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 a recent 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 the 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 evolve with the times. 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 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?"
50 famous firsts from TV history
50 famous firsts from TV history
1930: First television drama
1936: First live sports broadcast
1940: First televised religious service
1941: First televised commercial
1944: First original musical
1947: First televised children's show
1947: First marriage bed
1947: First evening news show
1950: First show to use a laugh track
1950: First cartoon on TV
1951: First color TV broadcast
1951: First talk show
1951: First show filmed for a live studio audience
1952: First early morning network news show
1953: First pregnancy and birth storyline
1956: First reality TV show
1956: First music video on TV
1956: First death of a major TV character
1957: First toilet on screen
1960: First televised presidential debate
1960: First animated show for primetime
1962: First televised tour of the White House
1965: First series to star a Black actor
1966: First British TV show aired on US primetime
1967: First televised Super Bowl
1968: First interracial kiss
1971: First TV show warning
1971: First show videotaped for a live studio audience
1964: First abortion storyline
1967: First utterance of 'hell'
1971: First on-screen belly button
1972: First recurring gay character
1973: First on-screen male nudity
1973: First on-screen female nudity
1975: First TV theme to reach #1 on Billboard
1975: First condom ad
1975: First gay couple on television
1975: First satellite broadcast
1976: First F-bomb
1979: First rap/hip-hop song on TV
1987: First lingerie ad
1991: First female same-sex kiss
1991: First same-sex marriage
1993: First openly gay teenager
1997: First lesbian protagonist
1999: First scripted S-Word
2001: First male same-sex kiss
2007: First trans woman with recurring role
2017: First nonbinary television character
2018: First majority transgender and queer cast
2020: First multi-camera sitcom to film without an audience during the COVID-19 pandemic
When "I Love Lucy" star Lucille Ball became pregnant in real life, the show wrote it into the storyline. With the word "pregnancy" still too much for television, the show referred to Lucy as "expecting."