This article was originally published on 2/22/22.
Devoted viewers of Star Trek: Picard will already be familiar with the phrase “Maps and Legends,” given that it is the title of the second episode of the first season of the series. However, that episode, written by Akiva Goldsman and Michael Chabon, takes its title from a 2008 collection of Chabon’s nonfiction essays.
Far from being a simple re-appropriation of a favored title, the connection between the collection of essays and the storytelling philosophies on display in Picard might be so significant that the book could be considered something of a Rosetta Stone for the series (albeit one that is predominantly covered in etchings of Yiddish words).
The collection, which is subtitled “Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands,” includes sixteen essays by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, many of which were previously published elsewhere. While some tend towards personal memoirs, others focus on Chabon’s approach to genre, narrative, and the crafts of writing and storytelling. It seems inescapable that several essays from this latter categorization directly apply to the first season of Picard, on which Chabon served as showrunner and wrote (or co-wrote) the majority of the episodes.
“Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes”
Perhaps the most insightful detail to be gleaned about Picard from the essays in Maps and Legends is Chabon’s philosophy that the most enduring genre fiction leaves blank spaces on the figurative map, allowing (or perhaps even compelling) the audience to use their imagination to fill in the gap. “All enduring popular literature has this open-ended quality,” wrote Chabon in the essay, “and extends this invitation to the reader to continue…with the adventure.”
To explain this concept, Chabon heavily relies on the Sherlock Holmes canon by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Chabon writes that the fifty-six short stories and four novels that comprise the canon are filled with narrative gaps. These gaps are both intentional and unintentional: as mentioned elsewhere in the essay, Conan Doyle was writing the Holmes stories out of monetary necessity, and he generally considered them “beneath” his abilities, leading to an aversion towards returning to earlier stories for fact-checking purposes.
Whether they were the result of the intention of neglect, these narrative gaps allowed for the rise of “the game,” played by “the mock-scholarly tide of the Sherlockians,” generations of readers who have taken the gaps and inconsistencies in the Holmes canon as an implicit challenge and set about attempting to explain them away.
This has further led to the opportunity for Holmes fan fiction, like the 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer (director of The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country), the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes “Elementary, Dear Data” and “Ship in a Bottle,” and Chabon’s novel of an aging Sherlock called out of retirement for one final mystery, 2004’s The Final Solution: A Story of Detection.
In the first season of Picard, an intentional attempt to create these narrative gaps can be seen. Take the character of Doctor Mortiz Benayoun (David Paymer), who makes his debut in the second episode of Picard, “Maps and Legends.” While this episode represents the character’s first introduction to the audience, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) greets Dr. Benayoun with the same warmth with which he will greet William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) later in the season.
While the audience has watched Picard’s relationship with Riker develop over seven seasons and several movies, this narrative technique implies that Picard has spent a similar amount of time with Benayoun – the audience simply didn’t see it first-hand, as we did with Riker.
This sensation is bolstered by the fact that familiar names are used to create the borders for this blank space on the map, such as revealing that Benayoun served with Picard aboard the USS Stargazer, a ship first mentioned in the TNG first season episode “The Battle.” Coupled with a suggestive comment about a secret mission involving the Stargazer and a “fireforest on Calyx,” the audience is compelled to imagine the many adventures a young Captain Picard had alongside the Stargazer’s doctor.
This technique of intentionally showing a “blank space” on the narrative map is employed repeatedly throughout Picard’s first season, compelling the audience to imagine the many adventures undertaken by the various characters who populate the series, either in the decades since we’ve seen them last or in the years before they were first introduced to us in Picard.
The essay “Imaginary Homelands” considers Say It in Yiddish, a guidebook to conversational Yiddish that Chabon picked up in an Orange County, California bookstore during his time in the University of Irvine’s graduate writing program. In 1997, Chabon published an earlier (and more cavalier) version of the essay, “Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts,” in which he humorously approached the idea of a guidebook to Yiddish phrases like “where is the subway,” because there is no place on Earth where such a phrasebook would be practical.
While this earlier version of the essay angered people on a Yiddish listserv, in the Maps and Legends incarnation, Chabon addresses the tragic underlying truth: if not for the Holocaust, “the millions of Jews who were never killed would have produced grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and great-great-great-grandchildren,” whom all would have spoken Yiddish as a first language (instead of it being passed down through immigrant families fleeing Europe, subsequently forced to adopt the languages of their new homelands in order to assimilate).
There would be a function for Say It in Yiddish in this imagined parallel timeline where the Holocaust did not transpire. In this world, Chabon posits he could visit extended family in Europe and rely on the guidebook to help show that, although he may live in the United States and speak English as a first language, he is still part of his Yiddish-speaking family who still lived across the pond.
These themes are heavily echoed through Thaddeus Troi-Riker’s character, introduced in the Picard episode “Nepenthe.” The late Thad was born to Riker and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) on a starship (possibly the USS Titan – see what I mean about these gaps compelling you to fill in the blanks). As Deanna explains, when he became old enough to understand that other people had “homeworlds,” he became intrigued with the concept. To this end, he began to create his own, replete with maps and languages.
To keep the memory of her late brother alive, Thad’s surviving sister, Kestra Troi-Riker (Lulu Wilson), keeps the stories and worlds he created alive, breathing life into them by regularly speaking the dozens of languages he had personally concocted.
“The Recipe for Life”
Chabon utilizes one of his favorite concepts, the golem, throughout his body of work. Neither Picard nor Maps and Legends is an exception (although the most famous instance in his oeuvre will probably always be the 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay). In the Maps and Legends essay “The Recipe for Life,” Chabon compares writing a novel to a Rabbi breathing life into a golem.
While the topic of golems in Picard is far too complicated to fully address in this piece, there is one aspect of Picard’s techno-golem I do want to address: the meaning behind the word “golem,” and how it directly applies to this genre narrative.
According to The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten, the word has its roots in Hebrew, “a yet-unformed thing,” which perfectly fits the state of the golem when we are first introduced to it in the episode “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1.” The first definition given for the word “golem” by The Joys of Yiddish, “A robot; a lifeless figure,” also helps underscore why this perennial Chabon symbol is especially appropriate for the story of Picard’s first season.
“Maps and Legends”
One final Maps and Legends essay that is especially applicable to the first season of Picard is the one that shares its title with both the collection and the second episode of the series. In “Maps and Legends,” Chabon recalls the map of his childhood housing development, Columbia, which envisioned a sort of suburban utopia community, free of racial strife and featuring street names inspired by great works of literature.
“The names became a particular point of interest for the proto-novelist, with a particular fascination with the fact that the signifiers in many instances did not yet have a signified. He wrote that the street names were “like magic spells, each one calibrated to call into being one particular stretch of blacktop, sidewalk, and lawn, and no other.”
This fascination with names heavily plays into the Picard episode “The Impossible Box.” While Picard approaches the Borg Cube with trepidation, Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco) uses the power of names to help remind him that it isn’t the Borg Cube anymore: it’s been renamed “The Artifact,” and it’s populated by “xBs,” not Borg. By renaming their home and themselves, these individuals have regained control over their situation, and the potency of names is driven home by the fact that our hero’s name is “Picard” and not “Locutus.”
But the names themselves aren’t the only theme from “Maps and Legends” relevant to Picard. In “Maps and Legends,” Chabon recounts that some of the plans depicted by the Columbia map came into fruition, literally being constructed around him. At the same time, some were eventually revealed to be nothing but over-ambitious optimism for an idealized world that would never actually come to fruition.
These concepts are heavily echoed in Picard’s current relationship with the Federation. In TNG, we saw the idealized map, a world in which the Federation was a shining idealistic beacon to which all could aspire. However, by the time the events of the first season of Picard have begun, Picard has become disillusioned with the Federation, which he perceives to have failed to fulfill the promise of its idealized charter.
This is comparable to a young Chabon’s disillusionment as he realized that there were challenges and conflicts in the world that were not called for by the map of Columbia. He explains that this made him angry for a time, as he felt that he “had been lied to, that the map [he] had been handed was a forgery.”
However, Chabon concludes the essay in a hopeful tone, stating, “just because you have stopped believing in something you once were promised does not mean that the promise itself was a lie.” In this, there is a sense of optimism that can is reflected in the first season of Picard: while Picard may be disillusioned at the fact that the Federation was not all that he had hoped it could be, there is still the possibility to build the reality of a Federation that fulfills its promise.
Fables of the Reconstruction
While Maps and Legends does help explain some of the narrative philosophies at play in Picard, it also raises one question that demands an answer: how has a sequel series to TNG with a Sherlockian like Chabon on the creative command crew make it this far without so much as an allusion to the Holmes holodeck episodes? Maybe that’s something to look forward to in the show’s third and final season.
The game is afoot with Picard and Q in Picard season 2, the first episode of which drops Thursday, March 3rd, 2022. Plus, all ten season 1 episodes (not to mention the entirety of TNG) are currently available for streaming on Paramount Plus.