Hope. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot when talking about Star Trek. It was a helluva thing turning on the television in 1966 to see a starship bridge crew consisting of a Vulcan, a Russian, an African-American woman, and a Japanese man. At a time of racial turmoil in America and abject global terror regarding the probable Cold War nuclear holocaust, Gene Roddenberry‘s audacity in contemplating a future where humanity might act as one rather than a myriad of self-interests seemed politically radical. It still does.
Hope is the action that keeps despair at bay. The dream of a better, brighter life on the horizon is what kicks us out of bed each morning. We need it. We crave it. We gotta have it. Hope is a dream, but it’s not an effortless fantasy. Hope takes work. Hope demands us to stand when it would be so much easier to sit on our butts popping bonbons.
There is also no finish line when it comes to the notion. The USS Enterprise does not represent a climax for the human race. Star Trek: The Next Generation may appear better than the hellhole outside your window, but it’s forever in conflict with Klingons, Romulans, the Borg, and, most importantly, itself. We must approach ourselves with a growth mindset. Progress, like intelligence, is developed, and never done.
Nowhere is this better symbolized than in the body and mind of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). He stands stiffly at the center of his crew, a bastion of resilience, courage, and knowledge. He’s read every line in the Federation handbook, but he knows when to bend or break a rule. Such action doesn’t cause pause; it incites consideration from all around him. He’s not Captain Kirk. He doesn’t fly off half-cocked on gut instinct or emotion. If Jean-Luc dares to venture where he should not, then it must be for not just good reason but deeply examined reason. He’ll crack a smile, but only when he’s damn good and ready.
Yet, he is fallible. He is human.
Kidnapped, tortured, and assimilated by the Borg in “The Best of Both Worlds,” Jean-Luc Picard is a traumatized war veteran with firmly rooted scars. His time as Locutus represents a great failing, where his personality was supplanted, and his physique weaponized to strike an impenetrable dread upon his people. For a 24th-century man, who takes great pride from his race’s ability to place philosophical advancement over petty capitalist skirmishes, forced assimilation constitutes the ultimate horror.
The Federation act as one, placing the needs of the many over the needs of the one. The Borg are One; they’re the Federation without free will. They scare the shit out of Jean-Luc Picard.
Star Trek: First Contact, the second cinematic outing for The Next Generation, opens with Picard awakening from a vicious nightmare recalling his time with the Borg. He barely has a moment to collect himself before Starfleet is on the phone, alerting him of an impending Borg invasion of Teran space. Before he can power up the nacelles, his Admiral orders a sensory sweep of the Neutral Zone. Gotta keep the one-time Locutus as far from the conflict as possible.
Picard dutifully simmers, but when Earth appears on the brink of extinction, he damns the orders and warps all the rage and firepower of the Enterprise toward the Borg cube. A tiny sphere ejects from the cube, and their real plan of attack reveals itself. The Borg travel back in time, to April 4th, 2063, the day before Earth’s first contact with alien life. If they can prevent this historic meeting, the Borg calculate the accelerated enslavement of humanity.
Not on Picard’s watch. While Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) beams to the planet’s surface to aid Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) in the construction of Earth’s first warp-powered vessel, Picard remains aboard the Enterprise. His mission is to hunt down and eradicate every damn, dirty little Borg that dared step foot aboard his ship, including any poor sap in his crew that got turned to their biological dark side.
Star Trek: First Contact is just another George Romero zombie flick with a sci-fi trapping, and like the best Romero zombie flicks, the humans are revealed to be as equally treacherous as the creatures craving flesh. While Picard guides Lily (Alfre Woodard), an injured 21st-century engineer through the infested Enterprise, he happily meets her awe of his future by deliciously detailing the wonder of how 24 decks, measuring almost 700 meters long, came into fruition without the concept of money.
“The economics of the future are somewhat different,” Picard cooly explains. “You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century…the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Well, la-de-da, sir.
Picard can present a high and mighty race, but his actions betray his lofty ideals. Each phaser blast he propels into a Borg comes equipped with a hateful grimace. Lily stands aghast as she witnesses Picard ventilate the former Ensign Lynch with holographic (but deadly) machine gunfire. She pulls him back as he cracks the Tommy Gun across the corpse, and she calls Picard on his bullcrap when he chooses to sacrifice his crew to hand-to-hand combat rather than admit defeat and activate the auto-destruct.
Lily, the primitive, recognizes hatred when she sees it. The Enterprise crew have spent a decade following their Captain, and he hasn’t misled them yet, but Lily doesn’t have the trust or the reverence to sit quietly and take orders. She confronts Picard in his quarters and names it as she sees it. He’s Ahab out to get his whale. Oof. Nothing cuts quicker to the quick in Star Trek than a literary reference.
Moby Dick is the mirror, and what Picard sees staring back is utterly repugnant. The 24th-century man has fallen victim to the oldest emotion in existence. He’s let his anger take over, and he’s as in control of his body as he was when he was plugged in as Locutus. Lily and Herman Melville allow him to look inward, reassess, and regain the person he strives to be. Only then can Picard get back to his purpose: helping those who need it.
To think that humanity can ever be free of these emotions is absurd. Anger is a constant companion. The hope is that we can acknowledge it when we feel it bubbling inside, and work it out rationally instead of letting it steer the ship.
With the good Captain just days away from receiving his own television series, it’s a decent bet that we’re going to meet a man, once again, in deep emotional turmoil. Picard puts his Starfleet service in the way back of his rearview. Jean-Luc has saved the universe many times over, and retirement was never going to suit him well. The Captain needs to constatantly till the soil of his soul. We all do.