Synthetic threats and synthetic relationships pepper Picard‘s “gather the team” episode.
One of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s greatest strengths lay in its characters. Like any show churning out twenty-six episodes a season, the series had its share of tepid scripts or dopey premises. But even if the threat was silly or the plot sagged, the audience still cared about the crew of the Enterprise and warmed to their camaraderie, which helped buoy the show through both its best and worst outings.
Star Trek: Picard understands this and laudably devotes most of its runtime to rounding up Picard’s new crew. We meet Raffi (Michelle Hurd), his former pal turned hater and reluctant ally. We see him banter with Rios (Santiago Cabrera), the terse, grumpy pilot he’s hiring for this one last job. And we hear Dr. Jurati’s (Alison Pill) pitch for why she wants to join the mission, find Bruce Maddox, and get to the bottom of this organic synth business. “The End Is the Beginning” smartly spends the time to establish who these new characters are and what motivates each of them to throw their lots in with Jean Luc Picard.
Unfortunately, the show’s just not very good at it. Most of the new faces Star Trek: Picard introduces come off as stock figures with little to distinguish them beyond a few tics and gimmicks. Everyone in the series, new and old, still speaks in a combination of rank exposition and announcements as to their emotional states. And group chemistry — that all-important ingredient to making ensemble shows built in the Star Trek mold work — is all but absent in the early going.
The worst offender on that front is Raffi. “The End Is the Beginning” spends plenty of real estate trying to jury-rig a meaningful history between her and Picard, but it just doesn’t scan. Writerly appellations like “J.L.” are too cute by half, and the breathless, melodramatic exchanges between the two of them don’t carry nearly the emotional weight the episode wants and needs them to.
Worse yet, the character herself is just a bundle of clichés with a tidily tacked-on backstory. Flashbacks reveal that Raffi was Picard’s lieutenant while he spearheaded the Romulan evacuation. She bore the professional brunt of his moral stand against Starfleet. And now she’s a space pot-using conspiracy theorist. Raffi ultimately ends up feeling more like a character sheet than a character. Maybe some of these details could work if the connection between Herd and Stewart clicked better, but the bad blood the episode tries to brew between them barely reaches a simmer.
Those same problems infect the parts of “The End Is the Beginning” that aren’t about Picard and his new team. The other half of the proceedings centers on Dr. Soji (Isa Briones) connecting with a mentally lost, de-Borged Romulan on the cube. This whole storyline is a thin excuse to deliver an onslaught of clunky foreshadowing and Romulan hokum (sorry, a “shared narrative framework”) made to suggest that Soji is some prophesized “destroyer”.
Group chemistry — that all-important ingredient to making ensemble shows built in the Star Trek mold work — is all but absent in the early going.
“The End Is the Beginning” means for all of this to come across as mystical and ominous, but again, utilizes characters who can’t sell it. It is a thrill to see Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco) (whom Picard and his crew freed from the collective in TNG’s “I, Borg”) back in action, but he’s barely used or acknowledged here. Instead, the episode spends more time on the miscalibrated prophecy mumbo jumbo and on a relationship between Soji and her hunky, pointy-eared suitor, Narek (Harry Treadaway). Star Trek Picard hinges a great deal on their hastily-sketched relationship, and whether the feelings involved are real or manipulatively manufactured, but neither the performances nor the writing gives the audience a reason to care.
The same goes for the round-up of the rest of Picard’s new crew. Captain Rios is a walking bundle of clichés himself — a cross between Han Solo and Wolverine, with little more than a dash of philosophy and accent-hops to distinguish him. Rios’s “jerk with a heart of gold” routine is stale, and while there’s intrigue at the idea that watching a great captain disenchanted him with Starfleet, it’s dramatized in the bluntest possible fashion.
The final member to blast off from Earth is Dr. Jurati, who puzzlingly drops in at the tail end of a Romulan attack on Chateau Picard, managing to take out one of these supposedly well-trained alien operatives in the process. But that’s okay! The fight she almost interrupted was nigh-incomprehensible anyway! Jurati’s demeanor suggests she also has a hidden agenda, seemingly protesting too much in spots. Pill, however, manages to match Stewart as a scene performer in her limited screen time here, which is encouraging when Jurati joins Picard’s otherwise unavailing crew.
The irony is that the two characters Picard does have a lived-in, playful rapport with — his Romulan bodyguards/caretakers/badass wine stewards — are the ones left behind as he takes to the stars once more. Instead, Picard trundles off with Raffi, Rios, and Jurati to “Freecloud”, implied to be some sort of intergalactic Las Vegas, where Raffi believes Maddox is hiding out. There’s some juice to the idea of a pack of disillusioned former Starfleet officers going rogue, but the episode realizes their personalities and motives in such an obvious, artless fashion, that the lead up to their mission falls flat.
As they launch, Picard says “engage”, and wisps of classic Star Trek themes play, and for a brief stirring moment, you remember the excitement and momentousness of the captain’s storied adventures. But then the glow fades quickly, and you realize that Star Trek: Picard is invoking the spirit of something born on the backs of great characters will well-hewn relationships and trying to map it onto a pack of the usual sci-fi misfits before calling it a day.
There are still seven more episodes to fix that though. “The End Is the Beginning” does well to set aside time and space to sketch out its new crop of heroes. Were that it could do any better than this.