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.
“You don’t get to condemn people before the fact.”
Picard and Beverly have “the talk” in this episode, and man, it rips. I suppose there’s some basic-dramaturgy common sense here that would insist that this argument might have meant more if we had actually been shown their relationship rather than merely told about it; but, since we all spent seven years of Star Trek: The Next Generation fairly convinced Jean-Luc and Bev were in love, and since Gates McFadden and Patrick Stewart smack the cover off the ball in the scene anyway, it doesn’t matter much. (The fact that Jonathan Frakes is directing their contretemps only sweetens the sense of the familiar.)
With Star Trek II remaining the stencil outline for this season, we’re in the Battle of the Mutara Nebula here, “but make it swoopy.” The Titan and the Shrike essentially dogfight their way through the nebula, in spite of being ships the size of small cities. Nick Meyer understood that starships were better analogized to submarines, slow-moving, strategic, and powerful; but the urge among Next Gen fans (and now, Next Gen writers) to make these ships into the Millennium Falcon is evidently irresistable. (It’s gonna get much worse, in the series finale.) In any event, the Titan cuts and runs, giving Picard an opportunity to run down to sickbay and give Dr. Crusher an overdue, infuriated “wtf.”
But first, we flash back to the year Will and Deanna’s son was born — which means visiting that fucking bar again, because Picard is “cool,” remember! — and get some of Jonathan Frakes being de-aged to his (supposedly) immediately-post-Nemesis styling. It doesn’t really work, but here’s my dirty little secret as a television viewer: I don’t care. Much like the shitty old age makeup on Next Gen itself, I don’t actually think it matters if effects like this are 100% true to life, so much as whether they convey what you’re supposed to take away from the scene. So: Riker just had a baby, and it was reportedly a difficult birth, and in the episode’s titular seventeen seconds (the time it took Will to get from the bridge to sickbay), Riker came to understand fatherhood.
Picard’s crash course in fatherhood starts out bumpier, with that confrontation with Beverly. We learn that they attempted a romantic relationship five (!) times; that there was “always a clock” on the private time they could spend with one another; that the threat of Reman assassins (!!), this time, was enough to convince Beverly that raising a child with Jean-Luc was not going to work. The logic is tenuous, at best; but the absolute aching hurt with which Patrick Stewart expresses his bewilderment in this scene — the layers of pain at not losing just a lover, but a friendship that he had evidently assumed (lover or not) would always be there — is remarkable. It’s partly remarkable because Stewart has been so milquetoast in so much of his performance across all three seasons of Star Trek: Picard; he pulls it all together now that he’s playing off one of his most reliable scene partners. It’s also remarkable because, in a way, this one scene achieves something of the mission statement of doing a show like Picard in the first place. This is the show, the actor, and the character finding a vein that we did not know was there, but nonetheless feels organic, rich, and worth mining. It might be the high point of the series.
And all the subtext of season two comes pouring out in a rush, when Beverly weaponizes Jean-Luc’s anxieties about his own father as part of her justification for leaving him. Look, I gotta assume this is the kind of thing that is found in the writer’s room after the fact, but I gotta tell ya, it nearly makes going through all of Jean-Luc’s season two mishegoss feel like something that actually had to happen. (Per my dramaturgy comment above, in that case, they showed us, instead of telilng us.) Again, Stewart clobbers it here, evincing the newly-understood, decades-old grief of time lost. And lest I leave her in the margins, Gates McFadden gives as good as she gets. When Beverly lists off the traumas she’s endured — her parents, the original Jack Crusher, and Wesley, all lost to the stars — his stars, Picard’s — it’s a real, heartfelt, and mature performance of the self-possession that has always been a hallmark of Beverly’s character. It’s why I love her, and still love her.
That scene is a lot, but the episode immediately throws a charm offensive at us, with Riker referencing that famed subtext between Picard and Beverly out in the hallway, telling an anxious Jack that he’d spent two decades locked up in a spaceship watching the new Crusher get “cooked up.” It’s fun to think about the pure workplace drama of it all: the crew of the Enterprise knowing something was going on between the captain and the doctor, but (thanks, decorum) probably never getting to say anything about it. And closing the loop on the flashback sequence, we also get a reminder that Riker and Deanna’s son, Thaddeus, died — Kestra is still alive, but will go woefully un-utilized this season — so that we can motivate some of Riker’s forthcoming actions.
Speaking of dramaturgy, here comes a weird one: the episode takes Shaw out of the picture and transfers command of the Titan to Riker (he commanded its predecessor), only for Riker to immediately develop beef with Picard so that he is now the obstruction between Picard and his objectives. I would trade Shaw for absolutely nothing and I’m glad he’s in this season, but I do strongly question why we need both characters here, he and Will, if the dramatic intention of their position is merely “stand in Picard’s way.” It forces Riker’s characterization to bend itself nearly in a circle, just to make sense of his almost immediate heel-turn. He supported Picard unequivocally, like, forty screen-minutes ago. Now he’s ordering his former captain off the bridge. What?
This dramatic quagmire gets nicely, if unintentionally, visualized by the revelation of the Shrike‘s superweapon, which is literally a portalling device: every time the Titan tries to leave, Vadic portals them straight back to where they started from. A big circle. That’s a great idea (especially when the big circle contains the Titan’s own photon torpedoes), and overall, the presentation of the Shrike as essentially unbeatable is handled very well across these couple of episodes. She’s a scary-lookin’ son of a gun, too; using the main deflector as an almost Eye of Sauron-level focal point in the design certainly amps up the yikes when she’s roaring after the Titan through those clouds of gas.
The episode has some other moving-pieces-around plotting to do, such as setting up a relationship between Sidney and Seven (this works!) and establishing the outer space plot device that will eventually get the Titan out of the nebula (meh, technobabble). Jack starts getting his “red tentacles / red door” thing, which never, ever works. Oh, and we meet the pasty-faced dude who will turn out to be the Titan‘s onboard mole and a rogue agent of the Great Link. The confrontation between Picard and Beverly remains this episode’s hallmark; but when it aired, few things detonated the internet quite like the revelation that it was the Changelings who had pursued Beverly and Jack across the stars.
A Deep Space Nine sequel? Inside my Next Generation sequel?! Not quite, unfortunately; but wow, what a heady moment in my popular culture, to think that Matalas and the gang were going to pull such enormous threads together. It all sure seems to be heading in that direction here, especially when Worf returns, announces that he is “working on himself,” and offers Raffi a calming cup of chamomile tea. (In a nice touch, he’s listening to the same Berlios piece that Picard was taking refuge in, in First Contact, to settle his nerves.) And now, thankfully, we can add Michael Dorn to the shortlist of legacy actors who can still “do the thing.” Dorn is perfect here, and the premise that Worf — whose tenure on TNG was much defined by his ability, or lack of same, to control his rage; and whose time on Deep Space Nine was bookended by unimaginable trauma and loss — is now trying to learn the lessons of serenity actually gives the character a third act that, honestly, I never knew I needed to see until it happened. The Pai Mei ‘do? Just icing on the cake.
Worf recognizing the (other) Changeling (played by Thomas Dekker, who not only acquitted himself well as John Connor on The Sarah Chronicles but, I learn, was also Picard’s kid in the Generations Nexus fever dream?!) as being desperately in need of his bucket is a nice beat, as is his mention of a “close friend, a man of honour” who is feeding him intelligence from within the Great Link itself. (RIP, Rene Auberjonois). It was enough to make us all think that Colonel Kira or Chief O’Brien was going to turn up in next week’s episode. (The latter, at least, would have been Next Gen-appropriate.) No such luck, unfortunately, but credit where it’s due: this is a hell of a big swing for Star Trek: Picard, and the commensurate sense of scale that it brings to this season is undeniable.
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!