A Review of Star Trek: Picard (TV Series)
CBS All Access (January 23, 2020 to present)
Created by Kirsten Beyer, Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsman, and Alex Kurtzman
This review contains **SPOILERS**
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More than 50 years ago, Star Trek began its journey when it premiered as a television program in 1966. Since then it has spawned several motion pictures, most recently Star Trek Beyond (2016), as well as a number of television series. Star Trek as a franchise has become a cultural phenomenon, making its way into popular culture with phrases such as “beam me up” and recognizable characters such as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.
Created by Gene Roddenberry (1921–1991), the longevity of Star Trek speaks not only to its popularity, but its willingness to address controversial topics. Originally dubbed too cerebral by NBC, the intellectual elements are often what drew thoughtful viewers to the reboot series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994). This time around, the captain of the enterprise was Jean-Luc Picard, portrayed by Patrick Stewart. The setting situated about a century later than the original series, Picard offered a contrast to the original Captain Kirk, portrayed by actor William Shatner. Kirk often responded with what some would say was impulsive action, whereas Picard often exuded calm and careful consideration prior to taking action.
Featured in four motion pictures released from 1994–2002, the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation featured Picard, as well as the android character Data (Brent Spiner). Eighteen years after their final film, CBS All Access premiered a 10-part series in 2020 titled Star Trek: Picard.
Now a retired admiral living in France on his vineyard, 94-year-old Picard is troubled by the appearance of a mysterious visitor named Dahj (Isa Briones). As it turns out, Dahj is a highly advanced android. After she is destroyed by assassins, Picard discovers she had a “twin” android named Soji (also portrayed by Briones).
From this point Star Trek: Picard becomes a mixture of plodding plot development combined with a few cameos from previous Star Trek programs including Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001). Interspersed with some action sequences and cookie-cutter characters, including a rogue/scoundrel captain with the proverbial heart of gold akin to Han Solo of Star Wars (1977), Star Trek: Picard probably could have fit the meat of its story into a two-hour made-for-television movie rather than the drawn out ten-episode arc that it opted for instead.
While Star Trek: Picard touches on a number of topics of interest in relation to Christianity and apologetics, this article will focus on its portrayal of synthetic “life,” artificial intelligence, and transhumanism.
What Are We?
When asked, “What is man?” Socrates reportedly quipped, “Man is a featherless biped.” The philosopher Diogenes supposedly plucked a chicken and brought it to Plato’s Academy, declaring facetiously, “I’ve brought you a man!”1 Serious answers to the question, however, are crucial to understanding not only our nature, but also in relation to key elements of philosophy, theology, and science. For instance, if we are the byproducts of an undirected, impersonal system, one could argue that human beings are merely matter — a collection of organic “parts.” But if God exists and we are created beings, as Christianity holds, then we are much more than organic parts. Indeed, within Christian theism we are inherently of value, composed of both material and immaterial substances. Furthermore, scientifically and ethically speaking, the extent to which we push the limits of humanity are dependent on worldview matters — how we view the nature of human beings (anthropology), the nature of reality (metaphysics), and what we should or should not do in relation to humanity (ethics).
Christianity holds that human beings are created by God and comprise body and soul (trichotomists add spirit, but for our purposes it is sufficient to note that theism holds that humans consist of material and immaterial substances). Naturalism by definition excludes the supernatural and, as a result, views human beings as matter. Hence, the brain is simply the organ that evolved over time as a result of an undirected process, while the Christian would make a distinction between brain and mind. To apply computer terminology, we might analogously say that for theism human beings are not simply hardware (organic matter), as naturalism argues, but we are also software (the immaterial soul). (For more on these topics see J. P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics [IVP Academic, 2000].)
Evaluating Synthetic Life: Person or Product?
So where does this lead us in relation to Star Trek: Picard? The character of Dahj is a synthetic creature, described by Picard as “something lovingly and deliberately created.”2 Both Dahj and Soji are made by two scientists — Bruce Maddox and Altan Inigo Soong — via advanced methods of synthetic research. Picard, however, seems to lack a clear definition of “life” and, following the Star Trek mandate “to seek out new life,” considers synthetic life as equal to human life. However, when Soji the synthetic lifeform inquires, “Am I a person?” a scientist replies, “Not in theory.”3
Interestingly, a 1989 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “The Measure of a Man” explored the nature of sentient life as opposed to synthetic or android life.4 This one episode, in fact, delves more deeply and meaningfully into the questions surrounding artificial intelligence and synthetic life than Star Trek: Picard does over the course of ten episodes. In “The Measure of a Man” the android character Data is placed on trial to determine whether or not he is indeed sentient life or merely the property of Starfleet. Prior to the trial, the judge plainly states, “Data is a toaster.” Of course he is not literally a toaster, but the analogy in its core sense is correct. A toaster is designed and manufactured by human intelligence. Even if it were given a face and artificial intelligence, ultimately it is still a product. If an android were created, say from a cloned human body and copied or transferred human consciousness, such a creation is still a product not a person. Artificial intelligence is just that — artificial. It may seek to mimic human intelligence, including behavior and facial expressions, for instance, but ultimately it does not exist or come into being naturally. Synthetic life, similarly, is by definition an imitation of true life.
Interestingly, a faction in Star Trek: Picard, portrayed as the villains, views synthetic life negatively, to say the least, to the point of seeking to destroy all humanoid synthetics. In a sense, these villains — comprised of an alien race known as Romulans and known as the Zhat Vash — are portrayed as narrow-minded, intolerant zealots, thus suggesting that any opposition to synthetic life, or the acceptance of it as actual life on the level of organic sentient life, is simply wrong. Granted, the Zhat Vash certainly consists of characters intent on harming both human and synthetic life as it suits their purposes. Still, the underlying message of Star Trek: Picard is that anyone opposed to synthetic life is an ignoramus, while those who defend it are enlightened.
At any rate, Star Trek: Picard posits that the creation of synthetic life, beyond merely the creation of androids, could in fact lead to the possibility of extending or even resurrecting human life, which leads the show clearly into the realm of transhumanism.
Transhumanism: The Final Frontier?
Transhumanism is the view that human beings can transcend their current limitations — the human body and mind, for instance — via the application of science and technology. We can infer that in many cases transhumanism bluntly seeks immortality without God.
If the naturalistic worldview is correct and, in fact, human beings are nothing but the result of an undirected, impersonal process, comprised only of matter and energy, then atheism is the end result and with it follows the view that death is indeed a finality. Given the humanistic and naturalistic Star Trek worldview, where the supernatural is dismissed, it follows that transhumanism fits within this structure. In other words, if matter is all there is and faith is placed in science, technology, and human potential, then it follows that in this world the pursuit of transhumanism is a logical step in human progression. Space, it would seem, is no longer “the final frontier” of Star Trek, but instead it is transhumanism.
The pursuit of transhumanism is clear in the final episode of Star Trek: Picard (Episode 10, “Et in Arcadia Ego: Part 2”).5 It is in this episode that the eponymous character Jean-Luc Picard, suffering from a brain abnormality, dies. Other characters grieve his loss, but by the end of the season finale, Picard “lives” again, his essence having been transferred as a “neural image” to a synthetic body that looks just like him. This body also lacks any cybernetic augmentation or enhancements and comes with a limited lifespan, meaning that the android body hosting Picard’s consciousness will not live forever. The end result is the same, however, in that while Picard’s body is dead, he somehow lives on in the synthetic body to which technology has transferred his consciousness.
So what’s wrong with transhumanism? First, given the Christian worldview, transhumanism is an impossibility. As beings created by the transcendent God of the universe, consisting of the material and immaterial (the soul), true transhumanism is not viable. Moreover, as we read in Hebrews 9:27, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (ESV). Moreover, Christian theism holds that upon death the immaterial soul of the Christian enters the presence of God until the day of resurrection.
Second, another problem with transhumanism has to do with whether or not the transferred consciousness is actually the same person or being that previously existed in the original body. Is the transferred consciousness merely mimicking the original, or is it truly identical to the original? Additionally, this problem is compounded if one copies the consciousness, leaving the original intact. If this were to occur are we to say that there are now two versions of the person in question — the original and the copy? What if multiple copies are made? If a copy or copies are made and those copies continue to exist and have different experiences, are they not different entities?
Third, within the naturalistic worldview itself, death is the natural course of events. This is not so within Christianity, where death entered the world due to human sin (Rom. 5:12). In Christianity, human death is not the original intent and order of God’s creation. But naturalistic transhumanism contradicts itself by seeking to break the natural order.
Fourth, there are numerous ethical questions raised in relation to transhumanism. For instance, will people be born or made? This also raises questions related to eugenics (genetic engineering), as transhumanism could lead to weeding out undesirable traits and cultivating or synthesizing traits deemed desirable by those in charge of the process. In addition, if in essence humans can theoretically live forever through technology, is death truly defeated? What of those who decide to terminate their own synthetic lives? There is also the possibility that transhumanism will lead to devaluing human life, rather than viewing it of inestimable value as does Christian theism. If human life is devalued via transhumanism, as much as it seems a dystopian science fiction concept, could synthetic life be created for essentially slave labor or even for use in war?
Incidentally, opposition to transhumanism should not be viewed in a Luddite sense — in other words, those opposed to transhumanism do not completely discount the role of science, technology, medicine, and so forth in relation to alleviating human suffering and prolonging life. It is a false dichotomy to suppose that someone against transhumanism is therefore also against all forms of science and technology. Nevertheless, as the above arguments against transhumanism illustrate, it is far from a trouble-free outlook and not nearly as utopian as some transhumanists anticipate. In fact, in episode ten of Star Trek: Picard, a synthetic lifeform murders another synthetic in a utilitarian move (i.e., for the apparently greater good), suggesting strongly that synthetic life in Star Trek: Picard is just as flawed as human life.6
“O Death, Where Is Your Sting?”
Already renewed for a second season, Star Trek: Picard’s journey of exploration into questions regarding artificial intelligence, synthetic life, and transhumanism will continue, perhaps with a different focus; but within its fictional world Picard will always be a synthetic copy of the human being he once was.
In 1 Corinthians 15:55 we read, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (ESV). Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians overcome the fear of death. We are not finite beings, but instead are destined for immortality. Unlike the tortured soul of Star Trek: Picard’s Captain Rios (Santiago Cabrera), who in episode four laments the “existential pain of living with the consciousness of death,”7 followers of Christ look forward to an eternity in God’s presence in “a universe charged with the grandeur of God,” as James Sire put it so eloquently in his chapter on Christian theism in The Universe Next Door (InterVarsity Press, 1976).8
In episode ten, Picard says, “Mortality gives meaning to human life. Peace, love, and friendship are precious because we know they cannot endure.”9 Furthermore, the final two episodes of Star Trek: Picard are titled, “Et in Arcadia Ego,” after a 17th-century painting by Nicolas Poussin.10 It is widely interpreted as depicting art in response to human mortality. As applied to Star Trek: Picard, mortality is overcome via transhumanism. The Star Trek universe has always been fond of positing secular humanism as the true savior of humanity and, in this sense, Star Trek: Picard continues this tradition. However, within Christian theism it is not mortality that gives meaning to life, as Picard observes. Rather, it is God who gives meaning and purpose to life, value and dignity to every person, as well as the worldview framework to make coherent sense of reality.
Robert Velarde, MA, is author of several books including A Visual Defense (Kregel, 2013)), Conversations with C. S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press, 2008), and The Wisdom of Pixar (InterVarsity Press, 2010), and coauthor of Examining Alternative Medicine (InterVarsity Press, 2001).
- See Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 6.2.40.
- Star Trek: Picard, “Remembrance,” season 1, episode 1, written by Akiva Goldsman and James Duff, CBS All Access, aired January 23, 2020.
- Star Trek: Picard, “Broken Pieces,” season 1, episode 8, written by Michael Chabon, CBS All Access, aired March 12, 2020.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Measure of a Man,” season 2, episode 9, created by Gene Roddenberry, written by Melinda M. Snodgrass, CBS, aired February 11, 1989.
- Star Trek: Picard, “Et in Arcadia Ego: Part 2,” season 1, episode 10, written by Michael Chabon, CBS All Access, aired March 26, 2020.
- Star Trek: Picard, “Et in Arcadia Ego: Part 2.”
- Star Trek: Picard, “Absolute Candor,” season 1, episode 4, written by Michael Chabon, CBS All Access, aired February 13, 2020.
- James Sire, The Universe Next Door, fifth edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976, 2009), 25.
- Star Trek: Picard, “Et in Arcadia Ego: Part 2.”
- Star Trek: Picard, “Et in Arcadia Ego: Part 1,” season 1, episode 9, written by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, CBS All Access, aired March 19, 2020; Star Trek: Picard, “Et in Arcadia Ego: Part 2.”