Entertainment Rants

Picard’s Big 3 Issues

Credit to Star Trek: Picard (2020 – ).

A young Elrond prepares for battle in Rivendell while Romulan Novak Djokovic looks on.

I went in expecting nothing. They’ve delivered less.

This is such badly constructed storytelling – objectively bad storytelling – that it’s hard to believe anybody could think it’s good.

There is no way anybody should be taught to tell story this way, should perpetuate telling story this way, or think this way is good storytelling.

There are issues that range deeper than Star Trek: Picard‘s premise, characters, or plotting – issues that run rampant in the methodology of how the writers here have decided to tell the story (and how they tell it in Star Trek: Discovery [2017 – ], as well as JJ Abrams‘s Star Trek [2009] and the Star Wars Sequel franchises).

When telling story this way, the same problems arise.

These issues are cancer that spread throughout every facet of the show, and will eventually debilitate it, as has occurred with those aforementioned titles.

I understand that people do like these properties. But look at the outrage and dissatisfaction that a lot of other fans voice. It’s not simply a case of tastes, e.g. people either liked Star Wars or didn’t like it. It was their thing or it wasn’t. But now? You have fans who want to love these properties (like me), are eager to love these properties (like me), who would be forgiving of some problems, but are wholly indignant about what they’re getting (definitely like me).

It’s arrogant to suggest it’s just ‘vocal minorities’. Obviously, there are haters who hate for all the wrong reasons. But listen to the others who voice their cases: many of them are are eloquent, analytical, and constructive in explaining why things aren’t working. When you get such a chorus, there has to be something not quite right. It’s actually arrogant to dismiss or condemn the criticism and categorize it as these people being amongst the haters.

But this is going off track.

Here are three issues that just keep coming in up in a lot of today’s storytelling., and have already gutted Star Trek: Picard.

 

1. What are the stakes?

For us to care about a character’s journey, we need stakes. What is the cost of a character’s failure?

Here are some other examples:

    • The Godfather (1972): if Michael Corleone does not act, his family will be wiped out by enemy families.
    • The Exorcist (1973): if Father Merrin fails in his exorcism, Regan’s soul will be lost to this demon
    • Poltergeist (1982): if Steve and Diana Freeling, and the psychic Tangina fail, the Freeling’s daughter, Carol Anne, will be lost to this great evil.
    • The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy: if Obi Wan and Yoda fail, the Empire will rise.
    • The Star Wars Original Trilogy: if Luke Skywalker fails, the Empire will conquer the galaxy.
    • Raiders of the Lost Ark: If Indiana Jones fails to retrieve the Ark, the Nazis will use its power to defeat their enemies.
    • Any Harry Potter movie: if Harry fails, [INSERT NAME OF EVIL] will take over.
    • Any James Bond movie: if James Bond can’t stop [INSERT BAD GUY’S NAME], they will execute their plan for world domination.
    • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999) : if the Dominion aren’t stopped, they will conquer the Alpha Quadrant.
    • Babylon 5 (1993 – 1998): if Sheridan does not succeed, the Shadows will conquer the galaxy.
    • Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003): if Buffy does not stop [INSERT NAME OF EVIL], they will rule supreme on Earth.

When we know that something is at stake, we root for our heroes. We don’t want the bad thing to happen. We need to know the cost of failure so we can root against it.

Every Star Trek series follows a simple formula. They encounter X, and if they don’t take whatever action is required, Y will happen.

But Star Trek: Picard?

If Picard doesn’t rescue Soji, what happens? We don’t know.

If the Romulans succeed in their plan (and we don’t even know what this is), what happens? We don’t know.

Why should I care?

They hint at grander themes, but never gives us real context.

 

2. Backward storytelling

What are they building in terms of storytelling?

Nothing, as far as I can see. They’ve given us ready-made premises as part of their world-building, and that’s fine. But how have they used that as a foundation to build?

What they’ve actually done is built a cellar to explore under the foundations by introducing all these questions from the past:

    • Who is Soji?
    • What is Starfleet’s interest in her?
    • What is the Romulans’ interest in her?
    • What are the Romulans really doing with the Borg cube?
    • Why did the Synths revolt on Mars?
    • What is Narek’s relationship with his sister?
    • What is Commodore Oh’s part in all this?
    • How does Seven of Nine know Picard given they never shared any on-screen time together?

What Picard is working towards is answering these questions (and ones I’ve missed) from the past.

While things are happening in the now, they’re only happening to answer those questions and provide context for the present.

To make sure we don’t forget these are the mysteries to be unraveled, we’re constantly reminded that these things happened, e.g. how many times do I need to be told the Synths revolted on Mars? We get long, boring conversations that tease at mysteries that just aren’t that interesting. We get clandestine meetings and cryptic half-conversations to push the Deep Throat-like conspiracy angles that The X-Files (1993 – 2002) popularised in the 1990s.

This happened in Star Trek: Discovery. In season 2, what are the red lights? Who is the red angel? Why does Spock go mad? In the Star Wars Sequels, who is Rey? Who is Snoke? How did the First Order rise? What happened to Luke?

And it just becomes all about solving those mysteries. Do the characters move forward and grow? No. We’re given explanations as to why they are the way they are, and they deal with what they learn to understand their situation. They don’t actually grow from it.

Now you can have obvious character-driven stories. Better Call Saul (2015 – 2021) and Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013) are about their protagonists’ moral decline. And while villains play a part in the story, they’re not the Big Bad to be overcome, the way Buffy: The Vampire Slayer would set up a great evil they had to learn about and ultimately combat.

You can obviously create stories that are about solving a mystery in which characters try to uncover a truth. But there is usually growth as that’s happening, e.g. in The Boys (2019 – ), Billy Butcher and Hugh try to expose corrupt superheroes. Along the way, Billy and Hugh become entangled in the mystery of the superheroes’ origins. As Billy and Hugh are doing all this, they grow. Hugh goes from naive to to hardened to world-weary to hopeful. Billy Butcher goes from angry to flirting with redemption, before becoming darker. The superheroes also grow. Starlight goes from naive to cynical to finding balance. The Deep goes from cocky and criminal to trying to find meaning in altruism, and then discovering remorse. Queen Maeve rediscovers her humanity. Homelander grows to recognise and accept that his abilities should mean he doesn’t have to be answerable to anybody.

But in Star Trek: Picard, it’s just about the mystery. Then there’s another mystery. Then another. It’s Lostlike storytelling, trying to keep the audience hooked into the intrigue, as if that’ll sustain the narrative and we’ll all wait breathlessly for the answers.

Star Trek is about looking forward. Even when they had stories set in the past, it was still a commentary on the present.

Star Trek: Picard is all about looking back.

The one bit of character growth occurred in the pilot: Picard was just biding his time, waiting to die on his vineyard. Then he’s startled into taking action.

And that’s it. Flip the switch and it’s done.

 

3. Binary plotting

It’s just two-step plotting the whole way: negative/positive, bad/good, right/left.

Take episode 4, ‘Absolute Candor’, for example.

Picard goes to seek Elrond’s help. Elrond bitterly declines.

Picard leaves, gets in an altercation, and Elrond shows up and saves him. Now Elrond joins Picard.

Ooh, all dramatic and meaningful, right?

Right?

Let’s break this down:

    • Elrond rebukes Picard to introduce drama and conflict. It’s pointless, though, because we know it’s not going to be lasting. They didn’t spend ten minutes foreshadowing this relationship (IN THE PAST) just to ditch it now.
    • Picard goes into town, takes the ROMULANS ONLY sign that hangs on the railing at a tavern and throws it on the ground. This seems a pointless sign given we don’t see anybody but Romulans on this world, and the world is a desert that the casual alien isn’t going to visit, so who is this sign discriminating again? Picard trods on it, enters the tavern courtyard, and calls for service. Now this is Jean-Luc Picard – the great diplomat and mediator. Would he really behave like this? Would an elderly gentleman pushing 80 who has no back-up, no weapon, and no escape, behave so antagonistically against a hostile group who grossly outnumber him? Would anybody but the most self-destructive asshole behave like this? No. But the writers want to create a situation where Elrond can play the rescuer. That means creating conflict, although the way they generate that conflict is unbelievable.
    • Elrond arrives, issues a threat, then spins through the air and decapitates the attacker. We’re meant to say, ‘Wow!’

I’m not wowed. This is stupid and needless and features unrealistic action.

If you wanted to truly motivate this scene (using their building blocks):

    • Elrond rebukes Picard.
    • Picard goes to town, but knows Elrond is following him, watching him.
    • Picard creates a situation (the fight) that’ll draw Elrond from hiding and into action.

Or to take it even further:

    • Picard discovers while Elrond trained as a warrior, he has suffered a recent loss that has broken his confidence. He declines Picard out of diffidence.
    • Picard goes to town. Elrond follows him surreptitiously.
    • Picard creates a situation that’ll force Elrond into action and help him overcome his diffidence.

Or even:

    • Picard discovers while Elrond trained as a warrior, he has suffered a recent loss that has broken his confidence. He declines Picard out of diffidence.
    • Picard goes to town. Elrond follows him surreptitiously.
    • Picard creates a situation that’ll force Elrond into action.
    • Elrond actually fails, and Picard has to rescue him.
    • Elrond wants to redeem himself, and joins Picard.

Or even:

    • Picard beams down. He sees the ROMULANS ONLY sign.
    • Romulans attack him.
    • Elrond rescues him.
    • Elrond joins Picard.

At least now these actions are motivated. They make sense. They’re not happening just to happen. We don’t make a character behave unrealistically just to create action.

The way Star Trek: Picard phrases it, we have no explanation as to why Elrond changes his mind. Whatever causes the change happens off screen. Given Elrond declines in one scene, then joins Picard minutes later, what’s the point of declining at all given it’s so quickly reversed? Why didn’t Elrond simply accept in the first place? What growth does the reversal generate? How does it affect Picard’s and Elrond’s relationship? Does it do anything other than change the decision? It’s arbitrary.

This is the binary nature of the storytelling. Two scenes: one negative (Elrond declines), the other positive (Elrond accepts). And nothing causal, motivating, or justifying flips that switch.

This is the methodology behind Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Discovery, and JJ Abrams’ Star Trek and Star Trek Into Discovery.

For a franchise that was about boldly going where no one has gone before, our most recent incarnations of Star Trek are just about hitting those same beats over and over and over, injecting drama for the sake of storytelling needing conflict, and then resolving it with some tawdry action scene moments later.

What a bastardisation of a grand franchise.

 

 

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