OODLES AND OODLES AND OODLES OF SPOILERS!!!
Who remembers “The Naked Now”? Thirty-two and a half years ago (!!!), it was the second episode of the The Next Generation to air. While it wasn’t the worst episode ever (that would be “The Royale,” in my opinion), it definitely wasn’t the best. At a time when the main characters of TNG were just being introduced to audiences and still making first impressions, they were each reduced to comedic caricatures—Yar throwing herself at Data, Beverly and Picard throwing themselves at each other, Wesley taking over engineering…sheesh, even Data got goofy! Two episodes in, and they’re doing comedy???
That was the mental image I had before watching this past Thursday’s fifth episode of STAR TREK: PICARD, “Stardust City Rag.” The trailer showed what looked like a modern day version of TOS’s “A Piece of the Action” or DS9‘s “Badda Bing, Badda-Bang“—complete with characters dressing up for some kinda heist from dangerous-looking gangsters or something. Even the sneak-peek preview scene from the end of the previous week’s THE READY ROOM showed a comedic vignette of annoying holo-spam ads popping up all over the bridge, requiring the gallant crew to do something physical to get rid of each one.
I was NOT expecting to like this episode.
So imagine my ecstatic surprise when “Stardust City Rag” turned out to be the strongest and most enjoyable episode of Picard thus far…at least for me (and many other reviewers, as it turned out).
What happened to make this episode so good…?
CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
Writer KIRSTEN BEYER, the co-creator and one of the 47 executive producers of the show, knows her Star Trek. An author of several Voyager novels and some of the IDW Trek comic books, Beyer also wrote a couple of the strongest Discovery episodes along with the last of the Short Treks, “Children of Mars.”
I’ll get more into some of the specific things Kirsten did to make this episode work so well as I go through the blog, but in general, this simply “felt” like a Star Trek episode—granted, one that starts out with an overly-disgusting shot of a character having his eyeball slowly pulled out. That’s one of those scenes that makes even fans of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones start to wretch and go, “Did you REALLY need to show us that???” And considering how much I kvetched about swear words last week, I shouldn’t really give a pass to such unnecessary gore. But I will say that it immediately helped to make the revulsion and disgust for these bad guys visceral for the audience…giving some justification to Seven-of-Nine’s ultimate decision at the end of the episode.
But leaving aside that one questionable scene, I have to admit that I didn’t find any other scene in the episode to be problematic…not even the aforementioned holo-spam ads that literally popped up. Even the little nods to Star Trek and David Bowie were appreciated by this aging child of the 1970s.
(Wait…Bowie? Yep, David Bowie—a.k.a. Ziggy STARDUST—the artist who recorded a little ditty titled Space Oddity about a junkie, er, astronaut named Major Tom. When first released in 1969, the B-side of the record featured a song titled Wild Eyed Boy from FREECLOUD. Pretty cool, huh? Oh, and the planet where Icheb died, VERGESSEN, is German for “forgotten.” And it’s in the HYPATHIA system. Hypathia was a female astronomer who was murdered in Alexandria in 415 A.D. when a mob ripped out her eyes and tore her body into pieces…just like Icheb. The egg hunt is on, my friends!)
As for the Star Trek easter eggs, while I tend to find them clunkily inserted in Discovery episodes, here I found them artfully and tastefully included—and rather fun. The first, of course, was Bruce Maddox being drugged with Tranya (the beverage Balok offers Kirk at the end of “The Corbomite Maneuver). We also got a reference to the Breen. Then there’s this establishing shot of Stardust (Universal) City…
Starting on the left, of course there’s a sign advertising Dabo Tables; this is the 24th century equivalent to Las Vegas, after all! (What happens on Freecloud stays on Freecloud, am I right?) Across the street, however, we see that Mr. Quark from Ferenginar—mentioned by name later in the episode—has left Deep Space Nine for what seems like the perfect spot. And read the sign just to the right of Quark’s bar: “What is yours is ours.” Indeed! Oh, and apparently Mr. Mott, the Bolian hairstylist from the Enterprise-D, has also wound up with a Hair Emporium on Freecloud. So everybody wins, yes?
As I said, I’ll go into more specifics about the episode shortly, but I would like to point out one important detail that you might have missed. In a properly composed script, you try not to bring in any plot contrivance out of thin air because that’s cheating. Whatever “tool” the writer is going to use later to advance the story should be shown to be in the tool box earlier in the script. What I’m referring to is the scene at the end with the EMH witnessing Agnes Jurati’s murder of Maddox. (I did tell you there’d be spoilers!) Now, I expect that in an upcoming episode, the EMH will spill the beans—revealing Agnes to be a femme fatale—or else she’ll try to reprogram him or erase this memory recording, and something will go wrong, allowing the crew to follow the clues to Agnes’ misdeed.
But in order to have the EMH witness the crime, he has to spontaneously activate. Well, thanks to proper writing, that contrivance was already established earlier in the episode. When a member of the crew gets severely agitated, throwing his or her vitals out of whack, the EMH spontaneously appears with a “What is the nature of your psychiatric emergency?” So the tool was shown to be in the tool box, and thus when Agnes got all nervous about murdering her significant other, the EMH appears and we viewers all think, “Oh, yeah…he does that.”
Okay, let’s move on…
GREAT ACTORS AND A GREAT DIRECTOR
I’m not sure everyone understands how really, really good all of these actors are. And because there were no scenes on the Romulan Borg Cube Artifact—and honestly, folks, I didn’t miss it—we were spared the weakest two characters on the show, Narek and his ever-lovin’ sister Narissa. What this left us with were the strongest members of the cast—in addition to Sir Patrick himself—all of whom have been developed just a little so far (except for Seven, who hadn’t been developed yet…although she had four years on Voyager for that), leaving ample opportunity for more development. And each of these actors provided wonderful scenes that really showed us both their characters’ strengths and vulnerabilities. I enjoyed seeing all of their stories unfold this time.
And of course, I can’t leave out our Number One director, JONATHAN FRAKES. This was the second episode (in a row) of Picard that he directed, and let’s face it, Frakes knows Star Trek—having played William Riker in 181 TNG episodes (plus an episode of DS9 and one of Enterprise) and four feature films…and directed 21 episodes of various Trek series (including Discovery) and two of the TNG movies. And while last episode didn’t feel like a typical TNG episode, “Stardust City Rag” had a definite Next Gen vibe.
Well, to start with, this was our first real “away team” mission. But there was a more important element in play. In season three of TNG, the late MICHAEL PILLER took over as executive producer and gave the writers a new prime directive: each story had to be about a character. Sure, things could still happen, but they had to happen to someone or because of someone—whether it be Picard, Data, Troi, Worf, whomever. And in season three, that’s when TNG turned the corner from being a decent show to a really great show.
Usually, TNG would only focus on one or two main characters per episode. Maybe Riker or Beverly would be the A-story and Geordi would get the B-story, but seldom would all the main characters get to develop or shine in the same episode. Fast forward to “Stardust City Rag,” and we have an episode that is all about the characters. Sure, things happen; there’s a mission and action and intrigue. And there’s a LOT of puzzle pieces included to continue the ongoing story arc. But co-existing with all of those plot elements and tantalizing clues to the larger mystery are some very human (and Romulan and former Borg) scenes. But unlike TNG, this episode did something a little more ambitious. Instead of simply spotlighting one or two or three characters, this episode gave “moments” to all of them—along with some really meaty development opportunities.
Let’s take a look, character by character, how it all worked out…
PICARD AS ZEE FRANCHMAN
Not since James T. Kirk told Scotty to “…locate the man on the other end of the blower and give him a ride to this flop,” or Kathryn Janeway seduced Dr. Chaotica, have we fans seen a starship captain so ham it up in order to save the day. And Picard’s performance as a British actor playing a French national who has a British accent trying to sound like an over-the-top French bounty hunter with a ridiculous accent (got all that?) could have gone so wrong…were it not SIR PATRICK STEWART! Somehow, Sir Patrick keeps the schtick from flying off the rails and instead makes it a rare treat.
As I commented in some of my earliest Picard blogs, the first few episodes featured Jean-Luc in nearly every scene. That’s understandable on two levels. First, the show is named after the character…duh! And second, the first couple of episodes had only introduced a limited number of characters, most with a connection to Picard. But now the cast has grown considerably, and also, by necessity, some scenes needed to take place without Picard’s direct knowledge—such as Raffi’s encounter with her son, Seven’s revenge, and Agnes’ murder of Maddox. But other scenes were also sans Picard, giving the characters a chance to define themselves in other ways than simply their relationships to Jean-Luc.
One of those scenes was Raffi talking to Rios about Seven. The brief conversation provided comfortable exposition for any newbie viewer not familiar with Seven’s history…plus it added in the important fact that Picard himself was once a Borg—which hadn’t really been touched on up until now. Indeed, when Rios says, “And I managed to forget that Picard used to be Borg, too…must have happily blocked it out…” I had to admit: I’d managed to forget, too! I mean, I remembered, but I’d sorta filed it away in an unused part of my brain as I thought about all of the other fascinating things we know about this amazing character. So like Rios, I appreciated the reminder.
And speaking of Seven-of-Nine…
SEVEN, THE EX-BORG FENRIS RANGER FROM THE DELTA QUADRANT
We had been promised a JERI RYAN appearance as Seven-of-Nine in the first trailer for the show, but we mostly figured she’d be a quick cameo…like Brent Spiner as Data. Instead, we got her for a full episode (plus one short scene). And honestly, I don’t think this will be the last we see of her. In fact, I predict a return of Seven (thanks to her leaving Picard a calling card) likely in the last episode(s) of the season. And I will add to that prediction that something will happen to help Seven heal herself and mark the growth by returning to her human name of Annika. But we’ll see.
There’s a lot fo damaged people on this show—Picard himself (regrets, waiting to die), Rios (loss of faith), Raffi (addiction), Elnor (abandonment)…even the Federation is damaged (fear and paranoia) and the Romulans (betrayal and anger). But none seem to be so damaged as Seven-of-Nine. Her life, which had seemed so hopeful after the Voyager finale, has turned tragically dark…even if she is trying to help people.
And that provides perhaps the most fascinating and powerful scene of this not-so-comedic-after-all episode: Seven’s final conversation with Picard. They have both been Borg. Allegorically, they are both rape victims who survived but will never be the same. However, Picard has turned a corner that Seven hasn’t reached yet. Watch the scene closely—Picard isn’t fooled. His expression when he sees Seven take the two phasers is one of resignation. He knows what she is about to do, and he isn’t stopping her. He understands her need for revenge. Picard already faced that moment when he broke his little ships in First Contact. Seven hasn’t gotten there yet and still carries the pain. She’s still hunting her white whale. The hope is that she’ll somehow find a way to move beyond it.
WATCH OUT—‘CAUSE RAFFI IS ONE BAD MOTHER
This show is playing the long game, and even though Raffi had little screen time this episode (hers was the B-story), her scenes were not wasted…even though she herself has been wasted quite often. (Sorry, bad drug pun.) But she’s clean now—or is she? Did you notice in that “annoying” holo-spam scene that all of the ads seem to key in to something personal about the viewer? Rio the pilot has a need for speed, so the “Red Bolian” offers to upgrade his engine efficiency. Picard is invited for a cup of tea at the Freecloud Grand Hotel. Agnes, a robotics specialist, is told they’re hiring at the Freecloud Institute of Entertainment Robotics. And what is Raffi shown? It’s an ad for Feely’s Venom Garden…a place for junkies to get high, methinks! Addiction is a disease that cannot be cured, only controlled.
Anyway, the scene with her son helps develop Raffi’s character a little more, but it also opens up some mysteries to the audience. Raffi suspects that the Synth attack on Mars was actually engineered by the Conclave of Eight? Who the heck are they??? This is the mark of good writing, just when the audience thinks they’re starting to figure things out, to shake things up and introduce new mysteries along the way to keep things interesting…color me intrigued!
Oh, and let’s take a moment to appreciate MICHELLE HURD’S amazingly pained performance trying to reach out to her estranged son. That level of emotional depth and vulnerability is beyond the capabilities of many, many actors. What Michelle did there was extraordinary, and we viewers are being given the gift of this incredible actress each week.
LET ELNOR BE ELNOR
Speaking of those holo-ads, Elnor didn’t get one. Why not? Probably because he had no secret desire (or any desire) that could be read. Or maybe the system simply scanned their files…and Elnor had none. Either way, it was both amusing and intriguing when that moment happened.
Having only been introduced one episode before, Elnor still has a lot of room to develop. And while he said little this episode—and his few lines were mostly light and comedic (a refreshing change after the decapitation that introduced him)—we still got some better definition of his character, as well. Quite simply, Elnor doesn’t know how to lie or pretend. He wears he heart and brain both on his sleeve because he’s never known any other way than absolute candor. It’s fascinating! And while it’s probably a little bit of a reach for me to say this, I see a lot of Data in Elnor. I wonder if Picard does, as well. Do you?
HIS NAME IS RIOS AND HE DANCES IN HIS HAT
This blog is getting long, so I won’t spend too much time on Rios…although I could! What I noticed particularly toward the end is that “Captain” Rios is definitely beginning to let Picard give the commands on board. It’s an interesting dynamic. Granted, the customer is always right. And despite there being no money in the future (yeah, right), Picard’s winery must be raking in the latinum hand over double-fist because Rios just doubled his fee and Picard doesn’t blink. Also, one of the best comedic lines of this not-as-comedic-as-I-thought-it’d-be episode was Raffi’s admonition to Rios, “You can’t do your broody, existentialist spaceman routine.” Interestingly enough, that’s the way Picard’s character started on TNG over three decades ago. Think about it.
And did I notice a possible romantic sumthin’-sumthin’ developing between Rios and Agnes? If so, judging by the final fate of Bruce Maddox, Rios might want to think twice before swiping right on this particular Tinder match. That said, let’s move onto the “lovely” Dr. Jurati…
AGNES JURATI IS A REAL PILL
Actress ALISON PILL began playing Dr. Agnes Jurati as a quirky, somewhat hesitant, and insecure bookworm. She was your quintessential mild-mannered scientist character who isn’t expected to be the action hero and can double as the audience’s “point-of-view” character who can ask for explanations of stuff. And by explaining to her, the writers have a tool for explaining to us viewers.
But there’s something about Agnes. (Man, that should have been my sub-head! Oh, well…)
Fans have been theorizing for weeks about this character. After all, she gets a visit from Picard out of the blue, then she gets a visit from the creepy Commodore Oh (I still can’t type that without thinking of two dozen different puns!), and by the end of episode 3, she’s inviting herself on Picard’s quest. Spy much?
Also, what exactly does Agnes know, how does she know it, and why is it so troubling to her? Again, another fresh mystery…although I suspect it has to do with Soji being this Great Destroyer thingie. We’ll know in the next five weeks.
Then, of course, there’s the theory that Agnes herself is one of Dr. Maddox’s perfectly imperfect synths. After all, she can even fool an EMH with vital signs that get all out of whack when she panics. Either way—human or android (agnoid?)—this character just became a lot more fascinating. And thank you, writers, for not waiting too long to 1) reveal the “true” Agnes, and 2) surprise us by killing off Maddox just as we find him. Neither plot twist was expected.
AND WHAT ABOUT THOSE VILLAINS?
With this blog now more than 3,000 words, I can’t spare much time on the villains, Bjayzl and Mr. Vup. But again, they deserve more commentary. All I’ll say is that I did a double-take when I first saw Bjayzl, as Persian actress NECAR ZADEGAN looked like a taller MARINA SIRTIS from three decades ago! That said, I felt the character was a little too arrogantly sinister…much like the Romulan Narissa. This show is struggling to take its female villains compelling beyond coming off as sex-starved, sadistic, and/or simply cold and calculating. Some definite work needs to happen there.
On the other hand, Mr. Vup was fifty shades of awesome. And if you haven’t watched this week’s READY ROOM yet, skip to the 20:35 mark and check out the meticulous work that went into the make-up of the first-ever Beta Annari sapient reptiloid to appear in Star Trek. The character wowed me on so many levels and shows how hard the creators of this show are working to make it something really amazing.