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.
The Great White Man is a specific cultural trope, going back at least to Rudyard Kipling’s invocation of the White Man’s Burden. Unlike everyone else, who has a race or gender identity, the Great White Man is the default. Not only can his privilege be ignored, but said privilege supposedly gives him a disinterested position in all racial or gender-based disputes. His greatness emerges from his patrimony: 3,000 years of western civilization back his morality and ideals. If he can apply those ideals and morals without any obvious selfishness or personal bias, he gets to be Great, because those systems are privileged to the point of being unquestioned.
Cishet masculinity defines the Great White Man’s relationships with men and women, pushing each into specific roles. You could never forget Captain Kirk was a man, traveling the galaxy, punching bad guys, and making out with alien ladies. Picard felt less compelled to embody such an aggressive masculinity, but his gender identity was always very clear. Picard’s thoughtfulness was coded masculine as clearly as Kirk’s impulsiveness; one of two female leads, Counselor Deanna Troi, is useful to Picard because she has the power to experience the emotions of others.
The other female lead is Dr. Beverly Crusher, who gets a dynamite portrayal by Gates McFadden. Still, though, the plot pushes her into stereotypically feminine roles – a romantic interest for Picard, devoted single mother to Wesley (Wil Wheaton). The two other women who joined the main cast each left within a year. They avoided these tropes at the cost of fan disdain.
When Picard encounters other women in the series, they mostly end up as fleeting love interests. The show takes a step forward by avoiding the Kirk-era tropes of objectifying women as sexual prizes for the hero’s triumphs, but still fails to really put many women front and center. Picard is a man in a man’s universe, which means we’re allowed to ignore his gender.
Science fiction often plays the dicey game of using aliens as a stand-in for race relations on Earth, linking whiteness and humanity. Then there’s under-casting actors of color to play, you know, humans. The only lead, human role on the Enterprise given to a person of color is LeVar Burton’s Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge, who spends most episodes trying to fix the warp core after aliens turn his tools into muffins or something.
Crusher, LaForge, and Troi are not bridge officers, leaving only white male faces among the humans commanding the Enterprise. It’s a big universe, but somehow that’s what passes for universal.
Aliens, often portrayed by people of color such as Michael Dorn’s Klingon Lt. Worf, are rarely as sympathetic as the human leads, and their customs, beliefs, and circumstances are often no more than story obstacles. Worf is regularly lectured on the superiority of human value systems, with his own Klingon culture reduced to rituals and curiosities. Picard, 500 years in the future, still gets to be a white man in a world where that’s perceived as the only “normal.”
That all sounds bad, and it is. But since the show doesn’t really address its own racial and gender issues, it’s easy to blow past those flaws and embrace the utopia it develops. The United Federation of Planets, headquartered in San Francisco, brings together countless beings under a democratic government committed to individual rights. Seamlessly pairing libertarian ideals with socialist dreams, citizens live in a post-scarcity economy, where automation and unlimited energy have freed us all from meaningless labor.
Jean-Luc Picard is the face of the Federation, and the champion of its ideals. Almost weekly, he takes the position that any dispute could be resolved by presenting the facts to an objective third party, who could rule based on neutral, universal principles of logic and reason. Picard turned Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the Stars” into “Law and Order in Space.”
In line with these liberal goals, laser battles between starships were replaced by orderly trials. In the pilot Picard serves as defense counsel to humanity itself when it is put on trial by the godlike being Q. When the android Lt. Commander Data is to be decommissioned and reverse-engineered by Starfleet, the Captain prevails by arguing for Data’s personhood. Even the devil finds herself facing an adverse verdict, when Picard proves before an arbitrator that she is a mere con artist rather than a legendary being.
Federation principles ensure due process, and due process ensures justice. Humans are available as judges and advocates, even in alien circumstances, because in the show’s logic, we have figured out universal justice.
When the Enterprise isn’t a courtroom, it’s a meeting hall, as the Federation resolves diplomatic disputes across the galaxy. Far preferable to war, these conferences are almost always resolved when Picard is able to convince the parties to look past their parochial interests and agree on their common good.
Picard’s ability to do justice via fair process and promote peace through negotiation is wonderful. It’s the fulfillment of all my liberal ideas, and he’s a fine hero to have out there in the world. But this all requires a belief that there is such a thing as neutrality, or that facts can be universally stated, or that no subconscious biases will creep into a “fair” adjudication. Star Trek endorses the idea that white men are free from biases of race or gender, and therefore ideal to act on that belief. But still, Picard does succeed at it, which makes him great regardless of the constructions of his identity that surround him.
This is the Great White Man in action—he is presumed to be objective in any dispute, and the values underlying his decision-making are unquestioned because they are so thoroughly privileged. All Picard has to do is avoid obviously favoring his friends or enriching himself, because his privilege apparently immunizes him from more fundamental questions.
But Picard is the last of his kind. In the Star Trek universe, the torch is passed first to a Black captain, Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space 9, and then on to a woman, Kathryn Janeway of Voyager. Multiculturalism and diversity began spreading through many franchises, and we started asking questions about white-dude centrality. But even before the end of the series, it became apparent that Picard’s position as the Great White Man was no longer tenable. He could be a great captain, but the privilege of his identity could not just fade into the background.
Enter the Borg. TNG’s Big Bad, the Borg are a cyborg army comprised of individuals from across the galaxy, all assimilated and directed to the purposes of the Borg Collective. They are colonists, who move from planet to planet, assimilating the survivors of their attacks, extracting value, and continuing on. They take center stage in a cliffhanger between Seasons 3 and 4, that is, in the summer of 1990, separated from the pilot by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and they mark a new introspection for the series, relieved, perhaps, of Cold War pressure towards American triumphalism.
Our window to the Borg is Guinan, played by Whoopi Goldberg, the only significant woman of color in the series. Her planet was conquered and assimilated by the Borg many years ago, and she has come to the Enterprise as a refugee, where she passes time as a bartender. She has a deep friendship with Picard that avoids romance, and he not only comes to her for counsel but the two play chess, fence, and go on holodeck adventures in their free time. Guinan was added to the cast only as an occasional guest star, given Whoopi’s schedule, but she still offered a new dynamic. She was a true equal to Picard, and her presence meant that Picard’s identity was not so easily ignored. She is not a Starfleet officer, so her civilian costumes drew distinctions with the uniforms all other characters wore.
In “The Best of Both Worlds,” the Borg attack the Earth. The Federation had never faced an exterior threat in the run of the series; now they face an insurmountable military threat. Picard is brought to the Borg Cube as humanity’s representative. The Borg demand surrender and his cooperation with their conquest. He refuses, but is forcibly assimilated, and via Borg mind control and cybernetics, transformed into Locutus of Borg. Locutus is a collaborator with his captors, and is turned against his friends.
Ultimately, of course, Picard is rescued, restored, and the Borg are thwarted. But something has permanently shifted. A single Borg vessel is destroyed by an unrepeatable trick; the Collective will return. The Federation had been an hyperpower, now it was at the mercy of an alien power. Science fiction has long inflicted colonialism on Western societies via alien invasion, but this was not just a Western society, but
the utopian version of a Western society, down to an honorable, and supreme, military.
Picard is a different man after this experience. He is actually assimilated by the Borg, and his mind and body are colonized and repurposed for them. He loses the detachment he required to act as a neutral authority figure; recalling his assimilation after an argument with his brother, the mighty captain, shoved into a muddy puddle, breaks down in tears.
The show suddenly realizes that even a true commitment to individual rights and fairness isn’t enough to solve every problem, and that the concept of fairness may not always align with the opinions of a well-educated white man. The show shows sympathy to violent resistance by the Bajorans against the occupying Cardassians, even though the Federation disapproves of the civilian casualties and terrorist tactics. Picard’s commitment to the rule of law requires him to comment on the occupation itself only with, “We were saddened by those events, but they occurred within the borders of the Cardassian Empire.” Klingon domestic politics and culture start to be taken seriously, rather than as evidence of a backward people in need of the civilizing influence of the Federation. Even the Borg gain complexity, as the crew respects the wishes of an isolated Borg not to be fully deprogrammed.
Ultimately, this means that Picard’s whiteness and masculinity lose their superiority and become specific aspects of his identity, rather than assumed characteristics of his position. Voyager and Deep Space 9 push these themes further.
There may always be specific, great people who are white men, but Picard was the last Great White Man. Even though white men continue to front many science fiction or fantasy franchises, pop culture has increasingly refused to accept this as a neutral choice. The X-Files premiered in 1993 and turned the American government into something sinister, under the command of a cabal of would-be Great White Men whose actions are radically destructive. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, debuting as a movie in 1992 before going to series in 1997, named a young woman as the Chosen One while regularly critiquing masculinity. Patrick Stewart returned to the genre in 2000’s X-Men, which contrasts its heroes to the mainstream white-male paradigm. The returning Doctor Who in 2005 made cishet white masculinity literally alien, in contrast to a diverse humanity. A Song of Ice and Fire, from the first publication of Game of Thrones in 1996 through 2011’s A Dance with Dragons, avoids able-bodied cishet white men for the vast majority of its POV characters while rigorously critiquing the illusions of chivalry.
None of this is to say that the Great White Man trope has faded away into irrelevancy, as film and television are still overwhelmingly dominated by white men; the Marvel Cinematic Universe will run through 16 films before starring anyone else. But the paradigm has shifted and keeps shifting. Greatness now requires white men to transcend their identity—as Picard was forced to do when captured by the Borg—instead of requiring cishet white masculinity as a necessary condition. White men cannot automatically be given the presumption of objectivity, and their deeds and ideals are open to critique because of the biases inherent in that identity, reducing their privileged immunity to such criticism.
With Picard, we said good-bye and opened the door.