Episode Four – Absolute Candour
This is a show which is absolutely split down the middle at the moment. Which is to say, to be blunt, the stuff with Picard – even if it doesn’t always make the most logical sense – broadly works at least in part because, well, Patrick Stewart is on screen, and nothing on the Borg cube really does. That’s disappointing in any number of ways, but the Borg cube material basically just exists for people to stand around either telling us things which we the audience already know – which is repetitive and boring, or they’re playing with characters that they don’t quite seem to know what to do with, which is frustrating. Take our Romulan brother and sister pairing, Narek and Narissa. They’re baaaad. And they were baaaad last week as well (and the week before). And now they’re baaaad but with weirdly incestuous undertones.
Seriously, that scene were Narissa wakes Narek up? They’re so near to just making out its untrue – but the problem here is that it’s very unclear if that’s what the show is going for. It might just be an over-read from the actors, playing sibling intimacy too strongly and landing on “we’re gonna bone once the camera pans away”. Or maybe they want to have that as part and parcel of these two characters? That would certainly be something new for a Star Trek series, but if so they need to commit to it not flirt around the edges because at the moment it just looks like they don’t know how to handle these characters. For all its many (many, many, many) flaws, at least when Game Of Thrones wanted to have a incestuous relationship it was right up there in the middle of the mix. Here? We don’t even know if that’s what they want. If it seems like I’m over-focussing on this it’s because these two characters act as a stand-in for everything that’s going on in the Cube. Nobody seems to have a focus. The “sliding down the hallway” scene should either be genuinely cute – if there was a real bond between Narek and Soji forming despite his duplicity – or deeply unsettling as he uses his charm and power to increase his control over her. In the end it’s neither – it’s just two people sliding down a hallway. Yeah, the Cube stuff is a bust.
But wait! What of Jean-Luc? Turns out he’s… erm, decided to take side trip to a Romulan relocation planet for… reasons. He gets an onerous line about “maybe not passing this way again” and whatnot, but that’s not the reason. It’s just a transparent attempt to get our Manic Pixie Dream Romulan and Seven Of Nine on board. In terms of plot mechanics it’s all pretty clunky, though it’s a testament to how good Patrick Stewart is here that these scenes feel like they have genuine momentum to them, rather than – for the fourth episode in a row – yet another “let’s get the band together” plot line. So – and surely everyone is familiar how this is going to lay out by this point – that means plenty of big chunky flashbacks, some heavy-handed exposition and then moving to the present where someone who doesn’t want to come on Picard’s mission does, in fact, come on Picard’s mission.
The further we get away from the first episode, the more nebulous this whole “mission” thing feels anyway. This episode could really have done with properly re-establishing what the stakes are here because it’s all getting a bit washed out. We know Picard is going to find Soji because… well. Maybe something about Data being saved, or because he feels guilty about not being able to save Dahj, and perhaps something about artificial life, and, erm, Romulans and stuff. What we need is real clarity on what the point of any of this is, and the fact we don’t get that clarification isn’t because there’s any kind of deliberate obfuscation going on, it’s just that the show isn’t very good at bringing those aspects across. They are there, but the mix of repetition and muddy scripting is diluting the potential power of what’s going on.
As a result Patrick Stewart remains the most compelling aspect of this show. Now, given that the whole reason for it’s existence is to get him back in the Picard saddle again that’s maybe not surprising, but here’s the thing – the writing seems far too content to lean on Stewart’s obvious brilliance as a crutch for writing which isn’t quite sufficient. But here’s also the thing – he can very nearly bridge that gap. I mean, there’s a few big logic holes here which no actor in the world could cover (most notably, Picard saying in flashback that he’d “come back for the boy” then later expressing surprise that the warrior nuns haven’t found somewhere else for him. I mean, fine, with him not returning it might be logical to expect the nuns to move the boy on at some point, but as per usual the show doesn’t bother to explain this, the contradiction is simply allowed to stand).
And yet and yet and yet… those flashback scenes between Picard and Elnor are absolutely charming. Picard’s warmth and humanity come flooding out and we get to see Stewart working in a register the show hasn’t really given him the chance to explore yet. It’s delightful. Reading The Three Musketeers is a bit corny – especially considering the beheading late in the episode – but it’s the right sort of corny, and it’s absolutely a book Picard would read. When we meet Elnor as any given Final Fantasy character a grown man the “I don’t like you” / “I’ll join you on your mission” stuff is similarly pretty corny but it gets the job done, and again Stewart is able to bridge the gap between the writing and the character to make these scenes work in a way that they almost certainly wouldn’t with anyone else in that role.
And oh yes, Romulan warrior nuns who only fight with you when you’re a lost cause. Apparently that’s a thing now! Cute, show. There’s not much sense that they’re going to get developed any further but it’s another peek into Romulan culture, which is appreciated, and it’s again good to see that we’re not falling back into the (very typical) Star Trek mistake of having one characteristic stand in for an entire species (Klingons are all violent warriors, Ferengi are all greedy and grasping etc). Here we get to see a part of Romulan society we’ve not encountered before – something akin to religion – and the work done to establish them is, if not massively detailed, still appreciated. The ideal that they follow the path of “absolute candour” (hence the episode title) certainly feels very much at odds with what we’ve generally seen of Romulan culture, so good solid work deserves acknowledgement. And generally that’s how it goes with this episode – there’s work done here, and what’s done (off the Cube) is appreciated.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but hopefully now that we have the band together – surely we must have the band together at this point? – we can finally stop stalling on the Cube, have a decent story there, and get things moving. I’d take this episode over the last couple simply because there’s at least some – if limited – amount of momentum, and because we have Stewart getting something interesting to do. But four episodes is a lot to spend on getting the band together when we only have ten in the season, and excuses like “well there’s already a Season Two announced so they can afford to take their time” are only going to work for so long. There’s a big difference between a slow burn and simply being slow, and right now that’s where Picard‘s biggest weakness is because it’s way more of the latter than the former.
Oh and hey, Seven’s on the show now. Seven!
Any Other Business:
• Yeah the Cube material is all basically just not working. I can only hope that when Picard reaches it – and surely he must do this next week? – it will somehow be enlivened because at the moment the show stops dead every time they need to go there and it’s killing the momentum so badly.
• Jonathan Frakes is in the director’s chair this week! Honestly, it’s not his finest work but he’s clearly working with a fairly limited budget and there’s only so much you can do to make vaguely identical bits of Borg cube look enticing. Maybe have a think about how you want to frame your brother and sister relationship though, eh?
• So Elnor is our Manic Pixie Dream Romulan. ‘Kay. Welcome, Elfo!
• Picard’s chateau is recreated on the ship for.. cost-saving reasons I guess? Picard explicitly said in the first episode that it “never felt like home” yet here it is.
• I still don’t care very much about anyone else on Picard’s ship.
• Picard being called JL sets my teeth on edge. It’s not even a proper fucking contraction!
• Perhaps I should have mentioned it last week – though it’s hard to be that fussed about it, really – but Hugh, from the episode “I, Borg”, was hanging about the place and he’s here this week too. Which is nice.
• It will surprise exactly nobody, but the Romulan relocation centre consists of one square, one house and a “Romulans Only” bar that must have cost about twenty bucks total. I hope this show is saving up its budget for something really spectacular…
• The beheading near the end of the episode is about Supernatural-level of gruesomeness in terms of gore and quality of special effects. You can get away with that on a show that’s just Hot Boys Fighting Monsters. On Picard it just looks cheap.
• Yes, about that – what was Picard’s plan when he walked in to the Romulans-only bar? He’s disgusted by an openly racist sign and takes it down to symbolically walk all over it? Fine, perfectly in character. Then he goes in and provokes a fight for… reasons? I’m assuming it was an attempt to get Elnor to come to his rescue – which of course he did – but it’s all very nebulous. I can’t help but feel the old Picard might have thought things through a bit more.
• Speaking of… I get that the Picard we have here is not the idealistic over-achiever and staunch patrician defender of All That Is Good we had in TNG. Of course not. A long time has passed, Picard has changed. That’s fine. But the show isn’t doing enough work to establish how that change came about. We understand that Mars happened and the Romulan rescue failed and so forth, but these are always presented as plot points, not character beats. We’re told what the events are but we don’t meaningfully get to see their impact on Picard. Even putting side the exceedingly heavy-handed flashback structure – of which I am no fan – there’s no sense of transition between the idealistic captain of TNG and the defeated recluse we see in this series. In the last episode’s flashback Picard threatened resignation to try and force his point through and was shocked his resignation was simply accepted. Fine. Of course that’s going to affect him. That’s the moment we need to see something – Picard breaking down, Picard tearfully explaining how the organisation he had dedicated his life to had turned its back on him and its beliefs, Picard getting drunk and losing his temper… something. Not just a bland cut back to the present as if ta-da that’s everything explained then. Show us how it changed Picard, don’t simply present it as is.
• We get to see an old Romulan Bird Of Prey, back when they didn’t look like Klingon knock-offs or big green pencil sharpeners. That’s cute.
• Seven! Seven’s here! I was deeply excited when I found out she was going to be on the show, because – as anyone who’s read my Voyager reviews will know – I adore Jeri Ryan, think she’s an amazing actor, and I love Seven as a character. Now.. I’m ever so slightly nervous. Don’t fuck it up, Picard!