After Picard goes missing, the crew tracks his movements to a bar whose criminal clientele claim he was killed in a fight. DNA evidence seems to corroborate the story. Riker opens an investigation to find the people responsible for the captain's presumed murder and bring them to justice. This leads the Enterprise to the surface of a planet whose archaeological artifacts have been raided by a group of alien mercenaries, who open fire on the away team and capture Riker. Aboard their ship as a prisoner, Riker discovers that — twist alert! — Picard is a member of their crew.
"Gambit" is a two-parter that lives or dies on plot execution and twists and turns; there's really not much else to it. The characters exist to drive the action and there are no larger themes to consider, Trekkian or otherwise. My most significant thought inspired by "Gambit" is that when you consider Star Trek back in the TOS days — where space was like an untamed frontier — and then consider it again in the latter TNG days — where six-plus seasons of universe creation has built something familiar and recognizable — then rogue mercenaries seem almost oddly out of place and novel.
With Picard and Riker both aboard the mercenary ship, that leaves Data in command of the Enterprise, who appoints Worf as first officer. This transition is not without its growing pains; Worf grumbles publicly about Data's decisions to sit and wait for analysis rather than taking to pursuit of the mercenaries and their vessel. Data eventually pulls Worf aside and tells him not to openly question his decisions once they've been made. Brent Spiner shows again how good he is in this role by portraying Data as stern and forceful, but without seeming angry — and all the while maintaining an android-like persona. He very successfully walks a fine line in the performance.
Meanwhile, aboard the mercenary ship, Picard explains to Riker how he has become a member of the crew, posing as a smuggler named Galen, and hoping to uncover their plan. Picard (and Stewart) plays Galen with an amusing dose of swagger and cynicism, who is at odds with the mercenary leader, Baran (Richard Lynch, who looks and sounds like a lowlife villain should look and sound). Picard hopes to quietly exploit the fractures in the uneasy alliances among this group. He enlists Riker to play the part of Galen's new rival, thereby getting in good with Baran. This is kind of fun, but I for one would like to know how someone as famous as Picard isn't instantly recognizable to just about everyone in the Alpha Quadrant, especially after the Borg incident. Is there no Wikipedia in the 24th century?
There are numerous games afoot in "Gambit." In addition to Riker's attempts to ally with Baran, there's also a Romulan named Tallera (Robin Curtis, better here than as Saavik in Treks III and IV), who has a secret agenda hidden beneath her secret identity as a Vulcan operative, providing the story with a double-layered twist that emerges in its second part.
"Gambit" has a workable plot which manages to hold together as the story jumps from star system to star system. Its problem is that it could never get over the hump of "meh" in terms of my involvement with it. The cliffhanger moment at the end of part one is transparently obvious (why try to milk suspense out of a moment that's clearly a con?), and there are crucial payoffs that fall flat, number one being the death of Baran, who is conned into killing himself with his own power-wielding control device. It should be a deliciously ironic moment, but it's a disappointment.
And this story, with its ancient artifacts hiding a mysterious secret and a chase across the sector, also seems very similar to brisker paced, more economical "The Chase." While "Gambit" doesn't feel blatantly padded, it also doesn't have a story impact that remotely justifies two episodes. It turns out Tallera is the real villain, vying to assemble from the artifacts an ancient Vulcan weapon in her attempt to wield ultimate power. But this plays like more low-rent Indiana Jones, right down to the revelation that the weapon is useless because it can be defeated by peaceful thoughts. (It's another payoff that seems underwhelming, boiling down to the fact that Picard has done his homework and Tallera has not.) "Gambit" is intended as a straightforward adventure yarn with no lasting significance. Okay, so it is, and it has its moments. But on the whole it left me cold.