‘Star Trek’, swear words and TV characters’ changing mores

Streaming HUBMarch 16, 2023

For nearly four decades, “Star Trek’s” Jean-Luc Picard has largely been presented as genteel, erudite and — at times — quite buttoned up. Yes, he loses his temper. Yes, he was as carefree as the Callow Cadet many years ago. Yes, he gets his hands dirty or breaks sometimes.

But the Enterprise captain-turned-admiral stepped into a different space in last week’s episode of the streaming drama “Star Trek: Picard.” Now, she’s someone who — to the shock of some and the delight of others — has uttered a profanity that would never have come from her mouth in the 1990s: “ten f— gruesome hours,” Patrick Stewart’s character a says to the point during an intense conversation in which he hopes everyone dies soon.

The whole thing was in keeping with the more complex, nuanced aesthetic of this decade’s “Star Trek” installments. And the online conversations that follow reflect the journey a fictional character takes from strictly network and syndicated television to high-end streaming TV.

“‘Star Trek’ was G-rated when it first came out. ‘The Next Generation’ was clean-cut and optimistic. Shilpa Dave, a media studies scholar at the University of Virginia and a longtime “Trek” fan, says “Picard” With what we’re seeing now, that’s a little bit more.

Over the weekend, “Star Trek” Twitter reflected that tension.

“Completely out of character,” said one post, echoing several others. Some complained that it cheapened the utopia that Gene Roddenberry envisioned, that humans would not swear like that four centuries from now, that a polished man like Picard would not need such a language.

“Part of the appeal of Star Trek is the articulate way the characters speak. Resorting to gutter language feels like a step backwards because Star Trek characters are made to be better than this,” John Orciola wrote for the website Screen Rant on Sunday.

After this there was backlash of backlash. Paramount+ show co-executive producer Christopher Monfette wrote an extensive and inspiring thread about the moment and why he believes it worked.

“It is easy to hear that high British tone coming out of the mouth of a gentleman Shakespearean actor and assume some advanced intellectualism,” he conceded: “Criticism of its use is fair, even if it just strikes a personal nerve.” attacks – or if you’ll we’ve compared ‘Trek’ to more comprehensive, family-friendly storytelling. But regardless, cursing on the show is carefully debated and discussed in the room or on set We don’t take it lightly.”

Terry Matlas, showrunner for “Star Trek: Picard” this season, said that Picard’s F-word was not scripted, but was Stewart’s choice at the time. The result, Matalas said, “was so surreal.”

“Authenticity is what you do as an artist, as a writer and actor, even as an editor. That’s the thing you want to feel,” he told Collider. “I was really torn because hearing that word came from your childhood hero, Captain Picard, it throws you off. But wow, is it powerful.

“Star Trek” has a long history of pushing boundaries, linguistic and otherwise.

Capt. James T. Kirk said on network TV in 1967, “Let’s get out of here,” when that word was slang. He had lost someone dear to him in the most difficult of circumstances. Dr. McCoy, the ship’s irritable doctor, often said, “Dammit, Jim.” And on a larger scale, the original series danced delicately with NBC censors over everything from the women’s costumes to the racial, sexual, and war references.

But last week’s crossing of the linguistic boundary is an interesting case. It highlights the unease that occurs when a beloved character born during the “family-friendly” TV era is pitted against the streaming landscape, where there are fewer constraints and more opportunities for authenticity.

“It’s not just a reimagining of a fantasy world. It’s the same actor and the same character in the same setting that we had before. And all these years, he’s speaking and behaving in a certain way,” Robert says Thompson, director of the Blair Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Sometimes this infection is misdiagnosed. Velma, a member of the Gen-X-era Saturday morning cartoon “Scooby-Doo,” recently appeared on HBO Max in a more multicultural cartoon reboot, which included a high-school shower scene and overt sexual references. It has been widely criticized. Several years ago, when “Riverdale” premiered, its efforts to push Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica from the sunny world of comics into the darker realms of teen drama produced uneven, sometimes jarring results.

“Star Trek” is in a different universe, so to speak.

Roddenberry famously framed it as a utopian future where the main characters generally avoided conflict with each other, their society was not driven by greed and humanity was viewed as inevitably progressing. Was. Purists have in recent years criticized what they call the “new Trek”, a darker, more fragmented universe.

Nonsense, say many others: both metaphor and word usage evolve over time. After all, it was only seven decades ago that Lucille Ball (and her character) was expecting a baby on “I Love Lucy” and the word “pregnant” couldn’t be uttered on national television — except, oddly, in French.

And for years before and after that, Hollywood’s Production Code dictated the ways in which morality and immorality were to be portrayed in film, from sexual innuendo to portraying criminals sympathetically to whether the good guys triumphed. Hence the term “Hollywood ending”, which is still with us in many parts of life today.

All of which raises the question: Could it even be these boundaries that help make memorable film and television, rather than break them?

“Star Trek had a certain kind of sincerity—almost ’23rd century would be a family-friendly thing,” Thompson says. “The question is, what happens when your characters go beyond media industry standards? How do you adjust to the fact that you are no longer confined without completely betraying the world you’ve created?

In this case, Stewart has said that he returned to the character because he was convinced that there were new stories to tell. Just as he’d aged two decades since his last “Star Trek” appearance, so had Picard — with all the growth that went with it.

The kind of development, perhaps, that might lead a man facing his end to choose a word that still holds great power – even in today’s swearing, streaming world. When Jean-Luc Picard says that word, you can be pretty sure he means it.


Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. follow them on twitter


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