Something that I let pass unmentioned in my review of last week’s episode “Absolute Candor” is that it was the first episode of Star Trek: Picard directed by Jonathan Frakes. Beyond playing William T. Riker on The Next Generation, Frakes is one of Star Trek’s most prolific, capable directors, helming 21 total Trek related projects. He has an uncanny confidence behind the camera, an acute instinct for blocking, framing, and tone that’s often been missed in post-Deep Space Nine Trek, and he couldn’t have been deployed at a better time.
With Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) back in the fold, “Stardust City Rag” is the most lore-heavy episode of Picard yet. We don’t cut to the Borg artifact, we don’t see any sinister Romulan machinations at work — this episode is all about two ex-Borg meeting up on the edge of civilized space and working towards similar but markedly different goals.
Ocean’s Seven of Nine
Those two goals are laid out in brutal fashion in the episode’s cold open, as we begin with the straight-up murder of Icheb, a former Borg drone who, like Seven, was rescued by Voyager during its journey through the Delta Quadrant. It’s gross, as Icheb is very much conscious as some nameless surgeons drill through his eye searching for his cortical node. It’s a butchering, and though it’s interrupted by Seven, she’s too late. At his request, she shoots Icheb, and 13 years pass. In the present, Bruce Maddox (John Ales) begs for the intercession of Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan), a crime boss who posts up at the now-franchised Quark’s Bar. She hears him tell his sob story about his lab blowing up and the Tal Shiar, but she’s poisoned his drink — she’s working with the Tal Shiar and plans to turn Maddox over to them.
From here, Picard becomes the first of this new era of Star Trek to do one of my favorite things Star Trek does: dabble in other genres. Playing a game of intergalactic Ocean’s 11, the show edits back and forth between the crew of the La Serena developing their plan to rescue Maddox and that plan being put into action. The plan is to swap Seven for Maddox, her Borg parts being worth more to Bjayzl than the Tal Shiar bounty on the cyberneticist, and to pull this heist off Rios, Picard, and Elnor are given roles to play and costumes to wear. Rios is a hyper confident bounty hunter, Picard a cartoonishly evil, eyepatch wearing Frenchman, and Elnor, who does not know how to lie, as the silent type. Dr. Jurati is left behind to beam everybody up, and Raffi says goodbye to the crew.
The two smaller threads at play in this episode are as follows: Jurati is freaked out on the ship, unsure that she can carry out her mission. Raffi asked for a ride to Freecloud so she could reunite with her son. Their relationship fell apart due to her chasing the ghosts surrounding the Mars attack and the abandonment of the Romulan rescue mission. Raffi’s scene with her son is moderately heartbreaking due to Michelle Hurd’s performance, though her finding happiness on Freecloud was unlikely at best. Jurati’s arc comes more into focus later, but Alison Pill plays panic well.
But the reason we’re here this week is to see Patrick Stewart chew the scenery in his undercover persona. It’s magnificent, Stewart and Picard both having a ton of fun, at one point his delivery of a line spiking the levels on the microphones. Nothing is as it seems, though, as Bjayzl and Seven know each other, a relationship that Bjayzl insinuates was intimate. As it turns out, Bjayzl posed as a Fenris Ranger, engendering Seven’s trust and learning about Icheb, leading to his torture and death. Seven breaks cover, hoping to kill Bjayzl, but she’s talked out of it by Rios, who says that Picard and Elnor wouldn’t last with a bounty placed on their heads for acting as her accomplice. She relents and allows herself to be beamed back to the La Serena, Maddox in tow.
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The scene that follows is one straight out of fan fiction, the former Locutus of Borg talking to Seven of Nine about their shared history as part of the collective. With the bulk of the episode passed, it’s difficult not to feel sad about Seven’s path since the end of Star Trek: Voyager, the hope of regaining her humanity turned into years of bitterness and regret. That attitude does not mesh with Picard’s unrelenting hope — his belief in the potential for good seems naive in contrast to, well, everything. Seven asks Picard if he feels like he’s regained all of his humanity, and though neither of them have, they’re both working on it. She asks Picard for a couple of phaser rifles, lies to him about her pickup from the Rangers being on the surface already, and beams back into Quark’s to kill Bjayzl. The last we see of her (though probably not forever), she’s trying to shoot her way out from the ordeal.
On the La Serena, Picard asks Maddox about Soji and finds out that she’s on the Borg Artifact. He’s sent away, and Dr. Jurati comes face to face with her lover and partner, who weeps when she’s told that Soji and Dahj were perfectly imperfect, and continues to weep as she murders him, saying she wishes she hadn’t seen what “they” showed her. It’s an unexpected twist ending that completely recontextualizes Jurati, creating an active threat to Picard and the rest of the crew as they fly off to the Borg cube.
Under Frakes’ direction, the past two episodes have ably shown that it’s possible to marry the feel of The Next Generation and the requirements of modern television. Not only is this episode a fun rip through one of the medium’s great genres, but it capably explores the mutual traumas of two of the franchise’s more beloved characters while providing its new characters with some nice moments, expanding the universe while remaining intimate. That’s an incredibly difficult juggling act, one that Star Trek doesn’t often ask for and typically isn’t very good at providing. The show is still finding its footing, but the story it’s piecing together is getting more engaging the further it goes, promising a back half of the season that cuts through much of the show’s intentional vagueness. It’s not great Star Trek yet, but it is good television.