Before getting to my “Gambit” review, I do want to call your attention to news regarding the new animated installment in the franchise, Lower Decks. The new show will premiere on the network’s streaming service on August 6 for US viewers, and as before, UK and other international fans will be able to watch the series on Netflix. We know that Lower Decks is the brainchild of Rick and Morty’s Mike McMahan, so I anticipate that the show will be targeted at adults, unlike the other animated show rumored to be in production with Nickelodeon. The half hour show’s premise centers around the support crew from a very, very minor ship in the fleet, and from the “work hard/play hard” ads that you can find on the official Star Trek CBS Twitter feed, I’m guess we’re going to see hijinks that will call to mind the Orville more than Star Trek: the Animated Series. As with Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard, you’ll have to catch the show on CBS All Access on Thursdays for the duration of its ten episode run. You can find more information here.
On to the Review
Despite season seven’s lackluster opening, there are episodes that remind viewers why they’ve been such faithful TNG devotees. “Gambit I and II” arrive just in time to keep us tuning in to the rest of the season. While not perhaps an overly deep two-parter, “Gambit” does serve up the fun with the first part setting up a mystery, and the second providing a satisfying conclusion. There’s a lot to be said for a fun mystery romp, as I mentioned in my review for “Timescape,” though I do think “Gambit” contains more substance.
The episode opens with Counselor Troi attempting to extract information from a bartender who’s more interested in getting the 24th century equivalent of her number before the camera shifts to feature Riker engaged in a similar fashion with the same results. Worf has had more luck chatting with Yranac, an unsavory looking Yridian by explaining that the man for whom they’re searching impregnated Riker’s sister. The Yridian offers them information after Dr. Crusher threatens him with a phaser, but he gleefully informs the crew that the man is dead, killed by mercenaries with some sort of energy weapon. Upon returning to the ship, the audience discovers that the man in question is Captain Picard, and in the wake of his death, Riker assumes command of the Enterprise, albeit unwillingly. Riker petitions Starfleet for permission to investigate Picard’s death, and upon receiving same, he extracts additional information from Yranac who recalls that the mercenaries mentioned something about the Barradas system, which fortunately contains only a single Class-M planet, Barradas III.
Riker organizes an Away Team that includes himself, despite newly-minted Executive Officer Data’s objections and beams down to the planet’s surface. There, they discover evidence of recent activity in the form of obvious artifact theft. Returning mercenaries surprise the Away Team and successfully beam offworld with Riker. Their ship attacks the Enterprise and flees, successfully evading the pursuing Enterprise due to modifications to the ship’s hull. Data orders the Enterprise to return to the planet in order to search for clues as to what precisely the mercenaries wanted on the planet as LaForge explains that this group has been engaged in raids on various archaeological sites all across the sector.
Meanwhile, on the rogue ship, Riker finds himself held prisoner via a neural servo implanted in his neck that allows the ship’s commander, Arctus Baran, to subject him to intense and crippling pain with the remote held on his person. Picard, masquerading as “Galen,” advocates for Riker’s death, but Baran declines. Later, Picard joins Riker in the room to which he has been confined and explains that while investigating ruins on Dessica II, he discovered the site completely picked clean. He then traced those responsible to the bar seen at the beginning of the episode, where they successfully captured him. Picard asks Riker to pretend to befriend Baran in order to extract information from him while they plan their escape. Riker agrees.
Back on the Enterprise, Data has deduced that the mercenaries have been targeting Romulan or Romulan-adjacent ruins, and therefore, their next likely target is Calder II, site of Sakethan burial mounds and a Federation science station. He orders the Enterprise to warp to the outpost, hopefully in time to beat the mercenary ship there. Baran, as expected, directs his ship to the planet and orders the science outpost destroyed. Picard and Riker successfully keep him from doing so, and the Enterprise appears just as Baran tries to take over weapons control. Baran demands that Riker get rid of the Enterprise, and Riker attempts to use his personal command codes to force the Enterprise to drop her shields. Data, detecting something off about the entire business, complies, and Picard fires on the Enterprise just as the episode ends.
You’d think that by now, Captain Picard would know that he shouldn’t take vacations, but even beyond the question of whether he should have expected shenanigans, his decision to pursue whoever ransacked Dessica II without even reaching out to his crew makes precisely zero sense for an otherwise logical and capable tactical thinker. Still, I’m glad that he happened to be feeling frisky that day because what his ill-considered decision gets us is Star Trek’s attempt at Indiana Jones. Picard throws himself into his self-created role of Galen, snarling sullenly at Baran and grumbling his way through the analysis of the artifacts presented to him, and while I don’t think he’s having nearly as much fun with Galen as he will with his over the top French smuggler in “Stardust City Rag,” he’s still clearly relishing the opportunity to plot.
Jonathan Frakes spends much of the episode flexing his shocked face, from the expression he turns on Worf when Worf explains the cover story he chose to tell Yranac to the moment he realizes that the presumed-passed Picard is occupying a station on board the mercenary ship. The camera focuses completely on the shift in expression to the near exclusion of all else because we, as viewers, are supposed to be similarly astounded. The reveal doesn’t quite work as well as the story seems to think it should because, again, due to the conceit of watching a show that has the balance of a season to finish, we know that Picard has not been vaporized. Moreover, the close-up lasts just a hair too long to be a believable reaction to seeing Picard on the bridge of a rogue ship, though I do like to think that Riker will eventually complain to Picard about how easily Picard was willing to order his death.
Data as commanding officer of the Enterprise is just great. Despite sitting in the big chair, Data functions exactly as he always has, making deductions and analyzing data, even pulling up a seat at one of the bridge science stations. Worf temporarily reverts to his season two grumpiness, visibly chafing under Data’s command. That is an interesting story choice, but it pays off beautifully in “Gambit II.” Regardless, we’ve now had six seasons and change of Data being absolutely right about everything. He even gets command precisely because what he warned Riker could happen if he accompanied the Away Team to the surface actually did. Taken in that context, Worf’s skepticism of Data’s decision-making capabilities is a touch silly, but despite that, it feels very true to Worf.
In fact, all of the characters’ actions throughout the episode feel very grounded in who they are and therefore very real. Riker easily accepts his role in Picard’s plan because in addition to the years of experience with Picard’s tactical thinking, his trust in his captain is absolute. Data recognizes Riker’s gambit because he’s had years to observe his commanding officers. Worf’s skepticism is rooted in the lack of the same experience with Data’s command. “Gambit” builds on not only the characters’ trust in each other, but also the viewers’ collective experience with them. It’s not an episode that would have worked in season three, and the cast and crew clearly know that just as they count on the audience knowing enough about Vulcan vs. Romulan culture to pick up on the cracks in Tallera’s demeanor that will become all the more important in the story’s conclusion. That trust in the audience’s intelligence means that “Gambit I” never feels like it’s doling out information and still manages to set the stage for the second part while feeling fresh and interesting. That’s a hard balance to achieve, and that accomplishment means that “Gambit” is a breath of fresh air in what has been a rocky season to this point.
Four Cups of Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
- Keen-eyed viewers will recognize Tallera as played by Robin Curtis, who previously appeared as Saavik in Star Trek III: the Search for Spock and briefly in Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home.
- Sabrina LeBeauf features as Ensign Giusti, Data’s replacement at Ops, and she’s more well known for her turn as Sondra Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
- This episode not only features the series’ longest phaser battle but also breaks one of Roddenberry’s cardinal rules—that there be no space pirates. As a result, Rick Berman blindfolded the bust of Gene Roddenberry he kept in his office when discussing the story.
- I did like that Counselor Troi stood up to Riker, but while I understand that rank constrains her ability to take him to task for his thirst for vengeance, that sequence frustrates me. She’s entirely correct. Riker does want revenge, and he’s clearly not handling his grief well. That the conceit of the episode proves him wrong undercuts her moment, which I find vaguely unsatisfying.
- “Yranac” is “canary” backwards. It’s fitting that he sings like one.
- Picard’s alias may be a nod to his mentor, who appeared in “The Chase.”