In “Encounter at Farpoint,” Q (John de Lancie) put all of humanity on trial, partly, by pulling Troi, Data, Tasha, and Picard into a courtroom from the year 2079. What this first episode of The Next Generation did wasn’t subtle. In 1987, TNG was saying that the 24th Century was going to be awesome, but that the 21st Century was going to suck. And now, with Picard Season 2, Star Trek is tackling that legacy by seemingly blending the ‘80s notion of the 21st century with the actual 21st century. In this way, Picard is actually doing the most TNG thing possible. The new season looks like a sequel to “Encounter at Farpoint.” Here’s why that’s significant and why Q and Jean-Luc dealing with 21st-century horrors is the right move for Picard...
As referenced in the new “Star Trek Day” trailer for Picard Season 2, Q did warn Jean-Luc in “All Good Things…” that “the trial never ends.” But what does that mean exactly? In Picard Season 2, it appears that Q has done something in Earth’s past that has caused the “present” (roughly 2399) to become as Jean-Luc says a “totalitarian” version of Earth. But, Q’s whole point to Picard in TNG was that humanity was always on the brink of this kind of awful situation anyway. At the time “Encounter at Farpoint” aired, suggesting that the 21st century was the worst period of human history was kind of edgy for an ‘80s sci-fi show. Plus, in 1987, TNG had inherited the wonky future backstory of The Original Series, in which a Eugenics War (Khaann!!!) ravaged the entire world in the 1990s. Still, Q talking about some awful court from the year “2079” still seemed a bit far-out in 1987. Obviously, now, it doesn’t at all.
This is the reason why Picard time-traveling to the 21st century for Season 2 is not only bold, but appropriate. Jean-Luc’s reply to Q in “Encounter at Farpoint” was flippant and hopeful: “We are what we are, and we’re doing the best that we can.” He also pointed out that for him, the 21st century, and all its horrors, were a long time ago, and implored Q to measure humanity by the standards of the 24th century. In real life, though, Picard’s “Encounter at Farpoint” optimism doesn’t really work. In order for social progress to make sense, you actually do have to constantly reassess history to figure out why things went so terribly, and how the specifics of those events could accidentally be repeated if we’re not careful.
The Jean-Luc Picard of Picard Season 1, presented himself in the very first episode, “Remembrance,” as a historian. This is a bit different than the Jean-Luc of TNG. After Generations and the death of his brother and his nephew, you could speculate that Jean-Luc became more interested in history, in figuring out why certain dominos fell the way they did, and how those events created the world. In this way, you could say that Q was right to throw history in Picard’s face in “Encounter at Farpoint.” Just because the Federation had been doing pretty good in 2364, doesn’t mean they weren’t going to make huge mistakes a few decades later. Just because Jean-Luc was born on a united Earth, free from want and discrimination and war, doesn’t mean there wasn’t a quick slippery slope back to the darkness. The purpose of Picard, as a character, from the very beginning of TNG, was to both insist that humans could be better than their terrible past, but also for us to think harder about what it takes to be better. In TNG, Jean-Luc was more sure of himself about how great humanity had become. In Picard, he’s obviously not. Not only did he leave Starfleet, but as of the end of Season 1 of that series, Jean-Luc is technically not even human anymore. The Jean-Luc Picard of the newer Star Trek is more worried about the future than ever before.
This is exactly why it’s perfect to send Picard to the past. Not since Deep Space Nine’s “Past Tense,” has the Star Trek franchise attempted a hardcore commentary on the way the world is now. We don’t need Jean-Luc Picard to say anything new about the future. He’s done that. But, if, in this new season, Jean-Luc can say something about our own time, that might be even better. And, best of all, by visiting and making commentary on the 21st century, Jean-Luc will complete a journey he started in TNG. We might not need Picard in space in the 24th century. Maybe we need him right here, right now.
Star Trek: Picard Season 2 hits Paramount+ in February 2022