When legendary actor Sir Patrick Stewart informed Star Trek fans that the new Star Trek: Picard series would tackle real-world issues like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, it came as no surprise to longtime fans of the Trek franchise. But some conservative media outlets expressed concern that this meant Picard would become the latest television series to “go woke” by taking an explicitly anti-conservative political stance.
In an interview with Variety, Stewart offered a rather grim assessment of the current states of American and British politics. “I’m not sure which one of us is in the most trouble,” he said. “I think it’s actually the U.K. I think we’re f—ed, completely f—ed.” He characterized the creative direction of the new Picard series as his response “to the world of Brexit and Trump and feeling, ‘Why hasn’t the Federation changed? Why hasn’t Starfleet changed?’ Maybe they’re not as reliable and trustworthy as we all thought.”
I’m not entirely unsympathetic to fans who turn to fictional entertainment to escape the stresses of the real world, and who therefore bemoan the inclusion of real-world politics in their favorite movies and television shows. But this is Star Trek we’re talking about here. This is the franchise that put a Russian character on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise at the height of the Cold War. This is the franchise that in 1968 featured an interracial kiss between its white male captain and black communications officer. This is a franchise that has always had something significant to say about politics, and it would be downright silly for conservative viewers to expect Picard to break from that tradition.
That being said, the best Trek has always been the Trek that avoids obnoxious political proselytizing and instead focuses on dissecting and debating the values and beliefs of the characters, cultures, and philosophies that inhabit the Trek universe. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did this better than any other series, mostly through metaphors and allegories written into the show’s Dominion War story arc. It was much more interested in exploring ideas than it was with explicitly passing judgment on those ideas, and it spent a great deal of time examining the events of the show from as many different perspectives as possible. It even had the courage to vigorously question whether the Federation was as much of a force for good as its defenders would have us believe.
Picard should take its cues from DS9. It should be thoughtful, introspective, and willing to engage skeptics, cynics, and dissenters because that’s precisely what the world needs right now. We’re living through an age of absolutism in which political disagreements are constantly framed in erroneously simplistic, black-and-white terms. We’re always being told that the folks standing across from us on any given issue, no matter how infrequently we’ve interacted with them or how little we understand them, are motivated entirely by the most sinister motivations one could imagine. Of course, the world doesn’t actually work that way. The blame for Brexit can’t be laid squarely at the doorstep of British xenophobia, nor can the election of President Trump be attributed exclusively to American racial anxiety. Each of these events had complex origins that took decades to unfold, and Picard should be mindful of those complexities. It should take the time to acknowledge and address the legitimate grievances that have accompanied the anger, fear, and bigotry that Patrick Stewart is eager to confront. A Star Trek series that tries to reduce complicated political affairs into cartoonish conflicts between good and evil would be just as useless as a Trek series completely devoid of social and political commentary.
Furthermore, Picard can still embrace Gene Roddenberry’s progressive Star Trek ethos without being exceedingly hostile to alternative perspectives. In DS9 and TNG, the Klingon Empire was portrayed as an ultraconservative and ultraviolent warrior race obsessed with duty, family, and honor—yet they also proved to be the Federation’s greatest ally and one of the most popular alien races among the Trek fanbase. This was consistent with the franchise’s focus on tolerance, cooperation, and learning how to coexist with people different from ourselves. That message is perhaps more apropos now than at any time in the past half-century and should be a central theme of the new Picard series.
If the show’s writers and producers instead choose to take the easy way out—if they decide to turn Picard into a garden-variety polemic against the Brexiteers and their conservative counterparts in America—they’ll waste a golden opportunity to not only return Star Trek to its rightful place as one of the most socially relevant franchises in pop culture, but also to provide audiences with the much-needed hope that we can and will eventually navigate our way through this toxic political climate towards a future much brighter than the one that’s currently staring back at us from the horizon.