THE SPOILERS’ BACK IN TOWN…SPOILERS’ BACK IN TOWN
I really don’t understand the folks out there who are trying so hard to convince others (or maybe just themselves) that STAR TREK: PICARD isn’t a good show. I mean, the critics certainly love it (and by those I mean the trusted sci-fi critics who provide reviews—rather than just recpas—at places like DenOfGeek, IndieWire, IGN, Space.com, TrekMovie, Escapist, and many others). And numerous fans on Facebook certainly love the show, too. Granted, not everyone is giving it perfect 10’s each time out, but the general consensus seems to be extremely positive as people are enjoying what they see.
And then there are the detractors. There always seem to be detractors.
I’ve personally written more than fifteen thousand words over the last month and a half very specifically explaining why the show is so good (minus the blog about the swearing). So that’s quite the wall to climb in trying to convince me that I, the critics, and an endless parade of fans on Facebook and elsewhere have been wrong all this time. But that doesn’t stop these negative nellies from making such keen and thought-provoking arguments as the following…
Deep thinkers, I know.
I also tried watching Nerdrotic’s latest video podcast bashing the show (as he always does). However, it’s hard for me to give a critic any real credence when he can’t even pronounce the name of the episode…despite living a few hours drive from a famous restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur with the same name. Nepenthe (neh-PEN-they) has been around since 1949 overlooking the cliffs of the majestic California coastline and serving the world’s best hamburger (the ambrosiaburger) along with other culinary delights. For a person who lives in San Francisco to not have heard of Nepenthe…well, that’s just wrong. Take a drive down the coast, dude; it’s lovely!
Anyway, as I watched Gary Buechler skewer the episode on his podcast, all I could think were 1) he’s using juvenile name-calling to make a lot of his points, and 2) he’s getting donations from people while doing the skewering. If people paid me money to bash a show each week, I’d probably find a way to do it. I’m just not sure I’d trust what I had to say as objective or fair-minded. But enough about that.
I’m really trying to understand the folks who don’t think this show is good. A teensy few have written thoughtful, reasonable comments that I’ve published on previous blogs. And while I don’t agree with them, I respect their efforts to convey their thoughts clearly and civilly. But by far, most people who criticize this show just seem to fall into the following five categories…
- They went into this series looking for reasons to hate it, and so that’s what they do now—like pigs sniffing in the dirt for truffles.
- They resent CBS for making them pay for Star Trek.
- They want the “old” Star Trek and are pissed that only Seth MacFarlane is giving it to them (and now they have to pay for that, too!).
- They don’t know how to watch a show like Picard where there isn’t a constant flow of action and drama and suspense to keep them awake.
- In their mind, they picture a “perfect” Star Trek series (whatever that might be; it’s likely different for everyone), and this isn’t it.
I obviously can’t address the first four groups or their issues. If someone is determined not to like something no matter what, it’s hard to change that mindset with reason or logic. And if a person is a product of this fast-paced, thrill-a-second society we live in, then they’re not going to enjoy Picard any more than they’d enjoy other “slow” classics like Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, or Casablanca. Attention spans have just gotten too short.
But for the last group, I truly believe, there is hope yet!
Look, in a “perfect” world, none of us ever gets old, and SIR PATRICK STEWART can play Jean-Luc Picard with the same vim and vigor that he did three decades ago when he was in his 40s and 50s. In a “perfect” world, Star Trek would still be a viable franchise on network television (or one of the cable channels) and not fall victim to the same subscription-based black hole that has sucked in The Expanse, The Orville, Stranger Things, Lost in Space, The Mandalorian, Westworld, Game of Thones, all the Marvel TV stuff, Watchmen, The Boys…you get the idea. These days, decent quality sci-fi that is NOT on a subscription service is a true rarity…and Star Trek would likely suffer for it and wind up looking more like something reminiscent of The 100 on the CW.
As for episodes being slow or characters being flawed or the Federation suddenly being dystopian (not any more so than the DS9 episode where O’Brien went undercover in the Orion Syndicate, by the way) or any of a hundred different faults I’ve seen some fans decide to criticize, I think they are all making the same mistake that Jean-Luc Picard did…
THEY ALLOW THE PERFECT TO BE THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD!
It’s really that simple. Liking Picard is a choice you make…as is not liking it. What this show is presenting to us is a Star Trek unlike anything that has come before. It IS slower…on purpose. Discovery is the fast-paced, shoot-’em up Star Trek at the moment. Lower Decks will be the comedy. Section 31 will be James Bond-ish whatever thingie. Pike, if and when it happens, might (PLEASE!) be the “explore strange new worlds” Trek returned from the grave.
But Picard is the deep-thinker’s Trek, tailored for the audience that wants to (as I’ve said before) enjoy a meticulously-prepared, rich and sumptuous meal. The wine is uncorked and allowed to breathe. The meal is cooked slowly and carefully, enjoyed in a relaxed setting enhanced by friends and conversation. If you had been expecting McDonalds or microwaved mozzarella sticks, this wasn’t the dining room to walk into, folks.
I won’t lie and try to convince you that Picard is a perfect show, or even that it’s the best Star Trek series so far (that honor still belongs to Deep Space Nine, in my opinion). And even with an episode as good as “Nepenthe,” I still had my issues with it. I simply chose not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the really incredibly good. Here’s how I did it…
YEP, IT WAS SLOW AGAIN
Over the past two weeks, I predicted two things that have now come to pass (or soon will). The first was that we’d see Seven-of-Nine again—likely in the last episode or two. Turns out we won’t even have to wait that long, as it seems she’s back next week in episode 8. The other prediction, made in last week’s blog as I compared this 10-segment “super-long” episode to TNG‘s “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” I suspected that after the action at the end of episode 6 that episode 7 would be slow again before things picked up speed at the end.
But I find this slowdown in episode 7 to be more of a feature than a bug. Indeed, the word “Nepenthe” is from Homer’s Odyssey and is a drug “…to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill.” That kinda implies a chance to slow down and relax, not speed things up.
Also, the episode allowed fans to catch up with William Riker and Deanna Troi…and their daughter Kestra (named after Deanna’s older sister who drowned—and Colonel Thaddius Riker, whom Thad was likely named after, was an ancestor of Will’s who fought in the civil war and was rescued by a Q named Quinn). There was a LOT to process in this episode, and rushing things would have ruined it all. I’d rather soak in every last special moment of the Troi-Riker family’s reunion with Jean-Luc Picard. Speed things up next time.
I KNEW IT WAS GONNA BE PREDICTABLE!
In addition to those two predictions I made above, I knew that a few other things were gonna happen. For example, I knew that we’d see a flashback to Agnes Jurati’s meeting with Commodore Oh on the cliffs beside the Daystrom Institute. After all, now that we know Agnes is a plant on board the La Sirena (which I also kinda saw coming—I’m just wondering at this point whether Agnes is or isn’t an android like Soji…although one would think a Vulcan mind-meld wouldn’t work on an android), we need to discover HOW it happened. And of course, that scene also clues us in on the fact that Agnes chewed and swallowed a Romulan tracker.
Other things I saw coming were this little girl being Riker and Troi’s daughter, Riker figuring out from clues that Soji was Data’s daughter (although still a well-delivered scene), Kestra contacting her captain friend to figure out the location of Soji’s “home” (hey, they had to find out somehow), and the fact that it wasn’t the entire pizza burning.
So yeah, a few predictable scenes. It happens…and it shows I’m interested and paying attention. Too much predictability, though, and why watch it at all? But Picard hasn’t crossed that threshold.
However, we’ve also got…
A WEE BIT O’ SLOPPY WRITING
Sorry, but there were also a few places where my mind said, “nuh-uh.” There weren’t a lot of them, but they were there. The biggest was when Agnes was barfing up red velvet cake and the EMH doesn’t show up. I actually thought for a moment, “Ah! Agnes deactivated him so he couldn’t report having witnessed her killing Bruce Maddox!” But then, a couple of scenes later, Agnes injects herself with the uranium hydride, collapses, and we suddenly see the EMH appear saying, “What is the nature of your…oh, bloody hell!” (Great line, by the way…didn’t mind the swearing there!) So no, Agnes didn’t deactivate the EMH, and yet he didn’t appear when she puked. A little sloppy…the writing, I mean.
Another bit of sloppy writing—or perhaps directing—was Commodore Oh reaching to Agnes to create a mind-meld without first asking her consent. To me, and to most Vulcans, that’s the equivalent of attempted rape. Granted, Agnes does ultimately say, “Okay,” before the actual mind-meld happens. But even still, those Vulcan hands should have come forward AFTER Agnes agreed, not before. Again, a little thing…but it bothered me when I saw it.
I also felt it a bit manipulative that only a synth would have been able to have saved the Rikers’ son Thad. That was just a little too convenient and somewhat hokey. Granted, it’s not like Star Trek was never convenient or hokey before. Go back and rewatch Star Trek IV.
And finally, Picard introduces Soji to Riker by saying, “COMMANDER Riker and I served together on the USS Enterprise.” Yes, it’s true that Riker was a commander at the time, but he’s a CAPTAIN now. Riker was given command of the USS Titan at the end of Star Trek: Nemesis. I realize it would have been clunky to write the scene acknowledging that Riker WAS a commander and now he’s a captain, but I just felt a little twinge of “Oh, that’s not right” when I heard the rank. Obsessive Trekkies like me are like that. Most viewers probably didn’t even notice.
STILL NOT QUITE NAILING THE VILLAINS
Okay, first let me acknowledge a giant step forward in that there were no scenes in this episode of Narissa trying yet again to seduce her brother. Of course, they spent most of the episode light-years away from each other. However, I just don’t think either Narek or Narissa are being handled properly as villains. Narissa was given a little more depth this episode in showing her fighting skills and immediate recognition of who Elnor was and his training. But she still seems to be evil for the sake of being evil. For whatever reason, she believes synths are bad and will destroy the universe. Okay, fine. But how does that justify killing all of those ex-Borg on a whim?
Some of Star Trek‘s strongest villains were ones who didn’t see themselves as villains. They were acting in service to what they believed were greater goods—or simply selfish goods—but what they did they did with reason (even the Romulans). I feel as though Narissa does sadistic stuff just because it turns her on. As for Narek, this episode all he did was fly a ship while looking arrogant and bored…until he suddenly lost the signal. Whatever. When it comes to the villains on Picard, I’m just not feeling it yet. Perhaps that’ll change in the last three episodes.
SO WHAT MADE EPISODE 7 THE NUMBER ONE EPISODE?
Okay, I just spent four sub-sections listing all of the things that kept this episode from being “perfect” for me. And there were even a few more, like Rios suspecting Raffi instead of Agnes (seriously?) and me wondering how a mind-meld can insert visions of the future and still be trusted. So yes, definitely a far-from-perfect episode.
Yet, for me, it was the best Picard yet!
And by that, I don’t mean that the other episodes set a really low bar. They haven’t. I love this show, and in general, each episode has been even better than the last.
So what made this episode so good if it had all these imperfections? In short, everything else. It was, of course, FANtastic seeing Riker and Troi again. And their daughter Kestra was perfectly cast. The actors on this show are all (with the exception of Narek) truly top-notch. Seeing them perform is a treat, week after week. Criticize whatever else you want to about Picard, but if you’re bashing the acting, you’re just full of it. Sorry, but you are.
What made the scenes that took place on Nepenthe work so well is how many character-defining and developing things that were happening simultaneously—despite the relaxed pacing. Let’s go through them…
The people who didn’t like the Soji scenes, I suspect, didn’t really feel empathy for this character. And who among us could? We’ve all been ourselves for our entire lives. But Soji just discovered that everything she thought she knew is a lie. She’s only existed for three and a half years, she’s not human, and the person she thought loved her just tried to kill her! (And you though YOU had problems???)
Her journey in this episode is the hardest to understand of everyone. She doesn’t know whom to trust, and Picard (while a nice old man) is a stranger who might well mean her harm. His friends could just be his confederates in exploiting her. She literally doesn’t have anyone in her life that doesn’t make her feel suspicious…not even herself! Watching her slowly and gently work though all of this is actually a beautiful thing—helped along by Kestra, who acts like a not-so-little sister to ground Soji as she adjusts to her new reality.
A lot happened with Picard this episode, and if you weren’t taking it all in and soaking it up for the magnificent character exploration that was provided to you, then you missed what might well be the most pivotal and rich episode of the season.
You see, Picard IS broken…or rather, he was. Q was right, in a way, in saying that Picard was too arrogant, too cocky. He was. The great captain of the Federation’s flagship always felt himself to have an air of infallibility. Even his greatest “failure”—giving in to becoming Locutus—wasn’t truly his fault. But his failure to help the Romulans, along with his meaningless resignation, those were, quite simply, a mistake…a mistake that echoed though the rest of his life until now. The fact that Picard acknowledges that mistake and sees this “mission” to help Soji as a redemption is amazingly intuitive, but Jean-Luc has always had that introspection.
However, whereas the great Captain/Admiral Picard always seemed to have all the answers, this time he doesn’t, and he freely admits that, too. He is older now, he doesn’t have the resources he used to, and he might be in over his head. As he shares all of these doubts with Riker and Troi, Sir Patrick and the writers show us a vulnerable, fallible side to Picard that has only been glimpsed a few times in the character’s Star Trek history. Some fans are uncomfortable with that (you can tell from their Facebook comments). But to me, it’s the most fascinating and compelling part of this series. What happens when the hero lives on into old age? Kirk died in a blaze of glory, but Picard was fading quietly into that good night…until now. How does a hero face the reality that he is no longer the man he was?
RIKER AND TROI
Actors JONATHAN FRAKES and MARINA SIRTIS (and the writers) had three “jobs” they needed to do with their characters. The first was to bring the viewers “up to date” with what we’ve all missed in the lives of Will Riker and Deanna Troi, just married the last time we saw them before this. Obviously, a lot has happened. The update was done through a combination of telling us and showing us. Will and Deanna went through the worst experience imaginable for a parent, and they were obviously still affected by it. But at the same time, they had found a way to move forward, get past the darkness and despair, and find their way back to a life of happiness and light.
For anyone paying attention, this is in sharp contrast to some of the other “damaged” people on the show like Raffi, Seven-of-Nine, and even (to an extent) Picard himself. Riker and Troi and Kestra are the beacon of light to shine for the rest of them…at least as far as we viewers are concerned.
And this brings us to the other two “jobs” that Riker and Troi have to do, and here there must be a bit of a balance. First, they have to reconnect with an old and dear friend, let him know he’s safe and supported, and once again ground him in the familiar. But this also dovetails with their final and most important task: putting their friend back onto the right path because Jean-Luc isn’t the man he once was, and yet, yes he still is. Riker and Troi are there to remind him of this, both gently and somewhat firmly.
Part of this task is done together simply by having Picard back among colleagues who know and trust him, and he them, to figure out a way forward. And part of the task is done separately, with Troi playing maternal counselor, intuiting things about Picard himself, and Riker intuiting things about Soji and the situation. They make an excellent team in helping their friend. But they also give Picard one final gift before saying good-bye (perhaps forever). They share a special insight on parenting, something they both know well but Picard doesn’t. Being a parent isn’t like commanding a starship at all. And if Picard wants to connect with Soji and gain her trust, he can’t simply be the confident and commanding Captain/Admiral Picard. He also needs to be the kind, gentle, understanding father that Soji never knew.
In the end, Riker and Troi and Kestra accomplish their “mission.” They repair both Soji and Picard and get them back into space to (we assume) complete their quest and save the universe or however this ends. But the path to that place, like Nepenthe itself, wasn’t fast-paced at all. It was slow and gentle…as it had to be.
If that relaxed pacing ruined it for some, if they prefer the heart-pounding action, suspenseful music, quick cuts, and loud explosions, Discovery will be back on the air in a few more months.
But for those willing to let the wine breathe a little, the tomatoes ripen, cheese be grated, and the non-venomous bunnycorn sausage to marinate, this meal has so much to offer.