Star Trek Picard heads for the endgame in Part 1 of “Et in Arcadia Ego”

Welcome to my latest episode by episode review of Star Trek Picard, once again a little late. Previous installments may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

This is the first episode of Star Trek Picard since the series premiere that does not start with a flashback. Instead, we start right in medias res with the La Sirena using the transwarp network to reach Soji’s “homeworld” Coppelius. The name is a reference to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 gothic tale The Sandman, in which the protagonist’s beloved turns out to be an automaton.

We witness the trip through the transwarp network through the eyes of Agnes Jurati who is hiding under a table in the sick bay, while everything shakes around her. However, due to the combined piloting skills of Rios and Soji, the La Sirena survives the trip to Coppelius relatively unscathed, only to find themselves in trouble once more, because Narek has followed the La Sirena through the transwarp network and promptly starts to fire on them. However, Narek soon gets a taste of his on medicine, when the Borg Cube, piloted by Seven of Nine who showed up to rescue Elnor in the nick of time last episode, also emerges from the transwarp duct, unwilling to miss out on all the fun.

And so the La Sirena, Narek and the Borg Cube are merrily firing on each other, when all of a sudden in a moment of beautiful absurdity that is right out of a New Wave science fiction novel, giant orchids launch from the planet to drag the three ships down to the surface of Coppelius. Coppelius turns out to be among the 30 percent of planets in the known universe which look like the landscape outside Los Angeles. Another 30 percent looks like the forests outside Vancouver, yet another 30 percent looks like a British quarry and the remaining percent look like Tunesia, Iceland or a CGI creation.

The orchids cause a power failure aboard the La Sirena. The ship makes a rough landing, which causes Picard to pass out. With the power off, Rios’ holograms are inaccessible, but luckily Agnes finds an old medical tricorder. She checks out Picard and promptly finds the fatal brain issue that his old medical officer from the Stargazer had diagnosed back in episode 2. “Maybe the tricorder is faulty”, Agnes suggests, but Picard assures her that the tricorder is fine. Then he comes clean to the rest of the crew and also lets them know that he will not be treated like a dying man. Raffi is hit hardest by the announcement, though Soji, Agnes and Rios are affected as well.

I have to admit that I find the whole “Picard is dying” thing annoying. After all, Star Trek Picard has already been renewed for season 2, so we know Jean-Luc Picard won’t die. So they’ll have to find a solution soon (there is a hint in this episode what that solution might be) or they’ll risk becoming like Breaking Bad or The Big C whose protagonists both got a fatal cancer diagnosis in the first episode and then continued to not die for several seasons.

However, Picard’s medical issues can wait, because the La Sirena has crashlanded and has no power. The Borg Cube, which is much bigger, was affected worse and seems to have been smashed. No one even wonders what happened to Narek. Before paying a visit to Soji’s people, Picard and the gang decide to visit the Borg Cube first, just in case they need help. Here, they are reunited with Seven and Elnor who spontaneously hugs Picard. Picard reacts better to the hug than Seven. Elnor really is the sweetest Romulan that ever lived. He’ll hug you or he’ll slice you up with his sword, if he has to. But he’d much rather hug you.

Elnor is clearly upset when he learns about Picard’s condition, because – so he blurts out – he doesn’t want Picard to die. Elnor is also unsure whether to stick with Picard or the Ex-Borg, but Picard tells him to help Seven get the Cube operational again. Which is probably the best course of action, but I still feel that Elnor was massively underused this season.

Having ascertained themselves that everything is okay at the Borg Cube (and still no one wonders whatever happened to Narek), Picard, Soji, Agnes, Raffi and Rios head for the home of Soji’s people, in truth a white villa in the Hollywood hills. Once they get there, “Et in Arcadia Ego” suddenly takes a turn for the retro. And not just Next Generation retro – no, this almost looks and feels like Original Series era retro.

For it turns out that Soji’s homeworld is populated by golden-skinned androids in pairs of two, who are dressed like extras from Logan’s Run. The visuals, make-up, costumes, etc… would have looked dated even in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation more than thirty years ago, though they would have fit right into the original series, where the Enterprise did visit a couple of planets of androids. Zack Handlen declares that the androids look as if they’d been murdered by Goldfinger, which further emphasises the 1960s vibe of the whole second half of the episode.

The androids are happy enough to see Soji again, politely curious about Picard, since he was “Data’s Captain”, as a female android puts it before fingering Picard’s wrinkles (no social distancing on Coppelius), friendly enough to Agnes Jurati, since she was Bruce Maddox’s assistant/lover, and largely ignore Rios and Raffi. There are also two familiar faces among the androids. One is Dr. Alton Inigo Soong (note the initials), the never before mentioned son of Dr. Noonian Soong, creator of Data. Dr. Soong the younger is played by Brent Spiner sans Data make-up and wig, which makes him look disconcertingly human and rumpled among all the perfect gold-skinned androids. Of course, this is very likely misdirection, especially since we know that Dr. Soong was in the habit of building himself family members. And so I strongly suspect that Dr. Alton Inigo Soong (again, note the initials) is just as artificial as everybody else on Coppelius. And even if he is not artificial now, he’s building himself a new android body in his lab. Personally, I think Dr. A.I. Soong a new creation, though I’ve also seen speculation that he might be Data’s evil twin (and notice how the androids are all twins) Lore returned to wreak even more havoc. The fact the Hugh the Ex-Borg, who also featured in an episode with Lore, also had a significant role in Picard would support this speculation. I guess we’ll know tomorrow.

The other familiar face is Sutra, sister of Janna (they missed an opportunity by not calling the sister “Kama”), the android Rios’ captain murdered upon the orders of Commodore Oh, and a deadringer for Soji, if Soji had been dipped in golden bodypaint and had raided the wardrobe on the set of Logan’s Run. Sutra is so obviously evil from the moment she first appears that it’s absolutely no surprise when it turns out that she is – gasp – evil and wants to kill all organic life in the universe. And no, after all the debate about the rights of synthetic lifeforms, I had not expected Picard to delve into the oldest cliché in the book and coincidentally also prove the Zhat Vash, who are the villains for fuck’s sake, right.

As for the Zhat Vash, Sutra reveals that the so-called “admonition”, the frightening message the Romulans found on the world with eight suns, was never intended for organic minds at all, but for synthetics. Sutra realises this when she mind-melds with Agnes to see what Commodore Oh showed her. And yes, Sutra taught herself to mind-meld, because she’s fascinated by Vulcan culture. Never mind that this is not how mind-melds work, otherwise Michael Burnham from Discovery would be able to do it, too, since she was raised by Vulcans. I also find it very irritating that everybody can apparently mind-meld now. It does make sense that Commodore Oh would be able to do it, since she is half-Romulan and half-Vulcan and Vulcans and Romulans are biologically the same species anyway. But Sutra is an android who has never even met a real life Vulcan, as far as we know. But she can mind-meld, because she read a few books or watched a few videos or maybe visited the holodeck? Sorry, but this makes no sense at all.

Once Sutra has seen “the admonition” in Agnes’ mind, she announces that it is not a warning at all, but a promise, a promise from an advanced race of synthetics that once organic lifeforms tire of the synthetic lifeforms they have created and try to exterminate them, because that’s what they always do (methinks, the advanced synths have read too much Frankenstein and watched too much Terminator), the beleaguered synthetic lifeforms can call for help and the advanced synthetics will show up and exterminate those pesky organics. So far, so cliched.

The Synths on Coppelius certainly are beleaguered, because a fleet of Romulan warbirds under the command of Narissa (who sadly survived the Borg attack in last week’s episode) is on its way to Coppelius. However, instead of calling in the advanced synthetics to get rid of the Romulans (and presumably the Federation, the Klingon Empire and everybody else), Picard has another idea. The La Sirena is big enough to evacuate all androids (plus Dr. A.I. Soong) from Coppelius. And then Picard will appeal to the Federation for help to deal with the Zhat Vash and help the synths.

Of course, anybody who’s watched the past eight episodes of Star Trek Picard knows that Picard makes a lot of promises, but isn’t very good at keeping them, largely because the Federation and Starfleet have other ideas. Just ask the Romulans. And so Sutra quickly reveals Picard for what he is, an old man who makes perfectly sincere promises he has no chance of keeping, because Starfleet won’t let him.

However, for the rest of the peace-loving androids to call in the intergalactic synth murder squad, Sutra still needs to engage in some additional manipulation. Of course, the fact that a Starfleet captain murdered her sister and another android helps, but an additional nudge is needed. Luckily, the perfect tool falls into her hands, when two androids drag a wounded and dishevelled Narek to the compound. For while everybody else may have forgotten about Narek, the androids sure haven’t. They throw Narek into a cell (one wonders why peace-loving androids who have never had a prisoner before have a prison cell), where the crafty Narek promptly tries to manipulate a naive android called Arcana into giving him water and hopefully letting him go. Arcana is willing to help Narek, but then a seriously pissed off Soji shows up and tells her not to believe a single word Narek says. Narek tells Soji that he loves her, which might even be the truth (I suspect not even Narek himself knows what his feelings for Soji really are), but Soji understandably will have none of that. Then Sutra shows up and asks Narek, how he’d like to get out of his cell. Narek, of course, wants to escape and so Sutra lets him go. Shortly thereafter, Arcana is found dead, stabbed through the eye with her own brooch. You’d really think that Dr. Soong and Bruce Maddox would make more lasting androids. Sutra pins the murder on the missing Narek, though it’s bleedingly obvious that she herself is responsible.

With Arcana dead, the androids are now out for blood and want to call in the advanced synthetics to wipe out the Romulans and the Federation. Picard tries to talk them down, but he has no chance. Dr. A.I. Soong, though supposedly human, agrees. So do Soji and Agnes Jurati, who has decided to stay on Coppelius and continue Bruce Maddox’s research. Cue cliffhanger.

Narek’s declaring his undying love for Soji is not the only declaration of love in this episode. Because a little earlier, Raffi decides to tell Picard that she loves him (So I was right about the romantic vibes between them). However, Raffi knows Jean-Luc Picard too well. “You don’t have to say you love me”, she tells him, whereupon Picard to everybody’s surprise does tell her that he loves her. Somewhere in the galaxy, poor Beverly Crusher is very pissed off that she never got to hear those words. Meanwhile, Chris Rios and Agnes Jurati don’t quite get to the level of a declaration of love, though they do share an emotional good-bye. Rios also tells Agnes that he will never forget her.

The three romantic declarations are satisfying, because by now, we do like those characters, even though I would have liked to see a little more about all of them. And indeed, it is the characters and actors who carry Star Trek Picard. On the other hand, the plot of the finale, which should be the culmination of the series, is disappointing. It’s not just the androids who look like escapees from a 1960s hippie commune either. No, it’s depressing that a writer as good as Michael Chabon couldn’t come up with anything better than a cliched “Androids want to exterminate all humans” plot. I mean, honestly, “robots want to kill humans because of reasons” is such an old chestnut that Isaac Asimov was already tired of it in the early 1940s. It’s not that you can’t tell a good “robots want to kill humans” story, but so far “Et in Arcadia Ego” doesn’t offer anything that we haven’t seen a hundred times before.

Of course, it’s quite possible that the final episode does manage to put a new spin on this very old story. And there certainly a number of hints at what such a spin might be. But part 1 of “Et in Arcadia Ego” was rather disappointing from the moment we got to Coppelius on.

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