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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: Picard offers some answers on its worst episode yet

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Photo: Matt Kennedy (CBS All Access)

I’m not sure when “Broken Pieces” lost me, exactly. I went in with an open mind. “Nepenthe” was excellent, and if that excellence also served to underline all the ways in which Star Trek: Picard is failing its audience, it still gave some cause to hope. At the very least, it proved that the writers were capable of expressing what made us all so excited about the series in the first place: a connection with history, a sense of meaningful relationships, and characters who behaved in believable, grounded ways. But “Broken Pieces” seems to forget just about all of this. From the cold open on, it’s an hour built largely on unsatisfying spectacle, full of dramatic moments that exist in a vacuum and answers that make questions no longer worth asking. If last week was the show’s zenith, this week is, at least for now, its nadir; the point at which all its weakest elements combine together to create something substantially less than the sum of its parts.


The problems start early. The cold open begins on Aia, “the Grief World,” where we watch a group of Romulan women getting inducted to the Zhat Vash by Commodore Oh. The ceremony involves receiving a vision much like the one that Oh gave Agnes Jurati in an earlier episode, although this appears to be a more intense version; a vision of accumulated information left behind by a civilization that was destroyed hundreds of thousands of years ago. The vision drives many of the women mad, but Narissa, and Ramdha (the Romulan Soji talked with on the Borg cube) both survive; Narissa, in fact, is the only member of the group who isn’t devastated by the news. She’s upset enough to weep over what she saw, however, and she asks Oh where they can begin to prevent the horrors they’ve both seen. “Mars,” Oh tells her.

So now we know that the Zhat Vash orchestrated the attack on Mars which led to the Federation banning all synthetic life. As reveals go, it’s not the worst the episode has in store for us; the biggest problem is that it’s entirely unsurprising. It doesn’t even feel precisely like a reveal. One of the major problems of “Broken Pieces” is how so many of its choices serve to make the show’s universe feel smaller. Elements which don’t need to be connected become intimately involved with one another, as though the creepy incest vibes between Narek and Narissa weren’t just ill-advised camp but an overall mission statement. We only have one villain in the season, and they turn out to be responsible for, well, basically everything. Why bother even making that a mystery?

Take Ramdha. As an individual who, in her madness, revealed the Romulans’ secret beliefs about synthetic life, she was shallow but effective foreshadowing. But now we learn that she’s a member of the Zhat Vash—and not just a member, but the woman who raised Narek and Narissa after their parents died. This doesn’t contradict anything we already know, but it also doesn’t enhance our understanding of anything. Ramdha remains in a coma, with minimal impact on the story, and if Narissa’s visit to her (and the cold open) is supposed to make Narissa more sympathetic or nuanced, it fails. It really just serves to give the impression that there are about ten people running around doing things and they all know each other.

It’s even worse on La Sirena. Picard and Soji return to the ship, and Rios gets one look at the latter and immediately runs to his cabin to drink himself into a stupor. Raffi wants answers, and when she can’t find Rios, she interrogates the ship’s various holograms, in a sequence which is sort of funny, but mostly just infuriating for the way it exists for no other reason than to be sort of funny. She learns that Rios is heartbroken about something to do with his former captain, and when she confronts him about it, we discover that Rios, too, has a connection to the synthetics; his old ship met two ambassadors from Soji’s home planet, and his old captain murdered them both on orders from Starfleet. Which means that Raffi somehow managed to put Picard on the ship of a man who has a completely unrelated connection to the main plot, without knowing about that connection, and without Rios himself even realizing what was going on until he actually sees Soji for himself.

That’s terrible writing. It’s useless terrible writing. The whole season has been hinting at some dark secret in Rios’s past, but this is a reveal that stretches credibility while failing to deepen our understanding of the character much beyond the most obvious of cliches—the charming rogue with the tragic backstory. And the effort the script goes to in order to try and make that tragedy land borders on self-parody. It’s not just that Rios lost a captain; the captain, who Rios loved like a father, kills himself when Rios confronts him. Rios even keeps a sketched drawing of the synthetics on hand and remembers what the female liked to eat, despite having known them both for less than a day. (He also assumes that Soji will automatically like the same thing, which is a weird assumption for both him to make and the show to confirm.)


So much of this episode is like this, leaning on emotion to make connections where basic narrative logic and pacing fail. Elnor contacts Seven to come to the Borg cube to help him fight off the Romulans, and sure, it seems pretty inevitable that Seven, like Picard, would find herself on that cube at some point. But while Picard needed to negotiate his entrance (including an extended scene of Raffi conning an old frenemy into doing her a solid), Seven just magically appears in the middle of a fight scene, seizes control, and then explains to Elnor why it would be a bad idea to reactivate the Collective to fight the Romulans before doing just that. There’s literally a scene in which a character willingly reinserts herself into the greatest nightmare of her entire life, and it’s over in about five minutes with no apparent ill effect.

Or hey, about how Agnes waking up and confessing everything to a very disappointed Picard, including the fact that she had a psychic block that prevented her from talking about her visions—said block apparently just disappearing because she tried to kill herself? She then meets Soji and asks her a few questions, and now she’s fully back on board with Team Let’s Protect The Fleshy Androids, apologizing to everyone about the whole murder thing and promising to turn herself over to Starfleet at the next opportunity.


It’s not that the acting is bad, or even that all of these ideas are inherently terrible. Taken in isolation, Agnes and Soji’s conversation is deeply felt, and it’s possible to imagine a better constructed series where it could’ve been both heartbreaking and cathartic. I want to care about all of this, and I can’t think of an actor on the show who isn’t giving it their all. But without the proper context, without doing the work to build the relationships and sense of place—work that is one of television’s primary strengths as a medium—it’s all just weightless ideas, bits and pieces we’ve seen before on other, better shows, thrown into the void in the hopes that enough of them will distract us to keep us watching. We’re supposed to care about the people on board La Sirena like they’re a crew, but that affection needs to be earned. You can’t simply put people in a room and say they’re a family.

It doesn’t help that Picard seems to be getting lost in his own show. I’m not sure if it’s an intentional choice, or if Stewart isn’t up to the demands of filming a series (I feel guilty even saying that), but while he’s still nominally in the lead, giving orders and expecting people to follow them, he feels diminished, and not just because of his age. His connection to this story is as sketched in as everything else, and while he makes some smart choices this week, those choices end up essentially irrelevant to what actually happens. The show insists on having characters we barely know yell at a beloved figure, turning up the drama instead of allowing the audience to come to its own conclusions. In the pilot, it looks like the writers had something new to say about an old friend. But it turns out they just keep saying it, over and over and over again.


Stray observations

  • I won’t judge anyone for enjoying the moment, but Elnor impulsively hugging Seven felt like the worst kind of pandering to me.
  • Narissa suggests that the reason the Borg cube failed to successively assimilate Ramdha and her ship was because Ramdha’s horror at her vision somehow broke them. I’m going to assume that this is just creative license on Narissa’s part, because the idea that the the Borg could bring someone into the Collective and then just have to dump them because they were too intense is a profound misread of how the Borg works
  • Very glad that we had to wait this long to find out the reason the Romulans are terrified is basically the plot of the Mass Effect trilogy.
  • If anyone’s wondering, I’m pretty sure what broke me was Admiral Clancy telling Picard to “Shut the fuck up.” Yes, Picard was being demanding and yes he still has a bizarre lack of tact, but boy did I not need a repeat of that bit. Especially not from Starfleet of all goddamn places.