HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
I’m going to cover both episodes two and three today because they flow into each other nicely. Episode 2 (“Penance”) sets up the problem that Episode 3 will begin to try and solve, and that problem is that after the events of Star Gazer, the Federation we know and love has been replaced with the Confederation, a xenophobic regime in which Seven, Raffi, Picard, Jurati, and Rios are apparently complicit. Elnor, as a Romulan, is the victim of oppression by said regime. Episode 3 (“Assimilation”) shoots us back to 2024 where our crew attempts to locate a “watcher” who, according to the Borg Queen, will be able to help them correct Q’s alteration to the timeline. Star Trek has used time travel as a story-driver before, but Picard represents the first time that a franchise installment will spend a significant amount of screentime in the past. The series seems to want us to know that Picard plans to differ extensively, and it’s exciting to see that the series wants to explore the nature of emotion and connection within a more modern context. Make no mistake, the themes Picard seems to be developing follow on from what we saw in Discovery beautifully, but while Discovery’s fourth season concentrates its drama on a more macro-political level, Picard’s second season represents the battle for the heart of a single man. I, for one, am here for it.
I’ll link to the Picard review show by Trekker’s Delight here, for those of you who prefer to watch the video.
However, in a nutshell, the plot of “Penance” sees Seven, Raffi, Picard, Jurati, Rios, and Elnor waking up in the Confederation. Picard and Seven find themselves assigned roles as the bloodthirsty regime’s most horrific soldier and the regime’s head of state respectively. Raffi is an important security officer, tasked with stopping a terrorist attack kicked off by Romulans, including Elnor. Jurati remains in the science cohort, but she’s involved in preparing the last Borg Queen for execution as part of the “Eradication Day” festivities. Rios awakens aboard the Sirena, not the Stargazer, in the midst of a battle against Vulcan resistance forces.
Fortunately, each of the characters can make his or her way to the central government facility where they intend to celebrate Eradication Day, allowing them to meet up and plan an escape. They quickly deduce that something has gone wrong with the timeline, and their best option is to slingshot around the sun much as the Enterprise did in both “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home. The problem is that they must escape the Confederation forces, including the Magistrate who also improbably happens to be Seven’s husband in this nightmare world. They do manage to beam up to the Sirena, bringing the Borg Queen with them as she’s the only entity who knows both when and where the timeline diverged. They need her to perform the time travel calculations. Unfortunately, Confederation forces board the Sirena and take everyone hostage, gravely wounding Elnor in the process.
Moving from “Penance” to “Assimilation,” Seven and Raffi re-take the ship, as Jurati helps connect the Borg Queen to the ship. She takes over, firing on and destroying Confederation ships, and Raffi manages to get Elnor down to Sickbay where she deposits him on a biobed. They manage to achieve time warp (not to be confused with “timewarp”), and they emerge to find themselves in 2024. Unfortunately, the damage to the Sirena has left the ship desperately low on power. Rios and Picard get the ship to the ground in a controlled crash, but in the immediate aftermath, they have to make some hard choices as to how the ship’s remaining power will be used. Picard prioritizes the Borg Queen’s life in light of the valuable knowledge she possesses, but that decision means the ship doesn’t have enough power to support the biobed. Without the biobed sustaining his life, Elnor dies in front of Raffi.
They know that whatever watcher the Queen mentioned is located in Los Angeles, so Raffi, Seven, and Rios beam over to LA in the hope that they can track the watcher. Picard and Jurati remain aboard the ship to interrogate the Borg Queen, which they do by connecting the Queen to Jurati. Jurati manages both to avoid being assimilated and to acquire the coordinates for the watcher’s location, impressing the Queen in the process.
The LA contingent meets with decidedly more mixed results. Raffi and Seven find each other rapidly and find a vantage point from which they can scan the city for alien technology. Rios, however, materializes in midair, and while he does catch himself on a railing briefly, he falls to the pavement and sustains a concussion. Someone finds him and brings him to Teresa’s clinic, which operates to serve the underprivileged and undocumented communities. Teresa treats him, and her son grabs Rios’ communicator. ICE raids the clinic, and Rios attempts to aid Teresa, getting them both arrested for obstruction of justice in the process.
The foregoing makes this season sound like a setup for a Mirror Universe arc, but of course, it isn’t. The thematic point of the Mirror Universe isn’t so much that a good universe requires a matching evil one as it is more something along the lines of “there but for the grace of God.” The Mirror Universe exists because along the timeline, humanity made different choices, and the Confederation confronts us with the reality that the potential for those awful choices lies within us at any given moment. That the writers select 2024 as the temporal destination for our friends aboard the Sirena emphasizes that reminder.
In “Past Tense,” Sisko, Dax, and Bashir travel back to Earth’s past and find themselves in 2024 San Francisco on the eve of the Bell Riots. If you happen to be unfamiliar, the Bell Riots resulted from the creation of Sanctuary Districts, in which the American government deposited the poor. At the time, they intended these districts to provide food, shelter, and other necessities to the indigent, but they became, in effect, prisons where people became ghosts, incarcerated and forgotten. Sisko steps into the footsteps of a man named Gabriel Bell who became the face of the movement when the riots brought attention to the extent of the brutal injustice going on within the sanctuary districts.
These riots galvanized the United State to address the social ills it had refused to confront and helped put human society on the path to becoming the Federation. The riots forced society to make a choice, and in the universe of Star Trek, humanity made the correct choice. “Assimilation” invokes that history deliberately and provides visual metaphors for the sanctuary districts with the tent city Raffi and Seven find. Their first experience with 2024 is a direct juxtaposition of society’s failures and its hopes, this latter taking the form of a space exploration announcement. Rios also gets a crash course in the inequities of society. Teresa assumes that he’s an undocumented immigrant, in the United States illegally, and she offers her help. Rios is, but just not perhaps in the way they all think. However, nothing protects either of them from ICE, and they’re both carted off into custody in a powerfully familiar image.
Neither “Penance” nor “Assimilation” is pulling any punches. “Penance” represents the outcome that awaits us all if society makes bad choices. “Assimilation” shows us how those choices come to be made. Picard’s second season therefore takes up the challenge of demanding that society make better choices. Sure, Picard and his crew are in LA to correct a hiccough in the timeline, but as viewers, we have to realize that if we want a future more like the Federation, we must do better by our fellows. More to the point, the way toward that Federation future is paved not with division but with forming connections with others. None of this is novel, of course, and Star Trek has been hammering at this theme for years. Picard just seems to be doing it even less subtly than usual.
Picard himself appears to have reverted to his Generations self. He barely takes the time to grieve Elnor before focusing on the task at hand. That lack of emotional impact alienates him from Raffi, and Jurati calls him out for it while under the Queen’s influence. The great character arc for our beloved Picard likely centers around Picard working to break down his emotional walls. I’d say the series wants him to find a love interest, but honestly, I think a better case can be made that he simply needs to find a way to forge real, deep connections. His curious non-reaction to the death of his semi-adopted son Elnor just highlights how compartmentalized he’s become. The Bell Riots have such a deep impact on Trek history because they created a connection between the ghosts and society at large. They reminded those outside the sanctuary districts to pull their empathy off of the shelf and put it to use. I suspect Picard will need to re-learn some empathy and vulnerability over the course of this season.
Vulnerability is difficult, but we’re better humans when we recognize how interconnected we all are. I, personally, keep hoping for a future closer to the Federation, and I suspect Picard’s season two will directly engage with what we as a society need to do to get there. Y’all, this one is going to be a ride.
Four cups of Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts From Behind the Keyboard:
Alison Pill deserves some very real congratulations for her Jurati this season. I am beyond thrilled that we’re getting to see Jurati come into herself. Speaking of fantastic performances, Annie Wersching is just killing it as the Borg Queen. She’s managed the perfect balance of terrifying and funny with a side of leashed malevolence. She had a big…erm…spine to fill, and she has taken this Queen and made it completely her own. I AM HERE FOR IT.
I’m hoping Elnor is following in the footsteps of many of the Trek characters for whom death has been temporary.
The collection of skulls on pillars was…frightening…but also fit disturbingly well in the Picard mansion.
Why do fascist authoritarian regimes get the good costumes? Y’all, that Eradication Day set looked sharp, wrong, but sharp.
Sorry, Magistrate. No one knows your name.