Consider this writer impressed.
“Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” does a spectacular job of synthesizing the style of “The Next Generation” with that of “The Original Series” — and the result is something new altogether.
What does that mean? Well, think about this: we’ve got a race of higher life forms that look somewhat human, but in manner are clearly not. Their women are scantily clad, unnaturally hued, and a tad spacey. Their men, shirtless, leave no impression at all. And they all live in a kind of Eden where any disruption to their utopian ways could result in an apocalyptic, deus ex machina solution. They also use giant space flowers as weapons!
This could be the setup of any number of “Original Series” episodes. But then you throw Brent Spiner in the mix as a self-described “mad scientist” and Jean-Luc Picard’s speechifying and you’ve got a dash of “Next Gen” added to the mix. The combination of the two results in a synthesis that could be the defining aesthetic of “Star Trek: Picard.”
Other than “Nepenthe,” this is surely the best episode of this uneven series to date, and it began with a bang: a space battle between La Sirena and Narek’s Romulan craft upon emerging from the transwarp corridor. They’d traveled 25 light years in 15 minutes and emerged above the world Coppelius — a name that has its origin in a strange E.T.A. Hoffmann story. More on that later.
Seven of Nine pilots what was once “The Artifact” over Coppelius herself, the Borg cube emerging from its own transwarp tunnel with a satisfying thwang (spectacular sound editing in this episode). All of this reminds one of the classic real-time strategy games “Star Trek: Armada” and “Star Trek: Armada II” which depicted transwarp corridors very much the same way. (Those games were the best.)
Giant flowers from the surface of the planet suddenly appear, each enveloping these ships in orbit and causing them to crash down onto the surface — including the Cube.
Our heroes venture over to the cube to see who survived, and, reuniting with Seven of Nine and Elnor, Picard learns that Hugh sacrificed himself trying to expel the Romulans once and for all.
Raffi uses the cube’s sensors to search for the Romulan fleet following in their wake: it’s 218 warbirds. Let’s hope the denizens of this planet have quite the greenhouse to grow more of those deadly flowers!
It turns out they do not. After bidding farewell to Elnor and Seven — a lovely exchange in which Seven says “Keep saving the galaxy, Picard” and the captain replies, passing the torch, “That’s all on you now” — they visit the settlement where the synths have been growing their community. This is where we’re to believe the rest of Data’s “children” were either made or settled. And they’re living life like it’s a hippie commune, doing public calisthenics and tai chi in the town square.
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This is where the title comes into play. “Et in Arcadia Ego” is the name of a Nicolas Poussin painting in which shepherds read the inscription on a tomb. Arcadia is the central region of the Peloponnese. It was a quiet rural area sparsely populated during the time of ancient Greece, when most Greeks lived in cities along the coast. The Greeks considered Arcadia to be a pastoral paradise away from the strife of urban life — and yet death is found even here, as exemplified by this tomb. “And in Arcadia, I am” is the literal Latin translation, though most interpret it as “Even in Arcadia, I am,” meaning that you can never escape death no matter where you travel.
This whole time we’d thought Bruce Maddox had been the one to get this community off the ground, but it turns out a silver fox walks forward with a jaunty greeting: it’s Brent Spiner as Dr. Alton Inigo Soong! He looks exactly like Data would’ve looked if he were a “real” human who “got old and soft,” as Soong puts it.
How odd. Now, of course, “Star Trek” has always suddenly sprung never-before-seen family members on us, from Spock’s never-previously-mentioned brother Sybok in “The Final Frontier” and Spock’s never-previously-mentioned sister Michael Burnham on “Discovery.” So it’s possible that Dr. Noonien Soong, the robotics prodigy who created Data and his evil brother Lore, could have had a flesh and blood son. Even though a previous episode of “Next Gen” established Soong had no children.
But something seems off about this Dr. Alton Inigo Soong. “Alton Inigo?” Could that be any closer to “alter ego”? And the way he describes his father — “he had me but he created Data… a fact he never let me forget” — suggests not just a little bit of resentment toward Data. That account conveniently elides the fact that his father created Lore first, a robot who was a little too human — whose personality was driven by emotion more than logic. He could fit in much better than Data could. What made Data a better “person” was that he constantly strove to be human, even though he found it so difficult — he could never even use contractions in speaking, something that came naturally to Lore. That Lore didn’t have to strive to be human meant he lacked a moral center. Lore was driven by his jealousy, his greed, his lust for power.
Lore also had a connection to Hugh, Jonathan Del Arco’s late, dearly missed ex-Borg, when he came to control a group of ex-Borg in the two-part “Next Gen” episode “Descent.”
Calling it now: Dr. Alton Inigo Soong is Lore, and he sent Soji to Hugh’s Borg Cube, possibly hoping that she’d learn more about the Admonition from Narissa’s crazy aunt who saw it. She’d have to fit in completely with the other doctors on the cube, so “Soong” wiped all memory from Soji that she’s an android — eventually she’d come into contact with her and learn what that Admonition was all about.
One of Soong’s other Soji lookalikes, Sutra (whose skin looks like it’s covered in bullion flakes, as if she’s a victim of Auric Goldfinger) has a theory: the Admonition was not a warning for organics to destroy all synthetics, lest the Apocalypse should happen. It was a message for synthetics about how to summon an even more advanced, eternal alliance of synthetics that spans galaxies. When they arrive they’ll wipe out all organic life in the galaxy to protect and preserve the synths who felt they were under threat. And in this Admonition is a frequency synths can use to make first contact.
Who are these all-powerful synths from far away? We know from the episode “I, Mudd” in “The Original Series” that an advanced civilization once resided in the Andromeda galaxy until a supernova destroyed them, leaving only their sentient androids behind. Sounds a lot like what happened to the Romulans. Could these higher level androids have already arranged the Romulan supernova as a preemptive strike?
Turns out, Soji didn’t need to get this glimpse of the Admonition from Narissa’s aunt at all. Because coming right to this settlement on Coppelius is Agnes Jurati, who saw it herself: Sutra performs a mind-meld with her and gets the frequency to contact these higher-level robots. Now the stakes are this: to protect themselves from the Romulan invasion fleet, will the androids of Coppelius become the very thing the Romulans want to destroy them for in the first place? Is it worth saving yourself if you become a monster in the process?
Sutra clearly thinks so, and she’s going a long way toward proving the Romulans right. But she has to convince the rest of the androids that such a drastic step is merited. She needs to murder one of their own first and pin it on the Romulans: she sends one of them, a very open-hearted and naïve android named Saga, to check in on Narek, who they’ve imprisoned after their flowers brought his ship to the ground. And Sutra arranges it that Saga is killed and Narek freed so that it looks like he was the one to kill her. Passions will run high and the androids will turn to the most extreme measures.
And goading them on this whole time? Dr. Alton Inigo Soong, who apparently feels unconcerned about being destroyed along with the rest of the organics in the galaxy. When Picard tries to give a rousing speech about how they will all find a safe harbor in the Federation, he mockingly shuts him down, noting that the Federation didn’t listen to him before about saving the Romulans — why would they now? This seems exactly like something Lore would do. We also see that he’s been working on a “mind transfer” project to place the consciousness of people whose bodies are failing them into fresh android bodies.
So now Picard and his makeshift crew stand between two warring factions, with both sides hostile to them: the Romulans, who want nothing but to destroy all synthetic life, and the androids who are going out of their way under Sutra’s leadership to prove the Romulans right. What side will Soji ultimately take in this whole showdown?
Oh, about “Coppelius”: That was the name of a character in Hoffmann’s short story “The Sandman” from 1816. Hoffmann loved tales about inanimate objects granted sentience (he also wrote “The Nutcracker”). Coppelius is the villain of the piece: a lawyer obsessed with the alchemical arts who “begins taking ‘shining masses’ out of the fire and hammering them into face-like shapes without eyes.” A rival alchemist actually does succeed in creating a lifelike automaton (one who succeeds in “passing” as human), and this rival calls the android “his daughter.” But Coppelius comes into possession of the automaton/android and uses it for his own nefarious purposes. Coppelius and his rival have a knockdown, drag-out fight about the purpose of the android and which one of them “created its eyes” and “which created its clockwork”: Is the thing that makes it appear human as important as its underlying programming? Sounds a bit like whatever “Dr. Soong” here was saying about how Bruce Maddox was the expert when it came to “mind transfer” while his own skills lay elsewhere.
Will Dr. Soong ultimately be revealed as Lore? Who knows. But his villainy seems pretty much assured no matter what.
And with that we only have one episode of “Star Trek: Picard” Season 1 to go. How will this wrap up?