So far as I know, Jean-Luc Picard and Seven of Nine have never shared screen time before. Maybe there was a bit of comic book or novel lore that I missed (I miss pretty much all of that stuff), but in terms of meaningful, mainstream continuity, the two haven’t really talked. Bringing them together on Picard is a fantastic opportunity to have two people with a deep connection with the Borg discuss their experiences; to try and get into just what it means to reclaim your body and identity after being absorbed by the Collective. “Stardust City Rag” tries to touch on this. There’s a thirty second conversation late in the episode where Seven asks Picard if he was able to regain his humanity after he was de-assimilated, and he says yes—then she asks him he never has doubts, and he says no. For what it is, it’s not bad, and if you squint, you could say that it casts a shadow over everything around it. But not much of one.
“Rag” moves at a good clip, staying focused entirely on the stories of Picard and his crew and their visit to Freecloud; no distracting, pointless side-trips to check in on Soji and the V.C. Andrews Assassins. Most of the hour is taken up with efforts to rescue Bruce Maddox from the clutches of a crime boss who wants to sell him to the Tal Shiar; Seven, who helped the La Sirena last week at the expense of her own ship, agrees to help, for what turn out to be reasons of her own. While Picard is dressing up like a French pirate, Raffi makes a brief detour trying to reconnect with her son. Everything wraps up in the end with a not-entirely-unexpected betrayal which will presumably have consequences when the show comes back next week.
This is, in a lot of ways, the sort of thing I’ve been wanting the show to do from the start. The con in Freecloud has all the hallmarks of a goofier Trek one-off; the main guest star gets a self-contained story; and, as previously mentioned, the episode doesn’t split its time reminding us that other characters in other places exist. Yet it still feels like a missed opportunity, right down to its shocking-but-not-really conclusion. Picard is still playing close to the vest with its secrets, and while there’s logic to that, it’s frustrating how slowly we’re building a head of steam. I honestly don’t know where all this is headed, but I’m reasonably comfortable in guessing that the big reveal of what’s actually going on will be a good one. But it means we’re still stuck waiting to see why all of this matters.
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Let’s start with the end first. I’ve been suspicious of Agnes Jurati for a while now; her unexpected arrival at Picard’s chateau in the third episode, combined with how quickly the episode cut away from her meeting with Commodore Oh, suggested secrets were being kept. I thought she might be a spy of some sort, disguised to look like the good doctor, and I’m glad that theory turned out to be incorrect. She’s still herself; it’s just that something Oh showed her during their conversation has turned her around on the idea of synthetic life, to the point where she’s willing to murder her former lover to destroy all traces of their work together.
Having characters spend a large amount of time searching for someone, only to find that someone and have them die shortly after, is supposed to be a subversive twist, used to shake up the status quo and raise the stakes. But, much like Dahj’s death in the pilot, it’s a trick that’s been played a few to many times to really register. I can’t be the only one who saw Agnes lurking in the background while Picard chatted with the injured Maddox and knew what was coming, and while Pill plays the scene well, it felt rote in a way that worked against its intended effect.
“Rag” goes through all the right steps to make the doctor’s decision meaningful, establishing her relationship with Maddox in an earlier scene and making sure that Agnes is to be charming and goofy right up until shock sets in (there’s even a nice payoff to the EMH activating when it senses her blood-pressure spiking). But taking Maddox off the board so quickly feels like a huge missed opportunity. This wasn’t a simple guest star from TNG, this was a guy who wanted to dismantle Data to make more of him; and who, at some point between then and now, figured out a way to replicate Data’s internal workings with organic material. He’s a complicated figure, and getting rid of him almost as soon as he arrives means we never get to reckon with the choices he’s made, or how he may (or may not) have changed since that original appearance. Hell, he and Picard get a single scene together, and it’s literally just Bruce making breathless, vague comments about the “truth” before revealing where Soji is. If I hadn’t seen “The Measure of a Man,” I wouldn’t know that the two had ever been at odds.
Seven’s story fairs better, as Jeri Ryan is given more room to breathe, and there’s some appealing moral ambiguity to it all. She agrees to offer herself up as bait for the Maddox rescue because she wants to get close to the crime boss at the center of things, a woman who used to capture members of the Borg and strip them for parts. This resulted in the death of someone close to Seven—a brutal, agonizing death that we see in the cold open, as Seven arrives too late to rescue them. It was hard to pick up names during all of this, but I think the person Seven is trying to avenge is Icheb, who first appeared on Star Trek: Voyager in the episode “Collective” in that show’s sixth season. My Voyager watch hasn’t reached that point yet, but it’s safe to say from Seven’s behavior here that the character was important to her.
The moral ambiguity comes from Seven’s position as a “Fenris Ranger,” a group of vigilantes roaming the sections of space where the Federation’s efforts have failed, trying to enact some kind of justice and protecting those who need it. It’s a neat position for the character to have landed in (and seems tailor made for a spin-off), although we don’t get too much information of the organization behind her; just that Picard, who still believes in laws and government, doesn’t think too much of it, while still respecting her. When Seven comes face to face with her enemy, Picard temporarily talks her out of murdering the woman, only for Seven to return later in the episode and get her revenge.
It’s a lot of fun seeing Jeri Ryan running around kicking ass in comfortable clothes, and her following through on her threat makes sense. But we’ve never seen this crime boss figure before, and we don’t spend enough time with this version of Seven for her decision to open fire to matter much on a character level. I think the show is trying to build a more cynical view of the universe in contrast to TNG’s optimism, but its version of cynicism feels every bit as shallow as unearned optimism would. It’s not bad, but it is under-baked, and apart from having people treat Picard as an irritating relic, there’s not much of a perspective here yet.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the goofy undercover operation that has Rios and Picard dressing up like pimps (oh sure, Raffi calls them “facers,” but c’mon, they’re pimps), and Patrick Stewart hamming it up to hell and back. I wouldn’t be surprised if audiences found this charming, and Stewart appears to be having fun, but it all felt exceptionally cringe-inducing, a silly, childish bit of fan service that undercuts the tension of the episode for no real reason. It makes the crime boss and her henchpeople look like idiots, and Picard’s outrageous French accent is… well, it’s bad. I hate saying that, given how much I love Stewart, but I just found this whole thing dumb, and not in a particularly fun way. Camp can work on Trek, but it needs the proper context to be effective. I don’t think this was it, especially not in an episode that began with a man getting his eye ripped out of its socket sans anesthesia.
“Rag” is entertaining enough, and in a lot of ways it shows a direction the show should be working towards, telling tighter stories that focus more on building the core ensemble’s relationships. (The scene with Raffi trying to make peace with her son was affecting, except the actor playing her son overplayed it to the point where I lost all sympathy for him. Michelle Hurd is great, though, and the fact that she ends up back on board the ship at the end was a relief.) It just doesn’t come together as sharply as it needs to, and it also seems to be losing sight of Picard himself. Presumably we’ll be getting more into why Soji is on the Borg cube next week, which will hopefully mean digging into Picard’s past as part of the collective, as well as Seven’s return at some point. Presumably it’s going to cohere into something. But we’re not quite there yet.
- The incredibly aggressive hologram ads that pop up as soon as La Sirena arrives in orbit around Freecloud are really funny and sharp.
- I’m not sure if the actor who plays Bruce Maddox is the same as the man who played him in the original episode.
- They introduce the idea that the crime boss’s lizardman can smell lies, which they then immediately subvert with an injection. Like… why even before if it was going to be that easy to bluff past. It’s like saying, “Okay, they have an unbreakable lock!” “Oh no!” “But we have a key.”
- Elnor is very good in this episode. He’s mostly stuck on not-quite-getting it jokes, but they all land well. I pretty much like all of the show’s core ensemble, which is a relief.
- I apologize if I didn’t spend enough time praising Jeri Ryan here, but she’s good, and I really hope this isn’t the last we see of her this season.