I was hoping for another twist. Something big and absurd and utterly reality breaking. I’d read theories that Alton Soong was really Lore, and that sounded like it could be stupid enough to be fun. Or maybe this would all turn out to be yet another test of Picard from the Q Continuum; John de Lancie is probably too old to work in the role of an immortal ageless super being, but hey, they brought Data back, and given everything else, I could’ve swallowed a different actor as the same Q without much struggle. You could throw in time travel for the hell of it, or have the synth saviors show up and turn out to be, I dunno, space angels or something. I wanted something memorably bad, like the finale of the American Life On Mars. What I got was just bad in the same way most of Star Trek: Picard has turned out to be bad; thoughtless, rushed plotting, meaningless twists, and bold decisions which are absolutely weightless.
They save the only real twist for the end. Last week, I was wondering how the show would continue with a second season, given how much of the emotional drama of the last few episodes has focused on Picard’s fatal brain problems. This week, I slapped my forehead halfway through the hour and realized they’d just dump him into the “golem” Soong was planning to move his own consciousness into. Which is of course what happens, albeit after the episode attempts to wring as much pathos as it possibly can out of a beloved fictional character’s “death.” It would be shameful if it wasn’t also hilarious; Picard gives his all to save the universe yet again, and in the end, dies in the arms of a character we met a few weeks back while a bunch of other characters we barely know stare on in distress. People get drunk about him dying, and then oh hey, turns out we’ve got a spare.
I think what really clinched it for me wasn’t just that the new body looks exactly like his old body, or that they’re careful to explain that he doesn’t have any super cool augmentations; it’s when Picard is horrified at the thought that he might be immortal, and Agnes handwaves the fear away by reassuring him that they’ve set it up so he should live about as long as he would’ve lived without the fatal brain problem. So after all that set-up, all that crying and sad looks and melodrama, in the end, it amounts to exactly nothing. The status quo is more or less restored. There’s no real triumph in this, no satisfaction of life snatched clear from the jaws of death. But then, if Picard had actually died in this episode, I would not have cared. That’s the worst possible thing I could say about this show: that it brought back one of my favorite television characters, threatened to kill him forever, and it somehow found a way to make that mean nothing.
And that’s the episode, really. People run around making decisions and forming alliances without any meaning or sense. The crew of La Sirena has a team up with Narek. Soong sees video evidence of Sutra’s duplicity and shuts her down, without any real complication or difficulty. Everybody forgets Agnes murdered a guy. It’s an old saying that limitations can make great art, but usually “limitations” means money or time or specific restrictions. There’s also the inherent limitation of obeying the internal logic of your own narrative; to make a promise to your audience that the choices you’ve made in telling your story matter, and then to follow through on that promise. The first season of Star Trek: Picard occasionally remembers to do this. But for the most part, it’s content to slide from one whiz-bang moment to the next with only the most tenuous of nods to what happened before, as though it wasn’t so much scripted as written via a particularly elaborate game of Telephone.
Does anything work here? Well, Narissa gets kicked into a pit, which means no more Boring Evil Sexy Romulan Lady, thank goodness. (Narek, sadly, survives.) And she died very much as she lived, managing to hit on and neg Seven of Nine on her way out. More seriously, Picard and Agnes bantering on the Sirena as they attempt one last desperate gamble to save everyone was good; the actors have fine chemistry together, and it was possible to forget just about everything else and enjoy the jokes. The show did manage to have Picard be the hero for once; after spending so much time on people lecturing him or dismissing him or cursing at him, it was nice that he won out in the end, even though it’s more the idea of a satisfying victory than a victory itself.
Hm. I liked the idea that Seven and Raffi might hook up next season? That sounds prurient, but really, it could be a fun relationship. But everything else was… well, the badness had a certain efficiency I can appreciate. Just about every story beat is introduced and wrapped up in a handful of scenes, to the point where an entire Romulan armada just decides to up and leave after a single synthetic life form demonstrates it’s capable of backing down once. (I’m sure the Starfleet ships helped the decision along, but still.) After all that build up and death, all Soji had to do to change minds was to almost, but not quite, bring about the end of organic life. The fact that the real destroyers were just a bunch of robot tentacle arms was icing on the stupid, thoughtless cake.
I haven’t even gotten into the baffling idea of introducing, at the very last minute, the idea that Data is still alive. Well, sort of still alive; his consciousness was trapped in the design matrix Maddox and Soong created when they used his neurons to make new synthetic life. Or something along those lines. It’s supposed to be poetic and beautiful, as cyber-Data reiterates the same old canards about mortality giving life meaning, but it is, if anything, even more empty and manipulative than Picard’s death. Data asks Picard to “kill” him again, for real this time, because, I dunno, it’s sad and bittersweet, and Picard recites some Shakespeare while he does it because Patrick Stewart reciting Shakespeare is an easy sell, and that’s that.
I’m disappointed and frustrated by all this, by the show’s ability to take considerable goodwill and a decade or more of material and consistently and repeatedly squander all of it. There was potential here, and what struck me the most in the final scene, as the new crew of La Sirena prepares to fly off into the galaxy, is that that potential isn’t entirely lost. Stewart still seems game, and with better writing, the ensemble could develop. But in order to do that, the show would need to find a reason to exist. The ship goes into warp, everybody with big smiles, but there’s no mission here, no need for them to continue to exist as a crew. It’s as though we watched a ten episode pilot, and ended up with less reason to continue then we had when we started.
I saw screenshots from an interview with former showrunner Michael Chabon where he talked about how they’d originally considered a version of this show with far lower stakes; a show that was just about Picard hanging out at his vineyard, maybe solving small crimes and having a pleasant time of things. And god, all I can think after watching this mess is how I wish that had been the version we’d ended up with.
- Still legitimately amazed that Alton Soong is the real deal.
- Had a fair number of unintentional laughs, but I think my favorite is when the Sirena crew pulls off it’s big move against the beacon, and Rios throws the Romulan grenades… directly to Soji, who catches them and tosses them aside. Good work, folks.
- A small example of the larger problem: after spending so long establishing the Romulans as the threat, the fact that the climax of the episode hinges on whether or not Soji will summon the Evil Deus Ex Machina rings particularly hollow. Everyone immediately takes Sutr’s word that this is the real threat, and no one questions the idea of “summoning a mysterious force to murder everything.” I get that things were moving quickly, but the utter lack of skepticism on anyone’s part just makes it seem that much sillier.
- Oh yeah, they brought Riker back. A whole massive fleet of ships, and the only person we really see is Riker, who we already saw two weeks ago. If there had been a time for the show to bust out the cameos, this was it. But like everything else, it just feels so small in the end. I love Riker, and Frakes is great as ever, but we already had a perfectly reasonable moment of closure in “Nepenthe.” This is forced and absurd at the same time. (Although I did like the idea of Picard letting his old friend leave without telling him that he was dying.)
- “Ready planet sterilization pattern number five.” How many ways do Romulans have prepped for sterilizing whole planets? Someone should look into that.
- This season had Seven of Nine willingly re-joining herself to the Borg, and then tossed it aside after five minutes and never mentioned it again.
- Hey, remember when Agnes was going to hand herself over to the Federation for murdering a man? Apparently no one else did. (To be more charitable, she could just be along for the ride until they drop her off at the nearest starbase, but it doesn’t read like that at all.)
- Maybe they’ll figure it out in season 2.