Picard, Riker and the gang on the bridge of the USS Titan, at red alert.

Blogging the Next Generation: Picard — “No Win Scenario”

This entry was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, this television series wouldn’t exist. To learn more, visit the SAG-AFTRA strike site.

“At some point, ‘asshole’ became a substitute for ‘charm.’”

This episode pissed me off so completely when it aired — one thread of it, particularly — that I wrote a whole thing about it. I won’t re-litigate that thread here, besides to say that the point remains gallingly true, and feels increasingly improbable as time goes by. When I wrote the original piece, the line about Shaw’s psych profile in “Disengage” had slipped my mind; with that in place, it makes no sense to me whatsoever that Starfleet would just knowingly let this man drift in his misery, a post-traumatic, survivor’s-guilt bomb waiting to go off. It’s cruel, and Star Trek is not meant to be cruel.

Improbabilities of a lesser kind abound. Here we learn that Picard used to hang out at Guinan’s (there’s that fucking bar again, because Picard is “cool”!), and Starfleet cadets would come in after class and ask for some stories, which makes no sense in three directions: 1/ the bar’s in Los Angeles and the Academy’s in San Francisco (don’t talk to me about beaming! push your glasses up your nose!); 2/ Picard would have been in his “I don’t talk about Starfleet” days, during this flashback to five years ago; and 3/ Jack (revealed among the cadets at the episode’s end) would have been less than 15 years old. But whatever. It’s all in service of setting up the fact that Jack actually tracked Picard down before now, didn’t like what he heard, and put his bio-dad in his tail wake; this, in turn, in service of setting up an opportunity for the two men to find some common ground by the end of this episode. It’s contrived, unfortunately; but then, the whole premise of Jack is starting to feel contrived. Other members of the child-free club, back me up on this, but: isn’t the “having a kid teaches a person what life is really about” trope more than a little played out? At the very least, could some stories about the richness of the other road work their way into adventures like Star Trek: The Next Generation, without having to be undone by a retconned yearning for offspring that the Captain Picard of the early years of that show would never have stood for?

Ok, while I’m on this kick: exhuming Riker’s grief about Thad also feels like a contrivance, if I’m being honest. The Riker-Trois we met in “Nepenthe” were carrying the weight of that grief, certainly, but they also seemed to have worked with it, connected with it, let it draw them together as a family. Here, we retcon all that, pushing Riker out of the household because he was so out-of-control distraught at the loss of Thaddeus that Deanna (an empath) couldn’t handle being around him anymore. It’s too much.

So maybe this entry is about the premise of contrivance itself. Writing is a tricky business, reverse-engineering emotional beats and whole character arcs by creating the backstories that lead you there in the first place. That’s natural to the work, and building those pieces artfully — so that the outcome is both earned and surprising — is the gossamer that makes great character-work beautiful. The problem [cough Rise of Skywalker cough] comes when you have to actively dismantled parts of a character’s backstory in order to force the outcome you’re yearning for onto the page. There’s a lot of that in “No Win Scenario,” from the Jack/Picard stuff to the angst that Shaw feels about the Borg (and therefore, Picard), to this business with Riker — which, out of nowhere, is really fucking up his ability to be a good captain. In last week’s episode, Riker (quite nicely!) told Jack that we’re all human and therefore have flaws. Flaws, I believe in; but sixtysomething tenured captains and admirals falling down emotional rabbit holes that most men learn to regulate in their twenties (okay, thirties) makes them all just feel kind of childish.

So, Riker decides that the Titan is fucked — actually, he decided that last week, when he announced to his entire bridge!!! that Picard had killed them all — and that Jean-Luc should therefore take a few minutes to get to know Jack. Torturous setup for a payoff that could have arrived much more organically, but, maybe that’s just me. Picard spends the day with Jack in the bar — that fucking bar — and they talk about his career and Jack’s life, and Picard’s hair, because there always has to be a joke about the hair.

I shall stop whining about the writing of “No Win Scenario” after one last thing: there should be a hyphen in the episode title. Thanks.

Elsewhere, Seven’s on a hunt for the Changeling, whose goo-forms have here been retrofitted to resemble marbled beef (they used to look like honey). Vadic starts talking to her boss via Changeling Facetime, and in the actual weirdest visual note in this whole season, she uses Shinzon’s knife to do it. (If this is meant to connect to anything, I don’t recall. Is Shinzon involved here?!) And down in sickbay, Beverly’s counting the seconds between the energy pulses in the nebula. This is good! This is what Beverly would do! (She’s even in her blue medical smock again!) She figures out the whole phenomenon by the episode’s end (including how it’s going to save everyone’s ass), and cheerleads the men through their emotional crises, to boot. “Let’s do what we’ve spent our entire lives learning to be great at,” she says. This is a person whose lived experience actually tallies on the balance sheet of how she now, in this moment, addresses challenges.

That nebula phenomenon, by the way — that the giant cloud is in fact a womb and it’s about to have space-babies — becomes the season’s most substantial nod to how dreamy and wonderful things on Next Gen used to be. Remember the jellyfish? The giant glowing head on the other end of space? The time the Enterprise gave birth to a baby? (Ok, maybe forget that last one.) If there is one thing that NuTrek has no room for whatsoever, it’s vintage Trek’s perennial reliance on hippie-dippy shit, and I miss it. This is one of the reasons Strange New Worlds can get away with cosplay episodes even if the scripts aren’t that good: they remind us of how much fun the 26-episode season used to be. The old way of writing television forced writers to pull really weird ideas out of their ass.

A couple of factional ideas have been clarified, which are worth repeating: last week, Worf mentioned that the Changelings attacking the Federation are part of a splinter group, not the main body that surrendered at the end of the Dominion War and returned to the Great Link. This week, an ADR line by Captain Shaw tells us to “forget about that shit on the Stargazer” (i.e., all of last season; wish I could!) and to understand that the “real Borg” are actually still out there, a threat. This marks the second time the Borg had been put to bed as a threat to the galaxy (I also once thought Janeway had annihiliated them in the series finale of Voyager) only to have them pop back up again. Strangely, I did not see the end of the season’s reveal coming, at this point, but given how Shaw ambushes Picard here with that endlessly-replenishable “you were Locutus, MAN!” hackery, I probably should have.

“No Win Scenario” behaves as a midseason finale for Picard season three, and as much as I kind of loathe its first 40 minutes, I have to admit its last 20 get me right in the feels. Our old crew (well, half of them) get their shit together and fly; Riker even hits a spaceship with a rock. Will and Deanna patch it up; Picard sinks into the command chair (and even says “engage!”); and Beverly quotes the introductory speech itself. It’s a big, loud “I LOVE STAR TREK!”, and yeah, I tend to agree.

Blogging the Next Generation: Picard runs Thursdays on tederick.com as I work my way through every episode of Star Trek: Picard. The original BTNG did the same for Star Trek: The Next Generation. While you’re here, why not sign this petition, asking CBS to release Picard’s final season on 4K UHD disc, which it deserves. Fuck streaming for ruining Hollywood!