Admiral, there be spoilers here!
Have you ever watched a poker tournament on TV…or even just flipped past one while channel surfing? (Do people even channel surf anymore?)
It’s a pretty good bet that you’ve probably seen at least a glimpse of a poker tournament. They’re actually kinda exciting! Every hand is different. Every bet could change the balance of power and the fortunes of any player at any time. The stakes can be high and the tension even higher. It’s no wonder that poker tournaments have found their way onto broadcast television.
But what about chess?
Chances are you’ve never seen a chess tournament broadcast on television…except maybe highlights of one on the news. And why would you? Chess isn’t exactly a thrill-a-second game (although it can be if you know what to look for, but most of us don’t). And unlike poker, where a game is made up of a series of hands that each reset gameplay, a chess game unfolds and develops veeeeeeery slowly and carefully. It’s not what you’d call riveting TV!
Since the very first season of TOS, Star Trek has embraced both the games of poker and chess—from Kirk’s corbomite bluffs to Spock’s 3D chess to the TNG crew’s regular poker nights. And of course, the first episode of STAR TREK: PICARD opens on a dream sequence poker game with Data.
I thought about these two games as I watched the second episode of Picard, “Maps and Legends.” After a very exciting teaser where we see and learn more about the First Contact Day synth massacre on Mars (they were hacked!), the episode very quickly puts on the brakes and doesn’t accelerate again for the rest of the 44-minute episode. It was pretty much all talk—although still dramatic and well-acted—for 37 straight minutes.
This seemed odd to me as a viewer.
The friend I watched with said he definitely didn’t like the second episode as much as the first. The first, he opined, had a message, a theme, of growing older, of looking for purpose in one’s twilight years, of seeing the world change into something your idealistic self wouldn’t recognize nor approve of. But what was the message of the second episode? There wasn’t one that he could see, just scene after scene of mostly exposition.
It wasn’t that either of us didn’t like the episode. We just didn’t like it as much as the first one. And initially, I didn’t understand why. But now I do…
THE MIDDLE OF THE BEGINNING
Episode three will be titled “The End Is the Beginning,” and it will be the third episode in a row directed by HANELLE CUPEPPER. JONATHAN FRAKES is co-directing the third episode and then handling the fourth and fifth himself.
Let’s pause to take a closer look at what I just said.
In the 50-year history of Star Trek (and most TV shows), there are few instances of the same person directing two episodes in a row…let alone three! Directing is time-consuming and exhausting. And with a fast production schedule for a weekly series, the studio wants a director to hit the ground running when a new episode starts shooting. If that same director has just spent the last seven or eight days in production, they’re not necessarily “fresh and rested.” Also, the director usually moves from production into post-production and editing…not into being out on location in the middle of a Vineyard in Santa Ynez for another week. So having the same person direct three episodes in a row is unusual, to say the least…
…unless it’s not really three episodes!
If you think of the first three episodes of Picard as a single, two-hour long made-for-TV movie, then having a single director makes much more sense. You film all the scenes in “France” over a few days, all the scenes of Starfleet together at the Anaheim Convention Center, and you create a story that isn’t really three episodes so much a one episode in three parts. Then that “super-episode” has a single director with a single creative vision delivering a cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end.
And note that the last of Culpepper’s three episodes is called “The End Is the Beginning.” While that might also have some tie-ins to the content of the episode itself, it’s likely that the “end” of these first three episodes marks the real beginning of the Picard series. These first three episodes are just the set-up.
In chess, the game is usually divided into three phases: the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame. Of these, the opening is typically considered the least exciting. This is because the pieces always start in the same spots, and only certain pieces can be moved at first, like pawns and knights. And it isn’t until some of those pieces are “out of the way” that other pieces can be brought out, like bishops and rooks and the queen.
Notice that the first episode introduced only a few key characters. Then the second episode introduced other key players (including the villains and Picard’s former medical officer on the Stargazer and his former first officer from the USS Verity). The third episode promises to introduce at least one other major character (Hugh) and probably more. In other words, the “beginning” three episodes are setting up the pieces on the chess board, heading into the middlegame…which will be more exciting. Just be patient, my friends.
AKIVA GOLDSMAN, executive producer on Picard, said as much on this week’s episode of THE READY ROOM (with WIL WHEATON) on YouTube at the 18-minute mark. He talked about how TOS and Next Gen “jumped around” to do all kinds of different types of episodes—action, drama, romance, speculative fiction, comedy. But Picard is different…
For us, because we’re serialized, it’s almost like each season is an episode. So our tone is sci-fi drama. Discovery is sci-fi action/adventure—there’s gonna be a lotta things blowing up! Less things blow up on our show. Our show is more performance based. We like to be writing-based. We want people to play scenes that you would expect to see in a drama, but the context being otherworldly and modern and speculative.
So if you watched the second episode of Picard and felt, as I and my friend did, that it was slower, more pensive, and overflowing with exposition…then you’re totally right! But just as a typical episode of Star Trek usually starts more slowly than it ends, the plot and the players in Picard are still being explained to us, and we as viewers shouldn’t be force-fed the entire meal at once because we’ll likely miss something important in the rushed information dump. We must await each new course in order to digest everything and come away from our meal truly satisfied as being treated to a rich, savory experience.
As I said last week, if you want fast food because you’re in a hurry and need to be someplace, then Discovery is where you want to eat, not Picard.
Okay, that sub-headline isn’t as clever as I thought it’d be. I just needed to rhyme something with “lights” that connected to chess. That said, let me explain what I’m talking about…
This was the episode where, if you’re going to get off the starship, now is the time. The reason is that the writers and producers are about to ask you to accept four important aspects of the plot. And if you can’t accept them, you’ll be miserable going forward.
There are already a few fans complaining (although a surprisingly small few) about Picard not being canon because it acknowledges the “controversial” 2009 Star Trek feature film that created the alternate reality Kelvin timeline.
It’s true that Picard is touching on a LOT of Star Trek continuity—certainly from TNG but also from DS9 and Voyager. The first episode already featured nearly two dozen references and easter eggs, and this second episode asks fans to accept even more, as new revelations are being added to that oh-so-sacred cow known as “canon.” If you’re a fan who can’t accept the next four aspects of Picard, well, this is where you might just want to stop watching…
The even-MORE-secret Secret Police
The Federation has Section 31. The Cardassians have the Obsidian Order. And the Romulans have the Tal Shiar. So it was written in TNG and DS9, and so let it be part of the holy Trek gospel!
But now we are told that the Romulans have another clandestine organization even more secretive than the Tal Shiar, and it’s called the Zhat Vash! Of course, we’ve never heard of them before. Their name was never even spoken…just as Spock never spoke of his half-brother Sybok before Star Trek V (or his adopted human sister Michael…although she is now on the “no-speak” list for everyone).
And not only are we supposed to believe the Romulans have had this ancient, super-duper, Illuminati-like sect/cult/cabal for “thousands and thousands” of years, but these zealots obsessively HATE artificial intelligence (which probably didn’t even exist in the Romulan Empire thousands and thousands of years ago). And yet, with that passionate hatred of all things android, these obsessed Romulans super-secret agents who operated without regard for treaty or jurisdiction never once made a move on Data? I mean, they attacked the Enterprise-D and, later, the E, but those always seemed more aimed at Picard, not Data.
Oh, and not only that, but we’re also supposed to accept that, when Picard first hears the name of this super-secret organization, his immediate reaction isn’t, “Did you say ‘Vash’? I used to date a woman named Vash!”
But yes, we have to accept the Zhat Vash to move on with Picard…and I’ve chosen to do just that.
Traitors and spies operating at the highest levels of Starfleet
Actually, this one isn’t nearly as hard to accept. We’ve seen Starfleet conspiracies of the upper brass way too many times: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the TNG episode “Conspiracy,” and DS9‘s “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost.” And we’ve seen well-meaning admirals “in league with the bad guys,” like Dougherty in Star Trek: Insurrection. And of course, we’ve seen Vulcans working with Romulans in both Star Trek: Enterprise and in TNG‘s “Unification.”
So the fact that the Starfleet Chief of Security is teaming up with the Romulans and has hired one of their top undercover agents to be her personal assistant doesn’t seem too far outside the realm of possibility. Granted, it’s not the way I’d imagine my ideal Starfleet, but I can believe—especially when there’s such bad (green and red) blood between the two powers—that the weakened Romulans would redouble their efforts at infiltration at the highest levels. Again, if you can’t handle that, escape pods are available on decks 3, 4, and 5.
Bitchy admirals who won’t listen to Picard
Oh, come on! Picard has proven himself a hero twenty times over! Even if it’s been 15 years, how can he have been so easily forgotten that they don’t even recognize that shiny bald noggin at Starfleet HQ reception??? And he’s Jean-Luc Picard, damn it! HOW CAN YOU NOPT LOVE HIM LIKE WE DO???
Well, apparently, a lot can happen in 15 years, and admirals do hold grudges after all. Granted, Admiral Kirsten Clancy wasn’t simply still seething over Picard disobeying orders and mounting a rescue mission a decade and a half earlier. She also saw his explosive interview on the holo. And she was PISSED! Heck, she even used the F-bomb. In fact, that was the third swear word to be spoken during the episode (two F’s, one S). I was so happy after episode one to see no cussing, but after episode two, I am now going to start referring to ALEX KURTZMAN as ALEX CURSE-MAN!
But I digress…
Remember that we’ve seen pissy admirals before. Can you say Nechayev? (Can you spell it?) And let’s not forget retired admiral Norah Satee from the TNG episode “The Drumhead.” So let’s not go all Gene Roddenberry and say everyone gets along perfectly with everyone else in the future. And it’s not that she didn’t believe Picard. Admiral Clancy simply didn’t want to give Jean-Luc a ship and let him gallop around the cosmos (that’s a game for the young, doctor!). But she did immediately contact Commodore Oh (speaking of “O”…anyone see the season premiere of Doctor Who?) and asked her to investigate. Granted, that’s our mole/traitor, but Clancy didn’t know that.
Anyway, in order for the rest of this series to happen, Picard needs to be on his own…without the help or authority of Starfleet. This is the true “STAR TREK: RENEGADES” that fan filmmakers imagined a half decade ago. If you don’t like that approach because you feel strongly that Star Trek needs to be about Starfleet and not rogue, retired recluses with ragamuffin recruits and random riff-raff romping righteously to restrain raging Romulan ruffians and retrieve runaway robots (well, androids actually…but alliteration always wins), then please use the nearest airlock to disembark the spacecraft.
Yes, that was the Discovery version of the original Enterprise
No, I don’t know why they felt they needed to show this shot…
…but they did. It pissed me off because I grew up loving, drawing, playing with, building models of, and dreaming about this version…
The show-runners could have avoided showing it completely…maybe showing the refit instead. But for some reason, they felt they needed to plant the canon flag. In a future blog, I am going to try to “Trexplain” how this universe can now be considered prime/canon/true Trek even if the Enterprise is all f’ed up—and I think I’ve got a workable theory.
But until then, if you’re one of those fans who sees the clip of Picard looking up and seeing the new old Enterprise from Discovery for one second and decides to flip out on Facebook and rant about how this new series has betrayed all true Star Trek fans everywhere, well, then no Trexplanation will help you, and you’ll just be miserable if you watch another minute. So I’ll see you around the galaxy because I’m staying on board.
As I said, the chess pieces of Star Trek: Picard are now being moved across the chess board and getting strategically placed…including these four errant “knights” I’ve just listed. And I think it’s going to be an intriguing game to watch and experience. We just have to wait for more moves from the players.
If, like me, you don’t want the game to end, then accept what’s being presented to us, enjoy the ride, and let’s see where Picard takes us. Engage!