We’re past the halfway point of Star Trek: Picard, and with the merging of its A and B stories the strength of the former and weakness of the latter has come into sharp relief. I’ve written at length, over the course of the last two Jonathan Frakes-directed episodes in particular, about how Picard is wonderful in its treatment of its titular character and his makeshift crew, ably handling and expanding upon the legend of Jean-Luc Picard by giving him a long, complicated narrative to chew on. I’ve also written about the trite edginess of the romance between Soji and Narek, one an android Picard is duty bound to protect, the other a Romulan as shifty and disingenuous as his mincing 1990s counterparts. Six episodes down with four to go, and my feelings on the matter have not changed.
Part of the reason is that I’m still fascinated by the work that has gone into making Picard fit into a modern television landscape. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a beloved show, justifiably so, but as imagined by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbery its protagonists weren’t allowed to be anything other than exemplary figures of humanity. At the head of this was the captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard, an incredible orator, a passionate defender of life, a man as comfortable with exploring the depths of space as he was plumbing the depths of human morality.
Central to his narrative is his abduction and partial assimilation into the Borg collective, who used his knowledge and passion to wipe out the Federation fleet at Wolf 359. Given the name Locutus of Borg (he was, you see, a kind of ambassador, a locutor if you will), the shot of him shining a laser light into the Enterprise’s viewscreen is one of the most iconic in the history of Star Trek, all 50+ years, eight series, and 12 movies of it. But the nature of television created for syndication dictated that Picard’s stay with the Borg was brief — two episodes, separated by a summer break — and his recovery swift. Two episodes of TNG, one episode of Deep Space Nine, and the film First Contact deal with the traumatic fallout of his assimilation, but he is functionally unchanged by the experience — that’s what was needed to keep the character true to the mission of the show.
Modern television cannot thrive on narratives featuring largely uncomplicated characters, which is part of the reason why Picard’s new crew is so thoroughly broken. Rios struggles with the memory of his previous commanding officer’s death. Dr. Jurati killed her boyfriend. Elnor is a refugee raised by nuns and learning how to function in the real world. Raffi is an addict whose substance abuse and belief in Federation-wide conspiracy ruined her family life and career. And leading the charge is Picard, a man who has been told of his encroaching death, now dealing with a mountain of regret and shame — the death of his friends, the failure of his mission, and buried deep beneath all of that, his violation by the Borg collective. So a shot of Picard swiping through pictures of the Borg, coming to rest on an image of Locutus that merges with his own face? That’s the kind of shit I live for.
But the drama on the Borg cube has not lived up to its end of the bargain. It’s not due to the performances of its principal characters — Isa Briones and Harry Treadaway are putting in the work—but the vagueness of Soji’s purpose on the Cube and the duplicitousness of Narek’s seduction of her have driven my interest in their story to the finer points of the setting that story unfolds in. I require detail, and the Borg cube has plenty of it, from the shifting tiles on the walls to the regeneration alcoves lining deck after deck after deck to the mutilated faces of reclaimed Borg, some of whom look forlorn, some of whom look into the mirror after therapy and smile, glad for the rescue, for relief of some sort.
Which pushes one’s mind back to Picard, who hasn’t been on a Borg cube, deactivated or otherwise, since his assimilation. To this point, Patrick Stewart has been asked to play a remorseful old man. Here, he’s tasked with portraying a man intentionally triggering his PTSD as a means of addressing his remorse. Some of this is addressed by quick-cutting Picard’s memories of Locutus into his panic attack, some by the sheer scale of the Cube, the industrial lighting making it unclear if the arms grabbing him from behind are trying to keep him from falling off a ledge or trying to reassimilate him. When he comes face-to-face with Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco), his relief — and Hugh’s joy — is palpable. Like his meeting with Seven in “Stardust City Rag,” it’s possible to see a way towards catharsis for Picard, something only half-achieved in TNG.
More Star Trek:
- A Cynic’s Guide to Star Trek: Voyager
- Get Ready for Picard With Our Star Trek Primer
- Star Trek: Picard Episode 5 “Stardust City Rag” Review: Heist in Space
Things Fall Apart
As Picard deals with who he is, Narek leads Soji through a Romulan meditation practice designed to reveal who she is to herself. His goal, obviously, isn’t helping her—his sister has tasked him with finding out where the other synths, if they exist, are. She makes it past the programming that’s been blocking her full vision of a recurring nightmare, sees herself on a workbench, looks up through a skylight to see two moons, and that’s all that’s needed. Sure, Narek looks kind of pained when he walks out of the meditation center, filling it with a kind of poisonous gas, but to this point Picard hasn’t done a great job of making its tortured bad man interesting. It’s a real tripping point of prestige format television, and it’s one this show keeps fumbling.
Now racing towards its conclusion, Picard can no longer hide its flaws with nostalgia for the character’s past. The plot disagrees — next week promises the return of Will Riker and Deanna Troi — but Soji will be with him, pursued by Narek, the gears turning that plot needlessly complicated and obfuscated. Yes, television has changed, and Star Trek with it, but the show has always performed better when the unknown was beyond explored space, not hinging on a plot twist. “The Impossible Box” is an episode with neither, and no matter how much texture it adds to the universe, it’s just another point of transition in a series already too full of them.