My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
—Walt Whitman, O Captain! My Captain!
Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. Where Captain Kirk ripped his shirt open and threw punches, Picard was the thinking man’s captain, skillfully conducting Federation diplomacy before retiring to a mug of earl grey and the latest journal on exoarchaeology. He’s not a nerd who became an action hero, he’s a nerd who did an action hero’s job while staying a nerd.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987, it still went without saying that a white guy would sit in the captain’s chair of the Enterprise. William Shatner was still making movies as James Tiberius Kirk, and the other major science fiction and fantasy franchises of the era were headed by the likes of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and we were through the first seven of twelve Doctors Who. Hints of change were in the air, though, and Sigourney Weaver’s turn in Alien compelled an update to the infinitive-splitting mission statement of the Enterprise. Picard, unlike Kirk, was going “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
In that context, when Captain Picard spoke with his usual wisdom and eloquence, he not only appeared to be speaking for the best of humanity, he seemed to be speaking for all of humanity. You could pretend that he was of a world beyond race and gender, and that it was good. You can’t pretend forever.