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Jean-Luc Picard sitting in his chair looking dismayed Photo: Trae Patton/Paramount Plus

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Star Trek’s great unspoken tragedy is Picard’s love life

Picard’s never made time for romance. Season 2 of his Paramount Plus show might

In the season 2 premiere of Star Trek: Picard, television’s beloved starship captain-turned-vintner (Patrick Stewart) shares a bottle of wine with Laris (Orla Brady), a retired Romulan spy who has been his friend and housekeeper for a decade. Laris, recently widowed, decides to act on their long-simmering attraction, but Picard hesitates and spoils the moment. This leads Picard to reflect back on his life and wonder — after all the worlds he’s saved and the lives he’s touched, how is it that the great Jean-Luc Picard has spent his golden years alone?

This episode, “The Star Gazer,” teases that the coming season will reveal some deep-seated trauma involving his sainted mother Yvette that has fueled his intimacy issues throughout his life. However, Star Trek: The Next Generation has already offered plenty of evidence to explain Jean-Luc Picard’s bachelorhood. The Picard of TNG is a romantic when it comes to art, history, and exploration, but guards his personal feelings very closely. When he first takes command of the Enterprise, he makes himself as impenetrable and unapproachable as possible, carefully curating an image of perfect professionalism.

Over the course of seven years, Captain Picard becomes a friend or mentor to every member of his senior staff, but rarely shares as much of himself as he receives from others. His desire to hide the vulnerable parts of himself has always been framed as a side-effect of the discipline required to achieve and maintain the most prestigious posting in Starfleet.

His journey as we’ve known it begins in childhood, when Jean-Luc decides at a young age that his destiny is to command a Federation starship. Starfleet’s standards are daunting, and Picard throws himself into the tireless pursuit of academic and athletic excellence. In “Suddenly Human,” Picard says that this effort meant “[skipping] his childhood altogether.” Once at the Academy, Picard learns to have a bit of fun, playing cards and hustling dom-jot, but is still a constant overachiever, a two-sport athlete (cross-country and wrestling) who graduates at the top of his class. The single known blemish in his Academy career is a failing grade in Organic Chemistry, which he blames on his distracting romance with an individual known only as “A.F.” Picard spends the rest of his life overcorrecting for this mistake.

Picard reclining in a chair with an open shirt Image: Paramount

Decades later (in “Samaritan Snare”), Picard tells his mentee Wesley Crusher that he’s “never had the time” for marriage. He claims that this is the cost of being an ambitious Starfleet officer, and that if Wesley wants to achieve what Picard has, he’ll have to eschew long-term personal commitments. There’s plenty of evidence in the Star Trek canon to support this claim — of the five classic Star Trek captains, only Benjamin Sisko makes time for a family life, and he commands a space station rather than a starship. Nevertheless, Picard’s avoidance of serious relationships occasionally leads him to make cruel choices. In “We’ll Always Have Paris,” we learn that Picard once had a passionate affair with a civilian, Jenice, while on shore leave on Earth. The two make plans to meet one last time before he ships out, but, afraid that seeing her again might dissuade him from returning to work, Picard completely ghosts her. He commits this act of youthful cowardice at the age of 37.

Throughout his life, Picard seems willing to lower his guard and enjoy someone’s company only while totally separated from his work. Brief flings on shore leave are ideal, as they have built-in expiration dates. While on vacation to Risa in “Captain’s Holiday,” Picard hooks up with a roguish tomb raider, Vash, with whom he eventually opens up about his life and adventures. When Picard receives a surprise visit from Vash a year later (in “Qpid”), she expects Picard to be excited to see her. Instead, he’s embarrassed, and embarasses her in turn with his clumsy attempts to conceal the nature of their relationship from his crew. He’s told her everything about them, yet no one aboard the Enterprise has even heard of her. They’re all delighted to meet her, but Picard sees Vash as a threat to his well-protected image as a stoic, sturdy figure of pure superego. While Picard’s discomfort is somewhat understandable — plenty of people might find it awkward for their summer fling to show up at their office and make themselves at home — it’s also hurtful to Vash because there is no room for her in his life on the Enterprise at all. The entire ship is his workplace.

While Starfleet has no rules against fraternization, Picard carefully avoids romantic entanglements with his shipmates, both as a junior officer and as a commander. In his later Academy years, Picard develops feelings for his classmate Marta Batanides but chooses not to act on them for fear of complicating their friendship and their careers. A little Q-assisted time travel proves that this is the best outcome in this particular case (see: “Tapestry”), it still establishes an unfortunate pattern in Picard’s life in which he attempts to dismiss or suppress any feeling that might be inappropriate or inconvenient.

Picard letting his face be held by his vacation fling, Vash Image: Paramount
Picard enjoying tea with Dr. Crusher Image: Paramount

One could even argue that Picard is attracted to unavailable women, not because he wants what he can’t have, but because he likes having an excuse not to have it. (See also: Kamala in “The Perfect Mate.”) Picard spends years in love with Dr. Beverly Crusher, his best friend’s widow who later becomes his shipmate and closest friend aboard the Enterprise. Picard believes that revealing his feelings to Beverly would mean betraying the memory of her husband, who died under his command, even though Dr. Crusher plainly attaches no such baggage to their mutual attraction. By the time they admit their feelings for each other, their friendship has become too comfortable to disturb. (Come to think of it, Q’s time travel lets Picard off the hook for this one, too, showing him a future in which Jean-Luc and Beverly are amicable divorcées in “All Good Things…”)

Picard has made two known attempts at managing an office romance. The first is purely backstory — his prior involvement with JAG officer Phillipa Louvois complicates Lt. Commander Data’s trial for personhood in “The Measure of a Man,” as well as Picard’s own court martial over the loss of the USS Stargazer years earlier. The second occurs on screen in “Lessons,” in which he falls in love with science officer Lt. Commander Nella Darren. Darren is sophisticated, cultured, and quite forward, and the two bond quickly over their shared love of music. (She bears a striking resemblance, both in appearance and temperament, to Dr. Beverly Crusher.)

Their relationship suffers from a combination of Picard’s hurdles with Vash and with Beverly. First, Picard wounds Darren by maintaining a cold professional distance from her while in the presence of other officers. Next, Picard is forced to order Darren to risk her life on a dangerous away mission, echoing the death of Jack Crusher. This is painful for the both of them, and they mutually decide that it would be best for Darren, who’s only just arrived on the Enterprise, to request a transfer. This appears to be Picard’s last swing at an ongoing romance; We’ve yet to see any evidence of a serious relationship in the 20 years between the last Next Generation film and the start of Star Trek: Picard.

In a manner of speaking, Jean-Luc Picard’s longest and most fulfilling romantic relationship lasted only 25 minutes. In “The Inner Light,” Picard becomes connected to an ancient alien probe that transports his mind to the planet Kataan and plays out the life of a local artisan named Kamin. Picard is still himself, retaining all his memories of his own life and none of Kamin’s, but his “amnesia” is patiently endured by his community and his wife, Eline. Picard spends years attempting to find a way back to his starship, but eventually settles into a quiet, provincial life on Kataan. He falls in love with Eline and they raise a family. After becoming a father, Picard admits that, while he once believed that he didn’t need children to lead a fulfilling life, now he can’t imagine life without them. Picard carries out Kamin’s life into old age, welcoming his grandchildren and weeping at Eline’s deathbed. At the end of Kamin’s life, the illusion ends and Picard learns that this entire experience has taken place over less than half an hour.

The conditions for Picard’s relationship with Eline perfectly circumvent his usual hangups. He’s separated from his Starfleet career, which becomes a distant memory. He has no reputation to uphold, and no authority to speak of until he begins investing in the wellbeing of his new community. He doesn’t need to seek attachment, because he’s already married to a patient, loving partner. He can’t cut and run, because he has nowhere to go. “The Inner Light” lets Picard live the life that his single-minded careerism and emotional boundaries have cost him, and he experiences it to the fullest. Eline might never have existed, but in many ways she is the love of Picard’s life. Only the limitations of 1990s episodic television keep her from being framed as such. After “The Inner Light,” his experience as Kamin is only referenced once, in “Lessons.”

Indeed, the demands of the medium in which he lives might well be Picard’s most challenging obstacle to maintaining relationships. The Next Generation was produced before serialization took hold over primetime American television, and the introduction of an ongoing romance for the main character would have been a major shake-up of the show’s comfortable status quo. Instead, Picard has a very gradual (and fulfilling) character arc over the course of its seven seasons in which he gradually lowers the personal barriers between himself and his shipmates. The Picard of the end of the series is single and technically childless, but does not seem incomplete. Instead, he comes to accept that the crew of the Enterprise is his family, and that he can enrich his life by accepting and returning the love they offer.

In the series finale, “All Good Things…”, Picard is allowed a glimpse of a possible future in which the Enterprise crew has gone their separate ways and he’s become a lonely old man working his family’s vineyard and suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder. The episode ends with Picard, in the present, joining the crew’s ongoing poker game, symbolizing that he’s finally willing to nurture his personal relationships.

Picard with his “family” in the TNG episode “The Inner Light” Image: Paramount

The implication is that this act will change Picard’s life for the better, but Picard is denied his “happily ever after” by the ongoing march of the Star Trek franchise. Picard returns in four feature films, who each tighten the character focus around only two characters, Picard and Data, so that the progression of his other relationships become more difficult to trace. (Picard does seem much more at ease with his peers during the first 20 minutes of Nemesis, with a lot more “family” moments left on the cutting room floor.) He’s eventually pulled back into service for another spin-off, Star Trek: Picard, in which we discover that the crew of the Enterprise has gone their separate ways and he’s become a lonely old man working his family’s vineyard and suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder.

Star Trek: Picard is expected to conclude after three seasons, and will hopefully offer its title character a satisfying final act. The first season finds an older Picard who’s had time to reflect, and regrets not sharing his affection for his friends more openly. Season 2 is poised to confront why it’s so difficult for him to string together the words “I love you,” not only to friends but to prospective partners. But as “All Good Things…” demonstrates, a happy ending for Jean-Luc Picard doesn’t necessarily mean riding off into the sunset with a spouse or partner. The first season of Picard offers him a second chance at a found family with a new set of characters. “The Star Gazer” implies that Picard has “one final frontier yet to come,” an emotional journey in which he’ll confront the part of himself that fears commitment.

This may turn out to be a journey worth watching, but it’s not exactly unexplored space. The addition of a childhood trauma that scars him against intimacy could be an interesting angle, but it could just as easily flatten the character, recontextualizing a decade of gradual development into a response to a single incident. The success of this season of Star Trek: Picard may depend on whether it adds new wrinkles to the emotional life of the character or smooths over the ones that have been there all along.

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