Wednesday, 11 March 2020

TREK REVIEW: Picard 1-5 - Stardust City Rag

Two ex-Borg with snappy eyewear

First off, I've got some issues with the opening part of this episode. Bringing Icheb back just to kill him and give Seven a vengeful backstory is a bit cynical, but fine. It works, though, and to be honest, there isn't really much else to do with Icheb. What I dislike is the level of gore involved. I've a serious aversions to things happening to eyes, and I couldn't watch it at all, so the missus watched it for me, but she ensures me that it was very visceral, and I don't think that's really necessary for Star Trek. I'm fine with some blood and horror in Trek (I just watched “Conspiracy” from 1988, and that's gruesome) but this is over the top, and it really is cynical.

Apart from that though, this episode is great fun. It's a bit of a departure for a Picard-led Trek, the sort of grimy adventure we'd expect from the Kelvin films, or, well Star Wars. Any pretence of Picard being French has no gone completely out the window, with Stewart clearly having a whale of a time camping it up as an eye-patched scoundrel with a raucous French accent. Rios gets to play a ne'er-do-well who's a bit more untrustworthy and flamboyant than his usual style, and is clearly the sort of gun-happy character you want along on a criminal enterprise like this.

I'm really glad hats are back in the 24th century
Meanwhile, Raffi gets some considerable background exploration, as she takes the opportunity to catch up with her estranged son and we get a good idea just how badly her life has derailed since she dropped out of Starfleet. Hurd gives a wonderful, human performance in this episode, and I love that Star Trek is now exploring depression and addiction as ongoing issues, rather than assuming that these are things that will somehow have vanished by the 24th century, or limiting them to one-episode morality tales.

It's still a bit unclear why Raffi's son has gone to Freecloud to look at fertility treatment with his Romulan partner, given that they're clearly not entirely unwelcome on Earth. Then again, it's never really been clear why humans or other Federation subjects would voluntarily go to live on a seedy, cut-throat world like Freecloud in the first place. Maddox is on the run, of course, because his work is now illegal, but so many characters through Trek's history seem to have upped and left the cosiness of the Federation to go work like a dog or take up crime for a living. It's pretty baffling.

Still, Freecloud is a great addition to the 24th century, a wretched hive of scum and villainy that provides a colourful backdrop for the adventure and adds to the ever more richly painted picture of this post-Nemesis future. I dare say we'll visit there again in future Trek productions. Maddox has got himself in with the wrong crowd, of course, being in debt to a nasty crime queen called Vajazzle, or something. Not sure if she's human or not, really, but she's decided that the best way to make a living is to butcher former Borg for parts. It's a horrible concept, but an understandable one, given how advanced Borg tech is and how hated the ex-drones are. The fate of a former drone – even a Starfleet one, like Icheb – doesn't seem to bother anyone in the galaxy at large. While this episode doesn't feature any scenes on the Artefact – and they aren't missed, to be fair – it ties into the contempt with which the XB's are viewed by the Romulans studying them.

All of this, of course, is calculated to give Seven a reason to crash back into Trek. Jeri Ryan is excellent in this episode, displaying remarkable chemistry with Stewart in spite of their characters never having met before. While any number of Voyager characters could be brought back to the franchise, Seven makes sense, not merely due to her popularity, but because she has something in common with Picard. The chance to have the two Borg escapees interact and discuss their trauma is irresistible, and illustrates how different their characters are. This is a very different Seven to the one we knew on Voyager, and I can understand fans who say they don't recognise her, but I can see it. Seven has been back in the Alpha (and now Beta) Quadrants for twenty-one years now, and has naturally evolved in her time away from the Collective. This is a more human, perhaps more flawed Seven, but there's a lot of the old Seven still there: her drive, her resourcefulness, the vulnerability and emotion that she tries to hide under a colder exterior.

There's also been some outcry against Seven's decision to beam back down and exact revenge on the woman who tortured her surrogate son to death (by implication having formed a relationship with her to get to him). Picard bangs on about revenge being different to justice and sticking to their principles just like you'd expect, but this is a completely lawless area of space, where murder and extortion goes unpunished. Even the local militia, the Fenris Rangers to which Seven now apparently belongs, seem to have lost influence. There is no justice coming for this monster of a woman, and Seven's execution of her is completely justified. In any case, Picard, as the captain of a military vessel, has ordered the deaths of probably thousands of people in combat over the years, yet this is always considered to be acceptable and barely even remarked upon. Most of the Klingons, Romulans, Ferengi and Cardassians crewing ships destroyed by Starfleet were doubtless ordinary folk doing their jobs. Yet vapourising a murderer who would clearly otherwise keep on murdering is somehow below the belt.

In other news, Jurati is the murderous spy we all expected her to be, and Alison Pill gives a powerful performance as someone who's mission is clearly tearing her apart. There's a real sense that we can't quite trust anyone on this ship, and that Picard is becoming strangely complacent amongst them. For all that this is a fun and eventful episode, though, it's going to be remembered for the return of Jeri Ryan to Star Trek, still looking incredible and one of the best damned actors in the franchise.

Thoughts and observations:

There were a lot of fan-pleasing references in this episode. It's easy for these things to go too far and create a small-universe situation, but I felt in this episode they made it all feel part of the same future. Quark's Bar is now apparently a franchise, and Quark is famous enough to be name-dropped as part of a faked backstory. Dabo and Orion slave girls are among Freecloud's dubious pleasures. Mr. Mot's Hair Emporium was probably my favourite, though.

There's a lovely moment where a snatch of the Voyager theme plays over Seven's heart-to-heart with Picard.

Boozy beverages available on Freecloud include tranya – the First Federation drink from the TOS episode “The Corbomite Maneuver” - and Temtibi Lagoon, a cocktail named for a feature of the planet Risa. Seven drinks a straight-up bourbon, so clearly she can take her drink a lot better than in Voyager's time.

Neither Maddox nor Icheb are played by the original actor for the role. Actually, it's pretty harsh on Manu Intiraymi, who has spoken in the past how keen he would be to pick up the role of Icheb again, and apparently wasn't even approached for this. He has returned to the role for the fanfilm Star Trek: Renegades, which is set after the character's death here.

The planet where Icheb meets his unpleasant end is called Vergessen, which means “forgotten” or “oblivion” in German, and is located in the Hypatia system, named for the Byzantine physician and philosopher. It is, presumably, in the Beta Quadrant.

Freecloud is the Alpha Doradus system, which is a real star about 170 light years away in Dorado.

Vajazzle's right hand man is a hulking lizardman called a Beta Annari, a species that can apparently smell who you had for breakfast and what you last had sex with.

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