Note: You'll notice I've only reviewed one episode this week. The truth is, I'm sick as a dog, and I don't have the energy for the usual double feature. This works out well enough, since it means we'll be doing both parts of "Birthright" in the same review, but it does mean this week's piece is shorter than usual, and for that, I apologize.
Or The One Where Picard Learns The True Meaning Of Getting Stabbed In The Back
I don't have a lot of regrets in my life. There's only a couple I can think of: I wish I'd handled money better when I was still in college, and that I'd understood the perils of taxation and freelancing back when I started this job. Oh, and I also wish I hadn't eaten so much crap food in college, because then I wouldn't have had to spend two or three years getting into passable shape. I'm 32 years old, and as regrets go, neither of those are all that dramatic. I'm not even sure they qualify for the word "regret"--to me, that word always implied a level of sadness and a sense of permanent damage that being in debt and a bit on the chubby side don't really create. I'm lucky, really, in that I've led a largely sheltered life, with few opportunities or reasons to hurt or be hurt on a grand scale. But I've still gone through some rough patches, and I've still done some amazingly stupid things that made those rough patches worse than they needed to be.
I just don't regret doing those stupid things, or making the choices that led me to those actions, because "regret" implies a desire to change the past, and I can't see the percentage in that. By and large, I like where I am now, and to sincerely wish that, say, I'd gone out with this girl in school instead of pining for that one, or if I'd moved someplace else after college or if I'd chosen a different career path, would be to risk losing what I have. If this sounds like wisdom, well, it might be, but it's certainly not earned. It's as much a way to give the bad times in my life meaning as it is a philosophy. There are, perhaps, different paths I could've taken earlier on, knowing what I know now, that might've conspired to raise my station about its current semi-lofty position. But if I could somehow arrange for this to happen, even if I successfully navigated the currents of the past--I would no longer be me. And however awful things get, and however much I might dislike myself, I wouldn't care for that at all.
That's the essential message of "Tapestry," and if it takes Captain Picard longer to arrive at the same conclusion that I've taken as writ my whole life, well, he has a history with death toll, which isn't really anything I can compete with. The premise: Picard is dying. There's a lot of talk in the cold open about Lenarians and weapons fire and so forth, but what it comes down to is, Picard's in Sick Bay, he's close to death, and his artificial heart is to blame. While Beverly hovers over him, Picard wakes up in a seemingly infinite white space, alone but for a single, glowing figure. Picard approaches the figure, takes its hand--and Q comes into focus. "Welcome to the afterlife, Jean-Luc. You're dead." After the usual pleasantries (Picard doesn't believe what's happening, Q insists), Q badgers Picard into confessing his great regret in life: the fight with Nausicaans that resulted in the chest wound that gave him the artificial heart which seems to have cost Picard his life. (Picard told Wesley the story all the way back in season two's "Samaritan Snare.")
So, Q offers Picard a one time only deal. He'll send Picard to his past, in his young body (although he still looks like Patrick Stewart to us--think Quantum Leap), just a day before the fight with the Nausicaans. If Picard can manage to avoid the fight this time around, he can keep his real heart, and, presumably, avoid the accident that's put him in mortal danger in the present. But if Picard fails, and the fight happens as it originally did, he'll be back where he started, where, presumably, he'll be dead for good. Which means an eternity spent getting lectured by Q, which, if not officially Hell, at least shares a zip code with the place.
Now, we all know that nearly all of television is about how the more things change, the more things stay the same. (For more statements of this type, I advise you to check out my best-selling book, Zack Handlen Makes Vaguely Comprehensive Statements In A Desperate Attempt To Sound Clever and Insightful. It will change your life, or at least the contents of your bank account.) There are exceptions, of course--TV is a big medium, and, apart from picture and sound, you'd be hard pressed to find any one theme that runs consistent through all of it. But generally speaking, shows work because they prevent you with a consistent world, and then spend their runs finding new ways to show basically the same world over and over and over again. Two of the best series ever produced for television, The Sopranos and The Wire, cloaked that resistance to change in artful ways: on The Sopranos, one of the core ideas is that people can move on or better themselves, but that requires a tremendous amount of effort, and most of us would much rather cling to what we know, even if its immoral or evil, just because it's easier; on The Wire, the system itself established patterns that would repeat again and again, despite the best efforts of those trapped inside of it. Arguably the best show on TV right now, Breaking Bad, is notable for its willingness to buck that trend, with a status quo that's constantly shifting to mirror the slow downfall of its leading man, but it's still the exception to the general rule.
TNG is no exception to this, and it's especially noticeable in Picard's case. Watching "Tapestry," it occurred to me that, as much as I love the rest of the cast, this show really does belong to Stewart. We know Picard better than any other member of the crew (with the possible exception of Data, who has less history to cover), and while the show does its best to tell stories around an ensemble, Picard-centric episodes tend to be the strongest. He's been assimilated and de-assimilated, spent a lifetime in another man's head, and had to endure the ravages of Wesley Crusher, but he's stayed roughly the same person through all of this. Sure, he may need a moment or two to collect himself after the latest calamity, but ("Family" aside) the remarkable amount of physical and psychic damage Picard has lived through has left hardly a mark on him. Because each week, Picard is back in the captain's chair, dispensing wisdom and phaser fire as needed. That's how TV works. Sometimes, this can be frustrating, and one of the ways modern television took its first steps towards being recognized officially as legitimate art (as opposed to lowest-common-denominator pablum) was by allowing episodes to bleed into each other over the long term. But there's something comforting in the security of the familiar. In a more psychologically realistic show, Picard would suffer more visibly, but here, the nature of his character is defined by one of the unwritten requirements of the medium: through whatever happens, the captain remains steadfast.
It's no surprise, then, that the lesson Picard learns from Q and from trying to change the past is that he's always been the person he needed to be, and to change any part of that would be to change everything. When Jean-Luc rewrites history, he loses two friends: Cortland (Ned Vaughn), the guy who causes all the problems with the Nausicaans when they cheat him at a game of Dom-Jot; and Marta (J.C. Brandy). Corey is increasingly disgusted over Picard's attempts to mollify and turn the other cheek, finally walking off in disgust the day of the actual fight, after Picard shoves him aside to prevent a fight from breaking out. Things are a bit more complicated with Marta. Picard tells Q that he'd always regretted never making a move on her during their friendship, so this time around, when Marta seems impressed by the new-old Picard's sudden maturity, Jean-Luc goes for it, and the two sleep together. (Which leads to a great shot the next morning, with Picard naked in bed, waking up to find Q beside him.) Afterwards, though, things get weird, for no reason anyone can really put a finger on. It may be that Marta is just as unhappy as Cortland about Picard's behavior, or it may be that, since they're due to be shipped off to separate, er, ships soon, Marta just doesn't want to commit to a long distance relationship. Or maybe Picard is a terrible lover, who knows.
Regardless, changing his past enough to save himself a short-sword in the back costs Picard more than he was expecting, and the situation doesn't improve when Q jumps him forward in time, back to the "present." Here, Picard is still a crew-member on the Enterprise, but he's a minor officer running errands for Chief Engineer La Forge. As Q informs him, by avoiding conflict with the Nausicaans, Picard has changed the course of his life, and while he's no longer dying in Sick Bay because of an artificial heart, he's sacrificed his career, and, in a sense, his very self in order to save his life. Picard finds Riker and Troi in Ten Forward, and asks them some questions about how he's viewed on the ship, and whether it would be possible for him to apply for command. They're polite, but firm: Jean-Luc is a good man, and does his job, but he lacks the necessary spark, the boldness, to lead. Picard realizes his mistake--his past, for all the hardship and pain and embarrassment it may have caused him, is a part of who he is, and to pull even one thread lose from it would be to destroy the entire thing. He begs Q to return his life to what it was, so Q sends him back to the Nausicaan fight, where Picard gets stabbed once again, and laughing when it happens just as he did when he was younger. Then it's back to Sick Bay, where, still laughing, Picard doesn't die after all.
I could nitpick this episode. Q insists to Picard that what we're seeing is the actual past, instead of a construct, and if that's the case, I'm not sure just altering one fight would be enough to distort your entire personality. It's not as if the more cautious Picard relives his entire life; this is a Quantum Leap type scenario, so far as I can tell, so presumably the original rowdy young Picard would take over once the older Picard jumped to the future. There are ways around this, though, the easiest being that nothing that happens here is really "real" at all, that all of it is created by Q to teach Picard to accept that the man he was is responsible for the man he is, or else it's just Picard having a death-bed hallucination. (I think that last option is unlikely, but it's possible.) If this was all something Q had made up, that would also explain the coincidence of Picard still getting a position on the Enterprise, which is still staffed by the same people who ran it in the "real" timeline. That would mean Q had lied to Picard before, though, and while Q has had no problem lying in the past, it sounded like he was playing straight here.
Really, it doesn't matter that much, because this is a great episode regardless of whether it's time travel or fantasy or hallucination. There are plenty of nice touches here, like the fact that the Nausicaan fight Picard has so rued wasn't entirely his fault, or the way that everyone aboard the Enterprise where Picard isn't captain still seems perfectly happy and content. The former is a subtle way of indicating how memories change the past to fit the narrative we want to see, in this case, that Picard viewed himself as rash and irresponsible; and the latter makes sure that Picard's choice in the end to risk dying and go back to his real life is entirely about him, and not driven by a need to protect or save anyone else. It's been a while since we've seen this aspect of Q, whose efforts here seem entirely designed to teach Picard a small lesson that won't really change his life much at all. (Really, have we ever seen this aspect of Q? The closest I can think of is when he taught the Enterprise a lesson in humility in "Q Who?," but that was motivated more out of spitefulness than any desire to help.) Because really, while we've seen Picard talking about his younger days with some shame over what he once was, it's not as if this is some sort of psychic torment that has dogged him his entire life. For all the time jumping and vague A Christmas Carol-ish feel, "Tapestry" is a modest episode, with a modest goal: to remind us that the we are the sum of all our parts, even the ones we aren't very proud of. It's funny, really. Getting stabbed in the heart may have been the best thing that ever happened to Picard.
- There's actually an easy (if someone rude) way for Picard to find out if his near-death experience was real or not. When Q returns him to the past for the last time, it's right before the fight with the Nausicaans. Which means, if that really was time travel, Picard really did sleep with Marta. Unless she's dead, he could always call her and ask.
- "No. I am not dead. Because I refuse to believe that the Afterlife is run by you. The universe is not so badly designed."
- "He learned to play it safe, and never, ever get noticed by anyone."
Next week: We go back to our usual two episode schedule, as Worf hunts for his father and Data dreams in "Birthright, parts 1 and 2."