Star Trek: Picard (CBS All Access)
Season One, Episode Five – “Stardust City Rag”
Written by Kirsten Beyer
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
Now, this is an episode I enjoyed. After setting the pieces up on the board for the first month of the series, Picard finally has our characters getting into dangerous situations and dealing with both interpersonal and external conflict. I wonder how someone utterly unfamiliar with Voyager would understand Seven of Nine’s part in this story. I think you need at least a rudimentary understanding of who she is and what happened to her on that series. Of all the episodes we’ve gotten thus far, I think this one does the best in blending contemporary elements with the world of the Federation.
Picard and crew have arrived at Freecloud, a sort of libertarian free-market preserve where all kinds of nefarious types live & work. It’s Mos Eisley as a whole planet. Their goal is to find artificial intelligence specialist Bruce Maddox, but he’s already been captured by the local crime lord Bjazyl. She plans on turning Maddox over to the Romulan Tal Shiar, so Picard needs to concoct a plan to rescue him. Seven offers herself up, revealing that she and Bjayzl once served as Fenris Rangers in the past. We also learn the brutal fate of one member of the Voyager crew, which is what drives Seven to seek revenge.
Star Trek has always been weird about showcasing its black markets and subcultures. So many of the shows and movies focus entirely on the Starfleet angle that things are usually pretty homogenous. Deep Space Nine was a notable divergence from the formula exploring characters like Quark and Garak. In this Picard episode, we see a night club culture that feels different from the Star Trek we know. I particularly enjoyed the obnoxious holographic pop-up ads ships get attacked with when landing on Freecloud. Agnes’s reaction to being overwhelmed with the sensory input felt true to the socialist system in place on Earth.
There’s a whole interesting system of etiquette introduced as the plan unfolds. Rios must dress in what could be called “1970s pimp” style as he poses as a “facer,” a go-between messenger who signals a deal. They are dealing with a Reptiloid who can smell pheromones released when humans lie. This means Rios must be injected with a cocktail of slow-release drugs. Picard’s guise involves an eye patch, beret, and a bad French accent. It’s all very fun stuff and manages to balance the darker themes going on in the story.
The cold open has Seven finding a crewmate brutally murdered. The audience sees the killing, and it is horrific. Picard is definitely not as family-friendly as The Next Generation, and that’s something I’ve pondered over. As I said before, I think the showrunners may be mixing up grim with mature when they are not the same thing. In fact, storytelling that is more nuanced and complex is what I think of when I hear the term mature. I think the violence in this episode is essential to fully empathize with Seven’s pain. However, I could see people being completely turned off by its inclusion.
I think the most mature elements in this story come in the interactions between Picard and Seven, especially their conversation about having once been Borg. I’ve always felt The Next Generation let the ball drop too quickly on exploring the PTSD associated with what Picard went through. It was referenced multiple times in the series and in First Contact but never in a manner that was more than a plot point. It makes me optimistic about Picard and Hugh’s reunion. I do have one fear, though. I think the big twist of the story is going to be a really stupid one. They have introduced this ancient order of Romulans that hates artificial intelligence for some unexplained reason. I am going to call it now: they will reveal the Borg were created by the Romulans as some form of biological warfare, and it got out of control. I hope I am wrong, but it’s a stupid enough idea that I can see Alex Kurtzmann thinking of it.