Last time I suggested we may finally be free of flashbacks being used as a lazy way to introduce new characters that we’re meant to care about, but that promise became a prison for me as soon as this episode started with the entire pre-credits sequence being just that, this time bringing us the origin story of a Romulan ronin in the form of Elnor.
Fourteen years ago, Picard visits the newly established Romulan Relocation Hub world of Vashti, apparently to attend a ‘Man From Delmonte’ convention. Unfortunately, the colony has said ‘no’ to that idea and instead been taken over by the Romulan Dune fandom. This Bene Gesserit Qowat Milat sisterhood offer a home to a young orphan boy, a boy who Picard has atypically taken an interest in. When the synthetics attack Mars, Picard is called away and, we learn, effectively abandons the colony. In the present day (2399), Picard has requested Rios divert from their original destination of Freecloud to Vashti, hoping to recruit one of the Qowat Milat’s warrior nuns, the qalankhkai, to join their mission.
It’s a decent, if slightly hollow episode, in which not very much happens but it manages to fill its time quite nicely. There’s more than a whiff of parsimony about the production though. Picard’s vineyard study is recreated on the holodeck of Rios’ ship to give the show its equivalent of TNG’s oft-used observation lounge without the need to build an extra set and the planet Vashti comprises of a village square and a courtyard with drapes, recalling the early tentative days of TNG’s foray into location shooting. In this light, Rios’ egocentric emergency holograms start to look like penny-pinching rather than puckish humour. Budgetary squeezes have always played their part in Star Trek’s long and innovative history, and usually, the limited resources were overcome by the creative team’s ingenuity and inventiveness but the team behind “Star Trek Picard” all too often seem to think ‘less’ rather than ‘different’ when they come up against the limits of their resources.
The writing, too, is lazy and limited, often raising up a seemingly insurmountable obstacle only to have it resolved offscreen in between scenes. For example, access to the shielded planet of Vashti apparently poses no more difficulty than ‘The Great Barrier’ was for Sybok & co some hundred and twelve years earlier. It also feels like a sly conceit to imbue the Qowat Milat with a vow of ‘absolute candour’, meaning there’s no need to offer pesky subtlety in the dialogue, you can just have the characters announce everything bluntly.
It’s a good job, then, that the redoubtable Jonathan Frakes is behind the camera directing this episode. Renowned for being an efficient and effective director, ‘two takes’ Frakes is also well versed in making televisual silk purses from budgetary sows’ ears as demonstrated in many previous trek episodes with lacklustre production values but topo-notch performances, visuals and storytelling. He manages to inject life and drama into the tediously predictable story of Elnor joining Picard’s quest after initially, resentfully rejecting his invitation, especially the way he steps in and saves Picard from the Vashti equivalent of a western shootout, although the decapitation smacks of Kurtzman’s archly forced ‘edginess’ agenda.
We do occasionally pop back to the Borg cube to check in on Narek’s ongoing seduction of Soji and if you were wondering what exactly Narek’s objective is, once again the writers have got your back and rather than let the mystery simmer, they simply tell you a couple of scenes later. He wants to find out where she comes from so he can destroy them all. So if you had Narek and his sister down as being members of the Zhat Vash you can definitely tick that off now.
There’s a fun if rather chaotically shot and sloppily edited space battle that’s of little real consequence apart from showing a TOS-era Romulan Bird of Prey (we never get to see inside the ship or the often mentioned but never glimpsed local warlord Kar Kantar – probably too expensive) and introducing yet another celebrity guest star as Seven of Nine beams in before passing out. Interestingly, both recognise each other which means we can look forward, no doubt, to future flashbacks telling us how they came to know each other.
It’s the best episode of “Firefly” Star Trek’s ever done but I have to admit to a growing concern. We’re four episodes in and we’re still introducing characters – are we ever going to get to the meat of the story or is “Star Trek: Picard” going to be all bun and no burger? Have I, in choosing to watch “Star Trek: Picard” to the end, like a qalankhkai bound myself to a lost cause?