All right, so it seems I am doing episode by episode reviews of Star Trek Picard. Previous reviews (well, just one really) may be found here, by the way.
Two episodes and ninety minutes in, Star Trek Picard is still mainly set-up. To be fair, so was Discovery two episodes in. And so, by the end of “Maps and Legends”, Picard doesn’t even have a ship or a crew yet, though he will probably get there in the next episode (and come to think of it, Star Trek Discovery didn’t even show us the Discovery until episode three either). A slower set-up, coupled with shorter seasons, seems to be de rigeur for Star Trek (and pretty much every other TV show, whether genre or not) in the streaming era, probably because so many shows are designed to be binged (awful term, like TV bulimia) these days.
Warning: Spoilers beyond the cut!
“Maps and Legends”, the second episode of Star Trek Picard does not start where the last episode left off. Instead, we go back in time fourteen years to witness the android uprising which wiped out the Utopia Planitia shipyard and much of Mars. We see an android – similar to Data, but much more primitive – first interacting awkwardly with his co-workers (who treat him very much like an object), before he is hacked and proceeds to disable the defence system of Mars and murder his co-workers before blowing his own positronic brain out. And yes, it’s pretty clear that the android was hacked.
Though I do wonder why Starfleet is using androids to build spaceships now. Did they run out of prisoners or what? Or are the prisoners now knitting Picard’s sweaters? Especially since the androids aren’t doing any jobs that non-human robots couldn’t do just as well. In fact, those androids would be much better employed doing basic care tasks in hospitals and nursing homes around the Federation. And if the robot revolution breaks out, the androids will only take over a bunch of nursing homes and hospitals rather than a strategically important military shipyard.
As for who hacked the androids, Star Trek Picard didn’t give us an answer (yet). It’s obviously not the Romulans, because they wouldn’t torpedo their own rescue mission. The Borg are normally more direct and it’s not something the Klingons or the Cardassians would do (nor the Ferengi). So was it Starfleet itself or rather rogue elements within Starfleet? It would certainly fit with the way Starfleet has been portrayed in recent Star Trek series.
After the explosive prelude on Mars and the credits, we jump back into the present day, where Picard is still trying to figure out why Dahj, Data’s sort-of daughter, was murdered and how to find and rescue her twin sister Soji. And so Picard and Lharis, one of his Romulan caretakers, investigate Dahj’s apartment, only to find that the place was scrubbed clean, no trace of Dahj’s murdered boyfriend or the Romulans who attacked her left. Lharis displays some wicked forensics technology right out of CSI: Romulus (which Picard points out is both illegal and unreliable, whereupon Lharis smiles and says, “Well, that’s what we wanted you to think”), but even she cannot find anything, which means that whoever attacked Dahj was really thorough. Dahj’s computer was scrubbed clean as well, but eventually Lharis finds some calls from Soji to Dahj. She can’t tell from where Soji called, only that it was offworld, which doesn’t really narrow things down in the Star Trek universe.
We also learn that Picard’s Romulan caretakers Lharis and Zaban where once agents of the Tal Shiar, the Romulan secret police. So Picard is living with two former Tal Shiar agents, which is one more reason why Starfleet doesn’t like him these days. Camestros Felapton points out in his review that Lharis and Zaban have Irish accents, which isn’t how Romulans have been portrayed traditionally. I have to admit that I barely noticed this, if only because I watched most older Star Trek dubbed into German anyway. But I guess that lots of planets have an Ireland, to paraphrase the Ninth Doctor. And anyway, Lharis and Zaban are great characters. They also reveal that the Tal Shiar were only the ordinary secret police (“Everything Romulans do is a secret”, Lharis points out). There is an even more secret police called the Zhat Vash, which is very much a myth even among the Tal Shiar. No one knows much about them, except that there sole aim is to wipe out artificial lifeforms wherever they find them. This is also why the Romulans don’t have androids or artificial intelligence or sentient holograms. Though to be fair, neither do most other species we have seen in Star Trek. “But why?” Picard asks, genuinely puzzled. It’s a question that won’t be answered, at least not for now.
Dr. Jurati also visits Chez Picard to check out his collection of classic science fiction (I cannot quibble with her choice of The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov, but this cover is much better than the US cover shown in the episode). Dr. Jurati also tells Picard that Dahj’s credentials to join the Daystrom Institute were impressive, but forged and that Dahj (and likely Soji as well) didn’t seem to exist until three years ago. It’s also obvious that someone, probably Bruce Maddox, explicitly wanted to place Dahj at the Daystrom Institute. Which means that Soji was likely sent somewhere with a purpose as well. But where?
Picard only knows that Soji is offworld, he decides to go after her nonetheless. There is only one problem. Picard no longer has a starship at his beck and call, since he quit Starfleet. However, getting himself reinstated should be easy enough – or so he thinks. First, he needs a clean bill of health, so he calls on an old friend, Dr. Benayoun who used to be his chief medical officer on the Stargazer. I’m a bit surprised that they didn’t use the chance to give us a Dr. Crusher cameo, but I’m pretty sure that Beverly Crusher would not have declared Picard fit for duty. Even Dr. Benayoun is extremely reluctant to do so, because Picard sustained damage to his parietal lobe – most likely during his Borgification – which will likely lead to dementia or other various nasty brain illnesses. And since the symptoms include bad dreams, general irritableness and short temperedness (and flying off the handle in TV interviews, Dr. Banayoun informs him), the illness might already have started. Coincidentally, this is also a callback to “All Good Things”, the final episode of The Next Generation, where an elderly and dementia-ridden Picard is puttering about his vineyard.
Apparently, Sir Patrick Stewart is now at the point in his career, where he is fated to play former icons suffering from dementia. After all, he also played a dementia-ridden Professor Xavier in Logan. And talking of which, is it now de rigeur for former icons to have one last adventure, while in the early or advanced stages of dementia? There’s Logan and now Picard and Inspector Wallander faced the same issue in the final Wallander novel, which was also filmed starring Kenneth Brannagh.
But for now, Picard still feels sound enough of mind to head to Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco (Why San Francisco? Has this ever been explained?), hoping to get himself reinstated. This goes disastrously wrong, when Picard first finds himself faced with a junior officer who has no idea who he is, since he’s apparently the only person in the Federation who did not watch Picard chew out an interviewer on live TV. Then he is made to wear a visitor badge and finally has a disastrous meeting with one Admiral Kirsten Clancy, who stands in the proud tradition of Starfleet admirals in Star Trek who are flat-out horrible people. For example, she thinks it was totally okay to let the Romulans die, because half the Federation hates them anyway.
The shouting match between Picard and Admiral Clancy made me think that here was Picard, standing in for everybody who liked the largely optimistic Star Trek as it used to be, yelling at Admiral Clancy as a stand-in for everybody who loved the grimdark first season of Discovery as well as the grimmdarker aspects of Deep Space Nine and Enterprise (and who also loved the abomination that was the new Battlestar Galactica). So go Picard and let Admiral Clancy know what exactly you think about the new grimdark Star Trek.
That said, Picard blabbering about organic androids who are Data’s twin daughters, Bruce Maddox and super-ultra-secret Romulan spy organisations doesn’t sound exactly sane. Of course, we know Picard is telling the truth, because we saw everything that happened. But Admiral Clancy has no way of knowing this, especially since the Romulans took care to erase any evidence, and so she thinks Picard has already caught space dementia. We can’t really fault her for that. Though she’s still an awful person.
Once he got blown off by Clancy, Picard decides to look for a ship elsewhere. Lharis and Zaban are not at all happy that Picard is planning to go swanning about the galaxy again and insist that he needs protection, namely them. But Picard is quite firm that the grapes need Lharis and Zaban more than he does. He also doesn’t want to involve his old crew, because he doesn’t want them to endanger their still active Starfleet careers (though from the trailers we know that at least Riker and Troi will get involved further down the line). So he goes to see someone who has access to a spaceship, but no reason to like either Picard or Starfleet, a woman named Raffi (Michelle Hurd, who’s been in dozens of TV shows, usually in supporting roles) who lives in a trailer at the foot at the jutting rock formation in the California desert which has appeared in umpteen Star Trek episodes as well as in Firefly, Galaxy Quest, Roswell and umpteen westerns and crime dramas. The place is apparently called Vasquez Rocks, after an outlaw who sought shelter there, and here is a list of all the films and TV shows that were shot there. Raffi is not at all pleased to see Picard and threatens him with a shotgun, but a bottle of Chateau Picard changes her mind… for now.
Meanwhile, Admiral Clancy still believes that Picard is suffering from space dementia, but she calls the head of Starfleet intelligence, a Vulcan named Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita whom I could have sworn was in Star Trek in some point, though her only SF credits are Babylon 5 and Stargate) to inform her about Picard’s claims anyway, just in case. Commodore Oh asures Admiral Clancy that it’s all nonsense, the ravings of an old man. Then she calls a young human-looking woman woman named Lieutenant Rizzo into her office to berate her for letting Romulan death squads run around in public and for failing to capture Dahj alive, so she could be questioned. Yes, Commodore Oh is not Vulcan, but Romulan and Zhat Vash, too. So is Lieutenant Rizzo, whose real name is Narissa. Considering how many times Starfleet has been infiltrated by Romulans posing as Vulcans, Klingons posing as humans, Romulans posing as humans, etc… over the years, I honestly wonder why they haven’t established some kind of test to prove that a recruit really is who and what they claim to be, even if it’s just cuddling a Tribble. Though come to think of it, we have no idea if Tribbles react to Romulans.
Oh also wants to know how far Narissa has gotten in capturing Soji. “My best man is on it”, Narissa assures her. She’s right, too, for it turns out that Narissa’s “best man” is none other than Narek, the hot Romulan who chatted up Soji at the end of the first episode. He clearly was successful, too, for “Maps and Legends” shows the two of them together in bed. Clearly, Romulans can have sex more often than once every seven years. To be fair, so can Vulcans. Most of them just don’t want to. Or why does Sarek have such a fetish for human women to the point that he even adopts a human girl, just in case one of his sons ever wants a human partner? And come on, that’s obviously what he wanted Michael Burnham for.
So Narek, the hot Romulan is Zhat Vash and was sent to capture Soji. “I’m on top of it”, he assures Narissa when she gives him a holographic call. Narissa, who’s not just his handler but also his sister, glances at the tangled bedclothes and remarks dryly, “I can see that.”
Now Romulans are not Vulcans. They not only have sex more than once every seven years, they also actually have emotions. Well, to be fair, so do Vulcans, they just pretend very hard not to. Someone recently called the Romulans “Imperialist drama queens” and that description is very apt. The fact that Romulans don’t suppress their emotions and are not guided solely by logic makes it possible for them to pull off sophisticated spy missions in the way a Vulcan never could. On the other hand, the fact that Romulans don’t suppress their emotions also makes them vulnerable. And it’s pretty obvious in the way Narek watches Soji, as she helps to remove implants from former Borg, that he likes her. This will bring him in conflict with his mission sooner or later – most likely sooner.
As I’ve mentioned before, Star Trek has traditionally never done a good job with on-screen romances and The Next Generation was one of the worst offenders with relationships developing at a glacial pace and ultimately going nowhere (or Picard would be married to Beverly Crusher with Wesley’s kids running around the vineyard). There is a reason Star Trek generated so much fanfiction, because the canon just never delivered on the romantic front. Romantic relationships are one of the few things that Discovery handled better than pretty much every previous Star Trek series, because I actually cared about Stamets and the cute doctor or Michael and Ash Tyler in a way I never cared about Riker and Troi (I always preferred Deanna Troi with Worf anyway) or Seven of Nine and Chakotay (now that one came out of nowhere) or T’Paul and Trip or whatever his name was (now that one came even more out of nowhere). So far, Star Trek Picard seems to follow Discovery‘s model in the depiction of romantic relationships rather than The Next Generation‘s. And so we get a lovely established couple in Lharis and Zaban (have I mentioned yet how much I love Lharis and Zaban?) as well as an engaging new couple whose relationship develops maybe a bit too quickly in Soji and Narek.
The relationship between Soji and Narek may develop quickly (though we know there is heartbreak ahead), but as I’ve mentioned above, the pace of “quality TV” era shows is slower in many ways. And so the second episode of Star Trek Picard (and presumably the third) is yet more set-up and exposition. We haven’t even met most of the main cast yet. But then, the entire first season of The Witcher was basically set-up, as Walter Jon Williams points out in his review here, and I still enjoyed it enormously. Just as I am enjoying Picard so far. That the show works as well as it does is partly due to the fact that the mysteries are sufficiently intriguing and partly due to the excellent cast and engaging characters. I’d also like to add a shout-out to director Hanelle Culpepper and the beautiful camera work.
Two episodes in, Picard is certainly off to a much stronger start than Discovery (and most other Star Trek shows for that matter). Even if not very much happened this episode, I’ll nonetheless keep watching (and reviewing, I guess) Star Trek Picard.