Episode Five – “The Impossible Box”
What, exactly, do people want from Star Trek? There has been a legitimate line of questioning around this ever since Discovery brought Star Trek back from the televisual hinterland of syndication. One of Star Trek‘s strengths has always been its ability to appeal to people beyond a hardcore of fandom – that’s why it’s the biggest science fiction franchise in the world (putting Marvel to one side, of course – that’s a whole different conversation and I don’t want to get bogged down in genre definitions at this point). The movies appeal to people who like sci-fi but aren’t necessarily huge Trekkies. The original show has become part of the cultural landscape, one of science fiction’s defining texts, and watchable by just about anyone. Is there some difficult-to-define over-arching appeal that can embrace TNG and Enterprise? Into Darkness and Picard? And if so, what is it? Over on The AV Club, Zack Handelin wrote, “A friend on Twitter recently pointed out that saying something “isn’t Star Trek” isn’t really an effective criticism”. I strongly disagree with Zack’s friend – I think it cuts to the absolute heart of the issue that people have with both Discovery and Picard, and it is to this we turn our attention.
Regardless of one’s views on its relative merits or otherwise, it’s fair to say that Enterprise was not an overall success, being as it remains the only modern Star Trek show to suffer the ignominy of cancellation. It wobbled along for four seasons and then ended with an episode that has gone down in notoriety for it’s sheer, dreadful wrong-headedness. Voyager – still patiently waiting on that critical reassessment I have done my best to spearhead – remains in the appreciation doldrums. Yet neither of these shows, flaws and all, were ever accused of “not being Star Trek” contemporaneously. They made mistakes, they mis-stepped – but then again there’s no part of the franchise that hasn’t done that, and both were still absolutely regarded as part of the same spectrum that embraced Kirk, Picard and Sisko. For better or worse, they were Star Trek.
Things were a little different when it came to the Abramsverse, but given that it’s an “alternative timeline” they have a get-out-of-jail-free card (and excellent casting at least helps to cover some of the cracks). But both Discovery and Picard have this new criticism – that somehow those shows are lacking something, the animating spark that raises a show from “normal sci-fi” to “actually Star Trek“. Their katra, if one wanted to be a pretentiously indulgent fanboy. Discovery is relatively easy to parse out when it comes to that line of criticism – it often looks like Star Trek but at the expense of feeling like Star Trek. It has much of the right iconography – chevrons and ships, phasers and mirror universes. And it unquestionably does things that Star Trek ought to – it has, at long last, proper LGBTQ+ representation, we have a diverse cast, gender roles are not pre-defined and so on. But, ultimately, something is missing.
That’s partly because Discovery has struggled – so far anyway – to be actually about anything. Being about stuff is basically what Star Trek is for. All the obstacles the crew encounter are just that – obstacles to be overcome on the way to overcoming the next one. And then the next one. There’s no real guiding moral or political philosophy beyond vague gestures towards inclusiveness. We’re supposed to be invested in the journey the characters make, but the characters take journeys that aren’t very interesting so this really struggles as a motivating reason for Discovery to exist. Take, by contrast and to finally bring us round to something approaching relevancy, an episode like the TNG‘s “Justice”, from Season One. It’s an absolute piece of shit episode, one of the very worst any iteration of Star Trek has ever produced, but, cack-handed and insufficient though it is, it’s trying to be about something – “there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute” Picard stentoriously informs us. It’s a dreadful episode, but at least it’s trying. This is the element Discovery struggles with so badly.
Picard struggles with it to, but that fact is occluded by the fact that it’s about, well, Picard and he’s front and centre of the whole affair. But some of the same underlying problems with Discovery linger here, less visible thanks to the mighty presence of Patrick Stewart but still absolutely tangible. We’re supposed to be invested in Picard’s journey, from self-imposed recluse to… wherever all this is going. But the show isn’t good enough at landing the character details for us to fully invest in that journey. Stewart’s clearly a phenomenal actor and he can make up some of the distance but, at least at this point, his journey has been literal – from Earth to Space Vegas to the Borg cube in this episode – with not enough time invested in making us care about why he’s doing any of this. We’ve had some backstory and exposition but it’s not enough.
There’s a reason the most resonant scene in the whole show so far was between Picard and Seven – not because Seven is a familiar character but because for once we have an honest conversation between two people who have a shared experience discussing what it means to them. Those are the scenes, the details, the show badly needs and badly lacks. None of the other characters have really sprung into focus much – Raffi has a drink problem and an estranged son that could come from any given soap opera, Elfo The Romulan hasn’t had enough lines to care about yet, the Incest Romulans on the Cube are stock baddie characters who are being somewhat overplayed, Soji is a walking plot device and so on – so there’s not much to get emotionally invested in.
And, again, Picard just isn’t about anything. It’s been sold to us on the basis that we’re exploring what happened to one of Star Trek‘s most beloved characters but we’re not exploring it at all, we’re just being told about it from time to time, usually in clumsy flashbacks. And there’s no other morality, politics, philosophy or guiding ideas worth talking about to, erm, engage with. The Borg are being stripped down for parts, the bodies sometimes discarded and sometimes recovered – this ought to be the core of a moral outrage, but it’s not it’s just a plot beat.* And we get some exploration of the Cube this episode, but it’s mostly just tech, and there’s less than zero sense of threat or danger on the Cube. High walkways people feel dizzy on, a trajector to escape the “Queen cell” and so on – it’s just stuff. It’s pretty shrug-worthy, and certainly no more than Another Plot Point.
The whole Cube setting feels like such a wasted opportunity, and recalling the highs of “The Best Of Both Worlds” (an obvious, but effective, early shot where the current Picard is overlaid with an image of his assimilated self) isn’t exactly helping their case. What are the Borg – once the greatest threat ever – these days? Just things. People complain Voyager neutered the Borg but that’s pales by comparison to what’s being done with them here – which is precisely nothing. They’ve been reduced to a series of corridors. And, despite what the series seems to think, we’re not really being presented with a more “morally complex” look at the Federation either. We have a few can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees higher-ups, a bar-slash-gambling-club and… um… someone drinks too much? DS9 gave us a more morally complex universe than anything Picard has shown us. So, to be frank, did TNG, and it was seriously wrapped up in utopia-vision (really, it’s the only version of the show that has been). We don’t get moral complexity here – or at least not yet – we get a YA version of what complexity looks like, occasionally mixed in with the word “fuck”. And so on.
That would be acceptable if there was anything else going on, but meaningfully there isn’t. Oh there’s events going on. Plot points get trundled out. Occasionally – if not often – they even brush up against effective. Soji’s discovery that everything in her room is only thirty-six months old is pretty compelling, as is her reaction to this. But rather than explore that she falls for Narek’s stupid lock-her-in-a-room trick, which doesn’t make her look especially smart (I get that she’s confused and all, but still). Then she has to punch her way through the wooden floor and out into the superstructure of the Cube before she’s killed by the universe’s slowest-moving gas released from a puzzle box that absolutely doesn’t have anything to do with Hellraiser, honest guv. Narek himself is now lacking only a moustache to twirl to complete his baaad-guy image, and remains a curiously difficult character to care about – not, sadly, a trait that is in any way unique to him. Then Picard and co flee the ship to Some Unknown Destination while Elfo (I should stop calling him that but I’m not going to) hangs back to cover their retreat. Oh great we’ll get to see some cool sword action at least and maybe… oh, now the credits? But the show had, however briefly, actually built up a bit of momentum! Sigh.
Oh hey, I forgot to mention we get to properly meet Hugh, another former drone! He’s… nice I guess? I’m not sure more characters are what Picard needs at the moment, but hey, maybe? Hmm, let’s see, what else… Um, Jurati is still a flake and almost everyone seems to realise it but it’s not time for that plot point to be resolved so it can just sit there and stew for another week (or two weeks, or three weeks…). That whole “Raffi gets them permission to land on the Cube” beat was curious, though at least it gave her something to do this week. She’s still drinking too, in case you were worried she strayed from her soap opera template.
Look, this was a solid episode of Picard, it really was. A lot of the criticisms articulated here are more to do with the overall quality of the show than they are to do with anything that’s wrong with this specific episode. The otherwise-dreary hot-Romulan-on-synth action we’ve been watching for the last few weeks decisively moved on, the escape from the Cube was relatively exciting, Patrick Stewart got to do some great emoting outside of the show’s default “seem warm” setting. That’s all to the good. And hopefully the plot can move out of the holding pattern it’s been stuck in for the past five episodes now Picard has finally arrived at (then immediately fled) the Cube. Great. This and the last episode have been a marked improvement over what came before and though the underlying problems remain Picard is demonstrating small but definite signs of improvement. It’s becoming a good sci-fi show, hopefully. But it’s still not actually about anything, and until that changes accusations of it “not being Star Trek” are going to remain.
And they are going to have some justification.
* Speaking of the Borg, what’s happened to them anyway? Did Voyager manage to actually deliver a mortal wound in “Endgame” as planned, taking out the (or maybe a) Queen in the process? That was is literally the last event to occur this far into the future that we’ve seen televised prior to Picard launching. So is that why this Cube was severed from the hive? Or was there a handy ion storm or something that knocked out its power systems and it’s reactivation remains a lurking, ever-present threat? Are the Borg still out there, an existential threat to everything the Federation purports to stand for? As seems to be the now rather depressing default, Picard simply cannot be bothered to explain it to us. I get that this is something to be potentially explored in the future but a few stray lines to give us some idea of what’s going on would be nice – and certainly more interesting than hearing the Incest Romulans relate the same fucking conversation for the fiftieth time.
Any Other Business:
• Stewart is terrific in those opening moments when he confronts his own assimilation – really great work, and the show badly needs to give him more chances to do that sort of thing because at the moment he’s feeling weirdly under-utilized.
• Yeah, the “overlay” scene deserves a special mention, well written, acted and directed. Terrific moment.
• Did it really take them until they were three hours away from arriving at the Cube to think, “hey maybe someone might recognise Picard and maybe we should do something about that”? Great planning, Scooby Gang.
• Yeah, how well-known is Picard anyway? In the first episode he’s all over the news losing his temper (apparently a big deal), then he can turn up as Space Vegas with nothing more than an eyepatch, hat and outrageous French accent to disguise him, and here he’s worried about being recognised on the Cube and we’re told he’s probably “still on the brochure” for the Federation.
• Hugh’s inclusion here is… nice. Quite the co-incidence that the Borg cube that got disabled was the one that our handy previously-encountered Borg was on though, wasn’t it?
• Rios was in this episode.
• The exploration of the Cube really needs to done better. Nobody has directed it well, and this continues to be the case. It doesn’t need to be all sliding Borg trombones and Dutch angles but as a setting the Cube should be seriously discombobulating whereas now it could be just any abandoned base. They’re not doing nearly enough with it.
• The not-from-Hellraiser puzzle box thing was a curious inclusion, and using it as a Rubik’s Cube Of Doom to release green (what other colour would it be?) gas doesn’t quite go far enough to explain its presence. We get the whole “you need patience” parable about opening it, which presumably is meant to elucidate the idea that Narissa is impatient, but we know that already because we’ve had about a dozen scenes of her telling Narek to just get on with it already.
• Narissa, incidentally, really isn’t working for the show and I’m fine if she dies on the way back to her home planet. Or bedroom. Whatever works.
• The trajector in the Queen Cell is a pretty obscure Voyager reference – the episode “Prime Factors”, from Season One, introduced the technology.
• We get Riker and Troi next week! All hands, brace for cuddles!