Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Jean-Luc Piccard, Renaissance Man

In the Star Trek universe, starship captains tend to be Renaissance Men.

Jean-Luc Piccard is an obvious example. Not only does his job require him to be a good many different things (explorer, diplomat, soldier), at all of which he manages to excel; but in his own private life he also displays a wide variety of talents and interests (in literature, mathematics, archaeology, music).

The show manages this without making it all seem silly, or over-the-top, or grating, and this is much rarer than one might think. The truth is that it is very difficult to make overachievers believable and human, let alone likeable, with television usually failing at this. Far too often, we get not a depiction of intelligence or talent, but a crude caricature of it--because the writer doesn't understand what it is they are presenting to us (they write geniuses without being geniuses themselves, and so can't get into their heads; they write scientists without having ever cracked open a science book); because intelligence and talent are not the sorts of things a good writer, let alone a hack, can readily dramatize in five seconds of screen time. (Listening to a performance on a musical instrument, for example, how many of us can actually assess the technical skill that went into it?)

Besides, there is the way in which such characters are often used. Very often the overachiever is a wish-fulfillment figure, either the author's outsized fantasy of themselves, or their attempt to give some targeted audience such a fantasy; or they are an expression of an elitism as raging and mean-spirited as it is simplistic; or it is simply a writer's lame way of freeing themselves to stick their character in a multitude of different situations and somehow have them always come out on top, always have the solution, always be the hero.

The results tends to grate in all these cases.

With Piccard, the show happily escaped that trap, and much as the writing on Star Trek gets a lot of flak, one ought not to underestimate that achievement.

Just how did they manage it?

Part of the secret would seem to lie in the writers' giving Piccard limitations. While very capable in a great many areas, the writers never went over the top with it. We may see him working on a proof of Fermat's Theorem, for example--but not casually coming up with the proof in the middle of his conversation about this. He does not do everything by himself, and cannot, actually relying on his crew, rather than being the man who saves the day every time while everyone else is just along for the ride. (Sometimes it's Data who does it. Sometimes it's Wesley--for which the audience never forgives him. More likely it's a team effort.)

The other part of the secret would seem to be Piccard's attitude toward his strengths and weaknesses. No one has yet called him bully or braggart. Respected and justifiably confident as he is, he never rubs his achievements in other people's faces. His talents and accomplishments are never cause for callousness, or for looking down on others--while his moral center and sense of honor seem virtually unshakable.

How many TV characters can you say that about today?

My Posts on Star Trek
12/16/12

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