Star Trek: Picard – Season 1, Episode Nine/Ten

When the poster is better than the show…

Episode Nine / Ten – “Et In Arcadia Ego” Pts 1 And 2

So Picard is a Cylon. Huh. 

When, at the end of episode eight, I pleaded for the series to fix its basic ability to tell a story I didn’t actually expect that to happen. And lo and behold it didn’t. Episode Nine – which consists of the same old go-not-very-far-slowly that has become Picard‘s storytelling modus operandi – goes through the usual stop-start motions of delivering exposition a lot, followed by small bits of forward plot momentum, followed by more exposition. The small bits of forward plot momentum are often huge bits of forward plot momentum but rarely feel so, even when – to take a far-from-arbitrary example – a Borg cube crash-lands on a planet, our heroes do the same thing, and a vast Romulan fleet zips into orbit.

There’s absolutely no emotional or storytelling change of pace between those scenes and people sitting around a campfire exchanging bits of expository dialogue, most of which is delivered with all the passion and sustained enthusiasm of a bored civil servant on a Friday afternoon. There’s very little sense that any of this matters to anyone, and when we’re discussing a potential genocide that’s a serious problem. Episode Ten starts off the same way again then valiantly, and completely unsuccessfully, veers off into a TNG style of storytelling. The TNG style is instantly more affecting and interesting but it’s too little too late.

And there’s a good reason for that. This show has done an appalling job of making us care about Picard as a character, and that’s been its Achilles Heel. Talk about this not being the same Picard we encountered in TNG is fine – the character should have moved on from those days. But the show depends 100% on our familiarity and good-will towards the old version of the character and does absolutely none of the legwork to make us care about this version of the character. It wants to rely on the goodwill towards a version of the character than isn’t in this show and that’s where the struggle to make any of the emotional investment we’re supposed to have falls.

And it’s why the sudden veering into a TNG style of storytelling – replete with musings on mortality, the place of prejudice within an individual, hope over fear etc – doesn’t work. In isolation it’s fine – occasionally even great. And it’s not that’s it’s unwelcome, it’s that after nine and a quarter episodes of the lead character being largely side-lined in favour of a supporting cast that never became compelling it simply feels tacked on, a way of trying to wring some kind of emotional cadence out of a situation that hasn’t earned it. Stewart’s great at Shakespeare so they give him one of the best-known Shakespeare speeches of all. Fine. He can deliver on that, of course he can. But there’s a lingering sense of “…and?” that the show nor the character ever manage to break free of.

That’s especially true when it comes to Picard being downloaded into the golem, a shameless reset-button that even Voyager might looks askance at. Because “…and?” is the biggest question of all to come out of that plot “twist”. We’re reassuringly told that Picard’s new body doesn’t come with any “superpowers”, will age just like his real body, and he’ll die just as he would have had he not had whatever the brain tumour thing was (I guess not Irumodic Syndrome after all  meaning Picard had not one but two brain diseases, which is bad luck in anyone’s book). So… what’s the point? What storytelling options is that opening up? What character development will that give us? The show goes out of its way to re-enforce just how little its own revelations matter, so why are we supposed to care? So Stewart can have a nice scene where all his rather bland new friends can gather round him looking a bit sad while the real friend who was on screen fifteen second earlier to save the day warps away in ignorance? Imagine what a death scene between Stewart and Frakes would look like! Arrgh!

This is all just so pointless, and that it’s preceded by Picard “killing” Data and the usual platitudes about mortality giving meaning to life just makes it worse. Any show which goes out of its way to so undermine its own finale has absolutely and completely not fixed its problems. The TNG mode of storytelling at the end might give some hope for Season Two but the end of Season One doesn’t give us any reason to even understand why these people are all leaving on the same ship together. Hey look, Seven’s joined the crew! Great! Hopefully she’ll be a regular in the next season because she – and Jeri Ryan – is way more interesting than anyone else on this crew, but she’s just there in the final couple of shots (fingers interlocked with Raffi, who’s back in friendly-mom mode if you were spinning the What’s Raffi’s Emotional State This Episode wheel). I haven’t even mentioned yet how wasted Seven is – she kills Narissa, which is great and inevitable but does nothing else other than hanging around for a bit so she can be in the final ensemble shot. So yeah. Not great.

And what’s most annoying about all this is that the few moments of real quality that do peek out show you how good all of this could have been. Or if you’re feeling generous, might be in the future. The scenes in the simulation between Data and Picard are contrived in terms of Data still being alive (B4, it turns out, wasn’t completely useless though you really have to be paying attention to pick that up) but the actual resonance between the two characters lands and feels true. Spiner does surprisingly well in his dual role as Alton Soong – playing “other” versions of Data or the Soong family hasn’t exactly been his strong point in the past but he delivers well here so all credit where its due. His death is affecting here in exactly the way it wasn’t in Nemesis and though it’s a long way round for a short cut the sight of him ageing on the sofa while, in shadow, Picard in his TNG-era uniform holds vigil over him is genuinely moving.

Picard’s death scene may contribute nothing to the character but of course Stewart sells the hell out of it, and again manages to find depths that’s not really there on the page. The couple of scenes with Riker on the bridge of his ship are great, Riker back with that shit-eating grin we love so much as he faces down the enemy. I’m not going to claim that the show we should have is one with the old characters – actually I think the opposite is true and relegating the TNG crew to an occasional cameo is the correct approach. But what having those characters around does do is allow us to see how this show ought to function, with real emotional connections between characters. In “Encounter At Farpoint”, Picard opens up to Riker that he’s terrible with kids. He practically yells it, in fact. And he orders Riker to re-attach the saucer section manually. There’s an immediate emotional connection between those two characters from the word go, even if that connection is Riker looking frankly terrified of his imposing new captain. Raffi hasn’t managed that ten episodes in, no matter how often she calls Picard J-L. The biggest problem, ultimately, isn’t that the new characters aren’t the old characters, the problem is that the new characters aren’t (yet) good enough to take their place.

And that it for Season One. It would be a lie to say it’s been anything other than a bit disappointing. There’s been some moments where the show has shined but too few of them to make it easy to invest in. Picard himself has remained too side-lined in a show that’s named after him and the basics of storytelling seem to have strangely eluded the show from the word go. It’s not been a complete disaster, and it’s still more watchable than Discovery, but even while the last half hour or so gives hope for the future it can’t manage to erase the disappointments of the past. This show had so much good will going in and it’s repeatedly taken that good will and just pissed it up against a wall.

I hope Season Two will be better. Our crew fly off into the sunset, having prevented an ill-defined disaster that seemed way too easy to solve, so they can jet off to newer and more exciting things. Maybe the next season will have an over-arching plot like this one. Maybe it’ll be Murder, She Wrote In Space (I’m fine with that as option). Or maybe The Rockford Files, But With Picard And A Spaceship Instead Of A Trailer In The Desert. I’m fine with that too. I just don’t want to see more of the same, I want the show to – at the very least – learn from its mistakes this time out. I’m doubtful I’ll do an episode-by-episode write up of it because I don’t think the show has done enough to justify that kind of investment. And, really, that’s the saddest thing of all.

Any Other Business:

• And that’s it for Season One of Picard! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading along and commenting.

• I don’t really like that snap-into-place-coming-out-of-warp effect. It’s the same one Battlestar Galactica used and I feel that Star Trek’s slow-down-coming-out was more distinctive. I get the need to make it look like things have moved on – the speedy transporters do that quite well – but that effect just isn’t working for me.

• The orchids that languorously drift up from the planet to envelop starships are fantastic and worthy of considerable praise. There’s a weirder, stranger and altogether more fascinating show – the same one with space Vegas and ooouttttrageous French accents – where space flowers stop gunships and I’d love to see it. Oh wait, it’s called Farscape. But still – Picard desperately needed more of that kind of distinctive weirdness to mark it out. It’s another example of these two episodes getting one thing right and therefore making everything else suffer by comparison.

• I thought a Borg cube crashing on the surface of a planet would be a bit more… I dunno. Spectacular? Guess not.

• Seven is in Episode Nine for about three minutes and with absolutely nothing of relevance to do.

• She’s in Episode Ten too, which hints at the idea that she might actually be suicidal, or at the very least have no interest in whether she lives or dies, and glosses over this in the most facile way imaginable. Yes, just like her creating a Collective a few episodes ago!

• Rios was in these episodes.

• Didn’t like the clumsy “Picard manoeuvre” reference. I guess some will, but it felt too on-the-nose.

• Christ this crew are crap sometimes. They come up with a plan to blow up the transmitter, actually smuggle explosives in to the camp and then… throw them directly at Soji who just catches them and throws the bomb away before it goes boom. For. Fuck’s. Sake.

• There’s no weight to the idea of the artificial lives coming to wipe out the organics. It’s only ever described in purely abstract terms, and when we do get to the point where they may actually invade our space they’re just a random series of slightly snake-like thing in a hole that could come from any computer game (here’s one from 1987, for fuck’s sake) or indeed the end of the first Avengers film.

• Seven killing Narissa with the “that’s for Hugh” line should have been way more impactful. It’s a poorly directed fight scene and it doesn’t feel satisfying when Narissa gets her comeuppance, there’s just relief that she’s not on the damned show any more.

• You know, for a secret organization that have spent millennia on their mission they sure do give up easily when Soji is persuaded that one time. Hope she never changes her mind!

• Hey remember when Jurati (I keep using her last name because Agnes sounds weirdly prosaic for a show like Picard) was meant to be handed over to Starfleet for the murder of Maddox? Coz the show sure doesn’t, not even when two hundred ships turn up…

• It’s lovely to see Riker again. Of course it fucking is. I actually do like the fact that Picard keeps quiet about his condition and allows Riker to warp off, but I still lament not getting a death scene between those two characters.

 Picard keeps using “Blue Skies” as it’s go-to emotive bit of music. It kind of works here.

• Well, better than the butterfly motif, which is winsome and twee in a way Star Trek almost never is.

• One of the running themes throughout all ten episodes of the show has been the ban on synths, how it’s not fair, and how it’s been made out of fear and prejudice – one of Picard‘s through-lines. Here the ban is overturned in a single line, without any further explanation or justification, not even a “well, Starfleet’s discussed the situation and…” fig-leaf. It’s that sort of attention to detail that’s really marked this show out. 

• And off to Season Two we go….

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