What does it mean to be authentic?
In existential phenomenological thinking (Heidegger, specifically), the human being is defined as one who lives life according to meaning — i.e., the person engages with the world around them according to what the person finds meaningful. For example, a person might show up to work every day because they find value in being there (even if that value is just to earn a paycheck), while another person may be late every morning because they find more value in sleeping-in than in taking the time to plan for a timely commute. So, while “value” and “meaningful” sound like Very Important Descriptors, that doesn’t necessarily describe the behavior in a colloquial sense, and is instead just about broadly suggesting that there are no meaningless behaviors. You may even put off something that you would prefer to do because you have other obligations — most people don’t decide to go on a four-week Tuscan vacation at the drop of a hat (y’know, in non-pandemic times) because they want to work and earn money rather than immediately going into debt. Even sitting around and “doing nothing” has meaning because there is a choice to do that over something else, like cleaning — that doesn’t mean either action is better than the other, because the individual has their own reasons for making one choice over the other (here’s your quarantine-reminder that sitting around and watching Tiger King is a completely legitimate coping mechanism to a global pandemic).
So if we refer to value and meaning in terms of being the motivating factors behind engaging in an action, authenticity is about engaging in the action that you would prefer if there were no other mitigating factors. If you didn’t have to worry about financial instability, would you go on that Tuscan vacation? If you won the lottery, would you keep your job? If you could have a pint of ice cream delivered to your door, would you do that all the time or would you value your summer beach body more? If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you be doing now to make your life more Meaningful?
Star Trek: Picard questions human authenticity and Meaning all throughout its narrative this season. Early on, we learn that Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, since we last saw him, retired from Starfleet in protest when the United Federation of Planets made the decision not to support the Romulans in need of evacuation. Picard placed more value on Starfleet’s humanitarian efforts, while the Federation deemed the humanitarian aid to be too great a risk and too much of a burden on thinning resources in light of a terrorist attack on Mars.
Over the course of the season, Picard learns that he has a terminal neurological condition, which spurs him towards one last humanitarian mission to find and save the daughter of his late android friend, Data. This inevitably leads to a climactic conflict when he finds himself between a secretive sect of synthetic-fearing Romulans, and a hidden colony of synthetic androids that have their own concerns about organics.
While some of that may sound like the overarching plot of Mass Effect (indeed, that’s some of the criticism I’ve heard of the series, despite this also basically being the plot of most sci fi narratives involving artificial intelligence from Humans to Ex Machina, Terminator, Westworld, and many, many plots in previous iterations of Star Trek), Picard places its primary focus on what it means to be human, and finding meaning in one’s life.
As a continuation of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series from nearly 30 years ago now, as well as multiple sequel films, Jean-Luc Picard has a wealth of life experience both on- and off-screen to introspect upon as he nears the end of his life. Picard and Data had many conversations over the narrative of The Next Generation regarding Data’s quest of finding his own humanity despite his synthetic origins, and Picard himself previously struggled with his own humanity after being assimilated by the technorganic hive mind of the Borg Collective. These were plots that defined character arcs or individual episodes — a “monster of the week” conceit of episodic content from before the modern style of telling one overarching plot across a shorter season. So the fact that we now see Picard searching for meaning in his own life with this narrative style, we see the Star Trek narrative finally able to more fully explore these themes across a greater narrative context.
Independent synthetics from across the races and technological advances of Star Trek’s canon — from the colony of androids to sentient (?) holograms to the ex-Borg saved from assimilation — drive a throughline through the season in highlighting the question of finding humanity, and the defense of being allowed the autonomy of authenticity.
As Picard’s neurological condition worsens, he becomes very much aware of his impending death, and decides that the best lesson he could teach to these groups about what it means to be human is to sacrifice his own life in their defense. He notes that the gift of mortality is that there is an end, for if life went on forever, it would lose all meaning — there would no longer become a drive to value one course of action over another if one could simply do and be everything without the constraint of time. The narrative even stresses this by allowing Picard an opportunity to talk to a cloud-save of Data’s consciousness — Data says that the sacrifice of his own life to save Picard’s (back in Star Trek: Nemesis, from 2002) loses its meaning when his consciousness continues to exist.
Picard’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of peace between the synthetics and organics is a last-ditch effort for Picard to impress the meaning of his argument to both parties: to teach the synthetics the value of human life, and to teach the organics the weight of his belief in the synthetics’ independence.
And yet, as with so many other tentpole franchises lately, we continue to see the punches pulled and sacrifices become belittled.
[Incoming spoilers for like, everything]
Just as Chewie ends up being on another ship (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), C-3PO erases his memory only to have it restored up to the beginning of the film (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), Loki and Gamora jump forward in time past their own deaths (Avengers: Infinity War), Sam and Dean and practically half the cast in every season (Supernatural), or the entire current plot of the X-Men comics, the great Admiral Jean-Luc Picard succumbs to the weird growth in his brain and dies. And then immediately comes back in a robot body (complete with an algorithm for his android self to die naturally at some point) because his youthful friends can’t bear to let him go just yet.
It’s a strange theme of revival that seems to point a finger at the show itself. After all, Picard’s story was done 30 years ago after The Next Generation, and then done again 20 years ago after Nemesis, yet here we are again apparently refusing to let Jean-Luc go. I have high hopes for season 2 of Picard, as I imagine this will be a plot point for Jean-Luc to further examine his humanity and allow some existential angst (not to mention finally being able to see the Star Trek present after so many prequel series, and pulling in so many characters to give us a hint of where they are and what they’ve been doing since their shows ended), but this is also depriving us of the meaning of his departure.
How do you live authentically if you can just keep getting brought back in a new body?
(this probably means it’s time for me to watch season 2 of Altered Carbon)
Anyway, have some Picard cutestuff.