Star Trek: Picard’s Showrunner Defends Its Moral Darkness: ‘Shadow Defines Light’

Star Trek: Picard’s Showrunner Defends Its Moral Darkness: ‘Shadow Defines Light’

Star Trek: Picard has set itself in a time where the franchise’s venerable Federation is in a moment of moral crisis. Beleaguered by tragedy after tragedy, it has seemingly buckled and become fundamentally stagnant. For some fans, that darkness doesn’t feel like Star Trek, but for showrunner Michael Chabon, it’s a vital part of showing just how hopeful the franchise’s future setting is.

Taking once again to his Instagram to answer fan questions—this time a little more heady than “Why does this character wear sunglasses, how dare you???”—about the current trajectory of season one, Chabon touched on everything from the most recent episode’s use of violence to where Picard fits in Trek’s grand plans to offer a different lens into this universe for different kinds of fans.

But Chabon most directly addressed the critiques that Picard, for some, runs up against Star Trek’s utopian ideal by embracing a darker view of its world—and that its desire to reflect our own dark present robs the series of its optimistic hope for a future where humanity and its fellow species among the stars are united as one. Thankfully, TrekMovie collated his responses so you don’t have to dig through Instagram comments to find them.

“First of all, I think that the phrase (or a version of it) ‘Star Trek has always reflected its time’ is open to multiple, potentially conflicting interpretations. It can mean, ‘Individual Star Trek series have always (consciously) reflected thematically many of the most pressing issues of the time when they were made,’” Chabon began in a lengthy thought about Picard’s perception of the time it’s made in. “I think that’s the sense intended by people involved with making the two current series, and it’s pretty obviously true—starting with persistent themes of nuclear annihilation, racial prejudice, mechanization, totalitarianism vs liberal democracy, on TOS, through DS9 with its themes of individual vs group identity, chosen family, reason vs faith, and the inevitable moral compromises of war. (That’s only the *conscious* ways in which Trek has reflected the times in which it was made.)”

He continued, “But the phrase could also be taken the way (I think) you take it: that the world, the milieu depicted by Star Trek—the characters and their interactions, their capabilities and limitations as individuals, the social institutions and mores and technologies and economics and culture—reflects the world and era in which it was made. I think you’re saying that this is wrong, that here is exactly where Trek doesn’t, hasn’t, and *shouldn’t* reflect the world and times. That it has always presented its crews, Starfleet, and the Federation as improvements, as realisations of our best potential, as aspirational.”

Raffi (Michelle Hurd) and Picard share a tense moment during a flashback. (Photo: Trae Patton/CBS)

Chabon added that, while Star Trek has often presented an idealised future to strive toward, it’s not always been as perfect as fans have made it out to be. Of course, Deep Space Nine deeply interrogated the idea of a Federation at wartime, examining a moral cost that, at the time, lead to fans being as uneasy of what is now considered one of Trek’s finest series as they are of Picard. But as Chabon pointed out, Star Trek has always been just as fascinated with the people outside of the confines of the Federation’s reach as it is those deeply enmeshed within its structure.

“If Trek has reflected our world, it’s in a kind of utopian funhouse mirror, where everything looks better. I would say that by and large that has been true, though possibly not as to the degree that many Trek fans claim, or feel,” Chabon wrote. “But there’s another side to the world—the people and society—depicted in Star Trek, which is all the characters, planets, cultures, mores and interactions that take place outside of Starfleet, the Federation. Many of these ‘outside’ cultures and characters—the empires and alliances and unions— *have* deliberately reflected aspects of our world, with its all imperfection, intolerance, brutality, its humiliations and injustices, its evils. I don’t mean just in a thematic sense, but in the behaviour of individual non-Federation, non-Starfleet characters, in the construction of societies around prejudices and inequalities, violence, lust for power, et cetera.”

How that train of thought impacts Picard, for Chabon at least, is that he hopes the show addresses two fundamental questions about Star Trek’s world. The first is one that Chabon feels is vital to sustaining the optimism Trek’s future is meant to inspire: challenging what that optimism is like when it itself is challenged.

“In the one, long, 10-part story we’re telling, we’re asking two questions about the greater world of Star Trek (i.e, the Federation *and* everything outside the Federation). One—a venerable Star Trek question, with a long pedigree in previous series and films: What happens when the Federation, the Roddenberry Federation with all its enlightened and noble intentions, free from want, disease, (internal) war, greed, capitalism, intolerance, etc., is tested by forces inimical to its values?” Chabon considered. “What happens when two of its essential principles; (security and liberty, say) come into conflict? The answer has to be—at first, it buckles. It wobbles. It may, to some extent, compromise or even betray its values, or at the very least be sorely tempted to do so. If not, there’s no point asking the question, though it’s a question that any society with aspirations like ours or the Federation’s needs to ask.”

He continued, “If nothing can ever truly test the Federation, if nothing can rock its perfection, then it’s just a magical land. It’s Lothlorien, in its enchanted bubble, untouchable by the Shadow. And, also, profoundly *inhuman*. To me it’s the humanity of the Federation—which means among many admirable things, its imperfection, its vulnerability and the constant need to defend it from our own worst natures—that makes it truly inspiring.”

Picard, surrounded by an unamused assortment of Romulans. (Photo: Trae Patton/CBS)

The second is more of a question of what happens to the people who fall out of the Federation’s boundaries—whether they were never there in the first place, existing on its fringes, or were left behind in its retreat from galactic affairs following the twofold blow of both the synthetic attack on Mars and the destruction of the Romulan homeworld.

“The other, related question we’re asking is: What about the people who live outside, at the edges (or even within) the Federation but who, for various reasons, aren’t quite *of* it. Ex-Starfleet officers, refugees, people like Seven who served on a Starfleet ship but was never actually in Starfleet. People who have fallen through the cracks, or fallen victim to their own weaknesses.”

Chabon continued, noting that this is an idea the franchise has dabbled with before—especially with factions like the Maquis, a fringe group born out of the Federation’s lack of support for humans living in former Cardassian territory in Deep Space Nine. “What is life like for people who, for whatever reason, live beyond the benevolent boundaries of the Federation—where, for example, post-scarcity is a dream, and there is a monetary economy? Again, there is precedent for this kind of story on Trek, but the fact that our story only resolves over 10 episodes, not one, or two, or four out of a season of 23, might make it feel, sometimes, that there is more darkness, more trauma in our characters’ lives. More *struggle.* This show unquestionably has darker tonalities than some others (DS9 is the standout exception). It lives more in the shadows, where the Federation’s light can’t always reach. That isn’t to condemn, criticise, undo, break or, god knows, betray the Federation or Gene Roddenberry’s vision. Shadow defines light.”

Ultimately for Chabon, he hopes that what Trek fans take from Picard is a new way to embolden the light that defines the series’ future utopia—and an acceptance that Star Trek must always try different things to examine its oldest fundamentals. “Every new Trek series since TNG has sought to escape what can feel like the confines of previous series, not simply of canon (which can also be a strangely liberating force) but of the kinds of stories, about the kinds of characters and societies, that have already been told,” Chabon wrote. “Each new series has expressed this impulse to ‘light out for the territories’ in a different way. TNG went a century into the future of TOS. DS9 went onto a station full of aliens that was both beyond the edge of the Federation and next to a wormhole that led to the Gamma Quadrant. VOY put 70k light-years between it and its predecessors, and introduced a raft of new species and worlds. ENT went deep into the early past of the Federation. Next season’s DIS goes to the Trek universe’s far-future.”

“The space we found for Picard is not ‘dark Federation,’” Chabon concluded. “It’s one of people who live and work at or beyond the margins of the Federation who travel beyond its boundaries to find the truth.”