Star Trek Picard Undergoes “Assimilation”

Season 4 of Star Trek Discovery ended this week, so here’s my take on the third episode of season 2 of Star Trek Picard. For my take on previous episodes and seasons, go here.

Warning: Spoilers below the cut!

When we last met Picard and his friends, they found themselves stranded in an alternate timeline, where Earth is the centre of the xenophobic and fascist Confederation, courtesy of Q altering the timeline in the year 2024. So our heroes – and the Borg Queen, whom the team saved from execution and with whom they’ve formed a temporary alliance – escape aboard the alternate universe version of La Sirena and plan to travel back in time, using the solar slingshot method first seen in “Tomorrow is Yesterday” way back in 1967. That’s also why Picard and friends need the Borg Queen, in order to make the necessary calculations.

But before the La Sirena and her valiant crew can make the trip to the past to fix the timeline and make everything right again, they are interrupted by the Magistrate, a high-ranking Confederation official, who also happens to be married to Seven in this reality. The Magistrate and his armed goons are not at all amused that Picard, Seven and the gang wrecked his political rally cum public execution ceremony by absconding with the Borg Queen. And so he beams after them, shoots Elnor (the Confederation is rabidly xenophobic and Elnor is a Romulan terrorist in this timeline) and holds everybody else at gunpoint. Seven tries to bluff her way out of the situation by confronting her terrible husband and yelling at him for interfering with a classified operation. However, the Magistrate isn’t having any of it. He has noticed that his wife has been behaving strangely and while he has no idea what precisely is going on, he suspects that Seven (as well as Picard, Raffi and Rios) is an imposter. So he demands that Seven say his full name, something she can’t do, because our Seven has never seen the Magistrate before.

However, the Magistrate makes the mistake of letting Seven get too close to him. Close enough to grab his phaser and shoot one of the goons. Raffi and Rios quickly launch into action as well and manage to take out the Magistrate and his goons, while Agnes Jurati plugs the Borg Queen into La Sirena.

Once the Magistrate and his goons are dealt with, Raffi and Seven rush Elnor to sickbay, only to find hardly any medical supplies that they recognise. Apparently going fascist has also seriously stymied medical development in the Confederation. They do patch up Elnor, but his condition is deteriorating rapidly.

Meanwhile, Confederation ships are still in hot pursuit. Everybody aboard gets shaken around and the Borg Queen is knocked out of her containment field. Agnes has a terrifying encounter with the legless Borg Queen moving about on her hands in a scene that is reminiscent of the famous chase in the rain from the 1932 film Freaks. But just as Agnes thinks that she is about to be assimilated, the Borg Queen instead plugs herself into the ship, hanging suspended like a spider in its web or a pinned butterfly. This version of the Borg Queen, though disconnected from the collective, is scarier than the Borg have been in a long time. io9 reviewer James Whitbrook also notes that the Borg or rather their Queen are scarier in this episode than they have been in ages.

Picard manages to disable one of the pursuing ships and then the Borg Queen takes over, assuming control of the ship and executing the solar slingshot maneouvre. The visuals are reminiscent of the time travel scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, though of course vastly updated, because Star Trek IV‘s primitive CGI is really massively dated. And talking of time travel, it’s notable that the director of this episode is none other then 1980s star Lea Thompson, who is best remembered for starring in the Back to the Future trilogy, though she was also in Red Dawn, Howard the Duck and a lot of other films of the era. Having someone best remembered for starring in a beloved trilogy of time travel films direct a time travel episode is certainly a nice touch.

That said, La Sirena‘s arrival in the past is not all that pleasant. Much of the power is gone and many systems are not operational. The Borg Queen has passed out and Rios can barely control the ship, as it heads for a crashlanding on Earth. Agnes points out that crashing the ship in a densely populated area like Los Angeles is a really bad idea, so Picard suggests crashlanding it in an unpopulated area near what appears to be Chateau Picard. Picard’s ancestors will be thrilled that their great-great-great-grandson has just ruined the harvest and destroyed a forest in order to save the future.

But a bunch of trees near Chateau Picard are not the only casualties of the crash. Because the crash knocks out what’s left of the power supply, including to the machines that keep Elnor alive. It turns out that the Borg Queen is siphoning off power to restore herself. Rios wants to shoot her, but Picard and Agnes point out that they still need to Borg Queen to tell them precisely where the timelines diverged, not to mention to get back to the future, so everybody labours to unplug the Borg Queen from La Sirena‘s power supply, so the sickbay gets power again. But it’s too late. Elnor gives Raffi his amulet and dies. Yes, they killed Elnor, the bastards.

Of course, it’s possible that Elnor will get better, once the timeline is restored. That said, killing him off still comes as something of a shock. What makes this even worse is that Elnor has the potential to be a really interesting character – a naive but deadly Romulan warrior monk who always tells the truth – only that he is perpetually underused. Still, why kill him off? Why not just leave him behind in the proper timeline like Soji, who was only briefly seen this season, having dinner with some Deltans.

Everybody is affected by Elnor’s death, but Raffi, who had sort of adopted him, is particularly heartbroken. She also tells Picard that this is all his fault, because if Picard hadn’t been sparring with Q, the whole thing might never have happened. Picard replies that Q is the one who’s playing with him. But Raffi does have a point. Q clearly enjoys harassing Picard and putting him in impossible situations, which occasionally get Enterprise crewmembers killed. Would Q do what he does, if he hadn’t found an foil in Picard? And does Picard unwittingly egg him on? It’s the familiar “Don’t feed the trolls” problem. Do trolls go away, when they don’t get the response they hope for? Or will they increase the harassment to elicit a reaction?

But that’s a philosophical question to be discussed later. For now, the team must try to get the La Sirena and the Borg Queen back online as well as figure out how to undo the timeline change. Before she passed out, the Borg Queen said that the timeline divergence occurred in Los Angeles and that a Watcher is present there who can help.

So Seven, Raffi and Rios try to dress in an approximation of 20th century clothing (though Rios remarks that they still look fascist) and beam to Los Angeles to find the Watcher, while Picard and Agnes try to bring the Borg Queen back online to get some more information out of her. “Don’t step on any butterflies”, Agnes warns them in a reference to both the butterfly effect as well as Ray Bradbury’s famous 1952 time travel story “The Sound of Thunder”, where a time traveller accidentally stepping on a butterfly during the late Cretaceous changes history and brings about a fascist regime in the present day. The parallels to the origin of the Confederation are notable and they will become even more notable over the course of the episode.

Since the Watcher will likely be using alien or futuristic technology, scanning for such should lead the team right to him. So Raffi proposes heading to the tallest building in Los Angeles in 2024, the Wilshire Grand Center, and scan the area for alien lifesigns and/or tech from the top of the building. This surprised me, because I had assumed that the tallest building in Los Angeles was the so-called US Bank Tower a.k.a. the round skyscraper, which gets blown up in Independence Day. Alas, the Wilshire Grand Center surpassed the more iconic US Bank Tower in 2017, so that’s where they’re headed.

However, the three first have to find each other, because the transporter doesn’t function very well and so Raffi, Rios and Seven get separated. Seven materialises in some kind of park, observed by a little girl, who asks her if she is a superhero. Raffi materialises in an alley and wanders out into an encampment of homeless people – a nod to the so-called “sanctuary zones” from the Deep Space Nine episode “Past Tense”, which is set in the same year. Raffi remarks on the contrast between the gleaming skyscrapers and the homeless camp and promptly gets mugged. However, the would-be mugger also makes the mistake to get to close to Raffi, allowing her to disarm him, knock him out and empty his wallet, much to the amusement of Seven.

Raffi and Seven make their way to the top of the Wilshire Grand Center, where they’re discovered by a security guard. Once more, Seven bluffs her way out of a tricky situation by declaring that she and Raffi just got engaged and that they had their first date atop this building and that they now want to take a picture and besides, the other security guard – “Kevin” supplies this guard – let them in. It’s interesting that Seven blithely assumes that no one will bat an eyelash at the fact that the person she got engaged to is a woman. Of course, hardly anybody in Los Angeles in 2024 will bat an eyelash, but the reaction could have been very different, if they had arrived thirty years earlier or in a different part of the world. Luckily, the security guard is not homophobic and also determined not to be upstaged by “Kevin” and leaves Raffi and Seven alone.

It’s interesting how Star Trek Picard conveys that this is not our world, but one very close to it. Los Angeles in the Star Trek universe looks like Los Angeles in our universe and the highest building in the city is the same and looks the same. However, there are subtle differences. Cause our Los Angeles does not have sanctuary zones and to my knowledge, it also does not have large homeless camps in prominent areas of the city. There’s also a billboard in the distance, announcing a mission to Europa, and I’m sure there won’t be a prominent (and manned) mission to Europa in the next two years.

In other ways, the 2024 Los Angeles in the Star Trek universe is remarkably similar to our universe, as Rios is about to find out. While Seven and Raffi got lucky and materialised on the ground, Rios materialises in mid air. He tries to grab a fire escape, but fails and plunges to the ground in front of a shop named Tiptree – a reference to James Tiptree Jr? Rios hits his head and is knocked out. A good Samaritan finds him and takes him to a free clinic in the neighbourhood, which offers treatment to people without health insurance, including the homeless and undocumented immigrants.

A lot of time travel stories, including previous Star Trek time travel episodes, tend to ignore the fact that not all time travellers will be equally safe in whatever period they end up in. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home addressed this issue in a somewhat jokey manner, when Pavel Chekhov blithely asks for directions to a military base housing a nuclear submarine with a notable Russian accent, in 1986 at a time when the Cold War was at its tensest and San Francisco was not exactly a safe place for a Russian person. And of course, Chekohov is promptly arrested, though the whole thing is more played for laughs.

Chris Rios is a Hispanic man with neither ID nor money and Los Angeles in the early 21st century is not exactly a safe place for Hispanic people with neither money nor ID. And so both the good Samaritan as well as the doctor at the free clinic immediately assume that Rios is an undocumented immigrant like most of the other patients at this clinic. The doctor, a Hispanic woman named Teresa, also assumes that Rios’ eagerness to be gone is due to fear of the police or the ICE and assures him that she want report him. Meanwhile, Rios seems to be not at all aware that Los Angeles in 2024 is not a safe place for him due to who he is. You’d think that time travellers would at least read up on the period they’re planning to visit.

Even worse, Rios loses his com badge at the clinic. The badge is picked up by a little boy, who turns out to be the son of Dr. Teresa. Rios manages to bribe the kid with a platter of cookies – and note how Rios eats one and is utterly thrilled that the cookies are made with real peanutbutter, cause he has most likely eaten replicator food for most of his life – and gets his badge back, but Teresa confiscates it again and also tells Rios that he can’t leave yet, because he has a concussion and a dislocated finger.

Sparks fly between Rios and Teresa. Teresa asks Rios for his favourite childhood memory and he recounts that his mother worked at the Academy – ahem, a piloting academy – and that Rios snuck into a simulator at the age of eight to try it out and wound up beating the high score of all Starfleet cadets and setting off alarms all over the place. So Rios is not just an ace pilot, he’s also a prodigy.

Teresa and her nurse have also washed Rios’ clothes – his very weird clothes, Teresa points out – and have just returned them to him, when disaster strikes in the form of an ICE raid. Teresa and the nurse shoo all the patients, including a very confused Rios out the backdoor, while Teresa attempts to stall the ICE agents. Rios sees armed thugs abusing the doctor who just helped him and since he’s a hero, he decides to help her, even though he knows he has to keep a low profiles. So he grabs a lab coat and a stethoscope and reappears as a doctor who urgently needs Teresa’s help with a patient in a messy condition. Alas, the ICE agents notice Rios’ bandaged hand and don’t buy that he’s a doctor, so Rios and Teresa both get arrested, while Picard’s voice can be heard from Rios’ com badge. So I guess Seven and Raffi will have to break Rios out of immigration detention next episode.

The free clinic is called the Mariposa Clinic and “mariposa” is Spanish for butterfly. Plus, this Star Trek fan Twitter account points out that there is butterfly imagery all over the place in the clinic scenes. Remember Agnes telling Rios, Raffi and Seven not to step on any butterflies. Well, it seems Rios has not only stepped on a butterfly, but actually blundered into a butterfly house. The timeline divergence very likely is connected to the Mariposa Clinic.

In his review, Paul Levinson theorises that the problem lies with Rios losing his com badge and the badge ending up in the wrong hands. That’s certainly a possibility, though personally I suspect that we’re headed for a variation on “City on the Edge of Forever” (where a timeline change in the past also brought about a fascist regime – gee, this keeps happening a lot in Star Trek) with Teresa as an Edith Keeler figure, which will mean heartbreak for Rios and a tragic end for Teresa. Though I really hope I’m wrong.

While all this is going on, Picard and Agnes are facing a completely different drama aboard the La Sirena. The Borg Queen is still down and out and the information that the team needs to complete their mission is hidden inside her head. Picard points out that the Borg rarely speak, because thoughts are instantly shared among all Borg. So the key to finding the Watcher lies inside the Borg Queen’s head.

Picard can’t go into the Borg Queen’s mind, because he has been assimilated once, so the Queen knows his mind and would take him over almost instantly. However, the Borg Queen does not know Agnes and a full Borg assimilation takes some time. So Agnes suggests that she plug into the Borg Queen, find the information about the Watcher and bring the Queen back online. Picard strenuously objects, but he has no better plan, so Agnes prevails. Besides, there will be safeguards such as Picard monitoring Agnes to disconnect her the moment things turn dangerous.

What follows is a tense scene of Agnes rummaging through the mind of the Borg Queen while trying to avoid being assimilated. Agnes babbles as the Borg Queen triggers different emotions such as anger and sadness. Finally, Borg Queen and Agnes are about to become one and Agnes speaks with the voice of the Borg Queen and the Borg Queen with the voice of Agnes, until Picard finally pulls the plug.

The Borg Queen is awake now and gloats that she won’t help Agnes and Picard find the Watcher. However, it’s Agnes who has the last laugh, because while the Borg Queen was rummaging through Agnes’ emotions, Agnes copied the location of the Watcher to La Sirena‘s computer. The Borg Queen tells Agnes that she has impressed her and that’s more dangerous than she knows.

The not-quite-assimilation scene is made even more tense by some excellent acting from Alison Pill and Annie Werschinger. But the acting in Star Trek Picard is great across the board. Of course, if your star is Sir Patrick Stewart, one of the best actors of his generation, great acting is only to be expected. However, it’s not just Patrick Stewart who’s excellent, it’s everybody. Of course, Jeri Ryan, Michelle Hurd, Santiago Cabrera and Alison Pill are all actors with lengthy careers who’ve been in lots of things and actors you usually noticed, whether you knew their name or not. In general, both Discovery and Picard have excellent casts with no real weak links.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this episode, even though the plot hasn’t moved forward very much – after all, we already knew last episode that the team would have to go back in time to find the Watcher and undo the timeline change and they’re no nearer to that goal than they were last week. I have complained about the odd and often glacial pacing of season 4 of Star Trek Discovery, but Picard doesn’t necessarily move any faster. So far the first three episodes have basically been the crew trying to find each other in three different settings. But there’s a lot more happening, so you don’t necessarily notice that there isn’t a lot of forward momentum.

In general, Star Trek Picard feels very much like Star Trek‘s Greatest Hits, since there’s very little here that we haven’t seen loads of times before. I mean, we have Picard and Q bantering, Picard having intimacy issues, we have someone mucking about with time to bring about a fascist alternate timeline, we have time travel to our present, which the writers use to comment on the current day, we have the team struggling to adjust to our time, we have the Borg Queen being creepy and mysterious, we have inspirational speeches and space battles, we have Seven kicking arse and moral messages delivered with all the sublety of a sledge hammer. reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido also points out that there’s nothing in Picard that we haven’t seen in Star Trek dozens of times before.

Nonetheless, I don’t mind, because Star Trek Picard is just such a lot of fun. And yes, I know it’s weird calling a show where the main cast has to deal with some less pleasant aspects of our present in order to prevent a fascist dystopia in the future fun, but that’s exactly what Star Trek Picard is. The cast are clearly having a blast and we get to watch them having fun.

So far, season 2 of Star Trek Picard delivery solid Star Trek and solid entertainment and what more can you want?

Let’s see what the fearless crew of the La Sirena does next.


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7 Responses to Star Trek Picard Undergoes “Assimilation”

  1. peer says:

    I partially enjoyed this and havent got back to Disco yet. But this episode was a bit too much on familiar territory. And killing Eknor just bc they dont know what to so with him? Im grunpy!

    Well, we see where things are heading. Probably towards The Watcher from Disco,which aint too bad I guess

    • Cora says:

      I agree that the episode could have moved a little quicker. For example, Raffi and Seven could have actually located the Watcher and they could still break Rios out of immigration detention next episode.

      And I for one would have loved to see Elnor’s reactions to the 21st century.

  2. Steve Wright says:

    Elnor probably poses some problems for the scriptwriters at this point – his reaction to the 21st century would be interesting, true, but one has to consider the 21st century’s reaction to Elnor, since even a cursory medical examination will show he’s not human (and, being constantly truthful, he’s not going to try spinning any tall stories about his ears getting caught in a mechanical rice picker.) Rather than sending him to LA, then, the team would probably keep him on the ship – where he has nothing much to do, and would be hanging around like a spare part. Making him temporarily dead probably seemed like the best way to handle him.

    I’m certainly interested enough to keep watching, though. I have my own thoughts about how it might progress; given that time travel is involved, and given that the Borg Queen is liable to double-cross them and try to assimilate them the first chance they get, I’ve been wondering about the message in episode 1. Suppose “Picard, help us” is more like “Picard. Help us”? That is, Picard and the rest of them get assimilated, try to break away in a funky Borg ship, and crash back to the future through the subspace rift? Suppose that cloaked and faceless figure on the bridge of the Stargazer is not the Borg Queen, but Picard himself? It’s an idea. I’m probably wrong, though, I usually am.

    • Cora says:

      Elnor would probably have spilled the beans at once. “I’m a Romulan, I’m from the future, we’re trying to repair the timeline here, so pleasem choose to live, friend.” Of course, Rios tried the same thing on that ICE agent, only the agent didn’t believe him. Though Rios is human, while Elnor is not. Though Doctor Teresa meeting Elnor would certainly have been fun.

      Regarding our theory, I strongly suspect that at the very least Agnes will get assimilated and that the cloaked and hooded Borg Queen may well be Agnes.

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