[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for the “Star Trek: Picard” episode “Stardust City Rag.”]
“Star Trek: Picard” has flipped the script. So often in genre storytelling a female supporting character’s death is used simply as a way of adding to the experience and personality of a male protagonist. In “Stardust City Rag,” the latest episode of “Picard,” the roles are reversed. Following an even more shocking earlier murder, Bruce Maddox (John Ales), the robotics expert everyone has been seeking for the first five episodes is killed by his lover and protégé, Agnes Jurati (Allison Pill).
“For a lot of reasons, it made sense that Bruce Maddox would not make it through this episode,” episode writer and supervising producer Kirsten Beyer said. “The most important part was Jurati’s relationship to him and what it says about how committed she is to the mission she’s been assigned.”
Rather than just adding another new character in a show already packed with new characters to keep track of, Beyer realized when breaking the story for “Stardust City Rag” it would be more interesting to use this MacGuffin of a character as a way of enriching Jurati. She was visited by the head of Starfleet Intelligence, Commodore Oh, before leaving Earth, and says, while killing Maddox, “I wish you knew what I know… I wish they hadn’t shown me.” Whatever they showed her, likely some representation of how Data’s “daughter” Soji (Isa Briones) becoming “The Destroyer” who will wipe out all sentient life, it spooked her enough to kill one of the most important people in her life — someone committed to saving Soji.
“This is still only part of the story,” Beyer said, teasing that “a little more” information about Maddox will still be revealed. And she said that you can see hints at Jurati’s secret mission even earlier on.
“It’s easy to attribute her nervousness in that scene with Picard [in Episode Three] right before she gets on the shuttle to just the fact that she just killed a guy for the first time. But that’s also the first time we see her after her conversation with Commodore Oh, after her mission for Starfleet Intelligence became a thing. So I think that plays into her nervousness in that scene, as well.”
What’s fascinating is that “Stardust City Rag” doesn’t just use a male character’s death to enrich a female character’s story, it does so twice. While Maddox’s death ends the episode, Icheb’s murder opens it. Now played by Casey King, a dead-ringer for Manu Intiraymi who played the character for two seasons on “Star Trek: Voyager,” ex-Borg Icheb continued his career in Starfleet, serving as the science officer on a vessel lured into a trap. The gangster Bjayzl, seeking to sell his Borg parts on the black market, attacked his ship, captured him and had a chop doc butcher him alive. The most grisly moment, probably the most brutal moment ever in any incarnation of “Star Trek,” occurs when a drill whirs toward his eye-socket followed by an extraction device that pulls out his eyeball. The optic nerve connecting his eye is then severed.
This sounds like something out of a “Hostel” movie, not “Trek.” And Beyer herself said, “I’m curious about fan reaction to this.” But the justification makes sense: Seven of Nine considered Icheb practically a son — she calls him “my child” as she comes upon him, brutalized, and ends his misery with a phaser blast. It would take a trauma this extreme to precipitate Seven’s transformation into the kind of revenge-obsessed vigilante who murders her way to justice for Icheb at the end of “Stardust City Rag.”
Intriguingly, the scene was more brutal on set than Beyer had necessarily written it: “I was hearing the music [the chop doc] was listening to more than I was hearing Icheb’s screaming,” she said. “Like it was business as usual for this doctor, that this is something she’s done many times before. It’s another day at the office for her. But then once we got into production on set, it was really quite traumatic. Honestly, I’d never shot a scene like that before. And I thought what Jonathan [Frakes, the episode’s director] chose to do… I mean, he just went for it. I think for Seven to actually kill Bjayzl it was important that the audience feel the horror of what had happened to Icheb, and how that would impact Seven. I’m not sure the audience would accept that ending unless they really felt that visceral horror at the beginning. And because the Seven we have always seen was so in control of her emotions. She only experimented with them quite gingerly when she was part of Voyager’s crew. And 20 years later, clearly a lot has changed for her.”
If, like this writer, you’re looking for a little bit of solace about Icheb’s death, here’s this: that may not have been his actual eyeball that was yanked out. When people are assimilated into the Borg, they usually lose an eye that becomes an ocular implant instead — Beyer reminds us that an early Seven of Nine episode on “Voyager” actually features The Doctor (Robert Picardo) creating an artificial eye for Seven that will match her intact eye’s color. “So yeah, I don’t think it was his real eye” that was pulled out at the beginning of “Stardust City Rag,” Beyer said. “The thing I was hardcore about acknowledging was that the thing Bjayzl most wanted, his cortical implant, he didn’t have anymore. That was a callback to the ‘Voyager’ episode ‘Imperfection’ where Icheb chose to give up his cortical implant to Seven so that she could survive.”
Beyer had written a series of “Voyager” novels that continued the story of the crew after the last episode aired in 2001. None of those stories are canon — as “Stardust City Rag” suggests, Starfleet has not continued to explore the Delta Quadrant, which did happen in Beyer’s books. But she certainly knew from that experience how to write for Seven. Although, to borrow from another franchise, she did have to unlearn a bit of what she had learned. “The first several drafts that I wrote of this, the notes that I kept getting back were that I was still writing Seven’s voice much too close to what it was on ‘Voyager.’ Because that’s just my default, you know what I mean? They really wanted to see a much clearer evolution for her. That took a while to get there.”
You can take the Borg out of the Collective, but it’s certainly harder to take the Collective out of the Borg.