Oct 9, 2020
Star Trek: Picard “Remembrance”
Star Trek may take place in the future, but like all science fiction, it’s really about the present. The original Star Trek was suffused with Kennedyan optimism and a very ’60s faith in the power of science, Western-style democracy, and cultural pluralism to tame an unfriendly galaxy. Star Trek: The Next Generation was informed by a post-Cold War “end of history” mentality, with the struggle against barbarism largely won, liberal democracy firmly established, and the remaining work of civilization being mainly the shoring up of residual social and material inequality. Star Trek: Picard is something different. Of all the Star Trek material to have come out since 9/11, Picard is the only one to really engage with the harsh realities of the 21st century. Picard‘s is a not-so-hopeful future where the Federation has abandoned its guiding values, becoming paranoid and isolationist. Of course, there have always been individual cases of Starfleet officers betraying the Federation’s values—one of their main stock villain types is the Rogue Admiral/Captain—but this is the first time it’s hinted at that the Federation is suffering from systemic moral rot and that the entire political establishment has failed.
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The choice to center on Jean-Luc Picard—a naturally strong, just, and moral leader widely viewed as the civilized, by-the-book yin to Jim Kirk’s wild, rebellious yang—isn’t simply fan service. Picard comes at a time when faith in our elites and in our governing institutions is at an all-time low. Picard, a widely respected and trusted leader, has a crisis of conscience and resigns rather than continue to serve a government he feels doesn’t represent or respect its people anymore. He struggles with despair, egoism, and the infantile yen to dwell on a simpler time. Through him, Star Trek has the possibility to ask what it actually means to be a good leader and a “great” man at a time when not a lot of either seem to be around anymore. Despite its often clumsy plot and laughably poor pacing, the sheer wealth of fresh stories enabled by this setting makes Picard earn my tentative endorsement.
We open on a huge, dazzling nebula, with the Enterprise-D floating close by. Bing Crosby’s in the background singing “Blue Skies” and we do the now-obligatory zoom in on a figure in the window of a starship. The whole thing has an identifiable prestige-TV flavor to it. We’re treated to an artsy close-up of poker chips being slid across a table. Close up on Picard, with harsh side-light making his aged mug look like a bruised piece of fruit.
He’s playing poker with none other than Data. And… hoo boy. Data doesn’t quite look so frightening as he did in the trailer, but still not great. The temptation to bring back such a fan favorite outweighed the logistical issues of an aging actor playing an ageless automaton. I don’t know enough about makeup or prosthetics or whatever to pin down exactly what they did to erase thirty years, but it didn’t work. Digital de-aging may be controversial, but if there were ever a time to do it, it’s now. My man looks like a bad Claymation.
Picard grins and tells Data he has a “tell”. Data protests that that’s impossible. Picard offers some tea (this episode is Callback City; gotta get that one out of the way early). He goes all in and Data lays down a hand with five queens. All of a sudden they appear over last week’s Short Trek “Children of Mars”. Data’s pupils dilate. Ten-Forward rumbles, bombs fall, and fireballs burst in the window as Picard jerks awake.
Cut to Picard in bed, early morning. Picard’s pitbull “Number One” (cute! weird! cuteweird!) noses him out of bed. He goes to the window to look over at his vineyard, where autonomous machines and living workers are harvesting grapes.
Cut to “Greater Boston”. A human woman and an alien man are having a romantic glass of wine. “So what are we celebrating?” the man asks. After some guessing the woman, Dahj, reveals she was just accepted as a research fellow at Daystrom, a prestigious robotics institute. The boyfriend congratulates her. His hairstyle looks like several dozen fully blood-engorged ticks attached to the top of his head, and it’s bugging me. I’m so glad he’ll be dead soon.
Suddenly, some black-masked goons teleport into Dahj’s apartment, throw a knife into her boyfriend’s heart, and attach a device to her temples. “She hasn’t activated yet,” says one. “We can get it later—knock her out,” says another, putting a black bag over Dahj’s head.
The soundtrack follows Dahj’s heartbeat, which slows down, and then speeds way back up. “She’s activating!” a goon manages to shout, and before long the petite woman is beating everyone’s ass. Dahj makes quick work of the goons, grabbing one of their phasers and executing them all. And since we’re not on broadcast TV anymore, the phasers leave exit wounds and spatter scorched bits on the wall behind the victim. Awesome.
After they’re dead, she rips the device off her temple and crawls over to her dead boyfriend. Suddenly she gets a flash, and a blurry vision of… Picard?
After the intro sequence, Picard wanders around his vineyard some more and talks to Number One in halting French. The dog’s ears are docked, which I’m surprised is still considered acceptable in the enlightened future.
Picard’s employees, a male and female Romulan named Zhaban and Laris respectively, remind him that there’s a news crew coming and that he has to get ready. They don’t look quite so scary when they don’t have severe bangs and Melanie Griffith shoulder pads.
The crew from the Federation News Network sit down in the study of his chateau and get to work. The interview is occurring on the anniversary of the Romulan supernova (as seen in the flash-forward sequences from 2009’s Star Trek). We get into some historical context. Apparently, when it became apparent the Romulan sun was going to supernova, Picard called for the Federation to sponsor a massive relocation of Romulans, but the idea of humanitarian aid on such a gigantic scale to the Federation’s oldest enemy was controversial to say the least. “There were millions of lives at stake,” Picard says. “Romulan lives,” clarifies the interviewer. “No,” Picard says. “Lives.”
Picard left his command of the Enterprise to work for the rescue armada, attempting to relocate 900 million Romulans in an effort Picard likens to the evacuation of Dunkirk. “Then the unimaginable happened,” says the interviewer. Picard looks uncomfortable—apparently he didn’t want to talk about this—but she plows ahead. She recaps the events of “Children of Mars”, throwing up a video of ships full of “rogue synths” attacking Mars. “Mars remains on fire to this day,” she says. “92,143 lives were lost.”
It was never ascertained why the synths went rogue, so Starfleet took the Better Safe Than Sorry Approach, and all synthetic life-forms were banned by the Federation. Because of this, and also because of Starfleet’s decision to call off the evacuation of Romulus in the aftermath of the Mars attack, Picard resigned his Starfleet commission in protest. He angrily denounces Starfleet as having “slunk from its duties” on a “criminal” scale. This interview is being live-cast all over the world, including in a restaurant window in Boston, where Dahj, hurrying down the street, gazes at Picard’s face.
After the act break, Picard is chilling on his back patio, grumbling to Number One, when Dahj suddenly appears. “Do you know me?” Dahj says. Picard doesn’t. Dahj tearfully recounts her encounter with the masked men, and her boyfriend’s murder, and her strange vision of Picard. The same inexplicable Jason Bourne instincts that let her kill her pursuers and escape are telling her she’ll be safe with Picard. The old captain is perturbed by her story, but when she starts crying, his suppressed paternal instinct sets in and he agrees to let her stay.
The next morning, Picard wakes up. But there are no workers, and his vines are all withered. Yes, this is another dream. Data is sitting in the yard, painting a picture. There’s an unfinished figure standing by the seaside. “Would you like to finish it, Captain?” he asks, as Picard approaches. “I don’t know how,” he admits. “That is not true, sir,” Data says.
Picard jerks awake at his desk in his study. Behind him is a finished version of the painting Data was working on in his dream, with the figure’s head turned toward the ocean. Laris comes in to tell Picard that Dahj is gone. Picard tells her he has to go someplace and to contact him if she comes back.
Cut to beautiful San Francisco, with the Golden Gate Bridge covered in solar panels.
Picard is at Starfleet Archives and a helpful hologram who somehow survived the synth purge is showing him to a “quantum archive” which no one besides him has access to. Nice of Starfleet to still be holding on to that after their breakup. He steps inside a room featuring a bat’leth, several model ships, and the “Captain Picard Day” banner from “The Pegasus”. He punches in a code and a box is replicated in front of him which contains another copy of the painting on his study wall. He calls up the hologram, who informs him that Data painted it and gave it to Picard in 2369, thirty years earlier. The camera finally settles on the painting, but instead of no visible face, the figure has the face of… Dahj.
Cut to 24th-century Paris at night, and there’s Dahj, several hundred miles from La Barre, which is where Chateau Picard is, and this might be a continuity error, except she somehow got across the whole-ass ocean earlier, so who cares. Dahj is roaming the street. She gets on a holo-device and calls her mother, telling her that someone tried to kill her. Mom tells Dahj to go back to Picard. She’s confused, as she never told her mom she went to Picard, and anyways, she doesn’t want to endanger him by bringing the goon squad to his chateau. Mom does an unconvincing bluff and tells her again to stay with Picard. She acquiesces and starts tracking down Picard with superhacking.
And one transition sequence ripped off from The Blacklist later, Picard is walking out of Starfleet Archives in a daze when he runs into Dahj again. She thinks she’s going crazy. Picard tells her all about Data, and how he had served with him and sacrificed his life to save Picard’s own. He says Data painted a picture of Dahj as she appears today, 30 years ago. Based on this, and because of Dahj’s newly discovered superhuman abilities like combat and super-hacking, he believes she’s Data’s daughter. Continuing a Star Trek tradition of dubiously apt metaphors, Picard tells Dahj the attack might have acted as a “positronic alarm bell”.
“No!” says Dahj. She has all these memories, see. She was born in Seattle. Her dad was a xenobotanist who created a hybrid orchid and named it after her. “That’s a beautiful memory, and it’s yours. No one can touch it or take it away,” Picard says, “but have you considered the possibility that…”
“That I’m a soulless murder machine?” Dahj asks.
“That you were something lovingly and deliberately created,” Picard says, comparing her to her father’s orchids. He continues, “If you are who I think you are, then you are dear to me in ways you cannot understand.”
Suddenly, Dahj’s robo-hearing alerts her to more goons who have just transported in. She pushes Picard behind a bench and kills two goons with chick-fu and one more with the second goon’s combat knife. Another bunch beams to the top of a nearby stairwell, and she jumps twenty feet or so to engage them.
Two more come tumbling down the stairs, and Dahj rips one of their helmets off, revealing a Romulan. She has the final goon at gunpoint, but in an unexpected turn, he spits some acid all over her and seems to die. Dahj’s skin and clothes begin to sizzle and cook, and the gun visibly heats up. To Picard’s horror, it explodes, taking Dahj with it in one of the most gruesome Trek sequences since the brain parasite head explosion back when TNG was still campy.
A short time later, Picard wakes up at Chateau Picard, being tended to by Laris and Zhaban. He tells them Dahj is dead and they say the police hadn’t mentioned her, and she hadn’t shown up on the security cameras. (The police also didn’t mention goons on the security cameras, nor any bodies or debris from the goons’ smashed helmets, or blood, or phaser marks, or the carbon scoring from the explosion, forcing us to conclude the Federation’s police are either comically inept or in on the attack somehow.)
Picard reveals his suspicions about Dahj, and muses that she may have had a personal cloaking device keeping her from appearing on cameras. “She deserves more of me,” Picard rues. He says he’s been nursing his offended dignity all these years, resting on his laurels, and simply waiting to die, and now he’s got something to live for again.
Cut to the Daystrom Institute, in Okinawa, named after a dude who built a shitty computer that almost killed everyone. Picard meets with Dr. Agnes Jurati…
…and immediately asks her, “Is it possible to make a sentient android out of flesh and blood?” After getting the giggles out of her system, Dr. Jurati says that human-flesh androids were only a theoretical matter, even before the synthetics ban. Picard says he just had tea with one.
Her interest piqued, Dr. Jurati ushers Picard into her lab. Since the synthetic ban, she says, the institute has only been able to perform theoretical research. She opens up a lab drawer and takes out the remains of Data.
Only it’s not Data, it’s B-4, Data’s special needs brother whom we met in Star Trek: Nemesis. Data’s attempt to download his mind into B-4 before he died didn’t take; almost all Data’s data was lost. Despite his appearance, he’s not much like Data. In fact, Jurati says, “no synthetic has been.” The long and short of it is, if anyone were to try to build a flesh-and-blood android, they would need Data’s neural net to work off of, and it isn’t around anywhere.
Picard holds up a necklace, a solid metal hoop with what looks like two ordinary, interlocked rings where the pendant on a normal necklace would be. He says it came from his “tea-drinking companion—the one you said couldn’t exist.” Dr. Jurati says it’s a symbol for “fractal neuronic cloning”, a bit of Treknobabble courtesy of her erstwhile colleague Dr. Bruce Maddox (who tried to enslave Data in “The Measure of A Man”). He theorized that if they’d had a single neuron of Data’s positronic neural net, they’d be able to recreate the entire thing. I’m sorry, what? A neuron? Data’s brain is made of cells? We’ve seen Data’s brain lots of times, motherfucker; it’s a plastic circuit board with some Lite-Brite bulbs in it.
Picard theorizes that Maddox did this and modeled the result, Dahj, after one of Data’s paintings. “Yes, I suppose you could make them that way,” says Dr. Jurati. Them? Heh? Oh yes, they’re created in twin pairs. That makes sense. Picard is filled with renewed hope, knowing Dahj had a spare.
Before that plot development can settle into the viewer’s mind, we zoom in on the rings and do a 2001-type thing where the rings become a nebula out in space somewhere. A scary-looking ship zooms into a larger, scarier ship’s hangar as the location card reads “Romulan Reclamation Site”. A Romulan walks through scary steam down a scary hallway while scary music plays. The man is not scary. He kind of looks like Theon Greyjoy if he journaled.
“Dr. Asha?” the Romulan asks. A woman turns around and it’s… Dahj! Or rather, her twin or whatever. The Romulan, Narek, hits on the twin, “Soji”, a little bit, and plies her with a story about his brother who died recently. To everyone’s surprise, the routine lands and they make plans to meet up later. Then we zoom out and out and out, and the music builds, and out and out and out further until it becomes apparent that this place is an old abandoned Borg cube! Wow, that’s neat. Not sure why they treated it as some sort of huge twist reveal, but I guess they had to end the episode somehow.
What exactly are they doing on the cube? Why is Soji there? What’s this Narek fellow’s deal? Find out in the next Star Trek: Picard, “Maps and Legends”.