I don’t think Star Trek: Picard was produced with week-by-week viewing in mind. Yes, it’s being released that way, but the reason for this release schedule feels more motivated by economics than the way shows developed for streaming platforms are paced. The survival of CBS All Access depends on keeping as many people subscribed to it as possible, meaning that people interested in keeping current with this new Star Trek show will pay for the service for two or three months of a traditional “wait for next week” viewing experience while everybody else waits for the show to wrap up in a way that won’t render an episode like “Maps and Legends” as filler.
What we’ve got here is half-procedural, half-world building, as Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) investigates the circumstances around the death of Dahj (Isa Briones), Data’s daughter. As it so happens, Picard’s Romulan housekeepers were once members of the Romulan secret police, the Tal Shiar, and what they uncover is not only that Dahj’s sister is somewhere off-world, but that all evidence of Dahj’s murder has been scrubbed clean by the Zhat Vash — the Romulan super secret police.
Picard needs a ship and a crew if he’s going to solve this thing and uncover evidence of a Romulan plot on Earth, so he has his doctor falsify some medical records, walks into Starfleet HQ, and is roundly chastised by an admiral who is cartoonishly upset about Picard’s critique of Starfleet on network news. Watching her report on her meeting with Picard to a commodore who is pretty obviously (and is quickly revealed as) a Romulan agent is about as close as this episode gets to feeling like Star Trek: The Next Generation, as two things from then are unchanged today: the Romulans are shifty, plotting enemies, and the admiralty are clueless, hostile obstacles for Picard to navigate around.
He will, of course, but “Maps and Legends” wants to hammer home that the Starfleet we have now is nothing like the one we had, and it also wants to make clear that Picard is operating on a tight timeline. The condition his doctor reports is an abnormality of the parietal lobe. There’s no fancy name for the space syndrome he’s got just yet, but the difference between this one and all the other ones Picard has either had or witnessed is that he’s an old man, and old men don’t survive terminal illness. Were it not for the public knowledge that Picard was renewed for a second season, this might feel significant. Instead, it’s one more thing that feels too familiar to what’s come before, like TNG is a tomb to plunder rather than something to pay homage to and move on from.
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Speaking of tomb raiding, at the Borg cube the Romulans have commandeered, we learn that they’re not just gentrifying an area of space with a bunch of upcycled debris. The cube is at the center of Romulan science, a site where scientists figure out and repurpose Borg tech. While it’s lost contact with the Borg Collective, the cube isn’t 100% free of its prior inhabitants, meaning several thousand people are living in a hive whose drones still pose a threat.
It’s effective and creepy in a way the Borg hasn’t been since early in their run as villains on TNG, and it causes one to wonder what the Romulans are doing with their reclaimed Borg tech, and why someone like Dahj’s sister, Soji (also Briones), goes into a field like Borg autopsy. Watching her pay respect to a creature the Romulans in the room treat as disposable, the later question is one that piques Narek’s (Harry Treadaway) interest, as he’s a Romulan agent (surprise!) assigned to her capture and interrogation.
This mirrors the episode’s cold open, which shows the disaster at the Utopia Planitia shipyards on Mars, how humans treat their synthetic slave races as creepy and disposable, but like the shifty Romulan infiltrators within and without the Federation, this is territory Star Trek has covered on numerous occasions. As far as inciting incidents go, losing a planet and watching a star go nova carries higher stakes than a hologram achieving sentience, but Star Trek is at its best when it uses smaller incidents like that to investigate the larger truths of its universe.
That feels like another casualty of the way Star Trek is produced for streaming services. Previous iterations of the show were built for syndication and had sprawling, 26-episode seasons with little serialization, so it was possible to investigate human attitudes towards synthetic intelligence, and necessary to carry out those investigations within the constraint of a 46 minute episode. That meant big, sweeping changes to the universe that didn’t always stick or mesh with what came before, but that’s what makes the lesser episodes of Star Trek (and there are a lot of those) worth watching.
“Maps and Legends” isn’t a lesser episode of Star Trek. It doesn’t feel like an episode of Star Trek at all. It’s a waystation where we’re asked to wait as the plot complications of the prior episode are untangled and the plot complications of the rest of the series are spun out. The episode may feel more substantial as soon as next week, when “The End is the Beginning” wraps up the three episode arc that played in full at Star Trek: Picard’s premiere, but as a single piece of television “Maps and Legends” asks for a lot of patience and gives relatively little in return.