|Pictured: Not Captain Picard.|
With the show’s newfound brief to focus on character interiority, we’ve seen the creative team work hard to come up with a specific conception of who exactly these characters are. Now, it’s more than possible to argue that our main cast already had characterization, it was just characterization that was different then what this team eventually decided on and made canon (indeed, I think that’s precisely what happened), but regardless, the fact is the third season has had a series of episodes dedicated to nailing down a new set of personality traits for the Enterprise crew: We had “Evolution” for Wesley, “Booby Trap” for Geordi, “The Enemy” and “Sins of the Father” for Worf, “The High Ground” for Doctor Crusher, “The Ensigns of Command”, “The Defector” and “The Offspring” for Data, “The Vengeance Factor” and, uh, “A Matter of Perspective” for Commander Riker and, um, “The Price” for Deanna Troi.
Yeah, that doesn’t look so hot all laid out on paper now, does it?
The thing about this is that while this season in general and these episodes in particular get credit for “fleshing out” previously vague characters, I happen to think all that happened is that people like Ron Moore and Ira Behr got to completely reconceptualize the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation and they just happened to get lucky that theirs were the interpretations that wound up taking.Either way, perhaps surprisingly, the one character this team has had a particularly hard time nailing down has been Captain Picard. He’s been written particularly changeably this season, and upsettingly so as there seems to have been a trend to depict him as very tight-laced, stringent, stodgy and reactionary (I’m thinking particularly of “The High Ground” and “The Offspring” here, though he has had good moments in stories like “The Defector” and “The Hunted”).
To me, this is writing him horribly out of character. The Captain Picard I know, the one derived from the best moments of the first two seasons, is a boldly progressive and highly principled explorer infatuated with travel and the universe. He’s a romantic at heart, yet someone who is also in possession of a fierce moral code and still a bit socially awkward in places. Even so, Captain Picard should be the first person to stand up against the banal evil of the Federation and to remind humanity that its place is amongst the stars. He embodies all of the ideals the Federation lies to itself by claiming as its own. The Picard of “The High Ground” and “The Offspring” cannot possibly be the same person who stood firm against Federation neo-imperialism in “Too Short a Season” and “Conspiracy”, who made regular trips to the Holodeck to play games with his friends and who went to the hilt for Data in “The Measure of a Man”. He’s not even the same person who chatted with the crew about ships in bottles in “Booby Trap”, directed Henry V or took up painting. There’s a troubling assumption about Captain Picard that he was always stuffy and self-important until the Borg took him down a few pegs, and I think that can be traced directly to the work of this creative team this season, because that accusation sure doesn’t fit the Captain Picard who came before, or even after.
So naturally, when we finally got around to telling stories that “flesh out” Captain Picard’s character in the same manner afforded his crewmates this season, what we got was a spectacular train wreck.
“Allegiance” and “Captain’s Holiday” are two of the most embarrassing episodes in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. They’re cringe-inducingly pulpish (“Allegiance” even hinges on a dumb evil twin plot that was ridiculous and passe when the Original Series did it in 1966) and filled to the brim with the exact same unwatchable forced zaniness and “humour” that made “Deja Q” so memorable. Michael Piller sticks up for this episode and I can’t for the life of me figure out why as it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the real Captain Picard: You know it’s a bad sign when the only way the writers can come up with to explore a character is to shove him in a box for forty minutes while his doppleganger goes around doing things he would only ever dream of doing. For a team so focused on character development, “Allegiance” sure seems to go out of its way to avoid, you know, actually doing any developing. Then there’s “Captain’s Holiday”, the production history of which is such a hot mess it practically requires an essay all to itself.
Although he’s been on staff as a writer and producer practically all year, “Captain’s Holiday” is the first official submission by Ira Steven Behr, not that he wants to be associated with it. Behr’s original submission featured Risa the pleasure planet only as a framing device to tell his real story, which was about Picard’s supposed fears of growing old. The script would have had Picard go into a holodeck ride that makes you face your greatest fear, which turned out to be that he would be promoted to admiral and the Enterprise would go on without him. Behr adored the idea but Gene Roddenberry hated it, and after a lunch with Patrick Stewart, Behr retooled the script into a fluffy Indiana Jones romp with time travel and girls-of-the-week. Roddenberry’s major objection was, I kid you not, that Captain Picard was John Wayne and Behr’s story wouldn’t work because John Wayne doesn’t fear anything and we wouldn’t have those kinds of self-doubts in the 24th century. Also something something John Wayne. I am seriously not embellishing too much for rhetorical purposes here.
Here’s the thing about Behr, though. Yes, Gene Roddenberry was clearly out of his fucking gourd that week for any number of reasons, but that doesn’t mean Behr’s original story would have actually worked anyway. His original “Captain’s Holiday” wouldn’t have worked not because it would have been out of character for Captain Picard, but because his structure would have clashed with Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s utopianism, and there Roddenberry is right, albeit not for the reasons he thought he was. After all, the show had pretty much done this story already in “Coming of Age” (that Behr seems not to have noticed this frankly does not surprise me in the slightest) and is going to do it again a few more times, but in each of those cases the reason Picard turns down promotion is not out of fear of losing control (that’s a Kirk trait, not a Picard one, c.f. “The Naked Time”) but because he’s mature enough to know what his place and role in the universe is and that the admiralty is not where he belongs.
But Behr, uniquely among his season three co-workers, even Ron Moore, has a serious problem when it comes to Star Trek that’s primarily responsible for why he only lasts one season on Star Trek: The Next Generation and is furthermore going to hamper just about every single thing he ever does for the franchise. And that is, he actually, actively hates the show he’s working for. Lest you think I’m being too harsh, consider that Behr once said in an interview that he considered Star Trek: The Next Generation akin to what he thought Connecticut was like growing up in the city: A gated community full of pampered aristocratic white people willfully disconnected from the real world. While Ron Moore may simply not care about utopianism, Ira Behr seems to act openly disdainful and contemptuous towards it, and knowing that it clarifies a whole lot about the Dominion War era while at the same time casting it in a deeply, deeply unpleasant light. It’s really hard not to read that show as Behr’s open, targeted attack on Star Trek: The Next Generation and an attempt to spitefully deconstruct everything it stood for out of lingering bitterness over what he experienced during the 1989-1990 season. Bitterness that stems, ultimately, from “Captains Holiday”.
No matter how talented a writer Behr may be, and I certainly grant that he has talent in spades, his open hostility to the idea of any kind of utopian idealism in favour of gritty materialism at the expense of everything else is always, *always* going to be an impasse between the two of us and means he’s never truly going to be a real friend of this project.
Another thing that links “Allegiance” and “Captain’s Holiday” is that both come out of Patrick Stewart’s desire to take a more active role on the show. In particular, the genesis of both stories is frequently linked back to his oft-quoted statement that “the captain doesn’t get to do enough screwing and shooting on this show”, which he apparently told both Ron Moore during the filming of “The Bonding” and Ira Behr during the pitch process for “Captain’s Holiday” (I’m imagining Behr engaging Stewart through clenched teeth as he asks him to write a story like that for him). The thing is, even though I’m sure he did want more energetic material to play with, I’m reasonably confidant Stewart was joking here, possibly to break the ice with young writer Moore and to help smooth over the tension between Behr and Gene Roddenberry. Stewart has a documented history of both sticking up for the meeker members of his crew and being very good at resolving conflict quietly, diplomatically and with good humour (seriously, Patrick Stewart is a better diplomat that Captain Picard), which is why so many of his character’s best traits come from him and why it’s such a tragedy when the writers don’t pick up on that.
I could totally imagine people like Moore and Behr, who were comparatively new to Star Trek: The Next Generation (Moore even to writing and TV in general) and perhaps unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the show’s vibe taking Patrick Stewart’s good-natured small talk the wrong way and becoming intimidated. So with all that said I’ve got to wonder…Could all of the angst of this season, all of the hangar fires these episodes lit and one of the longest, most protracted self-destructions in television history that begins here…Could all that have stemmed from just one innocent misunderstanding over lunch one day? Funny thing, history.