The primary takeaway of “Star Trek: Picard,” the thing we’re all talking about, is just how different this show is from previous incarnations of “Trek.” How dark it is. How violent it is. How the optimism seems gone.
How much has changed.
Fundamentally, the argument for it being such a different show is that our own world is so very different from when we last saw Jean-Luc Picard. We can’t just imagine a better future in which want is eliminated, along with ignorance and prejudice. We need to see, instead, how very difficult it is to maintain that progress after it’s been won. The future is the Federation… if you can keep it.
But how much has changed even since this weekly review last appeared. With a global pandemic fundamentally changing the lives of so many around the world, the idea that the future holds a better tomorrow is somehow even more uncertain. And when you know catastrophe is imminent, how do you respond?
Well, if you’re the Romulan secret society, the Zhat Vash, your response is extreme. Episode eight of this series, “Broken Pieces” began, like so many of these episodes have, with a flashback: 14 years ago on Aia, “the grief world,” we got a glimpse of those people gathered in a circle we saw oh-so-briefly in Commodore Oh’s mind-meld with Dr. Jurati in “Nepenthe.”
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All those things Jurati saw? Well, they actually happened. These women gathered in a circle on this dusty planet were to reach out and touch a strange altar, and upon doing so they’d receive a vision of untold destruction that happened across the galaxy hundreds of thousands of years ago. It was the destruction that followed the first creation of artificial life.
Most of these Romulan women couldn’t handle what they saw. One immediately blasts her brains out with a disruptor, another crushes her skull with a rock, one even seems to tear her face, green blood spilling out. This vision, the Admonition, is clearly not something everyone can handle. Those who can endure it, though, become members of the Zhat Vash, the secret society dedicated to the destruction of all synthetic life. The only two who survive this round are Narissa and her aunt, who we know was later assimilated by the Borg before being reclaimed by Hugh.
Yes, she was the one who freaked out when she saw Soji many episodes ago and called her “The Destroyer.” Apparently, The Destroyer will be the synthetic lifeform who brings about a galactic apocalypse. Later on it’s suggested that humanity’s development of artificial life has a threshold, like when warp drive was being developed: go too far and someone will show up. Zephram Cochrane invented warp drive in 2063 and the Vulcans noticed and made first contact. Develop artificial intelligence that’s just sophisticated enough and you will summon The Destroyer.
As with so many of the concepts on this show, that’s just conveyed through ponderous dialogue, without the slightest stab at dramatization. If there are valid criticisms to be leveled at “Picard” — and there are — much of them come down to the writing: the story structure especially. Why is it only being revealed just now that this ex-Borg Romulan myth expert who freaked out at Soji being The Destroyer is Narissa’s aunt? And apparently, she was the reason this cube completely shut down: “Breaking a Borg cube from the sheer force of your despair,” Narissa says. “The Collective picked the wrong Tal’Shiar ship to assimilate that day.”
So wait, if that was 14 years ago that her aunt went through the Admonition, and that was before she was assimilated… that means the Borg Collective still does exist in a potent and powerful form, regardless of whatever Janeway did to apparently destroy them in the “Star Trek: Voyager” finale. That’s a pretty big revelation to be handled in such a throwaway manner.
But exposition-dispensing is far from this show’s strength. That scene with Narissa and her aunt is carried entirely by Peyton List’s acting, as is a similar scene with Rios bonding with Raffi later on, in which he finally confesses his damage. He freaks out when he first sees Soji. He’s seen someone like her before: apparently there’s a race of android women who all look exactly the same — an extremely “Original Series” Trek concept.
It takes a little bit of detective work by Raffi for her to figure out what’s actually going on with Rios. She interviews all the different holograms he has of himself. How funny that each of these has a different accent? (Of course the engineering hologram has to have a Scottish accent. And the hospitality hologram has… a Brooklyn hipster accent?) Remember the classic “TNG Season 8” parody account’s tweet about a hypothetical episode in which Brent Spiner “plays an astonishing 86 characters.” Santiago Cabrera basically has to do a smaller-scale version of that, in which he’s playing five holograms in one shot.
“Broken Pieces” is a bottle episode, an installment that takes place entirely indoors to save money, built largely around a number of conversation scenes between characters. All the actors acquit themselves well, but if only they were given better dialogue to perform. Michelle Hurd and Cabrera have quickly become MVPs, though. Love that moment when the Brooklyn hipster hospitality hologram tells her Rios could use a confidant and he gets a little too up into her personal space and she falls back onto a bed.
One nice bit of writing — showrunner Michael Chabon himself wrote “Broken Pieces” — comes during Picard’s heart to heart with Soji about Data: who he was and how he’d wish to be remembered. “Data’s capacity for expressing and processing emotion was limited. I suppose we had that in common,” Picard says. This more in-touch-with-his-emotions Picard is a far cry from the bottled up, repressed Picard we saw on much of “The Next Generation.”
Anyway, after her digging, Raffi decides to just talk to Rios himself. We see him listening to Billie Holiday, holding his old Starfleet uniform and thinking about his days on the U.S.S. Ibn Majid — from the logo on his personal effects box, it looks like it was a Sovereign-class ship like the Enterprise-E! (How is it that we have literally not seen a single Starfleet vessel this entire show?) He tells Raffi that his old captain, Alonzo Vandemeer, killed two synths with whom they made contact nine years before: a male named Beautiful Flower — again, very “Original Series” — and a girl named Jana, who looked exactly like Soji. It was a black flag order from Starfleet: Vandemeer had to kill them or Starfleet would destroy the Ibn Majid with all hands. But Rios made him feel so awful about it, Vandemeer then turned the phaser on himself.
Hmm. Wouldn’t it have been nice to see a flashback here? Hat tip to Cabrera and Hurd for making this story come alive just through a conversation — but basically all this show is is conversations at this point. Can’t shake the lingering feeling that a flashback simply wasn’t possible here because it would have been too expensive.
Picard’s heart to heart with Agnes is also well-acted, if otherwise inert: everyone realized after she risked her life to get rid of that tracker that she must have been the one to kill Bruce Maddox. Alison Pill’s acting here is excellent, and even better in the next scene when she talks to Soji — in a way, one of her own creations — even though she then became convinced that artificial life should be destroyed. She keeps asking her questions like “What do you do when you’re thirsty?” And “what do you do when you’re sad?”
Talking about one’s thoughts and feelings is well and good, but it’s time for a little bit of action. We did get some, however brief, back on the cube. Elnor had summoned Seven of Nine to the cube to help him out. He wanted to kick the Romulans off and take control of the cube, just like Hugh wanted. Seven realizes there’s only one way to do this: enter the Borg Queen’s chamber and temporarily let herself be assimilated so she can take control of all the drones aboard. Weird cords snake down from the ceiling and hook into her spine. Her eyes turn inky and dead, her voice flat and inhumanly resonant: “We are Borg.” As Narissa vents thousands of drones into space, Seven of Nine orders several to attack her like zombies. Narissa beams out, of course — but the cube now does belong to Seven and Elnor. Seeing Seven become the Borg Queen herself, however temporary, was a moment of beauty and terror, and easily the best few seconds of “Broken Pieces.”
Rivaled, one supposes, only by Picard going into full speechifying mode at the very end, as they decide to follow Soji directly back to her homeworld, soon to be attacked by Narissa and the Romulans. “We gave in to fear… the future is left for us to write, and we have powerful tools, Rios: openness, optimism, and the spirit of curiosity. All they have is secrecy and fear. And fear is the great destroyer, Rios.”
Hell, it was good enough that you’d follow him into a transwarp conduit to just about anywhere. But moments like these stand out for just how few and far between they’ve been on “Picard.” Maybe this show was inevitably going to take a step backward after the series’ best, “Nepenthe,” the week before. But after years of wanting to spend more time with Jean-Luc Picard, it’s hard not to feel like this show simply needs to wrap up.