Judging by “Stardust City Rag”, which brings us to the halfway point of this debut season of “Star Trek Picard”, the raison d’être for this series would seem to be to bring back old fan favourites to either kill off immediately or show you how shitty their lives have been since you last saw them…and then kill them off.
Having arrived at Freecloud, the galaxy’s preeminent world named after a late nineties internet service provider, Picard and his ragtag crew must infiltrate the seedy underworld nightclub belonging to Bjayzl (not pronounced like vajazzle, but close enough to be constantly amusing and bemusing in equal measure). Adopting a variety of disguises – none of them subtle, and one of them straight out of “‘Allo ‘Allo”, Picard and his crew set out to do all they can to rescue Maddox, little knowing that all that awaits them is a pyrrhic victory.
If I had to guess, this would be the point at which the series lost a sizeable chunk of its heritage Trek audiences. In pursuit of his, for want of a better word: vision, Kurtzman has concocted a foul, bitterly sour cocktail of cynical fan service and grimdark gritty emptiness that reads as a deliberate ‘fuck you’ to the core principles of sci-fi’s abiding, optimistically humanist universe. If it’s always darkest before the dawn, Chabon, Kurtzman and co better bring the sunrise real fucking soon.
This is, without a doubt, the least “Star Trek” episode of “Star Trek” there has ever been (“Galaxy Quest” and every single episode of “The Orville” rank ahead of this one). If you thought last week took us into “Firefly” territory, this one takes the ongoing “Star Wars”-ificiation of “Star Trek” (which began in the Kurtzman co-written “Star Trek” reboot) to a new low (or high depending on your point of view, I guess) with the whole Freecloud club scene lifted virtually wholesale from “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. The brief glimpses into the nature of the Fenris Rangers just further the feeling that the last thing the guy entrusted to oversee the future of the entire Star Trek franchise wants to deal with is Starfleet or the Federation. This is probably the point at which the creators were hoping there would be a fan clamouring for a Fenris Rangers spin-off show, the way “Star Trek: Discovery” generated calls for a Pike show during its second season but I’d be surprised if this left anyone clamouring for anything more.
There’s a sadistic edge to this episode that literally stabs you in the eye from the moment it fades in from black. Hey, remember Icheb, the plucky ex-borg drone, one of the group of four children Seven of Nine rescued on “Star Trek: Voyager”? Well, how about seeing him being sadistically tortured and vivisected without anaesthetic as an opening scene? Sure, thing. Whatever it takes to brutalise our returning favourites enough that we can justify the actions we’ve already decided they’re going to take in our story to come.
Juxtaposed alongside the relentlessly bleak violence which permeates the episode are some moments of what were, I think, meant to be light comedy and whimsy, but end up as vapid and discordant silliness. Not only is Rios’ ship badly in need of even the most basic of pop-up blockers, but Patrick Stewart’s performance hasn’t been this awkward, stiff and mannered since season one of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and while we’re on the subject, the woman playing Bjazl (Necar Zadegan) bears such an uncanny resemblance to early TNG Deanna Troi that it’s almost a fourth wall break and astonishing nobody in the show mentioned it.
It takes real ineptitude to take what amounts to a heist episode and have it not be fun in any way shape or form. The pacing again is a real issue with far too much time taken up in the Picard’s holographic study discussing stupid dress-up ideas and far too little time spent examining the only tiny spark of interest the whole episode offers, which is a six-line conversation between Seven and Picard comparing their post-assimilation experiences. That, right there is a moment worthy of expansion and exploration, rather than a passing mention at the tail end of Trek’s darkest hour. While most of the gang are busy engaging in piss-poor cosplay and accents which would make Arthur Bostrom and Tom Hardy blush, Raffi is bust looking up Hwangs on the Freecloud internet. It turns out the Hwang she’s looking for is her estranged son and that was the only reason she decided to come along for the ride.
Of course, Raffi’s family troubles would be more compelling if we’d had any kind of hint of them before or knew who she actually was in the first place. As it is, the whole subplot feels like padding, another downbeat strand to weave into the gloomy and depressing tapestry of the series. It does raise the possibility that Raffi was only fired from Starfleet (shouldn’t that really be dishonourably discharged) because she was a substance abuser and relied on the patronage and protection of Picard to keep her rank and position? If that’s the case, it says far more about how lax the judgement of the once noble and principled Jen-Luc Picard had become.
Written by one of the committee members credited with creating the series, this has some of the worst dialogue in Trek history, a history I would remind you includes the likes of “Spock’s Brain”. It treats legacy references and returning characters as fodder for the meatgrinder it uses in place of imagination. Icheb, brought back to die; Maddox, brought back to die; Seven, brought back to kill and then abruptly leave again (although I’m sure she’ll be back before the hurley burley’s done, probably (as she was last week) to ensure the battle’s not lost but won. Whoopi Goldberg should watch the way this show and especially this episode has treated the ghosts at its feast of ashes and think very, very carefully about whether she really wants to come back as Guinan on this kind of show.
Even the references, like the mentioning of tranya, feel uncomfortable and mean-spirited. When Rios mentioned ‘Quark of Ferenginar’, I genuinely felt suddenly defensive of the integrity of “Deep Space Nine”, like I wanted “Star Trek Picard” to keep anything mention of that pinnacle of Trek out of its filthy mouth. It’s ironic, I guess, that it was the mere allusion to the Trek series which showed you could do Star Trek realpolitik without compromising or losing the essence of the franchise which would serve to reinforce just how badly this latest attempt is faring at it.
For all its violent pretensions, the episode – full of sound and furious shock jockeying as it may be – signifies nothing. Neither Icheb, nor the oft-name checked Bruce Maddox appearing in this episode are played by the original actors but they’re used so disposably that it hardly matters. Having been the plot motivating MacGuffin for half the season, Maddox is abruptly killed off in the first episode he appears in, thanks to the one member of Picard’s crew that was obviously working to a secret agenda. Quite how she’ll get away with a murder both witnessed and recorded by the EMH is something which will no doubt get completely ignored in next week’s episode.
What a pointless, bloodthirsty, nihilistic episode “Stardust City Rag” is, the nastiest Star Trek ever and to what end? It’s barely moved the needle of the plot on from two or three episodes ago now and far from jumping to warp, we’re still idling on manoeuvring thrusters. To paraphrase another piece of execrable Trek writing (and, as is traditional, jam it together with an apposite Shakespeare quotation): I think this episode has prompted an emotional response. It looks like I hate it. More? Well, I am in “StarTrek: Picard” stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.