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Star Trek: Picard brings back a crucial, beloved character and gets swashbuckling again
Although Star Trek is a science-fiction franchise credited with being thoughtful, progressive, and overall oriented towards a message of peace and understanding, we tend to forget its success is also directly tied to the fact that it's a crazy fun space adventure, and has been from the start.
For fans who were ready for Star Trek: Picard to jettison some of the space angst and get back to the swashbuckling tone that began with the original series, we've got some good news: the latest episode is a romp. This isn't to say that the episode isn't serious or that it's somehow tonally out of wack with the rest of the show, but it does have something the three previous episodes lacked: sword fights and spaceship battles. With Episode 4, "Absolute Candor," Picard leans on some of the zippiness that made everyone fall in love with the adventure of the final frontier in the first place.
**Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard, Season 1, Episode 4: "Absolute Candor."**
Like the last two episodes, "Absolute Candor" opens in flashback. Again, it starts 14 years prior, on a Romulan planet called Vashti. Picard is there, helping settle a bunch of refugees who have already been evacuated. He's befriended a Romulan kid named Elnor. Picard loves this kid. He reads him The Three Musketeers and gives him fencing lessons. He's come a long way from those early years with Wesley Crusher.
Right here, episode writer and series showrunner Michael Chabon tips his hat to Trek's earliest origins. The over-the-top heroics of Starfleet Captains like Kirk and Picard are just space-age iterations of classic literature, like the adventure stories written by Alexander Dumas. The original series relied heavily on C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels, while The Next Generation referenced the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, not to mention Raymond Chandler-esque hard-boiled detective novels, which Picard personally loved most. Slipping in Dumas and this famous novel about brave guys with swords isn't an accident, and in fact, honors the way Star Trek has always been written.
In what feels like a nod to Dune, Young Elnor is being raised by a matriarchal clan of Romulan warrior nuns called the Qowat Milat. He's an orphan, out of place, and because Picard is called away to deal with the crisis on Mars, Elnor loses the father figure he so desperately needs. That is, until now. As the episode catches back up to the present, Picard has requested a "stop" at the planet Vashti for the expressed purpose of recruiting a Qowat Milat. Instead of Ready Room, Jean-Luc now has a holographic recreation of his study back on Earth, meaning crew meetings can now take place in what essentially looks exactly like his house.
In this early scene where the crew meets, Alison Pill's Dr. Jurati asks "Am I part of the crew now?" It's a cute moment, and even though this series is unlike any Trek before it, "Absolute Candor" certainly has the trappings of a more traditional Trek adventure. Picard needs to hire an assassin! There are rumors of an old Romulan War Bird on the loose! And, look, Rios has even more holographic duplicates of himself!
By the time Picard gets to Vashti, we can kind of see where all of this is going. He will get the help he needs, but it won't be a female Romulan warrior nun; the new member of the crew of the Le Sirena is destined to become Elnor. After Picard pisses off some racist Romulans, Elnor comes to his aid, wielding a sword and decapitating bad guys like an outer space version of Legolas. Now that he has joined Picard's quest, Elnor is known as a "Qalankhkai," a sword-wielding Romulan who only binds their swords to "a hopeless cause."
Elsewhere, on the Borg cube, Soji is still researching old Romulan myth, watching holograms of the mysterious Rhamda before she assimilated. Rhamda talks about Romulan myths of “the Destroyer,” which is basically exactly like Gozer in Ghostbusters. Soji is obviously worried she will become this Destroyer. Also, for some reason, there is a bar on the Borg ship and Narek and Soji get some drinks, which leads to Narek getting extra flirty. We get the sense he’s actually falling in love with Soji. Is he? His evil sister claims that he's not getting the secret robot information out of Soji fast enough, and just before the episode's final climax, we're really left wondering if Narek the evil spy is really so evil.
Back on Vashti, Picard, and Elnor get beamed away from the racist Romulans just in time but find themselves smack-dab in the middle of an old school starship battle. A local Romulan warlord is giving them trouble and he's flying an "antique" Romulan Bird of Prey. The design of this ship is straight from the TOS episode "Balance of Terror," and, in nearly every way represents the very first big-bad alien Star Trek ship. So, yes, this episode knows exactly what it's doing. Captain Rios and the crew of the Le Sirena have to fight it out with this old-school Trek ship, only to be rescued at the last second by another mysterious starfighter, flown by a mystery pilot. Pretty soon, the new mystery ship begins to break-up and the pilot is beamed-over.
It's Seven of Nine!
Star Trek fans have known Jeri Ryan's Seven would appear in Picard, and the opening credits of this episode even give that away a little bit. And yet, there's a thrill to the classic way in which she is introduced. Like Princess Leia disguised as a bounty hunter, or Dumas's the Count of Monte Cristo himself, the notion that mysterious rescuer is, in fact, a character we know very well is a smart and classic way of bringing a new hero into the fold.
Star Trek: Picard may be a more ruminative and serious Star Trek, making social commentary about issues from technophobia to racial strife, but in this episode, it feels like the series has put all the favorite toys back in the toy box. For Trekkies who built the model of the Romulan Bird-of-Prey as kids, or grew up with Seven of Nine in Voyager, this episode of Picard is a return to that kind of childhood adventure. Yes, sometimes the heroes still have swords, and often, they still fly cool spaceships.
It's been a while since Jean-Luc has fought with a sword. In this episode of Picard, our titular hero doesn't hold the sword for that long, but it is a nice reminder to TNG fans of the good old days, like the episode "Q-Pid," where Jean-Luc was exactly like a hero from very old stories.
Star Trek: Picard Season 1 airs new episodes on CBS All-Access on Thursdays.