Star Trek: Picard, the new reloading of the Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) universe, explores contemporary disasters—refugees denied havens, racist paranoia, travel bans, genocide—but, if I may, I’d like to land into this world on its soft furnishings. One often disappointing element in science fiction is the lack of warm, homey décor. The interiors of the distant future tend to be glassily austere, as cozy as a skyscraper boardroom. TNG did offer some creature comforts, but let’s just say Architectural Digest’s 24th-century editors won’t be hailing the Enterprise-D for a YouTube tour. If you watched the old show, you’ll remember the standard-issue puce armchairs, puce banquettes, puce mattresses. You might have gotten a glimpse of iridescent bedding before your favorite crew member bolted up from an uneasy dream. I’d have nightmares, too, if my pillow and comforter looked like I’d descaled a mermaid.
But the set designers of Picard, which concluded its first season on Thursday, have some serious hipster taste. We rejoin Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played once again by Patrick Stewart, 18 years after the events recorded in the fourth and final TNG film, Nemesis. He has retreated to his ancestral French chateau, complete with vineyard. We find him awaking from uneasy dreams. He lifts his head from a snow-white pillow whose high thread count you can sense empathically through the screen. There is a cream couch in the corner and exposed brick walls. Even the shadows are handsome.
All of this loveliness, though, can’t make Picard forget his troubles. “I haven’t been living; I’ve been waiting to die,” he says churlishly. He has resigned from Starfleet under a cloud, after a calamitous attempt to evacuate the Federation’s longtime enemies, the Romulans, from their dying home world. For unknown reasons, a group of synthetic life-forms went berserk during the rescue, costing thousands of lives. Since then, a Federation-wide ban has been placed on the development of artificial sentience. Picard’s final mission is to protect a surviving synth, Soji, who, along with her twin sister, was born from one of his old friend Commander Data’s positronic neurons.
To help Soji, he must find a ship, so he enlists a fellow ex-Starfleet officer named Raffi to help. She lives in a modest eco home in the desert. On her porch, shells strung with twine waft humbly in the warm air. In this meeting with Raffi, class differences between old friends are made explicit in a way they never were in TNG. She brings up a recent media interview Picard gave about the Romulan disaster. “I saw you sitting back in your very fine chateau—big oak beams, heirloom furniture,” she says bitterly. “I’d show you around my estate, but it’s more of a hovel.”
These few words tell us we’re in a landscape very different from TNG. In Picard, people are riven with human frailties, so they need a bit of taste to comfort them. The old show was able to sidestep questions of social equality as being too vulgar to ask. Thanks to the replicator, a technology that turns energy into the matter of your choosing, life was blissfully moneyless: Anyone could have a chateau if they wished, which meant that humans could spend their time worrying about loftier things, like propagating Diomedian scarlet moss, mending tectonic plates, and delivering delegates to far-off peace talks.
In the TNG two-parter “Time’s Arrow,” Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, comes aboard the Enterprise from 1890s San Francisco. Realizing he can’t get a good cigar onboard, he lashes out, asking Counselor Troi rude questions about who paid for this flashy vessel. He assumes that the affluence of the ship is built on the exploitation of other races and the oppression of the poor. In a turbolift—that whooshing box of transport and self-growth—Troi explains that “poverty was eliminated on Earth a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it—hopelessness, despair, cruelty.” Clemens is shocked; he explains to Troi that he comes from a time when prejudice is commonplace. “You’re telling me that isn’t how it is anymore?” he asks. With all the earned smugness of her evolved century, Troi replies, “That’s right!” To which Clemens grunts and remarks that all this social justice is “maybe worth giving up cigars for after all.”