In the 21st century, it made perfect sense for showrunners to resurrect the greatest sci-fi TV franchise of all — Star Trek. In addition to movies and animated serials, live-action Star Trek has come back in all its former glory, now tinged with a markedly dramatic and pessimistic feel inspired by the times we live in.
Star Trek: Discovery first streamed in 2017 and just completed its fourth season. Star Trek: Picard followed in 2020 with a nostalgic take on the titular captain from The Next Generation, now an aged admiral who wants to unite species and save the galaxy.
Fans have latched onto both, as each series is quite popular. But which show is supreme? The answer may be gleaned from a look at each show’s core themes. Several of these ideas are shared between the two, and one show sometimes does better than the other. Keep reading to reflect on the differences, similarities, and strengths of the hottest shows on Paramount+. Then, at the end, answer the poll to let us know which Star Trek show is your favorite.
Family is a theme Star Trek visits often. The franchise expands the definition to a big degree, as ship crews spending years in space together leads to incredibly close bonds.
Coming off of The Next Generation, you would expect Picard to be quite family-oriented. And while the show does feature interesting moments involving Data and his android offspring, it’s actually Discovery that explores family the most. Michael Burnham is given a heartbreaking backstory where she loses her parents and gains a new Vulcan family. She is later united with a Starfleet captain named Philippa Georgiou who becomes yet another mother figure in her life.
After an awkward start as the resident mutineer, she then starts to see the Discovery crew as her closest family members. Every Trek show has seen crew members enjoying camaraderie and overcoming common struggles, but Discovery takes it a bit further. Whether it’s Tilly’s unabashedly silly love for her crew or Detmer and Owosekun’s inseparable friendship, the crew are always seen laughing together, crying together, and celebrating victories like cheerleaders. After all, they left their original families behind by traveling a millennium into the future, so they’re in for everything together. They’re also probably the most emotional Starfleet crew we’ve ever seen, and that can only come from a true sense of family.
Both Discovery and Picard deal heavily with the question of artificial intelligence. Discovery veers into dystopian territory with Control, a computer program used for everything under the sun before it becomes malevolent and tries to destroy all life.
Likewise, Picard dips its toes into similar territory with a destructive machine force summoned by synthetics. However, its take on AI is arguably far more interesting than Discovery. The series explores the hopes and dreams of androids who are made in humanity’s image. They want the galaxy to view them as valid beings rather than soulless monsters. This is explored in particular through Dahj and Soji, androids made directly from Data’s technology. They are essentially his daughters, which gives the show a lot more emotional weight than evil robots would.
Mortality / Old Age
As dramas, each Star Trek series has high stakes, both personal and universal. Characters and even entire galaxies are often threatened by war or disaster, so mortality is usually a major theme.
Discovery does this in a more earth-shattering way. Right off the bat, we get the Klingon-Federation war which destroys hundreds of lives and severely damages both sides. The deaths of Michael Burnham’s parents and later her captain set the tone for the series early on: This is a violent Star Trek, and lots of people will die throughout. It gets even more extreme with season 2’s Control and season 4’s Dark Matter Anomaly, which both threaten human existence.
Season 1 of Picard has its own earth-shattering threat in the form of a super AI, but its most interesting exploration of mortality is more personal. We are often reminded of the limits of Jean-Luc Picard’s old age and the fact that he doesn’t have many years left. He actually dies in the finale, but his consciousness is resurrected in the body of an android.
The most moving element of this story is when Picard’s mind — his “soul” — spends some time in a simulation housing the consciousness of his long mourned friend, Data. It’s a poetic sequence stressing the finality of death and the value of living in the moment.
Alternate universes have been big in Star Trek since “Mirror, Mirror” from TOS. It’s a fun way to explore characters, turning beloved heroes into vicious and evil villains — just look to Mirror Spock as an example.
Discovery does this through the Mirror Universe. Here, Michael Burnham and her friends are savage murderers serving the Terran Empire, which is led by Emperor Georgiou. After the original Burnham fights to survive in this universe, she pulls Georgiou into her own reality.
The dynamic between her and the Discovery crew, especially Burnham, gives the episodes complexity and emotion. Along with the brutal action, this makes these episodes possibly the best Mirror stories we’ve seen in the franchise.
While Picard hasn’t yet featured the Mirror Universe, it does feature an alternate reality created by Q where the Earth is a xenophobic nightmare that views all other planets as inferior. Picard is a ruthless general, and Seven of Nine is the president. But the characters are shocked by this — they arrive in this world with the minds and memories of their proper reality intact.
To fix this, they travel back to the year 2024 to fix whatever Q did to the timeline. Our heroes are exposed to a very accurate depiction of our world complete with racism, immigration issues, and homelessness.
The whole point of Star Trek is that it takes place in the future. This gives the franchise a sense of real hope for the way humanity may develop morally and technologically.
As the franchise’s first two TV programs since 2005, Discovery and Picard take this idea further than showrunners could achieve in the ’60s or even the early aughts. Massive leaps have been made in the way humanity uses tools like computers and weapons.
While Picard also features sleek ships and holographic tactical displays, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Discovery, especially since season 3. The Disco crew travel a thousand years into the future, so the tech is even more magical than it was in the first two seasons. In addition to the Spore Drive, they now have programmable matter, portable transporters, and all manner of fancy toys.
This new era frees the series of continuity restraints and gives it all kinds of new stories to play with. Unfortunately, there’s not too much in the way of hope, at least not at first. The Federation has fractured, warp technology has collapsed, and there seems to be more bad in the galaxy than good. Eventually, these failings are somewhat repaired, but it’s still a bit of a dismal show.
One element, however, takes the franchise into new territory where social justice is concerned. A better representation of humanity is achieved with gay and nonbinary characters. Star Trek has toyed with this in the past, but it’s on full display in Discovery. All benevolent identities and personalities are treated with equal respect.
So which show is the best? It really depends on your personality. Discovery is more action-oriented and features a host of new species and planets. Picard, on the other hand, lines up more with its parent show, The Next Generation. It’s far more cerebral, and it gives us more fan service and nostalgia with characters like Q, Guinan, and the Borg Queen.
Which Star Trek series did you pick? Let us know in the comments then check out our unboxing video of the EXO-6 Mirror Spock Figure — and, as always, don’t forget to Let Your Geek Sideshow!