5 Lessons from Star Trek’s Wisest Captain

make it so

Normally in a keyword chasing blog post about a long-lived franchise getting a new movie, someone would comment on the hype train surrounding the film or why it’s ‘never been better to be an [insert film here] fan!’ I just can’t say that about Star Trek. Ever since Star Trek Enterprise slumped in ratings and into cancellation, the last two decades have not been kind to the franchise. The fandom is alive and well, but it’s not the crackling worldwide phenomenon it used to be.

Sure, the Abrams movies kept the franchise in the public conversation, and plenty of novels and comics have continued stories (Check out Star Trek/Green Lantern, it’s a trip), but the franchise is always at its best when it occupies a weekly television slot. Characters (particularly captains) have so much more time and development than in one two hour installment every three years, and nowhere is that most apparent than with the subject of today’s post: The slayer of the Borg, savior of time itself, and Ressikan flute extraordinaire: Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Even if an entire generation of kids have come of age with minimal exposure to him (though Netflix has certainly helped), the fabulous Frenchman of the stars remains a pop culture legend. Just like people who never watched the original series at least knew who Spock was, even people who never watched The Next Generation knew who Picard was. He dispensed wisdom and morals with gravitas and grace, like an intergalactic Mr. Rogers who wasn’t afraid to annihilate the foolish bastards who didn’t accept diplomacy.

So before you go out this weekend to see Star Trek Beyond, let’s look back on immortal, motivational lessons of the wisest man to ever command a Federation starship.

star trek jean luc picard
And one of the most alluring.

“Things are only impossible until they’re not.” (“When the Bough Breaks”)

The statement sounds contradictory and redundant, but that’s the beauty of it: it inherently rejects the notion of the word ‘impossible’ and posits it’s only a matter of perseverance and devising solutions. Just like James T. Kirk rejected the notion of the no-win situation, Picard challenged his Enterprise crew to look past insurmountable odds to overcome the greatest obstacles threatening the ship or entire worlds. A belief that any challenge can be overcame is vital for improving the world and reaching one’s greatest potential. Time and time again, society has been bettered by people who believed that things could be made better by pushing back against the grain. ‘Impossible’ is an excuse, keep pressing forward until you find the weakness and drop a super effective finishing move.

The more I think about it, the more I realize Star Trek has a lot of strange similarities with Gurren Lagann.

star trek gurren lagann
The Mugann even look like corrupted Enterprises…

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.” (“Peak Performance”)

Most of the quotes on this list were delivered in the heat of battle or times of peril, but this statement came from a more…mundane situation. After losing a game of Strategema (imagine a holographic, 3D incarnation of Go) to a Starfleet strategist, Data deduces he made no mistakes in playing yet still lost. He withdraws from bridge duty, worried he may make another mistake and sink the Enterprise‘s chances of winning a practice wargame against the USS Hathaway. Yes, the context of this quote is basically Picard telling data to stop moping over losing a board game and do his damn job, but that doesn’t detract from its significance.

Stumbles and losses happen. Despite our best efforts, sometimes, we don’t succeed. The important thing is that failure is only temporary. It is a stumble, not a permanent fall. Success may require a second (or third, or fourth, or twelfth) attempt or a different approach, but never let failures deter you from your destination or diminish your skill.

“You wanted to frighten us. We’re frightened. You wanted to show us we were inadequate. For the moment, I grant that. You wanted me to say ‘I need you.’? I NEED you!” (“Q Who”)

On the path to pushing limits and achieving the impossible, sometimes even the wisest starship captain must ask for help. In this episode, the help Q provides (introducing the Enterprise to the Borg) was not initially asked for, but Picard’s admission he needed Q’s help to evade the Borg and return to the Alpha Quadrant was not a moment of weakness, but strength and humility. Collaboration and mutual assistance elevated our species from hominids roaming the African savanna to intelligent beings capable of traveling to space and splitting the atom.

You will most likely never be in a situation where you must ask a prankster deity to save you from galaxy-conquering cyborgs, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reach out to a friend for help with finding a better job or seek advice for sprucing up your wardrobe. It’s not shameful to ask for help, it’s strategic.

star trek nintendo pikmin
Strength in numbers.

“There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads – untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I… pulled on one of those threads – it’d unravel the tapestry of my life.” (“Tapestry”)

If you haven’t seen “Tapestry” yet, stop reading now and go watch it. The Next Generation is on Netflix, you have no excuse. This Wonderful Life-esque plot involves Q showing Picard how his life would have unfurled if he had avoided a barfight in his youth that nearly cost him his life. He discovers it would have led to a life avoiding risk and earning no distinction in his Starfleet career. In the end he chooses to relive a brutal stabbing through the heart, as the brush with mortality gave him a sense of responsibility and discipline that took him from cadet to captain.

There are many blots and blemishes on our pasts, whether it be for the roads both taken or those we passed by. Each and every little moment, no matter how unsightly, made us who we are today. Our darkest hours often taught us unforgettable lessons, and our failures helped us find the right way to go. As my college roommate would often say: “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.”

“Buried deep within you, beneath all the years of pain and anger, there is something that has never been nurtured: the potential to make yourself a better man. And that is what it is to be human. To make yourself more than you are.” (Star Trek Nemesis)

So forgive me for using a quote from Nemesis, but this one still ranks among the best words ever spoken by the captain of the Enterprise-D (and E, thanks Troi). Typically Picard’s speeches about 24th-century humanity’s mission to better themselves are linked to speeches involving questionable future economics, but in this conversation with Shinzon, there was no prattling about the perfection of the Federation. There was only the assurance that the potential to evolve and exceed limits is present within all sentient beings, no matter their origin. Picard saw this potential even in this moody clone who lived a life of slave labor and 24/7 angsting.

star trek nemesis
He exterminated that potential with a steel grate through the chest but whatever.

The capability to improve, to advance, to evolve is within all of us. This principle guides Starfleet through the many planets and quadrants of the galaxy and echoes again and again throughout Star Trek. A skill can always be bettered. Another friendship or relationship can be nurtured. A chance to make the world a better place is always within reaching distance. The path to bettering one’s self is a journey of one thousand miles, but every step forward counts.

It’s the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Celebrate it. Go see the new movie. Watch the old movies. Binge watch a few seasons on Netflix. Read some comics and novels. Valuable life lessons run throughout all of it, but in this writer’s humble opinion, this hairless hero is the wisest character of them all. Let him guide you towards your own final frontier.

Also, had to include this video, and couldn’t fit it in anywhere else:

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