POP CULTURE WITH DENNIS GREENE–STAR TREK: PICARD

Star Trek:  Picard – The Journey Continues

by Dennis Greene

I became sentient in 1966, a little too late to have it help me as an undergraduate student but just in time to ship out with James T. Kirk, the 35-year-old Captain of the starship Enterprise. I journeyed with Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Scotty, and the rest of the crew for 79 imaginative adventures from 1966 to 1969 when NBC abruptly cancelled the Star Trek series. Just when mankind took its first step into space with Apollo 11, some short-sighted executives at NBC decided to go in the opposite direction. Seven years later, in a memorable 1976 SNL sketch, John Belushi portrayed Captain Kirk eviscerating the NBC top brass for this ill-advised decision to cancel the show. Every time I hear Belushi utter those final words, “We have tried to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before, and except for one television network, we have found intelligence everywhere in the galaxy,” I vividly re-experience that loss.

It was another eleven years until CBS–evidently a more evolved and intelligent network than NBC–decided, in 1987, to continue the journeys of the Enterprise, this time set 78 years after the original series. It was a more lavish production, with advanced special effects, a larger budget, and a more seasoned cast. Patrick Stewart, a celebrated stage actor, was cast as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. But I was still mourning the loss of the original series and refused to accept Star Trek: The Next Generation in its place. Nothing could replace my beloved original version.

Over the next seven seasons, I caught an episode of TNG now and then, and heard nothing but praise for series.  TNG continued for 178 episodes. Several years after it ended, I finally swallowed my pride and binge-watched the entire series. I discovered that TNG had stayed true to the essence of the original series and built upon it to offer an imaginative, well-constructed, and thought-provoking collection of stories which explored all aspects of the human condition. Star Trek: TNG dealt with many of the “big” questions of human existence including politics, race, religion, artificial-intelligence, xenophobia, conflict, nationalism, isolationism, Shakespeare, sex, loyalty, and diversity. You name it, Star Trek TNG examined it.   Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc Picard, with his wit, wisdom, compassion, courage, and unflinching morality, seemed to personify everything a leader should be.  Our world could use someone like him now.

Since TNG ended over 25 years ago, there have been numerous TV series and full-length films expanding the Star Trek universe, and most of them have been very successful. I have watched and enjoyed most of them, as well as two humorous parodies, Tim Allen’s Galaxy Quest and Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville. But nothing in the Star Trek franchise during the past 20 years has gotten me really excited until now. I just watched the first episode of Star Trek: Picard, a new series developed for CBS All Access.

The cold open of Episode 1 shows Captain Picard and Commander Data playing poker in the Ten Forward lounge, a setting familiar to all TNG fans. In the background, Bing Crosby’s version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” is playing. This is the song Mr. Data sang at the wedding of Commander Riker and Deana Troi, shortly before Data sacrificed his life to save the crew of the Enterprise in the last TNG movie, Star Trek: Nemesis. Both Patrick Stewart and Brent Spinner stepped back into their roles perfectly, as if the eighteen-year hiatus didn’t exist. To old TNG fans, it almost appears that nothing much had changed. Data still displays his intelligence, humanity, and naivete, and Picard is still the witty, wise, and thoughtful Captain we remember. But this is a dream sequence to snare past viewers, and, of course, things have changed.

We learn that Picard has been retired from Star Fleet for more than a decade and is living at Chateau Picard, his large and thriving vineyard in France. He is  now over 90 and is assisted by his loyal house staff, a Romulan man and woman. This immediately caught my attention, since when we last saw Picard in Nemesis, there was only a tentative truce between the Federation and its long time enemy, the Romulan Empire.  There is much to catch up on.

The new series represents a major commitment by CBS All Access to establish a strong foothold in the Star Trek universe. It is the creation of Kristen Beyer, Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, and Alex Kurtzman. Patrick Stewart, Goldsman, Kurtzman, and Chabon are among the show’s strong executive production team, which also includes Rod Roddenberry, the son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  Michael Chabon,  a bestselling novelist, science fiction writer,  and screenwriter–and an admitted Star Trek fan–is the series “show -runner.”  This means he has overall creative authority and management responsibility for the series. The first two episodes are directed by Hanelle Culpepper, an energetic and unflappable filmmaker with broad experience in television. She is the first woman to direct an initial Star Trek episode and, along with Chabon, may bring a younger perspective to the 55 year old Star Trek saga. Episode 1 seems to suggest that Chabon and his team intend to return to the thoughtful, big issue approach of the TNG series, rather than continue the predictable “space opera” adventure trend of the Star Trek motion pictures. But the first episode did include enough stunning visual effects, action, mayhem, and death to keep our attention.

Sopan Deb, in a New York Times review of the new series, noted that:

There are just enough nods to “Next Generation” lore to signal for die-hard fans that this is a show that understands why Picard’s return is so important to them. But it doesn’t lean so heavily into nostalgia to overwhelm a great story. And it is a great story.

The tone and feel of the first episode is intimate and earthbound, as Picard broods about the loss of his friend Data and several other epic events which are quickly revealed. Picard’s interactions with his Romulan house staff, and with Number 1, his companion pit bull, portray Picard as more vulnerable and approachable than he seemed as the imperious Captain of the Enterprise.

In the initial dream sequence poker game, Data makes a large bet which forces Picard to risk all he has left to “call.”  When Picard pushes all his chips into the pot, Data’s reaction convinces Picard that Data has the winning hand. Picard begins refreshing his Earl Grey tea and otherwise stalling to avoid laying down his losing hand. When Data asks why he is stalling, Picard, with a show of wrenching emotion, answers Because I don’t want the game to end. He then wakes up. This may be the key to understanding the series.

Through well-paced action and dialogue, we are quickly brought up to date about intervening events and are then promptly immersed in a mystery concerning Data’s legacy, artificial intelligence issues, the cessation of the Federation’s manufacture of synthetic androids, and the appearance of a strange young girl with unique powers who is somehow intimately involved with Picard. The episode is punctuated by scenes incorporating advanced weapons, acrobatic martial arts, mysterious assailants, and lots of dead bodies. All this stimulates Picard to abandon his sedentary vineyard life and get back in the game.

Trailers indicate that Picard is about to surreptitiously acquire a starship, assemble a crew, and launch into the unknown to find answers to these vexing new questions. My reaction to this planned undertaking by Captain Picard is in sharp contrast to how I reacted to that first mission with Captain Kirk 54 years ago. When I was 22, the thought of a 35-year-old hero embarking on an epic adventure was expected and not especially noteworthy. But now that I’m 76, the thought of a man at least 15 years older than I am, who has trouble climbing stairs, undertaking such a mission draws both my admiration and my concern. I will be rooting for Picard to prevail, but I hope he can find time to nap and then stretch a little. I will worry about him because, after a certain age, most folks don’t handle stress well, especially when moving at warp speed.

Critics who have seen the first three episodes report that these initial episodes are mostly “set up” so that both veteran Star Trek fans, and new viewers who have not seen the prior 55 years of Star Trek, are all able to get up to speed. Then, when this much more mature Captain Picard gives his new crew the order to “Engage,” we can all enjoy the adventure together.

CBS All Access has already committed to Season 2, so I am looking forward to “going where no person has gone before” each Thursday night for the foreseeable future.

Live Long and Prosper!

BOLLI member and frequent contributor to BOLLI Matters, Dennis Greene

Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer–and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie.  He saw The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.

A HOLIDAY MIRACLE? By Phil Radoff

A HOLIDAY MIRACLE?

by Phil Radoff

On Christmas evening, as my brother and sister-in-law were driving off, I waved goodbye and threw the switch to turn on the outside lights to illuminate their path down the driveway. After they left, my wife walked to the mailbox at the end of the driveway to retrieve yesterday’s mail, which we hadn’t bothered to collect on Christmas Eve. We don’t normally rush to collect the mail, which is likely to be 90% junk anyway, a combination of solicitations from worthy charities to which we have already contributed–or decided not to–and offers for goods and services in which we have no interest.

When my wife returned with a meager collection of envelopes, she reported that all of the lights along the driveway were illuminated.

“How can that be?” I asked, incredulous. The street level light hadn’t come on in more than a year. Indeed, its failure to turn on was a continuing source of annoyance and exasperation in view of its previous history. Two winters ago, our former snow removal service had clumsily managed to sever the final segment of electrical wire running from the middle lamp to the street level lamp. Despite numerous emails and phone calls, the snow removers had failed to take any steps to repair the break or even to respond to our communications, and we parted ways with them after more than 20 years of increasingly spotty service.

During the last winter a severe storm had broken many tree limbs across the front lawn, and some of them had damaged three of the four outside lamps. Remarkably, the street level lamp was untouched. We were able to replace or repair the three damaged lamps, while we tried to decide whether to hire an electrician to restore the connection to the fourth or undertake on our own to join the ends of the previously severed wires, now separated by a gap of about six inches.

Ultimately, the desire to do it ourselves won out, and, after a few false starts, I consulted a helpful Home Depot employee and purchased: some wire connectors, a length of three-wire underground cabling, and a roll of tape, all guaranteed to be water-proof and suitable for connections destined to remain underground, and I set to work. Stripping the wires and making the splice at each end of the break wasn’t as easy in the event as it seems in the retelling, but at last the repair was completed and the segment of spliced wire was wrapped in a plastic bag and tied at each end. My wife (the gardener) dug a short trench about four inches deep and we buried the newly spliced cable to the level of the connecting segments. With some trepidation, we threw the switch and were rewarded with four brightly shining lamps. Success!

As it happens, we rarely use the outside lights, so it was months before we felt the need to turn them on again. Imagine our chagrin when the street-level lamp refused to come on. Must be a blown light bulb, right? So I duly removed the top of the fixture, reached in and unscrewed the light bulb. I had brought along a Simpson meter to check for continuity, and found that the bulb was fine. Just in case, I replaced it with a new bulb and again threw the switch. The lamp remained dark. So all that effort to make the splice waterproof had been in vain. Ground water must have found its way into the joint and created an open circuit. To make matters worse, I hadn’t thought to mark or take note of the spot where we had spliced the severed wires, so we would have to dig around quite a bit to relocate it. Ugh. Not worth the effort. We would live with three lamps and give up on the fourth, at least for now.

So…when on Christmas evening my wife walked down to collect the mail, she was surprised–amazed, really–to see that all of the lamps were on.

I was equally amazed. As a former physicist, I felt sure there must be a scientific explanation, but perhaps there was another, more intriguing answer. Perhaps it was our own version of the miracle of the Hanukkah lights, where one night’s oil miraculously lasted for eight nights. After all, Christmas night was also the third night of the eight-night Hanukkah festival. Or perhaps it was the distant jingle of sleigh bells that my wife thought she had heard, but had initially discounted as the product of an overactive imagination. Indeed, as she opened the door to the house I too could have sworn I heard a faint but distinct “ho-ho-ho” off in the distance.

Not quite believing in the miracle of the lamp, whatever the explanation, I again threw the switch on the day after Christmas. Again, all four lamps were illuminated. In the spirit of true scientific inquiry, I determined to run this test each night until the day after Hanukkah. I told myself that if the lamp was lit on each day of the festival and again on day 9, there must indeed be a scientific explanation; but if the lamp was lit only on the eight days of the festival and returned to darkness on day 9 and thereafter, the miracle would be confirmed.

I felt duty bound to write to my brother to tell him about the mystery of the last driveway lamp and the alternate explanations I was considering. On day 8 of the Hanukkah festival he wrote back to say that, as he and his wife were driving off, he had noticed that the street-level lamp was dark, so he stopped the car, got out, and kicked the lamp post, whereupon the light came on.

I didn’t bother to run any further tests.

BOLLI member and SGL Phil Radoff

Phil Radoff is an ex-physicist, retired lawyer, and longtime BOLLI member and SGL. For many years, he has led opera courses and has been a frequent lunchtime speaker on the operas of Mozart, Verdi, and others. Phil has also written several one-act comedies and published a short-story collection (Butterflies…and other stories).  His stories have appeared in the BOLLI Journal and in other periodicals.