14 years before last time on “Star Trek: Picard”, we get an alternative view of the synthetic rebellion which killed thousands of people and destroyed the Federation’s Utopia Panitia shipyard. We get to meet a few of the ‘plastic population’ and it’s not long before the only way is uprising as we watch one of them override the security protocols. With typical Kurtzman-style subtlety, the synthetic which starts it all is designated F8 which is so on the nose it’s a slap in the face.
No time for sour grapes though, because post-credits we’re back on the vineyard and learning that not only are Picard’s live-in carers ex-Tal Shiar but that the Tal Shiar themselves had a Tal Shiar, called the Zhat Vash (no relation). Apparently, there’s little security on Earth these days as Picard and co have no problem beaming to Dahj’s apartment to conduct their own forensic examination. Finding that the Zhat Vash have systematically erased all evidence of Dhaj or her death, Picard determines he must head back out into space to find her twin sister.
The Zhat Vash are apparently the keepers of a secret so dark and so terrible that to know it could break a person’s mind. Whispers and rumours suggest they have a deep abiding loathing of synthetic life at the root of their big, dark secret. A secret we’d better get an answer to before the end of the season. Meanwhile, on board the abandoned Borg Cube, Dahj’s sister is being seduced by Romulan operative Narek but, as we learn, the seduction is only part of a larger conspiracy, one which surprise surprise reaches to the very heart of Starfleet.
After last week’s callback heavy season opener, the pace here slows down as we get a little less action and a lot more exposition. There are still callbacks aplenty, some of them surprising, some of them much less so and none quite so blatant as lifting a whole section of the plot of “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” when Picard goes to Starfleet to request a ship so he can go rescue the immortal remains of his departed friend. Of course, Picard gets the same answer as Kirk did all those years before (albeit swearier) and in the absence of a decommissioned Enterprise to drag out of mothballs, has to look for a plan B to get to outer space. Speaking of decommissioned Enterprises, we get a holographic glimpse of the NCC-1701 (albeit the “Star Trek: Discovery” version) which is then replaced by our second viewing of the NCC-1701D, but it’s a missed opportunity not to fill in the gaps (the A, B and C) but also acknowledge the Enterprise-E, which, after all, was the ship Data gave his life to save.
The most surprising callback is the explicit acknowledgement of the ticking time bomb of Picard’s Irumodic Syndrome, first shown in “All Good Things…” and it’s a fascinating scene because they use it both to underline Picard’s current vitality but also emphasise his potential frailty. In many ways, it feels like a deliberate attempt to put a time limit on this spin-off series. Picard may be boldly going for the moment, but he doesn’t intend to boldly go on forever it seems.
The writing in this episode feels a little clumsier and despite the sedate overall pace, at times rushed. It doesn’t want to keep its secrets, no sooner setting up an intriguing mystery than presenting you with the answers. So, for the umpteenth time, we have a twisty conspiracy at the very highest echelons of Starfleet. The Commander in Chief, Admiral Clancy is being played by Commodore Oh, a Vulcan who in turn is being played by an undercover Romulan agent posing as her adjutant Lieutenant Rizzo. It’s a tangled web they weave and we can only hope there’s a satisfying reveal at the heart of the gordian knot of pan-galactic conspiracies. While the players are made plain, their agendas are not, so hopefully there are still surprises up the shoulder-padded sleeves of the Romulans who have definitely used the destruction of their homeworld to embrace a greater diversity of hairstyles than at any other time in their history. Kurtzman’s clearly trying to retrofit Nero’s “Star Trek” stylings with the current Romulan aesthetic. It is ironic, though, that the Romulan’s Borg-based salvage operations seem to have more diversity and look more like a Federation establishment than the majority homo sapiens Starfleet HQ scenes.
Where the writing stumbles a little, the direction and visuals are once again on point, bringing me to one of my favourite callbacks of all, a beautifully framed shot of Picard, reflected in a clock face with mirrored flames from the fireplace opposite him on the dial. Time is the fire in which we burn indeed.
Overall, a sedentary, exposition-heavy but potentially important episode, full of scenes which are nicely ordered and impeccably shot but it feels like the story has slowed down to one quarter impulse power. But surely we’re clear of storytelling spacedock now and ready to jump to warp because ten episodes at this pace and “Star Trek: Picard” will start to feel like a captain’s slog.