“Nepenthe” is an episode split between a gentle, reassuring reunion story and an absolutely brutal thriller. On the one hand, the bulk of the focus is on Picard's reunion with Riker and Troi, on what seems to be an idyllic planet, although even this has some darkness beneath the surface story. It's a chance for the characters to take stock and process the events of the preceding episode, and for Picard and Soji in particular to actually get to know each other after very forcefully being thrown together. On the other side, there are the events on the Artefact, including the vicious, and arguably unnecessary, murder of Hugh, and the strained relation on La Sirena, culminating in Jurati's act of near-suicide. It's equal parts assuasive and unsettling.
As a fan, the return of characters of previous iterations of Star Trek is naturally a highlight of Picard, but there's always a risk this will slide into fanwank and cease working as its own story. Catching up with a middle-aged, retired Riker could easily go this way, but the script utilises him well, providing Picard with the comfort of a friend and a much-needed ally, but also someone who'll confront him on his shit. Troi (or Mrs Troi-Riker, rather) gets to use her counselling skills properly, giving Soji someone to talk through her issues with, although it's her daughter who really gets through to the troubled android.
Lulu Wilson absolutely steals this episode as young Kestra Troi-Riker, which is no mean feat given that she's up against the long-awaited reunion of three of The Next Generation's principle characters. Kestra is a cool, fun, adventurous kid, who has clearly thrown herself into the more back-to-basics life that her parents have taken to on the planet Nepenthe. Their stated reason for settling on the planet is the life-restoring properties of the soil, which they had hoped to use to cure their late son of a degenerative disease. In an unexpected link to the overall series arc, it turns out that a positronic net is part of a treatment that would have cured him, but these were blanket banned after the attack on Mars.
There's more to it, though. The late Thaddeus is revealed to have been something of a prodigy, creating entire languages and worlds in his head as part of his desire to belong somewhere after growing up on a starship. While Kestra is clearly just as brilliant, she has a much more grounded lifestyle, which has to be a conscious decision by her parents. It's not like there isn't a more technology-based lifestyle available on the planet, as we hear of a spaceport numerous times. The Troi-Rikers clearly wanted to move back to nature.
Lulu Wilson also shares excellent chemistry with Isa Briones, who gets to give Soji some real character at last. I guess this makes sense, since before much of her character is explicitly maufactured, and at last she is learning who she really is. Understandably she's in a hell of a place, having had her identity thrown into question, and then minutes later her boyfriend try to kill her, and then escape from a Borg cube through a super-teleporter. As helpful as her time on Nepenthe is in settling her character, she has a lot more to go through before she'll really know who she is and what her place is.
The details of Soji's biology are interesting. “Data didn't have mucus,” points out Kestra, and it does seem strange to put so much work into creating an artificial being that seems so human seems almost counterproductive. Yes, she's super-strong and super-intelligent, but she's also extremely biological with all the weaknesses that entails. She almost choked on poison gas last episode. Why build a human? We can already make humans. Nonetheless, her pedigree as a Soong-type android is so clear that all it takes is a characteristic head tilt and Riker and Troi both recognise her as Data's child.
I'm not sure the events on the Artefact really add anything much to the episode, other than to show how ruthlessly evil Rizzo is. It's not like this is ever in question. The villainous characters, particularly the female ones (ie everyone except Narek) have been pretty one-dimensionally evil in this series, in spite of the more complex moral concepts it's going for. Rizzo leaps at the chance to start murdering XB's to show just how much contempt she holds them in, then kills Hugh for good measure. Rather like the murder of Icheb earlier in the series, it seems pretty cynical. On the plus side, Evan Evagora (Elnor) and Jonathan Del Arco (Hugh) work really nicely together. It's a pity we won't see more of them.
The La Sirena crew work nicely in Picard's absence, with the understandable tension already there racking up constantly. Jurati finally snaps under the strain of what she's done, trying to disable the tracker in her blood. Whether she was deliberately suicidal or her near-death was a side-effect is open to interpretation. Allison Pill is excellent in this episode, which sells her character's torn motivations far better than the pretty unbelievable backstory of her mind meld with Commodore Oh. It isn't clear whether Oh is controlling her mentally, or if what she showed her was enough to turn Jurati against all her principles, but either way it doesn't really convince.
Overall, the events on the eponymous planet make “Nepenthe” a memorable episode, while the other developments, although moving the plot forward more, are far less effective. Still a solid instalment in the series, although the sense that we're running out of time is becoming unavoidable.
Thoughts and Observations:
“Nepenthe” is the name of a liquor from Greek myth that took away painful memories. Today it's used to mean “sweet forgetfulness” but can be translated as “amnesia” or “oblivion.” There's a theme developing here.
Kestra is named after Troi's deceased sister, whose story was explored in TNG: “Dark Page,” while Thaddeus is named for Riker's Civil War era ancestor, mentioned in VOY: “Death Wish.”
Are they softening us up for Picard's death? He's in his nineties, and in this episode they remind us that he has an artificial heart and a neurological condition.
The planet Nepenthe has jackalopes! They make good eating, and Riker puts bunnicorn sausage on his pizzas.
The Kzinti are causing trouble in the space near Nepenthe, the first time we've heard the name on Trek since the Animated Series. (Some people have heard “Xindi,” which would also be cool, but the subtitles confirm it's Kzinti.) Larry Niven gave the writers the nod that it was fine for them to drop the reference. This makes the Kzinti's existence in the Trek universe inarguably canonical.
Riker and Troi rack up a fourth Trek series, having appeared on The Next Generation, Voyager and Enterprise previously, although they did not appear together on Voyager. Frakes also appeared as Thomas Riker on Deep Space Nine, who is still technically Riker, so maybe that puts him at five.
Riker completely fails to climb over a chair in this episode, and I find this extremely disappointing.
I've mentioned the possible link to Control from Discovery before, but I hope the reuse of shots from that series isn't setting this link up and is just recycling. While it could potentially tie in, reusing the villain at this stage seems lazy.
There's a cock-up in the battle scene on the Artefact, as Hugh appears with Rizzo's knife in his neck before she throws it at him.
The Romulan snakeheads are pretty cool, but they're no Birds-of-Prey.