Picard: Season Two

Picard is back for a second season of time-travel, trauma and Q. But can Season Two correct the flaws of Season One while also juggling the Borg?

One of the immense frustrations of Picard‘s first season was just how much good will the show had going into it, and just how much of that good will was completely wasted on go-nowhere plots, a bunch of who-dat side characters that never really cohered into anything, and wasting Patrick Stewart in a series named after his character but which only occasionally gave him anything to actually do. The conclusion to that season, especially, was simply dreadful, with Picard apparently becoming a robot but for no good reason, and the series going out of its way to point out its own irrelevancy. Everyone flew off into the sunset at the end of the season, a crew together for plot expediency rather than any other reason, and speculation inevitably mounted as to whether Season Two would have the ability to course-correct in any meaningful way and address the issues that Season One so glaringly failed to.

Then came the news. Not only were the Borg coming back, but so was Q. The Borg angle in Season One was a terrible failure, a case of using the familiar iconography of TNG while having absolutely no idea what to do with it other than point and say, “See? You like this, don’t you! Watch our show!” Bringing Seven in from Voyager was lovely, not least because Jeri Ryan is simply brilliant at bringing the character to life, but ultimately she contributed little to the show. Well, other than pointing out just how shallow the other characters are, since Seven simply occupies the screen in a way that Raffi, Elfo and the rest simply don’t.

Even the Borg angle – with her as an ex-Borg right there – didn’t come to life, and the Cube was eventually just crashed into a planet as a way of getting rid of it after it had served its plot purpose. So if Season One buggered up the Borg – and it’s worth mentioning their use in Season One is worse than any Voyager episode featuring the Borg, never mind anything from TNG or First Contact – what hope was there that Season Two would manage any better? And with Q on board as well what were the chances that any of this could possibly work? Oh, and let’s not forget we have time travel thrown into the mix as well. And a future fascist Earth (because it must have been simply ages since we last saw one of those) and changed history that has to be corrected. That’s a lot for any season to juggle.

What’s remarkable about Season Two isn’t that it gets all of these elements right – it definitely doesn’t – but it gets enough of them right to show a vast improvement on Season One. It’s a long, long way from being flawless, but Picard does seem to have taken much of the criticism lobbed at the first season and actually done something about it. The difference this makes is absolutely immense. For once Picard himself actually becomes the centre of the show, and in two separate ways – dealing with the trauma he holds around his mother’s suicide, and dealing with whatever Q’s up to this time. The first of these is a hoary old cliche and the second is pretty much standard operating procedure as far as Q is concerned. But true though that is, at least both of them actually anchor the lead character in the show that is, after all, named for him. The show, for the first time, is meaningfully about Picard, rather than just tacking on an apparently-irrelevant life-changing experience at the end of the last season. This, of course, means that Patrick Stewart gets absolutely scads of screen-time and can show off what a good actor he is – which after all is the point of having cast him in the first place.

In truth, this isn’t his best performance as Picard, even as it’s clear just how much more engaged he is with the show than he was during the first season. The problem, really, is the writing. I mean, Stewart himself is ageing, obviously, and there’s odd moments where the authority that would have rung out of him like a bell earlier doesn’t quite manage to come across in the same way as once it would have. His scenes pretending to be a fascist and egging on the crowd during the second episode work well enough, but elsewhere… well, I’m not going to criticise him for being older, but really, the writing should have known not to lean too heavily on this side of the character.

Where he absolutely shines, though, and where we get a real sense of the Picard of old, is when he gets to be warm and inviting. His scene with Whoopi Goldberg in the first episode really shows this off, but every single moment he spends with John de Lancie’s Q resonates deeply. Their final scene, with Q returning them to the present after admitting Picard really matters to him, is simply glorious, and the best Stewart has been in the role since TNG went off the air. It’s heartfelt, emotional and deeply affecting, and the rapport between the two actors, as well as the two characters, makes the scene absolutely sing.

What a shame, then, that other than that and the first scene between Picard and Q, they spend pretty much no other time interacting. The show absolutely yearns for more confrontations between the two – or indeed any other confrontations between the two – but de Lancie and Q are simply wasted in what amounts to little more than two big scenes and a small scattering of cameos (one of which has Q doing an ill-advised Sigmund Freud cod-accent. Remember, just because it’s funny to you doesn’t mean the audience will react in the same way). Watching their scenes together it’s just so obvious that there should be more of this material, and it’s absence absolutely hurts the show.

It’s all deeply frustrating, and it means there’s precious little build-up to Q’s declaration that he’s dying. It’s simply announced about four-fifths of the way through the series and we have to roll with it. Oh sure, there’s little hints dropped here and there but it’s simply not enough – Q’s death should have been paralleled with Picard’s rebirth as he finally sheds the guilt over his mother’s death and both should be developments throughout the course of the season. That’s pretty much what we get in the final episode, so why isn’t a better job done of integrating these two obviously-related storylines? It just badly needed to be layered into the story, rather than something that gets plonked at the end of it.

Still, let’s not be too churlish because at least it’s there at all, and that alone is a huge step up from the first season. Another improvement is that we get a slimmed down central cast. Less cast means less go-nowhere plots (well, it should anyway). Elfo – useless, pointless, pretty Elfo – is disposed of in the second episode, gets a a couple of scenes later, then is resurrected in time for the end credits on the final episode. This is meant to be something that prods guilt in Raffi, who admits she manipulated him into joining Starfleet and now that he’s been killed feels responsible for his death. That’s actually a nice idea.

It doesn’t work, because Raffi stands revealed as utterly unnecessary and easily the worst character on Picard, but there’s at least the shape of a proper concept. And sorry to say, but one of the reasons Raffi doesn’t work is Michelle Hurd, who just doesn’t have what it takes to bring the character to life. It’s not all her fault, and the writing for Raffi remains the worst on the show. The character has no consistency, flails around in any number of directions in an attempt to make her interesting, and none of it lands. Her and Seven are meant to be in a relationship together, but there’s not one moment of chemistry between them, and you can practically see Jeri Ryan dialling down her natural on-screen charisma in order to not just swamp Hurd out. This is rather less than successful. Raffi is a bad character poorly handled, and (I can hardly believe I’m saying this) it might actually have been better if it had been her that died and Elfo got to life (hopefully while inheriting Spock’s Wooly Hat Of Ear Disguise), and give Jeri Ryan the guilt-trip. At least Ryan has proven on Voyager that she’s capable of that, having addressed the guilt she had in her role assimilating other species when she was a Borg. But that’s not what we have, so it’s all down to Raffi. It Does Not Work.

For the rest of the rag-tag crew… well. The most obvious parallel with Raffi’s story is Rios (and he dances on the sand), as he too gets wedged into a couple of predictable storylines. His brush with ICE, and the clumsy attempt at social commentary are just that – clumsy. In line with Star Trek‘s commitment to addressing social issues, sure, but still, you know… still clunky and obvious. The attempt is appreciated but the end results feel an awful lot like wheel-spinning, giving Rios something to do while keeping him out of the way of the main plot that doesn’t really require him. He gets to have a little romance, though, and in the end elects to stay behind. The “I’m staying behind with the natives, for love” is every bit as much a cliché as Raffi’s storyline, though it benefits from the fact that Santiago Cabrera at least has some screen presence where Hurd has essentially none. His attraction to Teresa, played by a perfectly fine Sol Rodriguez, at least has the odd spark (unlike that fucking cigar he waves around but never lights) which helps mitigate the more obvious elements of the storyline.

But just look at what’s happened to Alison Pill! Faced with being slowly taken over by the Borg only to eventually become the Queen, she absolutely nails it. Pill wasn’t much of a presence in Season One – again, much of the blame falls on the writing there – and Jurati just never really came together as a character. Season Two, which actually bothers to give her something to do this time, completely reverses that and Pill just shines as someone slowly taken over by the Borg Queen but then… isn’t. Pill absolutely sells the strength of resolve Jurati has and makes her eventual no-score draw with the Borg Queen work in a way that would have been impossible to imagine at the end of the last season. When the Borg Queen tells Jurati that she’s been “impressed” it sounds like hyperbole, but in the end it really isn’t. Jurati proves not only to be the Borg Queen’s equal, but to be someone who can fundamentally alter what the Collective is.

Ah yes, the change to the Borg Collective. At long, long last, a season of Star Trek has actually found something to do with the Borg that isn’t just reiteration. Voyager gets a lot of stick for this – mostly, if not entirely, undeserved – but the fundamental nature of the Collective hasn’t changed since they were first introduced, back in “Q Who”. They are Space Communists, implacably imposed to the post-scarcity freedom-loving Federation, surrounded by the imposing Fascist architecture of the Cubes and Spheres. That’s what they are. Seven may have scored the odd victory, Janeway may have inflicted damage, Picard may have beaten a Queen, but ultimately they’ve remained true to their very singular nature.

Until now. And it’s the best trick Picard pulls by some considerable distance. Well actually there’s two tricks. The first is the revelation that the Queen has assimilated billions of lives because she’s lonely. That’s trite at best and poor overall motivation, but it does lead into the idea that Jurati can in some way bridge the gap between the Queen’s loneliness and her own. That leads to the fundamental change in nature of the Borg and it’s absolutely phenomenal. In fact it’s completely brilliant, and manages to be genuinely progressive and engaging in ways the show hasn’t been up to now. Rios’s rather dull encounter with ICE pays lip-service to social progress and concerns, Picard finding the good in an FBI agent in the eighth episode gestures towards resolution through dialogue but is simply too abrupt to work. There’s a sense of what Star Trek does there, but the execution is lacking.

But actually re-inventing the Borg? That hits the nail squarely on the head – progress made through strength and resilience and dialogue, not through bafflegab, fights and blowing things up. It is also – and this cannot be overstated enough – successful because it’s actually layered into the script. We start with the Borg Queen cut off and alone, then we get Jurati impressing her, then we get the Queen’s machinations, then we get Jurati refusing to give in, before finally we get the change to the Borg’s very nature. It’s a thread that runs throughout the entire season, it’s properly integrated storytelling, and it works. At long fucking last, Picard has figured out how to tell a cohesive, serialised story across all of its episodes that actually functions as it should. Shame they couldn’t manage it with the lead character, but at least with the Borg they actually get it to work.

For the rest of the show, things are fairly up and down. We get some more background with Guinan that isn’t really necessary as such, but fills in some gaps in the storytelling. Ito Aghayere does a decent version of a younger Whoopi Goldberg and manages a degree of rapport with Stewart. And Brent Spiner is back, playing (yet another) member of the Soong family. Of all the irrelevant wheel-spinning Picard‘s second season indulges in – and there’s a fair amount – this is the most spin-y and the least essential. No disrespect to Spiner, who proves remarkably good at playing the bitter, vicious Adam Soong (and dear me is that name on the nose, because he gives life to his daughter you see! Oh do fuck off), but he’s just not required here. The story is drab, it connects with very little, and we get yet another Khan reference right at the end (sadly). Everywhere TNG goes it seems Spiner must as well, but it’s time to break the chain. For all the flaws of the first season, Picard standing vigil over Data as he fades and ages was a genuinely heartfelt moment, and had that been Spiner’s last it would have both been moving, and a huge improvement on his bot-go-boom exit in Nemesis. But no.

Production-wise, things are… eh. This looks good, our brief glance at fascist Earth is effective (actually, that second episode is remarkably strong for being so stunningly clichéd), and most of the 21st century looks fine. The show cannot cut together an action sequence for shit though – the ninth episode is fucking awful for this. Whenever we get a bit of action as the newly-minted Borg drones attack it cuts away for a bit of a flashback. This kills the action part of the episode stone-dead every time, while never allowing Picard long enough to linger on the trauma of the past for an effective emotional head of steam to build up. It’s bad writing and bad direction. The final episode Borg-saves-the-day sequence looks pretty good, and needless to say the torso-only Borg Queen still looks fantastic, and for the most part the show is able to pull off what the script demands of it.

There’s plenty here that hasn’t been discussed, like the whole Europa / Renée Picard plot, but then it never has any weight to it and never feels remotely important, even though that’s the event the whole changed-timeline story is meant to revolve around. It just feels like more superfluous wheel-spinning, and the attempts to link it to Picard’s family history amount to precisely 100% of fuck all. Really, it could have been anyone, and there’s little in Penelope Mitchell’s performance that gives credence to the idea that she’s a Picard. They often barely feel like they belong to the same species, never mind the same family. Orla Brady’s Tallinn makes little impact as well. Though it’s sweet Picard gets to finally admit his feelings to Laris, neither Tallinn nor the whole “Assignment: Earth” / Watcher leftover plot strand feel like they amount to anything more than a way of ensuring some available tech while the La Sirena deals with its Borg infestation (and the less said about Will Wheaton’s utterly stupid cameo the better – Wheaton himself is fine, and Wesley deserves his shot at redemption, but not this idiotic little bit of fan-baiting. If you want to do it, give him an actual role).

So yes – after all that, Picard Season Two is a vast improvement on the previous season. It’s still not perfect, and there’s far, far too much wheel-spinning. There’s definitely enough material here for a killer six-part season, but ten episodes is just too much, and the season just can’t fill in the additional time with anything compelling. Still for the good parts this season is more than worth watching – Q is fantastic if criminally underused, the progress with the Borg is straightforwardly fantastic, and the whole thing just works in a way that the first season didn’t. Yes it’s wonky, yes there are plenty of entirely justifiable criticisms that can be levelled, and yes there’s still a lot of work to do to move the dial from “pretty good” to “fuck yeah”. But at least the dial is moving in that direction, which did not seem remotely likely when the first season bowed out. Season Three – the final season – has already wrapped though no release date has yet been announced. But this time, it’s actually possible to look forward to the new season with a sense of hope rather than trepidation. That alone is a major achievement.

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