This review and discussion contains spoilers for Star Trek: Picard season 3, episode 3, “Seventeen Seconds.”
“Seventeen Seconds” is full of conflict. The only problem is that none of it is especially interesting.
Conflict has always been a controversial subject within the larger Star Trek universe, whether at a character or galactic level. The original Star Trek was largely driven by conflict, particularly between Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the characters around him in classic episodes like “Balance of Terror” or “The Galileo Seven.” However, in his later years, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry came to outlaw conflict within his fictional universe.
This was inherently absurd, leading to surreal moments like Jean-Luc Picard’s bizarre assertion in “Peak Performance” that “Starfleet is not a military organization.” Roddenberry would famously attempt to veto conflict between characters, opposing classic episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation like “The Measure of a Man” or “Family” because they required character conflict to function. Over the years, Roddenberry’s philosophy was internalized by fans and creators.
Many of the writers working on The Next Generation pushed back against this. “We railed against that on a daily basis, found ways to get around that, found ways to get through it with varying degrees of success,” recalled Ronald D. Moore. “It was a constant problem that we just sort of gnashed our teeth about. It never made any logical sense or any dramatic sense.” In Moore’s account, the writers tried to “push against that as far as we possibly could,” to limited success.
Naturally, many of the best Star Trek stories are built around conflict, because conflict — personal or ideological — is a great dramatic hook. Star Trek: First Contact is easily the best Next Generation movie and an obvious touchstone for the third season of Star Trek: Picard, which leans off Jerry Goldsmith’s score and is built around throwing Picard into conflict with the characters around him, to the point that he rather dramatically accuses Worf (Michael Dorn) of being a “coward.”
“Seventeen Seconds” leans hard into the idea of character conflict, throwing Picard into conflict with two of his oldest friends, William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden). There is certainly some interesting ground to explore there. Picard is obviously a pop culture icon, but many of the best explorations of his character understand that he is also a man with a tremendous ego and a lot of pride.
After all, Picard spent decades in relationships with Riker and Crusher that assumed their subordination to him. Picard was always their commanding officer, and so they always had to answer to him. They might voice disagreement with his decisions, but at the end of the day, he had final say. So there’s an interesting hook in the third season of Picard, in throwing the title character back into relationships where that authority has been stripped away, and the dynamics are different.
There are some potentially interesting ideas here, but the execution is frustratingly half-hearted. Picard’s argument with Crusher is rooted in events that happened off-screen decades earlier. As such, the audience has no understanding of their changed relationship outside of the exposition that takes place within the argument. There has been no chance to sit with these tensions, to watch them simmer. The events themselves remain largely abstracted, so the argument has no weight.
It recalls Raffi’s (Michelle Hurd) argument with her ex-husband Jae (Randy J. Goodwin) in “Disengage.” It is an outline of an interpersonal conflict, in a show that refuses to live in that conflict. Instead, it is just melodrama where Patrick Stewart delivers lines like, “You don’t get to condemn people before the fact.” There’s an interesting hook in Picard’s lament, “Didn’t I deserve a chance? Didn’t he deserve a chance to get to know me?” However, it has to be more than the line itself.
The same is true of the conflict between Picard and Riker. Riker is a character who has spent years in Picard’s shadow. A recurring plot thread on The Next Generation concerned whether Riker would ever actually leave the Enterprise to take his own command. “The Best of Both Worlds,” another touchstone for the third season of Picard, was built around the idea of Riker being forced to take command of the Enterprise in Picard’s absence, to take the big seat without a safety net.
There’s something clever in how “Seventeen Seconds” riffs on that classic character arc, creating a situation where Riker is in command of the Titan while Picard sits right next to him. What is it like for Picard’s former subordinate to be in command with Picard sitting next to him? How does Picard himself adapt to being placed in an advisory role? It’s a compelling angle, particularly with the early flashback scene of Riker having to sit awkwardly through his old mentor’s long-winded toast.
“Seventeen Seconds” falls into the Picard trap that the writers simply aren’t good at writing this sort of conflict. The tone of the scenes between Riker and Picard oscillates wildly. Riker lectures Jack (Ed Speleers) on how Picard is the finest man he has ever known, only to bicker with Picard over strategy. Picard jokes about how “it might be time (Riker) called (him) number one,” but before long he’s “out of line” by insinuating that the death of Riker’s son has left him with an “instinct to be fearful of loss.”
This is a problem all over “Seventeen Seconds.” The episode places a great deal of emphasis on the idea that Worf has embraced pacifism. “I have been, as humans say, working on myself,” he tells Raffi. When Raffi threatens to have Worf torture Titus Rikka (Thomas Dekker), Worf protests, “I do not do that anymore. I am wiser now.” He claims that he is no longer “irrational, violent.” It’s an interesting — if unconventional — character hook for Worf, particularly after Deep Space Nine.
It also doesn’t make any character sense within the context of “Seventeen Seconds.” The third season of Picard reintroduced Worf by having him decapitate Sneed (Aaron Stanford), an act as irrational and violent as anything he did on The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. Indeed, right after he states his pacifism to Rikka, he reflexively vaporizes Rikka’s Changeling form. Maybe Changelings don’t “count,” but that choice dramatically undermines Worf’s rejection of violence.
This is the problem with so much of the conflict in “Seventeen Seconds.” None of it means anything. None of it has any weight. The episode’s closing line is, on paper, stunningly bold, as Riker instructs Picard to get off the bridge, “You’ve just killed us all.” However, the moment doesn’t work because there is simply no way that Picard will actually let that conflict stand. It is a shocking moment for the sake of a shocking moment, rather than a character choice that actually matters.
This is the hollowness of Star Trek: Picard season 3 in a nutshell, and it’s something that the series has inherited from a lot of modern pop culture. It is a simulacrum of storytelling, something that resembles drama but without any of the stakes or gravity. It is the busy moving of pieces around the board to create the illusion of meaning, but with no substance underneath it, perhaps rooted in the cynical calculation that creating empty content is the best way to avoid provoking online outrage.
What is the third season of Picard actually about? What does it have to actually say, beyond providing an opportunity to take some familiar toys out of the chest? The first two seasons of Picard had their problems, but they were actually trying to say something about the world in which they existed. Stewart has talked about the show as a commentary on contemporary issues like Brexit, isolationism, and immigration, much like the original show engaged with issues like the Vietnam War.
The third season of Picard retains the writing weaknesses of the first two seasons. Indeed, if the first season was accused of riffing on Mass Effect, the third leans into Portal. The big difference is that the third season has jettisoned anything resembling meaning to replace it with cheap nostalgia. This is obvious even in the context of the larger conflict driving the season, with the revelation that a renegade group of Changelings has enacted a plan to target the Federation following the Dominion War.
The Dominion War remains one of the most controversial conflicts in the Star Trek canon. The Deep Space Nine writers had to engage in “horse trading” to bring it to screen, and Gene Roddenberry’s widow, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, famously wrote a letter to the Star Trek Communicator protesting the story arc. After all, if Roddenberry opposed interpersonal conflict, how would he feel about actual galactic conflict between superpowers?
However, the Dominion War was one of the most compelling Star Trek stories ever told, in large part because it challenged the idealism of the Federation. It was a story less interested in the Dominion than it was with what happened to liberal democracy under existential threat, an approach that aged remarkably well during the War on Terror. It would be amazing to see Picard attempt something similarly pointed and ambitious.
Sadly, there’s little sense of that here. The Changelings are just generic bad guys doing generic bad guy things. They make generic threats like, “Your worlds are on the verge of destruction. Soon, your Federation will crumble.” Worf talks about the threat in vague terms, warning, “There is something coming, some kind of attack.” They ultimately feel like a plot point that was picked for nostalgia purposes, rather than because the writers had anything meaningful to say with them.
During the first season of Picard, the collapse of the Romulan Empire served as (an admittedly imperfect) metaphor for the immigration crisis, particularly following events in the Middle East. It had something earnest to say about the modern world, in the finest Star Trek tradition. In contrast, the third season of Picard doesn’t seem to have anything meaningful to say about anything beyond nostalgia. Its conflicts are hollow. “Seventeen Seconds” says nothing, but with raised voices.