Star Trek Picard finally meets the “Watcher”

Shockingly, we only have one Star Trek series airing right now (but have no fear, because Disney Plus is giving us Moon Knight next week), so here is my take on the latest episode of Star Trek Picard. For my take on previous episodes and seasons, go here.

Warning: Spoilers below the cut!

When we last met Jean-Luc Picard and his Merry Men and Women, they had traveled back in time to 2024 and landed themselves right in trouble again. Elnor was killed, Agnes was almost assimilated by the Borg Queen and Rios was injured and arrested by ICE. Worse, neither their com badges nor their transporters are working properly. Things are not looking good for Picard and his friends.

The episode opens with Seven and Raffi arriving at the Mariposa Clinic, looking for Rios. They find the clinic ransacked. Only the nurse is present and tells them that Rios was arrested along with Doctor Teresa. Teresa is a US citizen, so she will be released eventually. Rios, however, has neither an ID nor a Green Card nor proof of citizenship, so he will be deported to hell knows where. That is, if the ICE doesn’t get even worse in the next two years and simply disappears people altogether, which this episode at least implies.

We next see Seven and Raffi on a city bus, where we get the first of several Easter eggs that call back to previous Star Trek time travel episodes. This one is a callback to the bus scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, because Seven and Raffi encounter a middle-aged punk with a noisy boom box on the bus and have as little appreciation for bad punk music (and it is bad punk music) as Kirk and Spock almost forty years before. The boom box still plays the same song and they even got the same actor Kirk Thatcher (who’s actually a production designer and producer) to reprise the part. Only that this time around no one needs to nerve-pinch or punch out the punk, because when Seven asks him to turn down the music, the punk touches his neck and switches off the boom box. It’s a fun cameo, even if makes next to no sense, because very few former punks still wear a mohawk and full punk get-up at age 60. Nor would they use an ancient boom box – if they can even find one that still works (one of the old boom boxes I had in the 1980s – a cheap South Korean no name radio, not the pricey Sony one – actually does still work, though the tape deck has been broken for years) – but would probably listen to the music on their phone or maybe an iPod. Never mind that this random bus-riding punk has no real reason to connect to strange men he met on a bus in 1985, one of whom nerve-pinched him, with two strange women he meets on a bus in a different city almost forty years later. Besides, as other events in the episode show, the punk most likely does not even remember the incident with Kirk and Spock back in 1985, because due to the impending timeline change it may never happen.

Since they know that Rios has been arrested, Raffi and Seven make their way to the LAPD headquarters, which would seem to be the logical place to find someone who has been arrested. However, the desk sergeant can’t find Rios in the system and an outraged Raffi getting in her face doesn’t help either. After Seven pulls Raffi away, a random good Samaritan informs them that someone arrested by ICE won’t be in the LAPD system and that they’d better hurry before ICE disappears Rios forever. I’m not sure if this is a reference to the fact that ICE apparently “lost” several of the detained children they separated from their parents or if this hints at something more ominous.

Once they leave LAPD headquarters, Raffi is determined to determined to draw even more attention to herself – something the team have been explicitly warned against, because it could affect the timeline – by pulling a phaser she wasn’t supposed to take out of the ship and using it to disintegrate the window of a parked police car.

“You’re not going to steal the police car”, a horrified Sevn exclaims. Raffi tells her that she only wants to steal the laptop inside the car to look up Rios’ whereabouts. But then, a bunch of cops catch wind of what Raffi is doing, so Raffi and Seven are forced to steal the police car anyway. Raffi finally finds Rios in the computer and learns that he is held at an ICE detention facility, while Seven is forced to take a crash course in driving a 21st century police car. Seven’s issues with driving the car – and understanding traffic rules – ring true, even if the “yellow means go very fast” joke is almost as old as Star Trek by now, though Raffi is a little bit too skilled with the computer, compared to Scotty’s failed attempts to interact with a 2oth century computer in The Voyage Home. And how does Raffi know what GPS is, considering that GPS has likely long been replaced with a succesor system by the 25th century? Finally, it’s striking that neither Raffi nor Seven ever consider switching on the police car’s siren, which would have at least chased other cars out of their way.

While Seven and Raffi are trying to rescue him, Rios is not having a good time. He finds himself locked up in a cage in an ICE detention facility and when he tries to intervene on behalf of another detainee – Rios being the type who just doesn’t know when to shut up – he promptly get himself tasered. He also has a few nice chats with Doctor Teresa through mesh wire. Teresa has by now pegged that something is really off about Rios, especially since he seems to be completely unaware of the routine cruelties of ICE. Rios doesn’t tell her who he really is – though she probably wouldn’t have believed him anyway – though he does try “I’m a starship captain from the future, I’m only passing through and if you’d just let me fulfill my mission, I’ll be gone and will bother you no more” on a guard, with the expected success.

Meanwhile, Picard and Agnes – and the revived Borg Queen – are still aboard La Sirena, trying to get the various systems running again. The heating is among the systems that are not working and Agnes is clearly cold, so Picard suggests retiring to Chateau Picard, which is deserted in this time and has been since WWII, when the Picard family fled to Britain from the Nazis. This bit of history does double duty here, to explain why no one noticed La Sirena crashing and destroying large swarthes of Chateau Picard’s grounds as well as to offer an entirely unnecessary explanation why Jean-Luc Picard speaks with a very British RP accent, in spite of being French.

Inside the deserted chateau, Picard has another flashback of his mother and manages to start a fire in a remarkably well-preserved and too modern looking fireplace. How Picard manage to start a fire with likely neither matches nor a lighter (if he even knew what to do with either) nor anything else is another mystery to episode glosses over. Picard tries to persuade Agnes to rest and sleep, but Agnes is too wired (in the literal sense, since she was plugged into the Borg Queen only last episode) to sleep and instead begins to grab random books, wine bottles and other things lying around. All of these things include the number 15 – the 15th volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1915 bottle of pinot noir, so Picard and Agnes realise that Agnes’ subconscious is trying to tell them something she got from the Borg Queen.  They figure out that the timeline change will happen on the April 15th and that today is April 12th, so they have three days to prevent the timeline change and save the future from becoming a fascist hellscape.

Since they have no time to waste and the transporter is working again, Picard beams to the coordinates where the Watcher is to be found according to the info Agnes stole from the Borg Queen, while Agnes stays behind aboard La Sirena with the Borg Queen, even though that is obviously a very bad idea.

Picard lands in a dilapidated part of Los Angeles – another Sanctuary district, it seems – but one which he recognises because he visited it in the first episode of season 2 in the regular timeline. Precisely, Picard was there to visit a certain bar, a bar which also exists in 2024 almost unchanged, but then is was clearly a historical retro bar in the 25th century.

Guinan was at the top of the list of people who might be the Watcher and indeed, once I saw where Picard was going, I thought, “Well, that was kind of obvious.” Though in the end, the show was not quite as obvious as I feared, for while Picard does meet a young Guinan in the bar, Guinan is not in fact the Watcher.

If this had been Star Wars, we would have been treated to a creepy digitally de-aged Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan. Star Trek, however, doesn’t really do digital de-aging and so Ito Aghayere plays this much younger version of Guinan. Personally, I prefer this approach, because while the digital de-aging technology has advanced significantly and we certainly have enough footage of the younger Whoopi Goldberg to use, the result has that typical uncanny valley creepiness. See Mark Hamill’s digital ghost guest-starring in The Book of Boba Fett recently. Besides, Ito Aghayere does a fine job playing the younger and much more disillusioned Guinan.

Guinan does not recognise Picard – even though they met in “Time’s Arrow” back in 1893. The episode itself never really goes into this, but the implication that due to the impending timeline change, which will wipe the Federation from existence, Picard never travelled back in time to 1893 and so Guinan has never met him. And so this younger, angrier and more cynical Guinan initially assumed that Picard is trying to rob her and threatens him with a shotgun even after Picard has befriended her dog (going by the obvious rapport between Picard and the dog Luna, I wonder whether this is another of Patrick Stewart’s real life dogs). Picard tells Guinan that he knows she’s an El-Aurian, which gets her attention.

It turns out that Guinan is planning to leave Earth behind forever, because it’s just too shitty and terrible a place.  Picard tells Guinan that the timeline is about to be altered for the worse – something which Guinan with her sensitivity to timeline changes is noticing herself – and begs her not to leave just yet, but Guinan is adamant. She’s done with Earth.

Now I certainly sympathise, because the US of 2024 as portrayed in Star Trek Picard certainly is a shitty place, a bit like the Trump era on steroids, though at least it does not seem to have covid. However, Guinan has been living on Earth at least since the late 19th century, so she’s certainly seen worse times, particularly as a black woman.  Cause awful as this version of the early 21st century may be, it’s still not nearly as bad as things used to be. Guinan already lived on Earth when she would neither have been allowed to vote nor would have been allowed to go into many public places. If she spent most of her time in California, she lived through several racism fueled riots – not to mention two World Wars and several genocides. So the question is, why is Guinan so adamant to leave now? Is the awful 21st century, where “they’ve traded hoods for suits”, really the straw that broke the camel’s back?  Or is Guinan just upset because the plot demands her to be.

Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido has similar issues. Guinan must have seen a lot of shit in the more than a century she’s been on Earth, so why is she so upset now? Keith R.A. DeCandido also takes issue with the fact that “Watcher” hammers home its message – that this world, which is very much like ours, is shit – with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Which is absolutely true, but then Star Trek has never been subtle with its messages – “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”, anybody? In fact, I find “Watcher” a lot less annoying in spite of its very blunt message than “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”, because “Watcher” does not really engage in clumsy metaphors like “Battlefield”, but gives us a slightly exaggerated version of things that already happen in our world. Besides, no matter how blunt and unsubtle Star Trek is about its messages, there are always people who still won’t get it. Witness Brad Torgersen, who honestly thought that Star Trek was a show about automatic sliding doors.

I also don’t find it very believable that Guinan, no matter how angry and upset, would not at least listen to Picard, especially since she realises herself that something is wrong. Guinan has normally been portrayed as a more reflective character and someone who is willing to listen. As it is, however, Guinan only listens when Picard tells her his name – which should mean nothing to her, since their meeting in 1893 never happened in this timeline – and agrees to take him to see the Watcher, though she also warns him that the Watcher is not easy to get along with.

They go to see the Watcher in a park with a lake, which is one of those locations you’ve seen a hundred times in different movies or TV shows. Guinan departs once the Watcher or rather their avatar appears, for the Watcher takes over different bodies Dr. Mabuse style, jumping from a little girl to a hot dog vendor to a creepy random dude and finally appearing as a well dressed woman who looks very much like Laris, the Romulan with whom Picard has a complicated relationship. Why does the Watcher look like Laris? That won’t be revealed until next week, though lots of people suspect that the identity of the Watcher will tie in to the 1968 Star Trek episode “Assignment Earth”, one of several time travel episodes of the Original Series. The fact that there are plenty of Easter eggs referring to the Original Series scattered throughout this episodes, e.g. the existence of a 21st Street Mission, which was the name of Edith Keeler’s organisation in “The City on the Edge of Forever”, or a plaza named after Dr. Jackson Roykirk, inventor of the errant space probe from “The Changeling”, would support this theory.

While Picard is catching up with a younger Guinan, Agnes is left stuck aboard La Sirena together with the Borg Queen, which is not a good place for her to be. And so the Borg Queen needles Agnes mercilessly. Agnes, however, understands the Borg Queen as well and point blank tells the Borg Queen that with the Collective gone, she is lonely, just as Agnes is lonely. Agnes also offers her a deal, help her restore communications and the transporters and she’ll talk to the Borg Queen on occasion.

Leaving Agnes alone with the Borg Queen is not a good idea at all and indeed I fear that poor Agnes may be headed for assimilation or may even become a new Borg Queen – or the original Borg Queen, via timey-whiny shenangigans. I’m not the only one who worries about this, Paul Levinson and io9 reviewer James Whitbrook have similar suspicions. James Whitbrook also points out that Agnes is not only stuck in the tech support, the rest of the team also doesn’t treat her very well, which may drive her further to seeek connection via Borg assimilation.

However, it also seems to me as if the writers don’t quite know what to do with Agnes, just as they have no idea what to do with Soji and Elnor. And so Soji is simply forgotten after a brief appearance in episode 1, while poor Elnor is killed off. Which is a pity, because all of those characters have potential.

As for why Agnes so desperately needs to get the transporters and communication system back online, Rios is put on a prison bus to be deported to presumably Mexico, so Raffi and Seven urgently need to rescue him, before he disappears forever, Mexico apparently being some kind of black hole in this version of 2024. Either that or this version of ICE just kills people to be deported and buries them in the desert.

However for now, Raffi and Seven are still stuck in the middle of an extended chase with the police. By US TV standards, it’s not even a bad car chase, though nowhere near the level of Alarm für Cobra 11, but then what is? However, this is Star Trek and not Alarm für Cobra 11 and for Star Trek, the chase goes on way too long. Though the way the chase ends is fun, for Agnes has finally managed to get the transporters back online and tell Seven to break, even if it seems counter-intuitive, because Agnes cannot beam them out of a moving vehicle. So the police car comes to a halt and is immediately surrounded by LAPD officers, only for Raffi and Seven to vanish in front of their eyes. The official police report about that incident will certainly be interesting.

Raffi and Seven reappear on a hill near the road that the prison bus with Rios on board is travelling down. So now they have to stop the bus and rescue Rios – without any equipment or even a vehicle.

The lengthy car chases also masks the fact that even though this is a busy episode with lots of things happening, the plot barely moves forward at all. Rios was in ICE detention at the start of the episode and he still is in ICE detention by the end. Seven and Raffi were chasing after Rios at the start of the episode and they still are by the end. Agnes was at risk of falling under the spell of the Borg Queen at the beginning of the episode and she still is at the end.  Only Picard’s plot moves forward at all, though not very fast, cause he spends most of the episode catching up with Guinan and only meets the Watcher – if the woman who looks like Laris is indeed the Watcher – at the very end. The often glacial pace was already a problem in season 1 of Picard and in season 4 of Star Trek Discovery and sadly, it continues to be an issue in season 2 as well.

Finally, there is also Q, who’s sitting at a table in some kind of outdoor café, watching a woman who’s reading a Dixon Hill mystery (a nice callback to the Next Generation episode “The Big Goodbye”), while trying to feed her insecurities and imposter syndrome. Patches on their clothing indicate that both the woman and whoever Q is pretending to be work for the Europa mission that is advertised in billboards all over Los Angeles of 2024. Well, it should have been obvious that those were Chekhov’s (Anton, not Pavel) billboards and not a random bit of set decoration. And so the impending timeline change will clearly have to do something with this mission and probably its failure and the woman Q is harassing is clearly important. Though Q himself is having problems, for when he snaps his fingers, nothing happens.

Season 2 of Star Trek Picard is still a lot of fun, but it’s increasingly obvious that the plot moves at a glacial pace. This entire episode could have been condensed to fifteen minutes and nothing would have been lost. Let’s hope the speed picks up next week.

 

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2 Responses to Star Trek Picard finally meets the “Watcher”

  1. Peer says:

    I did like this episode. I enjoyed the car chase, mainly because of the dialogue between Seven and Rafi. And the rest did do some more set preparation and thats OK. It did not try to be heavy in every scene, like Discos 4th season, but was more entertaining, even if the plot didnt advance much, the epsidoe flew by I find.

    I do agree about Guinans negativity and would add that alien think that “earth is to screwed up to be worth saving” is too much of a trope at this point. Although I vaguely remember Guinan mentioning in a TNG episode that she went trhough some rough times during a part of her lives, when Picard first shown up (but Icant recall any details) – so maybe that was a callback to that. I also agree that we didnt need the Midchlorian-explanation of Picards accent (plus: I wouldnt make a fire, if I dont want to be found)

    In the end I briefly entertained the thought, that the watcher turned out to be Sylvie from Loki, but then remembered that Paramount is one of the few things that Disney doesnt own yet.

    Good -if cryptic- cliffhanger regarding Q though. nd Picards seems to have been right, when he said, that Q seems to having problems.

  2. Pingback: Star Trek Picard Sings “Fly Me To the Moon” | Cora Buhlert

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