What a difference a week makes.
After the dour and trope-ridden experience that was "Stardust City Rag" last week, "The Impossible Box" is nothing short of a series turnaround. Here is a story with purpose; characters with motivation; a script with curiosity and nuance; action with genuine danger and suspense; cinematic sequences of evocative atmosphere; moments of humanity and emotion; and mysteries and puzzles that are actually interesting. Oh, and a thematic point about the salvation of ex-Borg souls that speaks directly to Picard. Welcome back, Star Trek.
Speaking to the overarching tendencies of this series, it's perhaps not the most reassuring sign that I kept dreading all the goodwill was going to suddenly evaporate in a final scene featuring some dopey twist ending (I was prepared to go on a rampage over, say, Hugh suddenly betraying Picard or stabbing Soji or some nonsense), but I'm happy to report that such a thing never happens. This story plays straight and gimmick-free to the end and is all the better for it.
Having tracked Soji to the Artifact (aka, the derelict Borg cube), Picard finds he must once again face his biggest nemesis — reliving the past horrors of Borg assimilation and again confronting that permanent psychological damage.
But first, we get a fun scene that allows Raffi to showcase her usefulness among this motley crew, by pressuring an old friend from Starfleet into granting Picard diplomatic access to the Artifact. The way she does this, by boxing in her friend and giving her no real choice but to pull the strings, basically destroys an old and reliable friendship, which sends Raffi into another tailspin of depressed drinking and drug use. While I feel the writers continue to pile on when it comes to Raffi and her misery, I liked that this episode dealt with it in a sympathetic and straightforward way, without the overwrought melodrama that has typified many of her most important scenes. The quiet scene with Rios in Raffi's quarters — where she reveals to him that she has a son — reveals an arms-length friendship that dates back years, and for both of them may be one of the few ongoing relationships they have. Loners be lonely.
Aboard the Artifact, Picard's terror and disorientation is palpable, and the flashes of images and sounds effectively showcase the psychosomatic effect being aboard a Borg ship has on him. This works so well because it's a core piece of the character and his mental state, being revisited all these years later in a new way. (There are echoes of First Contact here, with Picard talking bitterly and angrily about what the Borg represent before boarding the ship.) This mission is important to him, and the fact that he is willing to take on this obviously taxing strain on his psyche speaks to that.
Picard is reunited with Hugh, and their dialogue and shared warmth is one of the best things about this episode. Finally, we have some emotionally resonant humanity brought back into this series, and in a way that ties legitimately into TNG history while telling a new story. (And finally there's someone who's not annoyed with Picard because he's so old and out of touch!)
The real thematic highlight here is watching Picard realize what Hugh is doing as the director of the reclamation project — giving former Borg drones new lives and restoring their humanity, like what happened for Hugh and Picard alike. Hugh's comment that the Artifact is no longer a Borg cube, and the way Picard is able to experience it that way after his earlier and understandably bitter tirade, makes for some really great stuff. I found this sequence genuinely poignant in a way rarely seen in modern TV Trek (I'm looking at you, Discovery), because it's all about connecting to the humanistic ethos of Star Trek. This episode has a fundamental understanding of both the Borg and Picard that proves essential and makes the story work emotionally and intellectually. (It's reassuring that the Borg cube — aside from providing the setting for Narek's plot to get information from Soji — turns out to be used for some bigger ideas, rather than just a plot machine arising from one of the most popular elements of Trek.)
Speaking of Narek and Soji, this episode moves their storyline along to its conclusion in a way that is far more engaging than the previous episodes' wheel-spinning had me prepared for. The "impossible box" at the heart of the episode that's needing to be opened is really a psychological enclosure lying deep within Soji's subconscious as a synthetic being who was programmed to believe she was real but is beginning to uncover evidence that indicates otherwise. She has recurring dreams of a childhood she doesn't realize she never had. In one compelling sequence, she realizes every possession she owns is only 37 months old, proving that her entire life is a fabrication. Isa Briones sells the terror of this realization.
Meanwhile, Narek's attempts to guide Soji through the journey of her subconscious reveals some depth. He likens the task to that of solving a difficult puzzle where the reward is overcoming the challenge of solving it. And if he's still only doing this to complete his objective, it's interesting to see that he's at least conflicted about killing Soji, even as he goes through with the attempt anyway. (And if Narissa still sucks as a one-dimensional villain, the episode at least seems to realize it by validating Narek's more measured approach while he mocks her lack of patience.)
This all comes together in a final act where Narek solves his puzzle to learn the whereabouts of the other synths, and Soji comes to realize her true nature, then Narek attempts to kill her with a poison gas. Soji's self-preservation programming kicks in and gives her the super-strength needed to escape, just as Picard and Hugh come to her aid to help her escape the Artifact. As action goes, this is not groundbreaking, but it works well because the character stakes are involving.
Where last week's cumulative injection of bile eventually felt toxic and repellent, this week's examples of characters working problems and facing psychological crises in human ways proved refreshing, and they cumulatively add up to the best episode of Picard so far. Let's hope this represents a turning point in the series for the better.
Some other thoughts:
- Excellent production design and visuals aboard the Borg ship. Very cool.
- It would've been nice to have Seven for this episode to see what it could've meant for her character. Thematically, it would've all connected.
- Elnor the bodyguard again plays the part of "the kid" and "a fish out of water" in low-key, jokey ways. It's more of a character sketch than a full character, but it provides some welcome levity.
- It may be too soon for this, but assuming the synth colony that's the object of Narek's search doesn't want to be found (very possibly a wrong assumption on my part), why program Soji with memories of its real location?
- Agnes sleeps with Rios, as a way of temporarily distracting her from the pain of having murdered Maddox (which none of the other characters know she was responsible for). This was one of the few ho-hum things that I could've done without. It just doesn't feel especially earned or necessary.
- And speaking of Agnes, the dark secret she is carrying — not the murder itself, but why she felt she had to murder someone she both loved and admired, based on what she knows, and which Maddox didn't know, and which she wished she didn't know — has an impossibly high bar to clear to feel justified and narratively satisfying. This feels like the writers having painted themselves into a corner, but we shall see.
- Picard and Soji escape the Artifact with long-range teleportation technology the Borg assimilated from the Sikarians, who were the people from Voyager's "Prime Factors."
- The posting of this review happens on the 25th anniversary of the Jammer's Reviews website (under all its various names), which is something. I'll post a separate article to mark the occasion soon.