Star Trek Picard tackles “The Impossible Box”

Welcome to my latest episode by episode review of Star Trek Picard. Previous installments may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

Instead of the now customary flashback, this episode starts with a dream sequence that may also be a flashback. A young Soji wanders along the corridors of her childhood home, clutching her stuffed toy. She’s looking for her father and wanders into his lab, which is full of orchids. “Soji”, her father – who may or may not be Bruce Maddox (at any rate, what we see looks more like Bruce than Data) – says sharply and Soji wakes up screaming in the arms of Narek. As a concerned boyfriend, Narek of course asks Soji what it was that upset her so about the dream. Soji isn’t quite sure, but tells him that it is a recurrent dream. “Is the dream just something that your unconscious served up or is it based on a real memory?” Narek wants to know. Soji says she isn’t sure, whereupon Narek suggests that she ask her mother about that the next time they talk.

Back in his own quarters, Narek is promptly accosted by his sister Narissa once again and they have a repeat of a conversation they have had several times before so far. Narissa wants to know if Narek has made any progress with regard to Soji. Narek declares that he has made progress, but Narissa is still impatient. She wants to go ahead and just kill Soji now and be done with it. “She dreams”, Narek declares triumphantly. Narissa doesn’t get the point, whereupon Narek declares that it makes no sense to program an android to dream, unless the dreams fulfil some function, such as allowing Soji to integrate her false memories with her growing doubts about her true nature. Narek’s plan is now to nudge those doubts towards a tipping point.

And so the next time he sees Soji, he casually asks her whether she talked to her mother about the dreams. Soji says that she isn’t sure, she did talk to her mother, but fell asleep. “Does that happen to you often?” Narek asks before letting the information drop that every single call Soji has made to her mother lasts exactly seventy seconds.

Narek’s plan works, too, because the next time Soji calls her mother, she tries to force herself to stay awake when she starts drifting off. She drifts off anyway, but not before she notices that the “mother” is starting to glitch. At this point, I wonder what would have happened if Soji had tried to call Dahj? Would she have been faced with another hologram or the equivalent of a “party not available” message? Also, why hasn’t Soji tried to contact Dahj yet, especially since the freakout of deborgified Romulan Ramda a few episodes ago suggests that Dahj might be in danger? Never mind that “I’m sleeping with a hot Romulan spy” should be the sort of thing that sisters would discuss with each other.

Now Soji’s suspicions are aroused, she gathers all of her personal belongings – photos, childhood drawings, diaries, her beloved stuffed toy – and scans them, only to reveal that everything she owns, mementos of her whole life, are only 37 months old. Soji’s life – and Soji herself – has only existed for a little over three years.

With her whole life unravelling in front of her eyes, Soji turns to Narek. Not because she necessarily trusts him – after all, Soji suspects that he’s a Tal Shiar agent – but because there is no one else. And Narek of course has the perfect solution, a Romulan meditation technique that is forbidden to non-Romulans. But the rules don’t apply to Narek and so he takes Soji to a meditation chamber, pulling rank on the Romulan guard who tries to block the way.

The mediation is a variation on the labyrinth walking meditation practice from the medieval era. There is a labyrinth etched on the floor of the chamber, marked by lanterns. As Soji walks along the labyrinth, she explores her recurring dream. But before she embarks on her journey, Narek kisses her and tells her his true name, the one that Romulans only reveal to the person they give their hearts to (unless you’re Elnor, in which case you probably blurt it out to the entire La Sirena crew).

Maybe Soji should have gotten a tad suspicious that Narek is so interested in the view outside the windows of her childhood home, for what does that matter to her dream? Nonetheless, she dutifully reports that she sees thunder, rain, vegetation and two red moons. I do think Narek is a bit over-optimistic that the landscape in Soji’s dreams corresponds to a real place. I’m not an android – at least, I think I’m not – but I have recurring dreams about places that don’t correspond to any place I’ve ever visited in real life – and yes, I’ve asked my parents. So I really hope that Narek and Narissa are now chasing the equivalent to “Arabic looking palace by the sea” or “terrace with music and dancing above the sea” or “the Golden Square” or “the mall near the Golden Square that I can never find and the one time I did, it promptly burned down” from my own dreams. Because they definitely deserve to be chasing smoke.

With Narek’s help, Soji finally makes it into her father’s lab. She realises that her “father” has no face, though the hair suggests Bruce Maddox. She also sees what her “father” is working on in the lab and it’s not orchids (in fact, what did Bruce need the orchids for, if the dream is based on a real memory?). Instead, there is an adult Soji in disassembled doll form lying on the table to true surrealist dream fashion.

Once Narek has what he wants, he tells Narissa who has been watching from somewhere else to find a planet with two red moons and frequent electric storms (Yeah, I really hope you’re chasing smoke, Narissa). “But what does it mean?” a baffled Soji stammers.

“It means you’re not real”, Narek says and we wonder whether he is trying to convince himself or Soji or Narissa, “You never were.” Then Narek finishes opening the puzzle box with which he had been playing earlier in the episode during his confrontation with Narissa, the puzzle box that symbolizes Narek’s patient and methodical approach to problems. Only that this time around, the box does not contain a toy figurine like during his confrontation with Narissa, but a kind of crystal which emits something red, which I took for gas, but which is apparently lethal radiation.

Narek locks Soji in the meditation chamber with the box and the radiation. But the mortal danger activates Soji’s defence mechanisms – which Narek should have forseen, if he didn’t – and she smashes her way through the floor of the meditation chamber, while Narek and the Romulan guard watch outside, unable to stop Soji without exposing themselves to the lethal radiation.

Are Narek’s feeling for Soji genuine, even though he betrays her in the end? After all, Narek knows what Soji is capable of and might have foreseen that she would break out of the chamber. Or has Narek been pretending to be in love with Soji all this time? Did he really tell her his true name or was he lying some more? I don’t know and I suspect that even Narek himself doesn’t. As a tortured romance between two people, one of whom (or rather both) are not what they seem, the Narek and Soji relationship works better than the similar relationship between Michael Burnham and Ash Tyler over in Star Trek Discovery. And yes, I initially did like the Michael and Ash relationship, but only before it was revealed that Ash was a Klingon spy surgically altered to look human and unaware of his own identity. And before Ash started murdering people.

AV Club reviewer Zack Handlen isn’t happy with the romance between Soji and Narek, because he feels that nothing about Soji stands out in particular (beyond the fact that she is am organic android, likely the only one of her kind) and that we don’t know a lot about Narek either. But even if Soji is “nothing special”, why does that mean that Narek couldn’t fall in love with her?  After all, most people in the world fall in love with someone who’s “nothing special” to outside observers. As for our lack of insight into Narek, this is deliberate, because the writers are trying to keep us guesssing what Narek’s feeling for Soji are.

While all this is happening, Picard and the La Sirena crew are on their way to rescue Soji. So I was wrong when I said that I suspected season 1 of Picard would be like season 1 of The Witcher and Picard would only find Soji in the last episode, maybe even the last scene. Because Picard and Soji do meet up in this episode, after they’ve both been through something of an ordeal.

I have already talked about Soji’s ordeal above. Picard’s ordeal, meanwhile, is that he has to beam aboard a Borg Cube – alone. And for obvious reasons, Picard has issues with Borgs and Borg Cubes. “The Borg don’t change, they metastize”, Picard yells angrily at one point. But Picard has to go alone, because the mere presence of the La Sirena in the Neutral Zone (so there still is a Neutral Zone, even though the Romulan Empire imploded?) without authorisation is theoretically an act of war. Not to mention that the dead Borg Cube in Romulan space is heavily guarded, so sneaking aboard unnoticed is impossible.

Luckily, Raffi – though drunk and doped up to her gills, following her painful non-reunion with her son last episode – manages to strongarm a former friend in Starfleet to grant Picard a pass to visit the Borg Cube and speak to the director of the Borg reclamation project, a character we and Picard are only too familiar with, namely Hugh the Ex-Borg. Picard’s face lights up, when he sees Hugh’s face on the screen, which is a stark contrast to how Picard felt about Hugh back in the Next Generation days.

However, the pass is only good for Picard and no one else – not even Elnor who insists on accompanying Picard and apparently was so impressed by Seven of Nine that he assumes all Borg are like her. Therefore Jean-Luc has to beam alone into a seemingly deserted part of the Borg Cube and promptly suffers the mother of all traumatic flashbacks. That scene is very effective, turning up the full body horror aspects of the Borg and finally making them scary again, something they haven’t been for a long time. And the acting by Sir Patrick Stewart is predictably excellent, but then he is the best actor Star Trek ever had in any of its incarnations.

Now I have to admit that I don’t particularly care for “The Best of Both Worlds” two-parter. Yes, that cliffhanger with Picard appearing as Locutus on the Enterprise‘s viewscreen was shocking the first time around, but it’s not an episode I tend to rewatch, even though it frequently shows up in various “Best Star Trek episodes of all time” lists. So my memories of what precisely happened beyond “Picard was kidnapped and assimilated” are somewhat dim. However, I do remember that the scene where two Ex-Borg grab Picard to keep him from falling from a walkway (apparently, railings are irrelevant to Borg) mirrors a scene in “The Best of Both Worlds” where Picard is taken aboard a Borg Cube to be assimilated.

And of course, the Borg do know Picard, though not necessarily as Jean-Luc Picard, the great hero of Starfleet (“His face is probably still on the broshures”, Raffi says at one point), but as Locutus who used to be one of their own. In fact, at one point an Ex-Borg calls out “Locutus?” in wonder, as Picard rushes past. It’s also worth remembering that from the POV of an individual Borg drone, Picard/Locutus was likely incredibly privileged, because he at least got a name of his own rather than a “Number of Number” designation.

Picard’s reunion with Hugh is remarkably warm and both men spontaneously hug when they see each other for the first time in more than twenty years.  It’s certainly a notable scene, especially since Picard isn’t really the hugging type and I wouldn’t have taken Hugh for the hugging type either.

Hugh shows Picard around the Cube and explains what they are doing there. Picard is impressed, for even though he knows that De-Borgification is possible – after all, he, Seven, Hugh and Icheb are all proof that it is – he nonetheless didn’t expect that De-Borgification was possible on such a large scale. “Thank you for showing me this”, he tells Hugh and muses that maybe, the Borg Reclamation Project will make the rest of the galaxy see the Ex-Borg as victims rather than monsters. Mind you, Picard himself had more or less called the Borg a cancer earlier in the episode.

Hugh is also happy to help with the search for Soji. After all, Hugh knows Soji and he also knows that Narek is very likely a spy. But when Hugh and Picard arrive at Soji’s quarters, they find the place in chaos (because a desperate Soji scattered her things, when she realised that her whole life was a lie) and Soji gone. And Hugh cannot detect her signature anywhere aboard the ship.

They do find her signature again shortly thereafter, as Soji breaks out of the meditation chamber and alarms go off all over the ship. “Do you know me?” Soji demands, when she finds herself face to face with Picard. Apparently, Soji has not been programmed with the instinct to trust Picard and seek him out, unlike Dahj. Or she is still too much in fight/flight mode to notice.

Picard tells Soji that he is a friend of her father’s and that he knew her sister and couldn’t help her, but that he wants to help Soji. He also shows Soji Dahj’s necklace, which persuades Soji to trust him – for now. Together, Hugh, Picard and Soji flee, the Romulans hot in pursuit.

But Hugh knows the Borg Cube better than any Romulan and so he takes them to what Hugh and Picard immediately recognise as the Queen’s chamber, though neither of them has ever been inside. The Queen’s chamber contains an emergency transporter with a range of forty thousand lightyears, which – as Hugh explains – the Borg gained through assimilating a species called Sikarians. This is a reference to “Prime Factors”, an early episode of Star Trek Voyager, where Captain Janeay and her crew encounter the Sikarians and briefly find the chance to cut their long journey home short dangling in front of their noses. Maybe if the Sikarians had helped Voyager, they wouldn’t have been assimilated.

Alas, the Sikarian transporter requires some time to start up and the Romulans are still hot in pursuit. Two of them have almost caught our heroes, when Elnor appears out of nowhere to slice and dice them into pieces. “I told you to stay on the ship”, Picard tells Elnor. “I know”, Elnor replies in his customary bluntness, “I didn’t listen.”

This is the place where I once again express my appreciation for Elnor. He’s just a great character, his childlike innocence and wonder coupled with the fact that he is absolutely lethal with a sword. “Please, friends, choose to live”, he tells a bunch of Romulan guards at one point. I really hope we see more of Elnor, because he has been an absolutely delight in every scene he’s been in so far.

Picard and Soji escape through the transporter, not before Picard hails Rios and tells him where to pick them up. Hugh and Elnor stay behind to cover their escape. The trailer for the next episode suggests that Picard decides to pay a visit to Will Riker to lie low for a while and very likely brings bad trouble to Riker and Deanna Troi’s doorstep.

This episode is very focussed on Picard, Soji and Narek, but nonetheless the rest of the La Sirena crew gets something to do as well. Raffi continues to drink herself into a stupour and almost falls down, until Rios grabs her and puts her to bed. We also leanr that even though Rios and Raffi have known each other for ages, Raffi has never told him that she has a son. I suspect that Raffi’s addiction to drugs, alcohol and conspiracy theories was not the only reason she is estranged from her son. Cause it seems that while Raffi was (and continues to be) an excellent Starfleet officer, she just was a crappy mother all around. “You can’t be good at everything”, Rios says to her.

Dr. Agnes Jurati explains away the death of Bruce Maddox, which she actively caused, as the result of his extensive injuries and a weak heart. For now, no one questions her account, but I strongly suspect that her actions will be discovered sooner or later. Especially since Agnes is visibly distraught. Elnor notices and of course asks her about it. So does Rios who offers some comfort, a friendly ear and a shoulder to lean on. Agnes is only too happy to accept that offer and kisses Rios. She takes him by the hand and it is implied that they head to her quarters to have sex. Of course, there had been some sparks flying between Rios and Agnes since they first met, but the kiss and fad to black sex is nonetheless a little sudden. Though I do like the fact that Chris Rios, the dashing rogue space pilot, is also the one who offers emotional support to the rest of the crew, since that is normally a role that would fall to one of the women. However, Agnes is a blabbering mess and Raffi is about as emotionally supportive as a cactus.

Finally, it’s also nice to see Rios playing proper football (“soccer” to Americans) rather than some made up future sport or some American sport like baseball. Because Sisko’s baseball obsession in Deep Space Nine was not just one of the many things that made his character irritating, it also made very little sense. Because playing baseball aboard a space station is difficult to impossible, whereas football can be played everywhere, even on the deck of a spaceship.

“The Impossible Box” – a neat title which alludes both to Narek’s puzzle box and the Borg Cube itself – actually does advance the overall plot, though once again not a whole lot actually happens. And indeed, I am hearing increasing complaints about Star Trek Picard, that it’s too slow, that the character of Picard does not ring true to how he was portrayed in The Next Generation, etc…

Regarding the latter complaint, it’s true that Picard is no longer the same character we saw in The Next Generation, but that is because more than twenty years have passed. Besides, both TV writing and our understanding of trauma has evolved a lot since The Next Generation went off the air. PTSD was already known in the 1980s and early 1990s, but you almost never saw it depicted on TV at the time. Furthermore – and this is something a lot of people seem to have forgotten – Jean-Luc Picard was not particularly consistent in The Next Generation either. Especially the early seasons of The Next Generation were highly inconsistent and Picard could go from moral paragon to jerk with a stick up his arse to skilled diplomat to “Kill all Borg” genocidal rage within the space of a few episodes. So if Zack Handlen (sorry, if I seem to be picking on him) or another reviewer declares that the Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek Picard is not the character they remember, I want to ask which Picard precisely they do want to see, because there were so many different versions. And in fact, I suspect that the Picard of Star Trek Picard is how Sir Patrick Stewart envisions the character and would have played him, if some of the crappier Next Generation episodes didn’t have other ideas.

Star Trek is known to have wobbly first seasons and by those standards, the first season of Picard is absolutely stellar. Have the people who complain about Picard forgotten how godawful, not to mention inconsistent, the first few episodes of Star Trek Discovery were? Have they forgotten the positively painful first two season of The Next Generation? The first season of Deep Space Nine (and I never liked Deep Space Nine in the first place and neither did any of my German Trekkie friends at the time, which is why the praise for it is so baffling) or Voyager? Pretty much all of Enterprise?

I recently started rewatching my DVD boxset of Discovery with a friend who’s a casual Star Trek viewer but hasn’t seen Discovery yet due to lack of Netflix. And I found myself apologising that “the first few episodes are really awful, but you can’t skip them either, otherwise you won’t know what is going on, and it gets better, I promise.” But as we rewatched those first few episodes and got to episode 3 – “Context is for Kings”* – we looked at each other and said, “There probably is a worse Star Trek episode somewhere, e.g. the one where Wesley Crusher almost get executed for trampling a flower bed on the planet of the space hippies or the one where Picard, Starfleet’s moral paragon, hands over a bunch of Irish stereotypes to rape and forced birthing in a Handmaid’s Tale style society, all because the Enterprise crew cannot be bothered to part with their precious genetic material, but right now I can’t remember one that’s quite as godawful as this one.”

And that’s precisely the problem. With a franchise as long-lived and varied as Star Trek, we inevitably view the older series through rose-coloured glasses, remembering the mainly the good episodes (and the occasional really awful one, see above), but not the bad ones, of which there were many. And so any new iteration of Star Trek is inevitably measured against the best of what came before rather than the average, let alone the worst.

Though I would expect that people would at least remember how dreadful some early episodes of Discovery were some two years after they aired. Also, back when Discovery first aired those of us who criticised the show were accused of being overly nostalgic for the unrealistic optimism of The Next Generation and unable to recognise how brilliant Discovery was for grappling with our dark times. And now, some of the very same critics complain that Picard is not sufficiently like The Next Generation they remember and also that dark Starfleet is played out and was done better in Deep Space Nine anyway. Which is an almost 180 degree turn from what they said two years ago.

Now I’m not the biggest fan of “Dark Starfleet” and “Dark Federation” either, but it works better in Picard than in Discovery, if only because it’s easier to imagine the Federation turning into a xenophobic and isolationist nightmare state following a shocking event with loads of death some twenty years after Deep Space Nine and Voyager than it is to imagine that Federation going from the war-mongering and prisoner-exploiting nightmare state of Discovery to the optimistic utopia we saw in The Original Series in only ten to fifteen years.

So why are the same people who were praising the “Dark Starfleet” of Discovery to high heavens now criticising the “Dark Starfleet” of Picard? I suspect what changed is that the last vestiges of grimdark finally gave way to hopepunk in the two years since Discovery premiered, while the geopolitical situation looks a lot worse now than it did in late 2017. And it already looked pretty bad back then – indeed, one of the reasons I had such issues with Discovery (which is not the fault of the show) is that the show premiered on the night of the 2017 general election in Germany, when I was already full of despair anyway and the depression fest of Discovery‘s early episodes was about the last thing I needed.

But while I welcome a turn away from the overwhelming grimdarkness that plagued US media in the 2000s and 2010s, I still don’t understand the folks harping on Picard, because Picard is a lot more hopeful six episodes in than Discovery was at that point.

*BTW, the pilot of the prisoner shuttle in that episode whom Camestros Felapton always worried about is dead. We see her safety line tearing and see her floating off into space. Since the Discovery did not rescue her, she’s dead.

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4 Responses to Star Trek Picard tackles “The Impossible Box”

  1. Gene says:

    I agree with you that this version of Jean-Luc makes a lot of sense if you pay attention to all of the episodes of The Next Generation and not just a nostalgic rose-colored middle ground. I still LIKE Jean-Luc a lot, and in many parts as much because of his flaws as his virtues.

    • Cora says:

      Back when I was at university, a German TV station would run Star Trek every weekday, cycling from The Next Generation via Deep Space Nine to Voyager and then back to the beginning. As a result, I saw a lot of Star Trek, often five episodes per week, the good, the bad and the middling. And Jean-Luc Picard was not always the moral paragon many remember him as. One of the things I like about Picard is that the show addresses and incorporates his flaws.

  2. Gene says:

    > After all, most people in the world fall in love with someone who’s “nothing special” to outside observers.

    This is hardly the first time that I think you have made a deeply PROFOUND observation about humans in your writing, but it really jumps out this time!!

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