. Understandable, given the context of Jean-Luc Picard’s return to series television (and Sir Patrick Stewart’s resumption of the role). Season 1’s prime adventure is steeped in themes of corruption, xenophobia, conspiracy, and ethnic cleansing. How on Earth could a story like that  be thought of as optimistic?

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My husband asked me this the other day, and had he posed that question a few weeks and episodes ago, I would have given him a different answer. But my response was, “Because it’s in the future. Because it posits that humanity has a future.” To the housebound person witnessing the escalation of a pandemic, this should be comforting. Gene Roddenberry’s vision is predicated on the notion that humanity will survive, and not only that, we’ll evolve.

The future of “Picard” and all “Star Trek” stories, is one in which we travel the galaxy at warp speed, interacting with new lifeforms. This chapter views the universe through the eyes of a 94-year-old (!) retired starship Admiral who has lived through scores of wonders and horrors during his time in Starfleet, gaining a great deal of knowledge in the process.

People who love “Star Trek” adore it for its insistent focus on adventures that make us ponder moral and philosophical conundrums; those who love Jean-Luc love him because he is cultured, firm in his beliefs ,and wise.

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Across its first 10 hours, “Picard” has employed many of the same plot devices and production values as our favorite action films, J.J. Abrams’ recent contributions to this universe included. The main plot is a lesson in the value of life – every life, even the ones that aren’t organically born.

And the fact that this lesson is being lived, preached and explored by a character revealed in Thursday’s finale to be 94 years old – well within the age range of people some politicians deem to be expendable because of the pandemic that is decimating our economy – is more relevant and meaningful now than it was when “Picard” debuted at the end of January.

Every story takes on new context within the times in which it is consumed. Streaming this season finale “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2” right now lends this season’s denouement another unforeseen weight than the one its writer Michael Chabon may have originally intended.

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Chabon, who wrote the teleplay directed by fellow executive producer Akiva Goldsman, winds up this part of Picard’s active retirement with a few emotional spikes typical of any finale. It includes the deaths of two major characters, although neither is a death in the classic definition of the term.

One involved a character that already “died,” the other was teased earlier in the season as an inescapable, terminal malady, a biological ticking time bomb that had to go off sooner rather than later. Both demises contribute to the central question of the season, which is the definition of what it means to be alive – and for Picard, his adoptive ward Soji (Isa Briones), and mercenary Annika Hansen (Jeri Ryan), better known as Seven of Nine, the inherent value and sanctity of all life.

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Here on Earth 2020 we are wrestling with a version of the same question as overwhelmed intensive care units and medical staffs around the country find themselves weighing the value of one person’s life over another due to shortages of life-saving equipment. Hospitals are running out of beds, doctors and nurses are exhausted and falling ill. This unrelenting sickness is forcing human beings to estimate odds of survivability when deciding who receives oxygen and respirators.

This is a horror nobody could have imagined and some of us still can’t quite comprehend. Nobody has a clue as to what the world will look like when this is all over.

 “Picard” being a “Star Trek” series, we can watch knowing that everything will work out in the end somehow. (Even Spock managed to return from death in both the Prime and Kelvin universes.) And such was the case in “Et in Arcadia Ego,” Parts 1 and 2, when Picard, Soji, Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd), Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), and La Sirena captain Cristóbal Rios (Santiago Cabrera) manage to outrun a Romulan warbird on the way to Soji’s home planet Coppelius.

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The first season contains far too many twists and reveals to completely recap the season in one short story; suffice it to say, if you’re staying at home and wondering what to watch, grabbing yourself a CBS All Access subscription and catching up on this season is a worthy investment of your time.

But here’s something of a summary: Previous to being rescued by Picard, Soji worked on the decommissioned Borg cube known as the Artifact, where she forged a romantic relationship with a Romulan spy named Narek (Harry Treadaway).  All that she knew about herself was that she was an anthropologist. Only later does she realize that she’s actually an android, and only about 3 years old.  Narek leads her through a Romulan ritual that reveals to her, and to him, the existence of Coppelius, where a colony of organic synthetic beings exist and thrive under the care of Dr. Altan Inigo Soong (Brent Spiner), son of the man who created Data (also Spiner).

Narek then tries to kill her, but Picard finds her in the nick of time, and they beam themselves off to the planet where William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) fill their days being happily married, growing organic tomatoes and making woodfired pizza. (Like I said: watch the series).

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In revealing Coppelius to Narek, Soji also reveals the planet’s location to the Romulans and the Tal Shiar, an elite sect of operatives dedicated to eradicating synthetics and, as it turns out, the group responsible for orchestrating the tragedy on Mars that led to the galactic ban on synthetics.

On Coppelius, Soji reunites with her fellow androids led by Altan Soong and his wisest “daughter” Sutra (Briones), who at first welcomes Picard and the crew . . . until, that is, she retrieves a message from Dr. Jurati’s memory, shared with Jurati by a Tal Shiar agent. To the Romulans, who found the message first, it was understood to be a warning of impending destruction.  But it was actually meant as an invitation to synthetic lifeforms to summon other evolved synthetics from a distant universe.

The catch is, in summoning those synthetics, Sutra, Soji, and their kind would ensure the complete annihilation of organic life in this universe. This places Soji at odds with Picard and the rest of the humans and Romulan samurai/space elf Elnor (Evan Evagora), leading to a three-way showdown between Picard and the androids; the androids and the Romulans; and all organic life versus what appears to be a bunch of gargantuan tentacles that could have been designed by H.R. Giger.

But as Picard stares down the possible end of the universe, the abnormality in his brain kicks off the final phase of killing him. So he chooses to use his life as an example to show Soji how devoted he is to protecting the sanctity of all life. Once the danger passes and calm is re-established, Picard dies in Dr. Jurati’s arms.

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Death doesn’t always stick in this universe, and the combined facts that Stewart’s death scene happens with around 20 minutes left in the episode, and the action’s setting on a planet where a scientist creates sentient androids, was enough to tell you that we’d get our happy ending after all. That doesn’t mean  the episode didn’t includes lots of heartbreaking mourning. Elnor and Raffi, who both profess their emotional attachment to Picard, are devastated. Rios quit Starfleet over the loss of the commander to whom he was devoted, only to witness another captain die as he looks on helplessly.

For a few moments, one may have believed that this was really it.

Until we see Picard open his eyes and find himself seated in an entirely black version of his study at Chateau Picard, to find Data. Data informs him that yes, he is dead, but they’re both inside of  a massively complex quantum simulation – quite different from Picard’s premonitory dreams at the open of the season.

The exchange that follows, in which Picard assures Data of his true feelings for him, the meaning of sacrificing one’s life for another, is beautifully “Trek-ian,” if there is such a phrase, and positively moving. And in it, Data reveals that Soong and Jurati downloaded a neural map of Picard’s substrates before his organic brain died. Ergo, Admiral Picard lives again, only now in an organic “golem,” free of a brain abnormality.

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Before he leaves Data, though, he agrees to a heartbreaking request to terminate the beloved android’s consciousness.

Throughout the show’s time on the android planet, the script returns time and again to tight shots of butterflies fluttering everywhere, part of the place’s paradisal landscape. Altan Soong reveals that these too are synthetic. And in the end, Data alludes to this as an example of why he would like to cease his existence permanently.

“A butterfly that lives forever is really not a butterfly at all,” Data observes, adding. “I want to live, however briefly, knowing that my life is finite. Mortality gives meaning to human life, Captain. Peace, love, friendship, these are precious because we know they cannot endure.”

This moment in time, perhaps more than any in most people’s lifetime, presents an opportunity for philosophical and ethical rumination. Indeed, the rampant spread of this terrible pathogen already has altered our existence. In doing so, our experience of it has fueled a number of essays about its effects as well as the possible meaning of it. That second ideal may seem like an odd way to observe a global threat that we don’t understand and have yet to conquer.

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Such is the nature of an all-consuming menace that can’t be reasoned with, the sort of peril Starfleet has faced down many times, Picard going toe-to-toe with his share of them. In the face of such fictional hazards, he’s asked this very question in various ways – what is the value of one life over another? And is it right to sacrifice one being to save untold numbers in the process?

This was the central question of the famous “Next Generation” episode “I, Borg,” which introduced the individualized Borg drone Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco). Hugh returns in “Picard” with most of his implants removed, working as executive director of the Borg Reclamation Project aboard the Artifact. This character cameo and the return of Ryan’s Annica/Seven of Nine as a indomitable freedom fighter serve a purpose beyond fan service.

Through them, and Picard’s interaction with them, we’re asked to empathize with the worthiness of beings presumed to be less human. The Romulans call Hugh and others like him ex-Bs (ex-Borg), lower lifeforms of little worth and good for physical laborer and not much else.  Annica and Hugh stand in defiance of this discrimination, with Annica cutting a particularly appealing image as an action heroine.

But in “TNG,” Picard intended to use Hugh to implant the virus of individuality into the Collective mind, against Hugh’s will, thereby destroying it. Ultimately Hugh decides to return to the Collective of his own volition with, it is implied, a similar motive. Seeing him recovered and contributing to a great cause is as hopeful and a relief as catching up with other old friends from Picard’s previous series.

So it goes with every development in this season of “Picard,” one that certainly trades in nostalgia while asking the viewer to contemplate how we’re living now, and what that means for our future.

In standard Picard fashion, as he unplugs Data’s consciousness for one last time, he recites a famous line from William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” uttered by the magician Prospero: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life, is rounded with a sleep.”

But even the littlest life can be a grand one, and it’s reassuring to know that the life of this series may continue on. The final shot of “Picard” shows the revived Admiral with his crew, including a few key additions: Elnor remains, along with Annica (who, honestly, should get her own spin-off; Ryan is just that good) and Soji, who decides to tag along now that her home world is safe.

Whenever Stewart and  CBS All Access opt to move forward with Season 2 of “Picard,” this final frame assures us of a future that looks bold, brighter, and beautifully human. Just what we need in the darkness of now.

The entire first season of “Star Trek: Picard” is currently streaming on CBS All Access.

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