It is not a good time to be watching new television. Elsewhere on Fanbyte I cover professional wrestling, and it is incredibly difficult to pay attention to what’s happening in the ring to sufficiently parse the narratives that should not be happening at the moment. I’m having similar difficulty with new Star Trek, though it’s harder to explain why. This universe has functioned as an escape for me for years, something I turn to when I’m happy, sad, furious, and otherwise conscious, and it’s something I’m turning to now, but not in its current form.
I wish there were an easy way to delve into my ambivalence towards “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part One.” Part of me thinks that it’s comfort, that a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation and the patter of its characters lives against the windowpane of the universe is as familiar and comforting as a favorite song or meal. Yeah, it’s a show about the uncertain and often dangerous nature of exploring space, but more often than not it’s just people, friends even, gathering together in a room to talk. Star Trek: Picard is like that in its best moments, luxuriating in Patrick Stewart’s baritone as it navigates the complex issues of humanity in the 24th century, but his voice is largely alone in that realm, the kinetic frenzy of the show’s Star Wars-like space warfare and phaser fights shaking all around him. Given the moment, I am not looking to be shook.
More than not offering comfort when I could use some, Star Trek: Picard‘s cardinal sin is that it has become a frequently mediocre hour of television. That’s not uncommon with the first part of a Star Trek two-parter, as a lot of plot, character, and atmosphere needs to be established in order to draw the story to a close in part two. But “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part One” doesn’t give much to chew on past the promised planet of Data clones, Coppelius, where it turns out that Soji’s relations are a bunch of hard-bodied yoga robots.
A Living Funeral
Before we get there, the set-up: Narek managed to tail the La Serena, so they and the Seven-piloted Borg Cube converge on Soji’s homeworld. The sight of the Cube is impressive — it’s truly one of the best ship designs in sci-fi — but before it gets to fire off so much as a single laser, all three ships are swallowed up by giant, space-faring orchids. This is exactly the kind of weird-ass shit I want Star Trek to hold for me, like the innumerable living space jellyfish patrolling the void, but it turns out to just be a planetary defense system that drags ships into the atmosphere, burning up upon reentry. So it’s not even that good, even if it managed to trigger Picard’s brain anomaly.
Here the episode becomes two things: exposition for the next episode and a living funeral for Jean-Luc Picard, a character whom we know will keep living. Picard‘s main cast is very strong, and their acting, particularly Michelle Hurd’s, around the subject of this man’s eventual death is excellent. That eventual death also seems to take a weight off of Picard, as Stewart looks younger and more at ease with himself, confident in the choices he’s made and happy to find himself exploring new worlds again rather than dying quietly on his vineyard. Stewart’s unequivocal skill as an actor and comfort in this character goes without saying, but he has anchored this show in such a way that even at its least interesting, Picard himself is capable of fascination. He’s not going to die, not yet at least, but the possibility that he might feels very poignant despite the mess it’s cast against.
After a throwaway scene on the Borg Cube where it’s revealed that Seven, Elnor, and all of the xBs lived but don’t need to come along, Picard, Soji, and the others make it to the city. All of the androids living there have names like “Sutra” and “Saga,” so if you guessed that a creep built them, you’ll be thrilled to know that Brent Spiner is back to play yet another Soong, this time Noonian Soong’s son Alton, who followed in the family tradition of secluding oneself to make perfect life. He’s not as lascivious as his forebears, but he’s all about android superiority and transferring minds into android bodies, so he’s just as much of a kook.
- Star Trek: Picard Episode 8 “Broken Pieces” Review
- Star Trek: Picard Episode 7 “Nepenthe” Review
- Star Trek: Picard Episode 6 “The Impossible Box” Review
Space Flowers for Alton
The arc of Star Trek: Picard suggested that once the series arrived here, on a planet full of beings created in the image of Data, that the emotional weight of its titular character’s grief would come to bear. While Picard looks disconcerted about Soong, who jumps from “ha ha, you know us, mad scientists am I right” to “yeah I’m a mad scientist, all organic life must be destroyed,” a planet full of golden-skinned, yellow-eyed androids who have in some way connected to every crew member on the La Serena save maybe Raffi barely moves the needle, since it’s time now to bring the hell the show has long promised. There are 218 Romulan Warbirds on their way, and there’s not much time to make a defense.
Lucky for the synths, the Admonition the Romulans are particularly hopped up about is in Agnes Jurati’s brain, and the de facto leader of the synths, Sutra, has somehow taught herself how to perform the Vulcan Mind Meld. It turns out that the Admonition is less a warning to humanoid species about the dangers of synthetic life and more a promise to synthetic beings that there is a vast, galaxy-spanning alliance of synthetic lifeforms who will protect them when the organics who created them grow fearful by committing genocide on a universal scale. Sutra likes this idea, Soji isn’t so sure, and Picard tries to give one of his Great Speeches of Man to talk the synths out of it, but Dr. Soong blows him off as a failure and genocide wins the discussion, with Soji and Jurati joining Soong and the synths, and Picard getting placed under house arrest.
All of this comes under false pretenses, as Narek, also captured by the synths, is let go by Sutra, his escape necessitating the death of a synth so she has a cover story to tell the others why she’s suddenly chill with the idea of murdering trillions, but for now that’s a small concern, as the table is set for our finale. 218 Romulan Warbirds. A hundred or so synths with their space flowers. An unknown number of ships pouring in from the synthetic alliance, an old man under house arrest, his crew, and a few dozen ex-Borg, all converging on the same planet. Not knowing if or when we’ll get another voyage with Captain Jean-Luc Picard, I hope this one at least ends well.