This is “Star Trek.”
What a phenomenal episode. “Nepenthe” is exactly the tone, the texture, the mix of hope and despair — the feeling — many of us have been looking for from this rocky first season of “Star Trek: Picard.”
If it has been a tough road getting here it’s partly because our own world is so vastly different from when we last saw Picard in “Star Trek: Nemesis.” It makes sense that it would take a real effort to get back to anything resembling that tone. “Picard” has faltered along the way, and there have been more than a few times when, as a dear friend quite eloquently put it to this writer, it felt like this show simply wasn’t well-written or acted enough to justify being so depressing. But damn if that swelling “Next Generation” theme at the end of “Nepenthe” doesn’t feel earned.
How amazing that we get to that point after the vision of apocalyptic destruction that opens the episode. We finally see exactly what happened on Okinawa three weeks earlier — was anyone else actually surprised it had been that long since the start of Picard’s space voyage? — when Commodore Oh visited Agnes. How funny that Jurati is listening to an opera through her 24th Century earbuds. If you were wondering how Oh showed Agnes whatever it was that spooked her so much she’d be willing to kill Maddox, wonder no further: it was a mind meld, full of cryptic images foretelling monumental destruction. Among them, there’s a quick shot of a strange group of people in a circle surrounded by a Stonehenge-like arrangement of rocks, and those people (synths?) appear to be setting off an explosion. Massive, Death Star-style incinerations of planets ensue. We even see Oh tearing her face with her fingernails, unleashing green blood, and finally putting a phaser to her head. What could cause a Vulcan to lose control to that degree?
It almost makes you wonder, given the vividness of those images, if Oh is a time-traveler from the future who has actually seen those things. Otherwise, she has quite the imagination.
Back in the present, Picard and Soji have just made their escape through the Borg Queen’s portal, and a Romulan tractor beam secures La Sirena. Jurati says to tell them to let them go. She knows the Romulans don’t want them, they want Soji, and and since Agnes is working for them she knows it will work. You’d think Rios and Narek might wonder about her attitude here, but one supposes they’re too distracted.
Things are worse on the cube itself: Narissa kills the xBs one by one to get Hugh to talk. She ultimately kills them all. “They died because you ruined years of patient work by operatives across hundreds of star systems, because you may have doomed a trillion souls across half the galaxy,” she says. Even the way she says that, getting all up in Hugh’s space, coolly laughing afterward, is such a wonderfully over-the-top display from Peyton List (a real MVP on this show). Narissa has quickly become one of my favorite Trek villains.
Of course her brother is working his own angle here, trying to track La Sirena in a little one-person Romulan craft, kind of like a more advanced version of that scout ship we saw in “The Defector” way back when. And having seen the injustice facing Hugh and the xBs, Elnor decides to stay behind and help them — another lost cause. Loved that exchange with him that Rios and Agnes have as they’re about to warp away: “Everyone here thinks you’re crazy.” “And brave,” Agnes adds.
Now to what all that action on the cube was about: Picard and Soji emerge from the other side of the portal on Nepenthe and immediately encounter a girl with a bow and arrow. Picard tells her to aim for his head because his heart is made of duratanium — a nice callback to that unfortunate incident with the Nausican. This girl is Kestra, Riker and Troi’s daughter! And she doesn’t really seem to remember Picard by sight, but certainly knows of him. Kestra is an exceptionally well-drawn character, a real triumph by this episode’s writers: she’s precocious and feels like a child, yet someone with an incredibly intuitive streak, as would make sense for someone a quarter Betazoid. She’s such a great lens through which to see Riker and Troi after all these years.
Picard is less intuitive in dealing with Soji. This is someone who has only just discovered she’s an android, doesn’t quite believe it, and certainly doesn’t trust someone like Picard, who has all these answers, after what she’s been through with Narek. Everything she ever thought was her life was fake, except for her sister Dahj – but then Picard has to add insult to injury by telling her that her sister is dead. Today is just a day for one horrible revelation after another.
It’s reunions all around after that. Troi knows right away Picard’s in trouble. How can you not adore Marina Sirtis’s acting style here? This feels like a much more grounded Troi, one who’s really lived some life and been through a lot. I kept thinking of Troi flying through a dream space in the TNG episode “Night Terrors” shouting “Who are you?” or being in one of Barclay’s dreams and saying “I am the goddess of empathy!” One loves all of that, but it is a wonderful evolution to see this more mature Troi. “I’m not as brave as I used to be,” she said to Picard. “The means you’re wiser.” She conveys that in her performance. Not to mention Dad Riker! Oh, Jonathan Frakes how we’ve missed you. The first time we see him here he’s grating cheese, but seeing Picard he quickly falls back into Number One mode and, sensing also that he’s in trouble, immediately calls for “Shields up!” Yes, his home apparently has shields and anti-cloaking scanner abilities ready to go.
Kestra keeps pinging questions at Soji to establish how much she’s like Data: “Do you play the violin? Do you like Sherlock Holmes? Can you run super fast, jump really high, and bend steel with your hands?” Indeed she can. Apparently it wasn’t for Kestra’s sake that Riker and Troi moved to Nepenthe but for their other child: Thad. He was a prodigy who had invented 11 languages by the time he was a pre-teen, and was obsessed with the idea of having a homeworld, since he didn’t have one as a kid growing up on starships (last we saw Riker, he had just become captain of the U.S.S. Titan). They moved here to Nepenthe because of the soil’s regenerative powers that could help after he was diagnosed with a fatal medical condition. It didn’t work, and Riker and Troi lost her son, and Kestra lost her brother.
Basically from here on out, “Nepenthe” — named after the ancient Greek myth of a potion that could cause one to forget sorrow — is just a beautiful character piece, the kind of “Trek” some of us were worried they didn’t make anymore. It’s about small moments like Riker noticing Soji’s head tilt and instantly knowing it’s the same gesture Data had when he was curious about something. Isa Briones’ acting here is wonderful: now that Soji knows she’s an android, she’s actually acting more like an android.
The old friends all have a candlelit dinner together. Riker really is living his best life, spending his days enjoying fatherhood, his rustic dwelling, and the simple pleasures of cooking for his family: in this case some homemade wood-oven pizza. It’s over this dinner that Soji finally opens up: she tells them she revealed her home planet to the Romulans, and Kestra, with a little help from a friend she’s texting under the table (24th Century teens are no different it seems) finds out where it is. “Soji, you have a homeworld!” Kestra said, recalling her brother.
“Nepenthe” does feature one last devastating turn before it ends: it was a little too good to be true that the entirety of this episode would be just hanging out with old friends as they work through their emotions. Hugh decides he’s going to take control of the cube altogether and kick the Romulans out. Apparently, there’s a way to do that back in the Queen’s chamber, some method of locking out everyone except those the computers can tell are xBs. Elnor has pledged his cause to Hugh, but of course Narissa is close behind. Sashaying in, she points out what Hugh’s planning sounds like a treaty violation, meaning she can kill him whether he’s a Federation citizen or not. Rather than just fighting Elnor, she throws a throwing dagger into Hugh’s jugular to distract him, then beams out. That he had reconnected with an old friend in Picard, had been able to change Picard’s mind about what the Borg were capable of when no one else could, and then got this young warrior in Elnor to fight for him left he inspired even as he lay bleeding out. “I was a hopeful fool again for a minute — thanks for that,” Hugh said, before mentioning that Elnor can finish what he started and kick the Romulans off the cube — but he’ll need an xB to do it. Then Hugh is no more.
And Elnor is on his own. Luckily, he has that transponder to contact Seven of Nine and the Fenris Rangers. He activates it… and hopefully that means Seven is on her way.
One supposes we should mention here that Agnes has gastrointestinal distress from eating two-going-on-three slices of red velvet cake. Her breakdown over having killed Maddox makes total sense, but its presentation in “Nepenthe” did feel a bit like killing time until we get to bigger reveals in an episode or two. She ends up synthesizing some sort of toxin and giving it to herself, putting her in a coma. Is this a suicide attempt? Or an elaborate way of getting rid of the tracking device Oh placed in her? We’ll have to see. But who cares about this chain of events, when we continue to have such beautiful moments back on Nepenthe!
Riker and Picard sit on a dock and talk about where they’ve been and where they’re going. The old first officer tells him that no one would blame Picard for letting other people save the universe… especially, given his condition. We haven’t returned to his degenerative disease since the second episode of the show. It’s an important reminder here, though, that Picard’s time is finite. What matters now, as Patrick Stewart’s friend Ian McKellan says in another franchise, is what he plans to do with it.
This is “Star Trek.” A deep exploration of character through moments that don’t necessarily have to advance the plot. “Nepenthe” gives me hope that we might one day see the “Trek” of seemingly inessential episodes like “Take Me Out to the Holosuite” again, where the Memory Alpha entry is short but the exploration of feelings goes deep.
Right now, it feels the sky’s the limit for “Picard” indeed.