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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Things pick up as iStar Trek: Picard /ivisits a familiar nightmare
Photo: Matt Kennedy (CBS)
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Picard is on a good little run right now. “The Impossible Box” continues last week’s focus, moving the plot forward by feet instead of inches, and if that means the return of everyone’s favorite Romulan siblings, well, at least they don’t simply repeat the same conversation again. (Well, okay, they sort of do, but there’s a cool prop this time.) The episode ends with Picard finally catching up with Soji, and, with Hugh’s help, rescuing her from the Romulans through a secret Borg Queen escape teleporter. Agnes struggles with the fallout from killing her ex, Raffi is on a bender but still manages to do some good, and Elnor is endearing and possibly also dies at the end? It’s a good time.

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But it didn’t entirely work for me. If all you want is a decent sci-fi series that tugs on nostalgia while vaguely nodding towards some Big Ideas, you could do worse, and I’ll admit to feeling ambivalent about my ambivalence; as with Star Trek: Discovery, there’s always the chance that me not being completely on board for all for this is less about the quality of the series itself and more about my inability to let go of the past. A friend on Twitter recently pointed out that saying something “isn’t Star Trek” isn’t really an effective criticism. Franchises change over time, and that’s honestly a good thing—or at least, better than a franchise incapable of change. (You could ask if “franchises” are good for art in general, but that’s too big a question to deal with right now, I think.)

So, if you’re enjoying this, please take my frustrations as not an attack on your enjoyment, or as an attempt to convince you out of liking something, and more as me struggling to explain a gut reaction I barely understand myself. I thought the pilot was good. I’ve been trying to engage with the show as it introduces new characters, and I’ve appreciated its efforts to present a more morally complex few of the Federation, stripping anyway the utopian vision of the earlier series for a more complicated view of a feature where people (of all species) are just as messed up and struggling as they ever were.

Those things are still worth praising, and the performances remain strong. Michelle Hurd does some great work this week, and Allison Pill is fantastic; I’m glad we got to spend a little more time with Jonathan Del Arco as Hugh, one of the few bright spots in this future (or at least, one of the few characters who seems to be doing actively better than when we saw him last). Hell, I still don’t think the Soji/Narek relationship works as well as the writers do, but I’ll be damned if Isa Briones and Harry Treadway don’t do their best to sell it.

It’s just—well, take Picard himself. Patrick Stewart is as charming as ever, but the longer this goes on, the less the character he plays seems to be written as an extension of what we saw in Next Gen, and the more he looks like a representation of someone’s idea of what “Picard” represents. This Picard bullheaded, arrogant, and naive, charging forward into crises and assuming other people will see the nobility of his cause and protect him. He’s not a monster or a fool, and we have reason to believe he’s not entirely well—but he’s also frustratingly lacking in self-awareness or introspection, as though he spent the vast majority of his career unwilling (or unable) to think of the potential consequences of his actions.

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Is this the Next Gen Picard? I don’t think so. It’s hard to make a case one way or the other with absolute authority, given that this is art, and art is subjective, and I’m not trying to accuse the writers of skimping on research or not being fans of the series they’re riffing on. But it feels off to me. The original Picard (excluding the movies which are, to be kind, a bit of a mess character-wise) believed in things and had his failings, but one of things that defined him was his thoughtfulness; he took action when necessary, but he was rarely rash or foolish, and his compassion worked in conjunction with his judgment. There was a reason Q found him fascinating, and it wasn’t because he was brash. The argument that Kirk was an action hero and Picard was a thinker was always too over-simplified to really stick, but it came from somewhere. When I had the good fortune of watching and reviewing the whole series, what struck me most is how well it functioned as a rich, complex character study of a man working to understand his place in the universe, and how he could best serve himself and others in his work.

Yet here we have a Picard who has spent a decade and a half as a recluse because something didn’t work out that one time. A Picard who has no idea what’s going on in the places that used to be important to him but blunders forward anyway, because he’s convinced he’s right. I don’t think the original character was above reproach, but it would require a defter touch than “he’s arrogant and out of touch but still a hero!” It’s an archetype that’s been grafted onto a familiar face, and the longer I watch the show, the more I feel like it’s nearly all archetypes, not-terrible pulp ideas without much interest in real subversion or depth.

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Like: Soji and Narek. Why does Narek have feelings for her? I believe we’ve seen enough of their time together to get the jist of their relationship, and it’s fine as far as those things go, but nothing about Soji stands out in particular; she has no apparent insight into his character, and we know so little about him apart from his creepy relationship with his sister that there’s nothing to get a purchase on, nothing to make this connection have weight beyond providing an excuse for meaningless ambiguity. Narek falls for Soji because undercover agents in stories tend to fall for their targets, so they can get all weepy when it comes time to betray them. It’s no more than that. This isn’t a trope so bad it ruins the show, but the fact that we spent as much time with them as we did, and it adds up to exactly what it appears to be, is disappointing.

Then there’s Picard’s visit to the Artifact. This was something you knew was coming since the first episode ended on a reveal of the Borg cube. Picard’s history as Locutus is one of the most easily exploitable fracture points in his character, so of course he was going to end up on the cube eventually. And of course when he got there, he’d be upset. Which he is. (For some bizarre reason, the Romulan government insists that Picard beam to a specific spot on the cube where he gets to stand by himself for a few minutes and have some really uncomfortable flashbacks.) And it’s fine, but it’s also exactly what you’d imagine it would be. There’s no depth here, no greater understanding of why Picard is making the choices he’s making. The biggest relief is the warmth with which he greets Hugh, and the small scraps of information we get about Hugh’s work to reintegrate the ex-Bs back into society. Everything else feels like anyone could’ve written it.

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What I’m looking for is a reason to engage with this story beyond familiarity, beyond it existing simply because revisiting a popular character is a good way to pull in an audience. I want a valid reason for this to exist that isn’t purely financial. Even the criticism of the Federation feels rote; none of it is harsher than what we saw in Deep Space 9, and even Next Gen had its share of bad politics getting in the way of good behavior. There are flashes of inspiration, moments where you can see things almost coming into their own, but they’ve yet to coalesce into anything but moments. It’s competent, mostly, but the decision to spend an entire season on this single storyline makes everything feel like a long pilot, as though we’re just waiting for things to really get started. And that structure means that interesting ideas, like the Borg ship or Elnor’s home or Dr. Jurati’s work or Raffi’s past or what in the hell Rios’s whole deal is, never really get a chance to come into their own.

I’m invested enough to want to see what the “truth” Bruce Maddox was searching for is all about, and now that Picard and Soji are teamed up, we’ll probably get some fun “Soji struggling with her identity” scenes. Her escape from Narek’s death trap was thrilling, as was her horror at discovering that she, and everything she owns, is only 37 months old. But I want this series to find a perspective, and soon. Right now, it’s just skimming over a tasteful surface, artfully crafted but not quite able to cover for the emptiness below.

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Stray observations

  • I would’ve liked seeing Agnes struggling a little more to cover for the murder. Pill does a great job of playing up the emotional fallout, but spending some time seeing the practical steps required to hide such a big crime in a fancy future ship would’ve been cool (and, as opposed to the weird Romulan CSI interlude from a few episodes back, been actually character relevant).
  • If Elnor actually dies, it’s going to be a horrible waste of a fun character. “Was I in-butting?”
  • They play goofy comedy music as a drunken Raffi strongarms a Starfleet contact into getting Picard diplomatic credentials, and then everyone applauds when she succeeds. Hurd is excellent in the scene, but everything else is pushing way too hard to make it a bonding moment.
  • Narek using Soji’s dreams to crack the secret of where she came from is clever, but it would’ve been more interesting if he hadn’t minded killing her at all.
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