So, now that I see the full picture, I realize what season one of Star Trek: Picard is actually about.
It's not about the Romulan refugee crisis. It's not about the reclamation project going on in the derelict Borg cube. It's not about the Zhat Vash or the Tal Shiar or undercover Romulan commodores, or the attack on Mars or the synth ban. It's not about catching up with Hugh or Riker or Troi or Seven, or about Soji learning her true identity, or Raffi drinking and vaping all the time, or Rios and his holograms, or everyone trying to track down Bruce Maddox only so that Agnes could kill him, or about the robot apocalypse.
Oh, sure, it was sometimes very much about all those things. But, ultimately, it wasn't about them. Thematically, emotionally, spiritually — nah. I see now that all those things were basically very elaborate and prolonged MacGuffins. The means to an end. They don't matter, except to fill 10 episodes of screen time, to distract us, to misdirect us, and hopefully entertain us along the way (with variable degrees of success).
No, what this season of Star Trek: Picard is actually about is Picard saying goodbye to Data.
I've gotta say, the fact we came all this way to learn this is what it's actually about is, to me, nothing short of a total writer's coup. This is audacious. It's heartfelt and sincere. It turns the plot on its head and makes everything about this one personal moment. It reveals something about this show's writers that my cynicism just last week would not have thought was possible, given how mechanical everything was shaping up to be. Credit where credit is due. I did not see this coming in quite this way.
There is plot, and then there is story. I think Roger Ebert once said something along the lines of: Plots are about things that happen; stories are about people who behave. This season had a lot of plot. The story essentially provides the bookends, where Picard gets, and provides, closure for Data.
In retrospect, it was all there in full display from the very first scene of the very first episode, where Picard plays poker with Data in Ten-Forward. We've come full circle. The season begins with a dream, and ends with … well, a "simulation." It's fascinating stuff. Because in addition to being about Picard saying goodbye to Data, it's about death (both Picard's and Data's) and what that might mean when advanced artificial intelligence provides a very significant twist.
The final scenes of "Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2" are very, very good. They are so good, in fact, they almost make me want to wave away all the ham-fisted silliness of the many scenes that precede those final scenes. Because as much as the story ends up paying off here, the plot is frequently a disjointed mess with no shortage of idiocy. It fortunately has the benefit of also being entertaining, even exciting at times. But the whole race against the clock to stop a would-be robot apocalypse is as dumb as a box of rocks. Fortunately we have those final scenes to provide the insight and wisdom.
I will discuss but not belabor the plot, seeing as it's the placeholder wind-up toy to the final scenes' actual character insights. Narek joins the crew of La Sirena in their attempt to storm the synth compound and stop the broadcast of a beacon that also opens a portal to an advanced unknown AI society that lives in some other dimension. (This AI "society" is represented not by any kind of intriguing advanced machine intelligence, but by a collection of threatening metallic monster tentacles that are even dumber than I'd feared.)
Meanwhile, Narissa attempts to take control of the Borg cube, presumably so she can join the fight alongside Oh and her already-excessive Romulan fleet, but mostly so she can get into an Epic Girlfight with Seven of Nine. Having these two on the ship at the same time made this fight all but inevitable, but I was surprised at how lacking it was in cleverness and basic action competence. Seven has a phaser drawn on Narissa and could just stun her, but no. She stupidly gets close enough to have the gun knocked out of her hand so we can go through the motions. (What if, instead of this obligatory half-assed fight, we just had Seven stunning Narissa immediately and uttering some witty line — sort of an homage to Indiana Jones shooting the swordfighter?)
What was perhaps unexpected was that Sutra would be so easily dealt with (Soong disables her when he realizes she murdered her synth sister), and that this would be about convincing Soji to surrender. While I appreciate that this comes down to Picard making a personal plea using his connection to Soji (and the approach overall of seeing these synths as "children" who have limited understanding of human nature), I do feel like Soji is depicted as too blind to the consequences of her actions (and far too willing to uncork a robot apocalypse that would unleash untold death) considering she used to identify as human herself just days ago.
Faring better as cinema, there's a big, busy battle between space orchids and Romulan warbirds, which even manages to incorporate the Picard Maneuver into the proceedings. And I very much enjoyed the arrival of the Federation fleet, with an unretired Captain Riker in command, who awesomely stares Oh down and gives her the non-choice to surrender.
Meanwhile, Picard's terminal illness ticks down to zero just as all the plot is wrapping up. (The timing of Picard's illness — how it has virtually no symptoms until the very moment it's about to kill him, which is coincidentally right when the story resolves itself — is one of the most conveniently timed negative illness outcomes of all time.) Picard dies right there in front of his new makeshift crew. And everyone is very sad, and it's all laid on very thick with everyone crying, and my thought was: "Really? This is how they kill off a legendary character?"
But then we get the coda.
Picard finds himself sitting in a room. It's a dark, stark, metallic gray living room with bookshelves and a stone fireplace. It somehow feels like purgatory itself. Data is there, wearing the uniform he died in. He informs Picard that, yes, you have in fact died, and that this is a "very complex quantum simulation." And in this room, Picard and Data talk about what's happening, what has happened, how they both died, and what that means to them. This scene runs the gamut of moods and meanings, both intellectual and emotional. It's fascinating, eerie, serene, wondrous, haunting, heartbreaking, and special.
This scene deals with the big ideas the franchise has striven for in its best moments, pondering the nature of the human experience, and life and death. The dialogue unfolds in a straightforward, forthcoming, and yet not dumbed-down way that's rooted in the TNG analytical style and so perfectly represented by these two specific characters. It's a true work of art that's the stuff of Star Trek greatness, and I would put it up there with some of the best scenes in the history of the franchise. In this place, Picard is finally able to make peace with Data's death. It ironically happens after Picard himself has died.
Similarly, the scene where Picard learns his memories have been transferred into Soong's "golem" — a synthetic yet organic body which looks and feels exactly like his own, with a human life expectancy — is also allowed to unfold with great interest and discussion. (On a show that has had a tendency to skip over details, these closing scenes don't.) This transformation has implications large and small; Picard has essentially survived the death of his body by having his mind transferred to a second body. (This happens in a way I'd say is more like cloning than robotics.) This sci-fi idea is not a new one, but by applying it to an iconic character, it's given more weight and reality. I just hope the second season follows up on the implications and what the man actually thinks about this. (Are you still "you" with your own "soul," or a facsimile with that person's memories who merely thinks so? Is there a difference?)
And then we get the scene where Picard keeps his promise to Data, allowing Data's memories in the "simulation" to be terminated, effectively allowing a forever-suspended virtual Data to finally die, providing Data the meaning of mortality. This is also a lovely scene, using "Blue Skies" to wonderful effect in a way that bookends the season (and ties back to Nemesis), and just really hits the right emotional notes as we see a virtual Data aging into an old man and dying. Great stuff.
And then we get the final scene on the bridge of La Sirena, which hits the classic "and the adventure continues" notes. Picard wryly notes that it's a good thing the synth ban has been lifted, since now he is one. The motley crew looks more like a family, with everyone taking their spot on the bridge. It's a nice, light note to cap off all the substantive stuff preceding it.
That this season can end on so many of these notes gives me great hope. That we had to first sit through 40 minutes of watchable B-movie mediocrity is, I guess, the price of doing business — but a price I will gladly pay, granted with a score that must land on three stars rather than four. But if you're going to send your audience out for the year, this is the way to do it. This season of Picard took a while to get going, faced some major stumbles, then a fairly strong run leading up to a middling climax. But it's redeemed with its amazing final scenes, which are smart enough to know what Star Trek is about while committing to being about them, gracefully, artfully, and with real feeling.
Some closing thoughts:
- Seeing how well the episode closes things out, amid a lot of other things that are, in retrospect, way less important, it got me thinking that maybe this would've been better and tighter with fewer episodes (or even as a movie) rather than a 10-episode season. The economics of it probably made that impossible, however.
- I said this about the premiere and will say it again here: This gives so much more weight and meaning to Data's death in Nemesis, which felt like a pointless trick at the time but is now made retroactively worthwhile.
- Maybe Picard didn't have Irumodic Syndrome after all. It's never mentioned by name, and he suffers no dementia-type symptoms before it abruptly kills him.
- I don't like the visual arrangement of the fleets during the big standoff. The way the ships warp in and stop on a dime, and the way the ships are crammed comically close to each other, makes this feel like an over-the-top CGI cartoon. There's no weight or dimension to starships anymore. They have unfortunately become video game avatars that look like they were cloned with copy and paste.
- The synth ban is quickly reversed here. Considering it was put in place as a result of the Mars androids being hacked by a foreign power, the Federation policymakers should be declared incompetent, since they apparently can't mount a useful investigation.
- It seems unfathomable to me that the same people who wrote the Picard/Data scenes also wrote the alien synths as metallic tentacles trying to evilly claw their way through a portal. It's like they didn't even care and put in the lamest, most perfunctory effort possible. Maybe their eye was on the real ball of Picard/Data.
- I guess Jurati just goes free for Maddox's murder? Just kind of handling it as an internal La Sirena matter, never to be spoken of again? Chalked up to Romulan/Vulcan brainwashing?
- Seven and Raffi are totally gonna hook up.
- The third season of Discovery still doesn't have a premiere date beyond "soon." I intend to be back for that (though I myself hope for a break of at least a couple of months, but I'm not sure if that's going to happen), but as always, we'll see what's going on at that time.
- As I close out this season, I wanted to properly observe the 25th anniversary of Jammer's Reviews with this post. It turned out a little more serious than I probably had originally imagined, but we are living in some serious times. Be safe out there. I hope to see you here again soon. Thanks for reading.
Previous episode: Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1