A jaunt to the Los Angeles of 2024 is a chance to explore the show’s non-Picard characters.
Star Trek: Picard dusts off an old chestnut this week—traveling back in time to “modern-day” Earth, whenever that may be. To the point, “Assimilation” isn’t even the first time Starfleet officers have traversed the timestream to visit contemporary Los Angeles, so here’s hoping our heroes run into a grown-up Sarah Silverman. There’s a natural thrill to the setup, which juxtaposes these enlightened, futuristic spacemen with our current, comparatively primitive society.
But the season’s third episode isn’t really about that idea. The script does indulge in the same annoying trope the early seasons of The Next Generation returned to over and over, as characters look down their noses at the present and declare, “My, how far we’ve come.” For the second episode in a row, the social commentary on topics like pollution and inequality aren’t wrong but also feels artless in how heavy-handed and self-congratulatory it is.
Regardless, “Assimilation” is, commendably, much more focused on its non-Picard band of misfits than on measuring the distance between the 2020s and the 2400s. After largely taking a backseat to ol’ Jean-Luc (Patrick Stewart) for the first couple of episodes, this outing gives the rest of the main cast the chance to step into the spotlight.
It’s a welcome move, even if the stories they’re given are far from perfect. Picard’s new allies haven’t had enough time to worm their way into our hearts as his TNG pals did. But without plots of their own and the opportunity to take center stage, they’ll never have the chance. Whatever the results, it’s good to see Star Trek: Picard doing the work to develop each of its major players apart from the title character.
The one who gets the meatiest story here is Chris Rios (Santiago Cabrera). He follows in the footsteps of none other than Captain Kirk by stumbling into a playful, romantic entanglement with the first modern-day woman he talks to for more than thirty seconds. After a rough, transporter-assisted landing, Rios finds himself in a clinic run by a quick-witted doctor named Teresa. She’s a single mom who provides medical care to undocumented immigrants, which she mistakes Rios to be given his lack of identification and insistence on avoiding hospitals and the police.
The story thread is, at a minimum, intriguing. The chemistry between Rios and Teresa scans as a little too forced for the moment, particularly when Cristóbal deploys some big stepdad energy with Teresa’s mischievous son. What’s more, while the focus on issues affecting immigrants is commendable, Star Trek tends to find more success when it tackles social issues through metaphor and abstraction rather than coming at an idea directly.
Still, there are worthwhile things to say and interesting places to go with Rios learning firsthand how people who look and sound like him are treated in 2020s Los Angeles. As in the rest of the episode, some of the commentary is ham-fisted, and the give and take between Chris and Teresa isn’t as cute as the show seems to think it is. Yet, Star Trek: Picard touches on something real in the effort, giving Rios an encounter that feels of a piece with Kirk’s dalliances in the 1930s and 1980s.
The same can’t be said for Raffi (Michelle Hurd), whose main notes to play here are fury in her grief over Elnor’s (Evan Evagora) death alongside a determination to find this much-ballyhooed “watcher” so it won’t be in vain. The loss gives Hurd and Evagora a chance to do some stellar acting, but the dramatic death scene barely moves the needle for a couple of reasons.
Whatever the results, it’s good to see Star Trek: Picard doing the work to develop each of its major players.
The first is that, however raw the performances, Elnor’s “death” doesn’t mean much because this whole escapade is timey-wimey nonsense that could easily be undone. “Assimilation” is smart enough to address that, with Dr. Jurati (Alison Pill) explaining that there’s no telling whether fixing the past will save Elnor’s future. But given that this is a combination of Q interference and funky time travel, savvy viewers have little reason to expect the death to stick.
The second is that, despite both appearing regularly in season 1, the audience never saw Raffi and Elnor interact much. Thus, the sort of close relationship that would motivate Raffi’s intense mourning is told rather than shown, diminishing its impact.
The other half of Raffi’s adventures boil down to her palling around with Seven (Jeri Ryan). After the first season finale teased the two as a couple at the literal last minute, it’s nice to see them sharing real scenes together. As with Rios and Teresa, corny shtick like the pair conning a security guard into letting them hang around a restricted building for their mission isn’t nearly as cute as the writers mean it to be, but their playful edge with one another passes muster.
For Seven’s part, this jaunt to an alternate timeline gives her the chance to experience what it would be like if she’d never been Borg’d. The character’s throughline for the first few episodes has been facing prejudice for the simple fact that she’s an “xB” in the prime timeline. Only now, she’s suddenly able to relax, unclench, and pass for the first time since she was assimilated. The title here is a double entendre on multiple levels, but it aligns with Seven’s newfound ability to fit in without issue, something she’s rarely, if ever, experienced before. The treatment of that idea is brief but engaging.
That just leaves Dr. Jurati, who’s hooked up to the Borg Queen in an effort to revive the head hivemind honcho just enough to extract the information she and Picard need to find this vaunted watcher. Of all the character exploration in “Assimilation”, hers is the hokiest. The conceit of Agnes probing the Queen’s mind while Picard communicates with her subconscious is mainly an excuse for the writers to turn subtext into text.
When under the influence of her brain-to-borg connection, Jurati outright announces that she uses humor as a way to diffuse and deflect. She flatly declares her state of loneliness and occasional desire to just give up. She out-and-out explains why she wishes Jean-Luc were her dad. And she voices direct anger at him for his own closed-off feelings and attitude about the whole thing. Hooking up one of your characters to a machine that forces them to broadcast their deepest, most interior thoughts is a cheat, and “Assimilation” doesn’t earn those personal reveals.
The trick is that Allison Pill is the best performer in the show, and she comes this close to making it work with her acting. The setup is, once again, too contrived and convenient. The equipment aboard La Sirena is apparently good enough that Agnes can just patch into the Queen’s brain without so much as a “What if we reroute the primary signal through the main deflector dish!”-style technobabble fig leaf. But certain poetry in the dialogue, and authenticity in Pill’s performance as she rolls through these emotions, gives these scenes something, even as the conceit prompts more eye-rolls than poignance.
The conceit prompts more eye-rolls than poignance.
“Assimilation” does have a little fun with the concept, though. Between Jurati’s voice bouncing between the Queen’s lips and her own, a few chilling threats from the Borg potentate, and a thought heist that would earn a nod of approval from the Inception squad, the show at least finds creativity in dramatizing its emotional shortcut.
In truth, the franchise has resorted to these types of shortcuts before. What is a Vulcan mind-meld, if not an easy means to forge instant bonds between disparate characters and find a mechanical, albeit spiritual, way to surface the personal? Exploring Agnes’ sense of “unbelonging” has the ring of truth to it, and it’s an admirable thing to explore, even as the show can only muster this cheap way to accomplish it.
That’s the sense “Assimilation” leaves you with. Rather than Rios’ connection, or Raffi’s loss, or Seven’s ease, or Jurati’s pain—all of which are worthwhile facets of these characters—it’s hard not to be stuck on the questionable dramatization of these feelings. Using one of Star Trek’s trademark journeys to the past to do more than move the plot along, instead finding ways to explore your characters amid that backdrop, is admirable. But if you can’t make their moments of introspection and connection natural and meaningful, then it’s just another temporal road trip.