With each passing week, I expect Star Trek: Picard to drop its veil, reveal its purpose, and start racing towards it. Its seventh episode, “Nepenthe,” would be a good time to start those engines, but the show asks, once again, for its audience’s patience, serving up a long, nostalgia-laden aside on the episode’s titular planet, around which all of its non-TNG pieces maneuver around.
That aside is a visit to the home of William T. Riker and Deanna Troi, Picard’s second and command and ship’s counselor on the Enterprise. It’s good to see them, settled into a peaceful retirement in a log cabin on a lake, where they’re raising a child. They had two, but in the tradition of Picard, tragedy befell the Rikers in the longer interlude between Star Trek: Nemesis and now, as their first son, Thad, died of the kind of Star Trek illness that could have been cured but for the ban on synthetic lifeforms that acts as one of the inciting incidents of the show.
Towards the end of the episode, Picard notes that his former crew had far less baggage than his current crew of wounded malcontents, but that’s not true, having as much to do with the captain’s station above his crew as it does the nature of The Next Generation, a show that needed to reset itself at the end of every episode so that nobody who missed an episode one week would be lost in the lurch the next. Troi in particular is a famously tortured character, but there’s more emotional texture to her dealing with the grief of a dead son than there is with the multitude of times her body or mind was attacked, possessed, or outright raped by a foreign entity, and Marina Sertis, always a talented actor given too little to do in TNG, here really gets to dig into the latent potential of the role she’ll forever be identified with.
It’s About Family
“Nepenthe” is an episode about trust, both broken and newly forged (what episode of Picard isn’t?), and at the center of that is the relationship between Picard and Soji. Picard, of course, feels an immediate link to Soji through her connection to Data, but that relationship is not one Soji shares in and, unlike her sister, she’s not been programmed to trust Picard. As a result, she thinks that he’s part of the same game the Romulans were playing and is disinclined to trust anybody. But Troi gets to counsel, Kestra (Deanna and Will’s still-living child) prods her with curious questions about her relationship to Data, and Riker gets to be a dad, making pizza in the kind of woodfire grill retirees like to build on their patios and telling Picard that he’s in over his head.
Picard well means in functioning as a parent to a traumatized child, but the events on the Borg cube and on the La Serena illustrate how right Riker is. On the Cube, Rizzo tries to extract Picard’s location from Hugh by killing reclaimed ex-Borg in front of him. Narek, meanwhile, is dispatched to tail the La Serena using a tracker ingested by Dr. Jurati before she joined Picard’s mission. This episode raises the body count of incidental TNG characters, as Hugh (quite stupidly) runs through his plan to take control of the Cube with Elnor, who somehow slipped the Tal Shiar after executing the guards from the last episode, and ends up with a throwing knife in his neck for talking openly of insurrection. Elnor goes back into hiding, finding and activating the beacon Seven of Nine gave to Picard, which kind of undoes the drama of whether or not she was able to shoot her way out of Freecloud, but so it goes.
On the La Serena, the story is that Dr. Jurati’s guilt is eating her alive. She tries a couple of times to get them to turn back, but rather than connecting the dots between that, Bruce Maddox’s death, and her being on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Rios comes to suspect Raffi of being the mole responsible for the Narek-piloted Romulan ship on their tail, though the signal is broken when Jurati poisons herself and puts her in a coma, so it can’t be too long before they figure it out. Jurati’s story and Hugh’s intersect at the idea of Soji as the linchpin of a universal apocalypse — planets exploding, people in great pain, the kind of thing that, as the show is fond of saying, can drive people insane.
More Star Trek:
- A Guide to the Rough Early Seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation
- Star Trek: Picard Episode 1 “Remembrance” Review
- A Cynic’s Guide to Star Trek: Voyager
The Abrams Legacy
New Star Trek is almost fetishistically obsessed with this kind of threat, the echoes of a media ecosystem where any given year can be depended upon to deliver ten different movies featuring the somehow bloodless wholesale slaughter of entire cities and civilizations. Picard does a better job of exploring what that means for culture — both our own and the culture of its universe — than your average Marvel or DC movie, but since JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek movie destroyed the Romulan homeworld as a means of creating an alternate timeline where the themes of Trek could have a gritty, sometimes grim veneer applied to them, the stakes for its television follow-ups have remained so high as to be entirely without drama.
That means taking pleasure where you can, like at the Riker family dinner table, where old friends catch up while introducing someone new to the tapestry of their lives to their place in it. Yes, one more session of characters in the show dabbling in “Previously on Star Trek: Picard” makes “Nepenthe” feel like one more interlude in a series of interludes, but if that’s being served up with William T. Riker’s pizza, his infectious love for his child, and the well-worn, warmly familiar relationship between he, Troi, and Picard, I’ll take a slice and stay awhile.