Patrick Stewart is still carrying much of the weight as “Star Trek: Picard” continues to pile on the lore & find its footing.
“Maps and Legends” improves on Star Trek: Picard’s series premiere. It’s filled to the brim with new lore and exposition and features another extended bout of table-setting. But it also features plenty of Patrick Stewart acting in one-on-one scenes, his forte, and puts him opposite performers who can hold their own. Making those conversations and confrontations a bigger focus here helps balance out the wobbly plot mechanics and less-exciting new faces the series strains to introduce.
That catch is that the series still dumps a ton of lore on the audience here. “Maps and Legends” is full of implausible and contradictory nonsense that constantly tries to top or overcomplicate (or both) whatever’s come before.
It’s not enough for the Tal Shiar, the Romulan secret police, to be involved in this conspiracy. There has to be an extra-double-secret force that’s even more hidden and even more deadly! Apparently the Romulans just hate androids and A.I. and any complex computing whatsoever, for reasons we’ve never been privy to before but which will assuredly be retconned down the line! Despite that, they still have fancy molecular reconstruction tools and can perfectly scrub a crime scene at the molecular level, but somehow not so well that Picard’s former Tal Shiar buddy can’t figure out what happened! And this new secret agency has also apparently infiltrated the highest ranks of Starfleet, where the latest corrupt commodore turns out to be a sleeper agent whose two goons are going after Dahj’s twin sister! Phew!
Boy are those two goons exhausting! One has been surgically modified to look human (presumably so as to better fit into Starfleet) and the other is the stubbly Romulan bad boy, Narek, who somehow managed to bed Dr. Soji despite his obviously contrived sob story. The two spies are, apparently, brother and sister, and seem to only communicate in cliched Bond villain speak. At least their scene establishes that Narek wants to go after Soji through subterfuge and manipulation, while his sister wants to use force. That’s a solid conflict, albeit one undermined by the way their whole routine is unremittingly tired and campy.
To be frank, it’s hard to muster up much enthusiasm for “Maps and Legends” whenever Picard isn’t on screen. The episode drops a few more details about what’s going on with the Romulan-run Borg Cube which might raise the viewer’s eyebrow. It’s residents call it “the Artifact”, and the relocated Romulans essentially mine it so as to be able to sell Borg technology to others across the galaxy.
That’s a decent enough sci-fi concept, but the episode conveys it all in either clunky exposition or unavailing interactions between Soji and various newcomers. All of these characters seem like generic personalities from a standard CBS drama, with cheesy line-deliveries and meager presence. That tack weakens whatever the show tries to set up for the inevitable collision course when Picard runs into the other half of the show.
Still the Picard half is good, even if some of the plot points are just as paint-by-numbers. Picard’s plans are complicated when an old friend tells him that he has a terminal illness (implied to be the irumodic syndrome that afflicted him in TNG’s “All Good Things”). While the “dying old man wants to go on one last mission” routine is a cliché, Stewart pulls it off well. There’s a warmth and a frustration to his dynamic with an old pal who’s forced to deliver the bad news that makes their interactions compelling. They speak as friends, which makes the diagnosis, the doctor’s reluctance to clear Picard for space travel, and Picard’s desire to go out into space again much more compelling.
Likewise, there’s something meaningful in Picard’s self-recrimination that he let himself go home and wait to die after Starfleet “offended his principles,” rather than going out and doing something about it. It’s convenient that he cannot simply call up the old TNG crew, and his donning the old combage is a touch hacky. But Stewart carries the part with such dignity and determination that he elevates the material and makes you believe, if only for a second, that this all makes sense.
That’s heightened by the awkwardness and enmity of his return to Starfleet. The slightly miffed response from Picard when the front desk attendant at Starfleet Headquarters doesn’t immediately know who he is, the cold reception he receives from the admiral, and the shouting match that ensues, all nicely set the stage. One of the best things about “Maps and Legends” is how it gives the other side of the argument some reasonable justifications.
For one thing, the episode gives Starfleet some practical reasons to cut the Romulans loose, with other planets threatening to break away and limited resources and political will to do more. For another, it fairly portrays the admiral’s justified sense of disbelief that an estranged admiral comes waltzing in, demanding a ship and a crew, spouting conspiracy theories he has no proof of, right after he trashed her organization on the interstellar equivalent of national television.
She’s justified in rebuking Picard for his arrogance, or at least obliviousness, regardless of his past accomplishments, and Picard is understandably emotionally stung that the house he helped build has no place for him anymore. It’s the best sequence in the entire episode.
Thankfully, “Maps and Legends” has more good sequences to offer. The last of Stewart’s scene partners is Allison Pill, playing Dr. Jurati, the robotics scientist from the Daystom institute who’s helping him to figure out what happened with Dahj and Maddox. The fact that she asks him for earl grey tea is a little too cute, but there’s still something compelling about their interactions — a shared belief and understanding about the importance of this mission — that makes the two characters click.
To be frank, it’s hard to muster up much enthusiasm for “Maps and Legends” whenever Picard isn’t on screen.
Of course, the law of conservation of characters suggests that she’s involved in Dahj’s creation, or the other Synth craziness, in some way she hasn’t revealed yet (and may even be our culprit with Maddox as a red herring). That connects with one of the more interesting reveals in an episode full of tacked-on backstory. The opening scene on Utopia Planitia implies that the Synths didn’t rebel, but rather were hacked in some way. (See: F-8’s little eye flash when he goes rogue).
The “artificial life goes dangerously haywire” routine is still familiar to anyone who watched the countless Data-glitches on TNG. But the episode at least suggests another layer of possibility here, with implications that the Romulan super duper secret police are involved in some sort of false flag terrorism to prevent their people from becoming too enmeshed with artificial life or the Federation or both. It’s all mysterious and suggestives of potential hidden agendas, in a way that inspires both intrigue, weariness, and wariness.
That’s the yin and yang of “Maps and Legends”. When the show is focusing on Picard’s personal motivations — his desire to do something meaningful with his remaining days, his broken ties with Starfleet, his relationships with his old colleagues and friends that gave him solace, and the potential to find the same in new bonds — it’s enjoyable and even great. When the show’s spinning an overly twisty, generic conspiracy plot that only tangentially involves Picard, it’s the utter pits. It remains to be seen whether this series can give us something worthwhile when Picard’s not on the screen and craft a plot worth his remaining time.