Now that we’re close to the end of its first season, it strikes me that Star Trek: Picard still hasn’t made an argument for itself as a television series. In my reviews thus far, I have been drawn to its examinations of grief and regret, the way it draws its titular character in the twilight of his life, and the details that it fills in of a world I’ve come to love exploring. Despite my love of Star Trek being a relatively recent development in my life, what’s attracted me to this show isn’t its production value, the often very good performances of its cast, or its plot, but the winsome notalgia it has for a television show that was itself often very reluctant to indulge its audience in visions of its past.
With the end of that pretense, it’s hard not to see Picard — really, all Star Trek past the original series — as a show straddling its past and its future, a universe full of whizbang ideas, cool ship designs, and galaxy-shaking weapons that can’t see a way forward for itself without some connection to either James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard, Spock or Data, Vulcans or Klingons, Romulans or Borg. If you’re a fan of this stuff, as I am, it can be exciting to take all of the ingredients 50+ years of this franchise provides, stir them together, and see what comes up — that’s how an expanded universe of novels, comic books, and video games often comes into being for these properties, and that’s how Picard often creates resonance in a vacuum.
Back to the Past
Picard showrunner Michael Chabon is a novelist. His books are often massive, multigenerational tomes full of changing perspectives and buried past lives coming into focus, and while his show doesn’t have the time 500 pages affords for a big, emotional reveal to pull itself together, he does have seven seasons of television and four movies worth of material to pull from when trying to give this episode’s central scene between Picard and Soji some heft. But If you don’t know who Commander Data is, if Star Trek: The Next Generation never happened and “Commander Data” was a character from an unseen narrative past and his friend described his life to his daughter with vagaries like “brave” and “gentle,” would it work? If everything else remained the same, would you I or you or any viewer be moved by it?
Probably not, and that’s a problem. Sure, “Broken Pieces” is an episode structured around Raffi figuring out why Rios broke down at the sight of Soji, barricading himself in his room to drink and cry and listen to records, but the trials and travails of these new characters, characters who would not exist without Picard’s name on the marquee, pale in comparison to Picard’s deepening relationship with Soji, which reexamines the question of whether or not Picard would be (or already has been) a good father, circumstances permitting.
If you’re a little freakier than your average TNG fan, Seven of Nine returns in this episode, infiltrating the Borg cube to respond to a Elnor’s distress call. Seven is a character with far less history to her than Picard, but she was the star of Star Trek: Voyager, the one around whom much of the series’ later mythologizing about the Borg spun, a tug-of-war for her soul played out by Voyager’s captain and the queen of the Borg Collective.
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In Picard, the Borg cube is an object of narrative potential on the precipice of activation — if you don’t know Voyager, all you really need for the plot to work is that she’s ex-Borg and can thus interface with the ship. But if you do know Voyager, then you’re in for a relitigation of that show’s theme, the struggle between Seven’s desire to be an individual and the Borg’s desire to form and operate as a collective. In one respect, it’s nice to have someone I’ve been trained to care about making hard decisions like “do nothing and die” or “reintegrate with the collective, re-enslave the freed Borg on board, and live,” but try to imagine that scene with any of the ship’s nameless, faceless ex-Borg.
You can’t. I can’t. The show can’t, and isn’t even bothered with the question of what it’d look like if it were truly reflective of the boundless universe it purports to explore. Narrative storytelling is a contrivance of seeming coincidence, it’s true, but Star Trek managed to avoid that more often than not until the CBS All Access era of the franchise, when Star Trek: Discovery’s main character, Michael Burnham, was announced as Spock’s adoptive sister — if space was the final frontier, Burnham’s existence shrunk it quite a bit, as has each successive major or minor TNG-era character whose appearance in Picard is marked with a phrase like “what are you doing out here?”
I haven’t written much about this episode, but there’s not much of an episode to write about. The Rios holograms don’t have an interesting backstory — they’re there to relay broken pieces of information around the traumatic event of Rios’ life, which involved his captain shooting an android who looked a lot like Soji before committing suicide. With his story and Jurati’s commingling with Raffi’s conspiracy theorizing, we know why the Zhat Vash are doing what they’re doing, we know they — and Starfleet, and Seven’s commandeered Borg cube — are on their way to Soji’s homeworld, and we know there’s a wider conflict coming. All of that’s secondary to the knowledge Soji drops on Picard — that Data loved him and he loved Data, only neither of them could say it — but we already knew. We’ve always known. I want to learn something new.