Feb 4, 2012

What can Captain Picard teach you about writing?

“Captain Picard is the exact opposite of a Hollywood action-hero.” - Dirk Baecker

“Having played many roles of scientific intellect I do have an empathy for that world. It’s been hard on me because flying the Enterprise for seven years in Star Trek and sitting in Cerebro in X-men has led people to believe that I know what I’m talking about. But I’m still trying to work out how to operate the air conditioning unit on my car.” - Patrick Stewart


That single-word command was a call to adventure. Often uttered at the end of a Star Trek: TNG episode, engage always sounded like a new beginning.

Jean-Luc Picard (b. 2379) was played by Patrick Stewart (b. 1940), a film, TV and stage actor who became bald as a teenager. Maybe he took to the stage to make up for it. (Concerns about the bareness of his scalp were unfounded, as he would come to learn.)

At any rate, Stewart picked up an enviable skill set:    

I can do a wounded elephant! I can do a really good cow! And because of the amount of time I spent in North Yorkshire, I do a variety of sheep. All of which I will be happy to roll out for you!” - Patrick Stewart

Captain Picard of the Enterprise was created by Gene Roddenberry and named after Dr. Jean-Felix Piccard, a Swiss chemist and inventor who developed cluster balloons. Throughout Star Trek TNG, writers drop hints that Picard may be a descendant of Jean-Felix’s.

So, what can Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Enterprise, teach you about writing a novel, story or play? What can he teach you about developing a character?

If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for what we really are.” - Jean-Luc Picard
‘Encounter at Farpoint’ (1987) by Gene Roddenberry

Picard as leader

Jean-Luc (“John, the Light”) embodies the qualities of leadership, patience, wisdom and responsibility.

What do effective leaders do? For starters, they pay attention to the people around them. Patrick Stewart once said, “I became a better listener than I ever had been as a result of playing Jean Luc Picard because it was one of the things that he does terrifically well.

Picard as the Anti-Kirk

James T. Kirk must have had more neurons below the waist than above the neck, seeing how romantic entanglement is second nature to him.

Where Kirk is all action, Picard is more about strategy and diplomacy. One episode opens with the Captain doing his utmost to learn the clicks, grunts and trills of an alien language. The Captain absolutely needs to master a simple greeting, as the aliens are deeply prejudiced against the Federation. But there’s more: the insectoid beings are somewhat aggressive and unpredictable. If Picard fails, the best-case scenario is that they will just go on ignoring the Federation.

These aliens, whose language is as melodious as a protracted burp, think that “Greetings, ugly bags of water” is a friendly way to start a diplomatic conversation...

Kirk wouldn’t bother unless the aliens looked like this -- 

But then, I guess they wouldn’t talk much.

Picard as Father- and Resurrected-God

Gene Roddenberry cast the Next Generation characters in old, mythological molds, as author Christopher Knowles has keenly observed. Picard is the Zeus-Yahweh-Osiris at the center of the TNG science-fiction pantheon. One of Picard’s recurring lines -- “make it so” -- doesn’t just reflect authority; it is also a magic spell, a word that creates. It opens the door to change. Hesiod’s Theogony declares that Zeus assigns a role to each god and goddess. Even those gods who are not his offspring call him Father.

Just as Osiris was father to Horus, and Horus became “number one” in Egypt, so does Jean-Luc have a Number One in William Ryker, his right-hand man.

Jean-Luc would have a highly Osirian moment in the TV series.
In one popular TNG episode, “The Best of Both Worlds,” Picard dies a symbolic death when he is abducted by the Borg and assimilated, i.e., stripped of his identity and autonomy. However, the Borg know their tactics, and turn Jean-Luc into a special kind of Borg, one with a name.*
*In case you’re not up on Star Trek lore: the machine civilization of the Borg is based on a hive mind, where individual units are called ‘drones’ and cannot function autonomously.  Names aren’t necessary when your mind is not your own.

So Jean-Luc Picard becomes Locutus of Borg, the unique machine man who functions as mouthpiece to the hive. The exchange between Captain Picard and the Borg, before his abduction, is telling:

The Borg: Captain Jean-Luc Picard. You lead the strongest ship of the Federation Starfleet. You speak for your people.
Picard: I have nothing to say to you. And I will resist you with my last ounce of strength!
The Borg: Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.
Picard: Impossible! My culture is based on freedom and self-determination!
The Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.
Picard: We would rather die.
The Borg: Death is irrelevant. Your archaic cultures are authority-driven. To facilitate our introduction into your societies, it has been decided that a human voice will speak for us in all communications. You have been chosen to be that voice.

[emphases mine.]

Note how much stress the Borg place on the power of language and the uses of an individual voice. They acknowledge a uniqueness in Picard and in the human race, something that forces the hive to consider a tool they’ve never used before -- call it seduction, call it propaganda -- a distinctive voice. Rhetorical strategy to pave the way for the war machine.

The Borg understand politics.

This conversation is in essence thousands of years old, rehashing the conflict between Atum-Ra, creator god, and Apep/Apophis, the snake who would swallow the sun. The Borg do not in fact represent absolute mechanical order but the chaos of dissolution; Star Trek often implies (when the characters don’t come right out and say it) that there is no order without respect for the individual. The Borg hive mind is a step backwards in intellectual and evolutionary terms. Where the Federation stands for action and progress, the Borg, who allegedly seek perfection, are the ultimate nihilistic society, one that has chosen -- paradoxically, I might add -- to eradicate choice throughout the universe.

Picard is eventually rescued from the Borg Cube and brought back from Borg-death, thanks to the ministrations of Dr. Beverly Crusher (Jean-Luc’s Isis). Locutus/Picard then tells Data how to defeat the Borg Cube that is traveling to Earth.

The writers would often pit Jean-Luc against adversaries who challenged him on the intellectual plane, such as the seemingly all-powerful Q, or the nameless oil slick that killed Natasha Yar, security officer of the Enterprise. They understood William Ryker was the action hero and that Picard was brains, not brawn.

This lover of the past, proud of his ancestry and culture, this bearer of the gifts of civilization, this was Jean-Luc Picard.  

Though sometimes you have to break out the big guns.
Civilization doesn't just defend itself.

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 
Keep reading: Visit the hub page for this series.

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