February 26, 2020

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Ep 5, "Stardust City Rag"




Hey. We finally get to the action!

On second viewing (I watch each episode twice--once for myself, and once to write up notes for review), this episode isn't as frantic as it would first seem. The pace is a bit faster (especially at the end), but there are still some meaty character moments. This episode was the first not written or co-written by Michael Chabon, but his steady, deliberate unfolding of the story is still holding.

As seems to be the usual modus operandi, we open with a flashback to thirteen years ago. This definitely comes with Content Warnings. In fact, if you're eating dinner or are squeamish about eyeballs, you had best fast forward through this or turn your gaze away, as this scene of an eye extraction on a former Borg drone is pretty gory. I'm surprised director Jonathan Frakes went there, but it soon becomes evident that this scene's purpose was there to set up the stakes for Seven of Nine. She barges into the chamber to rescue the young man on the table, and we find out this is Icheb, the former drone she more or less adopted aboard Voyager's journey through the Delta Quadrant. He is too badly damaged to save and begs her for death, and she accedes to his wishes.

Jeri Ryan is the guest star of this episode, and we find out what Seven of Nine has been up to since Voyager's return. After the fall of the Romulan Empire and the subsequent lawlessness in the former Neutral Zone (where the Freecloud system is apparently located), she joined a group called the Fenris Rangers to try to keep some sort of order. (This leads to a clash with Picard, who berates her for "taking the law into your own hands," as if this isn't what he's doing.) She is still onboard the La Sirena--Rios' ship, finally given a name--when they arrive at Freecloud, and when she learns they are looking for Bruce Maddox--and more importantly, who on Freecloud has Bruce Maddox--she promptly volunteers to help them.

This person holding Bruce Maddox, as it turns out, is a mercenary named Djayzl, who made a name for herself by her illegal harvesting of Borg implants. She has been on the Fenris Rangers' most-wanted list for some time, and as we soon learn, she has a personal connection to Seven in more ways than one. Our heroes set up a sting using Seven as bait, which provides some delightful character moments, particularly Patrick Stewart's black beret, eyepatch, and godawful French accent. Raffi is shown to be a master planner, and it's no wonder Picard depended on her so heavily during his Starfleet days. Elnor suddenly realizes, "It's a lie--everyone's behaving as if they're someone else," so he is told by Picard and Seven, "Then be Elnor, Elnor who never talks." Agnes has to stay on board the La Sirena to beam the group out following the sting and if they get into trouble, and she is shown to be growing more and more nervous and upset as the episode goes on--for entirely different reasons than her being a somewhat ditzy klutz, as we'll see at the end. Rios is stuffed into a flamboyant green costume and a ridiculous red hat, and the whole bunch beams down to Freecloud to wrest Bruce Maddox from Djayzl before she can trade him to the Tal Shiar.

As we find out when Seven is shown to Djayzl (who looks uncannily like a young, TNG-era Deanna Troi), they have a past. In fact, they're obviously ex-lovers. What Seven hasn't told Picard is that Djayzl is the one who kidnapped Icheb and extracted his implants "without anesthesia,"and she has been looking for her for quite a while. She fully intends to kill Djayzl, and Picard and Rios only narrowly manage to talk her out of it. Djayzl, knowing that Seven isn't bluffing, trades her life for Bruce Maddox, and everyone beams back aboard the La Sirena.

While this is going on, Raffi also beams down to Freecloud, to the Stardust City Reproductive Health Services, where she meets up with a young man called Gabriel, who we discover is her estranged son. Fourteen years ago, Raffi was so caught up in her conspiracy-mongering and subsequent drug abuse that she tore her family apart, and her son has never forgiven her. When his very pregnant Romulan wife emerges from the clinic, Gabriel introduces them and sends his mother away. This is a very good scene, well acted by Michelle Hurd.

Aboard the La Sirena, Agnes is getting more and more upset, to the point where the EMH appears and asks her, "What is the nature of the psychological emergency?" The first reveal about Agnes, earlier in the episode, is a brief memory hologram of her younger self, joking with a younger Bruce Maddox about chocolate chip cookies--and kissing him. Another pair of former lovers. When everyone returns with an injured Bruce Maddox, Agnes is pressed into medical duty (though I can't quite understand why, as she's a cybernetist), and is overseeing his treatment in sickbay. Picard manages to talk to him long enough to confirm that Soji is the dead Dahj's sister, she is aboard the reclaimed Borg cube in the former Neutral Zone (where our crew will be heading in the next episode), and Maddox sent the two of them out into the world "to discover the truth," both about the Tal Shiar and Starfleet. Agnes sends Picard away, claiming Maddox needs his rest, and she and Maddox talk. Maddox asks her if she saw Dahj, and says the twins are "imperfectly perfect," also declaring that Agnes' "contribution was essential." (Uh oh. I wonder if that contribution perhaps included Agnes' eggs?) "One more thing I have to atone for," Agnes says, wiping tears from her eyes. "I wish you knew what I know. I wish they hadn't shown me." She is again so upset that the EMH appears. She deactivates it--and kills Maddox.

(So. Agnes was indeed a plant, as many suspected. Was she possibly put under telepathic compulsion by Commodore Oh? I suspect we will find out. In the meantime, I wonder how she is going to hide this.)

There is another wonderful little scene I must mention, between Picard and Seven before she beams away from the La Sirena, ostensibly to a Ranger ship who has come to fetch her. We are reminded that Seven is not the only ex-Borg in this show, as she asks Picard, "After you returned from the collective, do you honestly feel you regained your humanity?"

"Yes," he says.

She presses him: "All of it?"

"No," he admits, "but we're both working on it."

"Every damn day," Seven declares. She beams away, taking with her a couple of phaser rifles from the La Sirena's weapons stock (and since Picard let her have them, I wonder if he guessed what was about to happen). Only she doesn't join the Ranger ship--she returns to Freecloud, where she confronts Djayzl.

"Picard still thinks there's a place in the galaxy for mercy," she says, explaining why she didn't tell Picard she was coming back. "I didn't want to disillusion him."

Then her reason for returning is revealed: "He was a son to me, Jay," she informs Djayzl, referring to Icheb. "This is for him." And she disintegrates Djayzl, and marches out to meet the oncoming security team, weapons blazing.

Whew. This made me long for a new Star Trek series entitled Seven and the Fenris Rangers (which is also the name of my next band). Seriously, Jeri Ryan was fantastic in this. Her ultimate fate isn't shown, and I hope we see her again.

So. Things are starting to wind up. We don't see anything of Soji and Narek, but that will obviously be remedied in the next episode. Starfleet's withdrawing into its ill-advised isolationist bubble has had some far-flung consequences, and I'm glad this show is exploring them. This clearly isn't Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, but it really can't be, not anymore. For better or worse, the world has changed,  and this is the story for that world.


February 23, 2020

Review: Light of Impossible Stars

Light of Impossible Stars Light of Impossible Stars by Gareth L. Powell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Embers of War trilogy, and it's a crackling good read that ties up all the storylines in a most satisfying manner. The sentient warship Trouble Dog, fleeing from the alien Fleet of Knives she accidentally unleashed on humanity

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February 18, 2020

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Ep 4, "Absolute Candor"




I thought we would get into the action in this episode, as we're near to the halfway point of a 10-episode first season. As it turned out, however, Picard had one more stop to make. There was a bit of action at the end--a space battle that revealed a surprise possible extra crew member, which I will get to--but we're not quite there yet.

I've come to the conclusion that this is due to the showrunner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon (who also wrote this episode). Chabon, although he has made forays into genre fiction in recent years (The Yiddish Policeman's Union won the 2008 Hugo Award for best novel), comes from a more literary tradition, and you can see his stamp all over Picard. The pace is slower, the dialogue crisp (I imagine Patrick Stewart is loving the lines he's been getting), and the focus is on characterization and backstory, at least so far.

Obviously in an SFF show there has to be a limit to this, and from the preview to episode 5, it looks like we'll finally be getting some action. However, I think the slower pace has been necessary. We are seeing some huge changes both in the title character and the Star Trek universe. Picard is no longer Starfleet's conscience and golden boy and has, in fact, been booted out on his rear. As an institution, Starfleet itself has turned inward, insular, and more than a little xenophobic, as evidenced by their abandoning the Romulans and their banning of synthetic life after the attack on Mars. Yes, people might say that the Starfleet of years and shows past would never do that...but then, people did say that Donald Trump would never get elected, didn't they? (And England would never vote to leave the European Union...until they did. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are two nasty sides of the same coin, but since I'm in the US, I will focus on the latter.) And now a spineless, enabling Republican Party is going along with whatever vindictiveness and authoritarianism their lawless figurehead is spewing.

Yeah, it's a clumsy parallel. But if it could happen in this country (and Germany for that matter) it could happen in Starfleet. I appreciate that Picard is showing how it came to pass, both for the title character and the Star Trek universe. 

This episode opens with the backstory of Picard and the Romulan boy who becomes the newest crewmember, the vaguely Tolkien-sounding Elnor. (He looks like something out of The Lord of the Rings as well, to the point where I've seen people calling him the Romulan Legolas.) This is another flashback to fourteen years ago, just before the synth rebellion, and Picard is on the planet Vashti supervising the Romulan refugees settling there. He beams down to visit a group of warrior nuns called the Qowat Milat, which is another of those delightful Romulan subcultures we've been discovering. This group, of all women except for the orphan Elnor they have taken in, follows the way of "Absolute Candor" (hence the episode's title), which is stated to be "total communication of emotion without any filter between thought and word." Picard has developed a friendship with Elnor (another surprise, as Captain Jean-Luc wasn't terribly fond of children) and brings him an ancient copy of Alexander Dumas' The Three Musketeers.We see an intercutting scene of Picard reading the book to the boy and fencing with him, before Raffi calls down to tell him about the Mars attack. Picard leaves, saying "I'll be back soon," which we immediately know is a lie--and Elnor and the Romulans on Vashti are just another group abandoned by Picard and Starfleet in the aftermath.

Fourteen years later, we return to Captain Rios' ship, the now named La Sirena, and the captain reading the same book while a seemingly nervous Agnes chatters to him.

"Space turns out to be super boring. Go figure."

"What were you expecting?"

"Vast quantities of stuff."

Meanwhile, Picard is playing with the hospitality program, which is yet another iteration of Rios, who has reconstructed his room at Chateau Picard. Raffi and Rios enter (and the hologram immediately vanishes as Rios growls, "I can't stand that fucking thing"). Raffi grumps to Rios that "Man can't even take a guilt trip without using a starship," and Picard explains why he wants to hire a Romulan warrior. Of course, things have changed on Vashti in fourteen years: the planet is protected by a complex force shield that only allows transporter egress at predetermined times, because of raiders in an old-style Romulan Warbird haunting the system. When they reach the planet, even Picard's name can't convince them to permit him to beam down, until Rios suggests a bribe.

This works, and Picard beams down. The Romulans clearly aren't happy to see him, although no one says anything (yet). There is a sign saying "Romulans only" at the town tavern. Picard finds his way to the Qowat Milat, where Elnor is all grown up (and he really does look like a dark-haired Legolas). He isn't particularly happy to see Picard either. The head warrior-nun explains they never found a place for him outside the monastary, but he has trained and is one of the finest fighters she has ever seen. Picard explains his situation to Elnor and asks to buy his sword, and Elnor, following the way of Absolute Candor, snaps at Picard that "You only returned because you needed something from me" and storms off.

Meanwhile, Rios' ship picks up the old Warbird closing in, and Raffi tells Picard he has to come back. He returns to town, and in a fit of pique against the "Romulans only" sign, rips it down and tries to get a drink in the tavern. (I'm not sure about this--this seems to be out of character for Picard, who never used to pick fights. However, Sir Patrick Stewart went along with it, so there must be a reason.) At this point, a Romulan who has been watching reveals himself to be a former Romulan senator and adds himself to this list of people who have ripped Picard new ones for abandoning them. Picard protests, rather feebly:

"I did everything I could."

"And then you gave up! You and Starfleet had no understanding of Romulan ingenuity. You took advantage of our weakness."

He then tries to force Picard into a duel, and Picard refuses. At this point the fight is interrupted by Elnor, who informs everyone that he has bound his sword to Picard and orders the former senator to stand down. The man refuses, and Elnor does a twisty midair maneuver and chops the poor guy's head off. This nearly gets him shot by a blaster, until Picard shouts at Raffi to beam him up.

Once they are aboard, Picard reads Elnor the riot act, informing him "That man did not deserve to die," and insisting if he is to hire Elnor's sword, Elnor will only wield it to Picard's orders. Elnor agrees. Agnes asks what is the criteria for a Qowat Milat selling his sword, and we finally find out: their requirement for worthiness is binding their swords to a lost cause.

In a brief return to the subplot aboard the reclaimed Borg cube, Soji is watching past recordings of Ramda talking about the Romulan version of Ragnarok and "the Destroyer" who will bring it about. (After thinking about this, I had the unpleasant notion that this might be a parallel to the organic-life-destroying Red Angel of season 2 of Discovery. I hope not. I've rather had enough of every set of stakes being so high the entire universe might come to an end.) Narek comes to see her, and they have a conversation in a bar aboard the Borg cube, where Soji asks Narek outright if he's Tal Shiar, and he says no. (Of course, we in the audience know he's not lying, that he's Zhat Vash instead, but Soji doesn't.) In a cute scene that makes one wonder if Narek might be developing real feelings for Soji, he takes her to a long slick hallway inside the Borg cube, and they end up sliding down it in their sock feet like a couple of kids. This devolves into a fight, and Soji demands to know: "What are you doing, Narek?"

"Feeding an insatiable curiosity, like you."

Dissatisfied with this answer, Soji leaves.

Later that night Narek is awakened in his quarters by his creepy sister Narissa, who (after needling him about his "robot girl being anatomically correct"), demands to know if he has made progress in revealing the whereabouts of the other synths. (Apparently there are a whole bunch more of Soji's and Dahj's? Shades of Battlestar Galactica and its identical Cylons, perhaps?) Narek protests, "If I press her too hard, it might activate her," and Narissa gives him a week before she reverts to "old fashioned methods," i.e. torture.

Returning to the La Sirena, Picard and his crew are under attack by the Warbird. Rios summons yet another iteration of himself, namely the Emergency Targeting Technician (I think that's what it was called--there's so many I can't remember) named Emmet, who has long hair and speaks only Spanish. (The actor looks like he's having the time of his life playing all these different versions of his character.) There follows an exciting, fast-paced action sequence (and this episode was directed by Jonathan Frakes, so this is very well shot), where the La Sirena is nearly herded into the planet's force field and destroyed, until another small ship swoops in and blasts one of the Warbird's wings away, saving them. In the process, the ship is mortally damaged, and Raffi just manages to lock onto the pilot with the transporter before it disintegrates.

And the pilot is....none other than Seven of Nine (although to be fair, this was given away by Jeri Ryan's "special guest star" slot in the opening credits). Picard, in utter disbelief: "Seven of Nine?"

"You owe me a ship, Picard," she says before she collapses.

So. Things finally seem to be coming together a bit, especially following the previews of next week's episode. About damn time. I just hope things aren't so frantic and fast-paced in the final six episodes that we don't have room to breathe. The mysteries are deepening, the characters and backstory are getting proper attention, and I am thoroughly enjoying this show. It does seem to have found its stride rather quickly, faster than the first season of Discovery if I am being honest. Maybe the powers-that-be need to get Pulitzer Prize-winning authors to run their shows more often.




February 14, 2020

Review: Exhalation

Exhalation Exhalation by Ted Chiang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ted Chiang is generally regarded as one of the finest writers in science fiction, and his reputation has been built entirely on his infrequently published short stories. (One of his earlier stories, "Story of Your Life," was adapted into one of the best SF movies of the past decade, Arrival.) The stories in this collection have publication dates ranging from 2005 to 2015, with the last two--"Omphalos" and "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom"--the two new stories, or at least the stories never before published.

These stories are definitely not for someone who wants a quick, action-packed read. They demand your attention, and they demand your thought. Looking back at them, even though they have varying levels of characterization and worldbuilding, it seems to me they are not so much stories as thought experiments. (The "Story Notes" at the back lays this bare, revealing the central idea behind each story and the author's thought process in writing it.) "Omphalos," for example, is written from the viewpoint of an archaeologist in a young creationist universe; she talks about mummies with no navels, and eight-thousand-year-old fossilized wood with a solid core at the center, with no growth rings, signifying the "primordial tree" at the moment of creation. As the narrator says:

I asked them to imagine what it would be like if we lived in a world where, no matter how deeply we dug, we kept finding traces of an earlier era of the world. I asked them to imagine being confronted with proof of a past extending so far back that the numbers lost all meaning: a hundred thousand years, a million years, ten million years. Then I asked, wouldn't they feel lost, like a castaway adrift on an ocean of time? The only sane response would be despair.

I told them that we are not so adrift. We have dropped an anchor and struck bottom; we can be certain that the shoreline is close by, even if we can't see it. We know that you made this universe with a purpose in mind; we know that a harbor awaits. I told them that our means of navigation is scientific inquiry. And, I said, this is why I am a scientist: because I wish to discover your purpose for us, Lord.


This sets up the narrator's crisis of faith, upon her discovery of a soon to be published paper that asserts that humans are not the center of this young universe; that a nearby star, 58 Eridani, orbits around a fixed world that apparently is, and humans are "an experiment or unintended side effect" to the main purpose of creation, the Earth-like and presumably inhabited planet the star is orbiting. She returns to her archaeological dig with her faith not...destroyed, precisely, but certainly upended:

So I will return to the Arisona dig, Lord, whether it is under your watchful eye or not. Even if humanity is not the reason for which the universe was made, i still wish to understand the way it operates. We human beings may not be the answer to the question why, but I will keep looking for the answer to how.

This is just an example of what makes Chiang's stories so meaty, philosophical, and unique. (Also, for this particular story, since the universe is just under nine thousand years old, there are no dinosaur or megafauna fossils--no mammoths or sabertooth tigers--which strikes me as a terribly sad thing. Their lives are definitely bereft for not knowing T-Rex.) But for all that characterization is not the main focus of his tales, he still handles it quite well, especially in the standout stories "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" and "The Great Silence." In the latter, told from the viewpoint of a parrot whose species will soon be extinct, the final line will most likely bring a tear to your eye. It did mine.

This is an outstanding collection, and one that every fan of intelligent, profound science fiction should read.

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February 9, 2020

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Ep 3, "The End is the Beginning"




The plot thickens.

I'm sure some people are complaining about the (seemingly) slow pace of this show. It's only at the very end of this episode that Picard gets a ship and (at least some of) his crew together and heads out on his quest. These first three episodes are taking their time establishing the characters and storylines, although with such superlative actors as Patrick Stewart holding your attention (and Orla Brady/Laris, Michelle Hurd/Raffi, and Isa Briones/Soji are shining as well) this is nowhere near as painful as it might sound.

I think this has to do with the fact that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon is the first season showrunner, and co-wrote episodes 2 and 3. He comes from a more literary tradition and prizes character and dialogue over plot and action--traits which are very much apparent in the first three episodes. At the same time, he seems to know his Star Trek stuff--witness the plot threads from The Next Generation that this show is so ably picking up on. This is epitomized in this episode. On the dormant Borg cube, we meet the head of the Federation side of the reclamation project, named Hugh--and this is the same person (and actor) from the TNG episode "I, Borg," who was the first (as he says in this episode) "Ex-B." This has not yet been stated in Picard, and people might not even realize what the show is carrying forward (the same applies to the so-far-just-namedropped Bruce Maddox).

It's a subtle thing, but it makes the worldbuilding of this show incredibly rich. This attention to that, as well as character and detail, is keeping me riveted.

Two new regulars are introduced in this episode. The first is Raffi, and the cold open to this episode reveals just what went down fourteen years ago, when Starfleet called Jean-Luc's bluff and told him not to let the door hit him in the ass on the way out. Raffi, as we find out, was his assistant in planning the Romulan rescue effort (as well as sounding off a conspiracy theory that the Romulans, along with elements in Starfleet, were behind the Mars synth attack; Picard rejected it then and still does, but after hearing of the Zhat Vash and watching Commodore Oh, my money is on Raffi being right), and when her admiral went down, so did she. (Although maybe that doesn't really make sense? It seems a capable assistant would have been valued in her own right, no matter which admiral she was attached to. Picard must have really pissed everyone off with what was undoubtedly a pompous bit of grandstanding and speechifying, and still reeling from Utopia Planitia, the Starfleet higher-ups were in no mood to hear it.) She lost her security clearance and was booted from the service, and fourteen years later when "J.L," as Raffi calls him, finally reaches out to her, she quite rightly tears him a new one. "You have some goddamn nerve," Raffi says, echoing Admiral Clancy. She mentions the broadcast appearance, and notes that "I saw you sitting back in your very fine chateau, with your oak beams and your heirloom furniture," while she, Raffi, had nothing.

(This is another thing I'm appreciating about this show. They're acknowledging and delving into the fact that Picard is a very flawed human being, and the consequences of some of the iffy decisions he made decades ago are now coming back to bite him. I hope this theme is followed throughout the season.)

Picard makes his best pitch, but Raffi tells him to get lost--"I'm not going down another rabbit hole with you, J.L." Still, a whiff of the old loyalty is still there, as she gives him the name of a pilot. Her curiosity has also been roused, which Picard sees as well, as later on he (holo)calls her, interrupts her research, and sends her everything he has on Bruce Maddox (and being a bit high-handed about it too, but this is so Jean-Luc Picard). Going through all this information, she does find something: a name. Freecloud.

The pilot Raffi gives Picard is the second new character, Captain Rios. This is another disillusioned Starfleet servicemember, which Picard picks up on right away upon beaming aboard his ship--everything is meticulously cared for and in its place. (This also gives us a poignant moment on the bridge when Rios tells Picard to sit down, and he hesitates next to the command chair before taking a seat elsewhere.) In a rather clever bit of characterization, Rios has programmed different versions of himself--including one that has what sounds like a Scottish accent--into the various ship holograms, including the Emergency Medical Technician, who promptly fanboys all over Picard as soon as the latter beams aboard. We get some tidbits about Rios' past--he was the XO of a heavy cruiser and saw his captain's blood and brains splattered all over the wall. (We also see him reading a physical book--and an old book even in this century, Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life! Again, that's Michael Chabon's influence.)

Dr. Agnes Jurati makes a reappearance, as does Commodore Oh (a Vulcan wearing sunglasses? If we hadn't already seen who she is, that would be a bit of a dead giveaway), who proceeds to pump Agnes about Picard's visit to the Daystrom Institute. Agnes, understandably not thinking anything of this, tells Oh (almost) everything she knows. Later, as Picard is getting ready to depart, the chateau is invaded by the Zhat Vash. Laris and Zhaban kick all kinds of ass to save Picard. Agnes, coming to tell Picard that she talked to Oh, walks in on the fight at the very end, holding a Romulan disruptor and quite distressed that she inadvertently kills one of the attackers. Laris, matter-of-factly: "Romulan disruptors don't have a stun setting." She also reveals that the bumpy-headed Romulans, like Zhaban and the prisoner they are interrogating, are distinguished from smooth-headed ones such as herself by the fact of their being "northerners." (Aaah, I am going to miss Laris and Zhaban. I hope we see them again.)

The interrogation scene is intercut with the second story thread, on the Borg reclamation cube. Soji's moment of kindness from last week, and what she says to the dead drone--"You are free now, my friend"--is replayed by the head of Federation research on board the cube, our very own Ex-B Hugh. This impresses him enough that he grants Soji what she has repeatedly asked for--thirty minutes with the final drones assimilated before the cube shut down, the crewmembers of a Romulan ship. They are now known as "the Disordered" and kept in a room by themselves, as they have not fully recovered in the 5,843 days since the "submatrix collapse." Soji starts speaking to one of them, Ramda, who is sitting at a table playing with Romulan tarot cards (thick triangular shaped things), lining them up to construct a shape. The mystery of Soji is deepened here, as Ramda seems to know her: "I know you. I remember you tomorrow."  She picks up a tarot card showing the Twins: "Which sister are you? The one who lives, or the one who dies?" Then, becoming agitated, she cries: "You are the Destroyer!" and grabs the gun of one of the guards, pointing it at her head. Hugh quickly moves in to grab Ramda and de-escalate the guards before someone gets shot, and sends Soji away.

Following that is a weird little scene with Soji's "mother," the same woman Dahj talked to before she died. Soji asks if Dahj is all right, and the "mother," who obviously knows what Soji is (perhaps it's a disguised Bruce Maddox?), utters some trigger phrase which puts her to sleep. After that Narek comes in and asks if she is all right, and proceeds with his manipulation of Soji by asking if she can keep a secret and then whispering in her ear, "I think I may be falling in love with you."

Of course, the reason he did this is immediately evident: leaving Soji's quarters, he meets up with his sister Rizzo, in full Romulan regalia (and ears), who has come to check up on him. There was a creepy incest vibe to this scene that really wasn't necessary, and I hope they don't pursue it. We then return to Picard and Agnes, who informs him the one thing she didn't tell Commodore Oh was that she was going with him. She talks her way aboard Picard's "secret" mission a little too easily, as is pointed out when the two of them beam aboard Rios's ship....and there is Raffi, "coming along for the ride." I hope Dr. Jurati isn't a willing or unwilling plant, but we'll have to see.

The episode ends with the four of them warping away, and Picard uttering his signature phrase (and not sounding old, defeated and tired, at least for the moment): "Engage!"

So now we're off and running, but I appreciated Picard's deliberate pace, and its showing us what has become of the Federation. This show, so far, befits the older, sadder Picard. I realize people are complaining that this isn't the optimistic Federation of Gene Roddenberry's original vision, but as much as the original series wanted to depict humanity as we could be, I think this one wants to depict humanity as we are now. Which is: not very good. This does not deny the possibility of optimism, especially if delivered by the likes of Patrick Stewart, but I'm glad this show is acknowledging the darkness.


February 8, 2020

Review: That Ain’t Witchcraft

That Ain’t Witchcraft That Ain’t Witchcraft by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another series I've skipped a few books of. Fortunately, that doesn't seem to matter much; McGuire does a good job of catching readers up on her storylines, eight books in. The InCryptid series focuses on the Prices, a family of "cryptozoologists," scientists studying mythical creatures (said creatures, such as gorgons and Bigfoots, exist in this universe) and protecting them from the Covenant of St. George, who wants to wipe them out.

This time it's the youngest sister Antimony's turn. This book apparently follows right on the heels of book #7 (which I have not yet read), and while there is a bit of info-dumping in the first couple of chapters, Antimony's voice carries the day. She is running from both the Covenant and a bargain she made with a Bad Place called the "crossroads" to save herself and her boyfriend, and this is the story of her fight to extricate herself from both sticky situations. In addition to her boyfriend Sam, she has two other cryptids with her, Fern and Cylia. This little found family, and another character named James they adopt along the way, goes to the mat for each other and comes out triumphant.

The worldbuilding is rich and layered in this book, as is to be expected from Seanan McGuire. There is also a bonus novella, "The Measure of a Monster," included, focusing on Antimony's older brother Alex and tying off a stray plot thread from this book. Seanan McGuire is an extremely prolific author, but so far everything of hers I have read, no matter how far along it is in a series, maintains its quality. This book is no exception.

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February 2, 2020

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Ep 2, "Maps and Legends"



When I watched this episode, I immediately flashed back to The Next Generation episode that a lot of Picard's lore, storylines and Easter eggs (like namedropping Bruce Maddox) seem to have been drawn from: "The Measure of a Man," Picard's showdown with Starfleet over whether Commander Data was property or an autonomous sentient being. It was one of the first really good episodes of the series, and one of the best episodes of Trek overall. Specifically, this tiny scene between Picard and Guinan in Ten Forward during the trial. Looking back now in the context of this show, it's creepily, painfully prophetic.




"Whole generations of disposable people."

If there's anything that demonstrates the depths to which Starfleet has fallen, even more than the later conversation between Picard and Admiral Clancy, it's the cold opening to this episode, in which we are shown the Mars Utopia Planitia synth revolt in 2385. A cadre of android workers are unlocked for the day, released from a container where nine or twelve of them are ensconced for the night (since after all androids, or at least the androids manufactured by the Federation following Data's demise, don't need homes or places to sleep), with the mocking greeting from their human supervisor: "Good morning, plastic people." The human workers make fun of them, tell them jokes they know the androids cannot understand (which leads to the android F8, the butt of the jokes, giving his tormenters a humorless smile full of fuck-you loathing), and talk about them behind their backs--or rather to their faces, since F8 is still in the room. During the human workers' lunch, the camera pans in tight on F8's Data-yellow eyes, which suddenly click and whirr in opposite directions, indicating he has been hacked. He immediately crosses to the main control panel and begins to carry out his instructions, and gets away with it primarily because the humans in the room aren't paying attention to the furniture in their midst for the crucial first few minutes. F8 carries out his programming, which involves lowering Mars' shields, turning the planet's orbital defenses on the shipyards, grabbing a weapon and killing all the humans in the room, and then turning the weapon on himself.

This is establishing what will obviously be one of the central mysteries of the series--who hacked the synths, and why?

The second mystery tackled in this episode is who killed Dahj. The next scene is Picard, Laris and Zhaban replaying the security footage and noting that Dahj and the Romulan assassins have been wiped from it. Reference is made to the Tal Shiar, the Romulan secret police, and then Laris drops the first plot bomb in this episode: there is an older, even more secret cabal in Romulan society, the Zhat Vash. They're defined by their fear and loathing of any form of synthetic life--indeed, Laris notes any computers in Romulan society are restricted to crunching numbers--and they are after Dahj and her twin Soji for an unknown reason (which is later revealed to be the Zhat Vash's spy, the Romulan Narek aboard the reclaimed Borg cube shown in "Remembrance," getting close to Soji to try and find an apparent hidden "nest" of synths created by Bruce Maddox). This admittedly talky scene is cleverly intercut with a scene of Picard and Laris beaming into Dahj's apartment and using CGI and Trekkie technobabble to reconstruct the murder scene (at least up to the point the Zhat Vash has scrubbed it, but no worries, Laris is still able to figure out that Dahj's sister is offworld). This combined sequence is really well edited and cut. After the somewhat faster pacing of the pilot, this episode slows down for necessary backstory and exposition, but due to the excellent performances from everyone on screen (especially Orla Brady as Laris and of course Patrick Stewart), my attention was held throughout.

I also like the fact that the show is not afraid to let its star be in the wrong and called out. We are shown a scene where Picard beams to Starfleet Command in San Francisco, expecting them to bow down and hand him a ship for a secret mission despite the fact he stormed away in a huff ten years ago and just insulted the whole institution in his interstellar interview. Admiral Clancy soon disabuses him of that notion, citing his "sheer fucking hubris," but in that tense conversation she also reveals that she--and apparently the other higher-ups--think Starfleet has the right to decide "which species live and die," as they disbanded the Romulan rescue mission after fourteen other species threatened to pull out of the Federation. If you step back and think about it for a moment, her reaction is entirely justifiable. Patrick Stewart, once again, also pulls off a tour-de-force of subtle acting in this scene, broadcasting an entitled arrogance (at least until Clancy whacks him upside the head) that made me squirm uncomfortably in my seat. It's a sobering revelation for Picard, to realize that he is no longer Starfleet's golden boy.

But even though Admiral Clancy told Picard to stuff himself, his accusations of Romulan Zhat Vash operatives being active in Starfleet alarmed her enough to discuss them with the head of Starfleet intelligence, the Vulcan Commodore Oh. Oh assures her that if there were any such operatives, she and thus Starfleet would immediately know about it. Thus reassured, Clancy goes away, and as soon as she signs off, the second plot bombshell drops. Oh summons a Lieutant Rizzo to her office, and we immediately find out that the Commodore not only knows about Zhat Vash operatives, she is one of them, as is Rizzo--whose team was supposed to bring Dahj in alive. (Rizzo is definitely a surgically altered, disguised Romulan, as revealed later in a conversation with Narek--she is his sister. Not sure about Oh. She may be a Romulan, or she may be a Vulcan sympathetic to the anti-synth cause.)
Later, Rizzo talks to Narek, who is trying an "alternative method" of getting information from Soji--namely, seducing her. Rizzo promises that if they don't find out what they want to know by the time she reaches the Borg cube, she will be forced to try something else: presumably more conventional torturous methods.

Of course, Picard being Picard, a "request denied" isn't stopping him (although his decision isn't quite as cavalier as Kirk's "The answer is no. I am therefore going anyway"). He cannot live with the fact of Data's daughter coming to him for help and his being unable to protect her. Laris reads both him and Zhaban the riot act ("Well, if it's important to Jean-Luc Picard, it also must be important to the whole galaxy!") and storms away. Zhaban asks if Picard could ask others, such as Riker, Worf and LaForge for help, and Picard promptly rejects that idea: he is not going to ask them to go rogue with him again. He is later shown donning a TNG-style communicator and buzzing someone named "Raffi," who he will meet in the final scene, and asking her for a ship.

(Picard is also given another reason to pursue this whole thing due to a visit from his former shipmate, a doctor from way back on the Stargazer, Picard's first command. Picard, in anticipation of Admiral Clancy acceding to his request, had asked Dr. Benayoun to certify him as fit for interstellar service. Benayoun comes to see him personally, and drops the third plot bomb--Picard may be developing a nasty brain disease [a callback to the alternate timeline of The Next Generation finale, "All Good Things"]. I don't know if this is really necessary--Dahj being Data's daughter seems to me to be sufficient motivation on its own. Cynically, I also suppose this is an easy out if the show's star, who after all is about to turn 80, starts having health problems of his own. At any rate, this possible ticking time bomb reinforces Picard's sense of urgency.)

Meanwhile, on board the Borg cube (which is a Romulan research outpost primarily devoted to extracting Borg technology, although they have invited Federation scientists to do research, which is why Soji is there), we see some of the day-to-day life of the inhabitants, which is both fascinating and creepy. One thing which made me laugh out loud when I first saw it was a note on one of the walls--"This station has gone 5843 days since the last assimilation," written both in English and presumably a Romulan script. It's funny, but when you stop and think about it, it's scary, because you realize that number is almost surely going to flip to zero by season's end. Anyway, as Narek explains, the cube's connection to the collective has been severed and the remaining drones sent into stasis, so as far as the rest of the Borg are concerned, it is a graveyard. Nevertheless, the Romulans put tight restrictions on where the researchers can go and security is everywhere. We see exactly what they are doing: taking the drones from stasis and removing the Borg technology still present in their bodies. This also provides a nice character moment for Soji, as she objects to her fellow researcher's dehumanizing (or de-speciesizing, I suppose, since they don't know what species the drone belonged to) the drone being dissected and gives the dead drone a moment of respect. This is all the more poignant as Soji doesn't (yet) know she is a synth.

In the final scene, Picard takes a shuttle taxi to a rugged and remote area (a sly and pleasing Easter egg; this is Vasquez Rocks, where many Trek episodes have been filmed, going all the way back to the original series' "Arena"). This is the dwelling of the mysterious Raffi, who barges to the front porch waving a gun and ordering Picard to go away. "There's nothing you have to say I want to listen to," she snaps, and Picard responds: "Even secret Romulan operatives infiltrating Starfleet?" At which point Raffi relents and beckons Picard and his bottle of '86 Chateau Picard wine to come on up. This is our only glimpse of Raffi, but she made quite an impression; I immediately wanted to see more of her and find out her past with Picard.

This episode was slower and talkier, but it pretty much had to be. (If you go to IMBD to look at it, you may not want to read the reviews--the scandalized manbabies are already complaining about Picard's being surrounded by female characters, which: hey, this is 2020, women make up 50% of the human race, we are not going to have nothing but white males on our TV screens, and y'all need to get the fuck over it. Also, a couple of people were complaining about the one instance of dropping the F-bomb, to which I say: yes, and? It was appropriate for the scene, and also, it's an actual word a helluva lot of people use in real life! You mean you've never heard it before? Oh my goodness, to the fainting couch!) As I said before, due to the high level of acting exhibited throughout, this held my interest. I'm sure as Picard gets his crew together, the frantic action will come.

The showrunners (and Michael Chabon co-wrote this episode) obviously have a deep knowledge of and profound respect for what has come before, but I really appreciate that despite the many callbacks this show seems to be going in its own direction. More of this, please.


February 1, 2020

Rest in Peace

Bravo to whoever did this, and thank you to whoever screencapped it before it was gone.





Republicans should be ashamed, but unfortunately, they're such power-hungry, craven cowards they won't be. 😡

January 31, 2020

Review: The Light at the Bottom of the World

The Light at the Bottom of the World The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I went back and forth with this book, vacillating between finishing it and hurling it against the wall. I came close to doing the latter a couple of times, but in the end, the characters pulled me through. And believe me, there was a lot to overcome to get me to finish it, all of which I will get into. Let's just say that for me the good parts of the book were (just) enough to overtake the bad parts, and that may not be true for everybody. Because this book has some major failings.

To be blunt, the worldbuilding sucks. I realize this is supposed to be a post-climate-change, post-disaster dystopia, which is fine. I've read those before and will again, and done right they're some of my favorite stories. However, for that type of story to work, your world, pre- and post-disaster, has to be plausible. This book started out with a somewhat unusual setting, a world of undersea cities--specifically, London--with titanium domes over the residential areas and some of the historic buildings, and acrylic train tubes connecting them. Everyone gets around in personal submersibles instead of cars. The year is 2099. Eh? That gave me the first twinge of unease...that's not very far away, and London is--a thousand feet underwater? And the very first page states this change happened only sixty-five years ago? (Which would have been 2035, since in the book we're almost to the end of the year and century.) I read on, coming to my second point of unease, on page 17:

Firstly, there's no dry land up there--only a few mountain peaks. Secondly, discovering dry land wouldn't even begin to solve my problem.

That was the first place I considered stopping, which I will tackle in just a minute. But the protagonist Leyla's sitation was intriguing, so I decided to plow ahead. I wondered if this was supposed to be some post-climate-change setting, which I was (grudgingly) prepared to grant, even though I knew it wouldn't happen like that. Then I got to pages 38/39:

Commentary from the footage on screens echoes around the space. There are repeated mentions of "Operation Ark" and "the Resurrection Council." Loud boos sound in the room as images of the asteroid approaching Earth flash on the screen. They still have several years before it hits, the prime minister at the time insists. Human beings will survive, no matter how much the sea levels rise. The best scientists around the world are planning the most suitable course of action and preservation, the PM assures Old Worlders.

On-screen, footage now switches to computerized graphics. I tense. The asteroid hits Earth. It's as good as the end of the world. Billions die instantly. Continental shifts occur. All the water previously held in deep subterranean reservoirs is released at an alarming rate. Soon the entire planet is submerged. Only 10 percent of Britons survive the disaster.


That was when the book slammed down on the table.

WHAT ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME

Now, since then I've googled "subterranean reservoirs," and apparently this is a (possibly) real thing. There might be a huge underground ocean, not liquid water in the traditional sense but water trapped inside the molecular structure of minerals in the mantle rock. This news broke in 2014, and at the time there was only one example of this material, called "ringwoodite," brought up by a volcanic eruption from approximately 250-400 miles down (the stated depths varied). The articles I found suggest that the volume of water could be three times the size of the current volume of the oceans. I couldn't find anything more recent, and what I read stated that this reservoir was so far found only under the North American continent.

After reading this, I can understand why the author used this plot point, but these articles do not lessen the implausibility of the idea. Here's why.

You know what happened the last time an asteroid of that (apparent) size hit Earth? That little event that took place sixty-five million years ago that had something to do with the dinosaurs? Does anybody see any little dinos (that is, non-bird dinosaurs) running around? Why not? Because they all went extinct, that's why! Furthermore, they sure as hell didn't die off due to flooding. The only flood was the tsunami thrown up by the initial impact (and perhaps a chain of tsunamis--see here), and while that wave penetrated inland for hundreds or thousands of miles, it certainly didn't flood the way the author is talking about. What killed the dinosaurs, and 75-90% of life on Earth, was fire: global firestorms--this first item proven by the layer of soot found in rocks from the time period all over the planet--acid rain, destruction of the ozone layer, an impact winter (later on, after the soot settled to Earth), and then a general heating of the globe due to the massive release of greenhouse gases. Here's a neat graphic from this article illustrating the sequence of events.

 photo EnvironmentalEffectsSummary_zpsly2mt9ts.jpg

Anybody see anything about planetwide flooding anywhere in that list?

Also, according to these articles, an asteroid strike comparable to the dinosaur-killer would not have penetrated deep enough into the Earth's mantle to release the huge underground ocean. The existing Chicxulub crater is thought to have been only 18 miles deep at the time of impact, and the subterranean reservoir certainly wasn't released then. So it's a nice idea, but it simply wouldn't have happened.

Furthermore, the book contradicts itself in terms of the stated effects. Remember my first quote? "Only a few mountain peaks" of dry land? Where would those peaks be exactly? The highest mountains on earth are the Himalayan mountain range, culminating in the mighty Mount Everest at just over 29,000 feet. So for only a "few" mountain peaks to be left, global sea levels would have to rise something on the order of...25,000 feet. At least. But it's stated right on page 5 of the book, when the protagonist is driving her submersible through the London streets, that "Light from the countless solar spheres a thousand feet up on the ocean's surface highlights the watery depths."

SORRY, THIS DOES NOT COMPUTE. You can't have it both ways. Right now, London averages only a few dozen feet above sea level; let's be extremely generous and say 200. Add one thousand more feet of water on top of that. Simple math states that the planet would in no way be inundated with water. Hell, the town I live is famously a "mile high" (5200 feet). All of the current coasts would be gone, but there would still be a great deal of dry land remaining, and almost all the current mountain ranges.

Of course, that doesn't account for the fact that civilization would be wiped out and the human species would probably be headed towards extinction, along with most other life on Earth. There certainly wouldn't be any sort of industrial complex remaining, above sea level or below (where are they getting the people, materials, infrastructure and supply chains to construct all those submersibles, submarines, titanium domes, and acrylic tubes, for example?). Also, if the asteroid strike is in 2035, the technology needed to construct and support those undersea habitats would not be there. That's only 15 years in the future! The pressure at the stated 1000-foot depth would be, according to this nifty calculator, about 450 pounds per square inch. Not to mention all the problems of human beings attempting to live at those depths (the risk of "the bends" would be a continuous, ongoing thing, for instance).

Nope. Nope. Nope. The more I think about it, the more impossible this scenario sounds. And if I could come up with all this, the editor certainly should have been able to.

Now, having said that, I didn't abandon the book. That's because as much as I hated the worldbuilding and tried to push it out of my mind, I liked the characters. Oh, occasionally Leyla would make a typically dumb teenage decision that made me want to pound on her submarine and yell "ARGH DON'T DO THAT," but for the most part she was a well-written character. She was brave, determined, fiercely loyal to her father, and ever optimistic and hopeful, even in the face of terrible odds. Her love interest, the young man named Ari who turned out to be...something else entirely, was also well-drawn, and I appreciated that their romance was a sweet slow burn. And the AI Navigator, Oscar, running Leyla's submarine, provided a few laughs and a bit of snarky British attitude.

So all this was just enough to make me finish the book and keep it. It may be for you as well. It depends on your tolerance for egregious scientific mistakes (although, to be fair, if the author followed the science of her disaster and world to its logical end we wouldn't have a story). Just be aware that you've got a lot to overlook.

View all my reviews

January 29, 2020

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Ep 1, "Remembrance"



This is the second Star Trek series on CBS All Access, and for this one, the producers managed to pull off the seemingly impossible: lure Jean-Luc himself, Patrick Stewart, back into the saddle. Previously, Stewart had resisted all attempts to persuade him to revisit his iconic character after the last movie, the not-well-received Nemesis in 2002. It was only when he was given considerable input into the storyline (he's credited as an executive producer) that he agreed to come aboard.

(Oh yeah, SPOILERS. TONS of spoilers. EVERY LINE FROM HERE ON OUT is a spoiler. Proceed at your own risk.)

So now we have an aged and at least in this episode, a hermitlike and defeated Jean-Luc, having left Starfleet behind some ten years before, living out his final years at his family's vineyard in France. The opening scene sets the stakes: a dream sequence in which Picard is playing poker with the deceased Commander Data (who sacrificed himself to save Picard's life in Nemesis) on board the Enterprise-D. Data, seemingly convinced he holds a powerful hand, tells Picard to "call or fold," and Picard proceeds to sloooowwwwly make himself a cup of Earl Grey, offering Data first milk and then sugar and taking a deliberate sip from it. Data rightly notes that his Captain is stalling, and Picard sets the cup down, looks at his friend, and says, with that wonderful Patrick Stewart delivery which carries all sorts of nuances, "I don't want the game to end."

Then the table starts quivering and the coins begin to shake, and Data and Picard look out the viewports to see the face of Mars. Picard protests that he didn't know their course would take them past Mars, and he and Data look on in horror as the planet begins to blossom with--perhaps nuclear explosions (although I don't think it's ever specifically stated). The screen fills with white light, and Picard snaps out of his nightmare with the help of his dog, a pit bull fittingly named Number One.

So right away we see that Picard is haunted by two things: the death of Commander Data and the destruction of the Utopia Planitia shipyards on Mars (and apparently the planet as well, as it's stated that it's "still burning" ten years later, although with the lack of an atmosphere on Mars I don't know what there is to burn). As we find out, this is a future where Starfleet has retreated from its former ideals into a suspicious, isolationist society, and the story behind the second tragedy is what led Picard to resign from Starfleet. This is revealed via an interview done with Picard on its ten-year anniversary, where the interviewer ambushes him with the demand that he talk about what happened. Ten years before, the Romulan sun was going supernova, and Picard persuaded them to mount a humanitarian mission and personally led the armada of ten thousand ships to rescue nine hundred million refugees. But a rogue army of "synths" (androids seemingly made in the mold of Data, although later descriptions make them sound closer to Blade Runner's replicants--flesh and blood clones with a positronic brain--which is a really interesting bit, at least to me) took advantage of the understandable chaos of the rescue mission to stage the attack on Mars and take 92,000 lives. As a result Starfleet abandoned the rescue mission and banned synths altogether, and Picard, after fighting so valiantly during The Next Generation to establish Data's sentience and rights as a person, resigned in disgust.

I think this is the strongest scene in the entire episode, as the interviewer asks Picard: "Why should the Federation go out of its way to help its oldest enemy?"

"Because millions of lives were at stake."

"Romulan lives."

"No. Lives."

Oh my goodness, Patrick Stewart still has it. These two words, delivered softly and deliberately with just the right are-you-kidding-me tilt to the head, gave me goose bumps. A minute later, he explodes in fury as the interviewer confronts him with why he retired: "Because Starfleet was no longer Starfleet!" This was so raw one could easily see Picard's anguish, and what that decision cost him, ten years later.

The first new character introduced, a young Asian woman named Dahj, ties the two storylines together. We meet Dahj having a celebratory drink with her boyfriend, having just been accepted to study "quantum consciousness" at the Daystrom Institute. The young man gets up to get Dahj a smoothie from the replicator, and suddenly several black-clad assassin types beam into the apartment. One throws a knife into the young man's chest, and the others tackle Dahj, yelling "Where is it?" (They first speak an alien language before switching to English. At that point they are not identified as Romulans, something we find out later.) One of them says, "She's not activated yet," and they envelop Dahj's head in a black bag. This turns out to be a very foolish and prophetic decision, as Dahj promptly "activates" and kicks their asses, taking out all of them. Afterwards she goes to kneel over her boyfriend's body. In her understandable terror and hysteria, her head snaps up--and in her mind's eye, she sees Picard's face looking back at her.

She flees into the night and passes a storefront where Picard's interview is being broadcast, and now knows where to go to find him. (In fact, she does quite a bit of abrupt planet-hopping through this episode. One assumes there are ubiquitous planetary transporters in the Star Trek universe, but it would have been nice to see one in action.) The next morning, Picard is sitting in his yard with his dog, and Dahj, having tracked him down, approaches. She explains what happened, crying and shaking, and tells Picard she somehow knew to come to him, that she would be safe there. He takes her into his house and talks to her, and during the conversation points out her double-ringed necklace (which of course turns out to be important later). Then he asks his two Romulan employees, Laris and Zhaben (who apparently talked him into agreeing to the interview) to put her to bed.

There follows another dream sequence, and Picard sees Data again, standing amongst the grapes daubing at a canvas. He goes down to see what is going on, and lo and behold Data's canvas shows a white-clad young woman standing on a cliff overlooking the sea--a woman without a face. Picard approaches and Data holds out his brush, inviting his captain to finish the painting.

"I don't know how," Picard says, again with that wonderful Patrick Stewart delivery.

"That is not true, Captain," Data says, insisting Picard take the brush.

He does, and wakes up, now knowing exactly what Data was referring to. This same painting hangs above his mantle, painted by Data thirty years before--and showing Dahj's face.

At that point Laris and Zhaben rush into the room, saying that Dahj has disappeared, her bed empty. Picard, seized by the revelation of his dream, says there is something he has to take care of, and beams to Starfleet HQ in San Francisco. Here there is a huge building that is a "quantum archive," a nifty little place with all sorts of (fanservice) memorabilia, including the banner from "Captain Picard Day" aboard the Enterprise-D. Picard summons the object he stored here--the twin to the painting hanging on his wall, gifted to him by Data. He summons the "archivist," apparently an artificial projection on order of Voyager's Emergency Medical Technician, and asks her what the painting's name is. The answer: "Daughter."

Meanwhile, Dahj, afraid of endangering the people who have been kind to her, flees to Paris. She calls her mother (there aren't any cell phones in this future, but rather invisible holo-phones operated by waggling one's fingers in the air) and tells her what happened. Her mother, or the woman pretending to be Dahj's mother, gives the game away by mentioning Picard's name when Dahj has not said anything about it. Their conversation, and her mother's insistence that she return to Picard, apparently "activates" Dahj again; she wiggles her fingers and manipulates her phone project-a-screen, and tracks down Picard's location.

So when Picard comes out of the Quantum Archive, there Dahj is, waiting for him.

There follows another very good scene where Picard sits Dahj down and gently explains what he thinks she is: Data's daughter, a rather up-to-date, very human-looking android. This, admittedly, is quite a leap to make on somewhat scanty evidence, and the only point in the episode I felt was rushed because The Plot Said This Is How It Must Be. Having said that, Patrick Stewart was again marvelous, carefully bringing Dahj along to his conclusions and urging her to be like the man he thinks is her father, the friend who sacrificed his life for him. Isa Briones as Dahj, in this scene and the earlier scene in the vineyard, doesn't do a bad job at all showing her character's shock, confusion and fear, and yet Sir Patrick Stewart absolutely dwarfs her in terms of acting ability. I would have been intimidated as all hell to even be in a scene with him, and wonder what he had to do to talk his young co-stars through it.

But Dahj doesn't even have time to process this, as her "activation" clicks in once again, and she says her enemies have found them. There follows a wild chase up several flights of stairs, where the point is driven home that Picard (and Stewart) is no longer a spring chicken, as Dahj has to help him get to the roof. (I hope they keep up this theme of the aging hero on what is possibly their last ride. That seems to me to be a rich vein to explore, especially with this character.) She runs away to confront the intruders, the same black-helmeted assassins as before, and it is during this fight that she throws one down and his helmet rolls away, and Picard (and the audience) sees that they are Romulan. Dahj makes a good account of herself, but one of the Romulans spits some green gunky acid on her which eats into the artificial skin and causes her to explode, even as Picard runs up, screaming "No!"

He wakes up in his living room with a worried-looking Laris and Zhaben hovering over him, which is another rushed scene--wasn't he taken to a hospital, and didn't the police want to talk to him? Or maybe not, as it's stated that the Romulan assassins didn't show up on the security footage, leading Zhaben to comment that they must have been using cloaking devices.  In any event, Picard is overcome by guilt: Dahj came to him for protection, and he couldn't help her. But this also leads to a epiphany as to how he's spent the last ten years: "I haven't been living," he declares as he gets up from the couch. "I've been waiting to die."

Apparently he's going to do something about that, as we next see him striding down the hallways of the Daystrom Institute, where he meets with the director of said institution, hollowed out and nearly shut down after the synth ban: Dr. Agnes Jurati. (Aside: Agnes? Really? That name isn't even heard now anymore. I can't imagine it would still be around at the end of the 24th century.) This scene is where the most plot bombshells are dropped, including: the rogue synths came from this institution (and what were they making them for, pray tell? This carries an unfortunate, nasty whiff of mass production for possibly forced labor); the Daystrom Institute's former boss was Dr. Bruce Maddox, the scientist who Picard battled for Data's rights and freedom in the TNG episode "The Measure of a Man"; the pieces of B4, the prototype Data tried to download himself into in Nemesis, are displayed with the definitive establishment that he did not succeed; but on the other hand, Dr. Maddox was working on some Star Trek technobabble theory wherein he could recreate, if not the entirety of Commander Data, at least his essence, from a single positronic neuron. Then Picard shows Dr. Jurati Dahj's necklace (and this is a bit of a plot hole--where did he get that? Did the police give it to him from her smoldering remains? Wouldn't they have kept it as evidence, or something?) and the last bombshell is dropped. She remarks, "You could create them that way," and Picard immediately seizes on the plural. Turns out Maddox's theory posited creating flesh and blood sentient androids as twins. (Why? I hope that question gets answered somewhere down the line.)

So: Dahj has a sister out there somewhere, and presumably the Romulans are after her too.

At that point, we shift to the Romulan refugee facility, a huge starbase of some sort, as Romulan warbirds are shown cruising through force screens and into its interior. Dahj's sister is shown. A young, good-looking Romulan man strides down the walkway to greet her. They strike up a conversation and start flirting, and the camera pulls back on a long, gorgeous tracking shot to show just what the "refugee facility" is--the remains of an abandoned Borg cube.

Roll credits.

Whew. What an introduction. This episode's heavy lifting involves establishing the twin storylines the season will pursue--all the regulars haven't even shown their faces yet. Still, it was such a treat to see Patrick Stewart again, and know his Jean-Luc Picard is in a very different place as a character: disillusioned and beaten, retreating from life. I really appreciated the slower, more thoughtful pace of this episode--which, again, fits perfectly with Picard's character--and hope they keep it up. (From the previews, there are going to be some epic action sequences, but I would think they would let other people charge into the breach most of the time instead of their lead. Or at least I hope so, as it would look very silly to have a 79-year-old Patrick Stewart running around like an invincible action hero.)

The most notable thing about the episode, to me, was the fact that following the Mars attack, the Federation has--if not turned bad (at least not that we've seen, not yet), has started down a rather unsavory road. Actually, even before that, if they were mass-manufacturing "synths." Of course, if anyone could bring them back to the light, it is Jean-Luc Picard.

This has grabbed me from the get-go, and I am looking forward to the rest of the season.