Jan 21, 2021
Should Picard have died? Part 2: How Trek goes on without him
In my last article, I spoke about my disappointment with the Star Trek franchise, and how years of playing it safe produced steadily diminishing creative returns. In my opinion, this can all be traced back to a lack of risk-taking.
By the time the series got into its later seasons, Star Trek: The Next Generation was such a massive hit, and the concurrent original series movies were doing so well that producers were likely convinced that Trek fans would watch anything no matter how incredibly boring it was, as long as they stuck the Star Trek name on it. Go back and watch the first two seasons of Deep Space Nine; I dare you to tell me all that Bajoran and Cardassian political crap wasn’t sleep inducing.
And I won’t lie; this attitude carried over to the TOS movies as well. As a reader pointed out, by the end of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, everyone was back on the Enterprise, all in their former ranks and roles, and everyone seemed to be just fine with that. Sure, I suppose the happiness we saw was really relief that they weren’t going to jail for the rest of their lives. But Sulu becoming captain in Star Trek VI just seems like an afterthought. I never thought I’d say this, but after the abortion that is the Abrams-directed Star Trek movies, maybe Spock should have stayed dead after Star Trek II.
Last time around, I hypothesized that having Captain Picard die at the end of the “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter might have been better for the overall health of the franchise. With that in mind, I’m going to indulge in wild speculation here in regards to what the Star Trek franchise could have looked like without Picard. And that involves treating the entire Star Trek franchise as one whole story.
What if someone could plot out not just a series, but all the series? And all the movies? What if that person could use any actor who had ever appeared in the franchise? What if you had a producer with drive and vision who was thinking years ahead about the longevity of a franchise and wanted to deliver as good a product as possible, and wasn’t merely thinking about the next paycheck?
This isn’t as crazy an idea as you might suppose. Back during the same era of TV that gave us TNG and DS9, there were guys like J. Michael Straczynski, who had a five-year plan for Babylon 5, and Chris Carter, whose X-Files also had a goal that went beyond a single season. So it wasn’t unheard of, even in the ‘90s, for producers to have an overall vision for their shows.
But be forewarned: my overall vision for Star Trek in the aftermath of Picard’s death is taxing even the limits of my own imagination.
So picture this: it’s the final scene of “The Best of Both Worlds”. Rather than Picard sitting quietly in his ready room receiving a debriefing, he’s in sickbay with Dr. Crusher, who’s valiantly fighting to save his life. But it’s no use; the Borg implants are too tightly integrated into his body, and Picard dies. His last act is to provide the critical clue to stop the Borg, but he’s gone now. The episode ends with Crusher’s devastated expression. First Tasha, and now Jean-Luc. No music, fade to black.
Next episode, we find the crew handling the loss. Riker receives his official appointment to captain of the Enterprise, and he has a difficult choice to make; who should be his first officer? Ultimately, he decides to keep Shelby, because he realizes that he needs her challenging him, and pushing him, and he needs an experienced officer at Ops. Meanwhile, Deanna travels to France to meet Jean-Luc’s family and to offer her condolences. The episode ends with Picard’s funeral, attended by crew and family. Jean-Luc is laid to rest at his family home in La Barre, France.
Season four plays out largely the way it originally did, culminating in the Klingon civil war. However, instead of things being resolved in the season premiere, I see the war lasting at least halfway through season five. When “Unification” airs, it’s Worf who’s in command of the Klingon cruiser that ferries himself and Data to Romulus. The Klingon war subplot then allows us to get a better glimpse into Klingon culture. We all know that Worf belongs to the House of Mogh, but what, exactly, is a house? What does being part of a house entail? Are all houses alike, or are different houses involved in different aspects of Klingon culture?
What if there are shipbuilding houses, houses of science, of commerce, of diplomacy, of farming and food production? What are Worf’s responsibilities and obligations as head of one? Perhaps this stuff was covered in the Star Trek novels, but it was never elaborated on in the series at all. What happened with Worf is an echo of what happened with Picard: a desire to return to the status quo as quickly as possible.
Instead, I see the civil war ending with Worf being forced to leave the Klingon Empire when he finds himself falling out of favor with Gowron.
Gowron accepts some of Duras’ followers back into the council in order to end the war before the Empire becomes so weakened that the Romulans are able to roll in and take over. Worf places his brother Kurn as head of their house, and he finds himself back in Starfleet… in his old position, at his old rank. All of his accomplishments during the war are barely noted by his superiors. A man who commanded ships in the heat of battle is now once more a subordinate, and it burns.
Over the course of seasons five through seven, we see the producers making a concerted effort to flesh out the supporting cast; characters like Lt. Barclay are given larger roles. Meanwhile, Geordi and Worf are growing increasingly discontent. Both realize that perhaps they want more than what they have.
Ultimately, when the position of Strategic Ops opens up on Deep Space Nine, Worf decides to take it. It’s his opportunity to perhaps at last achieve a command of his own within Starfleet, and he takes Chief O’Brien with him. In Worf’s place (here’s where the speculation gets wild), a lieutenant named Tuvok is assigned to the Enterprise. By series’ end, Geordi has accepted a position as XO on another ship, with Barclay named as his replacement, and Shelby has accepted command of the USS Voyager, taking Tuvok with her.
What’s been going on over at Deep Space Nine during this time? As I said, the first two seasons were boring as hell, and I would have changed the format of the show entirely. Rather than the wormhole opening up in the pilot, I would have had it occur in the first season finale. The entire first season would have involved the fallout from the Cardassian departure and the political upheaval they left behind. But beyond that, I’d have it hinted that the reason why Gul Dukat was so reluctant to leave was because he suspected the wormhole’s existence. Have a mystery unfold that culminates in the reveal of the wormhole.
Season two of DS9 should involve the changing of the political landscape of Bajor and its sector, now that there’s this new frontier to explore. Starfleet should be both excited and apprehensive, as what they thought of as a stable sector along their borders is now a potential route for invasion. What if the Borg come streaming out of that wormhole? What if another equally hostile race does? Why isn’t anyone more concerned about this?
Accordingly, Gul Dukat offers Cardassia’s services to the Federation to defend this sector. The Romulans are a growing threat, and the Klingon Empire is still rebuilding after their devastating civil war. And the Federation now has the Borg to worry about, seeing as how defeating their attacking cube makes Starfleet the Borg’s biggest threat in this quadrant. I would have shown Dukat as a master politician angling to take control of the wormhole, not through military might, but through diplomacy. Make Gul Dukat a legitimate threat, dammit! Play him up as a scheming manipulator from day one, who’s every bit Sisko’s intellectual equal, not his punching bag.
This plot isn’t as farfetched as you might think. The Federation was willing to give up cloaking technology in exchange for peace. They cut a deal with the Cardassians to give them concessions regarding their shared border to avoid another war, because of their concern over the Borg threat. Asking the Cardassians to take on the responsibility of handling wormhole security doesn’t sound all that unbelievable, based on some of the other military/diplomatic decisions made over the course of the franchise.
Back to Dukat. Over time, slowly make him into something more than just a two-dimensional villain; introduce his daughter, tease his reformation, and then reveal his alliance with the Dominion. Only this time, do a much better job of explaining how he thinks enslaving his people is a good idea (if you can). Ultimately, have his daughter die, and then instead of turning Dukat into a ridiculous caricature of his former self, kill him off. By season six, he’s served his purpose, and there would be no better time for him to exit stage left.
But wait! You may say. Without Dukat, who becomes the tool of the Pah Wraiths? Why, Kai Winn, of course.
Yes, Kai Winn. During season one, they could have shown Kai Winn in a political battle with Kai Opaka for leadership of Bajor’s religious sect. And with Opaka’s enforced departure, we could have seen Kai’s star rise… that is, until the wormhole revelation and Sisko becoming the emissary derails her plans.
Winn grows bitter as a cult of personality forms around Benjamin Sisko, and she’s forced to either denounce him as a fraud and demand he and Starfleet leave Deep Space Nine, or support him because Starfleet’s departure would mean Dukat wins. Her reluctant support of Sisko should fester, and ultimately, it should lead to Winn’s final devastating fall as she succumbs to her hatred and the Pah Wraiths take hold of her very soul.
Oh, and one more thing: I would have gotten rid of Vic Fontaine.
I have nothing against James Darren. I think he’s a good actor and I’ve liked him in other stuff. But I hated the whole concept of people repeatedly going to a ‘60s Vegas nightclub, because quite frankly, I hate that sort of music. A rat packer, I am not. Okay, sure, have your Vic Fontaine episode. But maybe have James Darren make repeat appearances in other roles on the Holodeck? Have him appear as the host of the equivalent of a Klingon beer hall, or a Bajoran chef preparing his special Hasperat. Use the Holodeck to show other cultures. Having a ‘60s Vegas nightclub seems, I dunno, speciesist to me. And dumb. Very dumb.
Now we come to Voyager, with Captain Shelby in command. She’s taken along some familiar faces, such as Lt. Tuvok and Nurse Ogawa. They’re on the hunt for a particular Maquis criminal, one Shelby has quite a grudge against: Ro Laren.
Following a tip, they track her to the Badlands, where they’re all whisked away to the Delta Quadrant by the Caretaker. There are many deaths, and Ogawa discovers she’s now the ship’s chief medical officer by default. Imagine the awesome responsibility heaped upon a senior nurse who’s now being called upon to act as a ship’s medical officer. Also, imagine the personal stresses she would now be subjected to: Ogawa had been pregnant at the end of The Next Generation. In this scenario, she’ll have given birth soon before coming aboard Voyager, on what’s meant to be a temporary assignment, with her leaving her child in the care of her husband. Imagine what she would have to endure, not seeing her child, and not being able to tell her husband she’s alive. Imagine the bitterness she would feel directed at Shelby.
Also, imagine the mind-blowing implications of having two Asian actors playing major roles on the same show at the same time! Honestly, how often does that happen? I think you might have to go back to the original Hawaii Five-O to see something like that. It happens about as often as a black actor being cast in a sci-fi series without having to wear a stupid prosthetic on his/her head.
So Voyager and Ro Laren’s people defeat the Kazon, and now we come to the aftermath, and it isn’t pretty. Shelby hates Laren’s guts. She hasn’t liked her since they first met, has never been impressed by her, and her betraying Riker and defecting to the Maquis has stuck in Shelby’s craw. But she needs warm bodies to fill out the ranks, and Laren essentially blackmails her: “Make me your executive officer, or you won’t get any cooperation.” Shelby has to agree, and now she finds herself in the unenviable position of having a first officer she simply cannot trust.
One of Voyager’s (many) flaws was the lack of effective conflict within the cast. Yes, it cropped up from time to time, but ultimately, it was a show devoid of any real tension. The ship was always fixed by the next episode, and there was never a feeling of desperation regarding resources. People could jump onto the Holodeck any time they wanted, because for some reason Holodeck energy wasn’t like other energy. Shuttles crashed and were easily replaced. Screw all that.
I want to see food rationed, power carefully allocated, and each photon torpedo treated as a precious commodity. And Ro Laren should be a ruthless taskmaster, going so far as to whack a Maquis who simply doesn’t get the fact that the people on the ship are living a marginal existence. Ro Laren is a frightening woman willing to do anything to get home. She has a war to get back to, and woe be to anyone who gets in the way of that, and if it means cutting deals with aliens of the week to do so, then so be it.
Shelby would adhere to the ideals of Starfleet, and let Ro know that her reprehensible actions make her no better than the Cardassians who oppressed her people, as it’s the Cardassians who see “any means to an end” as a philosophy. Ultimately, their feud comes to a head in the season two finale, when in a bit of irony, Ro is betrayed by her sidekick Seska, who turns out to be a Cardassian. Ro and Shelby come to an understanding as they leave the Kazon behind.
And then they move on to the next threat. Each season would involve a different major bad guy, as the ship makes definite progress towards home (honestly, look at the first two seasons—Voyager pretty much goes nowhere. Why isn’t there a mutiny? Because producer Jeri Taylor thought her creation, Kathryn Janeway, walked on water). As the Kazon are left behind, Voyager soon faces the Vidiians. After the crew survives the Vidiians, they face the Hirogen. And when they finally depart Hirogen space, they face their ultimate test: the Borg.
The ship gains new crew members, explorers, and ambassadors eager to see new sights and visit this “Federation”. The ship itself slowly changes as it adopts new technologies and weapons to replace what’s been lost. By series’ end, Shelby and Ro have formed an awesome womance culminating in them sacrificing themselves in an stunning finale, as they detonate a chronobomb to destroy the Borg, and Voyager rides the temporal shockwave home. (Chronobombs don’t exist in the Star Trek universe. But dammit, they should!)
Oh, and what about Neelix? I’d keep him.
Yeah, I was just as shocked when I realized that. But looking back, there was really nothing wrong with the concept of Neelix. The problem lay in the execution. Instead of being a savvy trader/salvager getting by on his wits, Neelix appeared to be utterly witless, a failure at even being comic relief. Keep the makeup, keep the silly clothes. Have it all hide a scheming, ruthless manipulator out for himself. A manipulator who ultimately comes to respect the Voyager crew and is reformed by witnessing their repeated acts of courage and nobility. The cynical bastard comes to realize there’s more to the universe than dog-eat-dog.
If you look at the four TNG-era films, they range from mediocre (First Contact) to utter trash (Insurrection and Nemesis are tied, with Star Trek V being only marginally worse. “Marginally”, as in by a hair). Generations is simply not a very good film. Think about it; TNG had two movies in a row that used a time travel plot device. And all those good feelings generated by the end of Star Trek VI with the crew of the Enterprise cruising off into the stars? Pissed away with Kirk’s ignoble death. Instead of dying on the bridge, he dies on a bridge. Seriously, I give whichever of the three writers responsible a big middle finger for that.
If you really must have a story involving the original cast, then be creative. Instead of time travel, why not use flashbacks? Why not tell us what became of the likes of Chekov, Sulu, and Uhura? Or why not involve the present-day Scotty, McCoy, and Spock, who are all still alive in TNG’s timeframe?
A creative way to get Geordi back into the story might be to have him visit Scotty and gain a clue regarding the past. Perhaps the story involves the search for Kirk. Perhaps we discover James T. had died on a distant world, saving its people, and leaving behind a legacy where he violated the Prime Directive to do what he thought was right. What if information came to light painting Kirk as a war criminal, and these three survivors—Spock, McCoy, and Scotty—went to Riker for help to clear Kirk’s name? There are all sorts of ideas that could involve the old cast and new without relying on the crutch of time travel.
First Contact? I would have gotten rid of Alfre Woodard. Honestly, she’s a useless, unnecessary audience-insert character, and every minute she’s onscreen robs a cast member of more time. Bring back Geordi and anyone else as survivors of the Borg attack. It would be great to see Geordi and Barclay bickering over the construction of the Phoenix, and we could see how far Reg has come.
Insurrection? Screw that. Make a Dominion War movie. Have multiple ships involved, with a big cast mixing characters from both TNG and DS9, and make it feel utterly epic in scope. Why not? The X-Files had a successful movie in between seasons; the same thing could work here. And the consequences of the movie could then impact the Deep Space Nine TV series.
Nemesis? Not a bad plot overall, but again, the execution is weak. I would have used Lore rather than B4. Bring back Sela as Shizon’s advisor, and involve Tom Riker. Have Data preparing for his first command, and have Captain La Forge and Ambassador Worf along for the ride as part of the wedding party on their way to Risa. And have Barclay die in the chaos, with Geordi having to step up as Chief Engineer once more.
And for an audience-insert character, use Data’s replacement, a young, hotshot commander who has to be brought up to speed on who these characters are. “Lore? My evil brother.” “Thomas Riker? He’s the result of a transporter accident.” “Sela? She’s the daughter of a dead crew member from another timeline.” Having cast members explain this stuff with a straight face would be priceless.
The premise of Nemesis could still be about duality, and one of the storylines could be Will attempting to bring Tom back from the dark side. Sela dies, Shizon dies, and Data ultimately dies in a final confrontation with Lore. Tom saves Will’s life. Make the movie dark, but also leave us with the feeling that life does go on.
And now we come to the final entry in the original Roddenberry/Rick Berman-led Star Trek franchise: Enterprise. I realize the show was inevitable; Paramount still needed a Star Trek series for their floundering UPN network, so the show would have come into existence in one way or another. So, how would I have handled it? This is what I would have done differently:
Vulcans would not be portrayed as dicks.
Travel distance would be a big deal. Enterprise was always where they needed to be, exactly when they needed to be there. Screw that. Unless you want to finally make “warp highways” canon. Also, communication would often be a problem as well, so it should have sometimes taken many hours or days to receive messages from faraway Earth.
T’Pol should have been in a less ridiculous costume, and should not have been wearing high heels. And let Jolene Blalock wear her real hair rather than that stupid wig. The franchise established as far back as the original series that Vulcan women could have long hair.
Also, don’t call it Enterprise! The very existence of the name raises all sorts of headaches regarding canon.
Give the ship a different look than the Akiraprise. If you want saucer-shaped ships, then show the Andorians employing that design. In fact, hint that the first Enterprise is a combination of technologies: the Vulcan cigar shape, the Andorian saucer, and Earth’s warp nacelles. Show us that Earthlings stumbled upon a more efficient and effective warp field generator with the nacelles than the comparatively primitive Vulcan/Andorian warp rings.
While we’re on the look of the not-Enterprise, I would have changed the interior as well. Why does the bridge layout look just like any other bridge in the franchise? Instead, why not make it look like the control center of a submarine, and show the slow evolution to a modern Star Trek bridge?
Have the stories focus on the formation of the Federation by involving the Tellarites and Andorians early on.
None of this is entirely impossible, people. J. Michael Straczynski designed Babylon 5 as a five-season story. He had the show pretty much plotted out from day one, with contingency plans to take into account actors leaving and other potential unforeseen circumstances.
Look at what’s going on with the Marvel movie franchise; The Avengers was teased as early as Iron Man. Thanos, the ultimate Marvel villain, was teased in the first Avengers film, and we just witnessed the introduction of his weapons of choice, the Infinity Gems.
Planning a franchise is possible if you have producers with talent and vision who aren’t afraid to take a few chances and can think beyond the next season or movie.