Although it starts with another flashback, this time we’re only going back a mere three weeks as we get more of the shady Commodore Oh’s visit with Doctor Jurati. Of course, its nothing that we hadn’t worked out ourselves already but when has that ever stopped this show from telling us anyway? The interesting thing here is that Oh shares a vision of the future during a mind-meld. Oh’s definitely not Romulan, but maybe the Vulcan is still a fully paid-up member of the Zhat Vash? And how has Oh come by this knowledge of the future that she believes is a logical certainty? Does it foreshadow some time travel shenanigans yet to come?
Meanwhile, things are looking decidedly dicey for Hugh and Elnor on the Borg cube as they find themselves at the mercy of a furious Narissa while Narek is planning to follow the crew of La Sirena wherever they go on the assumption they’re heading to rendezvous with Picard. It’s implied that his means of tracking them is because he has access to the tracking device Commodore Oh gave Jurati but it’s still not crystal clear whether Oh and the Romulan twins are knowingly in league and given the series propensity to spill its secrets straight away, I think that means the writer’s hadn’t made up their minds on that particular point yet.
“Nepenthe” is well named, at least for the first two-thirds of the episode. Coined in Homer’s “Odyssey”, it’s the name of a mythical medicine for grief, literally ‘that which chases sorrow away’ and much of the grief heaped upon the viewer in the previous half of this season is instantly soothed by the return of a couple of Next Generation favourites. In many ways, “Nepenthe” shows just how good a Next Generation sequel series could be before it rouses itself from its reverie, and remembers what kind of series it is.
It’s utterly astounding – and credit where credit is due – that “Star Trek: Picard” handles Deanna Troi’s empathic abilities better in her first seven minutes on screen than “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did for most of its seven years and a handful of feature films. It’s genuinely uplifting to see Riker and Troi again – a sensation that’s been in short supply in the show so far – and to see the life they’ve made for themselves since we last saw them. Of course, this is “Star Trek: Picard”, so they have to have had some kind of shitty thing happen to them and, gradually but thankfully nowhere near as clumsily as the series has handled similar revelations before, we learn that their son had contracted a virus which was rare and ironically untreatable, leading to his death. We also learn that Picard hadn’t been to see them or been in touch with them before of after it happened.
But then this episode, more than any other, underlines just how low our once inspirational and considerate captain has sunk. His handling of Soji is horrifically callous and its something of a relief when Deanna finally calls him out on his bullshit and reminds him who he used to be.
Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes do a great job getting back into their characters without pretending the intervening years haven’t happened and their daughter Kestra (named after Deanna’s older sister who died when she was a baby (“Star Trek: The Next Generation S7E07 – Dark Page”)) feels authentically like the kind of child you’d expect Riker and Troi to have raised. It’s a wonderful fourth-wall tweaking conceit that she’s basically a TNG fan-girl and its hard not to pine for a ‘Riker House On The Prairie’ spin-off to sit alongside the ‘Pike Enterprise’ show as spin-offs far better than the show which spawned them. Not that everything is some kind of unrealistic Star Trek-style pastoral paradise though. Riker namechecks the “Star Trek The Animated Series” aliens the Kzinti as a way of explaining that he’s able to put his house and gardens on red alert, under raised shields and anti-cloaking scans. Alexa has clearly come on leaps and bounds by the year 2399.
Of course, my desire to see Riker and Troi return on Star Trek: Picard is tempered by the apparently inevitable fate which awaits returning characters at the hands of this misanthropically miserable miniseries. Away from the warmth of family and friends, the episode has two other plots running in parallel and, for once, they’re both pretty decent. The slightly less interesting of the two concerns the remaining crew of La Sirena as suspicions begin to rise that someone amongst them is aiding and abetting the enemy. Raffi seems to suspect Jurati while Rios appears to suspect Raffi but may, in fact, be in cahoots with Raffi in trying to smoke out Jurati. It involves more cake and vomiting than you may be expecting and ends with Jurati in a coma and the EMH curiously silent on all the shenanigans which surrounded Maddox’s death but it would be nice if Raffi’s drug-fuelled paranoia actually paid off narratively.
The other storyline, charting Hugh and Elnor’s fortunes on the Borg Cube are far more interesting and yet far more dispiriting as Hugh becomes yet another victim of “Star Trek: Picard”’s ‘bring ‘em back alive, then kill ‘em’ approach. Before Hugh’s tediously inevitable death, though, we get some tantalizing suggestions that there is…history between the Zhat Vash and the Qowat Milat and it seems like Elnor, Star Trek’s most obvious Jedi Knight has found his own Sith Lord in the form of Narissa. At least Hugh’s final moments are used to set in motion a tantalizing plotline which sees Elnor entrusted with a mission to take the Borg Cube away from the Romulans using the power of the Queencell. The only catch is he’ll need an ex-borg to activate it. Luckily, he’s got a Fenris Ranger pager which he activates, Nick-Fury-at-the-end-of-Avengers-Infinity-War style.
It’s another episode in which things don’t seem to move forward very much, but at least a lot happens and while narrative movement might be in short supply in this episode, it sets up the promise of much greater momentum to come. The first half of this first series was rough going, but so far the second half is shaping up better than I dared hope. I’m beginning to think they might just pull this whole thing off after all.