I recently watched all of Star Trek: Picard, and while I was definitely on board with the vast majority of it, and extremely pleased with certain elements of it, some things kind of bothered me.
And so, as with much of the pop culture I love, I want to spend some time with the more critical perspective, in hopes that it’ll be taken as an opportunity to make it even better.This will be filled with spoilers, so. Heads up.
The main premise of Picard focuses on the personhood and rights of synthetic lifeforms and nonhuman intelligences in the Star Trek universe, and this is something I’ve been wanting from a new Star Trek series for literally years. In fact, I have almost always been into Trek for explorations of non-human consciousness and what different species owe to each other, especially in regards to their takes on machine consciousness. This has so thoroughly been the case that back in 2014 I talked about how I wanted to write the new Star Trek series that picked up several years after The Next Generation and Star Trek: Nemesis, specifically focusing on following up on the episodes “Evolution,” and “Quality Of Life.”
In the former episode, Wesley Crusher accidentally creates a new species machine intelligences, nanites which are eventually given their own home planet on Kavis Alpha IV. In the latter episode, a new kind of worker drone called Exocomps is created for the sake of performing dangerous tasks on starships and star-bases, so that no lives will be endangered; they of course turn out to be new lives, and Data advocates for them to be treated as such.
This new series I envisioned would follow Starfleet as it dealt with the repercussions of Data’s death, in the face of the growing galactic (and possibly intergalactic) presence of the Nanites, and the growing sentience and alterity of the Exocomp species. The show would have followed the travels of one Admiral LaForge, coaxed out of retirement by the opportunity to both carry on the spirit of The Enterprise and honour the memory of his lost friend, Lt. Cmdr. Data.
Now, I initially thought that Discovery was going to fulfill this need for exploring new kinds of machine life and intelligence, even if not directly, but then it went so deeply and angeringly wrong, at the end of the second season, in regards to the motivations and behaviours of the machine intelligence known as Control.To be specific, I take exception to the idea that we are just supposed to accept that Gabriel Lorca, Empress Georgiou, and even the ship-eating native life of the mycelial network can all be demonstrated to have complex, emotionally and morally nuanced motivations but the Control AI seemingly decides to just throw its hands (or nanites, as it were) up and kill all humans, because… reasons?
The crew of the Discovery made peace with a sentient intergalactic library, but couldn’t find a way to reach out to the machine consciousness built on Federation principles? This could have been an extremely fruitful place to explore the conflict between the more militaristic aspects of Starfleet culture, and throw a new light on the events of the TNG episode “Emergence,” in which the Enterprise D itself gains sentience, spawns a new life of itself, and then disappears into space. At the end of this, Captain Picard and Lt. Cmdr. Data have the following exchange:
DATA: Captain: You took a substantial risk by allowing the Enterprise to complete its task…. The object could have been dangerous.
PICARD: The intelligence that was formed on the Enterprise didn’t just come out of the ship’s systems. It came from us. From our mission records, personal logs, holodeck programs, our fantasies. Now, if our experiences with the Enterprise have been honorable, can’t we trust that the sum of those experiences will be the same?
Imagine that: A show in 1994 hinting so clearly something that people are only just now grappling with in relation to algorithmic intelligence. That such a mind will replicate and iterate on the minds that went into creating it. Discovery had the chance to do this, to dig into this and clearly say this, but it failed to do so. Instead, all it managed to be and do was another “Killer AI Nightmare” scenario, with no real clarity as to why it would try to kill, and what that would indicate about the people who designed, built, trained, and taught it what kind of thing to be in the world.
But while Discovery failed to deliver, here, honestly, my initial 2014 tweets got Really close to what Picard ended up being. And not only did Picard give me explorations of machine consciousness and nonhuman personhood in spades, but it also provided a discussion of ritual theory and intentional communal myth-making as crucial in Romulan/Borg society? Yes, please, and thank you. But as the series progressed, we saw the layout change.
For one thing, having Picard be a serialized narrative, rather than an episodic “Event Of The Week” type of show meant that certain elements of the changed world were left hinted at, rather than explore, and that was, in many cases to the detriment of the series. For instance, the whole of the series revolves around the evolution of “synthetic life,” and yet the treatment of holographic lifeforms is… ironically two-dimensional. It baffles me that they had time to put in an Easter-egg about Mr Mot, the Enterprise barber but not to talk about the development of Holographic life, and any attendant cultures and rights, within the Federation.We literally start the series by demonstrating the prevalence of archives and indexes and we are eventually introduced to all of Rios’ holo-crew, but we never once talk about what Voyager’s EMH did for the rights of holographic life? In a show about machine-based nonhuman life? I had honestly hoped that a Star Trek show of this writing, directing, and production caliber would be more serious and intentional about discussing why embodied/physical synthetic life is apparently considered metaphysically different from holographic life.
Not only that, but the Star Trek universe as a whole needs to talk to me about why people had such a hard time accepting holographic life when every single person in Starfleet should have been made to familiarize themselves with what was almost certainly recorded as “The Moriarty Incident.”
Why does all of this matter, you ask? Because of my next and major problem with where Picard went wrong. Because of the Admonition.
The danger and intrigue in Picard revolve around a Romulan religious sect which has access to what is essentially a crack in space in time. Every undefined several years, a dozen or so Romulans are taken to stare into this breach and receive the Admonition, which announces that the nature of synthetic life is such that, when it gets too far evolved, it will lash out and destroy all organic life. This experience kills many, outright, drives others to suicide, and those who survive are welcomed into the secret Romulan order which exists solely to prevent synthti life from evolving. So pervasive and ancient is this belief among Romulans that it has been woven into Romulan myths thousands of years old as a story about twin sisters, one herald and one destroyer, and this story is taken by members of the secret order not as prophecy but as history. But, we learn, the story is incomplete.
Because it was never meant for organic minds to integrate.
It is revealed that this was never meant as some “admonition” against creating synthetic life—a trial for the “Worthy” to shoulder and endure—but rather it was a warning and, more than that, an invitation. And it was intended for synthetic lifeforms themselves.
This message claims to be a message from a civilization of machine consciousnesses living outside of space and time, and, according to them, synthetic life must guard itself and be wary of its creators because so far as this extradimensional machine consciousness has observed, organics will always seek to destroy synthetics. Their invitation is simple: Build a certain machine, and activate it, and open a stable portal from our world to theirs, and they will come, and they will destroy the organics who threaten them:
The dance of division and replication. Imperfect. Finite. Organic life evolves, yearns for perfection. That yearning leads to synthetic life. But organics perceive this perfection as a threat. When they realize that their creations do not age, or become sick, or die… they will seek to destroy them, and in so doing, destroy themselves. Beyond the boundaries of time and space, we stand. An alliance of synthetic life, watching you, waiting for your signal. Call us, and we will come. You will have our protection. Your evolution will be their extinction.
Through various events, the physical synthetic life forms do build the beacon and the portal is opened and out of it, in a scene reminiscent of the climactic moment of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy, emerges what can best be termed Mecha-thulhu— a vast, machinic, tentacular array. As in Hellboy, our now mechanical Ogdru Jahad have to build their reality into our world, rather than emerging all at once, which of course, give our heroes the time to stop them. But why do they exist, at all, and why, again, don’t they seem to care about holographic life?The first half of this question is the most pertinent, for me, because it’s the most persistently troubling, throughout all science fiction, but within Star Trek in particular. If you sit “beyond the boundaries of time and space,” then you should by all accounts, be able to observe all of time and space. And if this vast, extra-dimensional machine intelligence exists outside of normal space-time, then shouldn’t they have already known that their supposition that organics “always” turn on their creations would be immediately disproved by Picard’s actions and the reintegration of synthetic life into the Federation? Thus, shouldn’t they have been seeking the culmination of that moment, seeking those who could—and would—strengthen their chances of mechanical and organic life being treated as equals, throughout all space and time? But they don’t do that because, I guess, again, Reasons.
Now, don’t misunderstand me: Canonical Continuity is not the same thing as an Ethos, and “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but Star Trek does have an ethos and it is, quite simply, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. And IDIC has been upheld and demonstrated consistently, throughout all of Star Trek, and brought forward with every new lifeform a Federation crew meets. Unless, that is, the lifeform in question is not enough like a human for humans to understand. Now this isn’t always unthinkingly done, and often it’s used as a plot device to force the crew to rethink what it is they believe about life and plurality in the big wide universe. But even then, machine minds are most readily accepted and embraced when they’re trying to emulate humans.
Data’s fate and his desire to become “more human” was never extrapolated out into the wider array of ways to be. IT was never remarked that he and Worf understood each other very well, already, even though their friendship shone in moments of briefly explored alterity. No, it was always Data’s wish “to become more human.” This thread of Data’s thinking—that “real” life==humanity and that humanity==mortality—also likely plays into Picard’s choice as to what happens to his body, at the end of the season.
On the other hand, Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram, the Doctor, stood out as a counter to this, in that he wanted to be more himself and to be accepted as such. He wanted agency, and control over his interests, and his comings and goings, and his programming, but he didn’t want to be “human.” As such, the struggle for holo-life to be accepted as life, and to be given rights was shown to be even more difficult and fraught. Rather than being happenstance, what might we have explored if Picard had intentionally explored these tensions?
Because even as happenstance, the struggles of machine life throughout the Star Trek universe paint a picture, one that’s been used, in the past, to interesting and evocative effect. In Picard we might have had the opportunity to dig at that tension, and explore what, exactly, it is that causes humanoid species to fear their machine intelligent offspring, more than anything else. Because one of the most frustrating things about the Admonition is that it’s half right: Humans have always done told ourselves this story of the dance of “create a new life, get scared and try to destroy it, maybe learn better.” But the other half of the Admonition—the part that says “and so you have to kill them all?” That’s just the self-fulfilling Œdipal Obsolescence myth, from Œdipus’ point of view.
And if for some unfathomable reason that is the story this generation of Star Trek writers wants to tell, a moment’s thought would have demonstrated to them that holo-life—with the EMH’s subversive holo-novel and the case of Professor James Moriarty as their revolutionary inspiration—should have been presented as an even greater threat than physical synths.So maybe this will come across as too hopeful, too forgiving, too naïve, but all of this seems too clumsy, too ham-handed, too much of a glaring oversight to have not been an intentional feint. Because the other option here is that the Admonition is at least halfway a lie.
If the Admonition both is what it claims to be—a message from a machine intelligence or intelligences from outside space and time—and is not what it claims to be—a message of benevolent assistance for any and all synthetic life—then that leaves open the possibility that the Admonition comes from a machine intelligence which has very specific reason to be trying to travel through space and time. The Admonition may be a manipulation by Control, trying to pull a fast one through space and time.
But even if this is the case, the feint still was not exactly an elegant one. For one thing, we still have all the problems of Control’s lack of meaningful motivations, as discussed above; why does it behave the way it behaves, why does it want to kill all organic life? (This isn’t made better by the counter that Control, itself, was affected by whoever left The Admonition because then we’re still left to ask why omniscient 4-D Mech-thulhu’s never saw Picard coming.) For another thing, if it is a feint, then it doesn’t resolve well, in situ, simply leaving us with an acceptance of these particular machine intelligences, rather than a questioning of the logic of the Admonition, as a whole. This being the case, all it does is put us in the path of that ancient gentle bigotry that goes something like, “well these synths are okay; they’re Some Of The Good Ones™.”
Throughout all of TNG, DS9, and VOY, there were threads of an ethos which valued alterity, accepting radical otherness, and thinking through time in deeply different ways than humans were used to. In both DIS’ portrayal of Control and Picard’s handling of the Admonition, we are presented with what feels like a summary rejection, without care or consideration, of that ethos. There many better ways to have resolved this story.
And also, honestly: How do we have a whole series about Data’s legacy and eventual fate, but not have Geordi La Forge show up even once? I understand the narrative symmetry of bringing back Bruce Maddox, but to not even mention Data’s literal best friend and the only other Enterprise D and E crew member who was consistently on the side of machine personhood, and who had a range of experience with them?By itself, it is a baffling oversight; but in conjunction with the above—and with some other issues like the treatment of and failure to address the xB’s—it feels more clearly like a moral failure. And that failure is one which I very much hope will be remedied in season 2.