Here is my take on the latest episode of Star Trek Picard. For my take on previous episodes and seasons of Star Trek Picard, go here.
Warning: Spoilers below the cut!
When we last met Jean-Luc Picard and his Merry Men and Women, Agnes had been taken over by the Borg Queen, Raffi and Seven were chasing her down, Rios decided to come clean to Doctor Teresa and give her and her son a tour of La Sirena and Picard and Guinan had just been arrested by the FBI.
In my review of the previous episode, I wrote:
Why would the FBI follow up on security camera footage of old men randomly materialising in alleys? This is not The X-Files, where the FBI absolutely would investigate such things and everything would be a huge conspiracy besides. It’s the Star Trek universe, where the FBI is probably more interested in hunting terrorists and serial killers than in investigating paranormal occurrences.
However, it turns out that The X-Files is exactly what we’re watching here – or rather we’re watching the Star Trek Picard version of The X-Files. Because Agent Wells, the FBI agent who arrests Picard and Guinan, is basically a less attractive version of Fox Mulder, a man who has been haunted by childhood experience all his life and joined the FBI to exorcise that childhood trauma (certain parallels to Picard’s deep dark trauma there). Because as a kid, young Wells was looking for his missing dog in the woods by night and stumbled upon two Vulcans doing survey work (it was established in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Carbon Creek” that the Vulcans had been visiting and observing Earth prior to first contact). Young Wells runs away, but trips and falls. The Vulcans catch up with him and one mind-melds with him to erase his memories. However, this doesn’t work – presumably because the Vulcans are unfamiliar with humans – leaving behind a traumatised kid. And thus an obsessions is born.
Young Wells (the character doesn’t get a first name, as far as I know) also witnesses the Vulcans beaming back to their vessel, so when adult Wells sees the security cam footage of Picard materialising in the alley behind Guinan’s bar, he recognises the transporter effect and assumes he’s caught an alien. Of course, Picard is no alien and also very clearly tells Wells that he’s not, while Guinan – who actually is an alien – laughs.
The X-Files parallels don’t end there, because Wells takes Picard and Guinan to a dodgy basement office full of filing boxes and with a broken surveillance camera, much like Mulder’s basement office in The X-Files. Though Wells doesn’t have an “I Want To Believe” poster – nor does he have a Scully equivalent. Guinan even points out that Agent Wells isn’t the FBI’s finest, but that he’s very much the dregs of the FBI, the weird guy with the alien obsession who’s only tolerated because he occasionally catches some genuine criminals while hunting for aliens.
Star Trek and The X-Files spring from different branches of the great science fiction tree. Nonetheless, Star Trek has occasionally ventured into The X-Files territory of alien contact and conspiracy, most notably in the (hilarious) Deep Space Nine episode “Little Green Men”. The Next Generation episode “First Contact” predates The X-Files by two years, but it has a similar vibe, only that this time the human Riker is the “alien” who is captured.
That said, I certainly did not expect to see a Star Trek show doing an X-Files riff in 2022. For starters, the original X-Files ended twenty years ago, not counting the 2008 second movie and the 2018 revival. And secondly, while still of immense pop cultural importance, The X-Files has somewhat fallen out of favour, because its “All the conspiracy theories are true” approach looks a tad sinister in the age of Pizzagate, Q-Anon, the Great Reset and other real world conspiracy theories, which are popular particularly among the far right and which do real harm. Some people even blame The X-Files for the rise of conspiracy theories, which is nonsense, because The X-Files did not invent conspiracy theories, it just tapped into the zeitgeist.
However, The X-Files ran concurrently with much the second Star Trek boom from 1987 to 2005 or Next Generation through Enterprise and is very much part of the pop culture of that era and in fact a part that was a lot more influential than Star Trek. And considering that Star Trek Picard draws a lot on nostalgia for 1990s Star Trek, an X-Files riff makes sense. Furthermore, Jeri Ryan played a bad arse Russian assassin on Dark Skies, one of the many X-Files copycats of the 1990s well before she was Seven of Nine. In fact, Jeri Ryan was about the only thing that was good about Dark Skies, so good that she displaced the original female lead Megan Ward for the last few episodes of that one season wonder. Here’s a clip of Jeri Ryan being awesome in Dark Skies.
Like Mulder and Scully, Agent Wells sure is persistent and has gathered a lot of evidence, even if he draws the wrong conclusions from it. Which, come to think of it, is very X-Files as well, since Mulder is perpetually drawing the wrong conclusions. Basically, Agents Wells has traced Picard to the Europa mission pre-launch party and identified his co-conspirators as unidentified gatecrashers at the party. He then crossreferenced databases and finds Rios’ arrest record in the ICE database. This leads Wells to the statement Rios gave to one of the ICE guards (and likely also to a report about the deportation bus being attacked and the detainees freed under mysterious circumstances), namely that he’s on mission to save the future with a cybernetic queen who wants to wipe out humanity and a crochety old admiral who’s a flesh and blood android. Wells glosses over the latter, even though it makes Picard visibly squirm, but is very interested in the former, since Wells very much wants to save humanity from the alien menace. Which – considering that all Wells’ supposed aliens (though only one of them actually is an alien) were at the Europa pre-launch party – Wells assumes is sabotaging the Europa mission. The bruise on Picard’s hand from the IV as well as Rios’ arrest record also leads Wells to the Mariposa clinic, where he finds Rios’ com badge (and why did neither Rios nor anybody else take that along?), which he is convinced is alien technology. Well, it’s not exactly that, but it’s definitely vastly advanced beyond what 21st century humans are capable of.
The thing about Wells is that he’s actually very good at putting the pieces together, yet still comes to the wrong conclusion. I now also wonder whether Wells has files on all the other times Star Trek characters time traveled to the past going back to 1967 and “Tomorrow is Yesterday” or maybe even back to “Carbon Creek” in the 1950s or Roswell in the 1940s (come on, you know that an alien hunter will have files on Roswell) or New York City in 1930 or San Francisco in the 1890s. In fact, I’d love a spin-off where Agent Wells investigates all of the many time travel into the past episodes Star Trek has had over time and draws entirely the wrong conclusion from the evidence.
However, we’re still watching Star Trek and not The X-Files and so Agent Wells gets what Agents Mulder and Scully never get, namely an explanation. Because Guinan, who has been taken to another interrogation room, sends Picard a telepathic message that humans are stuck in the past (which is the overarching theme of season 2 insofar it has one), so Picard deduces that Agent Wells has some deep dark trauma (TM) in his past as well.
So Picard basically tells Agent Wells, “I know this is personal for you. So if you tell me what happened to you, I’ll tell you something about myself.” And because being persuasive and delivering inspirational speeches is Picard’s superpower, it actually works. So Wells talks about meeting aliens in the woods as a boy and how they grabbed him and tried to pull his brains out, which is how young Wells interpreted the mind meld attempt.
Picard then tells Wells, “Oh, those were just Vulcans and they’re actually quite harmless and they were not trying to hurt you, they were only trying to erase your memories to give you peace, only that it didn’t work. Also, I am human, but I’m also from five hundred years in the future on a secret mission to save the future of the entire galaxy. Oh yes, and I need your help.”
And because we are watching Star Trek and not X-Files, Agent Wells is actually willing to help to Picard. Though come to think of it, if Mulder and Scully had found themselves in the same situation, faced with Picard and not evil alien oil intent on enslaving humanity, they probably would have reacted the same.
Alas, Agent Wells has a problem of his own. Because it turns out that in a universe that is not the X-Files universe, the FBI isn’t too keen on agents going on wild alien hunts on the taxpayer’s dollar and so Wells is fired. Of course, Mulder and Scully were fired a couple of times as well, but because they got too close to the truth and not because they had wasted taxpayer money on hunting aliens.
While Picard is having a heart to heart with Agents Wells, Guinan is taken to another interrogation room (a.k.a. another random store room in the basement of an FBI facility), where she has a heart to heart of another kind. For who shows up, disguised as an FBI agent, but Q himself. Turns out Guinan’s attempt to summon Q worked, though because of his powers not working properly, Q had to hitch a ride to locate Guinan.
Q is not at all happy to see Guinan and also snaps at her that the summoning ritual is not just for having a chat. However, thanks to her empathic abilities, Guinan gets to the truth of what is bugging Q. For it turns out that everybody favourite annoying godlike alien being has a serious problem. He’s dying. And while Q initially thought that dying might be an exciting new experience in the endless boredom of quasi-immortality, it’s really just fading away and Q very much does not want to fade away. Hence he’s back to bugging Picard to feel something, anything. Though as Keith R.A. DeCandido points out in his review at Tor.com, we still have no idea what exactly the point of the mess Q created is beyond tormenting Picard.
But dying or not, Q still has a few tricks up his sleeve. And so he hacks into the computer system of mad scientist Dr. Adam Soong to contact his artificially created clone daughter Kore and sends her a gift, a vial of blue liquid that will cure her genetic defects and allow her to escape the prison that is her “father’s” house. But before she takes the liquid, Kore confronts Soong and point blank asks him how many others there were (at least two dozen, all named after the daughter of Zeus, though Kore is the only one who lived to adulthood) and whether he actually cares about her as a person or just about her as his life’s work. Soong assures Kore that he cares about her, but Kore isn’t buying it. She takes the liquid and walks away, while Soong calls after her that she can’t go anywhere, because she doesn’t exist.
Those scenes are well-acted by Brent Spiner and Isa Briones, though I wish the show would find some other stories for Isa Briones than finding out over and over again that she’s not a real girl, but the creation of a mad scientist.
As for Adam Soong, he crosses even further from “yet another morally questionable member of the Soong clan” into full-blown supervillain territory, as Paul Levinson points out in his review. And he’s about to get even worth, courtesy of the other major plot strand of this episode, namely the Borg Queen, who still stalks about Los Angeles in the body of Agnes Jurati.
Seven and Raffi are hot on the trail of the Borg Queen, while arguing amongst themselves. Seven accuses Raffi of being manipulative, which Raffi admits after a flashback to how she talked Elnor (this week’s contractually guaranteed Evan Evagora cameo) out of going on a mission for the Qowat Milat and into staying at Starfleet Academy and thus sets him on the path to get killed.
However, there is no time for yet more emotional angst about the fate of poor Elnor, because Raffi and Seven still have a Borg Queen to catch. Seven persuades the owner of the bar the Borg Queen wrecked to tell them that she left with a man. Raffi and Seven find that man or rather what is left of him a little later. Cause it turns out when the Borg Queen couldn’t assimilate the guy and the sex was unsatisfying, she just killed him and stole his phone, removed the battery and ate it, because – so Seven tells Raffi – the Borg Queen needs lithium to make nano-probes to hasten the assimilation process.
And because a single phone battery isn’t enough, the Borg Queen takes to munching car batteries to get to the tasty lithium within. io9 reviewer James Whitbrook points out that none of this makes sense and it doesn’t, least of all because not all car batteries contain lithium and the crappy old cars the Borg Queen trashes are very unlikely to have lithium batteries. The Borg Queen should just eat a Tesla factory, if she wants lithium. Though it does give us some nice visuals of Agnes with battery fluid (miraculously non-acidic) running down the corner of her mouth looking like a vampire during feeding.
Seven and Raffi track down Agnes and there is a fight, during which Agnes uses her Borg superstrength to thoroughly beat up Raffi and Seven, but does not kill them, which suggests that Agnes is still in there somewhere. Then she takes off for destinations unknown. From the smartphone of the guy the Borg Queen killed, Seven and Raffi deduce where she will go next, namely to pay a visit to Dr. Adam Soong, the would-be supervillain who will be the instrument of every real supervillain that happens to pass by.
The Borg Queen uses her knowledge of the dark alternative future to tell Dr. Soong that he is a hero in that future, because he helped to develop the technology that saves the environmentally ravaged Earth. If he helps her, the Borg Queen will make sure that Dr. Soong becomes the hero of the dark future. If not, he’ll die alone and forgotten.
Now Adam Soong has never seen a devil’s bargain he was not eager to enter and so he of course agrees. He tells the Borg Queen that he can get her into mission control for the Europa mission to make sure that it fails. However, the Borg Queen has set her sights on something else. She wants La Sirena to… return to a glorious Borgified future? Honestly, it’s not clear what she wants, since the dark future they escaped from is one where the Borg have been wiped out and the Queen herself was seconds from execution. Still, I guess the plan makes sense, at least if you’re a Borg Queen.
But first the Borg Queen has Adam Soong summon some help in the form of armoured up special forces soldiers in order to take La Sirena. And since she has eaten enough batteries, she can even assimilate them, just in case those soldiers might decide to think for themselves and wonder just why they are taking orders from a mad scientist and a woman in a red evening gown.
Once again, this makes for an exciting development, though it makes very little sense. Because Dr. Adam Soong is a disgraced scientist who has just lost his funding and an alcoholic besides. So how can he donate shitloads of money to NASA, get into a party with extremely tight security, get into Europa mission control, which likely has even tighter security, and also summon special forces soldiers on command? Cause I suspect Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump might be able to do that, but not the likes of Dr. Adam Soong. I suspect not even Elon Musk would be able to do all that.
However, it’s best not to ask questions, for the stage is set for an exciting finale. Cause while La Sirena is still in France, the ship is not empty. Rios is on board, trying to purge all traces of Borg interference from the control interface. And he’s not alone, but has brought along Doctor Teresa and her son Ricardo. As he promised last time, Ricardo wants to touch absolutely everything and since La Sirena is in maintenance mode, he can. Plus, Rios introduces Ricardo to the replicator and tells him to order any fo0d he wants, whereupon Ricardo promptly orders four slices of cake and gets them. The replicator is even nice enough to make it four different slices of cake.
Sparks continue to fly between Rios and Teresa, enough sparks to power up the whole ship, culminating in a kiss. However, neither Rios nor Teresa and Ricardo know that there’s a Borg Queen with a squad of assimilated special forces soldiers on her way to them.
The relationship between Rios, Teresa and Ricardo is one of my favourite things about season 2 of Picard and I hope that there is some kind of happy ending for them and not a replay of the Edith Keeler tragedy with added Borg.
I may sound critical here, but this episode is actually a whole lot of fun. The action zips along nicely, the actors are clearly enjoying themselves and while you’re watching it, you’re not noticing that there is a whole lot about this episode that makes no sense whatsoever.
That said, I honestly wonder about the showrunner and writers of this season. Do they have any kind of overarching season plot or plan in mind at all or are they just tossing coins to decide what happens next. Cause honestly, it feels like the latter to me. Things just happen, because someone thought they were cool, not because they make sense. It almost feels as if there was no script at all and the actors are just making up something as they go along.
Two episodes to go and I honestly wonder how the writers will pull all the many different threads together into a cohesive whole in that time.