"Penance" is what Q says Picard must provide in this episode, rather than Q serving up one of his traditional tests or trials. It is also one of those, but Q's mention of a penance raises the question of for whom and why atonement is required. Further raising the stakes and mystery is the fact Q is perhaps "not well," as Picard notes. (I was going to note that John de Lancie was pushing way too hard in angry moments of these scenes, until it became clear this was by design.) Picard is in a timeline where humanity has realized the full vision of the "savage race" Q once accused them of being — a fascist galactic force that violently attacks and subjugates everyone it encounters, from the Klingons to the Cardassians to the Vulcans.
Since Q has granted Picard some "help," our other characters are also aware of the change in the timeline. "Penance" is about getting everyone reassembled as they try to navigate a frightening new reality. General Picard is a world-famous galactic military conquistador with Romulan house slaves, and Picard's horror in realizing what he is here is palpable.
Seven, having never been assimilated by the Borg, is President Annika Hansen of the Confederation of Earth. Humanity is currently at war with the Vulcans, where Rios is on the front lines of a Vulcan planetary assault. Earth is protected by an ominous-looking planetary shield, but Q notes the planet itself is "on life-support." We catch up with Raffi and Elnor in Okinawa, where oppressed dissidents rejoice as they bomb skyscrapers. So things here aren't great.
The episode does a good job establishing this world and getting its characters up to speed quickly, while also developing a plot where they must work their way through the harrowing experience while pulling off a caper. It's "Eradication Day," in which the final member of a species will be publicly executed in front of a howling mob. That species is the Borg, and the queen (Annie Wersching) is their last survivor, being held in Jurati's lab. The queen, however, has an ability to see through into other possible timelines, and she recognizes our characters as being out of place. She pinpoints an event in "Los Angeles, 2024" upon which history took its sinister turn. The crew plans to steal the queen to help them pilot back through time, using Jim Kirk's old slingshot-around-the-star method of time travel. (Wersching is good in her turn as the Borg Queen, weird and alien and skittishly vulnerable in a way this character rarely is.)
So that sets the stage. With the mission parameters in place, the rest of the episode is piece-moving and action plotting, much of which you can probably imagine without seeing, but which works entertainingly and solidly nonetheless. This is gripping and enjoyable and the pace of the plotting is a welcome change after the recent meandering of Discovery. And if none of this is stunningly original, it's executed with skill and confidence and finds a way to use the characters mostly effectively.
Until the last-minute boarding of La Sirena by Annika's suspecting magistrate husband (Jon Jon Briones), it looked like this episode was already done with this alternate dystopia and ready to jump straight back to the 21st century, signifying a more episodic adventure approach to the season. Since it ends on a possible-setback cliffhanger, we'll have to wait to see if the series has more to do here or not. But I'm encouraged by the upped tempo.
In terms of substance, time will tell as to whether the dystopian alt-setting or time-travel back to the 21st century will have any sort of thematic through-line or useful commentary. But for now it serves mostly as the backdrop for a nightmare scenario for our characters to experience and attempt escape.
"You will now answer to the charge of being a grievously savage race":
- When Picard says the future has been changed by the past, and that they aren't actually in an alternate universe, isn't that splitting hairs? Isn't a time-altered reality just one way of getting into an alternate reality?
- Will 2024 have anything to do with the Bell Riots from DS9's "Past Tense," or is the year just a coincidence? (I'm going to bet on the latter and be very surprised if it's the former.)
- The idea that the slingshot-around-the-star trick requires a unique mind (previously Spock, here the Borg Queen) to be successful is at least a nod in the direction of why everyone doesn't just warp around the sun whenever they want to change history. Still, this has always been a dicey can of worms.
- There are some solidly chilling details here, like the line of non-human skulls kept in Picard's house, which include some specific name-drops like Dukat and Martok.
- Alt-Picard drinks Colombian coffee, and the real Picard hates it.
- Laris is long dead in this timeline, to Picard's regret.
- When Seven wakes up and hears someone in her unfamiliar bedroom, she calls out for Raffi. Maybe their thing wasn't as insignificant as Seven makes it out to be. (Later, Raffi teases Seven's commitment issues in light of Seven's alt-self being married.)
- To cover for calling Annika "Seven," Agnes says it refers to their drinking days in college, as in "Annika Seven-Shots" — although isn't Agnes nearly two decades too young to have gone to college with Annika?
- Agnes talks her way through a tough scrape using the mildly amusingly awkward neurotic motormouth deflection routine. In yet another alternate universe, she was probably raised with Sylvia Tilly.
- Patton Oswalt voices Agnes' animated AI cat which has socio-political opinions. This is somehow perfect.
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