Star Trek: Picard
From the start, Star Trek: Picard has been thick with references to Star Trek’s past in general and to Star Trek: The Next Generation in particular. But it’s also avoided feeling like Star Trek: The Next Generation, The New Voyages by introducing new characters, taking place in a much-altered Star Trek universe, and following a story that’s less about exploring strange worlds and new civilizations than uncovering the rotten parts of the universe we already know. It’s been light on fan service, in other words, and better for it. But that doesn’t kill necessarily kill the urge to find out what happened to the rest of the Enterprise crew.
“Nepenthe” answers those questions as they apply to two of Picard’s old crew members by reuniting him with the now-married Will Riker and Deanna Troi. The Riker-Trois have carved out an idyllic life for themselves on the planet of the episode’s title where they’re raising a spirited, bow-and-arrow-toting daughter named Kestra and cooking pizzas on an outdoor oven beneath the shelter of lovely greenery (and under the protection of some impressive security devices). But theirs isn’t entirely a happy ending. Nepenthe’s name comes from The Odyssey, where Homer refers to it as a drug that uses forgetfulness to kill sorrow. Bit by bit, the episode parcels out what Will, Deanna, and Kestra might want to forget and why a sorrowful memory still looms over everything they do, all while tying their story to the events that set the series’ plot in motion.
Specifically, they’ve lost a son, Thad, whose rare disease might have been cured were it not for the Federation calling a halt to all positronic research and medical therapy in the wake of the Mars disaster and the synth ban that followed. The episode never depicts Thad, unless a baby photo with Picard counts. But it makes us feel his presence in every Nepenthe scene, often via Viveen, the Thad–invented language Kestra still speaks. And Viveen is itself part of a larger imaginary world of Thad’s creation, Ardani, the touching invention of a child born on a starship longing for a homeworld of his own. It’s all beautifully played by Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis, who reprise characters viewers grew to know across seven TV seasons and four movies while adding new grace notes of loss and reflectiveness. They’re ably assisted by Lulu Wilson as Kestra, whose irrepressibleness doesn’t quite mask her mourning. “Kestra still aches for him,” Deanna tells Picard, “but every day that ache fades a little bit more.” Picard doesn’t have Deanna’s empathic gifts, but his reply still gets at what’s going on with his former ship’s counselor: “But seeing that happen must be a different ache for you.”
Kestra is not, however, the most sensitive host for Soji, asking if she’s an android immediately after she arrives. In show time, that’s probably less than 30 minutes since Soji first realized she’s not like everybody else. (Suddenly manifesting super strength and speed will do that.) “Until you said the word android back there, I was still clinging to the idea I was human,” Soji tells Kendra after being pelted with Data–inspired questions about violins, Sherlock Holmes, and whether or not she produces mucus. (She does.)
All of this understandably puts Soji in a pretty foul mood, one she takes out on Picard, even shoving him on the shoulder. (Patrick Stewart’s obviously in great shape, but the moment still feels like elder abuse, even if she does pull her android punch.) Will’s more prepared for this than Picard. Not only did he spot Soji as an android, and one with ties to Data, from the start (“I’d recognize that head tilt anywhere”), he anticipates she won’t be as easily commanded as the crew of the Enterprise once was, an assumption he dismisses as “classic Picard arrogance.” All this and he never misses a beat while making a pretty delicious-looking pizza (topped with venom-free bunnicorn sausage courtesy of Kestra’s hunting expedition).
Frakes is incredibly fun in these moments, playing out a scene we would never have seen on The Next Generation, before time put the Captain and his Number One on equal footing. If anything, Will has the advantage of having settled into a peaceful (if sad and always cautious) existence while his former Captain has recklessly taken to the stars again. It’s as if they’ve traded places in some respects. Deanna’s even less sympathetic, telling Picard he had it coming after the shove and making him pause and think about what he’s done and what Soji’s been through. Like Frakes’ take on Will, Sirtis is very much playing the Deanna we already know, but one liberated by the passage of time and changes in station. She obviously loves Picard, but she’s grown tougher with her love. Eventually, however, he makes allies of Will and Deanna in his new quest, and some classic Picard eloquence (with some help from Will and Deanna) wins Soji over, too. (That and Soji’s ability to read his facial cues and recognize he doesn’t think he’s lying to her.)
The Nepenthe segments give Picard some of its most reflective, and best moments, but elsewhere it’s all action. And guilt. So much guilt. The episode opens by filling in most (maybe all) the blanks in Agnes’ story. It was indeed Commodore Oh who put her on course to join the La Sirena, assist Picard on his question and, oh yeah, straight-up murder her former lover Bruce Maddox. Why? Because Commodore Oh gives her a mind meld vision of “what will happen if synthetic life is allowed to exist.” What we see are some flashes of death and destruction. Presumably this is just shorthand for what Agnes sees since she immediately replies, “What do you need me to do?”
We know what she ultimately does, whether she needs to or not: kill Maddox and give Narek a way to trace the La Sirena as it makes its way through space. It’s tough to get a read on how culpable she is, however. If not for the small matter of murder, Agnes would be almost innocently idealistic, a woman who lives for science and the study of artificial intelligence with little sense of how the universe works outside a lab and with minimal ability to deceive others. (It’s a good thing she doesn’t meet up with Deanna on Nepenthe.) She’s so unworldly that when Raffi offers to hook her up with whatever she needs, she chooses excessive amounts of cake. It may not even enter her mind that Raffi is offering her drugs. Will the show ultimately reveal that the mind meld gave her no choice but to kill Maddox? That seems like a cheat. But it also seems like the only possible explanation for her actions given everything else we know of her.
Agnes even comes this close to confessing she has a tracker before injecting herself with noranium hydride, which sends her into a coma. But it also puts Narek off their trail just moments before Rios accuses Raffi of being the turncoat. A new crisis defuses an old one.
Meanwhile, Elnor stays behind on the Artifact to fight the good fight against Narissa. He does what he can against impossible odds (and survives a pretty sharply choreographed fight scene that pits him against Narissa directly), but it’s not enough to save Hugh. With his dying breath, Hugh tells him to activate the Artifact’s queen cell with the help of an xB. (RIP Hugh.) Elnor doesn’t make it that far, but he is able to sound an SOS for the Fenris Raiders. Maybe we haven’t seen the last of Seven of Nine after all?
All that lies ahead, however, as does the next stop for the La Sirena as it makes its way to the homeworld Soji can only remember in shattered images. The episode ends with a group hug and some last looks from Will and Deanna — moments made heavier by the knowledge this might be the last time Picard sees them — and then a “Two to beam up” that will end Picard’s peaceful, if never particularly quiet, sojourn on Nepenthe.
• One fun element of this episode: It’s now clear that The Next Generation took great steps to minimize the height difference between Stewart and Frakes. Here, Will looms over his former captain. This works as a way to convey their changed relationship, but it’s also just an amusing image, one made all the more delightful by Frakes’ man-of-the-woods facial hair.
• Thad’s name has roots in Riker family history. It’s the name of one of Will’s American Civil War–era ancestors, a Union soldier referenced in an episode of Voyager. Kestra’s name has more recent roots. It’s the name of Deanna’s older sister who drowned when Deanna was still too young to remember her. Wounded by the loss, Deanna’s mother Lwaxana suppressed the memory only to have it come rushing back later in life. Whatever the origin of Will and Deanna’s adopted home’s name, forgetting the past doesn’t make it go away.
• Fans of The Haunting of Hill House and Sharp Objects will no doubt recognize Lulu Wilson, who at 14 has already racked up a pretty impressive résumé that also includes Ouija: Origin of Evil, Annabelle: Creation, and Ready Player One.
• Who is this Captain Reed Crandall that Kestra has befriended? And wouldn’t it be odd if we didn’t meet him at some point? What would it take for his ship to figure into a future episode. “I am still on active reserve,” Will tells Picard. “But it would have to be a very good reason.” Hmm ….
• “Nepenthe” is co-written by Michael Chabon, who needs no introduction, and co-executive producer Samantha Humphrey, a veteran of CSI: New York, NCIS: New Orleans, and SWAT. That’s a lot of acronym shows! It’s directed by Doug Aarniokoski, whose credits also include SWAT (and Star Trek: Discovery).
• Great line: “So you want to be ass-deep in Romulans for the rest of your life.”
• About that mind meld: since when did Vulcans deliver prophetic powers? It seems more and more likely Oh constructed a vision that unmoored Agnes’ psyche and compelled her into actions she would not commit if in possession of her free will. Or maybe not. Who knows with Vulcans? (And is she a Vulcan?)