Trek Tuesday: Unification Parts 1 & 2

The mid-season 5 two-parter marks something of an inflection point for Star Trek as a franchise. Although it was not the first episode to air after the death of Gene Roddenberry it was the first to memorialise his passing with a title card simply stating his name and “1921 – 1991”. Meanwhile, in cinemas the final Star Trek film featuring the main cast of the original series was due to be released and this two part story aimed to promote the film with an appearance by Leonard Nimoy as Spock. As such, it parallels the later Star Trek film Generations as a kind of passing-the-torch between the two versions of Star Trek.

For my purposes, I was keen to rewatch it as an addition to the background re-watch to compliment Star Trek: Picard. I was mindful that aside from the film Star Trek: Nemesis, I hadn’t included any stories that spent any time looking at the Romulans in depth. There are other choices but Unification is a rare story where we see ordinary Romulan civilians and aspect of Romulan culture other than over-wrought plots and Laurence Olivier impressions. In addition, it is an episode that uses Data and Picard as a dramatic pair, highlighting their differences and similarities.

Patrick Stewart naturally makes a great Romulan. Starfleet’s Romulan disguises are top-notch because, of course, Romulans are actually just humans in theatrical make-up but it is a look that really suits both Stewart and Spiner. He also has an additional advantage. The Romulans are Space Romans obviously but they are Space Hollywood Romans and years of Hollywood epics (and BBC historicals) have created the association of British classical actors with the Roman Empire. It is practically type-casting.

However, it is Picard’s affinity with Vulcans that provides the initial hook for the story. Ambassador Spock has gone missing and intelligence suggests he is on Romulus. Alarmed by the apparent defection, Starfleet despatches Picard to speak to Spock’s father, Sarek who is dying from a degenerative disease. Picard has not only met Sarek before but in an earlier episode had mind-melded with him.

In this initial phase of the story there are repeated shots that follow the dramatic-soap-opera scene convention of having two characters talk to each other with both facing the camera but with one person standing behind the other.

The framing of dialogue calms down once Sarek tragically dies but this odd choice adds to that sense of theatricality. Mark Lenard as Sarek gets to pull out all the stops as an ageing Vulcan whose mental decline causes him to be overwhelmed with emotion. Aside from a wonderful cameo, the scene between Picard and Sarek helps demonstrate the commonality between the Vulcans and Romulans. They are all, in truth, space Thespians with the Vulcans not just being logical/stoical but DRAMATICALLY and very pointedly so.

When finally Spock, Data and Picard do have scenes together we might expect the similarities between the trio to result in a somewhat dull dynamic. Instead, there is a sparkle between the three of them as if they are each unburdened from having to deal with Kirk/Bones/Riker/Crusher bullshit and can just get on with dealing with the problems at hand. Both Spock and Data are variations on the theme of the logical being who is actually emotional but Nimoy and Spiner play the trope quite differently.

Meanwhile, Riker and the Enterprise have to deal with the B-plot: investigating the remains of a Vulcan ship that has cropped up in mysterious circumstances. This gives Riker some opportunity to deal with the seedier side of Federation culture, including a space ship scrapyard and a bar with a four-armed piano player.

It is an genuinely very entertaining 80 minutes. There is humour (including an unrecognisable Stephen Root as a Klingon captain) and dry banter between Data and Picard (Picard trying to get some rest in his Klingon quarters while Data stands still doing nothing is a delight). Nimoy is wonderfully Spock and the meeting of Picard and Spock works much better than Picard and Kirk in Generations.

Both Unification and The Undiscovered Country echo real world events with rapid changes in progress in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, Unification’s twist is that the apparent détente is…a Romulan plot. In fact a Romulan plot by Denise Crosby aka Commander Sela aka complex backstory involving parallel timelines and the very dead Tasha Yar.

It is fair to say that Sela’s plot makes zero sense. It sort of doesn’t matter obviously: just moving parts to give everybody something to do. The Romulans have stolen three Vulcan ships and intend to trick, force or holographically simulate Spock into announcing they are a peace convoy from Romulus to start the re-unification of the sibling cultures. The ships are actually full of Romulan troops. I would assume if the plan had gone ahead without the Enterprise’s involvement the dialogue with Vulcan would have gone something like this.

Peace Convoy: Hello Vulcans. We are a peace convoy from Romulus.
Vulcan Traffic Control: Greetings Pace Convoy. Why are you in Vulcan ships if you are from Romulus?
Peace Convoy: Um…because…we thought you’d like how they looked?
Vulcan Traffic Control: That is not logical. Also, where did you get those three Vulcan ships?
Peace Convoy: We…found them…they were just sitting on this asteroid…and we thought you might have lost them and…um, we were just bringing them back.
Vulcan Traffic Control: Did you STEAL our ships, Romulan Peace Convoy?
Peace Convoy: Maybe. Just a little bit.
Vulcan Traffic Control: That’s not a very logical way to start a peace mission. What are you hiding?
Peace Convoy: Nothing! We are hiding nothing! How dare you accuse us, Noble Romulans, of DECEPTION! Why I have a good mind to tell the hundreds of Romulan soldiers on board to come over and shoot you for that insult.
Vulcan Traffic Control: ….
Peace Convoy: Crap. Forget I said that last bit
[Romulan war ship decloaks and blasts the peace convoy into smithereens out of embarrassment]

For the sake of keeping the Romulan reputation for craftiness intact, I’ll just assume that the plan was so secret that the different people involved didn’t know what the whole plan was. After all, stealing Vulcan ships to sneak Romulan troops onto Vulcan makes sense by itself, it only stops making sense if they claim to be Romulans and are scene crossing the neutral zone.

Dodgy plans aside, there is so much to enjoy here. A good addition to my re-watch.

A Picard viewing list

With the final episode of Star Trek: Picard now released, I thought I’d go over a list of related episodes from past iterations of Star Trek. The majority of these are the episodes (or films) I have recently rewatched and reviewed. There are a few that I have included that I intend to rewatch soon but haven’t yet. I’ve put those ones in square brackets. The season 2 episode “Q-Who” and the season 4 episode “Family” I have rewatched but I didn’t write about them specifically.

Do you need to watch all these to understand the plot of Picard? Absolutely not. In fact, aside from having a general idea about Picard and Data and Trek background like the Romulans and the Borg being baddies, Picard the show explains most of its own background. Even so, if you want a refresher but don’t want to watch every hour of Trek-related TV that is available, then I’ve marked out those episodes that I’d recommend for a shorter primer.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

It is the dubious attempt to re-boot a beloved TV show that after a shaky start became a beloved TV show in its own right.

  • [TNG Season 1: Encounter at Farpoint] Connection: This is the pilot episode of the rebooted TV series and introduces the main characters of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Will Riker, Deanna Troi and Data, all of whom turn up in Picard. Watch or not? Low priority. At best it will make some of the references in other episodes on this list.
  • TNG Season 2: The Measure of a Man. Connection: This episode introduces Maddox as an antagonist who is a key character in Picard. It is also a key Data-centric episode and sets up some of the ethical debates about synthetic people. Watch or not? There are much stronger episodes of TNG but this is one of the better ones of the early years of the show. Worth a watch.
  • TNG Season 2: Q-Who. Connection: Say hello to the Borg. Faceless and indefatigable and full of menace. A strong early episode for TNG. Watch or not? Fun but you can easily skip this one. Although it is the Borg debut, the episode is more about Q, the mischievous demi-god who likes to troll Picard.
  • TNG Season 3: The Offspring. Connection: Data creates his first daughter but his attempt at fatherhood ends in tragedy. Data is often played as a comical character but here he is given a more tragic element. Watch or not? Watch. It adds more pathos to the attempt at creating new descendants of Data. It is also an episode in which the relationship between Picard and Data shifts.
  • TNG Season 3/4: The Best of Both Worlds (Parts 1 & 2). Connection: Picard is assimilated by the Borg to become Locotus-of-Borg. Arguably the most iconic episode of TNG. Watch or not? Watch. A strong double episode with some clever plot misdirection and a devastating enemy. Picard’s trauma from the encounter suffuses later episodes and is a core aspect of the Picard show.
  • TNG Season 4: Family. Connection: The episode introduces Picard’s family home (a vineyard in France) and his brother’s family. Watch or not? It is an OK episode but you can skip this unless you intend to watch the film Generations. [ETA A good point made by Mart in the comments is that this episode really shows the depth of Picard’s trauma.]
  • TNG Season 5: I, Borg. Connection: We meet Hugh the Borg for the first time and Picard has to deal with the conflict between his duty, his hatred of the Borg, his trauma and his sense of decency. Watch or not? Watch. There are better episodes of TNG but this is a thoughtful episode with a key character for the Picard show.
  • [TNG Season 5: Unification (Parts 1 & 2)] Connection: Leonard Nimoy reprises his role as Spock in an episode that explores the background of the Vulcans and Romulans. Watch or not? I don’t know! Looking at my list I noticed that I’m short of anything Romulan related.
  • TNG Season 6/7: Descent (Parts 1 & 2). Connection: Another Data-centric episode with not just Borg but Data’s brother and the return of Hugh-the-Borg. Watch or not? It’s OK to skip this one. It is entertaining but it meanders a fair bit.
  • TNG Season 7: All Good Things. Connection: An old Picard goes on one last mission to save the galaxy. Watch or not? The resolution of the story involves changing the timeline, so technically none of it happened. A fun way to close off TNG but you don’t need to see it for Picard.

Star Trek Movies

After a run of successful films featuring the original crew, the film series made the leap to the next generation of Starfleet officers.

  • Movie: Star Trek Generations. Connection: The first of the Star Trek movie series to feature the cast of The Next Generation. The final episode of Picard pick up some of the same themes off life and death. Watch or not? Data has his own character arc in the film and if you want to follow Data through as a character then this is relevant. Otherwise safe to skip.
  • [Movie: Star Trek First Contact]. Connection: The Borg are back and this time they have a queen. Watch or not? I’ll need to rewatch it but I suspect not.
  • Movie: Star Trek Nemesis. Connection: Romulans, Data, Picard and Nothing but Blue Skies. More than anything, Picard is a sequel to this final Star Trek movie prior to the reboot. Watch or not? Oh dear…that is very hard to say. In many ways it is a key text for Picard and in many other ways it really isn’t very good as a film and in places quite objectionable. Watch at your own risk.
  • [Movie: Star Trek (reboot)]. Connection: Establishes the destruction of Romulan home world (a cosmic accident that seems to keep happening to the Federation’s enemies…suspicious if you ask me). Watch or not? I’m mentioning it only for completeness. Skip it for these purposes but it is an entertaining re-imagining.

Star Trek Voyager

While Seven of Nine is important to Picard, Voyager the series really isn’t. That makes it tricky to find episodes of the show that give a sense of why people were excited by Jeri Ryan reprising her role but which aren’t mainly about unrelated characters dealing with a completely different quadrant of the galaxy.

  • VOY Season 3/4: The Scorpion (Parts 1 & 2). Connection: Seven of Nine’s origin story starts here in a very Borg episode of Star Trek Voyager. Watch or not? You can skip this unless you are a Voyager fan. Seven of Nine is a central figure in the story but she isn’t really a character yet.
  • VOY Season 4: The Gift. Connection: This episode continues the introduction of Seven of Nine as a new crew member. By the end of the episode she has taken on the costume for which she becomes famous. Watch or not? Skip it unless you really care about the complete Seven of Nine origin story.
  • VOY Season 6: The Collective. Connection: Another Voyager Borg story – of which there are many. Icheb-the-Borg is introduced. Watch or not? Skip it.
  • VOY Season 6: Child’s Play. Connection: A story about being an ex-Borg that sees Seven of Nine struggle with Icheb finding his original family. Watch or not? Maybe watch. The episode helps develop Seven of Nine as a character. It also underlines the idea of ex-Borgs as tragic characters who are displaced from their own worlds.
  • VOY Season 7: Imperfection. Connection: Another Icheb and Seven of Nine episode. Watch or not? Watch. Voyager isn’t that relevant to Picard but this one episode packs a lot of punch for Seven of Nine as a character.

Picard: Et in Arcadia Ego Part 2

Spoilers obviously for the end of the show.

I shan’t hide that I’m disappointed that instead of plot twists and surprises we got an action movie followed by some thoughts on death. The lack of further twists leaves a whole heap of interesting ideas folding themselves back into plot holes.

In exchange we did get a good half hour of space-set action with intrigue, fist-fights and a visually stunning space battle. The space orchids fighting the Romulan fleet with La Sirena ducking and weaving through was both original and exciting even if we knew that Picard wasn’t going to get blasted to smithereens by Romulan disruptors.

However, it was the least imaginative resolution possible with the material to hand. The synths adopted the kill-all-humans, the Romulans decided to kill everything on the planet (instead of just blowing up the beacon), Starfleet sent to proverbial cavalry with a semi-retired Will Riker, the bad-sister evil Romulan got a supervillain’s death and the hot-brother evil Romulan got a minor redepmtion.

There were many fun moments from the throwaway revelation that the Romulans have at least five different ways of sterilising a planet, to the camp fire stories of the Romulan-Vulcan end-of-days.

However, it felt a bit rushed for once on Picard until the space battle was won, the beacon closed and the robot-tentacle-old-ones banished back to robot hell. From there the tone shifts to death and simulations.

Jean-Luc’s brain abnormality gets him in the end of course. A plot point undermined by the existence of an up-coming season 2 and the obvious way-out that had been introduced in the previous episode. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t touching and Picard has taken its time to establish each of the surrounding characters and their relationship with Jean-Luc.

It was an interesting choice to show Rios & Seven grieving in their way and then Raffi & Elnor grieving in their way given that otherwise each of those pairs haven’t interacted much but it worked. Picard has done a better job of establishing a set of characters than Discovery managed even though it has had fewer episodes. That’s part of the reason for some of the slower pacing of the show.

The gravity of the show, indeed hinted at in the opening credits, rested not on the big secret of the Romulans but on Jean-Luc himself becoming a synthetic. I should imagine that will create some legal issues for the Federation as to whether the organic robot Jean-Luc is the same person as the organic animal Jean-Luc…but this is a culture where destructive teleport is common place, so they’ll figure it out. It does imply a potential quasi-biomechanical immortality as a possibility for Federation culture (even if Jean-Luc’s body has been set up so it will age and die eventually) but given all the other technology the Federation already has (including said transporters) that could achieve that already, we can hand wave away those implications.

Data, not unlike Captain Kirk, gets a second death after a spell in a simulated Good Place. Touching and self-indulgent, it is was still the right way to close the arc of the Picard-Data story that the show had opened with.

Overall, I feel the story reached its plot conclusion two episodes ago and the finale was just resolving the matter with some space battles and moderate Trek-style Deus Ex-Machina. Even so, a strong cast and thoughtful direction kept me excited by this show through out.

Stray observations

  • The Federation fleet just zipping away once the Romulans had gone was a bit weak. Also Jean-Luc had apparently just died and Will Riker didn’t stay in orbit? Even just to make sure the synths didn’t start their Robot-Satan summoning ritual again?
  • I think I missed a spot of dialogue but I assume the XBs are now also going to make their home with the synths.
  • The closing scene on La Sirena implies that Seven and Raffi are now a couple.

Trek Tuesday (but its Wednesday): Generations

I didn’t intend to pair Picard episodes with older Star Trek stories but the first episode had me watching Star Trek: Nemesis and from there the logic of which episodes to watch was fairly easy to discern. Data, Maddox, Hugh, Seven of Nine, Icheb and Picard himself have key episodes that inform the Picard series. I did watch but not review the TNG episode Family, where we meet Jean-Luc’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew while he is recovering from being assimilated by the Borg. It is a relevant episode but I missed the best spot for it and at this point in the Picard series his life in France seems very different.

The question of what happened to his brother was lingering and I was told that the Star Trek movie Generations revealed that he and his family had died in a fire. I had seen the movie when it was released but I didn’t recall that point at all. I was already considering a re-watch of Star Trek: First Contact, a film with a stronger reputation and a more overt Borg connection. However, that point about Picard’s family was bugging me and I realised I could recall very little about Generations other than being vaguely disappointed by it. It was clearly time for a re-watch.

It is a far better film than I remembered. It is far from flawless and what it really lacks is better dialogue for whenever Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Stewart are on screen together because the two of them have an energy that is already lifting the script.

The death of Jean-Luc’s family is far from a passing plot point. I’m surprised I’d forgotten it. It is forced and exists purely so that Jean-Luc will have regrets and an alternative life to imagine when he finally gets sucked into The Good Place, sorry, I mean The Nexus. Quite why a giant energy ribbon has a paradise simulation where you can re-write the regrets of your personal history is never explained and that is a wise choice. It’s just a thing the universe has and I’m glad that the story implies that it is a genuine good thing (i.e. there isn’t a reveal that it is psychic vampires or an illusion to hide some other kind of evil). It makes both Picard’s and Kirk’s rejection of an idyllic afterlife so as to save a planet stronger.

At the time, I suppose making a transitional film between the two versions of Star Trek whose main villain is somebody who cannot let go of the past, may have seemed like lecturing to fans. You love Kirk and his antics? Well you are like this crazy scientist guy! Now, the film’s melancholy tone seems quite novel. Kirk dies (twice), the TNG version of the Enterprise is destroyed.

The Two Death’s of James Tiberius Kirk are not ignominious but they are at a lower scale than the many times he has come close to death. Kirk dies a hero of course, once helping save refugees on a transport ship and then again in the physical fight with mad-scientist Soren. He doesn’t know it but in his second death he also saves the crew of the Enterprise-D who have crash landed the saucer section on a near-by planet. Shatner does what Shatner does but he and Patrick Stewart are very different kinds of actors and quite different kinds of characters as captains. The pairing of the two is the obvious marketing gimmick of the film and here is where the essence of the disappointment lies. They simply aren’t an interesting pairing of characters, they neither compliment nor contrast with each other.

I suppose we could imagine a different story in which Kirk has somehow been pulled into the future and takes on the Soren role of a man so determined to return to the Nexus that he will blow up the star of an inhabited system to do it. That would have meant Kirk being the villain, which would have made for stronger drama but very unhappy fans. As it is, Picard has to convince Kirk to help him win a fist fight with Soren and that’s about it.

It’s sufficient though and while Picard-Kirk isn’t interesting, the character arc for Kirk is better done that I remembered. Dragged on-board a newly commissioned Enterprise-B for a media event, Kirk starts the movie as a man whose glory days are already over. Fate then gives him two chances at a heroic death and he takes them willingly. Only in the second case and surrounded with an opportunity to undo a personal regret, does he hesitate. In the end he chooses to act, to live and die trying to make a difference for others…which does neatly take us back to Star Trek: Picard.

Kirk’s advice to Picard is to never give up the captain’s chair, to never stop making a difference. We know that Jean-Luc rejects Kirk’s first premise without rejecting the second. Instead, he tried to make a difference in other ways (e.g. the Romulan evacuation) and at a bigger scale. In doing so, the difference between Picard and Kirk becomes clearer. Both are moral men who act within but also outside of the formal structures of a military organisation. Picard thinks at a different scale than Kirk and also is more adept at persuasion. The logic of the situation within the Nexus has to be Picard persuading Kirk but it also the correct arrangement of character traits: Kirk does, Picard persuades.

What Generations also demonstrated was the difficulty of translating the Next Generation dynamic to film. Both film series of Star Trek have strong ensemble casts but with the TV shows, there was a greater sense of equality among the core characters. That is harder to maintain in a film where each member of the crew cannot have an opportunity for their own character arc. In Generations Riker, Troi, La Forge, Worf and Crusher all get screen time but only Data gets substantial character development.

In Data’s case it is a kind of literal Deus Ex Machina with his choice to embed the emotion chip he got from Lore (in Descent) in his brain. This gives a great deal of scope for Brent Spiner to act goofy on screen but it also presents a clearer character hierarchy for the Next Generation characters. Picard is the lead and Data is the second, matching the Kirk-Spock levels in the original cast. These posters for both First Contact and Nemesis echo that:

In order of size, Picard, Data and the antagonist.

I wonder how that has re-shaped how I perceive The Next Generation? Picard & Data aren’t Kirk & Spock in the TV show and if anything Geordie and Data where more likely to share screen time. That is still true in Generations as the plot results in very little interaction between Picard and Data but by the final film the two are more inter-linked as characters. That isn’t an inconsistency — after all friendships change over time — but it is an interesting shift.

Now all I’m left with is what final old Trek to watch to cap off the Picard finale on (my) Friday? I think that will depend on whether Q turns up or not…

Picard: Et in Arcadia Ego Part 1

An odd episode, as two parters can be. It left me feeling dissatisfied in a number of ways but has many splendid moments. How everything resolves itself next week will be fascinating to see. Below are many spoilers and rampant speculation

The stronger aspects of the episode are in the first half. La Sirena makes it to Soji’s homeworld via the Borg transwarp gateway. That itself raises a few questions, because planets near Borg transwarp gateways have a tendency to get their colonies scooped up by the Borg. Narek is in pursuit but when he attacks along comes the Borg artefact under the control of Seven of Nine. The planet responds with a giant floral defence system, which brings all three space craft down to the surface. It’s big wacky space weirdness and I loved every minute of that.

And here we pass into Arcadia.

Continue reading “Picard: Et in Arcadia Ego Part 1”

Trek Tuesday: All Good Things

When Picard was a week away from starting, I thought that I should re-watch the Star Trek: The Next Generation finale but I didn’t get round to it that week and after the first week I thought I should watch the film Star Trek: Nemesis, as it appeared to have more connections with the new show. However, the premise of All Good Things includes a prototype of Picard the show.

Jean-Luc finds himself flitting between time periods in his life like he is Billy Pilgrim but unlike the hero of Slaughterhouse Five, Jean-Luc’s temporal un-glueing is just three very specific times. At the centre is the Season 7 TNG continuity, with the experienced crew and either side is the past with Jean-Luc on his way to join The Enterprise as Captain for the first time and the future with Jean-Luc as a retired ambassador.

The future Jean-Luc is not the eventual fate for Jean-Luc and the crew. The ending of the episode makes clear that the actions of the crew in each time period have changed all three time periods. The impact on the past was to restore the past to its original state but the future is now once again unwritten. The future of Jean-Luc we are shown is not inevitable.

However, there are points of similarity with Picard the show. Jean-Luc has retired to his family vineyard in France. As with Picard it is unclear where his brother’s family are (we met them in the aftermath of the Borg two-parter). Events conspire that Jean-Luc must find away off planet to investigate an issue that only he sees the importance of and events lead him to reunite with old comrades and take him to the Romulan neutral zone.

Beyond those points the future storyline departs substantially from the Picard future. The Romulan Empire has fallen but because of a war with the Klingons. Data is not dead but teaching at Oxford. Sadly though Deanna Troi is dead and her dead has led to a permanent hostility between Worf and Riker. (At this point in the main continuity of TNG, there was a growing romance between Worf and Troi.) At some point Beverly Crusher and Jean-Luc have been married and then separated and Crusher is now the captain of her own medical ship. Geordie is now a novelist.

Patrick Stewart plays Jean-Luc as a more doddery and less sharp old man than he does in Picard and the presence of a progressive neurological syndrome (is it the same one discussed in Picard?) is a cause for his friends to doubt whether his claims about time-jumping and an imminent threat are delusions.

The time jump as a way to revisit the cast in a kind of epilogue but also to re-examine the beginnings was more recently used as the plot basis for Avengers: Endgame. When Star Trek:Voyager reached its finale it used a similar device to jump between two time periods with an older Captain Janeway finding her way back in time to (unethically) get the Voyager home sooner. I assume the story was also partly influenced by the popular 1990’s sci-fi show Quantum Leap whose lead actor would also captain the enterprise years later.

Aside from the near-omnipotent Q and some Klingon warships, the episode avoids revisiting any of the antagonists from previous episodes.Of course, Q is sufficient and the point is to establish a symmetry between the final episode and the first story Encounter at Farpoint. In both, Q frames a puzzle for Jean-Luc and the crew as a test of worthiness for all of humanity. For this final episode it is an anomaly that propagates backwards in time and which threatens to extinguish life on Earth at its very inception.

What this bookend to the series does do with some finality is establish who is the central character of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’ve discussed before how the first three seasons had held open the possibility of Riker being the main character. It’s not a mad idea to have a more junior officer be the central character of a ship-based show and Star Trek: Discovery has taken exactly that route with Michael Burnham being the focus around which a broader cast interacts. The strength of TNG as it developed though was in that ensemble cast and there’s a strong argument that the show has no central character. Making the final episode so explicitly about Jean-Luc Picard asserts a different position: Jean-Luc is the central character and the story as a whole is about him.

In the past sections of the story, we begin with Jean-Luc on a shuttle piloted by Tasha Yar. Aside from the impact of the famously dead character returning to her role, it re-positions the start of the whole story of Picard’s Enterprise to the point just before he boards the ship. The crew Jean-Luc meets on board are the same characters but at this point they aren’t the same crew as such. Without Jean-Luc and without the experiences they have had over the years, they are just the potential of the crew. Riker is relegated to a (beardless) clip taken from the original pilot.

Future Riker is also quite different from the future Riker we met in the Picard episode Nepenthe. He is now an admiral in Starfleet and also has the command of a re-fitted (but semi-obsolete) Enterprise-D. Embittered by the death of Deanna Troi and not looking so great as a career officer he is a long way from the man-at-peace-with-himself that Picard offers. The subsequent TNG-based Star Trek films already had put aside the possible Worf-Troi pairing and had instead resolved that Riker and Troi were meant for each other, culminating in them marrying in the final film of that sequence.

Of course, Data alive and well is a far better fate than Data’s death (also in Star Trek: Nemesis). It is Data’s insights that allow Jean-Luc to investigate (and although he doesn’t know it, CAUSE) the anomaly but it is also Jean-Luc bringing him the problem and also facilitating the communication of ideas between the Datas of each time period that enables Data to act. While All Good Things poses Jean-Luc and Beverly Crusher as the romantic pairing (ambiguously given that it didn’t last), the episode begins to capture the alternate idea that Jean-Luc and Data are the key pairing as characters. I’m not about to launch into some slash fan-fiction but rather suggest that they are complimentary personalities and together they represent the two intellects that drive solutions to the dilemmas the Enterprise crew face. While Geordie, Deanna, Crusher, Worf and Riker all have their moments, Data and Jean-Luc themselves provide the generalist capacity to deal with the issues the galaxy throws at them.

I remember being very impressed with the episode at the time but re-watching it, I think most of its strength comes from just letting Patrick Stewart do his stuff. Otherwise, it is a weaker story than I remembered and more of a victory lap than one of the stronger Trek-stories. It was a very well deserved victory lap though. The show had been given the unenviable task of reviving a beloved classic TV show and initially it showed that even with money and a good cast, re-capturing the same magic is hard. Yet, season by season it became a stronger show and eventually surpassed the original at least in terms of hours of television.

Picard: Episode 8 – Broken Pieces

Lots and lots of spoilers for the whole series, so if you haven’t been watching but intend to, this is a review best avoided. In short this is a bridging episode that joins the dots of the story so far as the series heads into the two-part finale.

For those following the series, the revelations aren’t big surprises although there are some additional connections that may feel superfluous. This isn’t a particularly strong episode but it has its moments and there is a lot to discuss.

Enter Borg transwarp gateway

Trek Tuesday (but it’s Wednesday): The Best of Both Worlds Part 1 & 2

I guess it is still Tuesday for a lot of you.

I’m still watching old episodes of Star Trek that touch on the current series of Star Trek: Picard. Inevitably that has taken me to root story, a Trek story with such impact that it accidentally became the Jean-Luc Picard origin story. Prior to the Season 3 cliffhanger, Picard is the well renowned Starfleet Captain but after he is something else: the former Borg who both saved and nearly destroyed Earth. His time as Locutus of Borg will be a nightmare that haunts him, recurring at the start of the first proper Next Generation movie (First Contact). The devastating defeat of Starfleet at Wolf 359 would later be used as part of the background for Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space 9 and also be referenced in Voyager.

I’d remembered it as being good but what I had forgotten was how Riker focused the whole two-parter is. It is essentially a Will Riker episode despite being dominated by that image of Picard transformed into a Borg. Jonathon Frakes has to carry the show and Patrick Stewart phenomenal acting ability is largely relegated.

Central to the tension is a fake-out by the writers about what is happening that adds its own tension in a way that I doubt would be possible anymore. The episode announces that the Borg are back nearly from the start with a colony that has been scooped up from the planet surface. However, the episode takes its time before the Enterprise has to encounter the Borg cube. Instead we get a kind of B-plot.

Starfleet sends an admiral who has a young, pretty (that is relevant) and ambitious commander with him, who is a key member of the Borg taskforce dedicated to finding ways of countering the remorseless cyborgs. What we are also told is that Commander Riker has been marked out by Starfleet for the captaincy of the USS Melbourne – a promotion that Riker is in two minds about. Shelby, in turn, is aware of Riker’s possible promotion and has an ambitious eye on the First Office spot aboard the Enterprise.

Ostensibly, this side story is about Riker leaving the Enterprise and Jonathon Frakes leaving the show to be replaced by Commander Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy). However, the episode quickly places all the drama as a clash of personalities between Riker and Shelby. There was a sense in the first season of TNG that Riker is supposed to be the leading man with Picard as a secondary character and Riker being able to take on the more dynamic role leading away teams and romancing guest stars. The emphasis on Shelby as a new character and the focus of the episode on the dynamic between them (with a hint of sexual tension) stressed a different outcome. Riker is going to become captain, replacing Picard and with Shelby taking on his role. But how?

The possible death of Picard is even underlined by a short conversation between him and Guinan where they discuss the tradition of a captain walking his ship on the eve of a battle. Picard offers the example of Nelson walking the decks of his ship before Trafalgar and Guinan reminds him that while Nelson won that battle, he himself did not survive it.

Shelby is a very annoying character but not so annoying that it is beyond belief that writers of a 80s/90s TV show might think they have a good idea for an on-going character. After all this same show thought Wesley Crusher would be a engaging character (to be fair, he had improved by this point). What she presents is a kind of threat to the whole show which had made some leaps forward in Season 3. The implication is that the plot is taking us towards an amended cast (not for the first time on TNG) with a key role taken on by an annoying character.

All of this adds to the horror when Picard is kidnapped and turned into a Borg. The final cliffhanger has Riker staring at Locutus on the view screen and giving the command to fire the new super-weapon at the Borg cube.

Cue credits and theme music.

Is this the last true major cliffhanger on science fiction television? With access to TV shows already shifting with improved release of home video and cable TV, how people experienced a series was no longer as and when it was broadcast. Within a few years, the World Wide Web would be providing new ways of talking about TV shows and speculating on rumours. If it happened today we would already know that Patrick Stewart had signed on for Season 4 or that Elizabeth Dennehy had been cast in a role on a different show. The impact of the cliffhanger requires a level of ignorance that would require concentrated effort now.

Part two is not swift to resolve the issue of Patrick Stewart’s continued involvement. Indeed, as a plot point the question remains unresolved until the end of the aftermath episode Family, where Picard returns to France and considers leaving Starfleet altogether. The on-going battle with the Borg is conducted within the parameters of the fake-out casting. Riker is now the captain and Shelby is now First Officer (Riker passing over Worf and Data as choices due to the immediate needs of fighting the Borg).

Shelby is instantly less annoying because the writers actually do know what they are doing. With Riker’s authority re-established in a new role as captain, the ambitious Shelby is rightly less inclined to manoeuvre around him. I’ll pause for a moment though, to consider how awful the Shelby/Riker show could have been and horribly inappropriate the plot lines could have become. Which takes me to a point that I’ll save until the end.

Part 2 is thrilling and the tension about the show’s potential casting is still there but it can’t have the same horror as Part 1. Even so, the Enterprise reaching the destruction of the Starfleet armada at Wolf 359 has an impact. The alternative outcomes for the cast are underlined when, among the roster of ships destroyed is the USS Melbourne: Riker’s ship if he had accepted a captain’s position.

Of course, the Borg are defeated. Riker tricks Locutus with a decoy saucer seperation allowing Worf and Data to sneak aboard and kidnap Picard back. With Locutus onboard, Data hacks into his system and as the Borg cube finally reaches Earth, what is left of Picard’s personality gives the vital hint on how to shut the Borg down: “sleep”.

The plotting and the events remain tight throughout. The complexity of the schemes are the typical techno-babble but there’s an intricacy to the pans and their execution that makes events feel both more fraught an more believable (including the use of the shuttle transporters to get in and out of the Borg cube).

The episode ends with Picard staring out from the window in his ready-room. The Borg has been defeated but also a choice has been made. The version of the show where Riker is a Kirk figure is finally put aside. The strength of the show had been established as an ensemble cast and Picard’s very different kind of Enterprise captain is key to that. It is also not going to be a show where the crew is fundamentally at odds with each other. There will be on-going interpersonal drama but the the Next Generation will carry on being a show about a highly competent crew who work well together.

However, the role of Shelby as being a threat to that dynamic very much rests on how the writers have played with viewer’s stereotypes throughout the story. Shelby is portrayed as being a destabilising figure to the crew dynamic in Part 1 (this is minimised in Part 2) precisely because she is both capable, ambitious AND an attractive woman. Naturally the writers aren’t going to deny that a person can be all three of those things but they rely on the idea that the combination is a threat to workplace harmony. That is not how the character (or the dynamic) plays out in the end of course but neither does Shelby get an on-going role. The idea of her as a threat is essential to the drama of Part 1 and the threat isn’t resolved until she leaves. Which, let’s face it, is less than great as an idea even if the writers are playing on viewer prejudices rather than expressly confirming them.

Shelby deserves better 🙂

Picard: Nepenthe

[Multiple spoilers and warnings about themes around suicide]

Nepenthe was a drug of forgetting in the Odyssey used as a cure for sorrow, which is an odd title for an episode about remembering. There is no shortage of sorrow though, even the reunion with Riker and Troi in their bucolic home has its own shadow of loss.

Jean-luc and Soji slow down as they pause in their journey and Will Riker acts as a kind of Tom Bombadil offering at least some brief shelter to the beleagured fugitives. Of course, the Enterprise crew reunion overwhelms this episode. It’s the inevitable big cameo and return of old favourites but Frakes and Sirtis do a magnificent job and are given their own bittersweet story of loss and grief. There is an odd sense of Riker being the older man here, almost as if he is mentoring Jean-Luc. Meanwhile it is Troi’s turn this week to give Jean-Luc the stern dressing down but she does it so well that I’ll forgive that we’ve had maybe a few too many of those. If anything, some of the earlier ones could have been dispensed with so as to gives Troi’s moment more space to hit home.

Soji has to grapple with questions of trust and quite rightly. She has zero reason to trust anything currently. Bonding with Troi and Riker’s daughter Kestra, gives her route to coming to terms with what she is and the questions she needs to answer. Interestingly, the odd dalliance with fantasy tropes that has been running through Picard, comes to the fore. The Troi-Riker’s older child Thad died from an incurable illness but his younger sister remembers him through the fantasy homeworld he had created including a panoply of imagined languages.

Another aspect made overt, is the emphasis on handmade food. When we first see Riker he is making pizza dough and leaves flour all over Jean-Luc when they hug. The protracted interaction between Soji, Kestra, Deanna, Jean-Luc and Will is framed by his continued assembly and cooking of pizza. Soji even suggests this emphasis on authenticity in the Troi-Riker lifestyle is a comment on her but both Deanna and the show imply something different.

The plot uses food to contrast moral authenticity (something Soji has regardless of whether she and her memories are fabricated) and so it is no surprise to find on board La Sirena, Agnes Jurati faced with replicated cake rather than handmade pizza with home grown tomatoes. The flashbacks that start episodes of Picard have caught up with the plot and we learn that Agnes was shown the “truth” about synthetic life forms via a Vulcan mind meld. It remains unclear whether Agnes is on a moral spectrum but manifestly the guilt and tension is destroying her. The eventual self-harm is traumatic and upsetting but helps the ship avoid Narek’s attempt to follow them to Soji. Alison Pill’s acting is superb catching the severe emotional distress of the character but still touching elements of humour and compassion. I don’t know where Agnes’s story is going and we still don’t know what was revealed to her or how she has been manipulated by Commodore Oh. I’m not even sure now whether the Commodore is a Romulan infiltrator or is acting in what she considers is the best interest of Starfleet.

Upsetting too is the eventual reprisals by Narissa on Hugh and the XB’s on the artefact. I’m not happy about Hugh’s fate. Quite where Elnor’s story is going I am not sure but there better be justice for the ex-Borgs by the end of this storyline or I’ll be having severe words with Michael Chabon.

Other Things

  • Yeah…I get why the incurable disease that Deanna’s son died from had to be ‘silicon based’ but it makes zero sense. A human body is going to be a desert for a tiny silicon virus if such a thing were possible.
  • I know I already said that I’m cross about Hugh dying but I’ll say it again.
  • Apparently nepenthe was thought to be borage – a word that is oddly close to borg but I assume that is coincidence.
  • I genuinely think that Federation society would have this fixation on hand made non-replicated food. Jean-Luc is the epitome of it, with his vineyard (and again, yes the local government of that region would find incentives to keep viticulture alive) but we also saw Maddox baking and of course Riker creating pizza from scratch.
  • It’s hard to tell if Riker and Troi would work as characters if we didn’t know who they were already but I think they would.

Trek Tuesday (but it’s Monday): The Sad Tale of Icheb the Borg

[Spoilers for Star Trek Voyager episodes Season 6: The Collective and Child’s Play and Season 7: Imperfection]

Poor Icheb: we know how he eventually dies courtesy of the opening of Star Trek Picard: Stardust City Rag, killed by Seven of Nine to end his suffering after he was captured and tortured to extract his Borg components. It is a grim end but Icheb is a character who has been chased by grim deaths since a child. While it is not uncommon for writers to create a character whose primary purpose is to die horribly so as to demonstrate emotional pain for a more central character, Icheb is a rare character whose in-story background was as a creation made to die tragically.

He appears in no less than 11 episodes of Star Trek Voyager, all in the final two seasons. He gets a brief appearance in the finale, beating Tuvok at a game (which serves to demonstrate how smart he is and also as a warning sign for Tuvok that a degenerative disease he has is getting worse). By this point in the story he is well on his way to joining Starfleet and it is implied that he reaches Earth along with the rest of the Voyager crew (after some time travel shenanigans by Janeway that should have been causally self-defeating). Only three episodes though advance his story.

The first The Collective offers a variation on the Borg we haven’t seen before: incompetent Borg. Voyager encounters a Borg cube that is much less imposing than normal. It has managed to capture some of the crew but it is easily incapacitated. The mystery is revealed when Voyager discovers that the crew are a small number of children. Some kind of pathogen has killed off the adult Borg but the children where in “maturation chambers” and survived. They attempted to maintain a collective mind but their communications with the rest of the Borg had somehow been shut off. Only later do we discover that the Borg collective had shut off communications because the cube was diseased and had simply left the Borg children to die*.

After various plot twists and conflicts, the children eventually surrender to Voyager after the accidental death of their leader “First”. Wrapping up the episode, Seven of Nine finds their records from the Borg ship and they re-learn their original names. The oldest is called Icheb and he has escaped his first three tragic fates: being assimilated by the Borg, dying from an anti-Borg pathogen and dying on an abandoned Borg cube.

The pathogen is a minor point in this episode. Captain Janeway toys with the idea of using it as a biological weapon against the Borg but decides against it. I’ve noticed in general, that Voyager episodes are often much less layered than other Trek series. There’s an A-plot but minimal B-plots or maybe that’s just the episodes I’ve seen.

A few episodes later we learn a lot more about Icheb. The Borg children are now living aboard Voyager. They are still somewhat Borgish and still require power from the Borg alcoves that Seven of Nine has in a cargo bay. Icheb has taken to studying astrometrics and is adapting to life onboard. So he is shocked and alarmed when Voyager makes contact with his original family. Seven of Nine also has complex feelings about this.

The episode Child’s Play mainly focuses on the complex feelings of both Seven of Nine and Icheb as they come to terms with a possible different future for Icheb.

His home planet (which he can’t recall) is near a Borg transwarp gateway and has suffered many Borg incursions. To adapt, they have adopted a low-profile technological basis so that they will be ignored by the Borg (igBorged?). The one technology they have fully embraced is genetic engineering of crops to allow them to farm effectively.

After much character growth and emotional pain, Icheb chooses to return to his family and Seven of Nine learns to let go…but as Voyager leaves orbit, Seven discovers a disturbing discrepancy in Icheb’s family’s story. Things are not as they appear to be…

This is a real horror twist in the episode but it doesn’t play out that way. Icheb’s father (an early appearance by Mark Sheppard who has an impressive track record in SFF shows) confesses to Voyager that Icheb is not what he appears to be. He is in fact a biological weapon, created by his family to kill the Borg. His genetics have been altered to create a pathogen in the event that the Borg try to assimilate him. Worse, an unconscious Icheb has already been put on a shuttle designed to look like it has warp engines to trick a passing Borg sphere.

Luckily, Voyager rescues Icheb in time and naturally he does not go back to his family or his home planet ever again. Eventually, the other Borg children do find new homes off Voyager but Icheb justifiably makes Voyager his home.

This is not Icheb’s last brush with death on Voyager. In the season 7 episode Imperfection, Seven of Nine’s “cortical implant” has started to malfunction and she faces an untimely death. After various attempts to get a replacement off Borg corpses it becomes clear that only a living donor can save Seven. Naturally Icheb offers his cortical implant, arguing that given his less advanced state of assimilation it should be possible for his body to adapt to doing without it. Seven refuses but to save her life Icheb finds a way of deactivating his implant independently, forcing the Doctor to remove and leaving Seven with a fiat-accompli.

Suffice to say both Seven and Icheb survive but it is a moving episode and it uses a clever twist on the Borg characters that they have ended up with character traits of willful independence in contrast to their collective nature. Re-learning to rely on others is part of their journey but they are both prone to excessive self-sacrifice.

Icheb’s end on Picard is horrible but after diving into his history it is doubly so. Yes, there is a grim inevitability to his death as a person who was literally made to die horribly. However, his near-deaths on Voyager were all set-up as sacrifices, horrible ones (especially as he was designed to die by his parents) but still deaths intended to serve some broader good even at an unethical cost. The tragedy of his actual death is it is framed as pointless. Even the greedy harvesting of Borg parts by the criminals who had captured him displays their ignorance — after all Icheb’s truely unique engineering is not Borg implants but his genetics which contain an anti-Borg super weapon.

Farewell then Icheb. Visually Star Trek:Discovery is the Goth one of the Trek family rather than Voyager that somehow remained veyr clean and shiny despite its premise but Icheb’s history was as dark as anything Discovery had to offer.

*[There are also baby-Borg onboard in incubators. I don’t think the episode ever actually states how many or what happens to them. I assume they all got de-borged and given nice homes somewhere.]