Why Star Trek: Picard Won’t Be Like The Last Jedi

Pundits worry Trek is taking a cue from Star Wars by turning a hero into a grump, but adult rumination is what Trek has always been about.

Patrick Stewart in Star Trek Picard TV Series

Even though very little is known about the new Star Trek: Picardseries, what we do know is enough for pundits and fans to already start making thematic assumptions. If you’re wrapped-up in the geek internet, you’ve probably already heard this one: Having a grumpy, retired Captain Picard in the new Star Trek series is similar to having a grumpy, exhilted Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

However, pundits forget: unlike Star Wars, The Next Generation was always been about olds, and Star Trek often draws its narratives not from coming-of-age tropes, but, instead, has always been about adults dealing with adult problems. If Picard is old and grumpy in the new show, it’s not subversive or imitative of a trend; it’s a natural progression of what The Next Generation was all about: examinations of middle age and old age in a science fiction setting.

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When I think of describing the character of Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, I often hear the voice of Dan Aykroyd, slapping Bill Murray upside of the head in Ghostbusters and saying: “Nobody every made them like this!” And that’s because, in contrast to so many big characters in pop science fiction and fantasy, the appeal of Patrick Stewart’s beloved starship captain isn’t connected to Picard being archetypal. Instead, Picard endures because the character is specific.

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Captain Kirk is a great character, don’t get me wrong, but his narrative DNA is fairly generic. Kirk has more in common with original trilogy Luke Skywalker insofar as he represents a “type.” Like Luke, Kirk has shades of old-school sci-fi heroes, i.e. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. He might not be a Jungian archetype or anything, but there are a lot of Captain Kirks running around pulp sci-fi novels, and there have been a lot of Captain Kirks in TV and film since the ‘60s. (Captain Mal in Firefly, James Holden in The Expanse, and, arguably, the newer version of Captain Pike in Star Trek: Discovery.)

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The influence of the Captain Kirk-type on pop sci-fi was also so obvious that Philip K. Dick predicted it in his 1974 near-future novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. In that world, a certain kind of action sci-fi adventure character or story is just called a “captainkirk.”

But, in 1987, The Next Generation actively rejected nostalgia for a “CaptainKirk” character with Jean-Luc Picard. Picard was an older guy, but he didn’t have a grandfatherly presence like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Lorne Grene’s Commander Adama on the original Battlestar Galactica. (Though Edward James Olmos’s contemporary Adama probably has more in common with Picard than he doesn’t.)

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The point is: Picard broke the mold because he felt less like a “hero” and more like a real person. His workplace romances made him kind of look like a careerist jerk (see: “Lessons,” his entire relationship with Dr. Crusher), his family relationships were really screwed up (“Family,” the film Star Trek: Generations), and he harbored not only deep scars from being turned into a Borg zombie (“The Best of Both Worlds”) but, more tellingly, was somewhat embarrassed of the jerky guy he was in his youth.

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In the episode “Tapestry,” Picard nearly dies because his artificial heart is hit by an energy weapon. The all-powerful Q (John de Lancie) then pulls Picard into an It’s a Wonderful Life-type story in which we learn Picard has a robot heart because he was more like Captain Kirk when he was a young guy and got stabbed through the back. The point of the episode? Being a young, brash person is usually embarrassing in retrospect, not heroic. Anyone who has reached the age of 30 knows this; youthful glory days are often not actually all that great, and the better parts of someone’s life often happen in the decades beyond their twenties.

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In final scenes of “Tapestry,” Picard chills with Riker (also a grown-ass adult) and mentions aspects of his youth were “untidy.” The point is: the best Picard stories on TNG were about him being an older guy embracing getting older and changing. This is why Star Trek is considered to be “mature”: it’s almost never a coming-of-age story. Yes, there are exceptions (the journey of Wesley Crusher, the J.J. Abrams reboots) but, by-and-large, a youthful “hero’s journey,” is not Star Trek’s jam. It approaches characters more naturalistically than Star Wars, mostly because Star Trek isn’t trying to be modern mythology, but instead, hews closer to contemporary drama.

Picard is closer to a literary character from ruminative novel than a mythological hero. In other words: he’s a hero who we judge as much by his thoughts as his actions. (Reminder: a Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist, Michael Chabon, is one of the writers for the Picard show!) And, when you consider the better, more famous James T. Kirk stories — like The Wrath of Khan — middle age and adult responsibility are also the central themes.

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Star Trek: Discovery recently did this with Captain Pike, turning a fairly thin character with little backstory into well-rounded person who subverted and surpassed his “that-one-guy-before-Kirk” canon status. While Star Wars is great in many ways, it’s not really known for this kind of gradual, nuanced character work. Star Wars paints people with big brushes: the pirate with the heart of gold! The evil Emperor! The hero who will save everyone! And so on.

The reason why Luke Skywalker’s exile and cynicism scans as subversive is because it represents a contrast in narrative styles with the way the character of Luke Skywalker was presented to audiences in the old films. In a sense, Rian Johnson approached Luke more like a Star Trek character in The Last Jedi than a Star Wars character, which means, he wrote the character with more realism.

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In Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, there is a stark difference between the idea of the magical world of Fillory as experienced through a series of books and the reality of Fillory when people actually enter it. The Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi is like the fucked-up Fillory version of Luke; it imagines the way he would be in real life, which is probably why that depiction feels so radical relative to the rest of Star Wars. It’s naturalistic. It’s more literary.

In Star Trek: Generation, Picard tells Troi: “I’ve become aware that there are fewer days ahead than there are behind,” and worries about the meaning of his life as he passes through middle age. This line wasn’t weird for anyone who had seen an episode of TNG before. It felt like a normal thing for this realistic person to say.

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Star Wars did this with Han, Luke and Leia in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, but quicker. Relative to the character of Jean-Luc Picard, there are hundreds of hours of narrative on TNG that establish who he is and how he thinks. With Luke Skywalker, there are less than six hours of onscreen canon to establish his character. Meaning, when we see him, three decades later in The Last Jedi, it’s gonna feel pretty weird.

So, while Star Trek: Picard does seem poised to shock and tantalize with the idea that Picard is no longer a Starfleet captain, if you know anything about Star Trek (or good character development) this isn’t that shocking. And, more importantly, it’s also not a stunt or part of a trend. Comparing Picard to other heroic sci-fi and fantasy characters is a waste of time because he defies characterization. Meaning, the choices he makes as an older man, will, if written well, reflect the person we’ve come to know since 1987.

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Luke Skywalker feels like a legendary character from the second he’s on screen in A New Hope. Jean-Luc Picard has always felt like someone who could really, actually exist. One is not better than the other, but that essential difference puts galaxies of narrative distance between the two characters. So, no. Star Trek: Picard is not ripping off Luke Skywalker. If anything, Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is more like Jean-Luc Picard.

Star Trek: Picard hits CBS All-Access sometime in late 2019.

Ryan Britt is the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths (Plume/Penguin Random House). You can find more of his work here.