"No Win Scenario" hits the sweet spot between old-school Berman-era Trek and current-generation Kurtzman-era Trek. Old-school Trek was all about the professionalism, the procedure, and the problem solving. New-school Trek weaves in the human failings and the penchant for everyone bringing their emotional baggage to work. (This is most notable on Discovery, where it's frequently taken way too far, but it has also been the case on Picard, where everyone is grappling troublingly with their past.)
In this episode, we get the best of both worlds (if you'll forgive the expression), as the two aspects are blended together into a cohesive and emotional whole that works pretty much from beginning to end. Yes, there are the usual mild annoyances that pervade this series, but I can easily get past them within this contemplative life-or-death premise that manages to get so many things right.
Would I put this among the top episodes of Star Trek all time? No; let's have some perspective here. But I can accept it into the four-star club. This managed to find that spark and make me feel the Trekkian spirit and for these characters in a way I haven't felt in a very long time. It has everyone banding together to work the problem with the professionalism that's required (along with the new-school quips and tension), while also acknowledging these people have some very real problems and very real faults they are working through. And it allows us to feel what they are feeling, both the lows and the highs. Dramatically speaking, nearly every scene works, which is something.
The episode has a framing device, with Picard having dinner at his favorite bar/restaurant five years ago, and a bunch of young officers asking him about his famous career. He imparts some wisdom about how, as long as you have your shipmates at your side, even in the worst situations, you are never without hope. It's wisdom badly needed here, where things seem beyond hope, with the Titan being pulled toward the gravity well in the center of the nebula and without the necessary power to escape.
With death looking very likely, Riker tells Picard he was right about his own risk-averseness being a side effect of his feelings about his son's death (his story about spending what felt like an eternity watching the casket being lowered into the ground was grim), and advises Picard to take some moments with his own son before it's too late. So Picard takes Jack to his favorite bar/restaurant in the holodeck (where the same goofy reason is given explaining why holodecks are functional when there's a power shortage as was given nearly 30 years ago on Voyager). Picard recounts a tale of himself and the late Jack Crusher from their younger days, when a shuttle mission gone wrong had similarly long odds for survival.
Shaw enters the holodeck and has a tale of his own ... from when he was a young engineer on a ship at the battle of Wolf 359, and how he was the 10th man assigned by a superior officer to board an escape pod with a capacity of 10, while five of his crewmates were forced to stay behind and perish. Shaw's survival guilt gives his grudge against Picard some necessary context, and I welcomed the added layer to the character, as well as his self-awareness about his own disposition. To his crew witnessing the tense exchange, he says: "Forgive me. At some point, ‘asshole' became a substitute for charm." The scene also serves as a reminder that as old as Picard may live, he will never be able to escape the consequences of that day.
And, yeah, Shaw is still an asshole, but he gets some character development and is also permitted to be useful when he's recruited into Seven's mission to find the Changeling saboteur (Shaw has the useful idea to track the Changeling from residue left in its regeneration receptacle), as well as help engineer the daring escape (he's the only one with the right knowledge to quickly improvise when it comes to the inner workings of the 20-year-old ship's engines).
Beverly, utilized nicely here, notices a pattern in the energy surges coming from the center of the nebula and intuits that a spacefaring lifeform is undergoing a birth. Jack concludes they can ride the energy surges like a wave out of the nebula. We get an old-fashioned TNG-style conference room scene where the technical plan is discussed, and it makes sense. On the quibble side of things, I feel like Riker is still too much of a naysayer given the lack of other alternatives and the fact that doing nothing is still a death sentence. Also, it might be nice to recognize this ship has an entire crew of Starfleet officers aside from the non-Titan players who do so much of the heavy lifting. Still, this is a good team effort that employs a lot of characters reasonably, and Riker's doubts are part of his character arc — in this case, his hope to at least leave behind a message for Troi in death, rather than being pulverized and leaving behind nothing. Riker's struggle through this actually has a great deal of poignancy.
The tactical escape from the nebula is pretty great too. It uses good visual effects of the Titan riding the energy wave while Picard, taking command, guides the manual flight through the asteroid belt. It's pure Star Trek done well, firing on all cylinders — theatrically, technically, emotionally. This victorious escape is probably the best purely Trekkian franchise moment of the past decade, and it uses the legacy characters effectively.
To bring it all full circle, we get some resolutions that resonate. Riker talks to Troi and is able to have a conversation about his pain that is effective, and affecting, and sheds light on why he left, hoping he would find a panacea. The idea that witnessing this wondrous event in space can heal the spirit is reassuring, like nourishment for the soul. (The idea made me think back to Kirk feeling "young" again after the death of Spock, which happened alongside the birth of the Genesis planet.)
And in the episode's nicely played gut punch, we see in the flashback how Jack was at the impromptu lunch lecture with the young officers. Jack, from across the room, anonymously asked a question about whether Picard ever considered having a real family. Picard answered, possibly partially playing to the crowd, that Starfleet was the only family he ever needed. It was enough for Jack to give up on having a relationship with his father. But now he gets a second chance. This is all played with enough nuance that it feels right and complete.
Can I find things to complain about? Sure. But it would be complaining about things that don't, at the end of the day, matter. This is clearly the best episode of Picard to date and probably the best outing of the Kurtzman era. So I'm going to leave it at that and give it the benefit of the doubt. At this point, either you are on board with this season of Picard, or you're not. If "No Win Scenario" doesn't move the needle for you, I'm predicting nothing this season will. I'm on board, so please, Picard writers, keep it up and don't squander the goodwill you've engendered.
Some other thoughts:
- I'm guessing this episode would've been called "Kobayashi Maru" if Discovery and Prodigy hadn't both already used a version of that title recently.
- Hilariously, with power running out, the show finds an excuse to turn down the lights and make it even darker on the ship.
- This episode feels like a turning point in the season arc. We're now out of the nebula and warping back through Federation space, so maybe we'll get a change in the narrative direction and move on to some new things.
- Beverly exclaiming "To seek out new life!" is a perfect example of this show trying too hard to drive a point home and being too obvious about it when, yeah, we got it from having seen what just happened. Granted, I give the writers some credit, because I said the line in my head before Beverly did, so they conveyed the right sensibility. But they also get a demerit for lampshading it. Riker's follow-up line, "Maybe we should boldly get the hell out of here," lessens the revered earnestness of the moment with a lightness that feels like vintage Riker.
- In a bizarre scene, Vadic cuts off her hand, which changes into Changeling goo and then becomes a floating face that gives her orders to follow the Titan deeper into the nebula, which she doesn't want to do, but which the face tells her she'd better. Then it turns back into her hand. What exactly is Vadic, and what are these Changelings up to?
- Riker uses the tractor beam to throw a rock at the Shrike, dealing it a temporary defeat. Payback's a bitch. I guess that's what they call "long-term arc planning." (I kid.)
- Jack has more strange, intense visions (red branches/tentacles, red light from a cracked door) telling him to "find" someone. Where is this going?
- This episode benefits from keeping the narrative focused on the Titan, without Worf and Raffi taking up time and diluting the message with another plotline. It's a good choice, and gives the story a more intimate and claustrophobic feel.
- It was also nice to have Picard's "captain's log" voice-over at the end. Nice cap to a terrific episode.
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