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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled On iStar Trek: Picard/i, old friends make new allies
Photo: Trae Patton (CBS Interactive)
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I’m not sure what to make of the Picard we’re seeing in Picard. It’s been a few years since I’ve watched much Next Gen, but I can’t help thinking there’s a gap between the way Picard is now, and the way he once was, which I’m struggling to reconcile. To an extent, I believe this gap is intentional. Much of what we’ve seen in these first four episodes has been a commentary on the way Picard looms in the popular consciousness (a figure of compassionate, benevolent authority) and the way such an impression can fail to live up to its own standard. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re missing some piece of the puzzle to explain how then became now, something more complicated than simply “time.”

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It might just be a matter of a different perspective from a different creative team than the original series, but watching “Absolute Candor,” I found myself wishing for a flashback that would explain just what made Picard give up so completely in the decade and change since he resigned. Obviously the failure of Starfleet (and the Federation) to live up to his ideals plays a major part in that change, and I don’t really want or need every episode to open with a 14-years-ago flashback. But while I support the complex criticisms of the way Starfleet’s lofty goals are often at odds with its politics (something which has been with the franchise almost from the start), I’m not sure I agree that Picard himself should be so thoroughly deconstructed.

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“Candor” finds him at his best and his worst, diverting the ship’s course to make a quick trip to Vashti, the former Romulan Relocation hub which has since fallen into… well, let’s say “disrepair.” Apparently Picard had no notion of how bad things had gotten—which again, I have a hard time with. I get that the diagnosis he received earlier in the season could have substantial impact on his self-control and behavior, but I’m still not sure that it makes sense for him to have so completely and utterly dissociated himself from the rescue effort (and its fallout) when things went awry. And I don’t remember Picard being stupid before. There’s a level of presumptive idealism running through this version of the character which is simultaneously infuriating and endearing, but it infantalizes him in a way that I’m not sure I completely accept.

But I’ve spent three paragraphs on that already, and this is a pretty good episode, with its main plot focusing on Picard seeing how bad things have gotten on Vashti, seeking help from an old friend, and getting a new badass in his life: Elnor, a Romulan fighter who grew up in an order of warrior nuns. (The episode title comes from the path the nuns follow, the Way of Absolute Candor, which is obviously at odds with pretty much everything Romulan culture is about.) The entry opens with another flashback, showing Picard visiting Vashti when things were going well, and establishing his mentorship with young Elnor (he reads The Three Musketeers to him). Then the Mars attack happens, and Picard leaves the planet, apparently never to return again until present day, when he’s decided he needs the warrior nuns’ help to rescue Soji.

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Like everything around Picard’s quest, this feels slightly under-baked (while simultaneously over-explained), but it’s possible to handwave it away as him wanting to revisit the place after getting a death sentence from his doctor. His stubbornness is in full effect throughout, listening to the concerns of the other people on the ship and more or less ignoring them; tearing down a “Romulans Only” sign and kicking off a swordfight in the process; and when Elnor decapitates a Romulan to save Picard, the admiral is furious, insisting that Elnor swear to obey his orders from then on. Picard’s steadfast commitment to what he believes is right has a certain quixotic quality to it—less horribly misguided than the original Knight of the Woeful Countenance, but the same capacity to both inspire and amuse. I think “Candor,” which was scripted by Michael Chabon, manages to walk the line well enough, showing both the ways Picard’s arrogance can lead into trouble, and the reason why people would still choose to follow him anyway, even if I think the character’s apparent lack of self-awareness is troubling.

Meanwhile, back at the Borg cube… Yeah, these scenes still aren’t working for me. Narek’s efforts to seduce Soji via floor-sliding are cute enough (although maybe not quite as emotionally fulfilling as the score seems to think they are), and I appreciate that he’s making an effort to unsettle her by poking holes into her backstory, but there’s no real tension here. At this point, the only way to make the relationship interesting would be for Narek to be developing actual feelings for his target, and while I wouldn’t be surprised if things went in that direction, I wouldn’t really believe it as anything more than a narrative convenience. Soji is nice but not much more than that, and we know little to nothing about Narek beyond the fact that he’s a spy and his sister is intense.

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Well, “intense” is one word for it. I made a comment last week about getting incestual vibes off of Narek and Narissa’s scene together, but I assumed it was just a weird quirk of chemistry between the actors. This week, the show either doubles down on the inference or just decides to steer into the skid; Narissa wakes Narek up in bed, mocks him for his relationship with their target, and then chokes him until he calls Soji “the Destroyer.” It’s simultaneously off-putting and tedious, operating in cliches without any commentary or attempt to subvert them, and it’s the third time we’ve seen this basic conversation before. We get it. Narissa isn’t happy with Narek’s results. The show’s insistence on making sure we check back in on the Borg cube every week is leading to padded, repetitive writing, and all the creepy-sexy antics of Evil Romulan Sister isn’t going to change that.

Thankfully, Picard’s storyline takes most of the focus, and while it too leans on familiar ideas, it’s well-executed, and builds to an exciting conclusion. And an exciting cliffhanger as well. I’ve been waiting for Seven of Nine to show up for a while, and Jeri Ryan’s name in the opening credits of the episode more or less spoiled the surprise. But that doesn’t mean her arrival in the final scene wasn’t welcome. The Borg are clearly going to be relevant this season—it’s about time the Picard side of the show finally started to catch up.

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Stray observations

  • Speaking of the Borg, I apologize for completely missing the fact that Soji’s de-Borged companion last week was Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco), from the TNG episode “I, Borg.” It’s a smart bit of stunt casting that I really should’ve caught—I don’t think it would’ve changed my thoughts on the episode as a whole, but it was still worth mentioning. Hopefully he’ll pop up again soon.
  • There’s not much to say about Seven of Nine at this point, but that’s a terrific entrance.
  • Really enjoyed the awkward banter between Dr. Jerati and Rios near the beginning of the episode about the dullness of space travel. I also hope we get more of an explanation about just what’s going on with all of Rios’s holographic programs. It’s a fun quirk, regardless.
  • I feel like we need to get to know a bit more about Raffi; right now she’s either raging about Picard or doing exactly what he wants, and while it’s possible to connect the two (in that part of her sarcasm comes from knowing she’ll do exactly what he wants), the character still feels under-defined.
  • The warrior nuns who raised Elnor will only agree to help someone if they believe it’s a lost cause; this is a nice reveal at the end of the episode that suggest Picard may be at least a little cognizant of what’s going on than he lets on.
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