Friday, October 9, 2020

Picard, Season 1

The exciting news that a Star Trek series was being developed around former Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, came out in mid-2018. The 10-episode first season didn't air until January-March 2020 – a long enough wait for those of us hotly anticipating what Picard might get up to 20 years on from Star Trek: Nemesis. Sometime in that two-month season, I caught the first episode of Star Trek: Picard online, when CBS All Access streamed it for free to set the hook. However, I'm one fish not so easily landed. I don't hold with subscribing, even for a free trial period, to a bunch of different streaming services.1 Heck, I don't even watch TV at home (my set is for playing DVDs only) and when I'm visiting my parents, what isn't on cable isn't on, period. So, I had to endure another long wait until the DVD finally reached store shelves this past Tuesday.

All right, here are the main characters for this new Trek show. Let's start with Picard himself, already well known from seven years on TNG and four feature films. The story picks up, coincidentally, the same number of years it's been since Patrick Stewart last played the role. It finds him at the French vineyard he inherited from his brother, pouting (and sometimes, as in a disastrous video interview, exploding) about the sinister turn the Federation took 20 years ago when they (1) refused to support his project to relocate 900 million Romulans before their star went supernova, and (2) outlawed synthetic lifeforms due to an unexplained mutiny that destroyed the Utopia Planetia shipyards on Mars. He also misses his friend Data a lot, never having quite gotten over the android's self-sacrifice on his behalf (cf. Nemesis). His closest companions are a pitbull named Number One and two devoted Romulan retainers, Laris and Zhaban (pictured with him). Laris, in particular, knows a lot about spycraft and is the first to explain the Zhat Vash, one of the items that will be on our Romulan vocab list later. Laris, played by Orla Brady (late of Into the Badlands), and Zhaban, played by Jamie McShane (Sons of Anarchy), only appear in the first three episodes of the season but, one hopes, will be back for Season 2.

The main cast starts to come together when a girl named Dahj Asha, played by Isa Briones, approaches Picard after an attempt on her life by a Romulan kill-squad awakened abilities she never knew she had. Though Dahj is killed before Picard's eyes before the end of the first episode, Briones continues as a key player in the role of Dahj's twin, Soji. Both sisters begin with no idea that they are actually synthetic life forms whose very existence defies Federation policy, and in some way they are offspring of the late Data. Picard also (eventually) learns why the Romulans particularly want to destroy the synths; they (or at least their ultra-secret cabal, the Zhat Vash) believe that androids are on the threshold of sentience, letting them evolve past which will spell the doom of all organic life in the galaxy.

Adding to Soji's danger is the fact that she works on the Artifact, a deactivated Borg cube in Romulan territory, part of a project to liberate the former drones that have been separated from the collective, remove their cybernetic implants and restore their pre-assimilation identities, albeit with horrible disfigurement. She's right in the midst of the people with the most reason to destroy her, if she awakens to her true identity. And she's also the plaything of a Romulan spy named Narek, played by Harry Treadaway (the boy from City of Ember and a series regular for just this season).

Narek's methods arouse the doubts, and perhaps a touch of incestuous jealousy, in his sister Narissa (recurring guest Peyton List, previously "Poison Ivy" on Gotham, Lisa Snart on The Flash and the lead character on the TV series Frequency; also, one of two actresses by that name listed on IMDB). A member of Zhat Vash, she believes in more traditional Romulan methods of interrogation ("pain and violence"), while Narek tries a gentler approach – seducing the girl and even, perhaps, falling in love with her – which he hopes will prove more successful than Narissa's attempts to nab Dahj.

There's also an expert in synths named Dr. Agnes Jurati, played by fourth regular cast member Allison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). Jurati's stated reason for coming along on Picard's rescue mission is that she just has to see the synth that she believes her mentor, Dr. Bruce Maddox, created. Maddox, who appeared in the TNG episode "The Measure of a Man," here played by a different actor (John Ales of The Nutty Professor), has been captured by a gangster named Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan of NCIS: New Orleans) and awaits being turned over to the Romulans for a bounty.

Unfortunately for Bjayzl, her sideline – stripping former Borg, hereafter known as xBs, of their cyber-parts – put her crosswise to Seven of Nine (special guest star Jeri Ryan – you know, from Star Trek: Voyager?). To set up this vendetta, one episode actually opens with a flashback to the death of beloved Voyager recurring character Icheb (also played by a different actor than before), which is really a difficult scene to watch. This season actually pulls a "killing characters from previous Trek series" hat trick by adding Maddox and xB Hugh (from TNG's "I, Borg" – in this case, still played by his original actor, Jonathan Del Arco of The Closer).

A few other regulars from previous Trek series also make special guest appearances, including Jonathan Frakes as Will Riker and Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi – here pictured with their daughter Kestra (played by Lulu Wilson). The married couple now lives a secluded life on a healing planet that looks a lot like northern Minnesota, to me. They moved there because their older child, now dead, was suffering from a disease that would have been curable had the Federation not banned cybernetic research. The pain of their loss tinges their scenes, even though they seem to have a beautiful life. Then, of course, there's Data, played by Brent Spiner, who appears to Picard in some dreams early in the season and, later, chats with him in a simulation – but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Spiner also plays Altan Soong, the son of Data's creator Noonian Soong, who has continued to build on that forbidden line of work.

While we're talking about actors playing multiple characters, our fifth regular cast member is Santiago Cabrera, whose character on Heroes drew comic books that predicted the future. Besides playing Chris Rios, the owner-pilot of the starship La Sirena, whom Picard hires for this adventure, he also plays all five members of his crew, whose official titles all begin with "emergency" and end with "hologram" but who also have distinctive names, accents and personalities: Emil (the English medical holo), Enoch (Irish, navigation), Emmet (Spanish-speaking, tactical), Ian (Scots, engineering) and Mr. Hospitality (metrosexual, room service and such). I'll mention the five holos again later. For now, what's important to know about Rios is that he was the first officer of a Starfleet ship until his beloved captain did a murder-suicide on two guests, one of whom looked exactly like Soji. So haunted by his captain's actions that he could no longer serve in Starfleet, he has trouble accepting his role on the mission until ...

Enter series regular Michelle Hurd (known for early seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) as Raffi Musiker, Picard's former first officer at the time of his separation from Starfleet. She has developed alcohol and drug problems that alienated her from her son (played, in his sole appearance this season, by Cuba Gooding Jr.'s son Mason Gooding). She almost leaves the ship at that point, and she has a lot of issues to work through. Her role in the ensemble seems to be, first, to hook up Picard with Rios; second, to help Rios work through his issues with Soji and the girl he saw murdered; and third, to be a general-purpose shoulder to cry on. Also, when she's at the tactical controls, she can save the power required to run Emmet. Also, a brief dialogue-free moment in the last episode of the season suggests that she and Seven might become a romantic item.

Filling out the regular cast is young martial arts athlete Evan Evagora, playing a "Legolas the elf" type Romulan named Elnor, who has known Picard since he was a little orphan boy running around a sketchy refugee colony called Vashti. Taken in by the Qowat Milat, a sisterhood of Romulan warrior nuns (words I'm immensely thrilled to have a legit reason to write), he has been trained to follow the Way of Absolute Candor (which puts him at odds with Romulan nature), fight with a sword that can decapitate a man at a single blow (he always asks his opponents to choose to live before he ends them) and passionately hate the Tal Shiar, or secret police, that hasn't let a little thing like a supernova wiping out their homeworld put them out of business. Only his sex prevents him from being a full member of the Qowat Milat, but Picard asks him to bind his sword to his cause and, sensing that it's a lost cause (the order's main requirement), Elnor accepts. Known as "the kid" to the other Sirenas, Elnor becomes separated from the main party and, amazingly, survives a side adventure of his own with xBs, Romulans and fast-moving fight scenes that border on parkour. Being very open about his feelings, Elnor hugs a lot and, after an event that I don't want to spoil for you, sobs like a child. He's basically the most pure, uncomplicated and adorable character in the show, which perhaps accounts for how little time he spends on screen. But maybe, having him in the ensemble will lighten the philosophical color-palette of the series, which is already (in spite of Picard's grievances against Starfleet, stated early on) more positive and joyful than anything seen in the first two seasons of Star Trek: Discovery.

I think I've covered the regular and some of the recurring characters and big-time guest stars. Other important ones include Admiral Clancy, played by Ann Magnuson, whose character built an android in the film Making Mr. Right, and who gets to tell Picard to "shut the f— up!" Yes, they use the eff word in this show. Then there's Tamlyn Tomita (The Karate Kid Part II, The Good Doctor) as Commodore Oh, the head of Starfleet security who (ironically) turns out to be a Romulan double agent. There's Dr. Moritz Benayoun, the chief surgeon from the Stargazer, which Picard commanded before the Enterprise, played by David Paymer (Mr. Saturday Night, City Slickers, Payback), who gets to ask Picard, "Do you really want to go back out in the cold?" And there's Amirah Vann (How to Get Away with Murder) as Zani, the head of the Qowat Milat house where Elnor grew up.

I guess all that's left to do is "Three Episodes That Made It For Me." Bearing in mind that I only had 10 to choose from, here goes: (1) Broken Pieces, in which all five of La Sirena's holo-crew are gathered in one place to help Raffi figure out what's ailing Rios. Cabrera shows gifts for comedy and accents in this scene, which made me laugh out loud. It's also the episode where the Romulan bad guys have Elnor cornered and who should appear but Seven of Nine, scoring a big hug from the emotionally available elf, I mean Romulan ronin. (2) Nepenthe, where a healing visit to the Riker's gorgeous log home helps her deal with her new knowledge about herself and whether she can trust anybody. Meanwhile, the fact that Jurati has betrayed the Sirenas (by letting Oh fit her with a device that allows Narek to track them) is revealed when she takes almost suicidal steps to break off the pursuit. (3) A tie between "Absolute Candor," in which Picard faces his guilt for giving up on the Romulan evacuation when Starfleet canned him, and in which he reunites with Elnor, and "Stardust City Rag," which brings back Icheb, Maddox and Seven of Nine only to kill off the first two. It has a certain noir style, with Seven in the hardboiled role, but what Jurati does to Maddox is really the big shocker.

Finally, I appreciate that this season really has gone where no Trek has gone before, by exploring Romulan culture in more depth than ever. Fans who have been following Trek since The Original Series (TOS) may be amazed to realize that, after all these years of being right at the top of the list of villainous alien races, the Romulans haven't really been around that much. They were seen twice in TOS, made it into a respectable 21 TNG episodes (including a two-parter set on their homeworld) and 16 episodes of DS9, appeared in four of the TOS/TNG/reboot feature films, and were seen in like four Enterprise episodes, plus being heard (voice only) in one more. So, OK, it's not like they've only appeared a couple times before; they've been a significant presence since the beginning of Star Trek. But they've never been developed to this degree before, featuring in 10 out of 10 episodes. If you knew a couple Romulan words before Picard, they were probably "Jolan tru" (Hello/goodbye) or maybe "Tal Shiar" (the Gestapo). But now, if you keep your ears open, you can learn so many other words and phrases to try in conversation, if you ever meet a Romulan – such as "Ganmadan" (Romulan Armageddon), "Zhat Vash" (a cult within the Tal Shiar that exists to destroy artificial intelligence), "Pixmit" (Romulan tarot cards), "Qalankhkai" (a Romulan ronin; apparently their sword is called "Tan qalanq"), "Qazh!" (F—!), "Qezhtihn!" (F— you!), "Sharah aroostos!" (Bite me!), "Seb-Cheneb" (the Destroyer), "Vramin gadar" (round ears, a racial slur against non-Romulans), "Vesh ta'jot" (Kill them all!), and Elnor's favorite, "Feldor staam toreht!" (Please, friends, choose to live!). You know what you have to do: Pratice, practice, practice!
1I know from experience that a "free trial period" means either calling the company every month for years to ask them to reverse the charges on your bill, only to be billed again the next month for a service you tried to cancel immediately after the trial; or ignoring the bill until your account is so delinquent that they cancel it, and flame-broil your credit score in the process.

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