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I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation. In my formative years, many conversations with my dad were inspired by the show and its characters. Dad developed kidney disease when I was a child, and in my early adolescence, he learned how to dialyze at home – three times per week. He would tape his favorite shows and save them up to watch so he could distract himself and pass the time while the machine flushed his kidneys. The show I most liked to sit and watch with him, both before and during this period, was TNG. My sister and I would sit on the velvet brown corner lounge and Dad would use it as a catalyst to talk with us about ethics and morals – about empathy, commitment, integrity, and equality, and about big topics like politics, war, and religion. He was on dialysis for seven years before getting a transplant from an anonymous donor.
When Dad received his transplant, he was grateful, positive, embracing of life. Every small moment was a treasure. Every person was either his best friend or not worth worrying about. In my late teens and twenties, I was starting university (the first person in my immediate family to do so), learning about feminism and existentialism and finding my own identity, and sometimes I bumped up against what I thought of as Dad’s ‘black and white’ ideas, or his impatience for engaging with grungy subjects. In company, he wanted to laugh, love, and have a good time. But we were always close, and I knew I was lucky to have a father who loved and encouraged me and was always there at the end of the phone. Even at this time, I hired DVDs of TNG to watch when I was lonely in a new city, away from my family and everything I’d known.
The Companion is a safe space for our members to explore their own experiences through the lens of their favorite movies and TV shows, but this article may stir up some difficult emotions so be kind to yourself. The UK mental health charity Mind has some helpful resources for those experiencing grief or the stresses of being a caregiver.
I was devastated in 2019 when Dad was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. The prognosis was not good. Months rather than years. Chemo would help prolong his life a bit. Other treatments were unavailable because of the anti-rejection drugs he had to take for his kidney. Mum and Dad lived in a house they’d built – a lifelong dream – up the mountain from where I grew up. Dad had just retired. He wanted to die at home, he said. Looking out the window to the valley below. And just as my sister and I used to come home from school and help Dad with his process of getting off the machine, we committed to being there for him in his final stage of life.
Dad and I had seen the announcement for Picard and we were so excited to watch it together. I couldn’t wait to see what novelist Michael Chabon was going to do with the character. Dad had watched every Star Trek series and movie ever made. He had been a fan of science fiction from childhood, beginning with The Earth Stood Still (1951), which blew his young mind. His favorite film of all time was The Forbidden Planet (1956). And perhaps his own socialization was influenced by Star Trek: The Original Series. He would have been thirteen when it began airing in Australia. As Brian Boyd says, in On the Origin of Stories (2009), “[F]iction can stock memory with compact and compelling examples, not usually of scenarios we are likely to relive closely, but of situations with enough emotional and ethical similarities to those we do experience to provide a basis for our thinking.” Dad’s thinking was at least partly shaped by science fiction, and then so was my own.
Over the months of late 2019 and early 2020, Dad and I watched some episodes of Picard together and some apart (when I was back in Melbourne), discussing each of them afterward. I have to admit I partly engineered experiences like this to engage with Dad as much as possible before the unimaginable event I knew was coming. I became hyper-focused on him, interested in every detail – his speech, mannerisms, facial expressions, the feel of his muscles and bones under his soft skin, his smell, his memories, and thoughts. I wasn’t alone in this attentiveness, and while Dad never had a problem being the center of attention, he did find it quite strange. He would joke with his friends and also the nurses and doctors, trying to diffuse the intensity and sadness. And, I think, to make it easier for us.
See also: Firefly | I Needed My Father, but Serenity Helped Me Find My Dad by Christopher Rios
When we began watching Picard we found it uncanny that it reflected so much of what was on our minds, with its themes of dying, progeny and inheritance, and memories. The very first note of the show – Bing Crosby’s ‘Blue Skies’ – sets this tone of nostalgia. In the scene are Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner), beloved characters, but there’s unease between them – something very wrong, as they sit together in a ship, sipping tea and looking out at a planet. It’s soon revealed to be a dream. Already, those scenes reflected my mental state. Like Picard back in space and in a previous stage of life, I was regressing a little. Holding my Dad’s hand. Using babyish language. And waking up to nightmares like Mars exploding, while in reality bushfires did come dangerously close to the house that was already in crisis. The opening of the show coincided with my constant, nightmare feeling of something terribly, terribly wrong.
Picard is on a mission to find Data’s ‘daughter’, and throughout the season there are characters seeking versions of parent-child relationships or replicating or reproducing themselves. Elnor (Evan Evagora), the boy who lives with the Qowat Milat sisterhood, had looked up to Picard as a child and waited for his return. He binds himself to Picard’s ‘hopeless’ cause, but by the end of the season seems bonded to Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), whom he witnessed expressing deep grief at losing a man who was ‘like a son’ to her. Picard’s ex-colleague Raffi (Michelle Hurd) has hitched a ride with the crew to Freecloud to visit her son, but the damage has been done to their relationship from her addiction when he was young. Her son is expecting a child, her grandchild, and she despairs that she may never know them. And Rios (Santiago Cabrera), the pilot of the ship, had a father figure in his former captain, Captain Vandermeer of the USS ibn Majid. He is wary of becoming attached to Picard as a new father figure. And even he has found a way to ‘reproduce’, having created multiple holographic versions of himself to help run his ship. The scientists Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), Bruce Maddox (John Ales), and Altan Inigo Soong (Spiner again) are also like parents to the synthetic life forms. But Jurati is forced to live with a nightmare – the knowledge of what her ‘children’ could be capable of.
This theme of progeny and reproduction is tied to a real work of philosophy Captain Rios is seen to be reading in various episodes: Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life (1912). In Rios’s words, it is a book about “the existential pain of living with the consciousness of death, and how it defines us as human beings.” One way it defines us is in the urge to reproduce ourselves (including through art). The title and Rios’s description captured me and the night Dad and I watched that episode, I downloaded the ebook onto my phone and started reading it at night when I was wracked by fear and anticipatory grief and couldn’t sleep. While I highlighted many sections, I often found the argument difficult to follow, which is understandable given the conditions of my reading it. But reading philosophy can be like poetry and like Shakespeare, where you get caught in the flow until a line or paragraph brightens:
“Philosophy is a product of the humanity of each philosopher, and each philosopher is a man [sic] of flesh and bone who addresses himself to other men of flesh and bone like himself. And, let him do what he will, he philosophizes not with the reason only, but with the will, with the feelings, with the flesh, and with the bones, with the whole soul and the whole body.”Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life (1912)
Science fiction and story, in general, can make philosophical ideas digestible, folding them into the familiar patterns of story and the emotional resonance of character. “We crave patterns,” says Boyd. “Only humans have the curiosity to seek out pattern in the open-ended way that once led our ancestors to see constellations in the skies, then to infer first the revolution of the Earth from the motion of the stars and planets, then the expansion of the universe…” And art, he says, “concentrates and plays with the world’s profusion of interrelated and intersecting patterns.” A show like Picard works, plays, and twists upon our pattern recognition on multiple levels: from familiar characters’ faces, gestures, and sayings; the terminology of Starfleet and the greater story world; the invoking of formats of past Trek episodes (such as when the characters dress up for a ruse); the greater arc of story and character development; and more. In that very first episode, the first clue that something was ‘off’ was Picard putting milk in his Earl Grey – part of a system of signs fans would register.
See also: Star Trek | Explaining Time Travel’s Big Ideas by Episode by Becca Caddy
The idea of story patterns exists within Picard, too. Soji (Isa Briones), the synthetic that Picard and his crew are searching for, doesn’t yet know who (or what) she is and she works with former Borg (‘xBs’) in the Artifact – the Borg cube that has been reclaimed by the Romulans. She is drawn to one particular xB who, it turns out, is part of the reason the Borg cube stopped functioning in the first place. This xB, Ramdha (Rebecca Wisocky), is laying out a set of triangular cards (the ‘pixmit’) when Soji comes to her. Soji posits that the pixmit is a kind of mandala, and asks if it has a connection to Romulan mythology.
“Mythology?” Ramdha says. “I hate that word. In Romulan we have no such word.”
Soji asks what a better representation would be. Scriptures?
‘The news,’ Ramdha says.
Soji interprets this as a “shared narrative… rooted in archetypes, but as relevant as the day’s news.”
Unfortunately, in this shared narrative, Soji is predicted to play a terrible role: as Seb-Cheneb, the destroyer.
But stories give their heroes agency and tell us that they – and we – can influence destiny. Picard says, “The past is written but the future is left to write and we have powerful tools… openness, optimism, and the spirit of curiosity.” At the same time, the weaving through of the Unamuno text acknowledges a certain futility, at least around the subject of mortality. And someone, in the season, has to die.
Dad was adamantly atheist (rejecting his Catholic upbringing) and, at the end, he told us he still believed he would simply go back to nothingness. And yet, he believed in ‘destiny’. He thought you carved your own path but that certain things were meant to happen for a reason. After he got his transplant, he was recovering in a respite house near RPA in Sydney and some friends came from Wollongong to visit him and they went to the pub. They sat down at a table and there was a green hardcover book sitting there.
“What’s this?” they said. Dad picked it up. Wollongong Yearbook 1970. He thought That’s bloody weird. Why was there an old book about Wollongong, the place he grew up, randomly sitting on the table they chose at the pub? He opened up the book.
There was a photo of his mum, my Oma, singing in a choir.
She had died a couple of years before. She had not gotten to see him get a kidney.
Dad said he had shivers all up and down his body. Bullshit, he thought – a common expression of his when something was unbelievable. But he was delighted. In his frequent retelling of the story, there was always a glimmer of possibility at the idea of a larger pattern, something beyond our understanding, and our control.
See also: Stargate | What ‘The Gamekeeper’ Taught me About Grief & Acceptance by Carin Marais
Any TNG fan’s nostalgia was tickled in Picard by the cameo of two beloved, familiar characters, Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Troi (Marina Sirtis). Dad and I watched this one separately but we told each other we’d both been moved by it. Within the Riker and Troi scenes, there were also so many elements that chimed with my own system of signs: Riker looked like my dad as he cooked the woodfired pizza, in an apron, with “tomato and basil from our garden.” It was just like the life my parents had built for themselves up the mountain after so many years of hard work.
There are grieving practices introduced in this scene, too. Riker and Troi’s son, Thad, has died. His sister Kestra has learned his invented languages, and his room has been kept as it was: his bed, his maps, and languages on a board. Picard asks Troi how she is. “We’re fine, really,” she says. “Kestra still aches for him. But with every day, the ache fades a little more.” At the time of watching, I could not imagine being on that side of the loss. It was a terrifying prospect. Dad died during the first COVID-19 lockdown, and the initial stages of grieving were much more solitary than they should have been. The ache hasn’t faded in a day-by-day manner; it is not a linear story. Another character actively grieves in Picard: Rios has a box filled with memories of his old captain, Vandermeer – a uniform, a picture, a drawing. He drinks and takes them out, pores over them. I wondered about that beforehand. Would I have a box?
One morning, Dad and I were hanging out and we were talking about his interest in science fiction, UFOs, space. And he asked me why I was into some of that too. “Because of you, Dad,” I told him. And I pushed myself to say more, to say all I had to say to him, though it’s strange when someone you love is dying, a lot of the time you still hold back, not wanting it to be in the air between you and for them to feel it – there’s a shyness around how awfully big it is. I said, “I will miss talking to you”’ And he said he didn’t think he had anything else he needed to give me – meaning advice. Meaning being a dad. He was wrong because I have missed talking to him every single day. But how generous he was to say such a thing, or perhaps he needed to say it for himself.
Words became less important in the final weeks, anyway. That time when we’d diverged, had a different language for experience, fell away and the depth of our shared experience was present in our eye contact, smiles, and in touch. I watched Dad’s face so much it became my own. When apart from him I would repeat his expressions, gestures, ‘feel like’ him. In one of the later Picard episodes, Arcana (Jade Ramsey) the synth touches Picard’s wrinkles: “They’re just lines, but they imply so much more,” she says with wonder. “Grief, endurance. Marvelous.” Dad always called wrinkles ‘character lines’. And just after he died, I sprouted my first grey hair. Patterns and stories on the body itself.
At the end of Picard Season 1, Data wants to live “however briefly, knowing that my time is finite.” Since my dad was first ill and received his transplant and second chance, he felt, more strongly perhaps than the average person, how fi
At the end of Picard Season 1, Data wants to live ‘however briefly, knowing that my time is finite’. Since my dad was first ill and received his transplant and second chance, he felt, more strongly perhaps than the average person, how finite time was. His sense of life was not ‘tragic’, but buoyant. Data asks Picard if he remembers dying. ‘I do. Something in my head just seemed to… go away. Like a child’s sandcastle collapsing.’ Is that what it was like? To me, it seemed both more troubled, and more sublime. From my side (one meter away, one dimension), there was a distinct shift. It felt more like a presence than absence. A change in the light.
Troi and Riker’s daughter Kestra says to Soji: ‘Something really bad happened to me… The only reason I got through it was my mum and dad. You don’t have a mum and dad, but you have Captain Picard.’ We all have Captain Picard. I love to watch Trek with my partner, and it’s also been a connecting point in a treasured friendship. Those same kinds of conversations inspired by the show’s themes, dilemmas, and characters that I had with Dad now happen with other loved ones. I retrace patterns and I create echoes (perhaps futilely) in bright passages and new family.
Star Trek | Time Travel’s Big Ideas Episode by Episode
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Angela Meyer’s debut novel, A Superior Spectre, was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, the MUD Literary Prize, an ABIA, the Readings Prize for New Australian Writing and a Saltire Award (Scotland). Her novella, Joan Smokes, won the inaugural Mslexia Novella Award (UK). She works as a freelance editor and consultant.