Sunday, January 15, 2006

Picard's Archetypal Arcs

Within the series, Picard had at least two powerful experiences that changed his character, but in ways that are hard to pin down, though I believe they are real, and do affect subsequent stories. They were his encounter with Dathon, the captain of the Tamarians, in “Darmok,” and the experience of living an entire lifetime on an alien planet in a few minutes, in “The Inner Light.”

“Darmok” is rightly hailed as one of the most imaginative science fiction stories ever, and one of the most daring, since it relies on the idea that these aliens think and communicate in such an alien way. But while Troi and Data back on the ship begin to piece together the meaning of a key phrase, it is Picard, with his understanding of literature and ancient civilizations, who realizes the Tamarians communicate by metaphor, and moreover, he is able to tell an appropriate story from earth’s mythology to seal the beginning of mutual understanding with Dathon.

Picard had watched Dathon perform his rituals, and he returned Dathon’s artifacts to the Tamarians. But he did two things after the Tamarians left. He began reading the Homeric Hymns, because he felt the power of “our own root metaphors.” And in a very powerful last moment as he looked through his cabin window into space, he performed part of Dathon’s ritual.

It is this sense of primal cultures that our acts are related to the archetypal, and recognition of what exists as sacred in sacramental acts and rituals. Picard was profoundly affected by this, and I believe it contributes to such later developments as his attempted defense of the Native Americans on Dorvan V in “Journey’s End,” (which in turn may have made him more certain of his actions defending the Ba’ku in “Insurrection.”)

He was even more profoundly affected by living an entire lifetime on the dying planet of Kataan, although he never left the Enterprise bridge. It had been well established that Picard never had a family, and apparently never even a committed relationship. It was living the life he never had---as a husband, a father and a grandfather---that affected him even more than living in the Kataan culture, in its poignant final days (something which is more apt to affect us, as we consider our greenhouse future.)

Again, the key moment after his return is at his cabin window, when he gazes into space and plays the Ressican flute, and the song he had composed in that other life. Just as Kataan has lost all life, he has lost the life he’d had, yet just as his memories preserve the story of Kataan, his experiences as Kamin become part of his reality as Picard.

There’s at least one later episode that refers directly to this, when Picard plays the flute again, and falls in love, perhaps to begin building that life he’d never had. But the realities of Starfleet intervene again, because the Captain must make life and death decisions without fear or favor, even involving his beloved. But you get the sense that Picard has been permanently changed, with a deeper sense of mortality, a greater appreciation of the moment and for his Enterprise family. And in the feature “Generations,” when he is propelled into the Nexus where his greatest fantasy can come true, it is the fantasy of a family, a home with a wife and children. (Interestingly, it is akin to Kirk’s fantasy in the Nexus, of a home with the woman he loves.)

Close observers of others series can probably produce character arcs for their characters--perhaps Captain Sisko's journey towards the Prophets, Captain Janeway's journey to a more complex humanity, Captain Archer's seasoning from eager enthusiast to desperate and focused warrior to statesman, and the changes he goes through that convinces him that the Federation is necessary. But let's move on to the saga itself.

No comments: