March 3, 2020

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Ep 6, "The Impossible Box"

There were not one but three "Impossible Boxes" in this episode. The first was the Romulan Rubik's Cube (tah zhekran) Narek kept fiddling with, first to needle his sister over the fact that he has patience and she does not, and then to lead Soji along the Zhal Makh, the maze he used to unlock the secret of her dreams; and finally, opening the deadly little thing up to release a red gas to kill her.

The second "impossible box" was the dormant Borg cube, the Artifact, utilizing modern CGI to be a helluva lot more frightening and creepy than anything in The Next Generation days. (And apparently Borg don't believe in handrails. I guess they don't care if individual drones fall off the walkways and go splat.) Portions of the walls moved--black interlocking lattices opening and closing doors and changing one room to another, either under Hugh's control or, more unnervingly, on their own. (This is one reason I still think this cube is going to wake up before the season is over.) This was really a marvelous set--and it looked like at least some of it was actually built, not just constructed in a computer--giving the effect of a murky greenish-fogged maze. We spent quite a lot of time there, as Picard beamed aboard in search of Soji, and Hugh--meeting him with an unrestrained, touching hug--led Picard through the hallways, showing him the work the Borg Reclamation Project is doing to de-assimilate drones. This fleeting glimpse of hope in the midst of former horror brought Picard out of his own series of trauma-induced flashbacks, and gave him the strength to resume his search for Soji.

The third box was Soji herself, who came face to face with the fact that her entire life is a fabrication only 37 months old. Narek seizes on her recurring nightmare to insist to his sister Narissa that Soji's positronic brain is struggling to reconcile her false humanity with the reality of her being a synth, and manipulates her into forcing herself to stay awake during one of her mother's fake "calls." Seeing her "mother" glitching before her eyes, Soji starts examining all of her possessions, none of which, even her childhood diaries, dolls and pictures, are over three years old. Narek conveniently shows up then, and vowing to "help" Soji figure out what is going on, takes her to a room in the heart of the cube, built with a wooden maze and lit with candles: the Zhal Makh. He leads her along the maze and succeeds in unlocking the nightmare: Soji is seeing herself as a doll in pieces in her father's workshop. Along the way she looks out a window and sees two red moons in the night sky and considerable electrical activity, which the eavesdropping Narissa uses to search for the planet where she came from, and where there are evidently many more synths.

Now that he has what he wants, Narek leaves Soji in the room and locks her in, and his Rubik's Cube releases the deadly gas. (Not without considerable conflict written all over his face: could it be the Tal Shiar, or rather Zhat Vash, agent, has fallen for the "robot girl" after all?) This, of course, activates Soji. She pounds through the chamber floor and jumps through the resulting hole to the levels below, and Narek sets off the alarm and goes after her.

But Picard is also there, using Hugh to track Soji down. This entire sequence of scenes for Picard, beginning with his explaining to Agnes and Elnor that he was once Locutus of Borg, shot with a tight closeup on Patrick Stewart's face to underscore the fact that Picard's thirty-year-old trauma has most certainly not gone away; beaming aboard the cube and immediately going into flashbacks, until Hugh brings him out of it; and meeting up with Soji and persuading her to come with him, then following Hugh to the "Queen's chamber" where there is a Sikarian emergency transporter to beam the Queen away in case of catastrophe--is something of an acting tour de force for Sir Patrick Stewart. He makes you feel every ounce of Picard's fear and trauma.

The rest of the cast have nice character moments as well. Raffi, dragged out of her room in a drunken stupor following the rejection by her son, manipulates an old friend into giving Picard diplomatic access to the Artifact, showing that she was as good a Starfleet officer as she was perhaps a not-so-good mother. A touching little scene with Raffi and Rios, after he takes her back to her quarters, shows their depth of their friendship. (And why didn't Picard help Raffi after that drunken show on his behalf? This shows his tendency to get so caught up in what he's doing he doesn't think about the people helping him.) Rios also has a good scene with Agnes, who is still reeling from what she has done (and everyone thinks she is just broken up over Bruce Maddox' plausible, natural-sounding death, which is why she is so far getting away with the murder), and reaching out to Rios, talks him into taking her to bed. Elnor, who is so far mostly standing back and observing everything that is going on--and occasionally making "absolute candor"-iffic comments about it--disregards Picard's orders and beams aboard the cube when things start to go south (leading to a laugh-out-loud exchange with Picard: "Elnor, I told you to stay on the ship!" "Yes. I didn't listen."), and proceeds to slice and dice some of the Romulans pursuing Soji, Picard and Hugh. (I hope we get more of him in the next episode, as he seems a bit underused, and he's a really interesting character.) The pacing is good throughout, ratcheting up the tension as it goes along. The very end, after Picard and Soji have stepped through the emergency transporter and beamed away to a planet called Nepenthe--where, judging from next week's previews, they will meet Riker and Troi--closes with Elnor facing down the Romulans in the hallway to cover Picard and Soji's escape and conceal the Queen's chamber, telling Hugh to get behind him. We fade to black, closing on Elnor's ominous, blunt warning: "Please, my friends. Choose to live."

This is hands down the best episode so far. It wasn't written by Michael Chabon, but it's keeping the mostly slower pace and balancing of characterization with action sequences. I know the various Star Trek series traditionally have poor-to-middling first seasons, but this one seems to be finding its stride fairly quickly. I'm really enjoying it.

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