Star Trek: Picard
It’s not fair to say that Star Trek: Picard has settled into a formula over the course of its first four episodes, but the early entries do tend to feature the same elements: a little bit from Picard’s past, a little bit of Picard putting the team together, and a little bit of Soji and her predicament on the Artifact. “Stardust City Rag” breaks this pattern, focusing on a visit to the planet Freecloud and its implications for each member of the La Sirena crew before ending with a shocking twist. It’s dominated by special guest star Jeri Ryan, who reprises her Star Trek: Voyager character, Seven of Nine. Seven has changed a lot over the years, but she’s still recognizable as the ex-Borg struggling to make peace with her mechanical past and her origins, and future, as a human being. And, we discover before episode’s end, so is Captain Picard. It’s more than innate goodness that sends them out on quixotic quests to right wrongs.
If anything, Seven now seems to be overcompensating. Now a member of a vigilante group, the Fenris Rangers, she has dedicated her life to rescuing those in need, as if she is overwhelmed by the feelings of compassion she once couldn’t experience. Obviously, a lot has happened in the years since Voyager returned from the Delta Quadrant, and this episode leaves a lot of blanks unfilled. But it doesn’t really have to. Ryan, always a terrific actor even in the days when her character didn’t sit well with every viewer (or cast member) of Voyager, conveys both Seven’s world-weariness and the depth of her commitment without laying out reams of exposition (though we get a few more details later). Even the way she tosses back bourbon says a lot about what she’s seen and done since her last appearance.
We’ve seen some lawless places and pleasure planets on Star Trek, but we’ve never seen anything quite like Freecloud, where seemingly anything can be had for a price. It makes Risa look like Branson, Missouri, and its absolute commitment to letting money rule everything could make a Ferengi blush. The pop-up ads start before visitors even land, and the surface is a holographic assault of come-ons and neon-lit attractions. It’s a dangerous place filled with shady characters. It also looks kind of fun for those willing to take a chance on vacationing there. Games! Costumes! Bars stocked with liquor in every shade of the rainbow!
Much mentioned since the first episode of Picard, the reality of Freecloud doesn’t disappoint as the crew of La Sirena visits in search of Bruce Maddox, but their attempt turns into a rescue mission when they discover that the ruthless crime lord Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan) has him and has already made a deal to hand him over to the Tal Shiar. The only solution: an elaborate, heistlike scheme involving deception, fake identities, and disguises. It’s a plan whose lighthearted elements contrast starkly with a bad guy whose ruthlessness is established in an upsetting opening scene.
For some reason, CBS All Access wants both Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard to be rated TV-MA. Sometimes, the ratings-lifted elements, which are mostly limited to language, feel shoehorned in, like Tully’s dropping an out-of-nowhere F-bomb on Discovery. The Saw-level bit of grisly violence that opens “Stardust City Rag,” however, feels different, both in its intensity and its necessity. The torture scene, in which one of Bjayzl’s sadistic goon scientists cuts open Icheb — a Borg rescued by Voyager who became a recurring character in that series’ later seasons — is shocking, but it also establishes Bjayzl’s cruelty while making us see Icheb as Seven of Nine sees him: as a person, not a machine that can be cracked open and used for scrap parts. “I’m so sorry,” she says, “my child,” and her loss hits all the harder because we’ve just witnessed what Bjayzl has put Icheb through.
It’s quite a leap from that scene to dressing Rios up like a ’70s pimp to play the part of a ’facer (short for “interfacer”), a go-between negotiator who acts as a neutral party for Freecloud’s dirty business. Written by Kirsten Beyer and directed, as was the previous installment, by Jonathan Frakes, “Stardust City Rag” has a lot of fun flashing back and forth between the scheme in action and Raffi’s careful preparations, in which she tells everyone to be especially careful around Mr. Vup, a hulking Beta Annari, a race of “sentient reptiloids” gifted with the ability to sniff out lies — and other personal details. (Fortunately, there’s a way to short-circuit this ability: delayed-release hard drugs.) Encouraged to put aside his “broody, existentialist spaceman routine,” Rios plays the part well.
But not, it must be said, as well as Picard sells the part of a one-eyed, beret-wearing, “appropriately sineestaaaiiirr”-looking bounty hunter seeking to outbid the Tal Shiar for Maddox, a bit of role-playing that allows Patrick Stewart to trot out a French accent yet again. In an attempt to secure Maddox, he submits an offer he knows Bjayzl and Mr. Vup can’t refuse: Seven of Nine, who’s more human than ever in behavior but still filled with Borg parts. It’s a rarity Bjayzl yearns to possess because, as Picard puts it, she “won’t see many more [dramatic pause to whip off hood] LIKE HERRRR!”
But it’s Picard who’s in for the real surprise when it becomes obvious that Bjayzl and Seven share a history, one that involves Seven trusting Bjayzl as Seven worked to rescue those abandoned by the Federation when it suspended its Romulan rescue operation. Then Bjayzl betrayed that trust, turning on Seven to acquire Borg technology. They were clearly close. Bjayzl even calls Seven by the birth name she never uses, Annika. And Seven knows that calling herself “the one that got away” while reminding Bjayzl of the fortune she took from her will hurt. It won’t hurt, however, as much as Icheb’s death. What could?
In the end, Picard’s team successfully executes Raffi’s plan, but “Stardust City Rag” has anything but a happy ending. For one, Raffi seeks out her son Gabriel and his pregnant Vulcan wife, only to have her attempts at a reunion rebuffed. Her years of addiction and absence have put a distance between them. And though her substance abuse seems to be behind her (at least for the moment), her belief in a conspiracy at the heart of the Federation remains unshaken, pretty much killing any chance she has at reconciling with Gabriel and getting to know her grandchild. Later, after saying farewell to Picard, Seven returns to Freecloud to exact the revenge on Bjayzl that Picard had seemingly talked her out of seeking. “Picard still thinks there’s a place in the galaxy for mercy. I didn’t want to disillusion him,” she tells Bjayzl, lines that neatly sum up both characters.
But Maddox meets the unhappiest end, and for unexpected reasons. Left to recover in the La Sirena sick bay after learning of Dahj’s death (and confirming Soji’s existence and location), he’s killed by Jurati, of all people. Sweet, idealistic, Jurati — his former co-worker and lover — who has spent much of the episode anxiously manning the transporter, tearfully kills him after he reminds her of her role in creating Dahj and Soji. “I wish you knew what I know. I wish they hadn’t shown me,” she tells him as he gasps for breath. At least she apologizes before he dies, but this is quite the turn for Jurati, who, up to now, has been Picard’s most endearing character. Where does she go from here? Where does the show? Picard has ended on suspenseful notes before but nothing quite like this.
• How good is Jeri Ryan in this episode? She’s playing a different sort of Seven of Nine than she played on Voyager, but the performance feels like a natural extension of the earlier Seven, one who’s done a lot of living in the gap years and doubled down on her efforts to honor the best parts of humanity. She may not be in any future episodes of this series (or she might; CBS has kept spoilers pretty tight), but if Star Trek is fishing around for more spinoff ideas, focusing on Seven and the Fenris Rangers would be a good choice.
• Also, how good are Ryan and Patrick Stewart together? They never cross paths during their respective Star Trek series, but they’ve got terrific chemistry and shared experiences that allow them to get down to the heart of the matter without a lot of small talk, particularly that final exchange touching on the lasting trauma of their time with the Borg.
• This episode piles one David Bowie reference on top of another. Freecloud takes its name from the “Space Oddity” B-side “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud.” “Stardust City” takes its name from … well, if you’re interested in Bowie references, you probably know that one already.
• In retrospect, we never see what happens between the time Commodore Oh approaches Jurati and she volunteers herself as part of Picard’s crew. What does she see? And who are the “they” that show it to her?
• The line “Mr. Quark of Ferenginar was especially satisfied with your handling of his trouble with the Breen” offers a tantalizing peek at what a Deep Space Nine character might be up to. Does this phrasing suggest Quark is back on his home planet and dealing with the Breen there? Are they somehow still a Deep Space Nine menace? Could Rios’s cover story have retconned him into a past encounter? Who knows.
• John Ales plays Maddox, subbing in for the original actor, Brian Brophy. Similarly, Casey King plays Icheb, a role originated by Manu Intiraymi.
• Those Freecloud pop-up ads play a lot like the internet as envisioned by Ralph Breaks the Internet. Only maybe even less pleasant.