It's hard to render a proper verdict upon "Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1" when "Part 2" is still waiting in the wings, but based on what I see here, my hopes are fading fast.
The thing about building out a single plot over 10 episodes is that you are really putting your eggs in one basket — all but demanding the audience to expect a well-thought-out, compelling through-line, as opposed to a half-baked movie plot that's simply longer. (Many frequently cite Lost as the reason why we are where we are today with TV structures like this season of Picard. I disagree. Netflix, with its endless supply of made-to-binge shows, is why we are here. Lost was an episodic character anthology series just as much as it was a serialized arc show, and there were tons of plots on that show, not a single plot being told over 10 — or in its case, up to 24 — installments. I wish more shows had the varied structure of Lost.)
In "Arcadia," we've finally reached Soji's homeworld, Coppelius, a destination we've been pointing toward since the second episode, and I can't say what I see here is especially compelling. I mean, it's not terrible; it's just very ... meh. There are a few reasonable ideas here, but there are also flashing red warning signs of lackluster things on the horizon.
The most intriguing new idea revealed in "Broken Pieces" was the concept of an ancient society setting up a warning (called the "Admonition"), and going so far as to move eight stars into place to draw attention to it. That's kind of a big deal. The attention drawn ended up being the Romulans' hundreds of years ago, which led to their staunch campaign against advanced AI that continues to the present day. What we learn about the Admonition in "Arcadia" is that it was actually not a warning at all, but a calling — from an advanced AI society that apparently still exists.
What is not particularly intriguing is that the senders of this message are hoping to reach other synths that might want to join them in protecting themselves from their own creators who have grown to fear them. So we have yet another "potential uprising of the machines over their masters" retelling — which is pretty much the only story that ever seems to get told about AI. Maybe part two will surprise me in delivering something more original. Like I said, I'm not especially hopeful. This episode is really about building toward the promise of that conflict.
Did I mention that the episode begins with a serviceable space battle in orbit of Coppelius when Narek attacks La Sirena, and then Seven brings the Borg cube through the transwarp conduit? Then all three ships are brought down with the Coppelius colony's defensive space orchids. (*) Crashed on the surface, Picard & Co. trek across the desert (in a trope typical of TNG, prompting fond memories) and find the downed Borg cube, where they greet and then say goodbye to Seven and Elnor, who vow to take up Hugh's mantle in protecting the ex-Borg — until next week at least, when the Borg cube inevitably enters back into the finale's plot.
* A couple space orchids can bring down a Borg cube (even if it's a damaged one)? I call BS.
Picard & Co. next trek over to the synth colony/facility, which is run by none other than Altan Inigo Soong (Brent Spiner), self-professed mad scientist, former partner of the late Bruce Maddox, and son of Data-creator Noonian Soong himself. This allows Spiner to return in a non-Data role, in what is no less than the third member of the Soong family tree he has played. (In addition to Soong Sr. and now Jr., he also played a Soong ancestor in the Enterprise "Augments" trilogy.) This is one of those conceits that demands willful credulity and so you just go with it, because, hey, all the world's a stage.
What's unfortunate is that this character ultimately (to be fair, "ultimately" is probably the wrong word; after all, we still have part two next week) feels surprisingly thin. Spiner is effective enough, and Soong Jr. gets some decent dialogue scenes, especially with Jurati — but he ends up taking sides in a brewing organics-versus-synths conflict in a way that feels too artificially adversarial, simplistic, and lacking in intellectual debate. I must protect my children, because the Federation won't!
This conflict and perspective is mostly played out through an earlier gold-skinned version of Soji's model, named Sutra. When our characters arrive to warn the colony of the approaching Romulans, the discussion moves on to the Admonition, leading Sutra to experience it herself through Jurati by performing a mind meld on her (*), which is how she comes to understand the true message that was created by the mysterious society of synths, who are still out there in some form somewhere.
* An android can perform a mind meld on a human? I call BS.
Narek also figures into this. He's been captured and is being held prisoner, leading to a cold reunion between him and Soji. Sutra colludes wth Narek and allows him to escape, pinning the murder of another synth (*) on him so she can rally the colony into action under They Just Want to Destroy Us. As storytelling goes, this lacks ambition. As always, the fate of the universe has to be filtered down to the amateurish intrigue and maneuvering of a few key people.
* This synth is apparently dispatched by piercing her eye with a piece of jewelry. I call BS, unless she has an "off" switch like Data and it just happens to be in her eye.
In between the plot, there are some character matters to deal with here, mostly around Picard revealing to the crew that he's dying from the Irumodic Syndrome That Shall Not Be Actually Named, nor talked of again after this. This stuff is fine and I have little else to say about it until we find out if Picard actually dies next week, which seems really unlikely in a show with his name on it that has already been renewed for a second season.
You'd think an episode that turns up the pretensions by invoking a Latin title would try working a little harder. Who knows; maybe with the second part of this finale, I'll be surprised. For now, not so much. A good cliffhanger should have you excited for what comes next, but I find I'm instead wondering how many ways the creators can botch this, and not really caring much if they do or don't. That's not a good sign.
Some other thoughts:
- Picard continues to speak the values of Classic Starfleet, but is undercut by the argument that Starfleet banned synths and therefore that value system doesn't exist. This is unfortunately where the central thesis suffers from being undercooked as a philosophical dilemma because it's functioning more as superficial plotting.
- This colony felt a little too arid and cult-like for my tastes. It would've been nice to see a fresher sci-fi slant to this, and not just human behavior ported into androids.
- Soong Jr., who hints at not having much time left, shows Jurati a "golem" synth that he looks prepared to transfer his memories into before he dies. Stay tuned.
- Soji sides against Picard and with her synthetic sisters. This is almost certainly a long-game ploy, or at least something she'll backtrack on, so she can ultimately face off against Sutra, with the two sisters representing two opposing ideologies (or "good robot" versus "bad robot" if you're being cynical).
- Elnor is a sketch of a character. Other than swordplay and lighthearted "innocent kid" vibes, we didn't learn much about what makes this guy tick.
- Commodore Oh and the Romulans are headed to Coppelius to destroy the synths. They have 218 ships, which is a fleet size that seems excessive for the situation and for a Zhat Vash/Tal Shiar "covert" operation. I still don't understand the larger Romulan political situation at all. Clearly, neither do the writers.
- Will we ever get to see Starfleet's reinforcements that were sent to Deep Space 12? Or will this all be resolved with the chess pieces already on the board? The latter would be more typical of the "small universe" tendencies of this series and Discovery.