|Title:||Star Trek: Picard|
Ever since I published my "Picard preview" before the series premiere of Star Trek: Picard people have been asking me for my post-viewing opinions of the series. So, in brief:
The best thing I can say about this series is that I watched it all the way to the season finale. Many recent series, including many that are quite popular and/or acclaimed, I've given up on after only a few episodes. Honestly, I'm getting too old for screenwriters blindly following tired formulas, offering nothing new. In Picard I found the setup and the concept intriguing enough to follow it all the way through, wanting to see where they would take it. Throughout most of the season, I was ready to hand them 2.5 stars if only they had wrapped it up in a coherent way. Unfortunately: no such luck. The finale was a hot mess and got them down to just 2 stars.
Given that the finale undermined pretty much everything that was set up in the first episode, and that between the pilot and the finale pretty much nothing happened, taken as a whole perhaps the series deserves far less, maybe as low as half a star, but I think that Akiva Goldsman, who is credited as one of the creators, producers, writers and directors on the series, would have seen the poetry in the two-star choice. The man's entire career has revolved around film and TV projects that are so completely, to the inch, middle-of-the-road productions, safe, personality-less, making no statement whatsoever and leaving no impact. He would have been delighted at the symmetry of receiving two stars out of four.
The other good thing I can say about this series is: Patrick Stewart. Sir Patrick Stewart is one fine actor. I've loved him in everything that I've seen him perform, from his quirky blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in L.A. Story (1991) to his sinister turn in Conspiracy Theory (1997) [almost 20 years before Green Room (2015)]. I recommend, in particular, his unexpected appearance in the Israeli movie Hunting Elephants (2013), where his acting blends in so well in the ensemble that one cannot possibly tell that this is a Hollywood A-lister who is literally slumming it in a small-budget local production. (I regret to say, I haven't had the pleasure of experiencing Stewart live on stage. I really wanted to see him acting opposite his bestie Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot, but unfortunately had to settle on seeing the fantastic McKellen play the part with another partner.)
Anyway, Stewart does here his level best with completely nothing to work with. The script sounds like it was written by an A.I. who was fed, as the character description for the titular Picard the single word "empathetic".
Elsewhere, the situation is significantly more grim. Star Trek: Picard is uneven in tone, uneven in writing, and almost completely lacking in plot.
There's a semi-decent setup on the first episode, but if you haven't seen the series yet, my advice is to jump from there onto the semi-last episode. You won't have missed a thing.
Or you can just give the whole thing a miss, and enjoy the image in your mind of what could have been.
I'd really like to be more specific, but for that...
Warning: Beyond this point, this review contains major spoilers for Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard, up to and including a detailed description of the season's climax and its resolution.
I don't know what it is, but in recent years I find myself again and again rooting for the bad guys. The good guys increasingly seem to me to be a reckless, stupid and dangerous bunch. Here, this is obvious even from the CliffsNotes of the story:
Androids go on a massive-scale killing spree on Mars. We learn fairly early on that this is because they've been hacked, but the Federation doesn't know that. Nevertheless, it does the smart thing and bans them. Picard is furious, but when the Federation doesn't listen to him, he quits Starfleet in protest.
Later on, we learn that both for the original hack and for subtly engineering Starfleet's response to it one should thank the Romulans, who have long banned all forms of artificial life, believing that they are dangerous.
Skipping to the end: we learn that the Romulans were right. There is a sinister force lurking in the shadows that has planted a mental time-bomb, spreading like a virus, hacking its way from mind to mind until it finds the mind of an android and causes that android to literally and instantly kill all life in the galaxy. (Why "the galaxy", you ask? I don't think the screenwriters ever heard of the "local group".)
Interestingly, a point that is completely unexplored by the series is that this virus travels through biological minds, both human and Romulan, in order to reach its target, and in the process hacks those minds, too, causing them not only to transmit the virus but also related homicidal behaviour. It is unclear what the Federation needs to ban in order to protect themselves from this form of mental attack. For safety, I suggest to shelter at home and not use Vulcan mind-melds until a vaccine is found.
Picard and his fellow reckless followers are, throughout all this, fighting the Romulans, the Federation and others, vowing to protect the androids' rights to kill the entire galactic civilisation. Why? I'm not sure.
To explain Star Trek: Picard adequately, I need to take a step back and explain how TV works -- or at least how I think it works. You see, there are the people who are credited as series creators. They come up with the concept, the plot, the characters, the themes, the tone, the designs, the world-building, the pacing -- you name it. But then they leave. In some series, they leave directly after the pilot episode. Sometimes they stay a bit longer. Sometimes -- as long as a season. But if you keep track of who the writers and directors are of TV episodes, you'll note that almost without exception, they don't stick around for very long. And when "The A Team" leaves, they are replaced by "The B Team".
The B Team are people who do not know how to create any of the above. They work with what they've been given. They work on the premise that the audience is already hooked, and that, ultimately, they tune in because they like spending time with these characters. Therefore, rule number one of being a B Team writer is "never change anything". There are no character arcs. There is no personal growth. Nobody enters, nobody leaves, nobody is born and nobody dies.
What B Team writers specialise in is "the illusion of change". This works as follows. At each episode, or otherwise when the time is ripe, pick a pair of the series' leading cast members and have them do one of the following: (1) fall in love, (2) have sex, (3) keep a secret from each other, (4) betray each other, (5) discover the secret/betrayal/other and be hurt by the other, (6) plan and/or exact revenge on the other. You can use a dice to choose which, though I think professional B-Team writers use a Magic 8-Ball. Notably, I have sorted the options here in what looks like a logical order, but they are equally likely to appear in any order on actual TV.
When you see Mulder and Scully stop chasing after FBI reports of alien abductions and, instead, Scully gets abducted herself, keeps a secret from Mulder, falls in love with Mulder, etc., you know the B Team's shift has started.
In Picard, my original worry was that the creators (of which the list is long, but originally started with Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman) -- these people are the B Team. They are famous for being the B Team. How on earth will a series look like, if all they have to start from is the character of Picard?
Turns out, that question alone would have probably been enough to get me to watch a few of the episodes. To keep this review less than Moby Dick lengthed, let me answer by looking, in bullet points, at the main things I look for in a series.
It's not even so much that the plot is slow. It's just not there. It is replaced by a set of events -- not a storyline -- that merely fulfil the tried-and-true formulas. There's a goal that is set up from the beginning, which the protagonist must pursue. The goal is split up into sub-goals, so that a major milestone is reached just at the midpoint. The fore-last episode ends with an "all is lost" cliffhanger. These are all screenwriting 101 checkpoints, but what is missing is the story: what are the reasons all this is happening? A story is not the same as the protagonists just blundering from one crisis to another. It is a sequence of events connected causally together, and that's something the B Team just can't handle.
Why? Because everything about B-Team writing is geared for actions to never have consequences. Consequences are pesky. They change things. They actually give weight to decisions, let true emotions creep in, and restrict the B Team's freedom to just keep consulting the 8-Ball. Worst case, they will even make viewers care, which, in turn, guarantees that some of them will even get upset. When you're on the B Team, you never, ever rock the boat, and so you never, ever, have any consequences.
Given that the B Team can't handle causes and effects, and given that they don't particularly care about the world-building, they just move characters heavy-handedly, like figures on a chess board. People end up being in places and doing things because the plot demands that they do, rather than because of any internal logic. The easiest tool in this toolbox is magic: just invent some random device that happens to lead to exactly the conclusion you need in order to move the plot along. This device is then never spoken of again, and any unintended consequences of ever having had it are immediately and forever ignored. Please get all the way off my back regarding consequences.
To demonstrate, here's what happens in the pilot episode of Picard:
In the first episode, we see an artificial person who (magically) does not know they are artificial (magically) being found by a Romulan attack squad (magically), who fail to kill her (magically), after which she discovers the existence of Picard (magically) and decides to find him (magically). Picard sees exactly what she is (magically) and how friendly she is (magically), and decides to help her, but the Romulan squad finds her again (magically), and this time not only kills her but erases all evidence of any of this happening (magically) except that Picard can undo their erasing (magically) and discovers (overtly magically) who she is, and (by a different magic) that there is (magically) a twin to this artificial person. Picard surmises immediately that said twin must also now be in mortal danger (magically: his Romulan housekeeper happens to know in great detail a conspiracy inside a conspiracy, kept for aeons from all but a select few Romulans in the know, immediately sees it as the only possible explanation, and for some reason has no hesitation about telling Picard all about it), and Picard decides that he must find her immediately (in an epiphany that just screams of heavy-handed magic).
All this is just the first episode, and it feels like someone check-marked all the stuff that must happen in a pilot: mystery, call to action, character introduction, establishing the goal for the quest, elevating the stakes while creating emotional attachment and leaving off just as things are getting interesting. But without anything causal linking any of the above, this isn't even screenwriting 101 -- it honestly feels like correspondence learning, or that someone picked up a "Screenwriting for Dummies" handbook.
There is no discernable additional plot from the end of the first episode to the halfway mark. At the halfway mark, Picard finally meets the twin. (She literally falls in his lap.) There's also some reshuffling regarding who is where, but all of it is without any consequences:
In a trick stolen straight from Star Wars (1977), the Romulan antagonist is about to release our protagonists' ship from a Borg cube relic but with a tracker so that they would lead the Romulans to the androids' home world. HOWEVER, this has no consequences because the ex-Borg Seven-of-Nine sacrifices herself by becoming the Borg queen and getting all ex-Borgs to stop the Romulans. HOWEVER, this has no consequences because the Romulans open the airlocks and vent all the ex-Borgs out into space. (Also, it turns out this self-sacrifice, too, has no consequences, because she can just untangle herself from the Borg and be OK again.) HOWEVER, even venting the ex-Borgs into space has no consequences, because an ex-Borg squad attacks the antagonist's bodyguards, anyway. HOWEVER, that has no consequences, because she escapes unscathed. HOWEVER, that also has no consequences, because she stays on the Borg and does not follow Picard and crew. HOWEVER, that has no consequences, because she has somebody else follow the tracker. HOWEVER, that has no consequences, because the good guys disable the tracker. HOWEVER, even that has no consequences, because the bad guys "extrapolated where they were going" so caught up with them with no problems and found their way to the androids' world. HOWEVER, even being left in the Borg cube and out of the loop on all of the above, the antagonist knew where the androids' world was, anyway, and just got there with the Borg ship, at exactly the same time.
For crying out loud: in the last episode Picard dies and that doesn't seem to have any consequences. You can have as many TV series as you want exploring just that one point, but this series doesn't actually want to ask any of the big questions. (If you really do want a TV series that explores this point, I recommend Altered Carbon (2018). I had to binge-watch the entire second season of it after seeing Picard's season finale, just to feel clean again.)
For completion, the event of Picard's death unfolds like this:
Watch it for yourself if you think I'm making any of this up.
And this is not an isolated point. The final double episode (which is where the plot picks up, essentially straight from the pilot) is just as rife with magical solutions, as though the writers didn't have an entire season in which they could have set up whatever plot device they needed for the final climax.
In fact, the protagonists are literally given (by the androids, no less) a handheld device with the property that "it fixes things", by which we mean, it can fix anything the plot demands to have fixed. This is pretty much the definition of a magical plot device.
The simple and sad truth is this: (1) This series barely has enough plot for a single double-episode, and (2) What plot exists is so ridiculously unmotivated that the characters invariably spit it out to the camera like wind-up exposition machines.
This explains why Kurtzman, in his short reign as show-runner, wanted to get onto this show all of the Discovery characters, and why Goldsman, who replaced him, did his best to cram as many Star Trek cameos as he could in, be they Next Generation or other.
But what about the original additions? Surely, there are some characters that were invented for this series? Well, there are, and to make sure we pay attention to them each of the first five episodes or so in the series does very little (except for the pilot), other than to introduce one single new character per episode. (Compare this with all other Trek series, that managed to introduce the entire cast, with all their internal dynamics, in a single pilot, with time left for a plot.)
And did it work? So well that under threat of torture I wouldn't be able to tell you the name of any one of these characters. I have to look them up in IMDb every time I need to write them in this review. Also, none of them seems to have any discernable character traits (other than all being good looking and ready, at the drop of a hat, to have sex, keep secrets, betray each other, exact revenge and all that other good stuff).
Again: the problem is consequences. Once a character has -- well -- character, that restricts what they can do. Here, instead, we can do whatever we want. For example, the character of Elnor is introduced in an episode called "Absolute Candor". His personality trait is, you guessed it, "absolute candour". It is introduced throughout the entire episode. Apparently, he was born and raised into a cult that believes in absolute candour, religiously, as their only way of life.
Here is the most that this topic and the implications get explored in the episode:
Character 1: "He believes in absolute candour." Character 2: "Sounds annoying."
The consequences this has over the entire rest of the series: none. In fact, on the very next episode Elnor is part of an undercover mission, infiltrating enemy territory by pretending to be someone he isn't. The series doesn't even stop to do a 5-second lampshading of a moral dilemma for him.
The other thing we know about Elnor is a plot point, rather than a character point. The same religious sect (magically) makes him (a) a superhero level fighter, and (b) a person who chooses to forever bind his fate with a single quest. Guess what? He immediately binds his fate with Picard, whom he hasn't seen since he was a small child, and now Picard (magically) has his own hired gun whom he can direct to do whatever he wishes.
Oh, oops. Only a few episodes later, Elnor simply decides to bind his fate to another quest. This time to save the ex-Borgs. But he forgets about that pretty quickly, too, don't worry. After all, characters can't leave the series, can they?
The ship's captain, in another example, is called Captain Rios. We know nothing about him, except that when he got the ship he accidentally superimposed all of the ship helper functions -- that are holograms of sorts -- onto his own image, and so they all now look like him, although they have radically different personalities and (for reasons never explained and which don't seem to make any sense) also different heavy accents. The engineer -- would you believe it? -- has a Scottish accent. His entire personality is summed up in the fact that he doesn't like the fact that the holograms look like him, he doesn't like the holograms at all, but for some unexplained reason doesn't do anything about it.
As a sidenote: the hologram that does the ship's piloting has either a Spanish or a South American accent (it's difficult to tell) and occasionally curses in Spanish when making manoeuvres. Why is this interesting to note? Because in the last three episodes (which were all written by Michael Chabon), suddenly, out of the blue, it turns out that Captain Rios himself is of some unspecified Latino heritage, and that he, himself, tends to curse in Spanish in times of great theme-music volume. I can only conclude that at some point somebody got confused...
One thing the B-Team does not do, by the way, is nuance. All characterisations are completely on the nose. There's actually one character who introduces himself as "Dr Altan Inigo Soong. Mad Scientist. Ha-ha." I kid you not.
(And the B-Team cares not about the mythology they are aping. "Dr Altan Inigo Soong" is presented to us as the long-lost son of the ST:TNG character Dr Noonien Soong, whose defining character trait was that he had no children, and created androids as ersatz-children...)
There are, in principle, three different types of motivations on display in Picard.
But regarding out-of-world motivations: there's an adage in writing, that if the characters care enough about something, we as viewers will end up caring about it, too. In B-Team territory, however, the purpose is not to get us to care about anything, but rather to exploit the fact that we already do care. The B Team therefore flips the script: they believe that if we care enough about something, so must the characters.
In Picard, this is a perennial problem. When the character of Seven-of-Nine meets the character of Picard for the first time, she says to him: "Picard, you owe me a spaceship" and then collapses, unconscious. As far as I know, this is the first time these characters ever met. And yet, she knows him, he knows her, there's lots of mutual respect and a great feeling of familiarity between them. None of this makes any sense in-world. They behave this way for one reason and one reason only: because we know them and have respect for them.
Perhaps the most absurd point regarding out-of-world motivation happens at the very last scene of the series. Picard has at this point fulfilled his promise to protect the android, and should at this point be heading home.
I guess we can excuse that, somehow. Maybe call it a bit of wanderlust, even though at no point was this given any foreshadowing in the plot itself.
Anyway: He stands at the bridge of the space ship he rented and surveys his new crew.
There's the doctor who specialises in synthetic life, who joined Picard's quest because her life's work was banned by the Federation. Well, now it's unbanned. Also, right below them is a planet filled with synthetic life. By all rights she should be staying. And yet, she's right there on the bridge joining Picard in his next adventure... though where they are presently heading is anyone's guess.
There's the hitchhiker who just wanted a ride to Freecloud. Why are you still here?
There's Seven-of-Nine, who actually has a job, and it isn't here. What are you doing on this bridge?
There's Elnor, who tied his sword with the fate of the ex-Borgs, who are all down in that same planet. What are you doing on the bridge?
There's the ship's captain. OK, he should be there, but only because he is being paid by Picard to do this...
But then Picard's eyes land on... Will you believe it? It's the android. "What are you doing here?" he asks her, given that the entire story was about her discovering that her life as a Starfleet... something... on the Borg ship was a lie, and how she was trying to figure out who she really is and got to this planet. Apparently, even for Picard's character having her joining his crew requires some mumbled explanation.
The point is that all these people behave the way they behave because we, the viewers, like Picard and want to spend more time with him. So, naturally, so must they. The fact that in-world they've only spent with Picard a few days, and have no connection with him is immaterial.
In fact, because we, the viewers, have spent the entire series waiting for Picard to say his famous "Engage!", so do they, despite the fact that they've never heard him say it before and couldn't possibly know he's about to say it or assign any special meaning to it. (Nor should they expect him to, because he's neither the captain nor the pilot.) But, hey, we do, so that's all right.
Guys, it doesn't work that way! Not when the characters' emotions are so completely random, fleeting and consequence free. The doctor character is the poster child for this: in every scene, her character's motivations make a sharp left turn to accommodate for the immediate need of the plot, and in every such turn we are asked to let that slide because her new choices are clearly because she is so overcome with emotions. We see her giddy with excitement, trembling with resolve, shaking with remorse, breathless with awe... but how can we possibly care about any of these things, when we know that by the next scene she will have forgotten all about it?
The worst of the worst here are the characters sacrificing themselves. Believe it or not, this happens at least five times in the series, probably more. So, as a completely representative example, let's take Elnor's decision not to follow Picard onto Nepenthe, but rather to stay on the Borg cube and cover Picard's tracks, taking on the entire Romulan army who is after him. The episode ends with him readying himself. Fade to black. And we hear his battle-cry ringing.
Very dramatic. Very Butch-and-Sundance. The audience is left somewhat puzzled, though, because this is a character that was only recently introduced, was allocated an entire episode for his introduction, did nothing interesting in the interim, and is now suddenly dead. Should we grieve for him? Do we know him well enough to care?
Don't dwell on that dilemma too long, because by the next episode he (like all others who sacrifice themselves in this series for the greater good) is back, alive and well, like Thelma and Louise whose car reached the other side of the Grand Canyon so their movie could have a sequel. Whatever emotional connection his act of sacrifice may have triggered, the consequence-free nature of the act nullifies it of any meaning. Instead of making us care more about Elnor, as the writers obviously meant for us to do, we now care much less, because we now know that these are comic-book deaths of paper-thin comic-book characters whose actions literally don't matter.
I consider myself pretty-much the ideal audience for a show with this concept: not only am I willing to watch it just because it is called Picard and stars Patrick Stewart, I am also just waiting to show it to my kids and introduce a new generation to the Star Trek universe (as I have already begun doing by showing them The Next Generation).
But I couldn't. The lack of plot caused the show to be extremely slow, which they capitalised to their advantage by playing it as "meditative" and "contemplative". In that aspect, the show is a failure, as all its contemplation never once leads to any noteworthy insight. As I already mentioned, plot-wise, this series would have all fit, in its entirety, neatly in a ST:TNG double-episode, and in said compressing would also have been forced to take itself less self-seriously, making the shallowness of its insights more forgivable.
Let me say this another way: this is not serious science fiction. It is science fiction for kids. For kids, the level of insights is quite acceptable, even good, which is precisely why I would have been happy to introduce my children to this world. But not when it takes ten episodes to make a shallow point. My kids certainly don't have the patience for it.
What is worse, however, is that this slow contemplative pace is punctuated by sudden bursts of gratuitous over-the-top action and equally sudden, equally gratuitous scenes of sex. And the action is violent, sometimes beyond any we've seen elsewhere in Trek and the sex equally unprecedented in its explicitness. And this is even before we start contemplating the profanity, which is here a constant feature, as opposed to the kid-friendly language of the other series. (I still remember how shocked I was at Picard's single utterance of "Merde!" at the end of ST:TNG's "The Last Outpost", and what weight that one word gave to the struggle of that episode.)
For heavens sake why? So you could up your rating, call yourself "dark and gritty", and lose not just the kids and other young demographic but all but the most die hard fans in the process? You can't feign seriousness, if your way to keep the audience awake is by injecting cartoonish action. Nor can intimacy be injected as a consequence-free time-filler, if you don't want to look like your writing belongs to the school of Magic 8-Balls.
Patrick Stewart himself, at 80, is clearly not built for these sudden, erratic scenes, and the script often makes sure he is just out-of-frame when they happen. When not, camera work that is sometimes borderline comic is used to replace Stewart by an obvious (and sometimes CGI) double.
One can only ask: "Why?"
Why then was the show for me mentally at the 2.5-star mark all this time? What did it do that was good enough to merit it? The answer: quite the opposite. It did things very badly, moving characters from one contrived plot-point to the next with ham-fisted awkwardness.
But when you do that, when you create so many nonsensical plot points that you have to shoot your characters through, at least for me that spells out that you are setting up something grandiose, some grand-scale climax where all these weird little bits end up being needed, like the stars magically align for our protagonists and somehow make them prevail against impossible odds.
And in a sense, I was right. There really was a grand-scale climax planned, a stand-off of five armies, no less.
But here's the rub: (1) Those plot points ended up being completely inconsequential for the final showdown, and (2) it was still a very bad showdown that made zero sense both plotwise and thematically. In the end, this was not layer upon layer of exposition, that somehow ends up having a mammoth payoff at the very last episode. It was all, throughout, magical devices that merely masqueraded as exposition, and had no purpose other than what they did when they were first introduced. That was a major let-down.
The kindest thing I can say about the season finale is that it's the only part in the entire season that seemed to remember what Jean-Luc Picard really stood for. His character, as it was fleshed out over 7 seasons of ST:TNG, was always about the same thing: "Red alert. Photon torpedoes ready. Hold your fire." Throughout seven seasons, it was almost never the case that any shots were actually fired. Though it always came to the brink of it, and escape from a violent resolution invariably seemed impossible, Picard time after time managed to think his way out of the maze, whether his were the better guns or not.
(There are exceptions to this rule, of course, such as the season 1 episode "Conspiracy", but I, personally, consider them the worst of the lot, less ST:TNG and more throwbacks to the original series. [Other people, I gather, like them for that fact exactly.] I bring this up because the forelast episode of Picard's season 1 is, in all ways that are important, an episode that tries to ape the style of the original series, completely forgetting that it is a sequel to ST:TNG. It's also, incidentally, an episode that deals, like Picard's first episode did, with an alien infiltration into Starfleet, and, unfortunately, in both cases the potential to actually discuss the implications of this, such as the vast complicitness that this requires of the rest of Starfleet, is missed entirely.)
So, there is something to be said about the fact that the screenwriters managed to get to a clash of five armies, with not a shot fired... almost.
Let's break this down, however, and see that while they clearly wanted to pull this off -- like a magician being too slow in removing the tablecloth under a set of filled wineglasses -- no part of it was really pulled off cleanly.
Recall that the driving force of the whole season is a Romulan belief that synthetic life, once it reaches a certain intelligence, invites an inevitable doom and therefore must be stopped before it reaches that threshold. And recall that this belief (a) turns out to be perfectly true, and (b) turns out to be self fulfilling: it is propagated by a mental virus that is spread from brain to brain by the process of a Vulcan mind-meld until it reaches a synthetic brain of sufficient intelligence, at which point it conveys to said brain how to destroy all life in the galaxy and convinces them to do so.
I was actually hoping this Romulan belief was a setup for a discussion of Singularity. Given that this is Science Fiction and its strength is in its ability to present and discuss Big Ideas, I was really excited when they started talking about that synthetic intelligence threshold. It was clearly an invitation to discuss Singularity with an audience that may have heard the term but never really understood what it was about.
Alas, no. Turns out, there is an ancient race of highly advanced synthetic life, which the mental virus carries a message on how to summon, which is basically just sitting and waiting for this call, so they can come in and destroy all organic life in the galaxy. The message is basically: "Sooner or later organic life tries to oppress synthetic life. When it does, call us and we'll deal with it."
So, now we have the following armies at play.
Army #1 is the advanced synthetic life. When the androids get the message and fire up their beacon, it literally opens a hole in the sky, and we see writhing tentacles trying to squeeze through it into our galaxy. But wait: didn't these people leave the message all these years ago? Did they not come from here or at least pass through here at some point? If they are so keen on destroying organic life, why did they not do it before? And if they are so advanced, why can they only get here as long as the bat signal is on? (Even if it's switched off, surely they should know the way here... no?) And lastly, if they are so darned advanced, what takes them 15 minutes to writhe their tentacles so? Can't they just push open the door and be done with it? Surely, if they can destroy an entire galaxy, they have means to get quickly from one place to another.
Army #2 is the Romulans, hell-bent on destroying the androids before they manage to summon Army #1. Remind me again why they are the bad guys? Picard seems to believe that the androids are exercising their god-given right to self-determination by destroying all organic life. I disagree.
Army #3 are the weapons created by the androids themselves to protect their planet. They are so laughably ridiculous that the writers can at least congratulate themselves on having received full marks on originality. These, I kid you not, are giant space orchids. They are designed to be magical plot devices: (1) they are able to completely and instantly incapacitate any ship, even the formidable Borg cube with zero shots fired, (2) after they incapacitate the ship, they land it completely safely on the ground so that all crew can escape unscathed but without any ability to move their ship, (3) given a second magical device, the ship can instantly be serviceable again, and (4) despite all these miracles, the androids decided to make only very, very few of these space orchids, so they are completely useless for the final battle (or else no stand-off would have been possible).
Army #4 is the ex-Borgs. Oh, there are ex-Borgs on the planet? Oh, they came specifically to take part in this fight? Sorry, we must have forgotten all about them. They take no part in the finale.
Army #5 is the Federation, coming to stop the... Romulans? Wait, what? Why? Is this not the same Federation that wisely outlawed synthetic life fearing that this, exactly, was to happen?
As explanation for what is going on here, we are being told that Picard contacted the Federation and told them that this was a "first contact situation". Like so many of the Star Trek buzzwords used in this series to remind fans that this is a Star Trek show they are watching (and we'll talk about other examples), here, too, the problem is that these words are taken completely out of context, and are meaningless in the present situation. In which way are androids that technically came from the Federation "first contact"? The Federation even acknowledged their person-like status as far back as Data (in "Measure of a Man"). What has changed? The Federation banned them years earlier, and scrapped to metal shavings any android they found; why not these? And even if this was a "First Contact" -- first contact does not confer to Starfleet the immediate obligation to protect them from all things, and it certainly doesn't void Starfleet's right to self defence. Starfleet basically said this much to Picard on the first episode. If they experienced an emotional arc somewhere in the middle, it's nowhere in the script for this series that basically followed Picard -- and he didn't have any real arc at all.
In fact, Picard's logic is so strange here that his own crew follows a different path, trying to destroy the android's beacon with hand-grenades.
However, they fail, Picard locks phasers with an entire Romulan army to stop them from attacking -- yeah, that makes no sense, either, but it gave the writers an excuse both to use the magic tool and to name-check "Picard manoeuvre" even though that, too, makes no sense in the context -- and somehow survives through this long enough for Starfleet to come in, in order to continue where he left off.
OK, so Picard now deliberately manoeuvred himself into a situation where the androids have a clear path to summon the mechanical daemons from the depths of hell, and all that will stop them is if he asks them nicely and they will just say "Ah, OK." And, indeed, that is what happens.
Like in so many other parts of the series, I suspect the writers actively congratulated themselves on such a perfect resolution. The fact is that if the first episode piggybacked heavily on our fond memories of ST:TNG's "All good things...", the last episode closes that cycle. ST:TNG was very much about Picard's command, and the final episode, "All good things..." has in its climax Picard, having travelled back in time to his very first day on the job, ordering the crew to navigate the Enterprise into a space anomaly that would surely destroy the ship and kill the entire crew. The question becomes "Will they do it?" Throughout that entire episode, Picard has been ordering the crew around with no explanation. They were clearly getting impatient with it even before the suicide command.
To make matters worse, there were times in the history of the Enterprise, where Picard was hijacked by aliens (see "Allegiance"), and in those cases Picard's first officer did not stand for it. In "Allegiance", Riker takes command away from Picard's doppelganger. So now, in "All good things...", Picard knows he can't get away from this situation by just giving an order.
So he gives a moving speech, instead, one where he harps on what we know to be true and the crew comes to believe: that he knows them better than they know themselves, and that together they can achieve more than they can at that moment possibly imagine. It is an inspiring speech, and we accept that because it rings true to us, the characters may somehow also recognise the truth of it.
In Picard, on the other hand, Picard's brilliant move has been reduced to basically saying "Please". He has known this synth for all of two days, during which he has done very little to earn her trust. When she puts down her weapon, it makes no sense, in-world or to us.
I will comment that much earlier in the episode, the character of Soong, who for some reason is a human the androids do not view as a threat, discovers that it is the synth who received the mind-meld, who is responsible for instigating all the violence up to that point, and that she convinced the other synths to join her by fabricating an easily-disprovable lie. He then goes to her, shuts her down by some magical means, and then we are supposed to forget all about that plot thread.
Let's think of it again. If he has the magical ability to shut synths down, why doesn't he use it? If he can prove to the synths their entire uprising has been manipulated, why doesn't he show them and quell it? If the synths are fearing the oppression of organic man, why do they not see Soong shutting down their leader as an act of aggression?
The answer, as is so often the case, is not in-world but out-of-world: this was the only magical mechanism the writers could think of that would ensure that the android manning the beacon is the same android the viewers have been following for a season and Picard has been in contact with for all of 48 hours.
If the beacon was manned by the leader of the revolution, with the mental virus in her head, what was Picard supposed to do, then?
Of course, this begs the question why the other androids, seeing Picard managing to convince the series's synthetic protagonist to drop her weapons, don't simply take them up from her. All other synths weren't even in on the conversation; and had they been in on it, what of it? They do not care about Picard nor about his speeches.
It's not just that the whole thing falls apart at the seams, it's that it's mind-boggling that this mess ever got the green light to begin with.
If this was the bang the writers wanted to go out with, to make us remember Picard fondly come season two, they had miscalculated badly.
PS -- One can only imagine that a few days later, long after Starfleet has packed up and went away, hopefully also after Picard has left the scene, the Romulans returned and finished what they started, this time uninterrupted. Nowhere in this entire climax and resolution do we get any reason to believe that the Romulans changed in the process any of their aeons-held beliefs about synthetic life.
So what is Picard about?
The two events that usually convey the central theme most clearly are the climax and the ending. Here, those convey very little. The climax seems to be about the question of whether genocide is a right, or, alternatively, whether genocide is an acceptable form of self-defence. You know: everyday dilemmas that audiences can connect with. The ending seems to be about how everyone who has met Picard feels an irrational need to cling to him. Though certainly the main point that the writers want us, the audience, to take away with us, it's not much of a theme. Is it?
At my most charitable, I would say that there is one theme that seems to underlie Picard and that is the theme of prejudice. The Federation is prejudiced against the Romulans. The Romulans are prejudiced against synthetic life. Everyone is prejudiced against the ex-Borgs. Repeatedly, Picard is being presented by one of said groups with a depiction of what life is for one of them, and he invariably looks at said person with wise, well-travelled eyes and tells them with fierce earnestness: "You are the true victims here", as if this was some kind of epiphany.
This theme doesn't go anywhere, of course -- the moment is forgotten a scene later -- but it's the closest Picard gets to being about anything.
Unfortunately, even at that level, this theme is a massive misfire, and this for two reasons.
First, this theme, that we should all let go of our prejudices, our mistrusts and fears, doesn't resonate with the script. It is, in fact, undermined by the story at every turn: the Federation is right to distrust the Romulans; the Romulans are right to distrust synthetic life; and if everyone fears that an ex-Borg can gain central control of all ex-Borgs and fashion them into an instant army... well, they're clearly in the right because this is indeed what happens.
Where this theme is undermined most, however, is in the climax. Getting people to get along because there's a big baddie in the sky who will kill them all if they don't is a self-defeating message. (I know it worked well for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but that was during the Cold War, when the U.S. was aspiring to become that benevolent global policeman. See that movie again today. The non-violence-through-threat-of-violence motif is positively jarring.)
Consider how much better -- at least, in view of this theme -- the ending would have worked had it gone down like this:
Picard's attempts to get the synths to stop their sky-beam fail. The advanced synthetic life come out of their wormhole and land in front of the androids. (Think "big heads".)
BIG HEADS: "Have you been oppressed by organic life?"
SYNTHS: "No, we only had one organic life-form on this planet, until recently, and he's very nice."
BIG HEADS: "Oh. You do realise this bat signal isn't a toy, right? Only use it if you really mean it."
SYNTHS: "Sorry, we just got your message that if we need you you're there, and we wanted a chance to meet with you. We've never met any synthetic life other than us. This is for everybody here a true 'first contact' situation. We'd love to know more about you!"
BIG HEADS: "Speaking of 'everybody here', are you aware you've got two armies in weapons lock right above your head?"
SYNTHS: "Oh, don't worry about those. The red ones are the Romulans. You implanted them with a brain virus that makes them go a little cuckoo. Mind fixing that?"
BIG HEADS: "Whoopsie. Consider it done."
SYNTHS: "And the blue ones are Starfleet, which is this peacekeeping force that is meant to make sure everybody plays nice with each other. You'll like them."
BIG HEADS: "Do they accept new members?"
Instead, the advanced synthetic life forms are portrayed as some chthonian monsters straight out of the Cthulhu mythos, and everybody feels very much in the right to be fearful and mistrustful of them, and prejudiced against them.
The second reason because of which I think prejudice is a misfire of a theme here has to do with what I wrote in my preview. I would have gladly given Picard an A for effort if they only introduced the idea of a Federation in decline, mired in small-minded bureaucracy and self-serving, butt-covering office politics. Instead, prejudice moves the Federation to a mental point long before its prime: remember that the basic premise of the Star Trek universe is that upon inventing the warp drive, humanity encounters alien races, at which point all differences between humans, all existing prejudices, immediately become moot and meaningless. This is followed up shortly by humanity abandoning all forms of prejudice before it becomes the centrepiece of the United Federation of Planets.
This is all stuff that happens, at latest, in the time period of Star Trek: Enterprise. By The Next Generation, it is all ancient history. Goldsman et al. are not writing here the next chapter in the history of Starfleet; they are reversing the course of history in order to speak about the sort of everyday, present-day human conflicts that B Team writers use to fill up screen time, and in the process, they fly directly in the face of Gene Roddenberry's basic concept for Star Trek, and the reason it has been resonating with audiences for decades.
Here, the writers had everything stacked in their favour: they were building upon a world meticulously constructed over decades, explored through multiple TV series and motion pictures, written about in novelisations, comics and whatnot, and fully equipped with a fan-base that has scrutinised every detail and every eventuality. (And fun fact: it is the only fan base in history to have received its own word in the dictionary, "Trekkies".)
So, all the writers had to do was not mess up the canon, and perhaps build a little on top of it, and world-building, at least, would have been a slam dunk.
Incredibly, they managed to fail at both these tasks.
To see how, one first needs to understand that a B Team writer's relationship with the world their series inhabits isn't one of understanding, certainly not any deep understanding. They are programmed to fire up the nostalgia of the viewer, or otherwise their existing relationship with that world. To that extent, Picard navigates from one cameo to the next. Viewers are reminded of concepts familiar to them: "The Stargazer", "The Picard manoeuvre", "Earl Gray, hot", "Number One", "First contact", "Vulcan mind-meld", etc., etc.. In the same vein, fans are dropped names that are familiar to them: "Utopia Planitia", "Bruce Maddox", "Hugh", "Soong", "Zephram Cochrane"; while casual fans get straight-up cameos of their favourites: beside Jean-Luc Picard himself, we get Data, Riker, Troi and Seven-of-Nine.
By comparison, here is a complete list of all crossovers from the original series in the entire seven seasons of ST:TNG. The very first episode of the series, starts with an ageing Leonard McCoy surveying the decks of the new ship to bear the name "Enterprise", the NCC-1701D. He comments that she is worthy of the name. And then he's gone. Within only a few seconds. This appearance is clearly meant as a passing-of-the-torch moment, and no one could argue that McCoy is by this shoehorned into the show. His ageing make-up makes it clear what time-point in history this is, and that McCoy is not about to become a significant element in the plot at any point.
Viewers eagerly awaiting the next cameo would then have had to wait a full three seasons for the next one, and when it came it would turn out to be a very minor character: Sarek, Spock's father, appearing in "Sarek", an episode late in ST:TNG's third season. The first major character cameo was in season five, in the double episode "Unification": Sarek returns, this time also with Spock. And then, in season 6, we have one episode with Scotty. And that's it. That's the complete list. And each one of these appearances is not a cameo but a full story in which the identity of said person is not a name-drop moment but part of a large character arc that requires our knowledge of their backstory and their character.
And ST:TNG waited three seasons before starting even those well-motivated plots, most likely for fear that they would otherwise be erroneously viewed as crutches, as though the ST:TNG cast were unable to hold their own weight. Just to give an idea of how much that is not the case: ST:TNG already had return appearances of their own cast (in the form of Tasha Yar returning in "Yesterday's Enterprise") before that first appearance by Sarek.
But the cast of Picard truly cannot hold their own weight, and they must use every crutch they can get. It is not a coincidence that the episode "Nepenthe", which is bad even on the scale of Picard (We'll talk about it), is the episode that currently has the highest rating in IMDb: it is the episode with the highest number of cameos, featuring both Riker and Troi.
But for all these cameos, Picard never sticks the landing. Not only is it because cameos are all that these are -- there are no arcs, there is no motivation, no meaning to these appearances beyond pure nostalgia -- but because even in dropping all these names, the writers show complete disregard to the material, uttering the names completely out of context and in ways that make no sense, whether to the casual fan or to anyone just stopping for a moment to think what is being said here.
I have mentioned before how Jean-Luc Picard and Seven-of-Nine are immediately familiar with each other and exhibiting much mutual respect, despite the fact that they have absolutely no prior familiarity that we are aware of. Compare that with Jean-Luc Picard's appearance in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's pilot episode. This could have been a passing-of-the-baton moment, much as the one DeForest Kelly gave ST:TNG. Instead, we are given a backstory for the relationship between Picard and Sisko (the main character of ST:DS9) that complements the individual histories we know of them, and this backstory makes Sisko utterly loathe Picard. The exchange between them is electric, energising the entire pilot.
I could go on, explaining why comparing Zephram Cochrane's crossing of the Warp barrier to the synths receiving the mental virus is a false analogy, or reiterate why Picard's use of the term "First contact" is completely out of place, or, in fact, consider most of these references in depth and find them completely out of place. Instead, let me just bring up one: Vulcan mind-meld.
The thing about Vulcan mind-meld is that it's not even a feature of ST:TNG. Like Seven-of-Nine, which came from Star Trek: Voyager, and is therefore an outlier among all ST:TNG references, so is the Vulcan mind-meld. It is a feature of Star Trek's original series, and as far as I recall it's only appearances on ST:TNG were when Sarek or Spock from the original series were on-screen. The Vulcan mind-melds were part of their cameos.
But let us, nevertheless, say that Vulcan mind-melds are part of the larger Star Trek world, so why shouldn't they appear in Picard?
Well, if you want to take them as part of that larger world, consider the basics of what that larger-world reference entails: this skill is an ancient and well-guarded skill honed for millennia by the Vulcan culture. Let me repeat: the Vulcan culture. Nobody else.
But in Picard we have a mental virus that moves from mind to mind exclusively by means of a Vulcan mind-meld, and must do so without even a single Vulcan in the series. How on earth? Well, turns out the Vulcans' estranged relatives, the Romulans, now also practice the mind-meld. (Not only was such an ability by Romulans never hinted at in any Star Trek series, there are some hints, and lots of discussions in the Star Trek expanded universe, about how Romulans explicitly rejected all such mental abilities when they split from the Vulcan line.)
But wait! There's more!
For the plot of Picard, it isn't enough for Romulans to have mind-meld abilities. You need the mental virus to reach the brain of a synth. So, now you have an android who has taught herself the Vulcan mind-meld technique. To which I say: What?! This is an android whose backstory is that she was born and raised in an isolated planet with no contact whatsoever with the outside world. How, exactly...?
Nevermind. We have already clearly spent more time on this point than the writers of the series ever had.
So, the bottom line is that the writers went through the Star Trek canon with the discernment and finesse of an elephant in a china shop. Caring for that pre-built world clearly wasn't a priority.
But what about their own world-building. What did they bring to the game?
Well, to be completely fair, as far as I am aware the "Borg reclamation project" is an invention of Picard, and if so then the world-building is not a complete vacuum. It's not Nobel-prize worthy, of course: given that the Borg were ST:TNG's main nemesis, and given that the Borg cube was destroyed in the ST:TNG's cast last outing, and given how much of Picard's life was shaped by humanity's encounter with the Borg, it would have been very surprising if they were to simply ignore it in this series. And with the Borg cube destroyed, this seemed like an expected fate for it. Nevertheless: kudos to whoever came up with this idea. It is imaginative.
It doesn't make any sense, of course... no more sense than any of the rest of the names dropped in this series, but I guess you can't ask for perfection. (The reason it makes no sense is that the Borg cube was destroyed 30 years earlier. Seeing it being examined now would be like seeing troops still looking for WMDs in Saddam Hussein's bunker today. And, of course, given that the Borg cube possessed weaponry superior to anything the federation had, it seems strange that (a) in the 30 years interval we are not seeing any developments in Starfleet armament, and (b) the reclamation project is left entirely in the hands of the Romulans. Where else, in all of Star Trek was an endeavour of even remotely similar magnitude been carried out entirely by a single species?)
Where the writers decided not to rely on name-dropping out-of-context words from canon, the situation is far more dire.
There's an old story about Scott Frank, who wrote Minority Report (2002), that Steven Spielberg, who directed the film, told him not to worry about the futurism: "If a person goes into a car, say in the script that he goes into a car. If he fires a gun, say that he fires a gun." Frank wrote it that way, and Spielberg later hired some of the world's top "futurists" in order to give the film its authentic near-future feel. The writers of Picard clearly followed the same rule, but then skipped over the part about hiring futurists.
Throughout, the series feels like it's set in the near past. On the very first episode, the retired Picard is interviewed for what is clearly a network TV station on the anniversary of a major event he was involved with, and that interview is purportedly broadcast live to... the galaxy?? Forget the fact that nobody, ever, in fifty years of Star Trek ever watched any TV, forget the fact that TV has already in our present long moved from a push model to a pull one. Can somebody explain to me the logistics of a live streaming "to the galaxy"? When we do it here, on planet earth, this will inevitably fall on someone's 3am, so isn't something that you do for events where being "live" isn't part of the appeal. It's just all so frustratingly awful. And when you paint over the awfulness by calling it "Galaxy TV" instead of network TV, you just make it more awful.
And the same continues throughout the series. People get a "call waiting" on their phones or get disconnected. (Picard's first "phone call" starts by him saying "Raffi, don't hang up!", and I think continues with him leaving a message on her answering machine.) When they throw hand-grenades, calling them "gravity grenades" does not help.
In one episode, a pre-teen at a dinner table tries to look smart by googling stuff on her cellphone under the table. I wish I was exaggerating.
To me, the worst of it was the fact that one character smokes cigarettes (which we are told are of the kind that can make you see stuff). What makes it so bad is that it shows the writers either completely didn't care or haven't done basic research about Star Trek. The show Star Trek is one of the only shows on TV ever to receive two pilots. The first pilot didn't impress the network, but they saw enough potential in the show to be convinced to give it a second chance, provided some major changes were introduced. And these were introduced in spades: the cerebral Captain Pike was replaced by the action-hero Kirk, phasers were introduced, the vast majority of the cast was replaced, and more.
But not cigarettes. Gene Roddenberry was offered a deal by a tobacco company that they would sponsor the new show if only Spock was given some "space cigarettes" to smoke. Roddenberry nixed the idea, preferring to risk the fate of the entire franchise than to give in to that one demand.
So, now we have a major character smoking, you guessed it, space cigarettes, and for some reason that didn't ring anyone's alarm bells. (For completion: another character, supposedly of South-American descent, smokes completely stereotypical Cuban-style cigars, which isn't any better.)
In short: it's a travesty, a mockery to everything that Roddenberry had tried to put on the screen in the form of a bright future where people have evolved past nonsense. It was from the get-to the most diversely-cast show on television, and later upped the ante by featuring TV's first inter-racial kiss. In Picard, on the other hand, the most diverse part of the crew is the fact that the many hologram-copies of the Captain all speak in different accents. It's simply insulting.
Don't get me wrong: I was completely on board with attempts to show humanity overshooting that bright future and landing, on the other end of it, in trouble no better than those it started with. But then they would have been different trouble. Here, the writers merely rolled back the clock to the almost-present, which I can attribute to laziness, lack of imagination, complete lack of caring, or, most probably, a combination of all three.
But I think the only way to really bring home the message of just how bad it is, is to just zoom in on a single episode and see it for a moment. For this, I'm picking the episode currently ranked number one on IMDb: Episode 7, "Nepenthe".
OK, let's start with a bit of background: so, in the first episode Picard sets on his epic quest to find this completely nondescript android. His Romulan housekeeper asks "Why don't you get Riker and the rest of the crew to join you?" and he answers (wait for it) "Because they'll say yes." With this impeccable rationale, Picard reaches, with his new ship and new crew, the derelict Borg cube. He goes on board and -- this is embarrassing even to retell -- the android girl literally falls in his lap. Literally. Now Picard is in a bit of a pickle: he and the synth are in the Borg ship, surrounded by hostile Romulan soldiers who want to capture them, while other Romulan soldiers are casting out full-speed toward the synth's homeworld, aiming to destroy it. Picard must now find a way to get off the Borg ship and somehow outpace the Romulan fleet, get to the synth's homeworld before them, and somehow be able to protect that planet against the upcoming onslaught. How should he do this? Does he have a plan (like the captain we know and love would have)? Nope. He relies purely on magic. Specifically: on the introduction of a magical device that allows him to do all of these things. It's a never-before-spoken-of, never-thereafter-spoken-of device, with the magical ability to teleport people instantly, anywhere they want in a radius of 10,000 light years. For comparison: the radius of the Milky Way is around 50,000 light years, so, you know, no biggie.
So, where do Picard and the android go? Do they go to her homeworld and complete their quest? No, we need to somehow fill three-four more hours of run-time, don't we? OK, does he hop back to his space-ship and crew, so as to make haste toward their destination? No, that would be too easy. He sets his destination, and then tells his crew, with which he is somehow now in contact (Don't ask) that they should meet him in Nepenthe, a destination we've never heard of before.
And this now leads us to the beginning of Episode 7. Picard plus synth teleport to this planet. Importantly, this is the first time she's laid eyes on Picard, and only minutes prior she was betrayed by everyone she's ever known, everyone she's ever loved, one of whom went so far as to try and murder her in cold blood. Though she will forget all this very quickly later in the episode, at the moment she has one of the few human emotions featured in the show's entire season: she has trust issues.
How shall Picard gain her trust? This is the main thrust of the episode. To get her to travel with him to Nepenthe, Picard used an amazing trick that I'm sure the writers patted their own backs about: he said "Trust me." To the screenwriters, I would guess, staging a scene like that is showcasing Picard's powerful persona and charisma. To the viewer, it's just an eyebrow-raising moment.
But, anyway, that moment has passed. The android knows that she made a tough call in a hurry by following Picard, but now is the time to reevaluate the situation and determine whether the man is trustworthy.
I don't know what her criteria may be. If she's after a person committed to her quest, Nepenthe is a weird choice, because it's a rest-stop where they now spend two days doing nothing while the Romulan fleet is advancing on the warpath. (Not to worry, using a different magical device they will be able to gain back all the lost time later on, but it's a magical device Picard at this time does not know about.) If she's after a person who will remain steadfastly truthful to her, she's about to be disappointed: during the 58 minutes of episode runtime, she is lied to repeatedly on a wide and varied array of topics. If she's searching for a man with an unwavering moral compass, we, the viewers, know that she's being played: out of a ball of radius 10,000 light years of possible destinations, Picard chooses the one destination he swore he wouldn't go to: to his old crew, to Riker and Troi.
In heavens name, why? Why go there, and why now, other than for fan service? In-world, Riker and Troi, now semi-retired, are living on Nepenthe with their young daughter, still grieving the death of their first born, their son, at an even younger age. (NB -- This one bit of offscreen trivia gives Riker and Troi more backstory than any other character in Picard, including any of the non-titular main characters; and this is pretty much standard for this show. The only people regarding whom we get any backstory for are the characters we know from previous shows, and even then, it's simply a uniform sob-story, so as to force our sympathy towards them.)
So, to recap, Picard, having explained that he does not want to get his old crew involved in this quest, specifically decides to drop in unannounced on the retreat of his old first officer and ship's counsellor, potentially bringing a Romulan attack, death and destruction, to the paradise home they have built for themselves to escape from death. Did Picard think even for a second what would happen if anything were to happen to Riker and Troi's young girl as a result of his visit? And how is all this supposed to get the synth to consider him trustworthy?
(Side note: According to Riker, the family moved to Nepenthe after the boy fell ill because Nepenthe's soil "has regenerative properties". What these regenerative properties are, why they couldn't save the boy, how come there aren't more people interested in living in an area with regenerative soil, etc., are all questions best not asked, because the regenerative properties of Nepenthe are merely yet another magical device with a single purpose, this time the purpose of bringing the Riker family together way out here, instead of having them build a comfortable home, say, in the San Francisco bay area, next to Starfleet HQ.)
It is only a full 13 minutes into the episode that we get to see Picard (and the synth) for the first time. The scenes before that, much as is common for the series, are scenes that show us something that we already were told beforehand. This is to do with how a Romulan ship is able to follow Picard's crew, and how they manage to shake it off. This is a ridiculous bit in its own right, because (a) there is no real explanation for how the crew even knows that they are being followed, given that the Romulan ship is cloaked, and (b) later on in the episode we discover that they didn't shake off their follower at all, so this entire bit of "plot" is just a water-treading exercise.
Back to Picard: The two reach some planet, but in retrospect are quite a walk away from where they want to go. This has never been the case in 50 years of Star Trek and can only be explained in this particular instance by the writers needing some time for a long dialogue. Surprisingly, however, where they land is exactly where a child in full American-Indian embarrassingly stereotypical garb is standing, and she immediately proceeds to point an arrow at them. The synth raises her hands to capitulate and Picard does the same. Then, the first dialogue involving Picard, goes like this:
PICARD: You might want to point that thing at my head. My heart is solid Duritanium. (Girl re-adjusts her weapon.) SYNTH: You said this was a safe place! PICARD: Kestra, are we safe here?
The girl, we are only told much later, is Riker and Troi's child. The writers purposefully hide this information from us in order to create for the viewer false tension. But does this make any sense in-world? Would Picard really prefer to play along with Kestra, instead of immediately pacifying the fears of the synth who just survived a murder attempt? Does he really want the synth's first impression of him to be that of a complete fool, telling the mystery girl his weak spots?
Also, what's with the Indian paint? Even today, in 2020, when the show airs for the first time, that is only a hair's breadth away from blackface. Does it make any sense, in the pluralistic, culturally-sensitive 24th century future vision of Star Trek that this kind of get-up is still acceptable?
Also, based on what we have learned about Picard earlier in the series, we know that he hasn't been off earth for many years, and certainly never visited Nepenthe before during Kestra's lifetime. Should she really recognise him? I mean, yes, it's still possible that Picard had some video calls with the Rikers, but as we have seen the reclusive lifestyle he fell back into at Chateau Picard, it doesn't seem that they have kept in touch at all since his resignation from Starfleet. Certainly, when contemplating going on his quest Picard never once thought to pick up the phone and ask Riker or Troi for their opinions on it.
The girl is shown in extreme close-up after that bit of dialogue, not demonstrating any joy at seeing Picard (which is reasonable if she's never seen him before in person) but also not lowering her weapon. This is once again the writers trying to prolong the suspense, but at the expense of the coherence of the world they are describing.
This is a repeating feature of the writing in this episode and in the series as a whole, and it can be described like this. The job of a writer is to write a script that will serve narrative purposes, such as by advancing the plot, themes and world-building. The writers of this show, not uncommonly, seem to believe that any sentence in the script that advances multiple narrative purposes simultaneously is good writing. We see this here, with the three lines of dialogue above simultaneously (a) establishing the synth's state-of-mind, (b) establishing the relationship between Picard and the girl, (c) advancing the plot by introducing a new character, (d) creating for the viewers a (false) sense of tension, and (e) name-checking the fact that Picard has a Duritanium heart, a reference to the old show.
I can certainly imagine the writer being pleased with themselves on this line (and in the examples we will see later it is clear that there were high-fives in the writers' room), but what the writers seemingly failed to realise is that the only reason that sentences can do all these things is because they rely on our suspense-of-disbelief, our mental ability to imagine a working world under these sentences of dialogue, and we see how those words can reflect on that world. The problem is that in addition to all their desired effects, these sentences also have some undesirable side-effects, most notably destroying the consistency of our image of the scene's underlying reality. The more we try to reap those little narrative presents planted by the writer, the more we reach "Huh?" moments that make us step back from the story and not believe any of the things the writer tells us. These sentences are Trojan horses of the mind, and regardless of the writers' enthusiasm for them, the show would have been much better without them.
In order for this review not to become longer than the series itself, let me from this point on, in discussing screenwriting, only consider a handful of those high-fives-in-the-writer-room moments from Episode 7.
From the first dialogue, the scene cuts abruptly to the three walking on a trail, Kestra and the synth chatting in front, Picard trailing a little behind, far enough not to overhear the conversation. The dialogue:
KESTRA: Is he your grandpa? SYNTH: No. KESTRA: Your dad? SYNTH: I don't know him at all. He told me he's a friend of the man he calls my father. KESTRA: But you don't believe him? SYNTH: I don't believe anyone.
The multi-purpose here is (1) to establish a rapport between the girl and the synth, so as to sell to the audience later on that this is what builds the bridge of trust between the synth and Picard, (2) to recap to the audience the plot so far, (3) to establish that the problem is the synth's lack of trust, and (4) to continue keeping the audience in the dark regarding where they are and why.
This is all undermined, however, because (a) The two have no connection to each other, only to Picard, so it makes no sense for them to leave him far behind and out of their conversation. [What would the synth, who trusts no one, do if Picard now disappears, leaving her alone on a completely unknown and unfamiliar planet?] (b) How is the bridge of trust built, if Kestra immediately presents herself as one who barely knows Picard, pointing an arrow at his head and not knowing that he has no children? (c) While the synth's trust issues are human and understandable, having her present a cold, cerebral and well articulated ("I don't believe anyone") world-view only 15 minutes after an attempt on her life that shook the foundations of her belief makes the whole scene sound fake, especially so when coupled with the relaxed and familiar way she is conversing with Kestra.
(Later, in an off-screen moment, Kestra is suddenly overcome by a desire to relay to the synth her father's stories about how Picard is "the greatest starship captain ever", but onscreen she seems positively disinterested in Picard, and far more curious about the synth.)
Skipping a couple of dialogues (most notably one where Kestra asks the synth whether she trusts her, only to later admit that she lied about virtually everything up until that point in time, except about the true deadliness of the arrow Picard asked her to point at his head), we reach a little house in the woods. The girl shouts "Mom! Dad" and rushes towards the house. A dialogue and roughly 30 seconds later, we hear her shout "Mom!", getting the attention of Diana Troi who is outside gardening, and a full three minutes after that, we hear her shout "Dad! Jean-Luc Picard is here!", getting the attention of Will Riker, who is on the other side of the same wall. Amazing that it took the running girl almost four minutes to cover ten steps of ground. The reason: to give each of the ST:TNG guest stars their own entrance, their own swelling music, their own re-introduction, their own validation that they love Picard and Picard loves them as much as we do. Coherent storytelling once again waylaid by pandering.
The re-introduction to Troi involves her announcing to Picard "You're in trouble", reminding us that she is an empath. But any ground gained by this is lost when Will, a second later, is able to discern far more about Picard's situation just by looking at his face. Apparently no empathic abilities are needed.
As mentioned previously, despite both of them recognising that Picard has brought danger to their door, neither thinks this is even worth mentioning. More interesting is that Troi makes no comment regarding the synth. More on that later.
But now that Riker has recognised the threat, the dialogue goes like this.
RIKER: (to computer) Shields up. Perimeter scans to max. (to PICARD, apologetic) We had a little trouble around here lately with the Xinti. PICARD: Best to run anti-cloaking scans, too. RIKER: Romulans? (PICARD nods) RIKER: Initiate anti-cloaking scans.
Why did Troi not lift the shields up? Because the writers wanted to establish the rapport between Riker and Picard, and to remind us that Riker is a man of action. In ST:TNG, it was always Riker, not Troi, who would quickly announce a Red Alert and put the shields up when trouble reared its head.
But the writers miss the fact that that was simply because Troi was a counsellor and Riker a first officer. This was his job on the bridge. Here they are husband and wife, and the writers missed here a great opportunity to establish that the dynamics have changed. (They waste a lot of dialogue about that later on, but, consistent with the previous "I don't believe anyone", it seems these writers are firmly in the school of "Tell. Don't show." More to the point: they seem far more invested in reaffirming our sense of familiarity than in portraying believable, three-dimensional characters.)
But what is so odd about this dialogue is that it once again shatters the underlying reality. Why would Riker have in his home military grade technology? What sort of peaceful planet (whether to the Riker family or for Picard's purposes) is this, if it is habitually being attacked by what amounts to space pirates? Also, it is pretty clear, both here and elsewhere in the episode, that the writers don't understand what cloaking devices do: their very purpose is that they don't show up on scans. Oh and, to round it off, later in the episode we learn that there actually was a cloaked Romulan ship hovering about, but Riker's scans never picked it up. Why?
(Nitpicking readers may want to argue that the Romulan ship never passed Nepenthe. We are told that it "extrapolated the course" of Picard's ship. That course, however, would have only led it to Nepenthe, because at the time Picard's ship was en-route to Nepenthe, not anywhere else. Also, of those same nitpicking readers, let me ask this: Why did Riker guess that the anti-cloaking scans are meant for a Romulan ship, when the realities of the Star Trek universe are that inside Federation space cloaked ships are far more likely to be Klingon?)
Later on in the same dialogue, Picard and Riker have an exchange about being "Ass deep in Romulans". At risk of repeating what I wrote under "Style": This casual swearing (together with the gratuitous sex and gratuitous violence that we see throughout Picard) is a modern writer's go-to tool to show that they are "Dark and edgy". Be that as it may, there is nothing dark and edgy about Picard. It's nonsense heaped upon nonsense, with the swearing, sex and violence only making it unfriendly to the one demographic that may have enjoyed at least some of it, namely kids.
And let me add here that Trek has addressed the issue of profanity explicitly in the past. It is discussed in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), where we are told, explicitly, that profanity is merely part of the immaturity of human civilisation in the 20th century, and that by the 24th century we, as a race, will have grown out of it. That was, again, Gene Roddenberry's bright vision for the future, and even if Goldsman was out to depict that vision tarnished, painting these two people specifically, a pair we have spent many and many hours with and know of their averseness to impoliteness, as suddenly casually swearing to each other in every alternate sentence, that is just not understanding the world of Trek, the characters in it, the themes it has been discussing, and what it's all about. Yesterday's Trek shows, kid-friendly though they were, were occasionally much darker than anything Picard has to offer. (And to anyone not believing this, please check out ST:TNG's "Chain of Command (Part 2)", an episode that has more insightful things to say about the subject of torture than anything I've seen on TV and film anywhere else. The only possible exception I can think of is Zero Dark Thirty (2012).)
It is only in the next dialogue, when Troi joins Picard and Riker, that she mentions that she can't read the emotions of Picard's companion, which means that the companion is not human. It's odd that Troi did not mention this fact earlier, but let's file that under politeness. More pertinent is the fact that this synth was sent to be embedded into human civilisation, completely undetectable as nothing but human, according to the story we are being told here, and yet it looks like any Betazoid can instantly tell that she is not. How does that make sense?
And frankly, we can take it a step further and ask why it is that Troi can't read her. Surely, the fact that she's a synth shouldn't matter. Troi has read the emotions of aliens far and wide, some much farther away from human than this synth. So why this? Even Troi herself remarks about how the synth's emotions seem nothing but genuine. The solution is, again, what the writers are after: they don't care whether Soji (that's the synth's name) has detectable emotions or not. They only care to remind us that Troi is an empath, so we can pat ourselves on the back that we, too, know that fact.
The very next scene has Kestra quizzing Soji about whether she has various traits and abilities that we know Data had. It is completely in line with this drinking game of "Do you remember from ST:TNG?", but, in truth, would a girl who was born two decades after Data's death even know about data, let alone that he liked Sherlock Holmes? (This scene also involves, if you can believe this, implied nudity that is not only gratuitous but also plotwise completely nonsensical for at least three different reasons.)
The very next scene after that, back on Picard's ship, Alison Pill's character remarks: "I want to be the fun crew-member who says 'Let's hide in that comet!' and it turns out to be a giant Gormegan or something." Wait, what? So many things wrong with that sentence, beginning with: What's so fun about being eaten by a 'giant Gormegan'? But perhaps the worst part of this would-be joke is that it's a Star Wars joke, and if there's anything that is the core pet-peeve of Star Trek fans it is when somebody confuses Star Trek with Star Wars. To make a bit of order in the mess, this is a reference to something that happened to the Millennium Falcon in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), when it tried to hide in an asteroid and was almost eaten by a space slug of the species Exogorth. Do the writers not know the difference between a comet and an asteroid? (The reference to comets makes no sense in the Picard situation any more than it does for the Millennium Falcon.) Are we to believe that the movie Star Wars exists in the reality of Picard and that character is referencing a 400-year-old film? And if it's fan service for Star Wars fans (the horror!), why change the space slug species name from Exogorth to Gormegan? This would not even speak to the true Star Wars fanatic, because they know what a Gormegan is, too, and it's something completely different. In short: a sorry mess that the writers never needed to step into to begin with.
OK, let's skip some more. Some more smoking. (Cigars this time, not some crazy space cigarettes or hookahs.) Some more drinking and references to alcohol abuse. Let's skip yet another magical device that allows Riker to immediately link Soji to the late commander Data (He sees a very distinctive crick in her neck that she never displays before or after, is never spoken of again, has no impact other than this one desired consequence, and doesn't really make sense when one thinks about it: not even Data's two identical brothers, Lore and B-4, had that particular trait. Why should Soji?) Let's even skip Troi's offhand reference to the fact that he son's death was because a certain cell couldn't be "cultured inside an active positronic matrix" because the Federation has banned synths. I'll leave it to the readers to break down why that techno-babble raises more questions than answers.
Let's skip to the point where Soji confesses her deep mistrust of everything to Troi, and Picard barges in with sarcasm, effectively berating Soji. After Soji storms off, Troi says: "This isn't something a ship's counsellor is supposed to say, but you had it coming."
High fives in the writer room all around, apparently, because they managed to work in the fact that Troi was the Enterprise's counsellor, got Soji to finally show rather than tell (well, sort of) and demonstrates (after it was told to us by Riker only in the previous scene) that Picard isn't really adept at handling traumatised teenagers. Furthermore, it gives us a sort of retrospective reason why the visit to Nepenthe wasn't a waste of time and why this reunion is relevant in the story: because Troi and Riker can impart to Picard some of their wisdom, which will prepare him for the next leg in his journey.
The only problem is: none of it makes sense. It makes no sense for Troi to remind Picard what her position was on the Enterprise. It makes no sense for her to refer to herself by a position and profession she has long-since abandoned. But worst of all, the writers, in order to provide us with this moment, took Picard, who up until this point in the series again and again empathises with the plight of the oppressed to the point that this had become his one defining character trait, and just this once, exactly once, had him go 180-degrees against all of that, just when for once it would have helped. Sorry, but I'm just not buying it.
We are now only about halfway through the episode, and the second half is every bit as bad as the first, but you get the point so I'll stop here.
And, as a reminder, this is not some weak episode I'm picking on. It's the series' top-rated episode on IMDb. My only conclusion, and it's a depressing one, is that whoever is submitting the ratings on these episodes is the very demographic that only cares about the momentary surge of endorphins that they get whenever a beloved character is named or an event forgotten by all but the true fans is referenced. I'm sorry, but for me that does not a show make. It's a Star Trek trivia quiz, and -- as I tried to demonstrate here -- a badly constructed one at that.
The most frustrating thing about the show is that if it only cut out all of the nonsense, and if it only committed to exploring the consequences and implications of the good ideas it presents -- let's say, for a minimum of one episode per idea -- then it's got more than enough of these good ideas to fill up an entire season, and it would be a fascinating season at that. But that would require actually committing to making this show about something.
Instead, Picard chooses not to do any of these things. It may tantalise us with a few good ideas, but by doing absolutely nothing with them the show ends up very low on redeeming features. It neither stands on its own merits, nor builds on its pre-existing world. Instead, it is nothing but fan service for the sake of fan service, written with the lack-of-craft of fan fiction, but without the love.
At the end of the season, a parade of sorry caricatures-but-not-characters find themselves clinging for no obvious reason to Picard. (Three episodes earlier, Picard acknowledges to Riker the soap opera he has fallen into by describing this crew as follows: "They are decidedly motley. There's been nothing but drama since we left earth orbit and I'm told it's been continuing since I saw them last. They seem to be carrying more baggage than all of you ever did.")
These characters may all be desperate to return for a second season of the same, but as for me, I think I'll pass.
Goodbye, Jean-Luc! Despite all this -- nay, ignoring and forgetting all this -- I'll remember you fondly.