“Star Trek: Picard” Forges New Bonds From Old Ones on “Nepenthe”

Star Trek Picard Nepenthe "Nepenthe" -- Episode #107 -- Pictured (l-r): Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard; Jonathan Frakes as William Riker; Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi; of the the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

An interstitial episode finally bridges Picard and Soji’s stories, thanks to the welcome return of some old friends.

There’s an understandable disconnect between Picard and Soji. He’s an old man who’s never been great with young people who’s struggling to figure out his next move. She’s a teenager (more or less) whose boyfriend tried to kill her an hour before she discovers she’s an android. Oh yeah, and she just met this guy ten minutes ago. After all of that, Soji (Isa Briones) has understandable trust issues, and Picard (Patrick Stewart), for all his statesmanship, always had trouble connecting with the younger generation.

Enter the Riker family! The deftest choice in “Nepenthe” is the way it makes the reintroduction of Will (Jonathan Frakes), Deanna (Marina Sirtis), and Kestra (their daughter, presumably named for Troi’s sister) more than a warm slice of fanservice. Instead, this story uses their family to build a bridge between their old captain and his reluctant ward. 

So much of the rhythm of The Next Generation meant facing the intractable problem of the week and making it solvable through Picard discussing it and finding a way forward with his senior officers. This episode explicitly invokes that notion, one made different and less formal by the passage of time, but no less affecting.

“Nepenthe” — Episode #107 — Pictured (l-r): Jonathan Frakes as Riker; Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard; Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi of the the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Aaron Epstein/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In their own ways, Picard and Soji both come to the Rikers with their problems. Picard admits to his close confidantes that he embarked on this mission with “half a plan” and now has no clue what the next move is. He feels lost, never wanting to involve his old officers in this mission but still reaching for them on instinct. Both Deanna and Will sense what’s wrong and try to provide Picard not only with the comfort and kindness of an enduring friendship but also a reminder of who he is and what he needs to do in order to go on.

The same goes for Soji. “Nepenthe” proves essential to her arc in the way it explores how unmooring it would feel to learn that you’re not human, your family is a lie (except for your dead sister!), and your boyfriend conned you this whole time. Picard stinks at soothing her in the wake of such revelations, falling to take seriously her concerns that his mission and this place could all just be another fabrication.

And yet, Soji earns fascination and understanding from Kestra, the impish “girl of the wild” who becomes Soji’s first real connection to her new life. There’s a childlike bluntness mixed with acceptance that comes from the tow-headed kiddo, who marvels at what Soji is and is capable of, but who also takes her pain more seriously than Picard does. Kestra embraces Soji uncritically, without pretense, and it helps ease her into this world. 

This story uses their family to build a bridge between their old captain and his reluctant ward. 

“Nepenthe” draws those sorts of bonds between the members of the younger generation at the same time it reaffirms the ones of the old folks, advancing things narratively and emotionally.

The catch is that the events back on La Sirena feel more like obligatory plot-movement than storytelling with the same emotional punch. Rios (Santiago Cabrera), Raffi (Michelle Hurd), and Jurati (Alison Pill) race off to find Picard, with Narek (Harry Treadaway) hot on their trail. But as the opening flashback reveals, the rakish Romulan has an edge. 

“Nepenthe” includes the other half of Commodore Oh’s (Tamlyn Tomita) conversation with Dr. Jurati, where she not only gave Jurati a mind-meld vision of doom via Synth uprising to gain her cooperation, but also an edible tracker that lets Narek pursue Rios’s ship no matter what fancy tricks the captain-for-hire deploys.

That sequence tells the audience what most probably guessed already — that Jurati is (unknowingly) working for Zhat Vash herself. Seeing the full breadth of that conversation accounts for Jurati’s squirrely behavior, but it still feels a little cheap. 

Star Trek Picard Nepenthe
“Nepenthe” — Episode #107 — Pictured (l-r): Michelle Hurd as Raffi; Alison Pill as Jurati; Santiago Cabrera as Rios; of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“Nepenthe” isn’t the first time a mind meld has been used as a shortcut for emotional resonance and character motivation in Star Trek, but Jurati goes from timid scientist to “willing to murder her lover to save the world” pretty quickly from the audience’s perspective. That flattens out an otherwise interesting personal journey.

The same goes for the admittedly cool interludes on The Artifact. Amid Narissa’s (Peyton List) threat and intimidation routine to persuade Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco) to reveal Picard and Soji’s location, the episode introduces two intriguing emotional developments and then almost immediately breezes past them. 

The first comes when Narissa kills a room full of Hugh’s fellow ex-Bs and the viewer witnesses his piercing, mournful reaction to his fallen brothers. The notion of Narissa staunching the progress and healing Hugh spoke to Picard about last week is a potent one, but it goes largely unexplored before giving way to more, inevitable machinations and fisticuffs. 

They’re cool fisticuffs though! Elnor (Evan Evagora) and Narissa square off after some badass, Matrix-like moves from the Romu-ninja inside (and off of) the walls of the Borg cube. But their fight comes to an end when Narissa launches a throwing knife and (seemingly) kills Hugh. 

“Nepenthe” draws those sorts of bonds between the members of the younger generation at the same time it reaffirms the ones of the old folks, advancing things narratively and emotionally.

That stinks, not just because it’s another death of a legacy character delivered with little ceremony (justice for Icheb!), but because it’s the second missed opportunity here. Star Trek: Picard introduces some intriguing romantic, or at least mutually supportive, vibes between Hugh and Elnor in the moments before and after. 

There’s something compelling about the idea of these two men, both a part of and apart from a feared sect, finding comfort in one another. The fact that this gestured-toward relationship is snuffed out as quickly as it’s sparked almost makes me wish for a cheap fake-out death here, rather than squelching their nascent connection in the name of adding easy stakes.

Maybe it’s just that with the momentousness of Picard’s reunion with the Rikers, there’s not enough time and space in an already extra-long episode to give these developments the time they need to breathe. The show’s also still trying to balance those storylines with Jurati’s increasing uncertainty and internal torment over what she’s done. Her moral nausea and her willingness to go into a coma to stymie Narek’s tracking suggest a change of heart, as Agnes grows closer to her crewmates and to the situation at hand.

On the other hand, it also makes Rios and Raffi’s obliviousness to Jurati’s malfeasance seem a bit puzzling. Granted, it’s easy to forget that those two haven’t seen what the audience has. It’s not crazy that Raffi would be a little extra maternal to Agnes right now, and Rios is right that Raffi’s had a weird vibe both before and after Freecloud. In a show where everyone’s constantly keeping secrets, it makes sense for there to be crossed wires. Everyone on board La Sirena is still trying to recover from some difficulty, whether recent or longstanding, and it’s natural for their budding friendships to both help and complicate things.

Star Trek Picard Nepenthe
“Nepenthe” — Episode #107 — Pictured: Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi; of the the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Aaron Epstein/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

That idea dovetails nicely with the events back at the Riker hideaway. The most striking parts of “Nepenthe” come from Will, Deanna, and even Kestra telling Picard and Soji what they need to hear in order to trust one another and themselves.

With Soji, it comes as self-acceptance, spurred by Commander (née Counselor) Troi. When Soji marvels at the flavor of an earth-grown tomato over a replicated one, she laments that “real is always better.” But Troi gives her a heartbreaking parable to the contrary. She tells Soji the story of her son, Thad (named, presumably, for Will’s Civil War-era ancestor), who came down with a rare disease, one only curable through filtering a culture using a positronic brain. But with the ban on Synths, none were available and Thad died. 

It’s the starkest affirmation of another person’s value a parent could offer — “If someone like you were around, my son might still be alive” — something that convinces Soji of her worth, wherever she came from and whatever she’s made of.

It’s also a reminder of what Troi and her family have lost. Beyond how well “Nepenthe” uses its familiar characters to strengthen Star Trek: Picard ’s two strongest personalities, it also provides Sirtis the chance to give her best Star Trek performance to date (and, not coincidentally, the most Troi’s had to do this side of an alien possession or assault). The layers she conveys as Deanna recalls the pain of a dead child, tries to project warmth and strength to her old friend, and uses his memory to buoy another young soul on the verge of loss, is nothing short of fantastic.

The most striking parts of “Nepenthe” come from Will, Deanna, and even Kestra telling Picard and Soji what they need to hear in order to trust one another and themselves.

It’s matched in the easy rapport between Jean Luc and his good old “Number One”. Despite the frustrating abruptness of Hugh and Elnor’s quick-hit concordance, “Nepenthe” is stealthily a great episode for showing platonic intimacy. The heart-to-heart between Picard and his former “Number One” is no exception. The pair’s dynamic hasn’t lost a step, and the warmth of their friendship is palpable. That alone makes this one worthwhile.

But Will and Deanna aren’t just there to valorize their former Captain. Will helps his old friend recognize his need to be in the fight and reaffirms that trouble doesn’t go away just because we ignore it. Deanna helps him to understand what Soji needs — the reassurance that he’s someone she can put her faith into, that this is real and won’t be pulled away as soon as she grows comfortable. And together, the Rikers (Trois?) have the strength to remind Picard of who he was and is, allowing the old man to bridge the gap between him and Soji, figure out the next step, and remember what “home” means.

That’s much easier in a home so warm and inviting. It’s good to see Will and Deanna in such good stead. They are together and happy, enough like the people fans once knew while also seeming more than content and adjusted to their new lives. They can enjoy a precocious kid, a beautiful home, and friendships that remain as warm and candid as ever.

Star Trek Picard Nepenthe
“Nepenthe” — Episode #107 — Pictured (l-r): Jonathan Frakes as Riker; Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard; of the the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Aaron Epstein/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

But they’ve also suffered loss. That’s what makes this glimpse of their new lives feel like more than just a crowd-pleasing happy ending for a pair of TNG characters. Their loss is still very much with them, weighing on them in ways quiet and subtle. But it also helps them to connect with the people who need their help, to remind those who need guidance why it matters, and to let our heroes know that there is life and joy after loss.

This episode affirms that wholeheartedly. It reminds Picard of the camaraderie and compassion that made him the greatest Starfleet captain of all time. It tells Soji that despite what she’s been through, there are people whom she can trust, who will help her get through this. And it shows how these two disparate souls fit together, in their mission and their personal hardships.

“Nepenthe” is an interstitial story in Star Trek: Picard, one with only minor plot developments in the grand scheme of things. But it’s essential because it perfectly captures the way these two important figures are straining for something they both need, how they come to recognize that need through the care and kindness of one family, and how, with that help, they can see the answer in each other.

Star Trek: Picard Episode 7, “Nepenthe” Trailer:

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