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.

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