Star Trek: Picard has run the gamut between the ridiculous and the nearly sublime, but the one, long-running issue that has plagued the franchise installment has been its treatment of its female characters. As good as season three has been, it somehow fails to move beyond this problem, and frankly, I find that a 2023 release suffering from this peculiar myopia makes almost zero sense.
Perhaps the roots of the issue lie in the series’ genesis. Star Trek, while forward thinking in many ways, doesn’t always get everything right. The Original Series’ final episode is inarguably deeply misogynistic. The episode’s entire premise is that Janice Lester is unfit to be a captain because she’s female, and confronting that reality sends her into homicidal hysteria with a side of body-snatching so that she can realize her dream. The one real conversation she and James Kirk, her former lover, have about Starfleet’s weirdly backwards view features Kirk acknowledging that her concerns have merit but that her understandable and justifiable rage caused her to mistreat him during their relationship. Why yes, James Kirk, Janice Lester’s frustration at very real discrimination is inconvenient for you, so clearly she should just drop the whole thing. I’d argue that “Turnabout Intruder” is a great example of how Trek gets it wrong.
We see some of the same problems in TNG. “Angel One” is meant to be a scathing look at misogyny, but it rather spectacularly fails. Not only does “Angel One” assume that a matriarchal society would look and function the way a patriarchal one would, the story ends with the men being the characters to “save the day” from the prejudiced viewpoint of the women. While “Angel One” isn’t the absolute disaster “Code of Honor” is, it’s not far off either. One could be tempted to write off “Angel One” as being an early season flop except that the show continues to use Deanna Troi as a punching bag until season seven. Until her run-in with the Romulans, she’d either served as a useful womb or a problem-solving MacGuffin. Trek fans even find themselves laughing that the one time she gets to fly the Enterprise in Generations, she crashes it.
That near-meme is so well-known that Star Trek: Picard features a real nod to it. In “The Last Generation,” we get to see Troi pilot the ship successfully, and I’d argue that while funny, that’s not really the flex folks think it is, especially when placed in the overall Picard series context. Season one features a plotline that’s heavily influenced by a thinly veiled allusion to female hysteria. It’s crazy Romulan women forming the huge conspiracy to remove all synthetic life, and their entire motivation is fear. They manipulate Jurati’s fear into compelling her to commit a murder that gets handwaved prior to the second season. All of their terror-inspired machinations very nearly bring about exactly the doom they feared, and the men have to fly in and save them.
That brings us to the wonder that was season two, in which we discover that despite building up her importance all season, Renee Picard is largely unimportant. We also discover that Picard’s mistrust of his father was entirely misplaced because Picard’s mother was deeply disturbed. Tallinn, who could have been a fascinating character in her own right, dies to save Renee, and her death prompts Picard to pursue a relationship with Laris, who happens to have Tallinn’s face because apparently Romulan women are fungible.
Season three is better, generally. The Raffi storyline doesn’t really do much other than to help Worf get aboard the Titan, and even then, Ro Laren’s sacrifice is the primary plot driver for this. However, the season’s story does recognize that Raffi has something to contribute. Seven of Nine also gets to sit in the big chair even though her story, too, mostly serves to propel the Jack Crusher/Picard plot forward. However, season three, at its core, is a boys’ club, and nowhere is that more visible than in the story’s utter misuse of Dr. Beverly Crusher.
I’ve mentioned in other columns that it makes entirely no sense for Crusher to defer to Picard when it comes to dealing with their son. She’s been Jack’s primary parent his entire life, and indeed, she fled everything and everyone she knew and cared about in order to keep him safe, protected, and to herself for twenty years. Whatever you think of that decision, that’s intense, visceral fear, and no matter that she’s asked for Picard’s help, you cannot tell me that some remnants of that fear don’t remain. However, because this is a show about Jean-Luc Picard, that fear gets handwaved, and Crusher steps back into a very minor role. I struggle to conceive of a universe in which that isn’t weird.
I’ve also previously discussed my frustration that Laris once again becomes relegated to prop-status, so I won’t belabor that point here. I do want to discuss the Kestra situation in a bit more depth. We meet Kestra in season one, and she’s a vibrant, interesting, and engaging young woman. However, no matter how interesting she may be, her brother Thad’s ghost haunts Picard in seasons one and three. Certainly, the conversation between Deanna Troi and William Riker in which they discuss how Thad’s death affected their relationship is appropriate and heartbreaking, but at no point do either of them mention their other child. Even when Riker has concluded that he’s about to die, his focus is on Thad. He doesn’t ask Troi to tell their daughter he loves her. Nope, he’s going to go wait for Troi with their son. Kestra, apparently, is chopped liver. I do not mean to make light of the impact of Thad’s death because I think the show does a great job of demonstrating how deep his parents’ grief runs, but I also find it significant that his death so overshadows his sister’s life that we don’t even get a mention of her.
I don’t want to imply that I didn’t enjoy Picard’s final season because I very much did. The season’s greatest strengths lie in how it treats this history Picard and his crew have together, but the writers brought along some of the same very dated baggage we saw in the late eighties and early nineties. I suppose it just goes to show how much work the Trek franchise and our society in general needs to do.