NO SPOILERS…BUT LOTS OF SWEARING!
I really liked the fourth episode of STAR TREK: PICARD. It wasn’t perfect (ahem, Narek and his sister Narissa), but it was close enough that I really loved the entire experience of watching it. And let’s face it, JONATHAN FRAKES knows how to direct Star Trek! Patrick Stewart and the entire cast (aside from the guy playing Narek) give consistently outstanding performances.
Show-runner MICHAEL CHABON was the lone writer credited this episode (all the other episodes have had multiple credited writers), and those 44 minutes flowed perfectly. With solid pacing, new and fascinating characters were introduced and developed. The episode filled in more of what happened to Picard over the last decade and a half, had amazing VFX (not too dark, too too fast, not too confusing), wonderful music, incredible make-up and costumes, gorgeous locations, and a thrilling surprise ending.
I truly have nothing to complain about…except one thing: the f*ing swearing!!!
So this time, because the episode itself was so enjoyable, my editorial review is going to be more editorial and less review. After all, this episode was titled “Absolute Candor,” so let me share my truth with you.
Let me start by saying that I am not a fucking prude. I know how to swear, and I’ll even indulge in “colorful metaphors” myself from time to time. I also know how NOT to swear. I don’t use profanities within earshot of my 9-year-old son or with my in-laws or in mixed company or with clients. I don’t use them during my audio interviews with fan filmmakers. Swear words are a choice…even if you accidentally drop a stack of dishes and they shatter all over the floor.
And I don’t mind hearing swear words on most shows on television. In fact, I welcome them! For me, not hearing swear words on network TV takes a little of the realism out of certain dramatic scenes.
So why the #$%@ do I have a problem with swearing on Star Trek, you ask? After all, if I want more realism on TV, then why shouldn’t Star Trek be as realistic as other shows?
Fair question. And I am going to explain why. But in order to do so, I need to take you all on a fast time wrap through the first 50 years of Star Trek…
As a network show in the 1960s (and 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s for that matter), the likelihood that viewers would hear anyone cursing on a Star Trek TV series was zero. But that was okay because Star Trek was an idyllic future where poverty, hunger, prejudice, and (one would assume) vulgarities were all eliminated. In fact, one of the show’s most iconic scenes dealt very frankly with the issue of harsh language and its place (or lack of a place) in the societies of the 23rd century…
What a wonderful scene! And the message was clear that the people of the future had evolved in ways that we in the 20th (and 21st) century had not yet. The reason that we weren’t hearing swear words and obscenities in the future is that such words had long since lost their power and impact and were, therefore, no longer necessary. It was very much the way GENE RODDENBERRY felt himself—hopeful that the future would be a better place than the present…still not completely perfect but much closer to the ideal than today.
In fact, there’s another excellent scene that I recall which underscored this message by having the “villain” state the opposite…
Although Khan says, “How little man himself has changed…” the point of the episode is that, yes, man has indeed changed. In Khan’s time, someone would have joined him when he threatened to kill Kirk. Someone would have shown weakness because humans who weren’t genetically engineered like him were weak, inferior. And yet, the Enterprise crew wasn’t (even Lt. McGivers in the end). Man HAD changed, but Khan was too arrogant to notice or realize it, and that led to his defeat.
But what do Abraham Lincoln and Khan Noonian Singh have to do with swearing??? Cut the bull$%!# and get to the f*ing point already!
Okay, I will as I take you forward in time to 1979 and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Freed from the censorship of network television, the first Star Trek feature film could easily have added some swear words to the script. When V’ger obliterates the first Klingon battlecruiser, the subtitled translation from the Klingon captain could have been, “Holy shit! Get us the fuck out of here!” And hey, they’re Klingons. Of course they’d swear. But no, not even for shock value at the beginning of the movie did the writers choose to do that.
McCoy also could reasonably have had a potty mouth. “Why is any object we don’t understand always called a ‘thing’?” could have been spiced up with an f-bomb. After the ship escaped the wormhole, McCoy would have been totally justified to inject a little “realism” into the scene with an s-bomb. But he didn’t. In Star Trek II, Kirk picks up the comm bracelet and says, “Khan, you bloodsucker!” And hey, here was nothing stopping the admiral from calling Khan another name that would have rhymed with “bloodsucker,” but he didn’t.
In fact, it isn’t until Star Trek IV in 1986 (20 years after Star Trek premiered) that we finally hear our first “colorful metaphor”—and Kirk isn’t particularly skilled at it…
Indeed, that was kinda the point. These men and women from the future had no f*ing idea how to swear! Maybe they thought they did, but really, in another 300 years, cursing really has become a lost skill. Even nearly a century later, we make it through four Next Gen feature films with only one swear word…
…and I suspect that particular S-bomb had been programmed into Data’s emotion chip by Dr. Noonian Soong as a prank (or possibly by Lore). Either way, it stood out specifically because it was so unusual to hear anyone in the future using that word.
So that was always Star Trek for me.
It’s not that I believed that no one in the Federation or Klingon Empire or insert-alien-homeworld-here ever swore. Heck, we even learned a few Klingon four-letter words like p’taQ! But it just seemed like, for most people in the future, we’d moved beyond the need to use profanities in order to communicate our thoughts.
And this concept of outgrowing profane language after 200-300 years doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Just go back 50 years and you’d likely hear the N-word used pretty commonly throughout many U.S. states. While this insulting obscenity isn’t gone completely (just listen to hip-hop or rap music…although some recording artists are pushing for the N-word to be permanently retired) and is still being used by racists, even that use is fading and will—I sincerely believe—be completely gone within the next several decades, and certainly by Captain Kirk’s and Jean-Luc Picard’s time.
But now we have DISCOVERY and PICARD, and the writers seem to be saying, “Hey, fans, look at what we can do now!” This feeling of getting away with something they really shouldn’t be doing was evident the first time we hear Tilly dropping an F-bomb in the fifth episode of Discovery. She says it, looks suddenly embarrassed, and then apologizes. There’s even a pause for some ominous music to underscore that she just said something inappropriate. But then Stamets agrees with her and uses the word himself as the music returns to normal. And with that, the writers are giving themselves permission to swear because—why not?—they’re old enough now…
And so it began. And while Discovery doesn’t have people swearing in every episode, there were enough instances by season two that one fan saw fit to create a nice compilation…
And that brings us to Picard…
I feel as though there’s a certain amount of “Because we can…” going on in this newest Trek series when it comes to dropping in F-bombs and S-bombs. While there weren’t any in the first episode, the next three have all had at least one…and the second episode had THREE (including a rather indulgent F-bomb from Starfleet’s commanding admiral to Picard himself).
As my friend and I started our weekly viewing at his house last Thursday evening, he asked me how long I thought it’d be before someone used a profanity. “Well,” I said, “It’s Jonathan Frakes directing this one, and he’s been around Star Trek a long time. Maybe there won’t be any cussing in the episode…” Eleven minutes later, we saw this…
…and we both said in unison, “And there it is!”
So I’ve resigned myself to the fact that obscenities have made a comeback in the year 2399…used not only by the low-lifes of the galaxy or the “common folk” but also by the top brass of Starfleet. Apparently, people swear as much in the future as they do now. Look, fans: realism!
And therein lies the quintessential problem.
You see, the reason that so many long-time Trekkers like me have issues with the swearing (and if Facebook is any indication, there is indeed quite a large number of us…although probably just as many saying, “Get over it and stop complaining!), the reason it’s so dissonant for us, is that nearly every F-bomb and S-bomb temporarily jolts us out of the fantasy world we’ve so eagerly entered. This doesn’t happen with words like “damn” or “hell” because those were said often on Star Trek…even back in the 1960s. But “fuck” and “shit”? Those just don’t feel like we’re in the 23rd or 24th century. They taken us back—just for a moment—to our own lives here in the 21st century. And that’s NOT supposed to happen when we watch Star Trek.
Hearing those words in an episode feels like a speed bump to me…just as if a character suddenly stopped and said, “The bald soprano!” out of nowhere and then the scene resumed. By trying to make the Star Trek universe seem more “real” and “relatable” by having these future people talk just like us present people, the writers have seemingly accomplished the opposite—at least for me—and taken me out of the moment, out of the illusion that I am immersed within this future “reality.”
Star Trek is a universe in which humanity has moved past swearing, and I am just as jarred when I hear a character use the F-word or S-word as I wound be to hear anyone on the show use the N-word (which is still used occasionally on some shows I watch—but not often). Sure, Abraham Lincoln could say “negress” because he was a man from the mid-19th century. And the TV shows where I hear the word take place in the present day. But imagine Michael Burnham delivering a line like, “What’s a [N-word] gotta do to get a promotion on this ship?” Sure, just like fuck and shit, the N-word is used in the African American community today, but do we really want to imagine it’ll still be around in 2255 or 2399?
Up until recently, nearly all TV sci-fi franchises had to avoid F-word and S-word profanities: Doctor Who, Babylon 5, Stargate, Firefly, Orville. Shows like Battlestar Galactica and Farscape got around this constraint by inventing their own profanities like “frak,” “frell,” and “dren.” And of course, the biggest sci-fi franchise of them all, Star Wars, doesn’t have any contemporary swear words (although Han Solo does say, “Then I’ll see you in hell!” in Empire…and I’m not exactly sure if “Nerf Herder” counts). But now that Star Wars is on TV, I noticed that The Mandalorian doesn’t feature any swearing (and can you imagine the outcry from parent subscribers to Disney+ if it did???).
And that leads us to the “new normal”: streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime (and All Access) plus premium services like HBO and Showtime. There’s no network censors looking over their shoulders, and Game of Thrones has had more swearing and nude/sex scenes than most R-rated movies! Same for a show like Westworld. On the other hand, while The Expanse has some modern-day swearing (plus some Belter jargon that I can’t even understand half the time because of the thick accents), it’s not excessive. The same goes for the excellent Lost in Space on Netflix. Sure, the occasional swear word makes it in, but it’s very rare. Lost in Space proves that you CAN write impactful, engaging, and “relatable” science fiction in today’s streaming video environment without resorting to the shock-value “cheat” of throwing in at least one F- or S-bomb per episode.
And I suppose, when all is said and done, that’s my real point. Star Trek: Picard is a truly excellent show. I’ve loved every episode so far. But I would have loved them all just as much without the swearing…probably even a little more. I joke that show-runner and Trek Tsar ALEX KURTZMAN should change his name to ALEX CURSE-MAN, but the fact is that Michael Chabon wrote the script, and no decision on a show like that happens entirely in a vacuum.
I doubt one blog is going to change the minds of all those participating in the choice to include the profanities in new Star Trek. And maybe the starship has long since sailed on any hope of reversing this trend. But hope I shall…since that’s what Star Trek has always meant for me.
Well, that and not swearing.