A FISTFUL OF SPOILERS!
By now, you guys know that I love the new STAR TREK: PICARD series. I’ve raved about every episode so far. And even things I didn’t like (such as the swearing or Narek’s inability to act convincingly or his incestuous sister Narissa or Commodore Oh’s unfortunate name choice) I was still able to overlook because I was enjoying everything else so much.
Not this time, folks.
Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t “hate” this episode or even really dislike it. I was simply rather underwhelmed. And I found myself annoyed by enough plot contrivances and missed opportunities that, this time, the bad outweighed the good.
Granted, my hat is completely off to ISA BRIONES, who plays her sister Sutra with a subtle, sinister sleekness signaling significant sophistication and a solid skillset. (Sorry, sometimes alliteration frantically flows through my fingers.) And of course, the rest of the cast does a solid job…but at least for this one episode, not a really great job.
And yes, I do blame director AKIVA GOLDSMAN for that. He’s just not a great director yet. Over the past ten years, he’s directed less than a dozen hours of television, and four of those were episodes of Fringe in the first two seasons. And for the next four years, he directed nothing. He directed two episodes of Discovery‘s lackluster first season (including the disappointing finale), and now he gets to direct both parts of the season finale of Picard…which is unfortunate and doesn’t bode well for next week. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Of course, if a director is given a weak script, that can also be a problem. And “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” wasn’t the best script of the season. Even though the excellent MICAEL CHABON had a hand in writing it, so too did AYELET WALDMAND and Akiva himself. Sometimes multiple writers on the same script is a boon. But sometimes, you’re only as strong as your weakest link.
So what went wrong this episode? Well, to be fair, it was a “part 1” episode, setting up the pins so that the conclusion next week can knock them all down with a strike. This means we can expect a lot of plot contrivances making sure characters are properly placed for the finale (Seven and Elnor on the Cube, Narek escaped, etc.). But there were also some “unforced errors,” as they say in baseball.
Let me tell you what bothered me the most…
It’s not like Star Trek hasn’t has its fair share of whacky, hokey space phenomena that made no sense. We’ve seen a giant green hand grab the Enterprise, Abraham Lincoln floating in space, and the first episode of TNG featured giant space jellyfish!
But who designs giant space orchids to bring down hostile ships? And why??? I mean, seriously, why? Something so powerful is terrifying. Why make it look like a pretty flower? Confuse them with irony? To put a fear of florists into the mind of your enemy? They were out of crouching tigers and hidden dragons in the digital skin store? I just don’t get it.
And unless they explain the reason the synths designed their weapons with a lovely floral motif in next episode, I am going to wonder about these gosh darn orchid torpedoes until my last day on Earth!
TAKE YOUR TIME, WHY DONTCHA?
So the clock is ticking. According to Raffi, the Romulans are one, at most two days away. They can either go warn the androids—which is why they came here, right?—or else look for survivors in the crashed Borg Cube…hours away in the other direction! I mean, just take a look at that screen cap above, that is gonna be one loooooong hike (’cause Jean-Luc ain’t about to sprint)! So we’re likely talking about half a day at least just walking…time that could be saved simply by splitting up and sending Soji and Picard to Synth City (there’s a Las Vegas pun in there somewhere). The script tries to explain why they stay together, but “…in case we run into any homicidal fungus…” just wasn’t very convincing.
Look, I know this was a plot contrivance that was necessary in order to move the action to show that Seven and Elnor survived the attack of the killer orchids and that the Cube is on its way back to full strength. But it just felt like a check box on the list of the things the script had to do. “Writing to the beats” is what I call it when it happens on Discovery. I don’t like it there, and I don’t like it on Picard either. It results in scenes like Seven and Jean-Luc eulogizing Hugh and…look, squirrel! That’s really what it felt like. Hugh deserved better than that, but the script needed to get to the next check box.
A WASTE OF A PERFECTLY GOOD CUBE!
And speaking of check boxes, the script needed to get the Artifact Cube from Point A (Romulan space) to Point B (wherever Picard was) but also save it for the big finale. So we just get this opening 15-second moment of excitement followed by five angry orchids, and then everyone’s on the ground. Then a quick multi-hour hike over the mountains to the Cbe wreckage, four minutes of scenes there, and then we leave Elnor and Seven on the Cube to fix it.
I mean, he’s no Scotty. Those XBs have their Borg memories and know how to fix the darned thing. So really, he’s just kinda there to cheer them on, give hugs, and tell the truth about how, when 218 warbirds show up, his sword is going to be about as useful protecting them all from the weapons bombardment from space as a table fan is at blowing away a hurricane.
I mean, Elnor COULD have come with the Squad to see the Wizard in the Emerald Yoga Spa Retreat. He could have been helpful if the androids—or Narek or homicidal fungi—decided to attack. But for the finale to work, Elnor needed to stay on the Cube so that Seven will have someone to share meaningful dialog with in the tenth episode. I get it…check box. I just didn’t like it. Try harder next time to write a more convincing reason, guys.
PLANET OF THE JOGGERS REVISITED
I’m not sure what I expected a planet of synths to be like. We really haven’t seen one since TOS’s “I, Mudd,” and that one wasn’t exactly interesting either.
The title of the episode “Et in Arcadia Ego” is taken from the name of a 17th century french painting from the Baroque period (and you know what they say: “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it!”). It translates to “Even in Arcadia, there am I”…where Arcadia was a pure, rural, idyllic life and “I” refers to death. The androids live a life of near immortality in a simple paradise, and yet even there, death is still coming for them.
Unfortunately, the introductory scene of the jogging synthetics (why do they need to exercise?), the android Tai Chi class, and all those bare bellies harkened me back to the first season TNG episode “Justice” (a.k.a. “Planet of the Joggers”)…and trust me, that is not a memory you want to invoke if you’re trying to convince fans this a good episode.
But I suppose my biggest issue was that I found the androids—with the exception of Sutra—to be rather unimpressive. Maybe the writers and Akiva were trying to capture Data’s childlike innocence, but it really just made the synths seem totally naive and helpless…which they certainly aren’t! Any of one them could kill every visitor in a hundred different ways in less than two seconds…just like Soji and Dahj did those Romulan assassins.
And having all of the other androids be so “blah” and mellow just made Sutra (played with brilliant finesse) just feel like a wolf in the fold, a ram among sheep—which doesn’t really make sense. Why would only one android have the cajones to take all the initiative? Again, check box. Sutra has to stand out as the bad guy (who thinks she’s the hero).
HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE JURATI?
I’ve asked the question before, but the writers have really created a challenge for themselves in making Agnes Jurati not only the “Judas” of the story but also a cold-blooded murderer. And one would think the androids might be a little more pissed off at her for killing their “father” (although, remember, no emotions…except Sutra for some reason).
And yet, the writers really can’t seem to bring Agnes to justice or even make her less than adorable in nearly every scene. Only Data’s long-lost brother (no, not Lore…but really, just how big IS that family???), Dr. Altan Inigo (A.I.) Soong, bothers to scold her—“shame on you!” (for committing cold-blooded murder)—and even then, it’s only to get her to help him put his mind into a synth body. Can you say…check box?
SO ANDROIDS CAN MIND MELD NOW?
We know that Data was able to learn to do a Vulcan nerve pinch, but a mind-meld? Isn’t the reason those things work for Vulcans is that they’re telepathic? That doesn’t seem to be something someone who isn’t telepathic could just learn, or else we would have seen many humans able to do it, too. But only one ever did, and she was born a telepath (Dr. Miranda Jones from TOS’s “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”). So I’m dubious of Sutra being able to learn to do it…or if she could, then why not just augment or reprogram the rest of the yoga spa tribe to do it, too? But hey, check box.
DEUS EST MACHINA
Don’t I mean Deus EX Machina (“god from the machine”)? No, I mean Deus EST Machina because, in this case, God IS the machine(s). And these machines, who can seemingly do anything, live outside of time and space watching us (like the Prophets from DS9 or the Organians from TOS or the Q—um, been there, done that…multiple times), and they’re just waiting for Commissioner Android to turn on the Synth Signal and call for help from the United Federation of Artificial Intelligences?
What this does is to introduce a very UN-interesting finale plot point: the ol’ “We can’t let them turn on that machine and do the BAD thing!” We’ve seen it multiple times before: in fact, the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th Star Trek movies had some version of the “racing to stop the MacGuffin from being activated” grand climax. For that matter, so did the finales of Voyager, the Xindi season of Enterprise, and season two of Discovery.
Sure, it’s exciting to see the pulse-pounding race against time, but it’s not very original. And because of that, the only plot element you can pump up is the destruction factor…and what’s scarier than the eradication of all sentient organic life in the universe? Of course, any race powerful enough to do such a thing (and with these uber-synths, EAGER to do such a thing!) likely wouldn’t be sitting around waiting for a signal to hit the “delete” key on their biggest threat. By all logic, we organics should already have been wiped out long ago.
Look, it’s not that I’m expecting the worst in episode ten just yet. The writers and producers might yet surprise me. But if I got on this Picard train just to be taken to the same “We can’t let them turn on that machine and do the BAD thing!” station I’ve already been to dozens of times before, I am going to be sorely disappointed when I write next week’s blog.
(DON’T) LET NAREK BE NAREK!
Narek has got to be the weakest link in this entire series. While the rest of the cast turns in the most brilliant performances week in and week out (even with a mediocre director like Goldsman), HARRY TREADAWAY’s portrayal of Narek leaves almost everything to be desired. Maybe the writers just didn’t give him enough to work with…although the opposite was true of PAYTON LIST, the actress playing Narek’s seductive sister Narissa. Apparently, her part was originally going to be much smaller, but the creators were so impressed by her performances in scene after scene that they wrote more and more for Narissa to do.
Narek, on the other hand, just seems to deliver his lines without much of, well, anything. Trying to convince Soji that he actually loves her this episode was pathetic. I mean, he just tried to kill her…twice (once on the Cube and once in orbit of the synth world). And of course she didn’t believe him, and neither did we.
But this means that, if the next episode shows Narek having a sudden change of heart and trying to save Soji, it’ll ring as hollow and unconvincing as his performance. We won’t buy what they’re selling. And if Narek doesn’t have this epiphany of conscience and love, then what a waste of time it’s been watching him this entire season.
I’m not certain if a better actor could have been more convincing in making us believe there was real love there. There just might not have been enough time to develop the character and his relationship with Soji. And also, a Borg Cube Artifact filled with Nazi-like Romulans and creepy XBs doesn’t really set a romantic mood…even if you do find a way to go ice skating.
Whatever. I won’t miss Narek if he meets his final fate next week.
ANDROIDS AIN’T THE BRIGHTEST BULBS IN THE CHANDELIER, IS THEY?
A five ounce bird cannot carry a one pound coconut! That’s a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I think it applies here. At the end of the episode, we see the android Saga stabbed through the eye with that crystal bird necklace thingie.
So a couple of things to unpack here…
First, I thought Soong androids were made of sterner stuff than that. Even a human wouldn’t be felled by such a stab in the eye…only half-blinded. So Saga should have been able to get up and tell everyone that it was really Sutra who stabbed her (don’t tell me you didn’t already know that!)….unless the crystal critically short-circuited her positronic brain in some way, a technique that would be unknown to a random Romulan. Also, she can’t be repaired and rebooted? She’s an android, guys!
Second, androids have lightning reflexes. Just as a small laden swallow couldn’t possibly lift a huge coconut, let alone fly it at air speed velocity, so too would it have been impossible for Narek to get the drop on Saga…or any synth for that matter.
Data always had a penchant for playing Sherlock Holmes and trying to solve mysteries. Apparently, at least in this case, the positronic apples have fallen quite far from the synthetic tree, as these androids don’t seem the least bit curious about the clues and irregularities surrounding the murder of their sister. Again, I’m less than impressed with these synths. But the box of setting in motion Sutra’s nefarious plan has been checked.
AND SPEAKING OF NO-BRAINERS…
Although brilliantly played by BRENT SPINER, this newest hit Soong is so obviously up to something that I almost feel insulted as a viewer. Maybe the writers and director didn’t want his nefarious machinations (get it?) to be a surprise in the final episode. But I would have appreciated at least a little head fake…as I did the two head fakes in episode eight (immediately spacing the Borg drones and Picard not knowing how to fly the ship). Who knows? Maybe Altan Soong isn’t a villain. But c’mon, we all know he is.
Honestly, though, nine episodes in, did we really need another villain or two (Soong and Sutra)? Weren’t Oh, Narissa, and Narek enough? For a show that began with so few characters, the swimming pool has certainly gotten crowded!
By the way, what is it with CBS and never-before-mentioned family members? First we had the revelation that Spock grew up with a never-spoken-of-before adopted human sister. Now we have Dr. Noonian Soong’s human son whom Data never talked about or even tried to reconnect with. Not dealing with that inconsistency (which could have been done easily by having Altan Soong explain to Picard how he’d erased his identity from Data’s mind for whatever reason) was just lazy and/or sloppy writing.
When Discovery‘s writers/directors get sloppy and miss the obvious, I point it out. So fair is fair when the same thing happens with Picard…
- A few episodes ago, Soji remembers her home world as having two red moons and almost constant lightning storms. Did you see the lightning? There was one lighting bolt in the entire episode (scroll up to the third screen capture on this blog page). At least TRY to be internally consistent, folks.
- Why create two more androids who look just like Sutra just without the glitter skin? Why not a new face? And if natural skin tone is now possible for synths like Dahj and Soji, why not just cover all the old models in that material and let them hide in plain sight in the Federation and elsewhere rather than keeping all the targets in one convenient place to shoot at?
- Why do we see Data’s face and a Starfleet symbol in the 200-century-old Admonition message? If the outside-of-time-and space synths knew what would be coming, why do they need a “come now” signal?
SO…WAS THERE ANYTHING I DID LIKE?
As a matter of fact, yes, there was! In fact, despite my complaints, I still enjoyed the episode. It was the weakest so far but still pretty good! I just like to kvetch when it’s justified. But I do give credit where it’s due.
In addition to masterful acting this episode by Isa Briones and Brent Spiner, SIR PATRICK STEWART once again gave us some of the best Picard-defining scenes. I won’t spend much time on them (’cause it’s another looooong blog), but I loved the following scenes…
- Picard shares with the squad that he has a terminal brain disease. He does so with composure and dignity, as one would expect.
- Picard contacts Starfleet (or tries to) with excitement over a first contact situation and a request for diplomatic relations and protection. His mood is as much true excitement as him trying to work the system. Starfleet used to LOVE first contacts. But would they really allow themselves to define the synths as a new life and a new civilization (despite the ruling in “The Measure of a Man”)? I’m intrigued to see how much of the finale deals with that question.
- Raffi tells Picard that she loves him, and he awkwardly tells her the same in return. It’s actually a big moment. But compare it to Picard with Riker and Troi. They both love him, too, but they’ve known him long enough that they don’t need to say it to him—or in Troi’s case, hear it from him, since she can feel it empathetically anyway.
- Picard’s final, desperate speech trying to calm the synths ends with, “And the Federation will listen to me!” And I thought to myself, “No, they won’t.” And just as I’m thinking it here, Soong says it there. It’s a sobering moment to realize that Picard is no longer taken seriously. Like the Borg Cube, he is an artifact…once powerful but now all but irrelevant. Or is he?
We shall see how much changes for both the Borg Cube and for Jean-Luc Picard in the season one finale. And even though this episode didn’t wow me as much as the others, I’m still loving the show overall and looking forward to seeing how they wrap this all up.
Seeya next week!