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.