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.

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