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To Boldly Woo: The Romantic Disasters of Jean-Luc Picard | Star Trek

Serving aboard the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D must be a dream job. The Galaxy-class starship is the pride of the fleet, with state-of-the-art engines, research equipment, and a fairly swish bar in the top of the saucer section. It even had space and facilities for crew members to bring their families on board, so it’s not so much a space-faring vessel as a thriving community in space – a small city, even. Yet from what we know of the main characters’ personal lives – and let’s face it, we know an awful lot – it was a fairly disastrous place for any sort of romantic encounter. Every member of the Next Generation bridge crew has at least one disastrous date under their belt, and when you’re a Starfleet officer, we’re not talking about some awkward small talk and spinach stuck between your teeth. And perhaps the most romantically disastrous of them all is the man in the Big Chair – Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

“I’d be delighted to offer any advice I have on understanding women. When I have some, I’ll let you know.”

Captain Jean-Luc Picard, ‘In Theory’ – S4, Ep25.

There can be few people in the universe as capable as Captain Picard. Wise, measured, principled and kind, he’s the sort of boss you’d be slightly afraid of at first, but by the end of your first month servicing turbolifts you’d be ready to die for him. They don’t let just anyone take charge of the flagship of the fleet, after all. But if there is an area in which Jean-Luc is not so lucky, it’s love. Compared to some of the crew (we all know I mean Riker here) he doesn’t have all that many romance-centric episodes, but when he does it rarely ends well. Here’s a quick look at some of Captain Picard’s key romantic adventures.

Picard shares a romantic meal with big-haired Betazoid Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett). | Paramount, 1989.

‘Manhunt’

“Betazoid women are full of surprises.”

Lwaxana Troi, ‘Manhunt’ – S2, Ep19.

In season two’s Manhunt, the outrageous Lwaxana Troi makes a romantic bid for the captain. I have a lot of time for Mrs Troi, played by actual Star Trek legend Majel Barrett (Nurse Christine Chapel in TOS and Gene Roddenberry’s second wife); she sweeps on board wearing scene-stealing gowns, then spends her time eyeing up every bloke in sight, ‘accidentally’ dropping hints about what salacious thoughts they might be having about her. She’s a great example of what a brilliant comic actor can bring to Star Trek, and of course, paired up with the extremely straight-laced and stoic Captain Picard, it makes for a very entertaining episode.

In ‘Manhunt’, Mrs Troi is going through ‘The Phase’, a version of the menopause where Betazed women finally become fully sexually mature and their sex-drive is more than quadrupled (we learn this during a chat with Deanna, Riker and Picard, a somewhat wince-inducing moment – imagine having this talk with your boss and your ex-boyfriend…). Although some trickery earns Mrs Troi an intimate dinner with the Captain, he immediately scuppers it by asking Data to join them and treat them to a few anecdotes; enough to put anyone off their oysters. After a failed attempt to simply order Riker to marry her, Mrs Troi eventually does her best to get off with a holodeck character. This is treated as a hugely embarrassing mistake on her part, which is somewhat cheeky given that virtually every crew member has done it at some point. 

‘Captain’s Holiday’

“You look like a man who could handle trouble.”

Vash, ‘Captain’s Holiday’ – S3, Ep19.

One of the Captain’s big romantic plotlines really starts in Captain’s Holiday, the 19th episode of Season 3. Unsurprisingly for a man so devoted to his work, Picard absolutely loathes holidays, but is eventually harassed by his crew into taking a vacation on Risa, which appears to be the Federation equivalent of an 18-to-30 holiday. There, he becomes entangled with the lovely Vash (Jennifer Hetrick), a somewhat morally dubious archaeologist who is trying to locate a valuable artefact before a Ferengi rival finds it. Despite his desire to simply sit in the sun and read his book, Picard is drawn into the plot himself and falls for Vash, managing against all the odds to have a thoroughly good time. Yet, if there is one thing we know about Picard, it is that he is a deeply principled man, and a long-term relationship with a thief is only likely to result in a lot of arguments and a fair amount of stolen property hidden in Jefferies tubes.

Picard tries desperately to avoid romantic entanglements on Risa, but finds that and more in Vash (Jennifer Hetrick). | Paramount, 1990.

‘Qpid’

“She’s found a vulnerability in you… a vulnerability I’ve been looking for years. If I had known sooner, I would have appeared as a female.”

Q, ‘Qpid’ – S4, Ep 20.

Vash makes her next appearance in the Season 4 episode ‘Qpid’, turning up unannounced on Enterprise prior to an archaeology conference. It’s apparent that although initially happy to see her, Picard is horrified at the thought of his personal life and his work life colliding, so much so that Vash realises he has mentioned the details of their little adventure on Risa to precisely no one. It’s not long before they are arguing again, and a certain omnipotent being with a great love of winding Picard up arrives to throw the Klingon amongst the Tribbles… I will admit that I have a particular fondness for Q episodes, and this is an especially daft and funny one, with Q (John de Lancie) creating a Robin Hood fantasy for Picard, Vash, and (for some reason) the entire bridge crew. 

Patrick Stewart suits the Errol Flynn Robin Hood costume alarmingly well, and Worf – one of my favourite characters simply because he is constantly furious with everyone and everything – gets to shout his iconic line, “I am not a merry man!”

Q is keen to force Picard to admit that he has feelings for Vash, and that such feelings put everyone in danger, but he doesn’t anticipate Vash’s disinterest in keeping to her Maid Marian role. She is quite capable of saving herself, and attempts to do so by chatting up the villain. Eventually, Vash and Picard do make up, perhaps coming to terms with their differences and realising that theirs will never be a conventional relationship. So, almost a successful romance for Picard, except that Q has taken a shine to the risk-taking, morally dubious Vash, and they scamper off together at the end of the episode to get up to no good. Oh well.

‘Tapestry’

“I had no idea you were such a cad. I’m impressed.”

Q, ‘Tapestry’ – S6, Ep15.

In the Season 6 episode ‘Tapestry’, Q makes an even more concerted effort to meddle in Picard’s life, even going so far as to get his mucky fingers all over the Captain’s past. Gravely injured during an away mission, Picard apparently dies on the operating table, his artificial heart unable to cope with the trauma. He finds himself in a vast white space, faced with a robed figure who seems to reach out for him… It is Q, of course, pretending to be God, and he is keen to know if Jean-Luc has any regrets. Given that it is the artificial heart that has caused his premature death, Q gives him the chance to change the incident in his past that led to him losing his real heart in the first place – an unruly bar brawl with a group of unpleasant Nausicaans. 

Transported back to the days when he was an ensign fresh out of the Academy, Picard is confronted with the person he was in his early 20s – a womaniser, a playboy, a man who took risks and damned the consequences. It’s a delight for the viewer (and Q) to see this man we have only ever known as calm, reasoned and wise getting drinks thrown over him in bars. Interestingly, it becomes clear that one of his old friends, Marta Batanides, had a crush on him back in the day, and for some reason, young Picard never acted on his own feelings towards her. Taking the chance to put aside one more regret from his youth, the Captain decides to try the path not taken and kisses his old friend.

Which, as it turns out, is a disaster. It’s not clear whether Marta has had second thoughts or if Picard is simply a very bad kisser, but their relationship is changed irrevocably and not for the better. Picard does manage to avoid getting stabbed through the chest by a Nausicaan, but when Q sends him back to his own future it is to an altered timeline – one where the Captain is a lieutenant, a junior science officer of no great talent and no real prospects of doing anything other than living a quiet, unremarkable life. Horrified by what Q has shown him, Picard lives the fight again, understanding finally that in order to become the man that captains Enterprise, he must also be the man who learned how precious life is, and how every moment counts. 

So, he gets his artificial heart, but Q doesn’t let him die either… which only adds fuel to my theory that if there is anyone in the universe who truly loves Jean-Luc Picard, it is Q. The episode is a great one for lots of reasons, but for the purposes of this article it tells us that the Captain does in fact have a sordid romantic history, it’s just that it mainly took place in his early twenties. Also, the episode ends with Picard telling Riker about the other scrapes he got into as a young man, and I feel like this scene is an important one too. The Captain has been standoffish in the past, but in these later seasons he is clearly dismantling a few barriers and growing closer to his crew. After all, romantic relationships aren’t the only ones that define our lives.

‘Attached’

“Well, it seems as if we’re stuck with each other.”

Picard, ‘Attached’ – S7, Ep8.

One of the key relationships in Picard’s life that I have not yet really touched on here is that of his friendship with Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden). We know that Beverly was married to Jack Crusher, one of Picard’s best friends, and that Jack died whilst serving with Picard on USS Stargazer. We also know that although there has been a long-standing flirtation between Beverly and Picard, the spectre of her dead husband has, largely, been enough to keep their friendship firmly in the neutral zone, as it were. But there is still a spark there… 

In the one of the earliest episodes of The Next Generation, the crew are infected with a kind of virus that makes them feel extremely intoxicated, and it is clear that the doctor and the captain do in fact have the hots for each other (‘The Naked Now’ is a classic first season episode in that everything feels slightly off key and it’s vaguely embarrassing, but it’s also a brilliant opportunity for the cast to show off their comic skills – see Patrick Stewart’s spectacularly awkward little wave, or Data’s incredible Del Boy pratfall on the bridge). We also know that they frequently have breakfast together, which is a euphemism if ever I heard one, and in the series finale, ‘All Good Things’, we know that in one timeline at least, Dr. Crusher and Captain Picard got married… and then divorced.

Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), perhaps the only consistent focus in Picard’s affection. | Paramount, 1993.

In ‘Attached’, Picard and Beverly are captured by a hostile alien race, and as part of their imprisonment, are fitted with gadgets that forge a telepathic link between the two. Presumably there is a good reason for this, but I missed it amongst my glee that such a classic fan fiction trope had made its way into an episode of Star Trek. Forced to hear each other’s thoughts, they inevitably must come to terms with their feelings for each other, and the undeniable attraction that has been simmering under the surface for the last seven seasons. In terms of emotional growth, this is a good episode for Picard; he must finally be honest with Beverly about how long he has held a torch for her, and how his friendship with her husband kept him from ever doing anything about it. This is quite a step up from the deeply reticent man who wouldn’t tell those closest to him about his holiday fling on Risa. Beverly too explores her feelings for him, and once they are back onboard Enterprise, it is Jean-Luc who suggests that perhaps it is finally time to explore a new kind of relationship. 

And, ultimately, Beverly backs away from the idea, leaving them still in a state of limbo. It feels a little like a cop-out, and perhaps that is to be expected. With such a long running show, with a large ensemble cast in a unique situation – on board a flying city in the middle of space – it isn’t easy to have main characters form lasting romantic relationships, particularly with each other. Big changes to the dynamics of the crew are difficult to do when much of the time each episode must stand alone, with the status quo largely reinstated at the end of each story. 

In the Season 6 episode ‘Lessons’, Picard falls in love with Nera Dalen, a woman newly under his command, but when he must order her into a dangerous situation it becomes clear that the realities of working on a starship – and being in charge of it – mean that relationships will always come second to duty. How can any relationship survive the demands and rigours of dramatic SF television? And while rewatching TNG that did make me a little sad. Every member of the crew falls in love or has a romantic experience, and almost all of them end badly. They are good people, my ‘90s TV family, and I want them to be happy. Yet even in the new TV series named after him, Picard still lives alone. Well, largely alone – he has his dog and a pair of Romulan bad asses looking after him.

“Merde.”

Picard, on a handful of occasions.

But perhaps the message was always supposed to be a different one. Captain Picard’s lack of success when it comes to romantic partnerships doesn’t make him any less of a hero – if anything, it simply makes him more relatable. He is a flawed human being, just like the rest of us, and his is hardly a life devoid of love or connections. The crew are his family, and his relationships with them are the foundations of his life. Star Trek was always about humanity reaching out to the stars and exploring new forms of life – perhaps it is also about the different ways we can live and love with each other, too.


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Jen Williams is an award-winning fantasy and thriller writer from London. She takes Thundercats too seriously, and is still under the vague impression that the 90s were ten years ago.

Follow her on Twitter @sennydreadful

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