Episode Seven – “Nepenthe“
I really wanted to start this episode with a two-word review – “nothing happens”. But that’s not true. Plenty of things happen, though they’re mostly low-key, character stuff. That’s fine though at episode seven, whether “low-key” is really what Picard should be aiming for is certainly up for debate. But let’s be clear from the outset – this is an episode specifically designed to do one thing, and one thing alone – tickle all those TNG feels. In that it is an undeniable success. The whole raison d’etre of this episode is Picard meeting up with Riker and Troi, hanging out for a while, then getting back to the main plot. And of course it’s delightful to see those three characters on screen together again, because of course it fucking is. It’s Riker! He’s visibly drinking! I mean, what’s not to love?
Yet in a way this episode continues to show some of the problems Picard has. We’re seven episodes in. Three to go. And we yet again spend an episode where, at least as far as the Picard plot is concerned, nothing moves forward. He flees the Borg cube with Soji, they arrive, spend time eating pizza and making friends, then leave. That’s it. Watching them all interact with each other, catching up with what’s happened to Riker and Troi – it’s all lovely, and I’m sure as Bowlpup not going to be the one to claim otherwise. But that’s it. Purely in terms of plot, nothing happens. This would have been an idea episode to have around… oh I don’t know, maybe episode three?
Logically, calling in on his old pals and having them make him face to up the fact that he’s not the Jean-Luc that sat round Ready Room tables and made people give him opinions and options would have been a good call early in the season, acting as a motivator, helping him get back out there. It’s not that the impulses of this episode are wrong, it’s more that they’ve been misplaced or mistimed. It’s easy to imagine a version of this show where, following the phaser fight at Starfleet when Dajl is killed, Picard is spooked, spends episode two picking up his “motley” crew, then heading off to visit Riker and Troi for sanctuary to come up with a plan, only for Troi to plant her metaphorical foot up his ass and tell him to get on with it already. All the right ideas are here but they’re just not being deployed very well.
But at least in this episode we get three clear narrative strands. Manic Pixie Dream Romulan gets to have a swordfight on the Borg cube, Rios and co… get to be in the episode again, and Picard hangs out with his old shipmates. With the slight exception of Romulan Legolas none of these advance the plot even slightly but at least by moving between them we get a bit of narrative momentum which stops us becoming bored. Actually let’s deal with the Elfo – oh alright, Elnor – material first. Elnor so far doesn’t actually have a character, just a series of dramatic poses which could come from any given videogame cut-scene. That means it’s a bit hard to get emotionally invested in what’s happening to him. He gets a fight – and it’s an actual good fight – and do what he’s clearly on the show to do, but that’s it. Hugh – written out here in a fantastically stupid off-handed manner – at least had some emotional resonance with Picard, but he can’t have that with Elnor, partly because they’ve barely spent more than five minutes in each other’s company but mostly, again, because Elnor has no personality to speak of. The whole death of Hugh seems contrived just so he can deliver the, “how’s this for a lost cause?” line as he died, while large IRONY!!!! signs flash away in the background. Jonathan Del Arco does a good job with the Hugh material and does his best to give it some pathos but it’s dramatically fairly inert and his death is – again – stupid. Oh and Narissa unfortunately survived her encounter with Elnor, so I guess she’s still on the show – ah well, never mind.
Meanwhile, over on the good ship Good Ship they faff about a bit in case they turn up at the titular Nepenthe too early and Picard has to do another round of awkward introductions. This series is simply terrible at making plot threads intertwine successfully, so we once again have some stalling. This time it’s because The Evil Villain, The Nefarious Narek!tm is hot on their tail. Because he’s hot you see. As the show repeatedly told us. Hot? Tail? Oh please yourselves. Anyway, that’s this episode’s excuse for shamelessly stalling. Raffi – who’s had the entirely logical character transition from inconsolable drunk to friendly on-board surrogate mom – is now mothering her way through the not-at-all suspicious Jurati’s feelings, mostly via the medium of velvet cake. These scenes don’t have a lot of resonance – as with Hugh and Elnor, how much actual interaction have Raffi and Jurati even had? – in terms of character, though both are played well. Alison Pill gets, at last, to show what she’s actually meant to bring to the table and does really well with her “suicide” scenes and really helps broaden out Jurati’s character.
But – here we go again – there’s something lacking. We get a(nother fucking) flashback to the meeting between Jurati and Commodore Oh and Oh persuades Jurati to take on the mission after giving her a decidedly non-consensual mind-meld with a horrific vision of the future should they fail to act. And Oh tells her doing this will extract the most terrible price, while giving her a tracker to explain how come The Evil Villain, The Nefarious Narek!tm can keep following them. Ok fine. That all works, even if the tracker thing is very mechanical writing. But it’s a big fucking leap between “undertake secret mission” and “you need to murder this person you were really close to in cold blood”. Jurati is, as far as we know, just some synth nerd (insert your Moog jokes here) who’s been fine puttering about her lab for years, but now can kill. Sure, not without remorse, but all the same that’s a long journey for a short conversation. Maybe we’ll find out more about Jurati – in bloody flashback, no doubt – to explain that but as it stands Picard once again can’t find a way to draw a line between the two character points.
But all this is really just my way of shamelessly stalling because come on. We’re here to talk about the central triumvirate of the episode – Picard, Riker and Troi. Well it’s simply delightful to see them together again isn’t it? I mean, whose heart couldn’t be melted by that? There’s a few quibbles – we’ll come to those – but by and large these scenes are a resounding success and provide exactly the sort of heart and warmth the show has been so desperately needing. Riker messes about in the kitchen cooking – yup that works with his TNG-era side – and Troi enjoys puttering about growing things and generally being a good mum. Yeah, that works perfectly too. We get to explore a little of their post-Enterprise time together – specifically that they have a daughter now, and had a son who died due to a rare condition – and it all fits. Both Jonathan Frakes – now a vast bear of a man – and Marina Sirtis slide effortlessly back into their characters and it’s just great to be able to spend some time with them.
Their daughter also works surprisingly well – Star Trek has a beyond-terrible track record including children and adolescents, but Kestra turns out to be the rare exception that proves the rule. Not only is she an interesting character in her own right, she allows us to explore a new side of Soji. Soji’s been a very limited character so far because she’s only really existed in two modes – fawning over The Evil Villain, The Nefarious Narek!tm or teary. By pairing her off with a much younger character Soji finally gets the chance to work in a new emotional register and it really makes the character come alive. It obviously gives Isa Briones somewhere to go with her performance, and just little scenes of her haltingly eating a real tomato for the first time, or lying on a bunk and basically being allowed to be unburdened for five minutes go a long way to making the character in-actuality interesting rather than just on-paper interesting.
Even the tentative scenes of her (emotionally) prodding the fact that she’s an android finally allow us to explain the largest part of her character. All this is delivered well, and basically the show doesn’t put a foot wrong and the more-than-welcome development of Soji actually make it possible to invest in her and care what happens to her. A dead brother could be an unforgivable cliché for Kestra, using that a jumping-off point for her bond to Soji, but the show treads lightly with this, allowing the shades of loneliness which Kestra clearly has to be at least temporarily assuaged by Soji’s presence, leading to their tentative bond, and allowing Soji’s slow emergence from being a trauma victim.
Elsewhere, Picard and Riker just pal around and get to be generally bro-tastic together. There’s something slightly disconcerting about the way that Riker just casually calls Picard “Jean-Luc” now, one of those minor quibbles which is more to do with expectation than anything else. These two are far more relaxed around each other than they ever were on the show, so it takes a little adjusting to when we see Riker casually sling his arm round Picard’s shoulder as they sit together on a bench near the end of the episode, but these little moments are allowed to stand. We’re at least spared some explain-everything flashback and so the growth in their friendship is allowed to simply be, and of course Riker (who is absolutely Rikered in this episode) is still played with the same lugubrious charm by Frakes as ever he was. Marina Sirtis, too, clearly relishes being back in the role of Troi, though she’s moved on a little too.
It’s fascinating watching the scene where Soji basically unburdens herself to Troi because Sirtis absolutely does not play it as she would have done back in the days of TNG (or indeed her handful of Voyager appearances). Throughout Soji’s unburdening Troi stands there, listening and absorbing what she’s saying, but just look at her facial expression. This isn’t someone blandly standing there while someone emotionally vomits everything out then coming back with some handy platitudes. Troi looks doubtful. She looks like she believes some of it and is mentally rolling her eyes at other bits, all without basically moving at all. It’s a fantastic performance from her, and shows how Troi has developed since the end of TNG as well. Her reprimand to Picard is meant to be the big “oh shit, she said what?” moment but it’s in the way she listens to Soji that we get the real change in Troi, and Sirtis is just phenomenal.
So – as you may well have gathered – this is another episode which continues the uptick in quality that Picard has had recently and is a thoroughly lovely way to spend forty-five minutes. There’s still some basic mistakes being made – stalling, flashbacks – but the fundamentals seem far better locked in for the back half of the season than they ever were in the front half. “Compelling” is yet to be an adjective that Picard has must relationship with, but at least if we are to slowly rumble along an episode like this, full of warmth and heart and humanity, provides a good reason to keep watching. I shall continue to lament the basic structural and storytelling problems the show has, but – for all the criticisms I laid out on the last episode – this feels like Star Trek in a way that no other episode has managed with quite the same consistency.
Yes, of course some of that is catching up with familiar and well-loved characters, but it’s also in the way they’re written, acted and expanded upon. This episode does something I regretted the show didn’t normally do last time – it’s about something. It’s about bonds, and friendship, and growth, and change. And loss. And it’s a powerful reminder that Star Trek can be about all those things without simply seeming limp or hand-wringing. Strong performances, strong writing, a consistent theme. What more could I want from Star Trek? I’m not confident the show will be able to keep this up – it simply hasn’t earned that level of good will or trust – but it would be nice to think this was an indicator of getting back to what Star Trek is best at. And even if it turns out to be the exception, not the rule, this is still a delightful episode and comes thoroughly recommended. You know, as long as you ignore the stuff on the Borg cube. As usual…
Any Other Business:
• Nepenthe is, in ancient Greek, a mythical drug used to treat sorrow, or sometimes more literally “that which chases sorrow away”.
• This episode sure does love the TNG theme doesn’t it? It’s delightful the first, second, third and maybe even the fourth time we hear it. However I think it’s also fair to say it maybe hits that note (heh) once too often…
• Riker’s listening to jazz the first time we encounter him in his kitchen, which is nice.
• God, though, Hugh’s death pisses me off here. What a stupid way for the character to go out – he’s just thrown away for that idiotic final line. Such a waste.
• And yes, obviously it’s meant to show what a super-awesome-hyper-amazing warrior Narissa is. But it doesn’t achieve that. Narissa’s just a boring rent-a-cliché villain, right down to slaughtering innocents to make a point and even having the, “it’s your fault they’re all dead!” line. Awful.
• Hugh also tells Elnor to find another Ex-Borg to get into the Queen Cell. In unrelated news, Seven’s back next week.
• Riker and Troi’s son is named Thaddeus, a reference to the Voyager episode “Death Wish” when we find out one of Riker’s ancestors was called Thaddeus, or “old iron boots”. Kestra is named for Troi’s dead sister. So that must have been a cheery couple of naming ceremonies.
• The episode really does do a good job of not leaning too hard on the dead-son cliché, a level of subtlety I would not have thus far expected from the show. Though it turns out he could have been saved if they’d been able to use a positronic graft (or something) but couldn’t because of the ban on synth tech. Ah, there we go – the unnecessarily heavy-handed approach we’ve come to expect!
• Rios was in this episode.
• Not sure what else to say about Jurati’s attempted suicide (or maybe just putting herself in a coma? Not clear), beyond how easy it is to replicate something fatal without any kind of check. Still the offhanded way the Rios-EMH says, “I’m more concerned with the fact she’s in a coma” was genuinely funny.
• Ill be curious to see if we return to the lives of Riker and Troi. There’s a lot of ponderous, “I couldn’t bear it if something happened to Kestra” and “we couldn’t lose her”-type lines that sound worrying setup-ish.
• Yes, Seven’s back next week! WOOOOO!