Welcome to my latest episode by episode review of Star Trek Picard. Previous installments may be found here.
This review is a bit later than usual, because I was tired and not feeling well and therefore didn’t get to watch “Stardust City Rag”, the latest episode of Star Trek Picard, until Saturday. Though the episode was worth the wait.
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
“Stardust City Rag” follows the by now common pattern of Star Trek Picard and opens with a flashback to events 13 years prior. Though this flashback is much gorier than what I at least would expect from Star Trek, since it shows a young man in a Starfleet uniform getting his eyeball gouged out in close-up. The eyeball is attached to some kind of black cable – the young man is an ex-Borg.
The vivisectionists aren’t finished yet. They’re looking for further Borg components, because Borg tech is apparently valuable (also see the Romulans dismantling the dead Borg cube). But before they can finish, Seven of Nine storms in and shoots the vivisectionists. She rushes over to the young ex-Borg and cradles him in her arms. But it’s too late. He’s dying and in pain. So Seven finishes the job. “Good-bye, my child”, she says. Now we realise that the young ex-Borg is a character we’ve seen before, namely Icheb, one of the Borg children whom Voyager rescued towards the end of its run and whom Seven took under her wing.
Now it’s been ages since I watched Voyager and so I only had a vague memory along the lines of “Didn’t they rescue some Borg kids?” A bit of googling revealed that Icheb was the oldest of those Borg kids and the only one who stayed aboard Voyager, when it turned out that his parents had genetically engineered him as Borg bait. Icheb wanted to join Starfleet, which isn’t surprising considering that his entire life consisted of murderous parents on an agrarian world, being a Borg drone and then life aboard Voyager, which was the only time his life was ever remotely good. No wonder he wanted to join Starfleet and eventually did. Icheb is no longer played by the same actor who portrayed him in Star Trek Voyager BTW, because that actor has turned out to be something of a jerk.
As for why Icheb’s death hits Seven so hard – in fact, I think it’s the first time we’ve ever seen Seven cry – she was the primary caregiver for Icheb and the other Borg kids aboard Voyager. Also, it’s implied that Seven cannot have biological children due to her Borg implants, so Icheb was the closest thing to a child she’ll ever have. But the main purpose of the gorey opening scene (a lot gorier than anything in Star Trek and more along the lines of the grimdark new Battlestar Galactica and its ilk) is to show that Seven has changed a lot in the approx. twenty years since we last saw her.
This change is also visible in Seven’s appearance. Gone are the silver catsuit and the severe bun. Instead, she wears her hair open and is clad in jeans, a sweater (and what is it with the deliberately hadmade looking sweaters in Star Trek Picard anyway? Did the replicator finally figure out how to reproduce knitting?) and a really cool leather jacket. It’s also notable that unlike Icheb, Seven did not stay with Starfleet. And considering how xenophobic and isolationist the Federation and Starfleet have become, I wonder how voluntary that decision was. Chakotay, by the way, is nowhere in sight, which suggests that Seven’s relationship with Chakotay did not last. Which is not very surprising, considering how tagged on it always felt.
Instead of Starfleet, Seven is now with an outfit called the Fenris Rangers, a sort of freelance vigilante army who try to keep the peace in the former Neutral Zone, since Starfleet can’t be bothered. Picard disapproves, because even though he disagrees with Starfleet disengaging from everything (What precisely are Starfleet doing these days anyway? Analysing cosmic phenomena which will eat starships? Is there even still an actual Starfleet or is it just a bunch of admirals sitting around in San Francisco?), he also believes that taking the law into your own hands is wrong. Never mind that taking the law into his own hands and doing what Starfleet won’t do is exactly what Picard is doing. But then – much as I like him – Picard has always operated as if there is one set of rules for Jean-Luc Picard and one set of rules for everybody else.
“Stardust City Rag” is the first time Jean-Luc Picard and Seven of Nine meet face to face, at least on screen. They may have met in a tie-in novel or a comic or something along those lines, but if so I don’t knwo about it. Though of course, Picard and Seven know each other by reputation. And they briefly were part of the same Borg collective, back when Picard was Locutus. And indeed, Picard and Seven discuss their experiences as former Borg, when Seven asks Picard if he believes he got his humanity completely back when he was deborgified. Picard says no, but that he keeps hoping to regain more and more of it. Seven clearly feels the same, though it is notable how much more human this version of Seven of Nine seems compared to how she was portrayed in Voyager. And talking of Seven, it’s quite delightful how Rios (Rios Prime, not one of his holograms) fangirls her, just as he fangirled Picard earlier. At time, Rios almost strikes me as a stand-in for all the Star Trek fans in the audience, who can’t quite hide his awe at getting to meet so many legends of Starfleet (and based on the trailers, he’ll get to meet a few more).
After they rescued Seven from her exploding ship, the crew of the La Sirena proceed to a place called Freecloud, where Raffi has located Bruce Maddox. Freecloud is your typical neon-drenched cyberpunk city, a place which is pretty much a science fiction cliché by now, albeit a cool one, but that we’ve hardly ever seen on Star Trek for some reason. Indeed, it is notable that Star Trek Picard delves into a lot of stereotypical science fiction tropes (also see Chris Rios himself) that have appeared everywhere except Star Trek. Not everybody is happy with this, as for example this post by James Wallace Harris shows wherein he bemoans that Star Trek Picard does not contain enough science fictional ideas and too much character focus for his taste.
Unfortunately, Maddox is in dire straits. Not only did the Romulans destroy his lab, no, Maddox also trusted the wrong crimelord – a woman named Bjayzl (played by Necar Zadegan) who looks distractingly like a young and evil Deanna Troi – and finds himself drugged and offered for sale to the Romulans. Bruce Maddox, by the way, has also been recast, though not because the original actor is a known jerk, as with Icheb. According to Keith R.A. DeCandido, the original actor Brian Brophy is now director of a university theatre in California and still proud of his lone Star Trek appearance. Maybe there was a scheduling conflict. At any rate, Bruce Maddox is played by a different actor now who – as Camestros Felapton notes – looks uncannily like Jordan Peterson.
Raffi quickly figures all this out, once the La Sirena reaches Freecloud and everybody on board except for Seven and Elnor is inundated with hilarious targeted holo-ads. “Can’t we just outbid the Tal Shiar?” Captain Rios asks, whereupon Raffi replies that you don’t outbid the Tal Shiar. Seven, however, has an idea. For Bjayzl will sell Bruce Maddox to someone other than the Tal Shiar, provided you offer her something she really wants. Such as a former Borg who still has plenty of Borg hardware in her body. And as we know from the gory opening scene (and from Hugh’s comments two episodes before), there is a market for Borg tech ripped out of its former owners. And no, I have no idea what anybody wants Borg tech for either. That’s a question that Star Trek Picard really needs to answer.
And so the con is on. Rios poses as a so-called “facer”, a broker who brings the parties in deals of questionable legality together. Coincidentally, this destroys the theory that Rios might be a hologram himself, unless he has a mobile emitter like Voyager‘s Doctor. But even then, holograms don’t smell and don’t react to drugs. Seven is the captive/product to be sold. Picard is the seller, Elnor is his bodyguard, which causes some problems because, as we learned last week, Elnor was raised by an order of Romulan warrior nuns who always tell the truth, therefore he cannot lie or pretend to be something he’s not. “Then just be yourself. Be Elnor,” an exasperated Picard says. “Elnor who doesn’t talk,” Seven adds.
The con also involves Rios and Picard dressing up in seriously silly clothes. Rios gets a green sequined jacket, a matching fur coat and an orange hat with a feather, while Picard gets to dress like a pirate, complete with eyepatch and an outrageous French accent. Santiago Cabrera and Sir Patrick Stewart are clearly having a lot of fun hamming it up. The flashy clothes in the Stardust City scenes also hearken back to the very colourful look at the future that Star Trek has traditionally offered, from the original series all the way through Voyager. Star Trek Discovery and Picard both look positively murky by comparison.
Of course, the con doesn’t go nearly as smoothly as hoped. Rios does manage to pass a meeting with Bjayzl’s representative, a member of a reptilian species who can smell lies (as well as whom you had sex with and what you last ate) via getting shot up to his gills with drugs. However, the actual meeting with Bjayzl goes completely and utterly wrong, as soon as someone yanks the hood from Seven’s face. For it turns out that Bjayzl and Seven share a history, a history that’s not good. For apparently, Bjayzl worked with Seven in the Fenris Rangers before turning to crime – or maybe she was a criminal all along posing as a Ranger to get inside info. Of yes, and Seven blames Bjayzl for the death of Icheb and wants revenge.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw believes that the scene implies that Seven and Bjayzl used to be lovers, which would certainly be cool, though I personally don’t see it. Okay, so Bjayzl calls Seven by her human name Annika, which implies a certain degree of familiarity. But then, Bjayzl is begging for her life in that scene, so appealing to Seven’s human side would be a good plan.
The meeting with Bjayzl and her henchpeople ends in a Mexican standoff type situation with everybody aiming phasers at everybody else. “Are we no longer pretending?” Elnor asks, after everybody has long blown their cover. “No, we’re not”, an exasperated Picard replies, whereupon Elnor proceeds to disarm Bjayzl’s henchpeople. By the way, have I mentioned that I love Elnor? True, he didn’t get much to do in what is only his second episode, but I love the juxtaposition between his childlike naivite and his lethal fighting skills.
Seven fully intends to shoot Bjayzl, but Picard talks her out of it – or so he thinks. Because even though Seven beams back to the La Sirena with the rest of the crew as well as Maddox, she later borrows two phasers from the La Sirena‘s stock – because the Rangers always need phasers, she tells Picard – and beams back down again to Freecloud and shoots Bjayzl as well as her henchpeople anyway. “But you… you promised…” Bjayzl stammers just before she is blasted to smithereens. “Picard is an old man”, Seven replies, “He needs some hope. I’m beyond that.”
And just in case Seven of Nine shooting an admittedly unpleasant villainess (though an attractive one) in cold blod wasn’t shocking enough for you, “Stardust City Rag” serves up yet another shocking death. For Bruce Maddox is badly wounded, when Picard and friends rescue him. He is taken to the sickbay of the La Sirena at once, where he tells Picard that he sent Soji (whom we don’t see in this episode. Ditto for Narek and Narissa) to “the artefact” a.k.a. the dead Borg cube in Romulan space.
Dr. Agnes Jurati – who, as we learned earlier, used to be in a relationship with Maddox, even though he is roughly twice her age – shoos Picard away, because Maddox needs medical attention. Once Agnes is alone with Maddox, he tenderly calls her Aggie and asks her if she met Dahj and if she has seen how wonderful Dahj is. Agnes is crying the whole time, which doesn’t alarm neither Maddox nor anybody else, because Agnes has been a bundle of nerves throughout the episode to the point that she was barely able to operate the transporter. But then, Agnes keeps telling Maddox over and over again how sorry she is, but if he only knew what she knew, as medical alarms go off and the emergency medical hologram is triggered. Agnes switches off the emergency medical hologram, as Maddox finally catches on that something is dreadfully, seriously wrong. But it’s too late, because Agnes kills him.
Of course, it always did seem mightily convenient that Agnes showed up at Chateau Picard just in time to shoot a Zhat Vash agent. And then there was Agnes’ meeting with Commodore Oh, the high-ranking Starfleet officer who is a Romulan Zhat Vash agent pretending to be Vulcan. A meeting which we didn’t see and for which we only have Agnes’ word regarding what occurred. However, Agnes was obviously lying and Commodore Oh seems to have convinced her with her whole “Dahj and Soji are the Destroyer and will bring about the destruction of the whole universe, because an ancient Romulan legend says so” shtick. Which is surprising enough in itself, because Agnes Jurati is a scientist after all and therefore I’d assume that she wouldn’t just accept some shaggy dog story about killer androids destroying the universe without at least questioning the whole thing.
Furthermore, how exactly does Agnes expect to get away with murdering Bruce Maddox? Okay, so Maddox was grieveously wounded, so his death may not be questioned at first. But Rios’ emergency medical hologram must keep logs and sooner or later someone will review those logs. Rios or more likely Raffi. Never mind that Agnes is about as bad at lying as Elnor, so she really doesn’t stand a chance.
Keith R.A. DeCandido believes that Agnes is irredeemable, because she murdered an injured man. I certainly don’t much like her either after this, but I also don’t exactly mourn Bruce Maddox either. For starters, Bruce Maddox is the guy who wanted to disassemble and dissect Data in “Measure of a Man”, which Camestros Felapton just revisited here. Yes, he apparently learned better later on, but how trustworthy was Bruce really? Not to mention that we never really got any sense of who Bruce Maddox was as a person beyond the jerk who wanted to dissect Data. In one of my Star Trek Discovery reviews, I wrote that Captain Christopher Pike used to be the answer to a trivia question, but that season 2 of Star Trek Discovery turned him into a character. Bruce Maddox used to be the answer to a trivia question as well (and one I for one couldn’t have answered without googling), but Star Trek Picard turned him into a plot coupon. All Bruce Maddox gets to do in this episode is drop a hint regarding the next destination and then croak. Maybe that’s why the original actor did not come back, because he didn’t want to be a plot coupon.
As if the episode wasn’t yet packed with enough drama, shock and emotion, Raffi Musiker gets an emotional subplot of her own. After all, Raffi had repeatedly announced that she was only travelling with the La Sirena to Freecloud, where she’d part ways with Picard, Rios and the rest. And once the ship finally reaches Freecloud, we learn just why Raffi wanted to go there. Because on Freecloud, we see a nervous Raffi stepping into what looks like a seriously dodgy fertility clinic. I probably wasn’t the only one who thought, “Uhm, even with 25th century medical technology, aren’t you a little old for that?” But while Raffi is there for a child, she’s not looking to have a baby. Instead, Raffi is looking for her estranged adult son Gabriel, who is less than pleased to see her, because after Starfleet fired her, Raffi apparently drowned her sorrows in drugs and conspiracy theories, neglecting her partner and son. Raffi insists that she has changed, but Gabriel doesn’t believe her and seemingly gets proof, when Raffi snaps at him that “it’s not a conspiracy theory”. As for what Gabriel is doing at a fertility clinic, towards the end of that brief scene we get to meet his pregnant Romulan partner Pel. Did Gabriel enter into a relationship with a Romulan to piss off his mother? It’s possible, though Raffi does not hate ordinary Romulans, e.g. she seems to have no problem with Elnor, just the Tal Shiar and Zhat Vash. And why do Gabriel and Pel need a fertility clinic, when we know that humans and Vulcans can reproduce without any issues, as the existence of Spock attests, and that Romulans are genetically identical to Vulcans?
It’s an emotional scene and gives Michelle Hurd a chance to show off her acting skills, something which the various wife, boss and mother roles in which I’ve previously seen her, didn’t. Though it’s notable that she still gets to play someone’s mother. But apart from giving Raffi something to do, what precisely was the purpose of that scene? To show us that Raffi is a mess? Sorry, but that was pretty obvious already. Though the revelation that Raffi had a husband/partner and a kid does nix my suspicions that she used to have an affair with Picard. Unless she did, which would give Gabriel and Raffi’s unseen husband/partner even more reason to be furious at her.
As always with Star Trek Picard, I thoroughly enjoyed “Stardust City Rag” while I was watching the episode. However, as I struggled to write this review, I realised that this episode is something of a mess that shifts wildly in tone from the goofy caper, complete with silly clothes and accents, to very dark – darker than usual for Star Trek – with the gorey eye-gouging scene, two cold-blooded murders, the deaths of two established Star Trek characters (and while Bruce Maddox may have been the answer to a trivia question, Icheb’s role was more substantial) and a failed family reunion.
Furthermore, I have the sneaking suspicion that “Stardust City Rag” also serves as a backdoor pilot for Star Trek: Fenris Rangers, starring Seven of Nine. Which certainly sounds like a spin-off with a lot of potential and more Seven of Nine is always good. Also, a potential Star Trek: Fenris Rangers would be a much better fit for the “dark Star Trek” series they’re clearly trying to make than either Discovery or Picard. Meanwhile, The Orville is holding up the flag for the more optimistic Star Trek as it used to be, though season 3 seems to be missing in action.
Five episodes in, Star Trek Picard is not nearly as much of an incoherent mess as the first season of Star Trek Discovery was and a lot more fun, too. Though the show does have pacing and tonal issues.
Next episode, it seems as if Picard and the gang will finally find Soji. So it looks as if my prediction that the first season of Picard would be like the first season of The Witcher and that Picard and Soji wouldn’t get to meet until the final episode was off.