Star Trek: Picard – The Last Best Hope
Written by Una McCormack
“How many people do you think died after we left?’
He shook his head. “We don’t know that happened, Jocan. We can’t berate ourselves over hypotheticals –”
“These are not hypotheticals!” She reached into her pocket and threw a tricorder onto the table. “Look! Watch what’s on there!”
Raffi picked it up. She ran it around in her hands, turned it on, and set it to play. A small flickering image, recognizable as the ramshackle square of the main settlement on Nimbus, appeared. She could make out figures – nearly fifty people, hands on their heads. Then the shooting started. It didn’t stop until everyone was lying on the ground, dead.
“Mon dieu,” whispered Picard.
With the debut of the new CBS All Access series Star Trek: Picard, many fans who had disliked the direction taken by both the J.J. Abrams Trek movies of 2009-2016 and Star Trek: Discovery, hoped that the return of one of Starfleet’s most famous captains would herald a return to what they considered to be the best of Trek. As of this writing, with five episodes of Picard under our belts and five to go in the first season, it’s fair to say that while many fans have been delighted by Jean- Luc’s reappearance on our screens, there have also been a number of huge questions and concerns raised about the fictional world our characters now inhabit, about its moral character, and about its depiction of Jean-Luc Picard himself.
Fans who care about these types of questions would be well advised to pick up and read the brand-new tie-in novel by Una McCormack, Star Trek: Picard – The Last Best Hope. McCormack addresses them all, and in a way that feels like well-prepared back story rather than an author scrambling to fill plot holes.
Before diving into spoiler territory, let me say that Una McCormack is probably my favorite Trek novelist writing today, and she is an excellent choice for this project. In her previous Trek novels, like 2009’s The Never-Ending Sacrifice, and 2017’s Enigma Tales, she has shown a deftness in handling the moving of larger, societal forces on a cultural scale. And in 2019’s Discovery tie-in novel The Way to the Stars, she has shown the ability to tell deeply-personal stories laser-focused on the characters themselves. Both of those skills are in ample evidence in The Last Best Hope.
This novel covers the period between the discovery of the impending Romulan supernova and the immediate aftermath of the “rogue synth” attacks on Mars, the four years from 2381-2385. Because viewers of Star Trek: Picard (and Short Treks: “Children of Mars” know how this story is going to end, the narrative has a feeling of inevitability and doom about it, which McCormack manages well, in contrast to the optimism of its central character. We watch Picard doggedly persisting in his impossible mission, maintaining hope and a vision for saving lives, even as wider forces, many of which he has no knowledge of, unfold darkly in such a way that we know a clash must inevitably happen.
It is a novel about how hope and pragmatism play out in a society that is both enlightened and comprised of real beings with real emotions and desires. I think that it binds those concepts together in a way that both makes sense and is resolutely clear-eyed about unchangeable truths about humanity. When I wasn’t reading the book, I was thinking about it, and hoping for my next chance to pick it up again. Like other tie-in novels, it fills in some of the blanks left by the brisk writing of time-constrained television production, but unlike most tie-ins, the blanks filled here feel necessary, consequential, and foundational to understanding the show itself. In a word, The Last Best Hope makes the experience of watching Star Trek: Picard richer. I highly recommend it to any Trek fan watching the show.
If you’re not watching Star Trek: Picard, does the book stand alone as its own story? Yes, but the book leaves Picard broken in ways that the show starts to put back together. If you love the character of Jean-Luc Picard, this book takes him to a place you likely don’t want to see him end up in. You will want the show to help him find his way back.
Now for a few spoilers. Don’t read further unless you’ve seen the first five episodes of Star Trek: Picard and read this novel, unless you don’t mind hints about what took place.
McCormack carefully draws the progress of the Romulan resettlement mission from its “impossible dream” beginning to its crushing-defeat end. In the process, she weaves together the politics of the Federation, the economic concerns of border worlds, the difficulty of working with a xenophobic and secretive society like the Romulan Star Empire, and the stunningly difficult logistics inherent in a rescue mission like this.
To tackle the last concern first, in PIC: “Remembrance” and elsewhere, it has been mentioned that about nine hundred million Romulans needed to be resettled in advance of the Romulan supernova event.
Logistically, how would such a thing be possible? How much time would be necessary? How many ships? Where would they all go? Just to break it down a little, assume a fleet of thirty starships, each holding 800 passengers, and able to transport groups of 20 from the surface of a planet in batches, with three minutes to gather each group, beam them up, and get them off the transporter pad and out of the room to make ready for the next group. Okay, so it would only take about two hours, if all went well, to fill the ship’s complement. Then you warp out for a week-long journey to the place you’re settling the refugees, beam them all down, then come back. How long would it take those thirty ships to evacuate a planetary population of a modest 6 million people? 3,500 days, give or take: about 9 ½ years. For one planet, with thirty ships. Let’s say you had 300 ships, how long would it take to evacuate 900,000,000 Romulans? By my calculations, roughly 144 years. This is a staggering undertaking!
I had the same thoughts while watching the first episode of the CW’s Arrowverse crossover event, “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” where Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, stands alone, fighting off shadowy attackers, protecting the retreat of refugee ships escaping through a portal. He stands his ground for about an extra minute or so, and in so doing saved a million extra people. But there was only one portal, and a million people is a lot of people! So if one ship with 100 people on it takes 5 seconds to go through the portal, the minute that Queen stood his ground could only have saved 2000 extra people. Put another way, if it takes five seconds for a ship to go through the portal, to save one million people in one minute, each ship would have to be carrying 50,000 refugees. A ship carrying 50,000 refugees would have to be the size of an Imperial Star Destroyer (crew and passengers: 46,785 according to Wookieepedia). You get the point. It takes time to move people, and moving a lot of people takes a lot of time.
McCormack’s book takes this staggering logistical challenge to heart. How many ships would it take? How would you build those ships? Where would you get the labor force to build those ships? If those people (and synths) are building ships, they are not doing other things, presumably things they were doing before, and liked doing. How would they feel about being diverted from their life’s work to this mission? McCormack tackles these questions with intelligence and heart.
She depicts Raffi’s heart-wrenching personal sacrifices alongside Picard’s benevolent obliviousness in ways that show both characters as believably noble and flawed. She takes us deeply into Romulan paranoia and secrecy (though thankfully, neither Narissa nor Narek make an appearance), into inter-Starfleet politics, and into Federation politics and portrays the actions and motivations of everyone involved clearly enough that you can see why everyone believes that what they are doing is the right decision to make, given what they know or believe. McCormack humanizes Captain Kirsten Clancy, who appears in PIC: “Maps and Legends” as the hard-nosed Starfleet Commander-in-Chief who swears at Picard in frustration.
Most movingly, we get to see how Romulan warrior-nun Zani functions both as Picard’s kindred spirit and the guardian of his sense of hope. And we see how both the exigencies of a difficult mission, Federation politics, and the challenges of Romulan culture all serve to push Picard’s hope to the breaking point.
But won’t we have progressed beyond petty local politics and parochial economic concerns in a post-scarcity future? McCormack argues that even in a utopian Federation society, the distribution of goods and production will never be completely even. Worlds that are brand-new to the Federation, or further out from the center of the UFP, will be in the process of transforming to a post-scarcity society, but will not arrive instantaneously. It is not a betrayal of Gene Roddenberry’s vision to posit that distant newcomers to the Federation might not yet have societies as enlightened as those of Earth, Vulcan, Tellar, and Andor. Nor that keeping those planets in the Federation might be a noble goal that might require some less than ideal decisions. As Picard said in “Absolute Candor,” it is easy to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
Truthfully, the idea of the Federation as a homogeneously idyllic, utopian society has always been more a product of Gene Roddenberry’s offscreen interviews than of onscreen canon. Racial bigotry towards Romulans makes its first appearance right alongside their debut in TOS: “Balance of Terror.” The non-existence of money in the Federation is mentioned at times, but is contradicted at other times, from the first season TOS episode, “Mudd’s Women” to McCoy’s offering money to charter a space flight in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. While Picard tells Lily Sloane that humanity has evolved past emotions like a desire for revenge in Star Trek: First Contact, she rightly calls that assertion “bullshit,” and calls Picard to listen to the better angels of his nature.
Like I said, fans may not agree with these arguments, and may not like where they lead, but McCormack treats them head-on, with intelligence and humanity. And while other tie-in novels sometimes feel like the author is using the novel to address inconsistencies between the parent show and canon, The Last Best Hope feels like backstory that the production crew carefully worked out for the show but didn’t have the time to include. Reading it makes a good show even richer and more enjoyable.
Some nitpicks do stand out. For one thing, the explanation for the need for synth labor is hard to swallow. I find it inconceivable that a starship would have a significant number – or any number! – of parts that have to be hand-made. And that is the entire argument for the need for synths! Every 21st-Century person has seen video of an automobile assembly plant, with non-humanoid robots doing assembly tasks. If making these parts requires hands, and only hands will do, why not build non-humanoid robots that just have humanoid hands? Why give them heads, and faces, and legs?
My only major concern about the novel is a matter of personal preference: I don’t find the expansion of coarse language in Star Trek to be a step in a positive direction for the franchise. I don’t believe that the incorporation of frequent f-bombs and s-bombs makes the show more relatable, believable, or richer, and aside from the pilot, which was set to be released for free on YouTube after its airing on All Access, Star Trek: Picard has included one or two bleep-able words in each episode. I know that the producers feel that they need to give people their money’s worth for subscribing to the streaming service, but I don’t find that profanity adds value to the show. And in that vein, all characters surrounding Picard swear a whole lot in The Last Best Hope, though not the man himself. The book would have been at least as good without that, and in my mind, better. But I understand that’s a personal opinion that you might not share. What I believe you will share is my conviction that this is an excellent tie-in novel that deepens your appreciation for the show it is based on.
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