Star Trek Picard does “Penance”

With the latest episode of Star Trek Discovery out of the way, here’s my take on the second episode of season 2 of Star Trek Picard. For my take on previous episodes and seasons, go here.

ETA: Camestros Felapton weighs in on the first two episodes of Star Trek Picard here.

Warning: Spoilers below the cut!

When we last saw Jean-Luc Picard and his friends, Picard had just triggered the self-destruct mechanism of the Stargazer to prevent it as well as much of Starfleet from being assimilated by the Borg. Picard survived the destruction of the Stargazer, only to wake up at Chateau Picard in France again, only that things have changed. His com badge and uniform are different, his Romulan housekeeper, friend and maybe more Laris is nowhere to be found and he has an android servant named Harvey. And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, Q pops up to taunt Picard.

This episode continues where episode 1 left off, with Q taunting Picard. We also get the zoom in on Chateau Picard once again, only that Earth is protected by some kind of forcefield now. Q and Picard spent almost ten minutes sparring, with Q dropping cryptic hints about Picard needing to do penance and atone for some unnamed sin, while Picard both realises that Q seems more unhinged than ever and becomes increasingly frustrated with – quote – Q’s “bullshit”. Since Picard runs on the Paramount Plus streaming service and not US network TV, Picard can actually swear at Q now.

The confrontation between Picard and Q is a so much fun that you barely notice that Q doesn’t really say very much about what’s going on, probably because he’s too busy trading insults with Picard and also because he’s Q and dropping cryptic statements is what Q does. At one point, Q tells Picard that he just waited for a big explosion (i.e. the Stargazer and half of Starfleet self-destructing) to find him, which is hilarious, because even if we confine it to the Star Trek universe, waiting for a big explosion could just as easily have brought Q to Kirk, Janeway, Sisko, Archer or Michael Burnham. If we expand it to other universes, waiting for a really big explosion may well have landed Q in the Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe. But lucky for Q and unfortunate for Jean-Luc Picard, he hits the correct explosion and the correct person. The chemistry between Sir Patrick Stewart and John DeLancie is still as great as it ever was and the opening scene is a joy to watch. Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido clearly agrees with me.

From Q and Picard touring the Chateau and the vineyard, we glean that Earth experienced massive environmental devastation, hence the forcefield. The grapes have not been harvested (and frankly, the vines don’t look very healthy at all), but the record player is still there, only that now it plays Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien”, which is an interesting choice, considering that Q insists that Picard must do penance for something.

There still are Romulans working at the Chateau, only that these Romulans are slaves. Picard is horrified, but it gets even worse. For in this reality, Picard has a Lorca-style murder trophy room full of alien weapons and the literal skulls of his enemies. There’s a Ferengi, a Borg, the Klingon General Martok, the Cardassian Gul Dukat and Sarek of Vulcan, whom – as Q gleefully informs Jean-Luc – Picard personally beheaded in front of the Vulcan Science Academy while his wife and son (either Spock or – considering how xenophobic Earth is in this timeline, which would make a marriage between an Earthwoman and a Vulcan unlikely – Sybok) were watching. So Picard personally murdered such popular Star Trek characters as Martok, Gul Dukat and Sarek in this timeline and he’s also a terrible warlord and commander of the starship Woldrazer. Boo!

After having shown Picard the grisly trophy room, Q promptly vanishes, as is his way, leaving Picard to solve the puzzle of how on Earth did he end up in this unpleasant reality and how can he get back. Picard starts by questioning the android Harvey. He tries to locate Laris, only to learn that she and Zhaban were killed fighting to liberate Romulus (which apparently still exists in this reality). Even worse, it turns out that in this reality, Picard drinks strong black coffee, which causes him to note that this really must be Dante’s inferno. As someone who intensely dislikes black coffee, trust me, Jean-Luc, I sympathise.

Harvey informs Picard that the President expects him. “And why does the President summon me?” Picard asks. “But, sir, it’s Eradication Day”, Harvey informs him. Uh, now that doesn’t sound ominous at all.

The scene now switches to Seven waking up in the sort of blandly grey apartment that is sadly fashionable right now (the present day is the nadir of interior design in the past two centuries. Even the 1970s with their orange, brown and avocado were better). Seven is confused and calls for Raffi. Then she gets up, looks at herself in the mirror and finds her Borg implants gone. Just as alarming is the fact that there is a wedding ring on her finger.

This scene is very cleverly edited and shot, hiding the left side of Seven’s face, until she looks at herself in the mirror. And yes, there are moments where “character looks at themselves in the mirror” scenes are appropriate and this is one of them.

Seven barely has time to adjust to this new reality, before the husband who comes with the wedding ring (played by Jon Jon Briones, real life father of Isa Briones who plays Soji) shows up, uniformed goons in tow, to wish his dear Annika a happy Eradication Day and asks if she wants updates from the Vulcan front.

Seven realises that in this reality she – or rather her never Borg-assimilated alter-ego Annika Hansen – is the president of the Confederation, a xenophobic and imperialistic Earth that has conquered and subjugated much of the galaxy.

Now Star Trek has no shortage of dystopian fascist alternate realities. Indeed, io9 reviewer James Whitbrook calls “What if everything was a bit more fascist?” one of the favourite questions Star Trek has explored. Star Trek‘s flirt with fascist alternate realities goes all the way back to “Mirror, Mirror” back in 1967. We’ve revisited the mirror universe several times since, most recently in season 1 and season 3 of Star Trek Discovery. Though the reality where Picard and the gang have landed is very clearly not the mirror universe. It has a President rather than an Emperor for starters and the prevailing look is totalitarian black and grey rather than the glittery Flash Gordon look of the mirror universe in Discovery. Fun fact: The Nazis only went with brown, black and grey uniforms, because they could get the fabric cheaply. It’s not as if they actually liked the colours, though black and grey (and sometimes brown) since become the look of fascist dystopias everywhere.

Seven is quick to react to the appearance of this unwanted husband and declares that yes, she wants updates from the Vulcan front, but she does not want them from General Sisko (nice callback to Deep Space Nine there), but from someone who’s actually fighting on the front line, namely – Seven quickly flips through the Starfleet database looking for a familiar face – from one Colonel Cristobal Rios.

Rios, meanwhile, has problems of his own, because when he comes to, he’s back aboard La Sirena and in the middle of a space dogfight over Vulcan as it’s still called at this point in the timeline (Ni’Var is a later development). Rios is hailed by the captain of another ship, who informs him that his cunning plan to break the Vulcan resistance is working. Rios responds with a delightfully confused look. “Wait a minute, we’re shooting at Vulcans? Why?”

Before Rios can give away that he is not who everybody thinks he is, he is interrupted by a call from the President. He quickly recognises Seven’s voice and the two compare notes. Seven also officially order Rios back to Earth, so they can figure out what’s going on and how to get out of this situation.

The scene now shifts to Okinawa – a place singled out as a hotbed of terrorist activity in the briefing Seven was given earlier – where a group of Romulan resistance fighters are just blowing up some skyscrapers. A very confused Elnor is there – well, more confused than usual – and promptly finds himself hugged by a young female Romulan (or maybe she’s Vulcan). “It worked, it worked”, the young woman exclaims and is about to kiss Elnor, when the police arrives and shoots her. Yes, Elnor has a girlfriend in this reality. Though she sadly gets killed before Elnor can get as much as a kiss, let alone more.

Elnor runs away, but is quickly surrounded by police officers and about to be shot. Luckily, a woman in a black hooded coat shows up and orders that she wants this one taken alive, because she wants to know what he knows. The woman sweeps back the hood of her long black coat and it’s Raffi, who is apparently chief of the Confederation police now.  She takes Elnor, who professes with absolute Candor that he knows nothing, into custody. Honestly, Elnor really needs to know when to keep his mouth shut. Though the moment where Elnor hugs Raffi is very sweet and reminds us that Elnor is still very much a kid, though a kid who’s very deadly with a sword.

Seven and her terrible husband (who never gets a name or at least I didn’t catch it) have meanwhile arrived in San Francisco at the Confederation Headquarters for the Eradication Day celebrations, where Seven tricks her husband into explaining what exactly Eradication Day is to her and audience. Basically, Eradication Day is a holiday where the Confederation celebrates its subjugation of alien species by publicly executing their leaders. And the subject of this day’s public execution promises to be particularly fascinating, since it marks the victory over one of the most dangerous foes humanity has ever faced. Luckily, Dr. Jurati has been preparing this dangerous foe by rendering it perfectly harmless and readying them for execution.

At the mention of Dr. Agnes Jurati, Seven’s ears prick up and she demands to speak to her. At this moment we cut to Agnes waking up in a lab, while a grumpy AI cartoon cat notes that public executions are barbaric in the voice of Patton Oswalt. Yes, they got Patton Oswalt to voice a cartoon cat. Agnes questions the cat and learns that she programmed him, but before she can find out anything else, Seven and her shitty husband arrive. Agnes almost blows everybody’s cover by calling Seven “Seven” rather than Annika or Madame President. Luckily, Seven manages to save the situation and Agnes at least doesn’t make things worse in spite of her babbling.

Seven’s shitty husband demands to see “the specimen”, so Agnes opens a stasis tube and out pops none other than the Borg Queen (now played by Annie Wersching, the third actress to play this role). The Borg Queen is babbling, clearly insane because the rest of the Borg have already been eradiated and she’s the only one left. She recognises Seven as someone once assimilated and then escaped. The Borg Queen also notes that time is broken. There’s some very nice acting here by from Jerri Ryan, who visibly recoils at the sight of the Borg Queen, and Annie Wersching (who actually made her screen debut as a guest star in an episode of Star Trek Enterprise twenty years ago), who wonderfully oscillates between batshit insane and calculating.

Meanwhile, Picard arrives at Confederation Headquarters to see President Hansen (not sure if he’s made the connection yet, since Picard may not be aware of Seven’s pre-assimilation name) and just chances to spot Raffi and the arrested Elnor. He interrupts his guide and declares that he absolutely needs to speak to both of them. Luckily, Elnor does not blow the situation with absolute candour, so Picard, Raffi and Elnor go to see Seven.

Seven’s shitty husband is horrified that Picard would bring a Romulan terrorist within striking distance of the President, but Picard and Raffi point out that Elnor has very important information about a planned attack, which the President needs to hear at once. Seven finds a pretext to send her shitty husband away and Raffi of course has to needle her about the fact that while Seven has commitment issues in our timeline, she got married to a terrible guy in this one.

Then everybody goes to see Agnes and the Borg Queen. The Borg Queen confirms some of Q’s cryptic hints, namely that this is not an alternate universe, but the Star Trek prime universe, only that the timeline was tampered with by Q. Of course, every jonbar point creates an alternate timeline, so Picard and friends theoretically are in an alternate universe, albeit one caused by Q tampering with the timeline.

The Borg Queen can even pinpoint the place where this tampering occurred, namely in Los Angeles in the year 2024.   The Borg Queen also informs them that there’s a Watcher there and that they must find that Watcher. So that’s where the team must go next to fix the broken timeline.

Now Star Trek has frequently traveled back into the present day, all the way back to “Tomorrow is Yesterday” in 1967 (which was my friend Annette’s very favourite Star Trek episode back in the day) and “Assignment Earth” in 1968. It usually makes for fun and cheap episodes, since no special sets are needed and watching the various Starfleet officers interacting with the present day is always fun, though rarely more so than in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

The said, 2024 is only two years away and setting anything science fictional that close to the future always means that it will become outdated very quickly. James Whitbrook points out at io9 that the reason the writers chose 2024 is likely because the so-called “Bell riots”, referenced as an important historical event in the Deep Space Nine episode “Past Tense” happen in 2024. Besides, Star Trek‘s fictional history has been overtaken by real world history before – or did you notice any eugenics wars in the 1990s? But while Star Trek writers in 1967 can be forgiven for not expecting that their show would still be watched, let alone generating spin-offs thirty years later, Deep Space Nine writers in 1994 might resasonably have assumed that there would still be some kind of Star Trek around in 2024.

But for now, the problem is getting to 2024. The Confederation does not appear to have time travel technology, so the team goes through other known time travel methods and arrives at the slingshot method first used in “Tomorrow is Yesterday”. However, they are still missing two crucial ingredients. The first, a spaceship, is no problem, because Rios is on his way with the La Sirena. The second, someone who can do the necessary calculations, is more of a problem, for while the Enterprise had Spock, no one of this team, not even Agnes, is capable of doing the calculations. Luckily, they have a Borg Queen at hand, who is well capable of doing the calculations and who can be persuaded to help, because as much as she may dislike Picard and Seven, she still prefers the prime timeline to one where the Borg have already been eradicated and she’s next. So the Borg Queen agrees to help.

As if on cue, Rios arrives and proceeds to beam everybody aboard La Sirena. Only that this does not work, because the Confederation headquarters has blocked all transporters for security reasons because of the upcoming Eradication Day celebrations. Communications drop out a moment after, as Seven’s shitty husband appears to inform Seven and Picard that it’s time for the grand Eradication Day ceremony. Picard manages to tell Agnes to restore communications and Raffi to deal with the transporter block before he and Seven go to attend a stereotypical fascist rally, complete with flags, uniformed thugs and crowds baying for blood.

Now we get a lengthy – almost too lengthy scene – of the fascist rally intercut with Agnes trying to restore communications, while babbling about her relationship issues with Rios, and Raffi trying to disable the transporter block. In order to do this, Raffi drags Elnor to the security center and claims that she captured him uploading a virus into the system, which she must now neutralise. Meanwhile, the assembled security goons can have some fun beating up Elnor, which Raffi accesses the computer to disable the block. Poor Elnor, of course, cannot fight back, until Raffi gives him the sign that she’s done. Then Elnor cuts loose, quite literally. He doesn’t even ask the goons to “choose to live”, probably because he knows they won’t.

Meanwhile, we get treated to a lengthy fascist rally which begins with Seven holding a speech. Then Picard appears, which whips the crowd into even more of a frenzy, and the Borg Queen is brought on stage. Picard waves to the crowd, takes out a gun with great flourish, aims at the Borg Queen, all the while desperate to stall until Rios can beam everybody out.

Now fascist rallies tend to be lengthy and boring. I watched Triumph of the Will at university and after a while, we started fast-forwarding through the endless speeches of little remembered second tier Nazi officials, because they were just that boring, and besides we were watching the thing for the cinematography, not to listen to second and third tier Nazis droning on.

However, Star Trek Picard is not Triumph of the Will. We didn’t need to listen to that much of Seven’s speech and we didn’t need to see quite so many cuts to the crowd baying for blood. Of course, we know that Seven and Picard are stalling, but they don’t need to stall the audience. Also, isn’t shooting the Borg Queen a bit anti-climactic for a public execution? At any rate, I would have expected something more dramatic.

Eventually, even Seven’s shitty husband catches on that something is wrong and orders the armed goons to shoot the Borg Queen, since Picard isn’t going to do it. This leads to a shoot-out with the armed goons and then Agnes finally gets the transporter signals fixed and Rios beams everybody out.

They flee, the Confederation fleet in hor pursuit, while Agnes plugs the Borg Queen into La Sirena over Rios’ objections. The Borg Queen, meanwhile, reacts to being plugged into a system greater than herself with positively orgasmic joy.

Unfortunately, before the crew can execute the time slingshot manoeuvre, Seven’s shitty husband beams aboard La Sirena with armed goons, shoots Elnor and proceeds to arrest everybody, crackling with glee at the prospect of having the great General Jean-Luc Picard executed for treason. Cue credits.

This episode treads well-trodden Star Trek ground. Q sparring with Picard, a fascist alternate reality where our heroes are all terrible people, time travel to fix a problem with the timeline, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before in Star Trek umpteen times.  Nonetheless, you barely notice while watching the episode, because the cast are clearly having a ball and the whole thing is just so much fun.

Tor.com reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido points out that the fact that Q made sure that only the people in the opening credits remember the original timeline makes no real sense, because even though they are all connected to Jean-Luc Picard, there are people who are a lot closer to Picard and might help such as Riker, Troi, Worf, Geordi, Dr. Crusher, etc… Of course, everybody who’s in the opening credits was also present when the Stargazer self-destructed, but then there were a lot of other people on the bridge as well and they apparently don’t remember. The Borg Queen does remember, but that’s because she is the Borg Queen, not because she was on the bridge of the Stargazer (if it is indeed the same Borg Queen) when it exploded. Also, it’s mightily convenient that pretty much everybody is in an influential and useful position in the alternate world. Even getting a ship, let alone the Borg Queen would have been much more difficult, if the crew had ended up being shoemakers, low level security guards, waiters, etc….

But since the episode was so much fun, I have no problem suspending my disbelief. Star Trek Discovery definitely had the better episode this week, but while Star Trek Discovery‘s fourth season was fairly weak and lacks a sense of urgency in spite of our heroes tackling a galaxy-shaking, planet-eating threat, season 2 of Star Trek Picard has been a blast so far.

I guess next episode will see the team going back in time – and I also really hope that either Raffi or Seven herself lets Seven’s shitty husband know that they’ve been sleeping with each other and that it was so much better than anything Seven’s shitty husband could come up with.

Meanwhile, Soji is missing in action, after only having a very brief appearance last week. I suspect she’ll be back, though unlike everybody else she was not aboard the Stargazer or Excelsior, when they self-destructed.

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6 Responses to Star Trek Picard does “Penance”

  1. FontFolly says:

    Darn, I’m still working on my review.

    Regarding not noticing the Eugenics War, you might want to check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eugenics_Wars:_The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Khan_Noonien_Singh

    I don’t know how well those books sold. I think the only reason I know about them is that the author is a personal acquaintance, since I listened to him explaining before it was published the fun he figured out how to tell the story as a secret behind-the-scenes thing so I had to buy it when it came out.

    • Cora says:

      I have to admit that I never heard of those books, but it’s certainly laudable that they made the attempt to square Star Trek history with our own. And “Space Seed” was a first season episode and aired early in 1967, i.e. at a time when no one could have predicted that people would not only still be talking about that plucky little space show let alone making new episodes in thirty years time.

      Though I still have no idea why Deep Space Nine chose to plop the Bell riots into the fairly close future of 2024, since they could have predicted that there might be a conflict eventually. Though First Contact happens in 2063 and there’s a nuclear war before that, so there’s not that much space for near future Trek stories to be set. Also, we will very likely still have Star Trek in same form, but hopefully no Bell riots or nuclear war, in 2034 or 2044.

      Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading your take.

  2. Peer says:

    IIRC in a DS9 episode, they changed the year of the Eugenic wars.
    A callback to Past Tense would be very interesting (Im not sure how American history changes World. let alone universes history, but thats how these things work, so fine). I wonder who would play Sisko?

    I am a bit on the fence about this epsiode. I was entertained, but the escape ran a bit too long for my taste as well, especially, because weve seen the beats of “Crew has to orientate themselves in an alternative timeline” to often. I just hope they deal with the husband quick and go back in time. That could be more interesting, especially with the watcher – another thing they apparently bringing back (first in Discovery, now here). Maybe Guinan is there as well, after all she noted the slip in Yesterdays Enterprise.

    • Cora says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised if Guinan turned out to be the Watcher or at the very least present. No idea if we’re going to meet a young Sisko, though it would be cool.

      I also agree that three episodes in a row of “The crew must get back together and orient themselves” are a bit too much. Though at least they dealt with Seven’s terrible husband quickly.

  3. Peer says:

    Oh, and Im also thinking: If Q is unwell, maybe there is an explanation for the Q-absence in Discovery? They did mention they havent heard of the Q Kontinuum for a long time. That might be a problem with time, that Q cant fix himself (hence the comments on Time being cruel), so he needs Picard to do it.
    Of course could be a red hering, but mentioning Q in one series and let him show up in a second might be a clue.

    • Cora says:

      I think you might be on to something there, because why namedrop the Q-continuum and the fact that they haven’t been heard from in a long time at all, if not as an Easter egg for another show?

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