Star Trek: Picard had one major mystery left to uncover going into “Et In Arcadia Ego, Pt 1:” the true nature of Soji’s home planet. The promise of a world full of synthetic life-forms, living in secret with their own developed culture and interests, had a lot of potential, and while very little on this show has managed to actually deliver on its promises, there was at least a chance “Et In Arcadia” could break the curve. After all, “Nepenthe” was still great; and maybe the flailing of “Broken Pieces” was less about fundamentally bad ideas, and more about writers who weren’t quite sure how to cram everything into a 10-episode season just losing their grip on the narrative flow.
Well, Picard and the others arrive at Synth Central, and for a few minutes, it’s weird and kind of cool. Soji takes them on a trip through a chronoton field to get there, thus bypassing 25 light years in less than 15 minutes. Narek managed to tag along in his own ship, despite Agnes destroying the tracking device; but that’s okay, because the Borg Cube arrives a few minutes later, because why the hell not. And then giant orchids rise up from the planet’s surface, seize all three ships, turn off their power systems, and drag them down to the ground. In retrospect, this is more silly than anything else, but in the moment, it suggests a level of weirdness I’d want from a show that’s otherwise disregarded most sensible storytelling approaches. If things are going to break, why not go absolutely nuts with it. A world of giant robot gardeners. Maybe this is where Audrey II came from.
Instead, we get some heartfelt stuff about Picard’s brain problems, and the crew of the Sirena go pop by the Borg Cube for a quick visit, and then, finally, we see the home of the synths. And it’s… literally the same as just about every other “peaceful” society a Trek show has visited in the past thirty years. Everyone’s dressed in flowing, comfortable fabrics, colored with soothing earth tones, doing yoga exercises or having pleasant conversations. The architecture is all spotless and vaguely Grecian. There’s no real technology in sight. Oh sure, some of the synths are wandering around in pairs, and a few of them have that shiny make-up that the show has decided to use to simulate Data’s look from TNG (despite the fact that Data never looked like he’d been murdered by Goldfinger before every scene), but it’s still lazy and uninteresting.
And that’s a problem, because the whole crux of the show’s two-part finale is on Picard’s efforts to both save the synth colony from destruction and stop the destruction of all non-synthetic life in the universe. Much of the drama here comes from the assumption that we’ll care what happens to these life-forms, even when at least one of them turns out to be a bit of psycho. And sure, I’m generally against murdering people just because they’re bland. That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily invested in their fate. Given that Picard has already been renewed for a second season, I’m reasonably sure that Sutra’s plan to call in the super protectors who narrate Agnes’ vision of Doomsday is going to fail, or at the very least, not succeed in the way she thinks it will. That means the show really needs us to give a damn about the synths themselves, but it gives us no reason to do so beyond some bland platitudes and “Remember Data? You liked him right?”
Speaking of Data, Brent Spiner is back, now in Soong form. In an explanation offered so blithely and so unquestioningly it almost has to be a lie, the actor introduces himself to Picard as Dr. Alton Inigo Soong, the son of Noonian Soong, the man who built Data. Picard takes this at face value, presumably because so much is going on he doesn’t have much choice, but it seems suspicious; Noonian Soong was involved with a handful of TNG episodes, and no one ever mentioned him having biological children, although he did build a replica of his wife who didn’t even know she was a replica. I’m going to assume there’s some sort of trickery at work (Alton enlists Agnes in a plan to build him a new body, which seems suspicious), because the alternative is almost too irritating to countenance—that the writers decided they just had to bring Spiner back, and this was the best way they could manage it.
As for Alton himself, regardless of his parentage, he’s not much. Lots of emphatic, over-written dialogue that lands painfully no matter how hard Spiner works to sell it, and no real reason to care about him beyond the minor novelty of his existence. The only character in Synth Land to make much of an impression is Sutra (apologies if I missed the spelling on any of these), an older synth who looks exactly like Soji, except with that distracting gold sparkle make-up layered over her skin. She’s clear the leader of the group, and she takes the initiative when Soji, Picard, and the others arrive, mind melding with Agnes to take a closer look at the vision Commodore Oh gave her, and then deciding to sacrifice one of her own in order to convince her people of the necessity of calling for outside help.
Sutra is the third role Isa Briones has played on Picard. She was fine in the brief time she spent Dahj, and Soji was more or less the same character, albeit slightly older and in a different context. Sutr is the first time she’s had to stretch to be someone new, and the results aren’t great. As with Alton, the problem is probably more a failure of the writing than anything else, but whomever is responsible, the results are not good: Sutr almost like a distant analog to the Borg Queen—aggressive, mocking, and obviously cruel. It’s a baffling decision. Sutra ends up turning evil by the end, but she’s so clearly a menace the second she steps on screen that there’s no weight to her heel turn.
But really, almost none of this works. Picard appears to have learned nothing this season, giving a “rousing” speech to try and sway the hearts and minds of the synths that’s more embarrassing than inspired; we’re reminded that there’s something wrong with his brain, and that he’s dying, which is an excuse to milk more melodrama out of characters we barely know getting weepy at the thought of losing him. (Raffi says “I love you.” What? When? Why?) The return of the Borg Cube is poorly justified, and even when the episode has a chance to actually address the tremendous, terrifying choice Seven made last week, it simply glides past it, oblivious to the implications. This is a dumb show now. It was probably always dumb, but it used to do a better job of hiding it. The most we can hope for in the finale is a lot of neat looking special effects, and maybe enough of a definitive conclusion that we can convince ourselves season 2 will be better.
- I legitimately don’t know if Picard is going get a last minute reprieve from his diagnosis (the comment Troi made about how their son’s disease could’ve been cured if they’d had access to a positronic matrix might be foreshadowing), or if they’re just going to string along the illness for another season, or if they’re going to kill him off next week and then continue forward in his memory.
- Sutra “learned how to mind meld.” Sure.
- In case it wasn’t clear in the review (and it probably wasn’t), when Sutra mind melds (sigh) with Agnes, she discovers that the vision the Romulans were afraid of was actually a promise from some mysterious other species that they’d return to protect synthetic life when the inevitable conflict between synths and organic life arrived. I cannot stress this enough: this is the plot of Mass Effect 3.
- It’s a small thing, but characters acting excessively excited to see each other again when they haven’t been separated for very long always annoys me. Yes, people can be sentimental under extreme stress, but selling it like we’re supposed to sit up and cheer hardly ever works.
- Picard telling Elnor he’s “very, very proud” of him is also unearned.
- The fact that Soong blames the secretiveness of the Soji/Dahj project on Maddox is pretty convenient character assassination, although it seems likely that this is another sign that something isn’t quite right. (The fact that Soong later refers to Maddox as a “small, bright candle in the darkness” suggests someone isn’t keeping his story straight.)
- Picard is placed under house arrest. They almost arrest Agnes as well, but she makes an impassioned plea to continue working with Soong. Isn’t that just an arrest in a different house?