It’s been easy to write about Star Trek: Picard‘s obsession with grief. The show is about a space-faring old man who has seen death on an unimaginable scale, a man who has seen civilizations crumble and loved ones sacrifice themselves on his behalf. Picard‘s work in this space has been good, often powerful, because the character and the actor who portrays him have a gravitas about them that’s earned by the virtue of their (imaginary and real) labor and the amount of time we, the audience, have spent with him. Picard is, for most, a comforting presence. What, this show asks again and again, could comfort him?
Picard is also, less successfully, a show about choice. While it’s left this plot behind, the show begins with the Federation’s choice not only to ban synthetic lifeforms, but to abandon its mission to help the Romulans with the destruction of their homeworld. The show has had many inflection points where a character is forced to make a decision — Seven killing Bjayzl, Jurati killing Bruce Maddox, and every crew member’s decision to trust and join Picard — but the show’s failing, to this point, is that most of them have failed at creating a sense of urgency.
Yes, there’s danger — Picard is far too kinetic to ignore that — but the choices made in the face of that danger are too often the only right ones to make. The world Picard has built is one where we’re told how complex the situation is but what we’re shown is remarkably uncomplicated, a pretty screensaver against which its titular character can give an earnest speech about a choice which the audience knows the outcome to, and in which he ultimately has his own choices taken away from him without so much as a meditation on what that means.
A Failure of Imagination
The plot: It’s mostly pretty boring. Following “Et In Arcadia, Ego Part 1,” the stage is set for a confrontation between the Synths and the Romulans, a procedural where it’s revealed that Sutra is the one who killed her sister, and a plot to foil Soji’s use of the beacon. Oh, and Narissa wants to fight Seven of Nine in an effort to bring Hugh’s storyline to a sloppy conclusion. You can guess how these go. Dr. Soong figures out what Sutra did because synths record everything. Seven wins the fight with Narissa because Seven is a mainline protagonist in the franchise. And the plot to stop Soji, which involves taking Narek back as a prisoner and smuggling a bomb in a soccer ball, fails, because it’s ultimately up to Jean-Luc Picard to save the day.
His doing so is everything I hoped this show would attempt to do distilled into the back third of an otherwise unremarkable episode of television. Broken out of house arrest by Jurati (in one of Allison Pill’s best performances of the season, equally serious and effervescent, at last alive with the possibility of space travel), the pair commandeer the La Serena and fly out through the battle between the Romulans and the synth’s planetary defense system to stall for time until Starfleet gets there. Aided by a magical ship-fixing device (the less said about it, the better), the La Serena is outfitted to trick sensors into seeing dozens of the same ship. Facing an armada of ghosts, the Romulans waste so much time firing at nothing that Starfleet, led by Will Riker, shows up for a standoff.
The Riker/Commodore Oh discussion is classic TNG empty Romulan bluster, background for the fact that Picard, in exerting himself so, is dying. He opens a channel to Soji, who has activated the beacon already, a device that opens up a wormhole containing robot tentacles (the less said about it, the better), and Picard counters her “I don’t have a choice” rhetoric with a classic Picard speech where he calls her belief in a lack of choice “a failure of imagination” and implores her to reconsider. She does so, and the Romulans fly off. Picard says his goodbye to Riker, passes out, is beamed back to the planet, and that’s it for Jean-Luc Picard, dead, but as a hero and not a recluse.
There’s a brief montage of reactions to this — Seven and Rios comparing trauma, Elnor crying on Raffi’s shoulder — stitched together by a butterfly (the less said about it, the better). The last of these scenes is between Picard, who is dead, and Data, who is a consciousness within a complex simulation. Star Trek has explored death before, often through Picard, but for him to actually, consequentially die and be greeted by the man whose death rattled him more than perhaps any other is a step beyond what entities like Q put him through. Without saying it, it’s pretty clear that Picard thinks he’s in a kind of afterlife, but it’s more of a waystation, a place Data resides but others enter and leave as they’re called. The two get to talk about love and regret, about the nature of their mutual sacrifices. It’s an incredibly well done sequence, one that manages to convey the weight of Picard’s decision and retroactively give Data’s death the meaning it lacked in Star Trek: Nemesis.
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And then Picard wakes up. Before finding out that Sutra was a murderer, Dr. Soong had been planning on transferring his consciousness into a golem, a squishy-looking android tucked away in a biobed like an android from The Original Series. Instead of Soong, it’s Picard’s consciousness in the golem. No superpowers, no immortality, just a man in a robot body, given another couple decades of life, without any complications from his faulty brain.
In all honesty, I hated it. Yes, the scene this enables, where Picard does Data a solid and unplugs his consciousness so that he can know what it’s like to end, is very good. It’s just that Picard chose, willingly, to give himself up for the cause of allowing his friend’s descendants to live full, rich lives of self-determination and peace, and he was very clearly content with that decision. His waking up in an android body robs that moment of impact. His quick acceptance of it robs the new status quo of its intrigue. How are you going to wake up a goddamn robot and not ask why nobody sought your consent first?
Without knowing whether there will be a season two of Star Trek: Picard or not (one has been ordered, but it’s unclear how much the pandemic will affect television production schedules), the finale of season one asks that you take a massive leap of faith without building the goodwill necessary to go along with it. Instead, we establish that the La Serena crew is sticking together. Rios and Jurati are dating. Seven and Raffi are also dating, unexpectedly. And Picard, fresh off the showroom floor, gets to stride confidently to the bridge and compel his new family towards the unknown. If I follow, I fear it may be more out of obligation than pleasure.