Thursday, 27 February 2020

Picard: Stardust City Rag

From the trailer I’d have been convinced this episode was a write off. 

In some respects that didn't quite happen however Stardust City Rag is a shining example of both the best and worst that Kurtzman-era Star Trek has to offer. Evidently the big talking point of episode five is the return of Jeri Ryan as a more worldly-wise Seven of Nine now patrolling the area around what used to be the Romulan Neutral Zone.  

Seven’s return to the Star Trek universe 19 years after Endgame brought a lot of joy go fans when we spotted her in the series trailers and now we get to see where she has ended up and why. Her story of retribution over the death of Icheb (not played by Manu Intirayami) in fleeting flashbacks rings very true as does Seven’s choice to make her way with the Fenris Rangers but is this a character development too far? 

Nineteen years have passed and the death of someone that close to her does appear to have been a seminal moment in her life but is the brutality it leads to in keeping with her regaining most of her humanity after disconnecting from the Borg? While the stilted and uncomfortable Seven finding her feet in Voyager is almost two decades in the past, it almost feels as though she has taken a step back rather than one forward. 

As I said, this is where Stardust City Rag skips down a thin line with the return of a beloved character being an event in which to rejoice yet there may well be a suggestion that the character has been paid a disservice. Indeed, Seven’s final scenes in Stardust City Rag leave her fate uncertain although they do suggest her personality is a long way away from the role we knew on Voyager. Seven is damaged, has been betrayed and chosen a life far removed from the apparent idyllic nature of the Federation post-Dominion War. 

The universe is perhaps not as cut, dry and cuddly as it was and the way to look at Seven is to see how far things have truly changed away from Earth. She’s not the only one mind you that receives a bit of character assassination but we shall come to that in a second because after four episodes it finally feels that we are getting somewhere. The quarter impulse speed of the series has finally taken us to somewhere we are supposed to be and in contact with someone who has been on the lips of many people since Remembrance; Bruce Maddox (not played by Brian Brophy). 

Now at the mercy of club host Bjayzl who would look to strike a deal with the Tal'Shiar, Maddox is seemingly unreachable by Picard and his assorted crew. That is of course until Seven offers herself up as bait since Bejayzl is on the market for Borg parts which can provide her with substantial profits. Planning to pose as traders seeking Maddox, Rios and Picard pose as what I can only describe as a space pimp and a terribly French-accented rogue, a rouse that is quickly undone by the revelation that Bjayzl and Seven - or Annika as she refers to the former Borg - have something of a deeper and longer standing relationship than has been made clear. 

The fact that the cover plan is effectively doomed from the start and that it betrays some rather darker truthes is a grim twist especially after the opening minutes of the episode add some gory context to it but the choice to degrade the character of Rios LET ALONE Jean-Luc Picard is to the point of absurdity. I understand that the galaxy has changed and that Picard is no longer under the jurisdiction of Starfleet and Federation rules of conduct but REALLY? Did this need to dip to this level? 

Luckily we’re spared the mangled accents and strutting fairly quickly but for a series deep seated in its fanfare for human development and even as Picard states in First Contact - to better themselves, this is getting close to the line although on which side is a tad blurry.  Doctor Jurati also picks up a bit more action in episode five with it revealed (popular word in this review...) that she and Maddox shared an intimate relationship - which is also turned on its head by the conclusion of this week’s story.  The twist in her character is unexpected although the encounter with Commodore Oh in The End is the Beginning will probably have a lot to answer for in the future. Some conversations I'd had before watching episode five did revolve around where Alison Pill's cyberneticist character was heading and it looks as though there was some more thought than for her just to come along for a jolly.

Raffi's storyline here is massively underplayed considering the gravity of her situation. Locating her son on FreeCloud, her reunion is uncomfortable but adds more depth to the fragile past of Musiker. Between Picard effectively leaving her to the mercy of Starfleet when he resigned through to his reappearance at her Vasquez Rocks home, Raffi has been left out to pasture with no one really caring leading to depression and apparent drug abuse. Even her VR advert from FreeCloud is tailored to her "needs", playing to her drug addiction over everything else.Definitely not the utopian future Roddenberry would have liked to see.

I suppose this is a thing we should consider. For once we have a show that is set within the Star Trek universe but not necessarily set within the boundaries that were established in the 1960’s by Gene Roddenberry and caused all sorts of strife for writers in the early years of The Next Generation. There is conflict outside of those restrictions, the galaxy has changed due to events external to the Federation and everything we understood about the tranquillity of the Alpha Quadrant is in flux.  Stardust City Rag is not without its merits. There are some cool callouts to both Quark on two occasions (looks like he’s expanded a franchise!) and Mr Mot the barber but it also mentions some tantilising titbits of information such as the Conclave of Eight among others in relation to events after the Hobus Supernova. 

FreeCloud itself betrays perhaps the darker entertainments of the galaxy, almost an anti-Risa if you might with over the top holographic adverts that physically invite you in with tailored merchandise and offers spammed into your ship. Metaphor for cookies and the dregs of the internet? Highly likely in my opinion.

The change of pace is a real sigh of relief after four weeks of fairly plodding universe building with the crew getting to do something more than ask lots of questions. However, what the heck was the point of bringing Elnor along to FreeCloud? A lot was made in Absolute Candor that this guy could kick ass and would be the ideal bodyguard for Picard on his lost cause but here he seems little more (only just) than comedy relief due to his naivety of the outside world away from Vashti and doesn’t once spring into warrior action. Here he seems barely window dressing and deserves to be used in the way he was intended. Fingers crossed for next week, viewers.

Ultimately Stardust City Rag manages to spin another line of mystery with the news that the Romulans and Starfleet are involved in something and to a much deeper level than suspected. The synthetic lifeform ban in the Federation also may have been manipulated through events on Mars and now La Sirena is heading off into even deeper troubles on a course for the Artifact.

This episode is that "marmite" entry, the one that will be debated for many years as to just how it fits into the franchise and perhaps why it as even attempted. While it does descend into near-pantomime levels of stupidity at times, Stardust City Rag doesn't fail to shock and deliver the punches where it needs to, evolving a major returning character for better or worse and firmly placing this era of the franchise into its window of social commentary. Times change, people change, it would be silly for the 100% idyllic Federation to exist forever - it's not realistic and both Discovery and more heavily Picard are leaning to explore the mood of the time just as previous series have slotted themselves into the issues of their times.

One final note too - the last conversation between Picard and Seven discussing their past Borg incarnations is incredibly telling and maybe even more revealing than the immediate after effect of Family or the act as Locutus during I,Borg. For Seven these few lines too explore that even with 20 odd years away from the Collective it still has a hold in some way and neither were ever truly the same again. I can only imagine how being on a Borg Cube for the first time since The Best of Both Worlds is going to play out for Jean-Luc Picard.

How do you feel about Picard after episode five? Still going or packing it in?

Catch up on all our Picard season one episode reviews here.

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