At long last, real stakes. After beating around the bush for two episodes, Star Trek: Picard is finally ready to head out into open space in search of the unknown, its exploration of Starfleet’s failure as an intergalactic force for good shifted to the backburner as Picard establishes his crew and faces down the threat of the Zhat Vash.
The show opens minutes after Starfleet declines Picard’s plan to take old and mothballed ships to Romulus, which is also the moment his relationship with Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd) is irreparably damaged — Picard gets to retire to his vineyard, and Raffi ends up fired and living in a trailer in the Vasquez rocks. Vaping snakeleaf, Musiker reprimands Picard for not checking in on her while she was in crisis, failing her as a commanding officer and a friend.
That scene is great, one of the areas in which Picard truly excels, making the new characters who’ve been in Picard’s off-screen life feel lived-in, truly present in the ongoing narrative of the great man’s life. His relationship with Zhaban and Laris, the ex-Tal Shiar agents who tend to his vineyard, shows his capacity for empathy and change — to live with Romulans after years of their being his primary antagonist. His relationship with Musiker, on the other hand, is about the failings of the professional distance he kept from most of his crewmembers, even those, like Musiker, who sacrificed their career for his idealism.
The same can’t be said for the characters hanging out on the Borg artifact, though part of that is due to its primary concern, Soji (Isa Briones), remaining a mystery to herself. Her act of compassion in the previous episode, speaking to a reclaimed, nameless Borg in its mother tongue, was enough to impress Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco), a Borg liberated by the Enterprise D who is now in charge of the project of Borg reclamation. He accompanies her to a room full of recovering Romulan ex-Borg, where she’ll interview Ramdha (Rebecca Wisocky) who is (or was) an expert on Romulan mythology before her assimilation.
The episode proceeds like this for awhile, crosscutting between Picard’s effort to recruit Cristobal Rios (Santiago Cabrera) as his pilot, Soji’s tiptoeing around Ramdha, Raffi’s researching the data Picard sent her way, and a brief aside with Rios, whose ship is empty but for him and the Emergency Medical Hologram (also Cabrera), whose bedside manner is more boyfriendish than doctorish. Crosscutting is a technique that’s still relatively new in Star Trek, which is traditionally a show that favors strict scene changes to quick cuts from one expensive-looking location to another. It’s an effective way of relaying a lot of information at once, though there are bits and pieces in the middle of the narrative that get lost due to their brevity. But even those brief asides are exquisitely detailed, like the buildings in the deep background of the Daystrom Institute or the way shots of the stars at chateau Picard are often done through grapevines.
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With the exception of Discovery, there’s never been a Star Trek that luxuriates in its settings the way Picard does. It’s particularly proud of the reclaimed Borg cube, which has gotten lavish shots going from its exterior to its interior on a few occasions now, giving an altogether different sense of scale to that ship than Star Trek: First Contact. It’s as large as a city and repurposed to act as a housing complex and laboratory. Its grey lighting is as impersonal as it is threatening. When there’s a break from the ordinary routine, which Soji’s interview with Ramdha leads to, it feels like the whole structure is on the verge of exploding.
That’s not the feel of Picard’s home, but the Zhat Vash are on to him and mount an assassination attempt. It’s tense, as the home has a lot of old stuff to smash (including Picard), but he’s well-protected by Laris and Zhaban and aided by Dr. Jurati (Alison Pill). This is where the episode’s crosscutting is at its best, as Picard’s interrogation of a surviving Romulan attacker is juxtaposed against Soji’s interview. Soji knows way too much about Ramdha. Picard knows way too little about the Zhat Vash. Rhamda knows Soji as “The Destroyer.” So does Picard’s Romulan. Rhamda takes a gun and tries to kill herself. Picard’s attacker tries to spit his suicide acid at Zhaban and dies. It’s legitimately thrilling in a way that prior episodes’ focus on spectacular fight sequences have failed to be.
And, at the end of all of that, we get Jean-Luc Picard on the bridge of a starship, looking out at the vast expanse of planets and stars he’s been absent from for far too long. Every trailer for Picard has contained this moment, the old man waving his hand and saying “Engage,” but placed in its proper context, “The End is the Beginning” manages to earn the feeling that word evokes. It’s time for what’s next. I’m truly excited for whatever that is.