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Star Trek: Picard brings back Next Generation optimism in a big way
If Star Trek: The Next Generation was a series that believed optimism was a given for all its characters, then Star Trek: Picard is a series that makes its characters work for that optimism. Really hard.
As Picard Season 1 approaches the threshold of its final few episodes, the show has made it clear that going into the finale, we're in classic Star Trek adventure territory. In the previous episode, Jean-Luc Picard rediscovered his purpose, but in Episode 8, "Broken Pieces," the series glues back together the soaring idealism that The Next Generation made famous. And in doing so, proved that sometimes the best plot twist is to just reveal that the "bad guys" aren't bad. They're just not trying hard enough.
**Spoilers ahead forStar Trek: Picard Season 1, Episode 8, "Broken Pieces."
By the time its all over, Star Trek: Picard is going to be a series we'll all want to rewatch in one big binge. Because despite some incongruous tones in the first episode, everything from Episode 6 onward has proven that this series is a lot more patient with its characters than we realized. In "Broken Pieces," the mysteries of Rios's past and the Zhat Vash mission are clearly answered, but not through complicated plotting. Instead, it's all about character.
These things shouldn't be viewed separately, but when we talk about exciting TV shows stuffed with a ton of mystery boxes, it's easy to start thinking that characters are just pawns in some crazy plot game. In "Broken Pieces," Picard reminds us that if the writing is good, then plot and character are the same thing.
In the very first scene, we finally learn why the fanatical Romulan sect the Zhat Vash is so keen to wipe-out all synthetic life throughout the universe. It's all thanks to something called "the Admonition," a telepathic warning left behind by an ancient alien race. This gizmo is well named, as it makes the Romulans feel so crappy about the future that many of them either go permanently crazy or kill themselves. This scene also serves as the origin story for the wicked Narissa, who, as it turns out, probably isn't an evil person, but instead, a deeply fearful person. She's also someone who has lost her surrogate mother — Ramdha — to madness. This doesn't make her more likable, but it does make her motivations a little more clear.
Narissa believes, wholeheartedly, that she's right. She's not, just so we're clear, but her motivation to become an unforgiving spy is part of her character. The "plot twist" isn't that the Romulans have some crazy complicated secret plot. The story is simply that Narissa — and the Zhat Vash —live a fearful, closed-off life.
In fairness, Picard doesn't let its "good guys" off the hook either. In fact, the whole episode quickly becomes a meditation on how much you're willing to let fear and paranoia rule your actions. Like Narissa and Ramdha, Dr. Jurati was subjected to a mind-meld version of the Admonition, meaning, just like our Romulan adversaries, she's living in fear, too. Ditto for Raffi and Rios, who, for different reasons, don't trust Soji and are terrified of what having her on the ship will mean.
But again, just like Narissa's character creates the story, so do Seven, Jurati, Rios, and Soji.
Because Jurati literally had thoughts jammed into her mind, she has the hardest journey of all, but after talking with Soji, and a little bit with Picard, she clearly decides that killing people out of fear is not a real way to live. Soji mostly came around to the idea of trusting Picard in the previous episode, but in a touching scene this week, she regains her ability to believe in the idea that she could reclaim her past rather than be afraid of it.
Back on the Borg Cube, Seven of Nine even puts aside her fears of a miniature Borg collective in order to save the lives of even more people.
And then there's the big reveal with Rios. After Episode 3 planted the seed that something terrible happened to Rios on the USS Ibn Majid, now we finally get the whole picture. It turns out a former captain who Rios idolized killed two Synths in cold blood in a desperate attempt to save the ship. And one of those Synths, Janna, looked exactly like Soji.
At first, when Picard beams Soji aboard the Le Sirena, Rios shuts down and spends most of the episode drinking, listening to records, and hiding from the rest of the crew. But, even by the end, when he comes around, he's still afraid. While getting real with Picard, Rios suggests that hey, you know, maybe the Romulans are right. Maybe this whole business of creating A.I. is more trouble than its worth.
And its in this episode where Star Trek parts ways with other, basic, robot-apocalypse cautionary tales. In a slightly meta-fictional move, Jean-Luc dismisses the historical fear of A.I. as something other people used to worry about. "The future is left for us to write," Picard says emphatically, reminding everyone that no, this is not a technophobic story and that perhaps, some robot revolution stories are a little played out. Picard continues: "We have powerful tools. Openness. Optimism. And the spirit of curiosity."
In the classic Next Generation episode, "The Measure of a Man," Picard fought for Data's civil rights in a court of law, saying, "Starfleet was founded to seek out new life...well there it sits!" The new life Picard referred to in "The Measure of a Man" was synthetic life; an A.I. We tend to think of the "new lifeforms" of Trek as organic aliens, but the reason why Data was such a great character is that he was literally a new kind of lifeform, even though the idea of a robot is very old. Now, with "Broken Pieces," Picard has brought the stakes of "The Measure of Man" full circle.
Back then, a much younger Bruce Maddox was trying to claim that Data wasn't really alive. Now, Maddox's successor, Dr. Jurati, is faced with Data's spiritual daughter asking simply, "Am I a person?"
For the open and curious, the answer to this question is clearly, "yes." And now that the Le Sirena is bound for a strange, new world (possibly full of androids!), this edgy, darker version of Star Trek is actually turning out to be pretty damn uplifting.
Star Trek: Picard airs its final two episodes over the next two Thursdays on CBS All Access.