The search for a key player results in bungled canon and pointless action for a Picard low point
It’s an open question how strictly viewers in general, let alone notoriously persnickety Trekkies, should hold venerable “cinematic universes” to their own continuity. The benefit of a longstanding franchise is the ability to capitalize on established characters and worlds to find resonance through a mix of the new and the known. But continuity can also be a straightjacket, hindering movies and TV shows from going in interesting new directions for fear of upsetting old apple carts.
Season two of Picard‘s fourth episode, “Watcher,” aims to find a happy medium. It plays on the importance of the relationship between Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Guinan from The Next Generation, while playing fast and loose with their shared history. After using coordinates foraged from the mind of the Borg Queen (Annie Wersching), Jean-Luc discovers his old friend in a familiar place in 2024.
Only the younger Guinan he encounters (Ito Aghayere) is not sage or serene, but rather tempestuous and disillusioned. She’s fed up with Earth’s modern problems and ready to abandon it entirely. When Picard strolls into her bar, she not only treats him like a stranger but holds him hostage at the wrong end of a shotgun.
There’s one big problem with all of this — “Time’s Arrow,” the two-parter from TNG where Picard, caught once more in a bout of timey-wimey nonsense, bonded with Guinan in the San Francisco of 1893. The lack of recognition between them so many years later is no major snarl. Presumably, General Picard of the Confederation never made the trip back in this timeline, or Q mucked things up somehow.
But the bigger issue is that the version of Guinan that Jean-Luc meets in 2024 seems nothing like the woman viewers saw in either the 1890s or the 2360s. Gone is the nigh-regal listener of old, the genteel but playful ally, the preternaturally wise and compassionate friend who strolled the bulkheads of the Enterprise-D and broke bread with Mark Twain. In her place is a testier, cynical, downright combative bartender who bears little resemblance to her predecessor in any century.
Some of that is understandable. Plenty can happen in a few hundred years. It’s entirely reasonable for Guinan’s attitude and perspective to change and evolve over the ages. Generous viewers could even attribute her testier demeanor here to the absence of a life-changing, nineteenth century meeting with Picard in this timeline.
The problem is that there’s no connective tissue between this Guinan and the one the audience already knows. Aghayere does fine work with what she’s given, but comes off like an entirely different character. She rightfully doesn’t try to imitate the mannerisms of Whoopi Goldberg. Yet, other performers like Chris Pine managed to capture the spirit of iconic figures like Captain Kirk without, heaven forbid, stooping to a William Shatner impression.
This Guinan never threads that needle. The differences here are too great, to where this younger soul never feels like the vital figure Jean-Luc had a deep bond with, or even a disenchanted version of the character, which ultimately owes more to the writing than the performance.
The problem is that there’s no connective tissue between this Guinan and the one the audience already knows.
To the point, the Guinan of 2024 looks upon the excesses and failings of the early twenty-first century and declares, as one Star Trek-influenced show once put it, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.” It’s tough to blame her given the state of the world. But this is also someone who hung out on Earth during the height of colonialism and is implied to have struck around through multiple world wars and genocides. Yet only now she decides that humanity is irredeemable and she’s had enough? Guinan’s history as a character, the very thing Star Trek: Picard tries to harness here, betrays what the episode hopes to accomplish with her.
Much of Picard’s second season has been built around this type of social and political commentary on present challenges. That is as it should be. Using a vision of the future to critique current events is a time-honored Star Trek tradition. But trying to route that commentary through a new take on an existing character, one that doesn’t align with what audiences already know of them, weakens both the message and the character.
So does the raft of heavy-handed soapboxing. Guinan isn’t alone in offering blunt oratories about the sad state of affairs circa 2024. Raffi (Michelle Hurd) and Rios (Santiago Cabrera) both rail against the injustices of law enforcement, immigration authorities, and the systems that both operate within. When the focus isn’t on such polemics, it’s on asshole ICE agents and bystanders shaking their heads over the cruelty of the system.
Once more, fans shouldn’t envy the writers on this point. There’s little nuance to the perspectives offered here because there’s little nuance to these sorts of situations in real life. However lacking in poetry they may be, Rios’ and Raffi’s reactions are warranted. At the same time, though, it’s not especially interesting to hear characters shout “Bad thing is bad!” in increasingly didactic ways. Nor is watching our heroes bristle against one-dimensional antagonists. There’s not much you can do when the real life scenarios you’re reflecting are just as stark and obvious, but it speaks to why Star Trek finds more creativity and success approaching these types of issues through metaphor and allegory instead.
At least “Watcher” manages to have some fun along the way. The season’s fourth episode brings back the Punk on a bus from Star Trek IV, blasting an update to that seminal tune “I Hate You,” with a fun, more accommodating twist on prior interactions. And for all the pointless action they’re involved in, the fire and ice give-and-take between Seven (Jeri Ryan) and Raffi is amusing and endearing.
But, good lord, is the action pointless. It’s not enough for our heroes to be skulking through the past to save the future. Thanks to some Dixon Hill-esque sleuthing, Picard and Dr. Jurati (Alison Pill) figure out that they only have three days before the grand divergence happens! And Rios is on the verge of being deported and must be rescued! And Raffi and Seven steal a police car to try to find him, leading to a high speed chase! And Agnes has to enlist the help of the Borg Queen to transport everyone to safety! Oh my!
A ticking clock is nothing new to Star Trek. But so much of this scans as false jeopardy and filler, a misaimed attempt to gin up a sense of urgency that the show can’t build on the heart of its story alone. Raffi instantly figuring out how to use 21st century tech to track down Rios, as Seven quickly figures out how to drive an “antique” vehicle like a seasoned stunt driver is convenient, albeit well within acceptable tolerances for this franchise. But the scenes of the two of them racing through the streets of Los Angeles serve little purpose beyond a chance for some cheap, unsatisfying thrills.
The only relevance to the story comes in forcing Dr. Jurati to resort to seeking help from the Queen given the exigencies of the moment. The Hannibal Lecter routine between Agnes and Queenie suffers from the corniness of the dialogue and the trite commentary on Jurati’s status as a loner. There’s hay to be made from a cybernetic villain seeing “potential” in a major character, and more still from letting an untrustworthy Borg deeper into your systems, but “Watcher” mostly turns it into mulch.
The same goes for the teases and major plot twists the episode offers. Q is powerless! Okay? Raffi and Seven escape the cops but have to hijack a deportation bus! Sure? Oh, and the tantalizing element of Jean-Luc’s miscalibrated interactions with Guinan is the possibility of her bringing him to the mysterious Watcher. After a peculiar but intriguing possession-based vetting process, she turns out to be the spitting image of a younger, round-eared Larys (Orla Brady), who whisks Jean-Luc away to some mysterious locale.
That too makes for a peculiar twist on a known player. It implausibly retcons Picard’s snarky but amiable caretaker from season 1 into some kind of mystical being tasked with preserving a special destiny and ensuring the stability of the timeline. Remaining faithful to the continuity of tertiary characters from a season ago isn’t as sacrosanct as those of deep friendships rooted in stories written thirty years prior. But it’s still jarring to watch one wildly retooled character lead Picard to yet another.
Regardless, continuity snarls are forgivable and, in the confines of science fiction, usually explainable. Audiences should leave leeway for storytellers, especially those taking part in long-running franchises, to take past events in broad strokes so there’s room for new and engrossing tales founded on the same sources.
Sadly, “Watcher” doesn’t meet either standard. Its excesses of character and canon, bundled with perfunctory car chases and odd twists, might be forgivable if the show used its own “divergences” to tell stories that were worthwhile in their own right. Instead, Star Trek: Picard offers an off-brand past and a questionable future in service of an outing that stumbles on its own terms.