Star Trek: Picard's most recent episode, "Stardust City Rag," opened with a gory scene as one of the ex-Borg was dismantled while still alive. The remainder of the episode also included an atypical amount of violence and an ending that was shades darker than what is usually expected of a Star Trek story. This has caused concern in some longtime Star Trek fans. Some even voiced their concerns on the Instagram account of Michael Chabon, Star Trek: Picard's Season One showrunner. Chabon took the time to respond to those concerns. He says that the violence in the episode is not something he chose to include without a lot of thought.
"I am not unambivalent about the violence, myself," Chabon writes on Instagram. "The choice was not made lightly, though it was made collaboratively, and therefore with a good deal of conversation and debate among the creators. And so I assure you that it is not there simply 'because we can,' or because we are trying, as you somewhat uncharitably put it, to be 'in.' My partners would all have their own reasons for its presence in this story, as some of us had our own reasons for shying away from it. For me, it came down to this: there has always been violence (and even torture) in Star Trek. Sometimes that violence has been implicit, sometimes explicit, according to the dictates of censorship, the nature of the situation being depicted, the aesthetic of individual creators, or technical and/or budgetary limitations. And the reason that there has always been violence in Trek is that Trek is art, and there has always been violence—implicit and explicit—in art. It belongs there. It belongs in any narrative about human beings, even human beings of the future. Violence, often, *is* the narrative. Its source. Its engine. The question of whether it's "too much" or not is ultimately a matter of taste. Personally, I come out closer to the "less is more" end. But that is just me. In the end, I saw how little time and space we had to convey a sense of Seven's history post-Voyager, and the things that drive and haunt her. I decided, with my partners, that intensity was warranted. Seven lives outside the rational confines of the Federation, because that is where she finds her sense of purpose. But life is hard, out there. If it wasn't, people wouldn't need her help so badly. And she wouldn't have found such a compelling reason to carry on, in spite of her history of trauma. But, I hear you."
Chabon also went on to discuss the overall darkness of the show's tone and how it reflects our current reality. He says that darkness is needed to accentuate the light and that a society billed as being utopian, as the Federation is, needs to be tested.
"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,' he writes. "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.' 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.) 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 realizations of our best potential, as aspirational. 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. 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 behavior of individual non-Federation, non-Starfleet characters, in the construction of societies around prejudices and inequalities, violence, lust for power, etc.
"That brings us to Picard. In the one, long, ten-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? 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. 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. 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. 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 ten 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, criticize, undo, break or, god knows, betray the Federation or Gene Roddenberry's vision. Shadow defines light.
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. 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.' 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."
New episodes of Star Trek: Picard stream Thursdays on CBS All Access.