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Star Trek: Picard finally has something on its mind 

Star Trek: Picard Monsters Featured Patrick Stewart

A creative approach to Jean-Luc’s traumas results in the season’s best episode.

The beauty of speculative fiction is that it allows us to reach deeper truths by coming at them sideways. Stories about the future shine a light on the present. Skirmishes between alien species put our own multicultural connections into relief. Far out cosmic experiences can speak to the intimacies of the human soul. It’s a sidelong approach that Star Trek has used since the beginning. It helps illuminate those truths in a way more direct storytelling often bungles. 

So it’s no coincidence that Star Trek: Picard’s finest hour this season wholeheartedly embraces that method. “Monsters” doesn’t merely flashback to Jean-Luc Picard’s (Patrick Stewart) childhood memories. It reimagines them as a tale of a prince and a queen fleeing from fearsome creatures. Likewise, the episode doesn’t simply feature Picard confronting his father over past sins. It frames their interactions as an elliptical psych evaluation where neither party fully understands who’s speaking to them. 

At the core of these events are things both dark and difficult. Realizing the mother you so admired was struggling with mental illness. Learning the father you resented was not, in fact, a monster but a man trying his best to protect you. Discovering that the abiding pain that defined your life, that spurred you to save lives and worlds, stemmed from a bleak childhood misunderstanding. 

Star Trek: Picard Monsters Dylan Von Halle
All hail Dylan Von Halle, the boy king! (Trae Patton/Paramount+)

These bracing epiphanies are the crux of what season 2 has to say about Jean-Luc Picard. Admitttedly, the season’s seventh episode does save another reveal for later. Otherwise, though, it means to lay bare this vital part of the character’s psyche. Rather than merely announcing these details, as so many prior episodes have, this one examines Jean-Luc’s self-identity in laudably impressionistic terms. The episode deploys imaginary stories and off-kilter debates. There’s a grace to it, a willingness to embrace the real and harsh through the lens of the abstract and unusual, that elevates “Monsters.” 

It doesn’t hurt that the episode also embraces a format that suits Stewart’s theatrical roots. Allowing a pair of actors to reveal story and meaning via a charged yet vulnerable conversation owes more to the stage than to the screen. (See also: Stewart and his old friend Ian McKellen’s rendition of Waiting for Godot.) “Monsters” puts Picard and his father in the throes of a back-and-forth that tests the limits of self-perception. That tack fits the character’s liminal space when wrestling with his past. 

Likewise, it’s a boon to have James Callis–who sci-fi fans will recognize from his role in the Trek-adjacent Battlestar Galactica reboot–as a scene partner. Callis’ guise as a combative therapist provides Maurice Picard an excuse to probe the psyche of his recalcitrant son. Even opposite Stewart, Callis holds his own with gusto. True to its stagey nature, the dialogue is a little cryptic and florid as the two circle Jean-Luc’s trauma. But under the circumstances, it works. 

Star Trek: Picard Monsters Orla Brady
Orla Brady jacks in. (Trae Patton/Paramount+)

Of course, ST:P can’t spend the whole episode inside Jean-Luc’s head with so many other threats and obstacles to overcome. Jurati (Alison Pill) is majorly Borg’d now, something Raffi (Michelle Hurd) and Seven (Jeri Ryan) steadily come to realize. The prospect of the Queen (Annie Wersching) fully taking over Agnes to somehow assimilate all of Earth is a big yawn as major threats go. But Seven and Raffi following her trail of destruction and teasing their relationship along the way is a solid premise. 

Speaking of inevitable romances, Rios (Santiago Cabrera) is back to needing the help of–and having romantic sparks with–Teresa (Sol Rodriguez). The fact that Picard needs a neural stabilizer administered by the good doctor scans as contrived false jeopardy. Nevertheless, the episode takes seriously how someone like her would react to someone like Rios commandeering her clinic, giving her some force as a player. 

There’s a grace to it, a willingness to embrace the real and harsh through the lens of the abstract and unusual, that elevates “Monsters.”

More to the point, it thoughtfully considers how she would respond to learning the truth about Cristobal. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the effort, but Rios coming clean to both Teresa and her son is the first step toward putting the budding family on an even keel. Giving him and Teresa suitable friction over the insanity of the situation, but cutting through it with honesty, helps their inevitable coupling make more sense. 

“Monsters” also features some long-awaited additional backstory on the conflict between Guinan’s species (the El-Aurians) and the Q Continuum. The Next Generation offered tantalizing hints but never any detail. Here, Star Trek: Picard reveals that the two groups engaged in mutual antagonism over the eons but ultimately reached a truce symbolized by a…magical bottle? 

Star Trek: Picard Monsters Allison Pill
Allison Pill out for an evening stroll. (Trae Patton/Paramount+)

The literalism of turning a beloved bartender into someone who can perform sorcery by opening a fancy decanter comes off cheesy and reductive. Yet, it gestures toward the connections between the two god-like species. Q’s absence despite Guinan’s (Ito Aghayere) mystical uncorking and her reaction suitably conveys this is Serious Business. And it means this interlude has something to offer, even if it ends in a cornball “You’re under arrest!” cliffhanger. 

Regardless, the heart of “Monsters” rests with the journey into the mind of Jean-Luc Picard. Tallinn (Orla Brady) is along for the ride this time. Only, instead of spelunking through the literal events of Picard’s memories, she finds herself ensconced in a story of Jean-Luc as a young son of royalty. He’s “stuck” searching for the white door that hides his mother while straining to evade literal ghouls. 

The episode deploys the usual array of tricks to convey the dreamlike aura of Jean-Luc’s experience here. The horror and pretzel logic don’t come off perfectly. But Tallinn shepherding the young captain-to-be through an outsized nightmare version of his childhood helps put viewers in the shoes of a terrified young boy. More than that, it allows the audience to feel the ripples that reach the troubled old man he would become. 

Star Trek: Picard Monsters Sol Rodriguez and Santiago Cabrera
Sol Rodriguez and Santiago Cabrera visit an office from the 20th Century. (Nicole Wilder/Paramount+)

The smartest choice “Monsters” makes is to examine Jean-Luc’s traumas in this more liminal and creative fashion. His conversations with the man he soon realizes is his father tug at something Picard otherwise refuses to confront. Their exchanges are confounding in places, but in a good way, as though the words exchanged represent something both men already know but dare not speak. The youthful fantasy is stock but plays in the transcendent gray spaces of childhood recollection — how we idealize certain figures and demonize others in ways that eclipse our young understanding. 

In short, there’s an artistry to how Star Trek: Picard approaches such delicate subject matter. Instead of shoving these truths in the audience’s face, the episode lists ever closer to them in inventive ways. The approach allows viewers to settle into such realizations simultaneously with Jean-Luc. 

Processing the parents you hated and loved as more complicated, flawed human beings makes for a hard reckoning. Intuiting how mental illness touched and scarred your family is no easier. The profundity in Jean-Luc’s epiphany–that his beloved mother had her problems and his “monstrous” father had his redeeming qualities–carries all the more force from how he, and we, arrive at it. 

Star Trek: Picard Monsters Patrick Steward and James Callis
Patrick Steward and James Callis talk sci-fi, a subject with which they have a passing familiarity. (Trae Patton/Paramount)

The overall tack remains problematic, though. Reducing the complexities of Jean-Luc Picard and his personal trials over nearly a century down to one piece of his childhood flattens out the man. Attributing his unwillingness to form bonds with others to a fear he’ll become his father ignores the myriad folks he did grow attached to and oversimplifies his personal relationships. “Monsters” dramatizes its themes well, but the overarching project is still a questionable one. 

To the same end, despite the big reveals here, Tallinn suggests there’s “something else” Jean-Luc refuses to countenance just yet. It’s more mystery box storytelling B.S. Rather than forcing Picard to confront the full truth now, with all its consequences, the show must feed off the potential for future reveals and, heaven forbid, further twists. This drawing the plotline out could undermine the good work done here. 

And yet, through an erstwhile war of words with his father and a fantastical but foreboding vision of his younger self, Picard finally makes some peace with his past. The artistic, creative, imaginative approach to addressing these personal hardships makes them more vivid and poignant and results in the season’s strongest episode to date. Star Trek: Picard is genuinely piercing for the first time this season. Instead of charging headlong toward them, it takes reflecting these truths through a funhouse mirror to put them in their best and most affecting light. 

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