I am easily bored by the "What is Star Trek?" debate. This question has been asked for decades and it comes up with every new series, and now every new episode. It is a cliché and I avoid it like the plague.
That being said, "Stardust City Rag" is all wrong. This is not Star Trek.
The unrelenting cynicism; the brutal torture/gore; the utter lack of imagination; the Shocking Plot Reveals that seem to be motivated by the running time approaching the end of the episode more than character insight or smart writing; the overly coyly hidden secrets and agendas; the, yes, grimdark (another cliché term I hate) dystopian worldview — it all cumulatively takes its toll in "Stardust City Rag." This is ... well, it's just not very fun.
Look, I don't need sunshine and rainbows. I loved Battlestar Galactica, which started with a nuclear holocaust wiping out nearly all of humanity. But I do need some sort of intelligent approach to the material, and some humanity underpinning it, rather than lame, half-baked, lazy movie themes like Lawlessness and Vengeance. "Stardust City Rag" is such a chore at times to sit through that it never digs itself out of the hole it puts itself into with its first scene.
About that scene: It's the most gruesome and off-putting scene in the annals of filmed Star Trek. A scene in which an unidentified man — ultimately revealed to be poor Icheb, who was "like a son" to Seven — has his eyeball drilled and then pulled out of his head with a metal claw as he lies strapped to a table screaming. We're spared only the worst of the worst sights with just-barely-merciful camera framing. So, yes, you have my attention, but for all the wrong reasons. There is a time and place for violent content, but this is completely gratuitous, weakly motivated (*), and it crosses an unspoken line in the franchise and ventures into the wretched excess of exploitation.
* (1) Why do they need to extract Borg components from living subjects? Because they are sadists who blame the ex-Borg for having been assimilated, I guess? (2) How are eyes defined as Borg components when we know specifically that Seven and Icheb were given organic eye implants to replace their Borg optics when they were freed from the collective? Because just don't think about it, okay? That's why.
That scene is a flashback from 13 years earlier, where Seven comes to Icheb's rescue, but he is apparently beyond saving and asks for a mercy killing, which Seven grants. She is very angry about this, and it has defined her ever since. I don't blame her. I blame the writers. There were any number of a million ways to bring Seven back into the narrative. Why this?
Jeri Ryan, let it be said, is very good here, and represents a partial mitigation of this disaster. She's a convincing badass who also has the nuance needed to make the performance interesting, despite the relatively flat writing and clichéd character template. I am completely on board with advancing Seven to being a fully human personality since her days on Voyager. It is the logical conclusion, even if it takes away some of the inherent charm. Ryan should be cast into action movies immediately. Hell, I'd take a whole spinoff series on this character, if they could write her differently.
Seven has spent recent years as one of the Fenris Rangers. (This is a name that won't likely matter after this episode, because we're not doing world building here, we're doing cul-de-sac building.) They engage in vigilante justice on the edge of the former Romulan neutral zone, which has descended into chaos since the refugee crisis. Unbeknownst to Picard during most of the setup, she has also spent the years since Icheb's death looking for the one responsible.
Seven is also dismissive of Picard, because when the going got tough, Jean-Luc gave up and went home to his vineyard. (Okay, we get it. Picard shouldn't have let the perfect be the enemy of the good, etc., etc.) Now that Seven and Picard have crossed paths, Seven uses the ride to Freecloud to carry out her hidden agenda to kill Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan), the ex-Borg-hunter responsible for butchering Icheb.
But Picard's real mission here is to arrange the release of Bruce Maddox, who is being held by Bjayzl in her nightclub. This involves some undercover role playing and dress-up that comes dangerously close to being fun, if not for the sheer awkwardness of Picard doing a terrible French accent that makes his bad undercover work in "Gambit" look good. (And can someone explain to me why Picard isn't instantly recognized by people who should know who he is, given he's the famous former Locutus of Borg, whom ex-Borg-hunters might be interested in?)
Also in "Stardust City Rag": We learn just why Raffi has been trying to get to Freecloud. She has an estranged son and an expecting daughter-in-law she's never met, on the account of her substance abuse and chasing of "conspiracy theories" regarding the Mars attack, at the cost of attending to her family. This thin material makes for a scene that's cringe-inducing in its heavy-handed, melodramatic excess and subpar acting. It's also oddly rushed, although to make it longer would not likely make it better. Then as quickly as we learn Raffi has an estranged family, the scene is over and we're done with it, and she goes back to be with Picard. It's quite the journey for such a tepid, single-scene payoff. (And I realize this may be revisited, but that still doesn't make the strange rhythm of these character beats any better.)
Then there is the final scene, where Dr. Jurati, after having quietly existed as background noise for the last few episodes, becomes the Big Shocking Reveal when she tearfully murders Maddox while saying, "I wish I didn't know what I know." This plays into the season-long mystery. Jurati — Maddox's ex-lover, no less — kills him because she feels she must because of whatever dark secret is being protected by both the Tal Shiar and the Starfleet colluders regarding Soji's existence, as conveyed to Jurati by Commodore Oh. But this is still infuriating in its pointless shock-schlock nature, which has become painfully predictable. Yes, five minutes after we've traveled all this way for half the season to find this character and save him from the bad guys, one of our own kills him for what must be some perceived greater good to be later revealed. Um, yay?
On the plus side, "Stardust City Rag" has a more serviceable structure than some previous episodes. It tells a mostly self-contained story and moves the plot more quickly. And it doesn't have any scenes featuring Narek/Soji or Narek/Narissa. And it has Seven of Nine. Small victories.
But what we get here is depressingly rote. Revenge. Frontier justice. Alien sin cities. Undercover operations with precious little wit and lots of bland scumbags. Stupid nonlinear shifts in the narrative that exist for no reason except to exist. Conspiracy-murder twists. This world feels drab, played out, and joyless. It's a waste of the TNG legacy, and this is from someone who was okay with shaking things up. But the point has come when you have to squint to make out the thing for what the thing used to be. We have strayed too far.
We are halfway through the season now. The opening torture scene was something from which "Stardust City Rag" could never recover. I hope "Stardust City Rag" doesn't become the episode from which Star Trek: Picard can't recover.
The title character still offers hope; I just fear the universe isn't listening. He makes Picardian speeches about murder being wrong, and he has a good moment with Seven about their journey of reclaiming their humanity from their Borg assimilation.
But for fuck's sake, Picard needs to stop telling us these things, and Star Trek: Picard needs to start showing us.