Here's your chance to beam out to avoid spoilers for episode 5 of "Star Trek: Picard."
Episode 5 of "Star Trek: Picard," entitled "Stardust City Rag," marks the halfway point of the show's first season on CBS All Access and the second episode to be produced under the supervision of "Star Trek" veteran Jonathan Frakes, who also directed last week's episode.
However, unlike last week's, which gave us Elnor (Evan Evagora) the return of Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) and not much else, this week's episode swings to the other extreme and is positively jam-packed. In fact, there's probably too much going on and the surprise twist at the end could've easily been carried over to next week. But more about that a little later.
In fact, this week's episode contained some of the very best scenes in the series so far; we saw some new and really interesting locations in the "Star Trek" universe plus some well-placed humor, quality action and great dialogue. The only grumble we have is that there was a bit too much going on, because it exacerbates the uneven story flow, especially when it directly follows an episode like last week's.
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We start on the planet Vergessen, in the Hypatia system. This is a new world to "Star Trek" canon and normally we'd have little to say about this. But showrunner Michael Chabon has evidently put a lot of thought into the name of each new world in "Picard" so it's worth taking a pause to ponder. For instance, Vashti, that was the setting for much of last week's episode, is named after Queen Vashti from the "Book of Esther," an independent, strong-minded woman, which is fitting for the home of the Qowat Milat. Vergessen is German and, depending on context, generally equates to "forgotten" and we'll soon see perhaps why this was chosen.
We zoom into a location called the Seven Domes and we learn that we're seeing events from 13 years ago. It quickly becomes clear that we're in some kind of surgical theater, only this is more Dr. Mengele than Dr. McCoy. Blood stains the bed and we see some poor, strapped down individual having his left eye actually plucked out. It's very well shot using practical effects and doesn't shy away from the unpleasantness of what's going on. Then we see who it actually is...it's Lt. Icheb, from "Voyager," still in his Starfleet uniform (played by Casey King this time around, not Manu Intiraymi, who played him in "Voyager").
Icheb was a young Brunali male and former Borg drone who was discovered by USS Voyager along with four other adolescent drones in 2376 in the episode "Collective" (S06, E16). Seven was instrumental in his recovery and the two formed a very close mother and son-like relationship. He eventually applied to Starfleet Academy ("Imperfection" S07, E02) and returned with the crew back to the Alpha Quadrant.
Bodies lie bloodsoaked and motionless on other beds in this alien abattoir. The surgeon is removing his Borg implants with all the sensitivity and skill of a slaughterhouse giblet gutter. Moments before she's about to shove something large and unwieldy into his other eye, there's a disturbance in the distance and she takes a full blaster bolt in the chest, which sends her flying backwards. Barely managing to look up, Icheb sees Seven holstering her sidearm. She cradles him in her arms and tries to untie his restraints. He stops her and begs Seven to end it. She's sobbing – and so are we at this point – she takes her hand phaser, holds his head to hers and shoots him in the chest at point blank range. As the camera briefly pans around the room before the frame fades out, we see a lot of scavenged, surgically removed Borg tech littering the room. Evidently, this is big business in the Alpha Quadrant underworld.
Unusually, the pre-credit sequence is two separate parts this week (see earlier point about cramming a lot in) and we fade back in to the present day in Stardust City on Freecloud, in the Alpha Doradus system. It looks like we were right; Freecloud does seem to be a lawless locale where only the well armed and the resourceful survive. Inside an exclusive nightclub we see the owner, Bajayzl (Necar Zadegan), clearly a powerful individual on the criminal circuit and her beefy bodyguard, a Beta Annari named Mr. Vup (Dominic Burgess). His interruption annoys her, until he grunts, "Maddox." She chuckles, "How the mighty have fallen. Kill him."
"Wait," she says quickly. "New plan."
And then we see him, for the very first time, Dr. Bruce Maddox (played by John Ales, not Brian Brophy). Clearly he's seen better days and clearly he also knows Bajayzl. She brings him a drink and he explains that he's been in hiding. Someone destroyed his laboratory. "They used some kind of molecular solvent to destroy the entire facility. There's literally nothing left," he says, his hands shaking as he nervously gulps from his glass. "I don't know how I'm ever going to repay your loan," he says.
"Who do you think did this to you..?" Bajayzl asks, who up until now has shown little emotion.
"I think it was the Tal Shiar," he whispers. But now she reacts. She sits back in her chair and purrs, "Well, that does change things a bit." At which point Maddox drops his glass, which smashes, and he collapses on the floor.
"Making a deal with the Tal Shiar is always such a pain in the ass," she sighs. Roll opening credits.
We return to the holosuite reproduction of the Picard château on board the La Sirena. Seven enters and it's the first time both she and Picard (Patrick Stewart) have had a chance to chat. He pours her a bourbon, neat, which she downs. (Makes you wonder exactly what's real and what's part of the holo-matrix. So, if the program ended, wouldn't the bottle of bourbon smash on the floor?)
We get a little insight into what Seven has been up to since Voyager return to Earth, 21 years ago. In essence, she's a Fenris Ranger and her reputation is known as notorious across the galaxy. By the sounds of things, they're peace-keeping role is very similar to the Rangers, or Anla'Shok, in "Babylon 5" (but sadly she doesn't get an oh-so-cool Denn'bok fighting pike). Picard tries to recruit Seven to his cause and at first she's not interested, but after another bourbon she agrees.
We cut to Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) who's watching a vid of her baking chocolate chip cookies with a bearded older gentleman, who we now know to be Maddox. This obviously serves to reinforce the notion that she had a relationship with the good doctor and thus starts setting up the episode climax, but this could just as effectively have been shown at an earlier point on the La Sirena in last week's episode for instance and therefore making the shock ending of this week's episode a little less predictable.
As they approach Freecloud and Stardust City each one of the crew – except Elnor, which makes sense — gets targeted by a holographic pop-up advert that seems to know a little bit about their behavior. It's a fun, well observed and nicely written scene that fills us full of trepidation as to what the future has to offer.
Raffi (Michelle Hurd) manages to locate Maddox by doing some fancy hacking and pretending to be an "interface" — essentially go-betweens for hire – and registering with a local 'facers guild. She discovers that Maddox is being held by Bajayzl, which is glossed over by everyone else except Seven.
"She butchers ex-Borg for parts," Seven informs them with a cold, deadly sense of dread. "She's been high on the Rangers' wanted list for years."
The team concludes they can't simply extract Maddox and they can't outbid the Tal Shiar, so they're going to tempt Bajayzl with something that she really wants: Seven of Nine. And thus begins the second act and one of the best set pieces in the series so far – the Stardust City sting.
Stardust City itself is a little reminiscent of "the internet" in "Futurama" in the episode of the same name (S02, E09), or possibly "the grid" from "Tron." It doesn't have the depth or texture of any "Blade Runner"-themed retrotech-cyberpunk aesthetic; it's Las Vegas of the future after all. But wherever you think it's taking its visual cues from, it's interesting and effective.
The set piece itself is edited together in a back-and-forth fashion that walks you through the concept and execution of this heist-of-sorts. It works well and nicely accentuates the understated humor.
Rios (Santiago Cabrera) is dressed … er, extravagantly, in order to look like a 'facer. Imagine Stanley Ipkiss from "The Mask" meets Christopher Columbus circa Spain 1492. Picard, on the other hand, has gone more musketeer with his choice.
"'Facers tend to dress very flamboyantly," Raffi explains. "It's protective coloration. You're playing go-between, you want to stand out – you don't want anyone mixing you up with the other side."
"You seriously, really need to sell this," she tells Rios. "You can't do your broody, existentialist spaceman routine, your personality needs to match your clothes. You need to show a little panache."
"You need a feather in your hat," Seven quips, nailing the deadpan delivery.
And we're back in the nightclub where we first met Bajayzl and Rios does his best to blend in, which is a joy to watch. If anyone deserves their own "Star Trek" spin-off series, it's Cristobal Rios.
Before he can get to Bajayzl however, he has to get past her bodyguard, Mr. Vup, but that's easier said than done, because Mr. Vup is from Beta Annari, which means he can detect if you're lying by your scent. Thankfully though, Raffi's prepared a hyposhot of some scent gland-something-or-other plus some benzodiazepines – very nice – to help Rios mask his true intentions and block the super smell powers of Mr. Vup.
Elnor (Evan Evagora) is providing back up – although he's hardly said two words this week – and transport out of the club when everything goes south – because it almost certainly will – is being handled by Dr. Jurati.
Picard – and undoubtedly Patrick Stewart — clearly enjoys this role-playing opportunity and you could argue Stewart maybe hams it up just a fraction too much. Meanwhile, Stardust City was originally Raffi's stop and so she makes plans to leave the La Sirena and meet up with her son, Gabriel Hwang (Mason Gooding). There's an emotional farewell between her and Picard and down she beams.
Unfortunately, this family reunion doesn't go quite the way she had hoped and he doesn't want anything to do with her. Unfortunately, because there's been so much you-weren't-there-for-me angst already, his reaction to her olive branch offering comes as no surprise and reaffirms that Raffi's real family is on the La Sirena. There were a couple of curious takeaways though, Gabriel mentions something called the Conclave of Eight, which may or may not turn out to be important and also his pregnant wife is Romulan, which could raise some interesting possibilities.
Back in the bar, Bajayzl has finally showed up and the exchange is being negotiated. Maddox has been rolled out and he's clearly not in the best of health, meanwhile the inevitable confrontation between Seven and Bajayzl begins.
Dr. Jurati is pacing up and down near the transport pads on the La Sirena and she's extremely apprehensive about something; naturally, we're meant to think it's about the exfil operation that's currently not going according to plan on the planet below. Rios whispers to her over the comlink that it looks like everyone is going to have beam out in hurry.
Seven breaks out of her cuffs – as was the plan – and grabs Bajayzl by her neck. Picard appears surprised to hear that the two had so much history. Seven tells the story, how Bajayzl posed as part of the Fenris so she could ambush the USS Coleman, where Lt. Icheb served as science officer, so she could strip his Borg implants. Picard pleads with Seven using the whole murder-isn't-justice argument and at this point even the viewer is screaming, "Yes it is!" at the television. Rios however, offers more relevant logic: if Seven kills Bajayzl, it puts a bounty on all of them.
Seven reluctantly agrees and everyone, including Maddox beam back to the La Sirena. Picard is thrilled that Seven acted responsibly…but Rios, who understands revenge, discreetly leaves the transport pattern enhancer on the control console for Seven to equally as discreetly put in her pocket. There's some nice dialogue between Seven and Picard about regaining their lost humanity after their respective ordeals with the Borg and then Seven transports off the La Sirena.
We follow Seven as she materializes back into the bar we just left. Instantly, she blasts two bodyguards and that sends everyone else either running or hastily beaming out until only Bajayzl and Seven are left. (You'd really think Bajayzl would have some emergency transport set up.) A final confrontation follows before the former crewmember of the USS Voyager gives the black market Borg tech dealer both barrels.
And then we're in sickbay on the La Sirena where Maddox and Picard finally have a chance to talk. Picard tells him that Dahj (Isa Briones) is dead and Maddox says that her "embedded Mum AI wouldn't have activated her unless she was in grave danger". Maddox then confirms that she has a sister — at which point Dr. Jurati's ears prick up – and that she's on "the artifact" — the captured Borg cube — to find out the truth about the ban. "There's lies upon lies," he struggles to say, while still in a great deal of pain.
And had the episode ended there, that would've been plenty for us to get our heads around this week. But no…
It turns out that Raffi is back onboard and has locked herself in her quarters…but more importantly than that is the scene that follows between Jurati and Maddox as they share a tender moment.
"We did it Aggie; Soong and I and you. Your contribution was essential," he murmurs, while she looks down at him, tears streaking down her cheeks.
"One more thing I have to atone for," she says.
"What do you mean..??" he asks, looking up at her in horror as she begins to shut down his life support. Choking, his eyes bulging, he tries to call out her name.
"I wish you knew what I know," she says, sobbing. "I wish I didn't know what I know. I wish they hadn't shown me. I'm so sorry…"
And that's the end of episode 5 and the good doctor Bruce Maddox. We've speculated before that given Kurtzman's obsession with linking everything together, the Zhat Vash could be a reference to the 33rd century "V'draysh" from in the "Short Trek" episode "Calypso." Could the mission of the Zhat Vash be to maintain peace? Laris said in episode 2, that the Zhat Vash are keepers of a secret so terrible, could the Destroyer be Control, that we saw in convoluted plot of "Discovery" Season 2? Has Agnes Jurati been sent back the future? Or is she possibly a synthetic herself? Stay tuned to find out more.
Starfleet commendation ✓
- Icheb and his fate were both tragic and terrific, great character call back.
- Plenty of Easter eggs on Freecloud, including signs for Quark's and Mr. Mot.
- Whether it's as a hologram or a 'facer, Santiago Cabrera steals every scene.
- Thanks for not featuring any incestuous shenanigans from the Rizzo siblings.
- More new locations showing the criminal underworld of the galaxy please.
Scrubbing the holodecks ✗
- Here's Bruce Maddox at long last. Oh…er, well, that was Bruce Maddox.
- Some inconsistency over leftover Borg implants, no mention of Picard's.
- Picard has just a little bit too much fun in his Monsieur Mercenary roleplay.
- Perhaps Bajayzl wasn't the best name to choose for a female adversary.
- Elnor might be the best sword in the sector, but he doesn't do comedy well.
The 10-episode "Star Trek: Picard" series will air on the paid subscription streaming service CBS All Access in the U.S., and in Canada on Bell Media's Space and OTT service Crave. New episodes will air each week, with episode 6 arriving on 27 February 2020.
CBS and Amazon Studios have announced that the new show will stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in more than 200 countries worldwide within 24 hours of its premiere on CBS All Access and Space in the US and Canada, respectively.
CBS All Access subscription is the home of "Star Trek: Picard," "Star Trek: Discovery" and a host of other original and archival CBS television shows. Subscriptions start at $5.99 a month. You can try CBS All Access for a week free here.
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