Oh Dr. Jurati, how well hidden you were!
It’s a testament to the skill of the “Star Trek: Picard” team how little we saw this twist coming — even, though, with hindsight it was totally set up. And particularly well set up in this episode, “Stardust City Rag,” thanks to its writer, Kirsten Beyer (who spoke to IndieWire here), a longtime “Trek” vet who cut her teeth on a series of “Star Trek: Voyager” novels before working as a staff writer on “Discovery” and co-executive producer on “Picard.”
That Agnes Jurati was a spy planted by Starfleet Intelligence’s Commodore Oh makes total sense. The last we saw Oh she was talking to Agnes on Okinawi and wanting to know all about why Picard had taken such an interest in her. That scene ended quickly, and next thing we know Agnes shows up at Chateau Picard wanting to join his crew and saying that Oh is after her. Or is it that she was so spooked by whatever it is Oh showed her regarding Soji’s destiny that she showed up to join Picard’s crew to do Oh’s bidding?
Clearly the latter. And Bruce Maddox suffered his demise on account of it. Which is kind of brilliant. We’ve been hearing the name “Bruce Maddox” repeated over and over in the first four episodes — like somehow the villain turned good guy in “The Measure of a Man” had really left that much impact that we would be eagerly awaiting his return 31 years later. Instead he’s killed off right away.
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But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. A shocking act of violence ended “Stardust City Rag” and an even more shocking act of violence opened it.
The beginning of this episode was horrifying. At least since the episode “Conspiracy” from Season 1 of “Next Gen” — banned in the U.K. for an admiral’s exploding head among other frightful moments — we have never seen violence like this in “Star Trek.” Even that image of Picard having the Borg needle inserted in his eye at the beginning of “Star Trek: First Contact” cuts away just in time. Even the Borg Queen carrying around the severed head of a renegade drone in “Unimatrix Zero” was tempered by the goofiness of her saying “Disembodiment is the ultimate perfection.”
But “Stardust City Rag” opened with violence to rival the “Hostel” movies. Thirteen years before the main events of “Picard,” Icheb, the former Borg Drone whom Seven helped regain his individuality in the last two seasons of “Voyager” — becoming like a son to her — is being torn apart on an operating table. Fully conscious, no sedative or anesthetic. He’s being ripped open by a chop doc who wants to sell his Borg parts on the black market. A whirring drill approaches his eye socket, and then a horrible extraction device removes his eyeball — or rather, I’m hoping the artificial eye he received following his initial transition out of the Collective. Borg, when they’re assimilated, typically have an eye removed in favor of an ocular implant that can see further. That’s likely what we’re seeing here: but the optics — sorry — is that you’re seeing a poor guy get an eyeball pulled out. This is ghastly, and beyond anything “Trek” has ever presented — and surely only possible because this is show is a first-run on streaming. But if it’s extreme gore, it does have a purpose: to show how Seven of Nine goes from by-the-book Starfleet wannabe at the end of “Voyager” to trigger-happy vigilante in “Picard.”
Icheb dies, obviously. Or would have, anyway, if Seven hadn’t come a little too late to his rescue and put him out of his misery with a phaser blast. And ever since, she’s been tracking down who ordered him ripped apart.
Back in the present, we finally meet Bruce Maddox (John Ales, not Brian Brophy as in “The Measure of a Man” but looking pretty much exactly as we’d expect that character to look more than three decades later). The Tal’Shiar have raided his lab, and he’s come to tell the crime lord Bjayzl, who slinks around in a form-fitting onesie, that he can’t pay her back as a result. Mind that tranya, Bruce! It’s laced with a sedative so Bjayzl can just turn you over to the Tal’Shiar herself.
When Seven finds herself fully “functional” again on La Sirena, she proves unexpectedly eager to help trade with Bjayzl for Bruce Maddox. She’s been working for the Fenris Rangers to help keep the peace and curb piracy in and around the area that used to be the Neutral Zone following the collapse of the Romulan empire. The Federation has certainly washed its hands of any responsibility. There’s a nice moment when Raffi tells Rios about Seven: “The ex-Borg Ranger from the Delta Quadrant.” The way Rios says “Delta Quadrant” makes it seem like it’s still really remote — certainly doesn’t sound like the Federation has made any effort to follow-up on the exploration that Janeway and Seven did there, like in Kirsten Beyer’s “Voyager” novels. In her books, the Federation put together the Full Circle Fleet to go back to the Delta Quadrant and follow up on a lot of the missions — first-contact missions especially — that Voyager had undertaken while they were stranded there (and try to repair some of the catastrophic damage Voyager left in its wake). None of that was canon so to speak, and Beyer confirms in her interview with IndieWire that the events of her novels have not actually taken place in the same reality of “Star Trek: Picard.” Here, Starfleet’s days of exploration are behind it.
With the prospect of getting Maddox back at hand, Agnes lovingly watches a holo of the two of them making cookies together. She clearly loves him, they had a relationship. And watching it she breaks down in tears: not because she misses him, but, with hindsight, because she knows what she has to do.
Arriving at Freecloud, each member of La Sirena (except poor Elnor) gets a targeted holo ad. How do these ads do this? Does it read their minds? Each can be dismissed with a flick of a finger or a wave of a hand. For the fighting robot company that’s advertising its gladiatorial combat to Agnes, she has to punch it — punch it so hard its head’ll come off. And she doesn’t want to do it! “I don’t hit things!” she says. But again, this striking aversion to violence is because she knows what she has to do in short order.
Seven comes up with a plan: trade herself to Bjayzl for Maddox. She knows she’ll be the ultimate prize to anyone hungry for Borg parts, but conveniently elides, for Picard & Co., that it will also enable her to exact some revenge for Icheb — Maddox be damned.
Stardust City is a turn of the 25th Century Pleasure Island, and a fantastic piece of worldbuilding, though that appearance of a giant, writhing holographic Orion woman is yet another reason why you should check out Emily Yoshida’s peerless “Do Androids Dream of Colossal Women?” essay from a couple years back. Rios gets into the pleasure-dome vibe by wearing a flamboyant ‘70s-style ensemble that might be a little too garish for “Boogie Nights.” He at least wears it with some cool, unlike Picard who’s acting skills appear to have withered after years away from a holodeck, as he adopts a cartoonish French accent (being French and living in France, couldn’t he adopt, like, a real French accent?) and eyepatch. At least Rios’ reputation precedes him, as he apparently satisfied a “Mr. Quark of Ferenginar” (woot!) for the “handling of his trouble with the Breen” (double woot!).
Tangent: Oh, man. As excited as I am to catch up with other “Next Gen” characters I cannot wait to find out what other “Voyager” and “Deep Space Nine” characters are up to. Did Sisko ever return from the Celestial Temple? Is Rom still Grand Nagus? Did Nog become a Starfleet captain? (RIP Aron Eisenberg.) Why wasn’t it Jake Sisko who was the journalist conducting that interview with Picard in the first episode of this show? Greenlight “Deep Space Nine” Season 8, you cowards! End tangent.
Cartoonish Frenchman Picard presents Seven to Bjayzl. “She was a jeune fille, so you’ll have to dice her up to get them out” he says to the lady of crime about extracting those Borg implants. Bjayzl’s ahead of Picard: she knew Seven and even calls her by her birth name, Annika. “Are you still angry because I carved up your little friend for parts? Or because you trusted me?” Bjayzl asks. She double crosses Picard by having her guards point phasers at them. Then Seven triple crosses her by breaking her binders and putting her hands around her throat. It’s then Seven reveals she’s always regretted that Bjayzl only knew about Icheb because of her. The gangster staged a fake distress call to lure the U.S.S. Coleman into her clutches, where she could capture its science officer: Icheb.
Tangent (because that’s all it is in this episode): Ugh, now we learn why Raffi wanted to come here to Freecloud. Her son’s been living here. And their relationship has been strained because everyone thought she was crazy in light of her theory about the synth attack on Utopia Planitia being an inside job. Oh yeah, and then she turned to drugs. She wasn’t there for him when he was growing. Sob story. They don’t reconcile. She returns to the ship. End tangent.
Bjayzl needs to work on her crime lord skills because she forgot to keep track of Rios. He phaser-blasts her reptilian henchman Vup, so she offers another trade: Maddox for her life. Seven agrees, and a very nervous Agnes stands by to beam them all up. Again, she’s not nervous because she thinks she will lack the skills of Chief O’Brien in working a transporter, but about what’ll happen after that.
Once they all get back on La Sirena, Seven and Picard have a fantastic exchange. “Do you feel you regained your humanity?” Seven asks him about life after the Borg. “Yes.” “All of it?” “No. But we’re both working on it, aren’t we?” “Every damn day of my life.”
That is some good writing. And then Seven shows her idea of regaining her humanity is getting some bloody satisfaction for a wronged loved one and beams back down to Bjayzl for a little disintegration as payback.
In her own way it seems like Agnes is fighting for humanity as well when she kills Maddox to close out “Stardust City Rag.” “I wish you know what I know,” she said, while pulling the plug on his life support as he appears to suffocate to death. “I wish I didn’t know what I know. I wish they hadn’t shown me. I’m so sorry.” Commodore Oh must have shown her something really damning about Soji. Enough to convince her to kill the person she loves and turn her back on a lifetime of work, since Maddox credited Agnes as well for creating Dahj and Soji.
What it all means is still to be seen, but consider us hooked.