The series bends over backward to reach the foes and families of the past and nearly breaks an otherwise solid season to get there.
Why is it always the Borg? The answer to that question is obvious. Because “The Best of Both Worlds”, the episode where Picard became Locutus and the Federation was nearly destroyed, is one of the high watermarks of The Next Generation and the franchise as a whole. And season 3 of Star Trek: Picard is nothing if not an extended attempt to dunk the audience in a warm bath of familiarity and nostalgia.
But by god, at this stage, Star Trek has litigated and relitigated the Borg to the point of exhaustion. They did it in “The Descent” during TNG’s final season. They did it in Star Trek: First Contact. They did it repeatedly throughout Voyager. For some godforsaken reason, they even did it in an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise. Hell, they did it as recently as…in the last two seasons of Star Trek: Picard.
Along the way, Starfleet has attacked them with rotating weapons frequencies. It’s attacked them with the scourge of individuality, aliens from another dimension, holodeck machine guns, and even kindness and understanding. What is there left to do or say about these cybernetic boogeymen, more than thirty years later, when the franchise never really stopped drawing from that well?
But no. Here we are again. The Borg are the secret Big Bad. Alice Krige is vocally (though not physically) back as the Queen, here to threaten our heroes and tempt those closest to Picard (Patrick Stewart) once more. Her collective is attacking Earth yet again. Everything’s different, but everything’s the same.
At least the cheekily-titled “Võx” finally answers the question of what’s happening with Jack Crusher (Ed Speleers). It turns out that (sigh) when Picard was assimilated, the Borg secretly implanted some malicious, never-before-detected DNA code into his parietal lobe that makes him a “receiver” for the Collective. Except when Jack was conceived, Jean-Luc passed this “seed” on, and it slowly blossomed in a way that makes Junior an unwitting Borg bio-transmitter.
Of all the nonsense! I don’t mind the soft science, bordering on magic, that has long been the stock in trade of Star Trek. I do mind retconning thirty-year-old episodes in increasingly strained ways just to justify your “shocking twist” in the present. I do mind rehashing an, “Oh no, you inherited this malady from me!” conflict between Jean-Luc and Jack when the show essentially already covered it just a few episodes ago. I do mind the credulity-straining happenstance of Picard’s never-before-seen son just so happening to be the unwitting scion of his mortal enemies, in a way that nobody managed to discern until right this moment.
Everything’s different, but everything’s the same.
That’s not all though! if Jack being the Borgchurian Candidate weren’t enough, it turns out the Borg/Changeling alliance’s evil plan was to inject Picard’s time bomb DNA stands into the “transporter architecture” of Starfleet vessels so that the Collective can surreptitiously assimilate everyone who beams aboard without anyone realizing. How convenient!
This is the second time Star Trek: Picard has casually buffed up an old enemy so that the usual tricks don’t work, and it’s just plain lazy. If you’re going to invoke a former foe, at least have the decency to play by the established rules and find a clever new spin on them, rather than simply inventing some new danger-boosting upgrade out of whole cloth. Or at a minimum, treat the evolved threat as a fresh development, rather than something that was supposedly always in play lo these many years, but serendipitously never came up until this very minute.
The fig leaf “Võx” tries to place over the contrivance is that this new assimilation is neurological, not nanoprobe-based, and so only affects people whose parietal lobes haven’t fully developed, i.e. those under the age of twenty-five. (Query how that affects alien physiology given the Titan’s crew complement, but whatever.) The instant switch to biological assimilation is a cheap shortcut designed to up the ante, while the conceit behind it is built on popsicle sticks and bubblegum. Worse yet, it’s a transparent excuse for why this problem must be solved by the elders aboard the Titan, which just so happens to be the old guard from the Next Generation days.
To complete that winnowing, though, Star Trek: Picard has to sideline Seven (Jeri Ryan), Raffi (Michelle Hurd), and especially Shaw (Todd Stashwick), so that the OG crew can have their reunion special safely away from the newbies. That said, in an episode full of narrative spackle, the excuses deployed here are at least more palatable and rooted in the characters.
For all his bilge and bluster, Shaw dies nobly while trying to fight off the Borg, so that Picard and his allies can escape. (At least until ol’ Liam miraculously recovers for the inevitable spinoff.) Shaw demonstrates real growth in his final moments, conveying that Seven has earned his respect as he grants her command of the Titan and, more importantly, calls her by her real name. Raffi’s reasons are understandably simpler but no less compelling — she won’t leave the woman she loves behind. “Võx” is otherwise rife with nonsense and narrative cheats, but the episode does manage to earn these moments.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for much else in the episode. As predicted, Frontier Day goes horribly awry. Starfleet’s new “Fleet Formation” technology, where all the ships are networked, proves to be its undoing when the Borg complete their takeover and start using the good guys’ own vessels to batter Earth’s planetary defenses. There is, theoretically, no ship left in the Quadrant that hasn’t been commandeered by the bad guys.
So never mind asking for help from the Klingons. Never mind requesting assistance from the Cardassians. Or hey, perish the thought of reaching out to Jurati’s Benevolent Borg from this same time last year. There’s apparently only one ship within spitting distance that’s capable of fending off this latest invasion — the friggin’ Enterprise-D.
You can practically feel the creative team trying to paper over its tenuous, shotgunned plot twists via the fans’ fond memories of the former show.
A return to the ship that ferried the Next Generation crew for so long should be a warm moment of reunion. Instead, the extended callback is all but emotionally neutered given how obviously it plays like a sop to longtime fans. I’m not immune to the rush of seeing Picard, Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Troi (Marina Sirtis), Worf (Michael Dorn), Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), Geordi (LeVar Burton), and Data (Brent Spiner) step onto that iconic bridge once more. But the whole heartstring-tugging moment feels unearned and manipulative. You can practically feel the creative team trying to paper over its tenuous, shotgunned plot twists via the fans’ fond memories of the former show.
The convenient circumstances that lead Picard and company to revisit their one-time home among the stars make it all too easy to see the narrative seams. The blunt declarations of “We are your family” lay an otherwise stirring notion on too thick. The glory shots of an unconvincing CGI Enterprise, its carpeted interior, and its lit-up panels play like the show cajoling you to subconsciously transpose your pleasant feelings from The Next Generation’s original run onto a successor that’s done little to earn the same. I guess we can take solace in the fact that the return of the old Galaxy-class ship guarantees at least a few scenes with brighter lighting.
Nostalgia should be the frosting of a legacy sequel, not the whole cake. I can’t pretend it’s anything but a blast to see Elizabeth Dennehy as the now Admiral Shelby in live-action once more, commanding the Enterprise-F. It’s a treat to hear Majel Barrett’s voice as the ship’s computer again or a tribute to an old colleague by way of the USS Pulaski. Seeing the TNG crew sit in their usual spots one more time before they dive into the latest danger, has a power that comes from one-hundred seventy-eight episodes’ worth of glorious and endearing adventures.
But when the attempt to stir up fond memories of old rather than forge something new is so conspicuous, so contrived, so empty, the burst of nostalgia can’t help but feel hollow. The reason the Borg are back is that we already know them. The reason that the only people able to evade the villains’ biological and technological attacks turns out to be this fan-favorite crew back on their old ship is that we already know them. Even when you want to reach those emotional destinations, even when you want to embrace those fond recollections, taking such a flimsy and transparent path to get there makes them roundly unsatisfying.
Legacy sequels, particularly ones designed to give the familiar faces one last hurrah, deserve some leeway to conjure up memories of past glories and use them to fuel the happenings here and now. For the most part, Star Trek: Picard has done a good job of that this season, invoking plenty of high points from the prior era of Trek, but channeling them into new directions and challenges. In its penultimate episode, though, the series puts its biggest cards of the season on the table and hopes fans will be too blinded by the naked nostalgia and wild twists to call out the show’s final disappointing bluff.