"Assimilation" is a step down after the first two refreshingly absorbing episodes of the season, but it's still a pretty enjoyable outing despite its notable flaws, and brisk enough that it doesn't feel too much like the latest setting-resetting episode (the third in a row, no less) it primarily serves as. Its mission is to get us to the year 2024 and provide some initial things for the characters to do there, and it does that, with some threads that work to varying degrees ranging from somewhat clunky to reasonably good.
While it looked like the crew of La Sirena was going to be recaptured by Seven's husband and detained in the fascistic alternate timeline of the 25th century, this episode says "psych!" (*) and quickly dispatches all the bad guys, and the ship slingshots around the sun and arrives in the 21st century, all before the opening credits.
* If this crew can time-travel back to 2024, then I'm allowed to time-travel back to the early 1990s.
Elnor, having been shot by the Confederation forces, dies of his wounds, which sends Raffi into an emotional tailspin that's overacted by Michelle Hurd. Making Raffi so overly emotional to the point of being unprofessional (Picard even mentions she's too emotional to be going off on her own) is not a great look, and the writers are not doing the character any favors by doing this. Her lashing out and blaming Picard for "engaging in these games with Q" is even more ridiculous and forced. Just when I thought this character had been rehabilitated by being back in Starfleet's good graces, the writers have her go on this rant. Please, no more Angry Raffi.
For that matter, I'm not sure exactly why the writers felt a need to bring Elnor along on this time-travel adventure in the first place, only to immediately kill him off, unless it's to bring a (rather needless) personal stake to the storyline. The characters ponder whether restoring the timeline will bring Elnor back. (According to every time-travel story rule we know of, it shouldn't, since the "real" Elnor is here and not in the timeline he actually belongs in, but such rules are meaningless and flexible since they honestly make no sense regardless. Besides, there's also the Q factor here, which could do any number of other things.) At least this means we won't have to endure any scenes explaining away Elnor's state of being a Romulan, and whatever a 2022 equivalent of Kirk's 1967 "rice picker" explanation for Spock was in "The City on the Edge of Forever." But adding personal stakes (saving Elnor) when we already have plenty of plot ones (averting the fascist timeline) seems redundant.
The actual plot breaks down into (1) Picard and Jurati's attempt to hack into the dormant Borg Queen's mind in an effort to reactivate her and gain the crucial information about the Watcher, and (2) Seven, Raffi, and Rios beaming to Los Angeles to start looking for the Watcher, a mysterious individual who holds key information about the event that will catastrophically alter the timeline.
The hacking attempt requires someone to enter the Queen's mind in an attempt to jump-start her (or something). It's a risky endeavor that can result in the hacker becoming the hackee and being mentally overtaken and assimilated by the Queen. The risks would be far greater for Picard, who could be controlled by the Queen in a matter of seconds since she's already familiar with his mind as someone who was previously assimilated. So Jurati makes the attempt instead. This is intriguing because it presents assimilation as a psychological exercise rather than a matter of Borg technology. Agnes must go into the Queen's mind as the Queen attempts to do the same to her. The resulting scene alternates between haunting and hokey. It's also too brief to build into anything substantial. Imagine if this had been drawn out into an intense psychodrama like TNG's "Sarek" and really explored Agnes' fears at length.
The scenes in Los Angeles are pretty good, if nothing to write home about. Seven, Raffi, and Rios beam into the city and arrive at different locations. Raffi gets mugged. Seven is mistaken by a child as a superhero. They find each other and begin looking for the Watcher. They show evidence of making a solid buddy-cop team (with a romantic history that's not overplayed here).
Rios crash-lands on a balcony in a slapstick moment that at first made me laugh before I saw him lying unconscious on the ground and bleeding from the head. He ends up in a nearby clinic ("no hospitals, no police, no papers") where they treat his concussion and don't ask too many questions, especially about his immigration status. One thing of value I found here is that Rios' likability really shines through in a more relaxed setting. Maybe I'm forgetting too much of season one, but I feel like Santiago Cabrera didn't get a lot of moments to just be a solid dude. His scenes here with the doctor (Sol Rodriguez) who helps him and her young son feature an easygoing charm. Ultimately, he's arrested during an ICE raid and separated from his combadge. As a Starfleet officer, one thing you never want to do in the past is lose a piece of technology.
"Assimilation" is not going to be remembered for doing anything grand or memorable. It's an hour of setting the stage for the crew-out-of-time premise, and there are some promising things to build on here. Think of the more average moments from Star Trek IV or Voyager's "Future's End," and that's mostly what we have here.
"Don't tell me they don't use money in the 23rd century." "Well, we don't.":
- After getting mugged (in a scene where Raffi deals with the mugger in a "gives zero F's" kind of way), Raffi seems somewhat surprised and amused at the concept of money, which suggests this season is rolling back or ignoring the first season's suggestion that money in the 24th century was very real on Earth and the reason why Raffi was all but exiled to the middle of nowhere where she stewed angrily at Picard for leaving her hanging out to dry.
- This episode basically treats the Borg Queen like she's the same one from the real timeline, even though she's actually from the Confederation timeline and can merely see across to other timelines. I'd have preferred if the dialogue had treated her more as the latter, but it acts more like the former.
- Did I correctly interpret the brief visual and Picard's mention of "home" that Picard crashed the ship just outside of Chateau Picard? Do the Picards still own it back in the 21st century? Are we going to meet Picard's vineyard-owning ancestors?
- Q shows up very briefly just before the ship travels back in time. His inconclusively cryptic dialogue seems to indicate he thinks this is a bad idea.
- "Goddamn" seems to be the expletive of choice on this show. I find that odd since TNG was always a purely atheistic landscape, at least as far as humans were concerned. I suppose many if not most people who use the term even today ascribe no religious meaning to it (I don't), but it still strikes me as weird and distracting coming from 25th-century Starfleet types.
- Seven sees the hills outside of downtown L.A. on fire and notes the deterioration of the planet's environment, pointing toward the future where Q said the planet was on "life support." If so, this would indicate we still have at least four centuries left to slow the damage, which is not the level of urgency I imagine the writers are trying to project.
- I suppose it seems appropriate that Lea Thompson, who directed this episode, is still in the middle of a plot with an altered timeline, just as she was nearly 40 years ago in the role she's most famous for.
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