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Illustration for article titled Interesting things happen a little too slowly on iStar Trek: Picard/i
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This should’ve all been in the pilot. One of the biggest problems in modern television, as streaming and serialization have encouraged writers to value quantity over quality, is pacing. It’s a difficult balance to strike in any medium, and it’s probably an exaggeration on my part to claim that things are significantly worse now, but the shift of focus from “episodic stories” to “season stories” means we get stuff like “Maps And Legends:” a pretty good collection of scenes which nonetheless end up somehow feeling padded. If Picard had been forced to cram the plot of its first two (three, if I’m guessing right about next week’s entry) into a single pilot, it might have been a bit rushed, and we would’ve certainly lost some nuance in perspective, but it would also have ended with stronger momentum. As is, we’ve got something that still works, but leans a little too hard into the assumption that our affection for the titular character is enough to get us invested in the plot.

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It’s not that the story that’s building here isn’t interesting. A secret Romulan organization dedicated to the destruction of artificial life that is currently targeting flesh and blood androids that were built using Data’s neurons, and also there’s a Borg cube involved? It’s a lot to take in all at once, but one of the strengths of both the first episode and this one is that it doesn’t feel incoherent or flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants in terms of plotting. We’re being introduced to a mystery, and the pieces are coming into place, slowly but surely; and while I begrudged the “slowly” a little more in “Maps And Legends,” I appreciate being able to trust that this is going somewhere. There are scenes in the episode whose necessity is arguable, but none which fail to feel considered as a part of a larger whole. I’ve seen streaming shows were entire characters seemed superfluous. The worst I can say here is, a few more darlings probably needed killing before this one escaped.

Picard remains determined to uncover why Dahj was killed, and to find her sister and protect her if he can. It’s a noble goal, but, putting aside our affection for the character, it’s hard to say if he’s the right person for the task—he’s been retired for over a decade, he’s out of most every loop there is, and he managed to make a lot of enemies when he resigned from Starfleet. “Maps And Legends” spends some time underlining how questionable all of this is. A visit from a friendly doctor after Picard has a medical screening to prove he’s fit for interstellar duty reveals our hero has a failing parietal lobe, a condition which could lead to bad dreams and sudden shifts in temperment, and will ultimately, regardless of treatment, end in his death. And even if Picard can convince his friend to let him pass the screening, his meeting with with Admiral Kristen Clancy goes about as badly as it could.

There’s admirable subtlety here. If part of what made the first episode so appealing was the way it reinforced the comfortable, welcoming memories of Picard as a noble force of decency and compassion, this second episode complicates the situation, suggesting without ever explicitly stating that it’s possible the beloved hero might be in over his head. Picard never falters in his confidence, but that’s not always a good thing, and even if previous Treks have trained us to never trust a guest starring admiral (or any member of Starfleet bureaucracy who wasn’t a series regular), it’s hard to lay all the blame on Picard’s disastrous meeting with Admiral Clancy at Clancy’s feet. The possibility that Starfleet might turn down his request seems to never have occurred to him, and while Clancy’s reaction isn’t exactly supportive, it’s hard to imagine the Picard of twenty or thirty years ago not realizing what he was walking into. When you combine his inability to maintain anything like tact during their conversation with his earlier diagnosis of a troubled brain, it leads to all sorts of troubling suggestions about his competence; and the fact that Picard himself seems utterly unconcerned about the possibility he might not be up to the task makes those troubles even more uncomfortable.

The willingness to simultaneously embrace nostalgia and question it is a good impulse. It’s not so uncomfortable as to be out-right off-putting, and Picard quickly rallies from his failure to consider his options, but the friction is there, and I doubt it’s something that’s ever going to go away completely. Odds are, he’ll hold himself together for as long as the show lasts, but there will always be that lingering doubt, both for the characters in the show and the audience, that his motives might not be as pure as we’d like to believe.

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The episode ends without Picard on a ship, which is part of the frustration I mentioned earlier; two episodes of him stuck on Earth feels like a waste, especially when his time spent at the vineyard, while not agonizing to watch, isn’t so meaningful as to register as a necessity. When I criticize the show’s pacing, I’m not referring individual scenes, all of which tend to move quickly and efficiently, or the overall energy. It’s just… well, it’s cool to find out that Laris used to work for the Romulan secret police and has access to super secret, super effective forensics technology (which is apparently banned by the Federation), but I’m not sure the scene of her and Picard exploring Dahj’s apartment was entirely necessary when all the information they really ended up with was “her sister is not on Earth.”

The same could be said for the reveal that the Romulan commodore knows about the Romulan attack on Dahj; finding out Narek is intentionally seducing Dahj’s sister isn’t exactly a shock, and while the character work between him and his own sister (who is apparently running the covert operation) is fun, it’s not immediately vital. I’m sure it will be relevant in the long run, but the problem with treating story as if it’s just information to be delivered—as though it doesn’t matter how scenes fit together beyond “well this happened after this.” Maybe it worked on, say, Game of Thrones, but that show’s sprawling cast was a big part of its appeal. I’m interested in other characters on Picard, but Picard himself, at least this early on, is main draw, and while I appreciate wanting to build up the supporting cast around him, these first few episodes really needed to make more of an effort to focus on his story.

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Still, the little we learn about the Borg cube is fascinating—a long term, sustained effort to study the ship (which has been booted out of the collective) and “reclaim” the Borg passengers by reconstructing their bodies. Out of everything the show has done so far, this feels new, even if it is dealing with one of the franchise’s most iconic villains, and knowing that Jeri Ryan is going to show up at some point has me all the more interested to see where it’s going. “Maps And Legends” is a step down from last week’s episode, but not so much as to be concerning. Still: fingers crossed that it gets off the ground soon.

Stray observations

  • I keep forgetting to mention, but I like the opening theme a lot, especially the way it ends.
  • The cold open, which shows the day Mars went kablooey, is effectively unsettling. But while it seems obvious that the synthetic life forms were hacked to commit the attack (they don’t seem to have enough personality or sense of self to have made the decision on their own), I’m not sure if I can really fault the Federation for banning artificial lifeforms. I’ll be curious to see where the show goes with this.
  • I’m gonna need a little more explanation as to why the Romulans have a super secret police force trying to wipe out artificial intelligence. Right now, it mostly plays like an intriguing but unlikely retcon.
  • “The Federation does not get to decide if another species lives or dies.” “Yes we do, we absolutely do.” This exchange between Picard and Clancy is really good, as is this whole conversation where Clancy angrily justifies the decision to abandon the Romulan rescue mission—it shows Picard’s idealism, which seemed so foundational to Trek during the TNG years, coming into direct clash with the government’s supposed pragmatism, and offers the sort of complex philosophical discussion (where both sides have a point) that Discovery, for all its charms, lacks.
  • “You need a crew! Riker, Worf, Laforge-” “No.” This feels like an attempt to explain why the show isn’t just “the old Enterprise gang, back on their bullshit,” but while I don’t begrudge them for not getting everyone back out of mothballs, Picard’s argument (that he can’t put his old friends at risk), while plausible, is too generic. The show might have been better off just not mentioning it.
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