Synths, secret sons and doomsday prophecies arise in a messy penultimate episode establishing galaxy-ending stakes.
Everyone is xenophobic! The Federation banned Synths and turned its back on the Romulans! The Romulans themselves have been at odds with Starfleet for generations and apparently hated artificial life even longer! And now, thanks to a secondhand mind meld, the Synths want to send out a clarion call to destroy all organic life, whether it comes from the Federation’s “preemptive extermination” or the Romulans’ incoming onslaught! Everybody hates everybody! Hooray?
That’s a perfectly good setup if you want a Grand Guignol triple-threat battle for interstellar supremacy in your season finale. It’s less availing, however, if you prefer the optimistic bent of Star Trek Picard’s predecessors, particularly in light of how this type of “Both Sides”-ism blunts the force of the show’s timely, animating premise.
Granted, it’s unlikely that this muddle of mutual mistrust and isolationism will be the show’s thematic endpoint. Discovery’s first season pulled a late-game shift from grim, war-weary cynicism to a reaffirmation of the franchise’s values. There’s reason to expect Picard (Patrick Stewart) himself to make some similar grand gesture to forge a measure of peace and understanding among all these fearful, warring foes.
Still, as with last week’s episode, it’s easy to see the contrivances in “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1”. In a mere forty-four minutes, Michael Chabon and company strain to introduce the Synth colony and its residents, establish the basics of their society and its origins, and then just as quickly transform the community into a third front of this simmering conflict. And that’s just for starters.
At the same time, the show’s creative tries to retcon in a never-before-mentioned Soong baby, imprison and free Narek (Harry Treadaway), make Picard’s barely mentioned fatal illness A Big Deal™ again, and pack in all the tearful goodbyes that there’s presumably no time for amid the fireworks of the season finale. Once again, Star Trek: Picard tries to stuff too much plot and too many character beats together too quickly, leaving the whole thing feeling unsatisfying.
Some of that dissatisfaction, though, stems from how strangely disconnected this episode feels from prior outings. Despite Star Trek: Picard’s heavy serialization and obvious TNG influences, “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” plays more like an episode of The Original Series. Having our heroes land on the planet of the week, only to find a group of weirdly sexualized, scantily-clad robots who rail against the fickleness of organic lifeforms, is the type of setup that would make Captain Kirk smile (and costume-designer William Ware Theiss cheer). It just scans as out of step with the vibe of the series until now.
But more to the point, suddenly the show’s priorities have changed. We’re not just returning Soji (Isa Briones) to her home. We’re not even preparing all that much for the impending Romulan assault. Instead, we’re either meeting these important new players for the finale, or we’re remaking the sides of the stand-off between artificial life versus synthetic life, or we’re dealing with the fallout of Picard’s troubling diagnosis.
That last development is the strangest. Despite the implication in episode 2 that Picard is once again grappling with irumodic syndrome, the good captain has never seemed weakened or even particularly affected by his illness. Now, conveniently, the cat is out of the bag, replete with a standard “don’t treat me like a dying old man speech,” and every one of our heroes has to react to it.
Once again, Star Trek: Picard tries to stuff too much plot and too many character beats together too quickly, leaving the whole thing feeling unsatisfying.
A long parade of hollow, tearful goodbyes follows. The shocked reactions from the new crew ring false because most of them have known Picard for less than a week. His and Raffi’s (Michelle Hurd) exchange of “I love yous” should be the most meaningful, since she’s known him the longest. But the two characters have never been able to evoke that sense of shorthand and familiarity, so it feels forced.
Jean Luc all but passes the torch to Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), replete with an echo of her “saving the galaxy” line, but again, it’s a thin broth since they’ve been on-screen together for maybe ten minutes. Oddly, only Elnor’s (Evan Evagora) embrace, matched with Picard’s expression of pride in the boy, carries any emotional weight, given how efficiently and effectively the show managed to communicate the pair’s history and relationship in “Absolute Candor”.
And while it’s not explicitly a goodbye, Picard and Soji do have an utterly ponderous conversation about death and sacrifice cut from that same cloth. Their scene together is a chance for the show to dispense more fortune cookie wisdom about what the act of giving one’s life for a cause means and who gets to make those sorts of mortal decisions. But at the same time, the episode seems more interested in their words as a form of clunky foreshadowing than just as poorly-written moral navel-gazing.
In theory, the conversation happens in the guise of Soji considering whether to sacrifice herself or ask others to do the same, for the greater good. But everything else in the episode suggests it’s a feint, and that it’s Picard who’ll have to decide whether or not to make the sacrifice play in the finale. The sudden issues made of his terminal illness, the raft of weepy goodbyes, and even Picard’s lingering survivor’s guilt over Data’s sacrifice seem to be positioning the former captain to return the favor paid to him in Nemesis.
There’s nothing wrong with that idea exactly, but the show dramatizes it like a Klingon in a china shop. The other issue is that fans know CBS already renewed the series for season 2, leaving the title character’s chances of genuinely perishing pretty slim. All the audience can hope for on that front is that the show doesn’t pull a dumb, patience-testing fake out and transfer Jean Luc’s consciousness into the blank android lying on Dr. Soong’s table.
That leads to the show’s weakest, lamest reveal — the appearance of a heretofore unknown biological son of Noonian Soong (aka the man who built Data). There are a million and one ways to bring Brent Spiner back into the fold if that’s what Alex Kurtzman and company felt was necessary. But the appearance of a long lost Soong kid, a cyberneticist no less, who’s never appeared or even been mentioned before, feels like the type of contorted, fanfiction-y nonsense that the show’s laudably managed to avoid until now.
It’s a bafflingly stupid development, one that strains both credulity and continuity. The very existence of this surprise offspring low-key contradicts the explanation Noonian Soong gave to Data for why he decided to build androids in the first place, one rooted in a parent’s desire to live on in their children. But apart from the broader franchise implications, the reveal comes off as such a throw-in, a feeble sop to fans who hoped to see a long-dead character, that does little, if anything, to advance the storylines of this season and this series. Maybe Star Trek: Picard will miraculously make him essential to the show in the finale, but for the time being, it scans as total cheese.
Still, maybe some of these awkward developments could work, or at least scrape by, if the dialogue in this episode were anything but tin-eared and thuddingly bad throughout. All of Picard’s sad adieus contain only the most rote expressions of affection and farewell. Soji’s screw you speech to Narek is the stuff that facepalms are made of. And the endless, overwritten colloquies about the state of human-robo relations, not to mention life and death are, while perhaps not unprecedented in Star Trek, still delivered unconvincingly and well-deserving of eye-rolls.
It all just happens so fast, in a way that feels narratively and emotionally off from the rest of the season, that little of it lands.
The worst thing about the weak writing here is that there’s a solid idea at the center of this episode: a Westworld-esque twist that The Admonition was not intended to warn organic life of an impending technological singularity, but rather to warn synthetic life that their fleshy neighbors will never fully trust them and ultimately try to destroy them. The corny montage sequence “Et in Arcadia Ego” does little to sell that concept, but it’s a strong idea nonetheless, one that could reasonably shift the landscape between the Federation, the Romulans, and the Synths.
It all just happens so fast, in a way that feels narratively and emotionally off from the rest of the season, that little of it lands. There’s a worthwhile story to be told about different communities, equally afraid and mistrustful, lashing out at one another, particularly in the shadow of past difficulties and tragedies. This just isn’t it.
Instead, the season’s penultimate episode is a rushed, overstuffed prelude to the real climax, freighted with the responsibility to introduce new characters, new conflicts, and new lore at the eleventh hour. That it stumbles in the effort is no shock, but still a disappointment. In the lead-up to the finale, everyone’s chosen sides and harbors nearly the exact same sort of fears and prejudices, a prelude as mealy-mouthed as it is convenient. So many characters in “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” seem ready to just get this unpleasantness over with, whatever the costs, and I’m about ready to join them.