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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled The best iStar Trek: Picard/i yet finds someplace like home
Photo: Aaron Epstein (CBS Interactive)
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I’ve been waiting for this one. I’d guess most of Picard’s audience was. When we started getting preview material for the series, there were photos of Picard reconnecting with his former Number One—images of Riker, looking older but cheerful, living the good life. For all that the show has nodded towards events in the original series, it’s been reluctant to bring back familiar faces. We’ve had Hugh, and Seven of Nine showed up for a bit, and I think that’s more or less it? Oh sure, Data was in a couple of dream sequences, and it worked in the pilot, but that doesn’t really count. I admire the choice to avoid diving too fully into nostalgia, to try and make the series into its own thing before bringing out the big guns, but watching Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis back on screen, seeing the real depth and history they bring to a story which is noticeably lacking it, I wonder if that was a mistake.

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Two-thirds of “Nepenthe” is very good. Like, not even with caveats or me building up to a sudden rhetorical swerve; two-thirds of this 58 minute episode is wonderful, and made me happy and invested in a way I haven’t usually been able to find with the show. There are a few missteps on Nepenthe, the planet where Picard takes Soji to temporarily escape the Romulans, but for the most part, it’s a deeply satisfying visit to old friends. The other third of the episode, which deals with events back on the Borg cube and the Sirena, are more hit or miss. The show hasn’t suddenly fixed all of its problems, and given the way the hour ends, it’s doubtful that bringing in a happily married Riker and Troi is going to save us long term. But if this is the best we get from the show existing, it’s almost worth it. Hell, just the smile on Frakes face counts for a lot.

Before we get there, though, we have an extended cold open to get through. First we cut back to three weeks ago, to Agnes’s meeting with Commodore Oh; the last time we saw this scene, we cut away before we saw any meaningful conversation between the two. This time, we stay long enough to watch Oh mind meld with Agnes, giving her a vision of the horror that lies in wait for the universe if synthetic life is allowed to continue unchecked. Agnes immediately agrees to do whatever she can to help, and Oh gives her a tracking device, which is arguably the main reason this scene exists here—so we have a throughline for how Narek is following the ship, and to create some tension over whether or not anyone will figure out the truth (or if Agnes will take steps herself) before it’s too late.

Agnes spends most of her scenes in “Nepenthe” begging to go home. It’s a turn that mostly works, largely because of Pill’s desperation; writing-wise, we still don’t really know the character that well, and her decision to try and kill herself (or at the very least, put herself in a coma to destroy the tracker) is one that’s possible to justify without actually being particularly well constructed. An on-going problem with the series is its intermittent success with character-building, and given that we’re in the back-half, where dramatic turns and reveals depend on our investment, that problem is only going to get worse. The actors are charming, and the main ensemble has all been given a clear archetype to follow, but when Riker asks Picard to describe his “crew,” it drove home for me how little this feels like a crew, or even a coherent ensemble. The writers know that a Trek series lives or dies on its cast, so it goes through the motions of acting like this motley bunch of weirdos is slowly bonding. Yet it has no idea how to show us the actual steps of those connections—you get glimpses, but there’s nothing here to suggest anything beyond a gloss of sci-fi cliche.

This is thrown sharply into contrast by Picard and Soji’s visit to the Riker-Troi household. Soji is still confused and suspicious, and it sort of works, sort of doesn’t; Picard completely misreading her and trying to mock her out of her paranoia lands flat, but her friendship with Kestra, Riker and Troi’s daughter, is sweet and fun and probably could’ve used more time. Really, though, the draw is Frakes and Sirtis themselves. It’s impossible to understand the value of the history they both bring to their roles and to their relationship with Picard. For the first time since the pilot (hell, maybe the first time at all), the show feels like what it always promised to be: a visit with old friends, and maybe some adventure on the side.

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There’s some abrupt exposition: the family had a son who died of a disease which could’ve been cured with a culture grown in a positronic matrix, which is a forced, clumsy way to both tug on the heartstrings and provide a connection with the main plot. But honestly, it’s not really relevant. It’s just such a relief to see two people from the old series who are legitimately happy and doing well—especially in an episode that decides to kill off one of the other few remaining friendly faces. Just seeing Frakes and Patrick Stewart hanging out had more life in it than pretty much anything else the show has done, and there’s a lived in reality to the interactions here that makes the show’s shoddy efforts at characterization all the more painful. Both Deanna and Will lecture Picard about his arrogance, and while I stand by my problems with the show’s characterization of Picard, those lectures sound so much saner and more reasonable coming from people who actually know him.

A smarter series would’ve given this entire hour over to the scenes on the Riker-Troi farm, but this is Picard, and since modern TV demands we can’t let an hour go by without checking in on everyone, we get the aforementioned conflict on the Sirena, and tragedy on the Borg cube. The tragedy is by the far the weakest part. Narissa (whose name I keep forgetting) does her sneering thing, Hugh tries to stand up for his people and watches them all get slaughtered before taking a knife dart in the throat, and Elnor finds a new lost cause to fight for.

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Narissa is just very boring—Narek isn’t much better, but at least “angst and really desperate to prove himself” is a little more compelling then “what if lady but villain.” (It’s like the writers ran up on a deadline while watching the Baroness in a G.I. Joe cartoon.) Hugh’s death is another waste, a character with a complex and rich past relegated to a few highlight moments before being taken out for pathos. This all should have been shocking, but it’s all by the numbers stuff, as the sneering baddies start killing innocents and mocking the survivors before killing them too. If the Romulans really are legitimately concerned about a catastrophe brought on by the synthetics, wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Narissa was a decent person fighting against what she believed to be imaginable evil? Not this stupid hack bad gal shtick.

I’m glad Elnor is still alive, although having him split up with Picard seems like the worst possible way to use the character. Hugh tells him to find another ex-Borg to use the power in the Queen’s chambers, which couldn’t possibly go wrong. (I’m wondering if activating that Power, whatever it is, is what leads to the future the Romulans are so worried about) As with so much of the show, the pieces of an actual meaningful conflict are here, but spread out over multiple episodes in such a way as to render the interesting but ultimately shallow. We haven’t spent enough time on the Borg cube to really get a grasp of what life is like for the reclaimed, and most of the emotional investment we do have is in Hugh, and he’s dead now, which makes the whole thing feel pretty empty.

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I almost wonder if I would’ve enjoyed all of this more without the scenes on Nepenthe. Because however shallow it all is, it moves at a good clip; and while Agnes’s decision to go to extremes to deal with her fear isn’t as smartly motivated as I would’ve liked, it at least means that she’s not going to spend another episode looking guilty while everyone acts like they don’t get it. (Actually, Elnor and Raffi both seemed to get it, but Rios has a private conversation with her only so he can say how much he suspects Raffi.) Mediocre storytelling is easier to roll with when it’s moving fast.

But hanging out with Riker and Troi just reminded me of how much hope I had at the start of the run, and how excited I was about the chance to return to these characters. While I understand the reluctance to just bring all the same old faces back—it smacks of fan service—I actually think it would’ve been a smarter call than just surrounding Picard with a bunch of thinly sketched ideas. As much as Picard was the center of Next Gen, the strength of that ensemble can’t really be overstated, and getting just a taste of what it might have been like to see them working together again hurts as much as it helps. I’m glad we got this much. But I want more.

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Stray observations

  • Kestra was presumably named after Deanna’s older sister, who drowned when she was six years old.
  • For a group that’s supposedly prized for their ruthless efficiency, the Romulans are absolutely fucking terrible at whatever the hell it is they’re trying to do.
  • I got a little teared up when Frakes gave Stewart a big hug, I don’t mind admitting. The rest of the cast is talented, but there’s such a natural, easy-going chemistry between the two, and that’s not something you can force or manufacture. I understand that part of the idea of the series pushing Picard into new, uncomfortable situations. I’m just not sure it’s working that well. 
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