As always, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS, read at your own risk.
We’re at the halfway point in the first season of Star Trek: Picard, and while I still have faith that we’ll get a decent payoff, that faith has begun to flag a bit. I have mentioned in previous posts that I find Picard’s pacing strange, and at mid-season, that remains true. “Stardust City Rag” serves as Seven’s real introduction; we find out that she serves with the Fenris Rangers, a group that attempts to maintain order and protect the general populace in the systems abandoned by the Federation. This new Seven drinks, swears, wears comfortable clothes, and engages in revenge-murder without batting an eyelash. Seven’s transformation mirrors that of Picard’s vision of a post-Utopia Planitia Federation, and while this new, less-optimistic universe presents viewers with fascinating new questions, the level of darkness presented feels as out of place as would TNG’s boundless optimism.
“Stardust City Rag” opens in the future equivalent of a back-alley organ smuggler’s den, and the scene is almost laughably cliché. A woman sadistically rips out an eyeball from the humanoid male on the table whose screams bounce from blood-spattered wall to blood-spattered wall in the compound. When the camera pans out, we see a Starfleet uniform and a familiar face. Viewers familiar with Voyager should automatically recognize Icheb, an older version of the boy Voyager rescued from the Borg and brought back to the Federation. Seven blasts her way through the compound, killing everyone present, and after offering Icheb a tearful apology, she shoots him, too.
We flash forward to the present, which finds Seven in Picard’s holographic sitting room providing us with a useful information dump. She discusses her membership in the Fenris Rangers, how the Rangers have stepped into the power vacuum left by the Federation, and how their mission is ultimately a fruitless one. Picard asks for her help, and seemingly despite herself, Seven hears out his proposal. Our merry band then approaches Freecloud, which resembles nothing so strongly as a city lifted from Bladerunner and given a good scrub, and Raffi, hacker extraordinaire, discovers that an individual named Bjayzl holds Maddox and wants to hire a go-between to negotiate a deal with the Tal Shiar. Raffi creates an entire Facer persona for Rios, and we leave Star Trek for a brief moment and segue into a heist plan montage in which Raffi preps everyone for infiltration before heading down to Freecloud to find Gabriel Wang.
Rios heads to the surface dressed as an interstellar pimp and offers Vup the opportunity to deal with his client, a ridiculously over-the-top Picard pretending to be a French pirate. Bjayzl collects Borg implants to sell on the black market, and since Picard offers Seven, Bjayzl takes the bait. However, there’s a history between Seven and Bjayzl, and while not explained in its entirety, that history resulted in Icheb’s death. Seven reveals that she’s interested less in saving Maddox and more in murdering Bjayzl, but Picard convinces her to leave vengeance for another day. They all return to the ship, including Maddox, and Seven tricks Picard into beaming her back to Freecloud. Once there, she disintegrates Bjayzl and begins shooting her way through Bjazyl’s subordinates.
Meanwhile, Picard speaks to Maddox and discovers that he sent Soji to the Artifact. Picard leaves Sickbay to inform Rios of their next destination. Jurati enters the Bay and, tearfully, uses the equipment to kill Maddox, explaining that she both wishes he knew what she knew and that she wishes she didn’t. On the Bridge, Rios asks Picard if they’re going to discuss their stowaway. That stowaway is, of course, Raffi, who has returned to the Sirena after her meeting with her son and his wife goes spectacularly pear-shaped.
Despite the brief moments of hilarity in the episode—Stewart’s ridiculously over-acted Pirate, Rios’ as pimp, and Elnor’s utter inability to be anyone but Elnor—“Stardust City Rag” is dark. From the very beginning, Stewart and the show-runners warned that Picard would portray a very different world than we’ve ever seen in Star Trek, and while there has been some fandom backlash, I agree with the show that we no longer inhabit a world in which TNG’s utopia is appropriate. However, “Stardust City Rag” skews so far in the other direction that the episode’s tone feels excessive. Yes, we saw violence on Vashti, and the oft-repeated exposition constantly reminds us that this section of the final frontier has descended so far into depravity that we should expect literally anything. The violence might work better if the stakes were in any way real for the characters.
Nothing about Raffi’s return or Jurati’s perfidy shocks us because the show has telegraphed both with TNG levels of blatant foreshadowing. From the episode trailer’s use of the sequence featuring Seven and the two guns to the episode’s overall structure, Seven’s decision to return to Freecloud for her vengeance holds no surprise for us either after the cold open reveals Bjayzl’s role in Icheb’s death. I suppose Seven’s attempt to shield Picard from the violence serves as a nice touch, but ultimately, we aren’t even worried for Seven because we know she’ll return. Raffi talks up Vup’s ability to smell deceit, but Raffi fixes the problem with an injection of a drug cocktail that kicks in at the precise moment Vup’s ability could have posed a threat to the operation. Even Maddox’s death falls flat because again, we’ve suspected Jurati’s duplicity since she met with Commodore Oh.
In fact, the Maddox plot encapsulates Picard’s greatest failing, which is the uneven pacing. On the one hand, we’re five episodes in to a ten episode season and still doing character introductions. On the other, Picard et al find Maddox only to lose him within the same episode. Maddox’s only contribution to the episode is to tell Picard to head to the Borg Cube.
The episode’s character beats somewhat cushion the impact of the abrupt plot changes. The cold open spells out Seven’s motivations, and Jeri Ryan gives us a great performance as an older, embittered version of the character we knew before. Alison Pill does her best to give us a Jurati torn by her obvious affection for Maddox (the writers helpfully include a scene in which she watches Maddox bake cookies for her to reinforce her emotional connection to him) and by what she perceives as a duty to kill him. How she plans to explain Maddox’s death under her watch remains to be seen. Still, Jurati’s tears feel real.
Michelle Hurd similarly plays Raffi’s devastation when her son Gabriel refuses to forgive her perfectly. Her addiction to snakeleaf and her obsession with the Utopia Planitia conspiracy cost her both her partner and her son. Raffi tracks him down, and unsurprisingly, he simply isn’t interested in including her in his life. Both reactions are perfectly understandable, and Hurd’s portrayal of Raffi’s grief tugs at the heart strings. The problem here, of course, remains the context. We know from earlier episodes that Raffi’s delusions are not delusions at all. Rather, we know that she’s right, which continues to taint Picard with the same Trutherism we saw in Into Darkness. I keep hoping that there will be a surprise twist that undercuts her conspiracy theories, but I don’t know that the series will offer me that comfort. Regardless, my fingers remained crossed for the second half of the season.
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
- Just in case you didn’t pick up on it, Picard literally features the destruction of a Utopia. Subtle, guys, really subtle.
- Speaking of tongue-in-cheek, I loved Freecloud’s targeted advertising. I feel there’s a statement to be made about how technology has touched our lives there, but I was frankly too busy laughing at the ads to think through it.
- This episode definitely solidifies Elnor’s position as the series straight man. Freecloud can’t find anything to offer him, and his vague disappointment is note perfect. I also chuckled when he grumbled about not being able to be anyone but himself when they dress him up as Picard’s bodyguard for the Bjayzl heist.
- I remain disappointed that they did not give Rios a can to complete his outfit, and while I know Picard’s pirate was over the top on purpose, the accent grated all over my nerves.
- A note of trivia: Bjayzl offers Maddox drugged Tranya. The beverage first appeared in “The Corbomite Maneuver” when Balok offered it to Kirk and reappeared in DS9’s “Facets” when Odo ordered it as Curzon from Quark’s.
- Neither Manu Intiraymi nor Brian Brophy reprised their roles as Icheb and Bruce Maddox respectively. Casey King and John Ales stepped into the characters instead.