"The Star Gazer" opens with an action-packed crisis involving an unknown Starfleet vessel, with many of the characters we know aboard it, a furious alien assault, and a countdown to disaster — before then flashing back to "48 hours earlier" and using the entire hour to set everything in place for that big climax. It's a cliché that's pervasive in the current era of streaming, as if the producers are so afraid we won't be patient enough to go along for a ride that builds to that conclusion without first teasing it.
It's the move of a desperate pilot trying to grab the attention of impatient executives — not an established show with a built-in audience and an already-shooting subsequent season. The opening flash-forward seems all the more unnecessary because "The Star Gazer" does an almost unfathomably good job of setting all the pieces in motion to get us to that moment, allowing us to marinate in the comforting and well-realized atmosphere that is the Federation in what is now the very early 25th century, while also taking its time and exploring the central theme du jour surrounding Picard — his steadfast reluctance toward romantic commitment because of ... reasons.
There's an early scene where Laris (Orla Brady), the most loyal of his vineyard employees (and recently widowed), makes it quite clear she would be willing to start a late-in-life relationship with Jean-Luc (with a nice nod to her Romulan take on loss and new beginnings), but Picard just can't bring himself to go there, much to her irritation. The title refers to Picard always looking up to the stars from his early years as a child, which led to a life of isolation where duty always came first. There's a flashback to his childhood that contains images of something sinister that happened to his mother, certain to be discussed in future episodes. (What about Robert? Might've been nice to put him in these shots somewhere.)
Later, Picard seeks out Guinan, who these days is bartending on Earth in Los Angeles' historic district. She wonders what it is that made him come to see her, and calls Picard out on his adversity to putting himself in any sort of relationship that's not pre-established as temporary. Even closing in at nearly a century, there are certain stones Picard will not overturn, for whatever reason. Do you care about Picard's status as a nonagenarian bachelor? This episode did a good job of persuading me to, with its familiar faces, echoes of nostalgia, and scenes of drinking.
The first season of Picard went out of its way to put everyone on the outs with Starfleet. It was a key design of what the season was trying to do, but I think it's pretty safe to say that it works far better having many of our characters inside of Starfleet, as is the case here. Picking up a year and a half after season one, Admiral Picard is now chancellor of Starfleet Academy, where Elnor is enrolled as the first Romulan cadet. Raffi has been reinstated as a commander. And Rios is captain of the newly commissioned USS Stargazer, a name which Agnes notes comes with "baggage." Rios has a cigar in his hand or mouth in nearly every scene on the bridge, which is shorthand for "manly rogue."
Soji has one scene; she and her fellow synthetics debate the issues of the day at dinner parties. Agnes, cleared of Maddox's murder because of "insanity brought on by an alien influence," has taken up the mantle of the series' maladjusted drunk — who also is a brilliant scientist with required skills. And Seven is the most angry outsider of the bunch, having taken La Sirena to use it to continue her ambiguously vague ass-kicking missions as a Fenris Ranger, on the account she feels unwelcome in the Federation as an ex-Borg — although I think she may be projecting a lot of that upon herself with her lousy attitude. (Jeri Ryan struts around every scene like a badass, and it's great.)
I thoroughly enjoyed the idiosyncrasies of the cast and the way the episode did such an economical and effective job of re-establishing them. This episode, more so than most Kurtzman-era Trek to air in the past several years, has the right feel to its setting. The 25th century feels like a modern take on a classic premise, without coming across as a completely different universe like much of last season did. And this show looks absolutely great. Shot with crisp detail on handsome sets and locations — from the bridge of the Stargazer to Picard's vineyard and chateau to Starfleet Academy and HQ — it's full of places you actually want to spend time in. It's worth seeing for the production design alone.
At the Academy, Picard makes a speech that frames time, rather than space, as the final frontier. It's a sentiment that makes sense coming from a 90-something who realizes time grows scarcer the longer you've lived, and without doubt the notion will play into the season's time-bending premise. It's around here that an unknown entity opens a big, green space-time rift near the Stargazer's position and transmits a mysterious message that is de-garbled and revealed as "Help us, Picard," followed by a request to join the Federation.
Starfleet promptly recruits Picard into the action and before long we're aboard the Stargazer in the middle of the crisis that opened the episode, along with a fleet of Starfleet reinforcements. A Borg ship emerges from the rift, announces it will be sending its queen, and beams a faceless figure onto the bridge which claims it is seeking "peace" before sinking its tentacles into the ship's computers and trying to hijack control of the ship and entire fleet. Apparently out of options, Picard orders the self-destruct sequence and the Stargazer is destroyed with everyone aboard.
Picard then wakes up at home in an altered reality (with a militaristic painting of himself on the wall, amid other ominous oddities), where he's greeted by Q (John de Lancie is as good as always at depicting dark intentions with an air of self-satisfied mischievousness), who welcomes Picard to "the end of the road not taken," and reminds him that "the trial never ends." It's a perfect dose of familiarity in an episode that balances the classic elements with the new, and hints at something that could potentially be a great old Trek wine in a new Trek bottle.
I gotta say: I really enjoyed this. It's an excellent hook to get us launched into the season, with sufficient mystery and character, and a great ending tease. It's expertly paced — very efficient in a way that doesn't waste time, never feels rushed, and allows us to soak in the atmosphere and character moments. And it feels like a nice reset after season one's various major missteps. Will this season be able to keep it up? Time will tell, and if I were a betting man, I would be foolish to put in my chips based on the track record, as all could be blown to hell by season's end or even next week. But I can be optimistic for at least one episode, and "The Star Gazer" gave me plenty of reasons to be so.
"Watch your future's end":
- Raffi and Seven apparently had a brief fling, but they were not on the same page in terms of "wanting more." Raffi tells Picard that Seven is as much a commitment-phobe as he is. (I don't expect this to be the last word on the matter, but we'll see.)
- Picard's shuttle sure got him to the Stargazer awfully fast. Same goes for the rest of the fleet. Isn't the site of the anomaly in or near Soji's colony in the Beta Quadrant where Rios picked up Agnes? Like, pretty far away? Whatever.
- When Picard leaves the planet to go answer the alien hail, he doesn't even say goodbye to Laris. She looks pissed (and she should).
- There's a briefing scene where the regulars debate a course of action in a conference room. Old school!
- A lot of the effects work (the exterior shots of the Stargazer, the close look at the spatial rift and Borg ship) looked clean, clear, and detailed, which is what is frequently missing with Discovery's VFX, which often look too much like a video game.
- Seven is depicted as the hothead who anticipates the worst-case scenario, thinks everyone else is an idiot for being so optimistic, and is the first to open fire on the bridge. Someone has to do it, and I guess I kind of get where she's coming from. This is the Borg, after all, she doesn't trust them at their word (nor should anyone), and they do invade the bridge and sink tentacles into the computers.
- The Stargazer has elements of Borg technology built into it from last season's artifact cube, which I knew was going to end up being a bad idea, and which the Borg exploit when they attack the ship.
- Q snapping his fingers to age himself from his younger appearance to "catch up" with Picard was a nice touch.
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