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

Mar 15, 2023, 11:03 PM

For nearly four decades, Jean-Luc Picard of “Star Trek” has largely been presented as genteel, erudite and — at times — quite buttoned up. Yes, he loses his temper. Yes, he was reckless as a callow cadet many years ago. Yes, he occasionally gets his hands dirty or falls apart.

But the Enterprise captain-turned-admiral stepped into a different place in last week’s episode of the streaming drama “Star Trek: Picard.” Now, he’s someone who — to the shock of some and the delight of others — has uttered a profanity that never would have come from his mouth in the 1990s: “Ten f—-ing grueling hours,” Patrick Stewart’s character says at one point during an intense conversation in which he expects everyone will die shortly.

The whole thing was in keeping with the more complex, nuanced aesthetic of this decade’s “Star Trek” installments. And the online conversation that ensued illustrates the journey undertaken when a fictional character voyages from the strictures of 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. What we’re seeing now with ‘Picard’ is a little bit more of the grit,” says Shilpa Davé, a media studies scholar at the University of Virginia and a longtime “Trek” fan.

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

“Totally out of character,” said one post, reflecting many others. Some complained that it cheapened the utopia that Gene Roddenberry envisioned, that humans wouldn’t be swearing like that four centuries from now, that someone as polished as Picard wouldn’t need such language.

“Part of Star Trek’s appeal is the articulate way characters speak. Resorting to gutter language feels like a step backward since Star Trek’s characters are meant to be better than this,” John Orquiola wrote for the website Screen Rant on Sunday.

The backlash to the backlash followed. Christopher Monfette, the Paramount+ show’s co-executive producer, wrote an extensive and persuasive thread about the moment and why he believed it worked.

“It’s easy to hear that elevated British tone escaping the mouth of a gentlemanly Shakespearean actor and assume some elevated intellectualism,” he said, while acknowledging: “Criticism of its use is fair even if it just strikes a personal nerve — or if you’ve equated ‘Trek’ with more broader, family-friendly storytelling. But regardless, cursing in the show is carefully debated & discussed in the room or on set. We don’t take it lightly.”

The showrunner for “ Star Trek: Picard ” this season, Terry Matalas, said the F-word from Picard wasn’t scripted but was a choice by Stewart in the moment. The result, Matalas said, was “so real.”

“Everything you do as artists, as writers and actors, even as editors, is authenticity. That’s the thing you want to feel,” he told Collider. “I was really torn because hearing that word come from your childhood hero, Captain Picard, it throws you. But wow, is it powerful.”

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

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Capt. James T. Kirk said on network TV in 1967, when that word was edgy. He’d just lost someone dear to him in the most trying of circumstances. Dr. McCoy, the ship’s irascible physician, would often say, “Dammit, Jim.” And in the larger realm, the original series delicately danced with NBC censors over everything from women’s costumes to racial, sexual and war references.

But the crossing of last week’s linguistic frontier is an interesting case. It highlights the turbulence generated when a beloved character born during the “family-friendly” TV era evolves against the streaming landscape, where constraints are fewer and opportunities for unflinching authenticity greater.

“This isn’t just a rethinking of a fictional world. This is the same actor and the same character in the same setting that we had before. And all these years, he has been speaking and behaving in a certain way,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Sometimes this transition unfolds erratically. Velma, a member of the Gen-X-era Saturday morning cartoon “Scooby Doo,” recently appeared in a more multicultural cartoon reboot on HBO Max that featured a high-school shower scene and overt sexual references. It has been roundly panned. Several years ago, when “Riverdale” premiered, the attempts to push Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica from the sunny world of comics into the darker realm of teen drama produced uneven, sometimes jarring results.

“Star Trek” is in a whole 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 wasn’t motivated by greed and humanity was seen as inexorably moving forward. Purists have criticized the recent years of what they call “new Trek” as a darker, more fragmented universe.

Nonsense, say many others: Both allegory and word usage couldn’t be uttered on national television — except, oddly, in French.

And for years before and after that, Hollywood’s production code prescribed the ways morality and amorality could be depicted in film, with strict regulation of everything from sexual innuendo to whether criminals were portrayed sympathetically to whether the good guys won. Hence the term “Hollywood ending,” which remains with us today in many parts of life.

All of which raises the question: Could it also be the boundaries themselves that help create memorable film and television, rather than merely the breaking of them?

“Star Trek had a certain kind of sincerity — almost like ‘the 23rd century will be a family-friendly kind of thing,’” Thompson says. “The question is, what happens when your characters outlive the media industry standards? How do you accommodate the fact that you’re no longer limited without completely betraying the world that you’ve created?”

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

The kind of evolution, perhaps, that might make a man facing his own end choose a word that still carries a lot of power — even in today’s swearing, streaming world. When Jean-Luc Picard says that word, you can be absolutely 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 him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted

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