Episode Five – “Stardust City Rag”
A lot of the successes of Picard so far have tended to feel a little abstract – a bit more in-theory good and a bit less in-practice good. Stewart is obviously great and we have a series of intriguing mysteries, but one of the frustrations of the show is being able to see a lot of the potential whilst also seeing that the show really isn’t capitalising on it. Complaints that the story has been slow up to this point are certainly valid, yet “slowness” is not in and of itself a problem – take a show like Better Call Saul which moves at a pace which makes continental drift seem snappy and impatient yet also manages to feel achingly tense and riveting. Picard as a show hasn’t managed to get this balance right yet, mistaking slowness for thoughtfulness and number of so-so plot and character beats that just aren’t finding any traction beyond “I intellectually understand why this these choices are being made but this has yet to become compelling television”. It would be too harsh to call Picard boring at this point, but it’s also something that’s been hovering on the horizon ever since the credits rolled on episode one.
Hark, then, at “Stardust City Rag” a preposterously enjoyable episode of television that actually manages to weld the basic structure of the series into a series of compelling scenes that are consistently entertaining for the whole 45-minute run-time. At last we get something which is top-to-bottom enjoyable – not just in a tick-chart, point-scoring sort of way but in a manner that actually suggests that, five episodes in, the writers have finally managed to figure out this whole “how to structure an episode” business and still make it Actually Entertaining. This isn’t a perfect episode of television, and we’ll get to some of the problems shortly, but it’s fast-paced, fun, entertaining, has some proper character beats, and actually bothers to do something worthwhile. That’s a lot for the episode to land, and let’s start with the most obvious talking point – the return of Noted Prole Favourite, Seven Of Nine.
At the end of the last write-up, I expressed concern about how they might handle Seven – “Don’t fuck it up, Picard!”, to be exact – and it is a matter of considerable relief to discover that, in fact, they did not fuck it up. In fact, having Jeri Ryan on the show is simply glorious – she immediately re-inhabits Seven, not quite the Seven we left at “Endgame” but more than familiar enough to be the same character. Jeri Ryan has immediate rapport with Patrick Stewart, and it’s amazing just how much it lifts the show. Every scene they have together sparkles, Ryan’s acerbic, dry Seven rubbing up against Stewart’s more patrician Picard.
Their best scene is, of course, the one where Picard admits that while he got his humanity back, post-Borg, he didn’t get all of it back. It’s a lovely scene, played to perfection by both Ryan and Stewart, and it just shows what a difference having an actor that can actually hold their own against Stewart makes, because Ryan’s presence immediately makes it clear how short most of the rest of the cast are falling (I’ll make an exception for our Manic Pixie Dream Romulan, Elfo, because he’s not given a lot of material here). But even scenes of them hanging out in the holo-recreation of Picard’s chateau have a warmth and closeness that just feels so much more alive than when the show has attempted the same kind of scene with, say, Raffi. The moral grey area Seven inhabits also feels consistent with her character – her revenge-movie for Icheb’s (deeply unsettling live vivisection) death works, her actual execution of Bjayzl, his murderer, (even against Picard’s pleas) is in line with Seven’s personal take on morality (see, for a clear example of something similar, the fourth-season Voyager episode “Prey”) and everything she does is just so much more vivid that our standard-issue hanging-about-the-place crew. It’s not because we’re already familiar with her, it’s just that she’s simply better.
We’re also spared pointless scenes on the Cube this week, which is something of a relief. The show doesn’t for a moment miss the pointless will-they-wont-they brother-and-sister act that’s been dragging the show down over the last couple of weeks, and indeed it’s telling that it was only after the episode had finished I thought, “hey wait, they weren’t actually in this!” Last week I had some hopes that Picard and the Scooby Gang might finally make their way to the Cube, but seeing this little side adventure just re-enforces the idea that the Cube material isn’t (yet) working. Instead, what we get is Picard in an eyepatch and beret with an ouuuuutttrrrraagggeeeeooousssss Freeeeeench accent, Rios in a pimp’s outfit that would make Huggy Bear proud, and a light heist plot that manages to actually be fun rather than “fun”.
Picard, and indeed Stewart, is clearly relishing the chance to get in on the action a bit more, so when we get phaser battles, tense negotiations or just hanging out at the bar, the fun element helps keep things engaging while Picard himself clearly – and at last – also gets to join in and unclench a bit as well. Seven offering herself as a bargaining chip to get close to her prey is a nice additional touch as they negotiate for Maddox, and while bits of it aren’t always completely sensible, “sensible” isn’t what’s being aimed for. This episode gives us some much needed levity, and if the price of that levity is an occasional wonky bit of plotting then it’s a price worth paying. Picard was in danger of tipping over into grimdark and while scenes of former Borg being torn asunder for parts keeps the horror aspects of what’s happening alive, they’re brief so they act successfully to anchor the show in what’s come before (and to provide Seven’s revenge motive) without simply drowning out the lightness of the episode. It’s not an easy balance to walk but for the most part, “Stardust City Rag” nails it.
Less successful is the whole Maddox story. We’ve been chasing him for a few episodes now, so there’s some anticipation built up when we actually get to come face-to-face with him, especially after all the hoops the crew have to jump through in order to acquire him this time out. So what happens? He gets stuck on an operating table, mutters a few gnomic warnings about the “truth”, tells them where Soji is, and is then promptly killed off by the World’s Least Convincing Traitor. Come on, Jonathan Frakes (this episode’s director), you can do better than this. Having your soon-to-be-exposed bad guy lurk in the background of a few scenes is one thing, but having her lurk in full-blown close-up while Picard and Maddox have the conversation we’ve been waiting half a season for? Erm no.
And it’s a shame because generally speaking this is a well-directed episode (full marks, obviously, for Seven’s exit as she strides out all guns blazing) but that moment was supremely clumsy. I mean, ever since Agnes had her meeting with Commodore Oh (oh, really?) we knew something was up and so here it is, as she straight-up murders Maddox for… reasons. Reasons, we can assume, that will be revealed going forward, but even when they are the whole Maddox storyline feels like a bit of a bust. He’s on screen exactly long enough to give Picard a clue, then dies. Yeah, that’s not great writing. And speaking of not great writing, we have Raffi trying to reconnect with her son. Eesh. Those scenes are Not Good. Michelle Hurd does her best but honestly the material is just completely soap-opera hackneyed, and the actor playing her son is downright terrible, looking like he’s always on the brink of smirking rather than looking upset or pissed off. Turns out she’s been a bad mum in the past, he’s about to become a father but can’t forgive Raffi for what she’s done in the past and then, just to cap it all off, in walks the heavily pregnant mother (was she a Romulan or Vulcan? The show doesn’t bother to inform us) for the final brush off. The only thing it’s missing is the final electric drums from the EastEnders theme tune.
Still, ultimately this isn’t an episode – despite the Maddox material – that’s really invested in the idea of the ongoing story, it’s basically here to have Picard and Seven meet and faff about in a space casino. And that’s just fine, because that’s the part of the episode that gets absolutely nailed. It’s honestly hard for me to set aside my obvious love for Ryan and Seven to be objective, but everything about Seven’s kick-ass adventures just seem so much more compelling that the rest of the show. I’d be more than happy with a spin-off that was just her and Picard out righting wrongs in the galaxy.
Ah yes, that needs a mention – Seven is now a “ranger”, doing just that. There’s a clear parallel here with the Maquis – logical, given how much time Seven spent on Voyager interacting with former members of the Maquis – except that the Rangers are apparently defending whole regions rather than just a single planet. That chimes with both Seven’s ideas of right and wrong and, again, the idea that she’s more than happy to take the law into her own hands if she thinks it’s the right thing to do. Hopefully, should we meet the Rangers in future, they’ll prove to be a bit more interesting that the Maquis were – the Maquis being as big an in-theory success as Star Trek has ever managed – but just more of Seven swanning about the place, kicking ass and generally being awesome would be more than enough. If it happens to come with an eyepatch and a French acccent Allo Allo would have been ashamed of, well, so much the better. And it’s for that reason that this episode deserves to be remembered. Sure not everything comes together, but when it does it’s simply great.
More like this please, show!
Any Other Business:
• Yeah the show did not miss the regular check-ins to the Borg Cube. The more linear storytelling on display here actually allowed some tension to build up, the thing Picard is noticeably bad at – attaching stakes to events.
• Icheb was exactly nobody’s favourite Star Trek character but what happens to him here is seriously brutal. It’s a lovely, understated, piece of continuity that the cortical node they’re trying to extract isn’t even there, Icheb having given it to Seven to save her life during Voyager‘s final season.
• The brutality could be seen as over-the-top but it’s necessary to establish in some ways that this isn’t the cosy universe of old, and this definitely achieve that. It also stops the episode from simply being a lightweight piece of fun. And Seven having to actually shoot him – it’s not 100% clear but it looks all but certain there’s no way Icheb could have survived what what we see happening to him – twists the knife further. Her revenge on Bjayzl therefore actually feels earned, a short but well-defined little character arc for her here.
• Fuck me it’s good to have Jeri Ryan back as Seven. Just. So. Good. Seven showing up at a plot-convenient time at the end of the last episode is a pretty big co-incidence but the show basically gets away with it.
• Yet her presence does show up a big problem, because the rest of the crew just fade into the background and it’s made clear where some of the problems with the show lie. Seven is a compelling character, well acted, and Ryan is someone who can hold her own with Stewart. Almost nobody else on the show can. The regular crew just wash out when faced with the scenes of Seven and Picard together. It’s like Picard is an F1 race-car and the rest of the crew are a family hatch-back – they just can’t keep up. Ryan can.
• The pop-ups as they approach Space Vegas are genuinely funny – the show could do with a bit more of that energy.
• Legolas Elnor gets fairly little in the way of lines this week despite his Big Introduction last week, though playing him for slightly oblivious light comedy works well enough.
• The EMH popping up asking, “what is the nature of the psychiatric emergency?” is mildly amusing, and very nearly contributes something plot-wise! Nearly.
• What’s the point of the alien who can “smell lies”, only for that to be immediately be overcome by a handy pill? I assume it’s an attempt to clue us in to Raffi’s understanding of drugs and give her a little character beat but it really doesn’t work.
• The bar is hilariously tacky and under-populated.
• Yup, the Maddox storyline is a bust.
• Bjayzl is played to the hilt as a pantomime villain, which works well enough against Dame Patrick’s outsized performance, but is also a suitably nasty piece of work that it feels satisfying when Seven eventually takes her out.
• Just to highlight it again, but the scene between Seven and Picard, when she asks him if he thinks he got all his humanity back and he bluntly admits that he didn’t, is downright excellent and precisely the kind of scene this show needs to have an emotional fulcrum. We need a lot more of that. Needless to say Ryan and Stewart are amazing and I hope we get more of those scenes going forward. Her deception – telling Picard she wouldn’t take revenge then doing just that – is also a terrific beat.
• And Seven goes out all guns blazing. Of course she does.