Picard: Episode 2 – Maps & Legends

Slower and with less action, episode 2 delves further into the backstory and reveals a plot amid some sly jokes.

We are asked to consider why the Romulans have no synthetic life forms. It is a neat trick because, yes, we’ve never seen a Romulan android or a Romulan holographic doctor but then again we’ve never seen a Vulcan one or a Ferengi one or very many human ones…

The original series of Star Trek dodged a bullet (or a phaser blast) by being just a bit too early for ubiquitous computers in real life. The bridge design has colourful lights, buttons and screens that don’t look vastly anachronistic today. Even the clunkier voice interaction with computers avoids the kind of overly dated look that the otherwise visually impeccable Alien makes with computers.

Star Trek: The Next Generation inherited the original series aesthetic but added in a holodeck and, of course, Data the android. Initially Data is just a variation on the Spock role: a being with a different approach to human emotions to whom things can be explained. The original series had had its own encounters with artificial intelligences and synthetic beings (e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I,_Mudd ) but Data’s continuing presence and Brent Spiner’s engaging performance made the character a fan-favourite for TNG. Data as a key character in the series entailed further exploration of his origin but also of his fundamental nature in episodes such as Datalore, The Measure of a Man and The Offspring among others.

The holodeck also brought in more questions about the extent that people could be simulated computationally in episodes such as 11001001 and Elementary, Dear Data. As is the way with Star Trek, cute ideas for a single episode get baked into the extended lore of the series, placing Star Trek as a series in which complete artificial intelligence is a recurring theme but also something surprising to characters.

In short, in the Star Trek universe, ‘proper’ artificial intelligence is feasible (indeed sometimes it happens by accident) but not common place. There is really little mystery about a lack of synthetic people. While Isaac Asimov (whose robot stories Trek borrows from for Data’s positronic neuron and who gets a visual book credit in this episode) imagined artificial intelligence in the form of human like robots, from our position in the year 2020 we can see computational technology is less about physically replacing people but rather about interconnected computing devices baked into our surroundings. Oddly, that more resembles the original Enterprise with its screens and voice commands than Asimov’s robot stories.

Androids aren’t going to be ubiquitous when people are already plentiful. That doesn’t make Data unlikely. Quite the opposite. Data as the product of a singular intellectual passion makes sense and the otherwise lack of other androids also makes sense because there is no real point to them in a universe of automated space ships.

Picard though, plunges us into a different possibility with a flashback to a historical trauma that is fuelling the plot. Synthetic people working for Starfleet on Mars were a relief fleet is being constructed to save the Romulan populations. For reasons as yet unknown, the robots rebel (as they are wont to do) and help destroy the Starfleet shipyards on Mars. This act goes on to precipitate Starfleet withdrawing from the rescue of the Romulan population and Picard’s resignation.

Romulans and androids sounds like a Trek-themed RPG system but it appears Picard the series is going on a deep-dive into both. We learn about the layers of secrecy within Romulan politics and how it seeps through their culture as a whole. Dark hints and conspiracies add to the spy-thriller aspect to the show that I was hoping for from when it was first announced.

The downside for this episode is there is a lot of exposition. I quite liked the entwined speculation about the layers of secret police in Romulan society along with the forensic examination of Dahj’s flat. I can’t think of an example of that on TV before: switching between two different but closely related conversations between the same characters but in two different locations at slightly different times. It was an infodump but at least somebody was trying to do something interesting with it.

Patrick Stewart is worth all the money they are paying him. The tense conversation at Starfleet where he pitches that they give him a rank, ship and crew was brilliantly done, capturing a casual arrogance and sense of entitlement that is emotionally painful for the viewer.

Orla Brady as Picard’s Romulan friend (carer?) is also quite brilliant in this episode. She does make me speculate on quite what Irish Romulans are within the imperial culture of Romulus but variety of accent just by itself makes Romulus suddenly feel a bit deeper and richer as a society. Likewise, throwaway lines like ‘secret police’ being a redundant term in Romulan society gives a sense of the inner culture of the Romulan Empire.

Meanwhile, at the ruined Borg cube another set of mysteries are unfolding. Quite where this thread is going is unclear but there is a convergent reflection in the shows theme of machines becoming people with the Borg’s habit of making people into machines.

Stray observations

Aside from being distracted by the concept of Irish Romulans (Romulans often get accent-coded as RP English because it’s a Hollywood convention for Romans-as-bad-guys, so a change is nice) the other thing I wanted to point at was the “[blank] many days since the last assimilation” sign in the Borg cube. I laughed, indeed it was funnier when I first saw it because amid the ruins of the cube it could have been a sign left by the Borg, which is a funnier idea than I assume the semi-serious implication that it is a workplace health and safety notice for the Borg-researchers (borgologists?) who might accidently find themselves being technofied by the still slightly virulent cube.

21 thoughts on “Picard: Episode 2 – Maps & Legends

  1. The “days since last assimilation” works out to around sixteen years, so the cube’s been there for a while – since before the Romulan refugee crisis, in fact. (I assume the sign next to it is the same joke in Romulan characters; maybe the English version is a later addition.)

    It seemed a bit odd to me that the Utopia Planitia yards were using androids for comparatively basic menial labour – the sort of thing that I would really think would be done by specialised non-sentient machinery. Yes, a Data-like android can lift as much as a forklift truck, but it’s got to be way more expensive – even in the Federation’s post-scarcity economy – and using one for grunt work is a waste of its capabilities. But, then, it’s not the first time we’ve seen the Federation waste the capabilities of sentient artificial lifeforms – I refer to that ludicrous episode of Voyager, where all the redundant EMH Mark Ones were put to work in a mine somewhere. (I commented at the time that, yes, well, quite, I remember when a web page I wrote became outdated and we had to put it to work running a CNC lathe.)

    But this is a bit of minor quibbling – overall, I was pretty impressed by this one, especially the bit where the Admiral gives Picard an entirely justified smackdown. Yes, we know Picard is the hero, but it’s nice to see the show refusing to hand him his Hero’s Free Pass To Do Whatever He Likes. If Admiral Nogura had taken the same line with Jim Kirk, Star Trek: The Motion Picture might have been a better movie.

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    1. Along with the deflating interview with the admiral there was the little scene at the reception desk immediately before, which I think was in there to setup the scene.

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        1. And also, when Laris was trying to talk Picard out of going, she said something to the effect of, “Well, if Jean-Luc Picard thinks it’s important, the whole galaxy must think it’s important.”

          Laris is an interesting character. I hope we see more of her and Zhaban.

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  2. That first scene gave me goosebumps, because I immediately flashed back to the conversation Picard had with Guinan in Ten Forward during “The Measure of a Man.” That “whole generation of disposable people” conversation. (Looks at You Tube) Here, let’s see if I can insert it.

    I think that shows how far Starfleet has fallen, even more than Picard’s fight with the Admiral.

    It’s no wonder that Patrick Stewart wants Whoopi Goldberg back for Season 2.

    I’m really enjoying the slow, thoughtful pace of these first episodes. (Maybe that’s something Stewart insisted on?) I’m sure they’ll get to the frantic action when he gets his crew together, but for now, it’s a delight to let scenes breathe and see some really good actors bring them to life.

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  3. It did a good job of hiding that it needed to be quite a talky episode.
    The intercutting scene was exceptionally well played, although they rather over-egged the conclusion that she was off-world – surely that’s not at all unusual in a Federation of many planets?
    I’ve never been too bothered by Romulans but I think this may be the series to really give them a strong and interesting feel. Inventing some issue with AI for them is a great use of some white space in the Trek canon, and it’s giving me Dune-related thoughts for some reason, shades of the Butlerian Jihad and so on.

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  4. Picard is doing what Discovery wanted to do, but way better, in part because it has the Picard/NG framework to use and Stewart telling the writers exactly what Picard will and will not do, (according to writer Michael Chabon, Stewart has full veto power.) I’m also enjoying having the Romulans be shown to be so humorous, with a fatalistic bent, while also being the violent spies (and ex-spies) and refugees in the story. In the older series, the Romulans were mostly presented as imperialistic drama queens. This is offering much more layered portraits of the entire species after their collapse, something that happened with the Klingons too thanks to Next Generation (and which Discovery sadly reversed.) So while in many ways the plot is standard, even a little cheesy, it’s offering so much meat on the bones that it’s an enjoyable journey.

    My first question on hearing about the androids who went rogue slaughtery on Mars in episode one was, was it a rebellion under a Data-like android leader or were they hacked? And in this episode we found out that they were hacked. It does not seems that Star Fleet has ever figured out who hacked them, despite having their black ops arms. Obviously it was someone who wanted to sabotage the Romulan evacuation, and given that Star Fleet and the Federation used it as an excuse to stop their humanitarian mission, the sabotage was successful and possibly made by people inside and very high up. They haven’t entirely addressed this issue yet, just hints, but I imagine they’ll get to it, and obviously it relates to the secret assassin sect of the Romulans going after what Maddox did — new synthetics who are hiding in The Nest.

    What I also like about Picard is that it is a story continuing into the future of the old stories, not going back. The last Star Trek series, Enterprise, was stuck in the past and was an uneven origin story. The alt universe reboots of the OG characters in the Star Trek movies were fun, but re-treading that didn’t take Star Trek to any new adventures and quickly devolved into trying to reuse old Trek stuff (Khan) instead of going forward on its alternate track. Discovery sadly got set in the past and it had the opportunity to go sideways in that past into new areas (like The Mandalorian in Star Wars,) but instead it kept hitching itself to the old material and characters, awkwardly and in mish-mash fashion. (Now that the crew has been flung into the far future, they can maybe have a lot more fun.)

    Picard is hooked partly to old material, but it’s the continuation with many events that have occurred that are new. Developments in special effects can be translated into developments in technology for the universe of the story without issue. We’re going in new directions without having to rehash old backstory much except as a reference point or two. So I’m really enjoying that and I’m glad they talked Stewart into doing it. And with the re-merger of the t.v. and film arms of the franchise going on, it may end up turning into some really interesting cross-projects for the franchise. We might finally get a Star Fleet Academy series or movie, or a deep space mission or something. But as a swan song for Stewart’s character, the Picard show is really pretty well done and gives a film like gloss to the whole operation.

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    1. I don’t know if the synthetics on Mars were hacked per se. I read that scene as the security announcement going for a default explanation. Seeing as the alert was voiced by a computer, it might just have been a heuristic.

      We’ll see what happens, I have the feeling we’re not done with that plotline yet.

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      1. The human beings there on Mars thought they were hacked and said so. The behavior of the android we see doing the work was of an android that was hacked. The eyes shifted as if receiving new programming instructions. The android goes to the board to immediately do those instructions. And after having done the sabotage and killing the humans, the android destroys itself with a sad look on its face — it had been given orders to self-destruct and blow the place, not escape and join its fellow rebel androids to run away from the Federation, even though it had ended any human threat. The hackers did not want any evidence and the androids examined. There’s no mention of any forensic autopsies on recaptured androids — they killed themselves because they were forced to do so. There’s no mention that any of the androids escaped and might be building a society somewhere out in space — and why else would they have blown up the armada being built for the Romulan evacuation except for their own freedom if they did it from free will? Why would androids have cared about stopping the Romulan evacuation?

        So it’s pretty clear that they were hacked. That still made androids dangerous, which is why the Federation regulated how AI could be used after that. But it raises the issue of who did it, which the Romulans undercover have clearly been looking into and that may well be how they got wind that Maddox had made the twins.

        I do enjoy the spy stuff on Star Trek. It’s why I really enjoyed Deep Space Nine.

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    2. Re: Romulans as “imperialist drama queens”, I feel like they haven’t exactly abandoned that characterization but that it’s way more interesting to me now. I think Romulans on this show come across as the kind of people whose friends might say “Yeah, so-and-so is really smart and cool and all, but OMG so much DRAMA”… but they’re not putting it on, they’re sincere about it and it’s easy to see it as passionate in an attractive way. Kind of like a subset of common cultural stereotypes about both the Irish and Russians (maybe the Irish casting that Camestros mentioned is what put this idea in my head, plus the dialogue about the secret police being so entwined in Romulan culture feels like a post-Soviet reference)… but not including the “big blustery guy” part of the stereotype since those guys would be Klingons. I think it works well in the context of them being the other side of the Vulcans, because it feels more like a personality trait they would actually value and feel good about, not just a neurotic mistake.

      Or maybe I just really like these actors.

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      1. Good thoughts. The Romulans should be something the Vulcans are going to great effort not to be. But also their position as generic authoritarian empire has been gazumped by the Cardassians – who got a much richer portrait as a society via DS9.

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      2. Yes, they aren’t throwing out the imperialism and fierceness — which distinguishes Romulans from their closely related Vulcans. The Romulans were authoritarian, secretive, etc., which is why everybody hated them and the Federation was in a difficult spot with members of their alliance threatening to pull out if the Romulans were helped. But there was also the precedent of pulling off a productive, eventual peace accord like they did with the Klingons by helping the Romulans. Picard isn’t wrong that the Federation screwed up by sacrificing long term goals for short fixes. And it’s cost them both the development of A.I. that could help the Federation and a prickly relationship with the remaining Romulans, who the Federation are helping but who also have no real sense of debt to most of the Federation for abandoning their people.

        But the show makes them not just imperialistic diva queens with hidden stilettos. It gives them more dimension and shows the different factions within the remaining Romulans, reduced to refugees dependent on their former enemies. Having the Romulan foreman of the Artifact give a joking speech, seeing the deep loyalty of the ex-spies with Picard, who seem to be there in part because they are protecting Picard from their fellow Romulans, it’s a different kettle of fish from the oily and snarling Romulans we tended to get in the past.

        I am getting a bit tired of the Vulcans as villains thing though. It was a mess on Discovery and it’s not that exciting here, though the actress is good. But that’s a minor quibble.

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  5. I agree that the scene where Picard fails to get a ship is really well done. We still love the guy, but it’s absolutely clear why the Admiral would tell him to fuck off, and given that she doesn’t know what the writers and the audience know, she’s really not wrong to do so; it’s refreshing to see the usual “Our guy flouts the system and pulls all kinds of bullshit, but they give him one more chance because the plot requires it” moment *not* happen for once. Magnuson is so good in that role and I hope we’ll see more of her.

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  6. Re: “I can’t think of an example of that on TV before: switching between two different but closely related conversations between the same characters but in two different locations at slightly different times”

    This isn’t TV, but I happened to rewatch Pixar’s BRAVE the other day and there’s a nicely done bit where the mother is rehearsing all the things she wants to explain to the daughter, while the daughter is elsewhere rehearsing all the ways she wants to tell off her mom, and they’re cut together so you can see how they *would* work in a single conversation even though you know they’re not (and then they never do tell each other those things).

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  7. The “x Days Since” sign had what looked to be a counterpart in Romulan, which is so wonderfully black humour it is almost Scottish (they do seem to be giving them a vary Celtic flavour, with shades of Russian as well as noted above)

    It’s not the first time in Universe that the Romulans have been portrayed as Not Too Different, especially to Humans. In the otherwise quite forgettable TNG episode The Chase the Romulans stick around long enough to say it, while the Klingons and Cardassians are still busy insulting each other.

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