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Star Trek: Picard aspires to profundity, but settles for cheap action

Star Trek Picard Season 2 Episode 9 (Paramount+)

A vital revelation for Jean-Luc suffers from narrative shortcuts and flavorless shootouts.

In one recent film, a blissful child begins wandering through the public streets. He plays in the way that young children do, chasing a butterfly wherever it takes him. Until, all of a sudden, it flits toward a ghastly sight that punctures his joys. There, for all to see hangs his mother, dangling lifeless in the town square.

It’s a jarring scene and the crux of the film. At stake is the soul of a ten-year-old boy. In an instant, his childhood is irrevocably shattered. The contrast between his idle daydreams and the harsh realities of the real world, serves the themes of the film. The scene speaks to how those close to us, and the act of losing them, can dramatically change who we are and what we believe.

Star Trek: Picard reaches for the same ideas in its penultimate episode. Forced to take refuge once again in his childhood home, Jean-Luc (Patrick Stewart) rediscovers a part of his memory he’d kept long-buried. He recalls a time his father locked his mother in her room during a difficult episode. The young Jean-Luc responded to her desperate pleas and unlocked the door in the middle of the night. Only, the next morning — when he wanders into the solarium that’s become one of the key symbols of this season — he too finds his mother hanging, an angelic but no less grisly sight.

The reveal is a heavy one, but comes with its own sort of catharsis, and even beauty. To see a parent in crisis without understanding why, to discover the body of a loved one, to unduly hold yourself responsible for such a sad end, would impose unimaginable psychic weight upon a young mind. Yet, the depiction of these complex traumas comes with artistry and poignance. A queen is raised high and brought low. The ripples of repression and guilt are keenly felt. There is great meaning in it.

Star Trek Picard Season 2 Episode 9 (Paramount+)
Pictured: Dillon Von Halle as Young Picard and Madeline Wise as Yvette Picard of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Nicole Wilder/Paramount+ ©2022 ViacomCBS. All Rights Reserved.

And Picard, like his butterfly-chasing counterpart, is unquestionably changed by these events. They affect both the little boy who experienced them and the old man finally reckoning with such harsh truths. “Hide and Seek” strives for the same ends as its cinematic predecessor, to show how the person Jean-Luc was and is and may yet still become, rests with this moment. 

There’s only two problems with that noble idea. The first is that, once again, the series tries to explain too much via its grand reveal. The tale of a man who suffered an unspeakable tragedy as a child — and as a result, never felt safe sharing his love, lest similarly terrible ends occur — could be a moving one. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t align with his personal history of a character who, despite some aloofness, did love, did forge connections, did share himself and his life with those he was close to.

The problems with ST:P’s continuity snarls do not lie in the granular details of Picard’s past. Yes, it’s a little odd that his older brother, Robert, never shows up once in these flashbacks. Yes, the fig leaf “Hide and Seek” places over Jean-Luc’s vision of his mother as an old woman in an early episode of The Next Generation is a little unsatisfying. But those are easily forgiven trifles.

The real issue is that the eight seasons of television and four movies released up to this point are each founded on the bonds that Jean-Luc Picard built with those around him. He forged dear friendships with the likes of Guinan, Beverly Crusher, Will Riker, Deanna Troi, and Raffaela Musiker (Michelle Hurd). He became a surrogate father to Data, Wesley Crusher, Jason Vigo, Elnor (Evan Evagora), and Soji. He found those great loves, close connections, and other vital relationships that gave him no shortage of joy and pain over the years.

The story of a man who could never fully connect with others given the difficult feelings surrounding his mother’s suicide could be outstanding. It’s just not Jean-Luc Picard’s story.

The second is that this episode doesn’t find meaning by contrasting this bracing revelation with the innocent bliss of youth. Instead, it sandwiches Jean-Luc’s key recollection within some of the most flavorless, unnecessary action Trekkies have seen. Longtime fans of Captain Picard will likely experience painful flashbacks to when the TNG films tried to turn its contemplative, interstellar professionals into generic action heroes. Too much of “Hide and Seek” is spent with the main characters fleeing/punching/shooting generic Borg-ish mooks in bog standard skirmishes.

It doesn’t help that the pure craft involved in these fisticuffs is downright awful. The grand battle involves sweeping shots of Chateau Picard, with a conspicuously CGI landscape that instantly breaks immersion. There’s little sense of geography or flow to the different confrontations on the ship, in the house, or in the tunnels. The enemies themselves are forgettable and interchangeable. None of our heroes offers a single word of regret about these innocent people commandeered by the Queen (Annie Wersching). And even the superficially cool parts of the stand-off — like a Borgified Agnes (Alison Pill) having a sword fight with a holographic Elnor — are chopped up to hell in the editing bay.

If Star Trek: Picard wants to turn this episode into Die Hard meets Home Alone for some godforsaken reason, then at a minimum, the action shouldn’t be this terrible. It’s unclear, at best, why we need goons beamed into walls, or Raffi and Seven (Jeri Ryan) bringing down baddies with MMA holds, or scads of pointless shootouts all in the midst of Jean-Luc’s key emotional epiphany.

Nonetheless, such realizations abound as Star Trek: Picard wraps up several major arcs ahead of its finale. Seven reveals that the Federation wouldn’t allow her to join Starfleet because of her Borg background, despite Janeway(!!!) threatening to resign over it. But with Raffi’s encouragement, she reaches some equilibrium about melding the best facets of both her human and Borg selves. Raffi grapples with her own fear of being alone when she apologizes to a holographic Elnor. He, in turns, grants her absolution, which comes with shades of Raffi’s own fraught relationship with her estranged son. There’s merit to both character beats.

Star Trek Picard Season 2 Episode 9 (Paramount+)
Pictured: Evan Evagora as Elnor of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/Paramount+ ©2022 ViacomCBS. All Rights Reserved.

But these stories have been continually undercooked in the show’s overstuffed second season. And the resolutions are too quick and convenient. The Queen nigh-magically reassimilates Seven with her exact same classic look, and Seven’s basically cool with it once Raffi’s comforts her. The existence of holo-Elnor is kind of a cheat in the first place, but a tolerable one given the need to dramatize Raffi’s desire to say she’s sorry. But apparently La Sirena’s computer didn’t just capture Elnor’s likeness, but also his dying thoughts of love for Raffi somehow? It’s a cheap shortcut that undermines an otherwise worthwhile emotional landing spot.

Implausible routes to worthy conclusions is the name of the game in “Hide and Seek”. The     newly royal Jurati is basically the Big Bad of the episode. What ultimately fells her, however, is not some explosion or random bit of violence. It’s Agnes reaching Queenie on an emotional level. Dr. Jurati draws a line between the two of them as lonely souls reaching for connection. The Borg may forge bonds more forcefully, but in Jurati’s eyes, the principle is the same, and so is the inevitable loss that comes from connections achieved by force.

Jurati suggests an alternative, one founded on Seven as an example. She proposes a new Benevolent Borg, made of people who gain a second chance through the Queen’s intervention, who will fight and commune willingly, not as drones. The two find equilibrium together, a bonding of souls for both the Queen and Jurati that makes each feel whole and points the way toward something brighter.

It’s a lovely sentiment and a wholesome reimagining of what Star Trek’s greatest enemy could become with the right influence. Moreover, it’s a heartening way to resolve Agnes’ abiding insecurities and Queenie’s megalomaniacal ambitions. However, here’s a fun fact: it also makes no goddamn sense.

As with so much in this season, the central notion is insightful, but lacks the right texture to capably realize it.

Our heroes refuse to change the past, but they’re just going to let Borg Agnes blast off into the galaxy in a twenty-fourth century ship? They’ll go to extreme lengths to save any allies but instantly accept Jurati bailing with a Borg on the brain? Three trained officers can’t fire a phaser at the Queen before she neutralizes them with her tentacles? Everyone present is immediately willing to trust that the head of a perpetually malevolent force is totally good now and no longer a threat? The ideas behind all this are beautiful, but “Hide and Seek” can’t muster the plot points to earn them.

That may as well be the secret theme of this episode. Just as Raffi comforts Seven, or Agnes comforts the Queen, Tallinn (Orla Brady) comforts Picard over the truth about his mother. She tells him that love is always a gift, even if it brings with it hardships. The love Yvette Picard gave her son sustained him, helped spur him to great things. The love he showed her in return, however ill-fated, was not a sin, and not a reason to remain closed off from giving that love away again in the future.

There is legitimate profundity in that notion, for so many folks reconciling the best and the worst of challenging childhoods. It’s a shame, then, that such a stirring lesson is packaged in an onslaught of empty violence and channeled through a man to whom, by all rights, it shouldn’t apply. As with so much in this season, the central notion is insightful, but lacks the right texture to capably realize it. At its best, this series can find moments to match other great films and television shows across the ages. But it still can’t weave them together to make them mean what they could.

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