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Star Trek: Picard's heartfelt TNG reunion is more than just fan service
This is the one you've been waiting for!
If you're a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in almost every way, the latest episode of Star Trek: Picard is totally what you wanted all along. The Next Generation was a Star Trek show that made an art of people sitting around and talking on a spaceship. And in Episode 7 of Picard, "Nepenthe," former crew members of the starship Enterprise, do, in fact, sit around and talk. If the ragged darkness of some of Picard's storylines has made you miss the coziness of The Next Generation, "Nepenthe" will feel like therapy.
But, the episode is so much more than fan service. The reunion of Jean-Luc with his former shipmates isn't just nice for Trekkies, its an essential pivot point for the story. If anything, "Nepenthe" just rebooted the internal canon of Jean-Luc Picard's psyche.
**Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard, Episode 7, "Nepenthe."**
Right at the start, the latest episode actually reminds us of more urgent concerns than nostalgia. In fact, a season-long mystery has seeming been solved. Dr. Jurati didn't come along with Picard out of the goodness of her heart; she was hired by Commodore Oh to track down and (presumably) destroy any artificial lifeforms they might find. Still, like so many clues on Picard, the mind-meld between Jurati and Oh actually creates more questions. Are these images of an A.I. apocalypse things Oh knows for sure? Or is this connected to a fanatical Zhat Vash belief that all A.I. is bad? Plus, doesn't this mind-meld remind us all of Spock's visions in Discovery Season 2? (And if so, is that rogue A.I. know as "Control" really gone?)
Most of those questions will have to wait for later in the season because although we spend a little time with the crew of the Le Sirena, and tragically watch Hugh die (that was fast!) while Elnor tries to fight his way off the Borg Cube, the majority of the episode is, somewhat appropriately, focused on both Picard and Soji. And, because they are presumably the two main characters of the series, this episode is all about them finding themselves. Or perhaps, more accurately, choosing who they want to be.
After taking the spatial projector to the planet Nepenthe, Soji and Picard meet Riker and Troi's daughter, Kestra. Innocently, and by accident, brilliant teenage Kestra is the one who ends up spilling the beans to Soji that she is an android. Throughout the episode, Kestra and Soji's relationship probably best encapsulates how audiences feel about the memories of Data and The Next Generation. As Kestra questions Soji about her abilities and interests ("Do you play the violin? Do you like Sherlock Holmes"?), it's like flipping through an old family photo album.
Yes, Data wanted to tell jokes in a fairly forgettable episode called "The Outrageous Okona," and yes, he had a dreaming program activated in a strange and uneven episode called "Birthright Part 1." But, when Kestra summarizes these events, it's like she's the stand-in for audiences who grew up with TNG. We remember these episodes as masterpieces on par with the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and admittedly, some TNG episodes (like "Data's Day") are masterpieces, and others (like "The Outrageous Okona") are not. But, in the mind of a child like Kestra, it's all brilliant. In other words, Kestra's whole goal in this episode is to make Soji into a Star Trek fan.
Of course, the world of Star Trek that Kestra tells stories about is not the same as the world of Star Trek that Picard and Soji currently inhabit. When Riker suggests that Jean-Luc should probably call Starfleet, you kind of know that's the last thing Picard is actually going to do. And, more urgently, when Troi tells Jean-Luc that he's being insensitive to Soji's very real trauma, it's the moment he needs to shake him out of some of his self-pity. Up until this episode, Jean-Luc has been so obsessed with the idea of finding Dahj's sister (and Data's offspring) that he actually failed to forget that even these android twins are people, too.
Picard tells Troi he needs to feel "useful," but what she tells him he needs to be is much more important. Himself. "Compassionate. Caring. Patient." That last detail could also describe some fans' journey with Star Trek: Picard. This isn't an action-adventure series like Star Trek: Discovery, and it's not the cozy world of The Next Generation, even if it does share some of its progenitor's pacing. This means, that even though we've been waiting patiently to see familiar faces from The Next Generation, it's only now, right before the final third of the first season, that we're getting that nostalgia pay-off.
But the thing is, if Riker, Troi, or any of the other legacy characters from TNG had shown-up sooner, it wouldn't have worked. It wouldn't have felt earned. Unlike Seven of Nine, Riker and Troi aren't drastically broken people now. Yes, they are mellowed out. Yes, like Seven they basically lost a child. But, in terms of their relationship with Picard, they're essentially the same characters we remember from those boldly going adventures.
In the end, this is the point of this episode, and perhaps Picard as a whole. On some level, Picard needed Will and Deanna to remind him who he really is. In TNG, even when Picard went through a terrible trauma, he always had Starfleet. He always had his crew. When he was tortured to the point of losing his mind in "Chain of Command," he had Troi to talk to. And so now, at his breaking point, when the one person he wanted to save hates him, he needs that support system.
But on some level, he also knows he needs his new crew, too. "They seem to have more baggage than all of you," Jean-Luc says of Rios, Raffi, and the gang. "But then again, I'm not one to talk."
Jean-Luc Picard has always had a lot of baggage. Even at the beginning. In "Encounter at Farpoint" he was the guy who lost his best friend — Jack Crusher — while serving on the Stargazer. Then, he had Beverly Crusher, Jack's widow, serving with him on the Enterprise, and he was secretly in love with her, a fact he didn't make clear until six seasons later in the episode "Attached." So, Picard is right. On some level, even in the good-old TNG days, literally, the entire crew had less baggage than he did. He was just better at hiding it.
As the series gears up for the last few episodes, Jean-Luc Picard has regained his old sense of purpose. But, unlike TNG, he's not hiding his baggage anymore. The question now is whether he'll be able to make peace with that emotional burden, and in doing so, gain a new family member — Soji — along the way.
A few episodes back, Seven said she wanted Picard to have a little hope and in this episode, it feels like he's finally had his hope restored. Along with the rest of us.
Star Trek: Picard airs its final three episodes over the next three Thursdays on CBS All Access.