Picard’s beef with Mass Effect

You can’t avoid it:

“Broken Pieces,” the latest in Picard’s first season, has beef with Mass Effect. Spoilers for both ahead.

They’re not at all subtle with it, either. Mirroring the details:

  • A genocidal horror at galactic scale
  • An elite agent empowered to prevent its return at any cost
  • An ancient civilization with extraordinary powers of stellar engineering
  • That civilization wiped out after the rise of synthetic life
  • A warning transmitted across eons between civilizations
  • A power beyond any any ability to fathom—or resist

Each of these elements is common enough in science fiction. The Borg were, themselves, an earlier combination of several. Still, it’s impossible for Picard to escape some conversation with Mass Effect. There’s too much shared vocabulary—they’re speaking the same science fiction dialect.

What emerges from that conversation is a stark disagreement on how to address enormous problems with unknown solutions.

Picard pronounces Commander Shepard less like a hero and more like a jack-booted thug. No accountability, a righteous cause, political pull to exist above the law. Such a person would be dangerous, and probably quite unpleasant, in Star Trek‘s view.

In addition, Picard wants to challenge Mass Effect‘s central premise:

It is impossible to resist the Reapers.

A tradition of cosmic wonder

Picard—and Jean-Luc—knows that resistance is not futile.

Like I said, the Borg tread a lot of this ground. At the outset, they, too, could not be reasoned with, or defeated.

But the Borg were defeated. They were communicated with. They were, occasionally, redeemed. The Star Trek universe does not allow things which cannot be fathomed. Only things we can barely fathom.

Star Trek has dealt with Deep Space Nine‘s ancient, unfathomable, transdimensional god beings. It wasn’t easy or quick. It took the commitment of a human emissary to maintain the work of long-term diplomacy.

One time a probe showed up at Earth’s doorstep, shredding its ecology and disabling all its technology. Our heroes found them some whales, everybody walked away friends.

Star Trek always wants us to figure out how to walk away friends—even if the differences between us, at first, seem to be insurmountable.

Vigil was not curious

Mass Effect, meanwhile, decided that its Big Bad was beyond comprehension:

Your survival depends on stopping them, not on understanding them.”

Taking that point of view, the Reapers and their minions morphed into sponges for bullets. Here again, economics determine the texture of the story. For Mass Effect, shooting things was a sort of mental dexterity jungle gym, core to its gameplay. To prevent this from devolving into a tedious game of Whack-a-Mole, it used a story to motivate the action.

Mass Effect‘s story, thus, needed to justify a lot of bullet sponges.

The broad disappointment with Mass Effect 3‘s ending was, I think, rooted in this. After three installments of bullet sponge conflict, there was no way to bring the tale to a satisfying conclusion. It was implausible to imagine defeating something as massive and ancient as the Reapers, but also impossible to become their friends. What was left didn’t satisfy, and implied all our efforts were an exercise in futility.

The spirit of curiosity

There’s a danger in treating your opposition like bullet sponges. The history of colonialism is a testament to how much blood you can spill when you decide that the person on the other side of the gun can’t be reasoned with.

This mentality is something Star Trek thinks we should give everything we have to overcome. That only with curiosity can we justly make our way forward. Picard even gives us a whole speech on this:

They may be right about what happened 200,000 years ago. The past is written. But the future is left for us to write.

And we have powerful tools, Rios! Openness, optimism, and the sprit of curiosity. All they have is secrecy and fear.

Broken Parts

That’s a line in the sand. We won’t let ancient, spooky prophecy determine our future. It’s big, it’s scary, but we’re going to figure it out.

That’s a relevant picture to show us.

Today we’re faced with a pandemic. Tomorrow, climate change. Some of us don’t have enough food, or a place to live. Many others are panting our way through an endless economic sprint, just trying to keep up. Some among us have fled our homes because things have fallen apart so completely.

These seem like enormous, insurmountable problems.

But none of them are bullet sponges. We can’t bully and shoot our way to victory.

We have to ask questions. Learn things. Build new connections. Try the impossible. These are our tools for the big problems.

Or so Picard insists.

Bonus diss track: Game of Thrones

While we’re at it, Picard has something to say about flaxen-haired dragon queens.

Maybe they can be cognizant of their own power. Maybe they can hold space for the pain of loss without losing themselves in a genocidal rage.