Release Date: February 20, 2020
Network: CBS All Access
Genre: Science Fiction
The first season of Star Trek: Picard is officially halfway done. Through the fifth episode, it’s hard to tell whether the show is starting to right itself or continue to totter towards total failure. There were aspects of the latest episode, “Stardust City Rag,” that seemed to harken back to antics we last saw on The Next Generation. There were still things that were left entirely unanswered, and we even got a new question that now needs to be answered in the next five episodes.
The fifth episode of the series had our heroes finally finding the series’ McGuffin in Dr. Bruce Maddox. The problem is that there are some nasty villains that found him first. Because of this, Picard and the rest of his motley crew have to go down to Freecloud and pretend to be smugglers who want to trade their own quarry, Seven of Nine, for Maddox. Preparations for this heist was indeed reminiscent of some of the old episodes where the crew was always, always fishes out of water who bumbled and stumbled their ways through an adventure.
The fun of seeing them somehow still pull off what they wanted to get done despite the bumbling is that there was very much a darker story just under the surface with Jeri Ryan’s character and the “big bad” who wasn’t all that big or bad. When you’re talking about someone who seemed to be something akin to a Nazi doctor being the person you’re trying to con, and someone who is willing to rip eyes out of a person’s socket with no remorse, it’s hard to feel campy and fun.
The dark underbelly of Star Trek: Picard
“Stardust City Rag” does indeed walk a very thin line that is both an interesting look behind the curtain of the Star Trek universe and also somehow tonally off. Jean-Luc Picard feels that morals and ethics are everywhere in the galaxy and that simply admonishing someone about doing the right thing will take care of everything. We learn that, to some degree, the former captain of the enterprise is a bit naive in this belief set.
On the one hand, it feels right to show that not everyone who we are going to reunite with this season was able to happily just ride off into the sunset and lived happily ever after. We also get the fact that Picard doesn’t particularly like the way Seven is going about her business, and she doesn’t really care. That’s somewhat refreshing. It also shows that the little glimpses of true pomposity Picard has shown every now and then aren’t always simply swallowed and stomached.
On the other hand, it would be nice if the show didn’t work quite so hard to demonstrate that a man who has seen large swaths of the galaxy, who has commanded countless troops and more than a few ships, doesn’t seem to understand how the real world works. To some degree, this is a nice statement on a man who was able to retire to his winery while the rest of the people he left behind had to fight and scrap. It’s just not clear why exactly the series’ writers want to make him someone who annoys not only the people he’s flying with but also the viewers.
Side stories, Both Known and Unknown
While we ignored what was going on in the artifact almost entirely in this fifth episode of Star Trek: Picard, we did get to know a couple of Picard’s travel companions just a bit better. It turns out that Dr. Agnes Jurati has deeper ties to Maddox than we first knew, though what exactly those ties are becoming a very big question as the episode goes along.
Their relationship is certainly intertwined with the bigger story and serves as an example of how good this series could be if it just tightened things up a little bit. How they interacted, even when dealing with flashbacks, was genuinely interesting every single time. The same can’t be said of Raffi’s backstory and how the series chose to show more of it.
On a show that is either dealing with a longer first season than ten episodes or perhaps one that hasn’t set up a ton of mysteries without answering any of them, the side story of why Raffi and her son are estranged might have been decent television. Instead, it seemed completely out of place, unneeded, and worked far too hard at eliciting an emotional response from the audience.
While her chasing away her son and apparently her husband as he tells it, is certainly heartbreaking for the character, we simply don’t know her well enough to really…care that this is her backstory. On the one hand, kudos for the writers not going with a sappy reunion “just because” but it’s hard to know why this was added. There doesn’t appear to be any way in which it will play into the bigger theme of the show.
Verdict: Using episode four as the measuring stick for whether episode five was good or bad, “Stardust City Rag” seems to be signaling the show has tied up all the “assembling a team” nonsense and we can finally start to really see what in the world is going on with the synthetics in general and Soji in particular. On the other hand, there’s still a lot of unevenness in the show. That includes not seeming to have any idea of what to do with Elnor. There was even an abbreviated fight scene in this episode handled entirely by other people. Why have an elite warrior in the show, especially at this juncture, and not use him? It was a good episode overall, but there’s a lot that needs to happen before Star Trek: Picard starts wrapping up if it wants to be considered a successful first season.