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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Thursday, 20 February 2020

Picard: Absolute Candor

No lies, total truth all the time without exception. 

Such is the way of absolute candor as embraced and preached by the Romulan Qowat  Milat nuns now residing on Vashti. I’m sorry... what?!

Ok, ok, calm it down.... let’s take this slowly....

A part of Picard’s Starfleet past, Vashti was the final world the former admiral visited before he was recalled to Earth following the Synth attack on Mars. Now he’s returning to this world enroute to FreeCloud, Jean-Luc is looking for support from the fighting nuns in his quest.

The first few episodes of Picard have focused heavily on the setup, the steady introduction of the main cast and a split story focus between Earth and the Artifact. 

We’ve seen the effects of the Mars attacks, how Jean-Luc has changed over the years since Nemesis and how Starfleet itself has altered over time. While the pacing has been steady, this week’s instalment for the most part felt slightly slower however what it did well was the deep dive into Romulan society. The nearest we’ve ever been to seeing inside their society before was during Unification with Face of the Enemy and later Nemesis opening up any real sense of what was going on behind the walls of the secretive empire. 

Absolute Candor probes further and for the first time in a long while and certainly in Picard, we have one of our best examinations of the Romulans ever. Their society has changed drastically in recent times so their pain and dislike of ‘aliens’ especially Picard-shaped ones is fairly understandable. 

Chabon has successfully painted a distressing picture of a crumbling society trying to pick itself out of the ruins and feeling cast aside and abandoned by the Federation who seemed to be there to assist. But its more than just a hatred of anything non-Romulan because we also get to see facets of their society not previously explored. The nuns for example are an intriguing addition to the universe much the same as the heavily ret-conned Boreth Monastery from Discovery.  

The concepts of binding to another with qalankhkai are fascinating and this is all tying into the threads of mystery emanating from the second half of the episode focusing on Soji. The Romulan mythology introduced last week is further played on returning Professor Ramdha to the screen as well as pulling up the question of just what happened to both her and the other crew and passengers on the Shaenor which was assimilated. What exactly happened to cause such critical mental damage to the Romulans alone? 

Absolute Candor also makes it very, very clear that Narek and Narissa are both very aware of Soji and of what she is capable. Their limited screentime however does little to expand their characters and in relation to this thread, Narek definitely needs fleshing out.

We have, of course, assumed that they would given the events of episode one however it has not been verbally disclosed by Narek until this week. Oddly there's no Hugh popping up around the Artifact and most of the action there does feel like filler perhaps only to reaffirm the relationship between Narek and Narissa - are they actually related or is that more brethren terminology for Tal'Shiar operatives.

Elnor is a bit of a strange one. His initial appearance suggests another facet of Picard that has changed with him willingly spending time with a child and one on whom he had a major impact. Older Elnor is still seemingly enamoured with Jean-Luc choosing to follow him on his apparent lost cause. This whole warrior nun thing seems to have got the trolls in a right frenzy. Why can’t this be an element of Romulan society? Its a culture we barely know and there are bound to be more pieces yet to come.

The Romulans themselves really are the core of the episode. Their continued xenophobia and hatred for Picsrd comes to a head if not for some of the Enterprise captain’s meddling leading to one of Star Trek’s most graphic moments since the Dexter Remmick's head exploded in Conspiracy. Elnor’s involvement in this part of the episode emphasises his role in this - the muscle and a trusted confidant of Picard. 

Up on the La Sirena we have Rios, Musiker, Jarati and the ship’s tactical hologram repelling an attack from a local gang leader. Nothing immediately might grab you with that but in keeping with the appearance of the Emergency Medical Hologram last week, not only is there a Tactical version but also a Hospitality one too. Certainly for Santiago Cabrera this is giving him a lot of opportunity to stretch his acting muscles in these varied personalities. Does he have some kind of inability to really connect with anyone other than himself?

The ancient Romulan Bird of Prey is a great touch, marking only the second appearance of the ship in the franchise (as long as you don't count the remastered The Enterprise Incident) and looking pretty neglected after a fair few years. The CG team have however done a sterling job to bring back this classic complete with the iconic hull patterning!!!

Also to save on a bit of set design, Picard has commandeered Rios' holodeck to build his study from the vineyard house. This maintains an air of familiarity and reassurance. If we recall this might be because of Jean-Luc's gradually deteriorating mental state. Might this be a sign of Picard needing a comfort zone for his first trip into the great beyond for a decade? Could Rios himself be a hologram and not actually know it? Is he a physical construct of the La Sirena main computer? Great character, very fast development and brilliantly entertaining.

Ok.. and finally... how can we discuss this episode without that last line? A totally ruined guest appearance if you ask me, thanks to including Jeri Ryan in the opening credits but still, amazing to see Seven of Nine back in Star Trek...

You owe me a ship, Picard...!!!

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Sunday, 16 February 2020

A Tangled Web: Tholia One Attack Wing Expansion Pack

Coming out of one of the best episodes of Star Trek's third season and, may I also say, one of the best classic episodes; is Tholia One.

Unnamed in the episode, only the race and the name of the first ship's captain, Loskene, are identified. Here with this pack, Wizkids have expanded the background to the secretive Tholians as well as drawing on key elements of the episode to make this quite a unique pack.

The blister-packed Tholia One is a striking replica of the craft from the remastered version of The Tholian Web. As with the (fairly) recent Eaglemoss edition, I'm still grumbling about the fact we don't have anything that provides a reproduction of the ship as seen in The original Original Series from the 60's.

However, what we do have is a very well presented starship utilising both translucent and standard opaque plastic parts to complete what is a very, very small ship - even smaller than the Maquis Raider but not quite as flimsy or microscopic as a shuttle or the Denorios solar sailor.

The colour palette is a mottled silver with fiery orange inserts representing the engines on the small, one man craft and even on this scale, the simplicity of the design and finish makes this one of the best in the game - and definitely head and shoulders above the recently reviewed Maquis Raider. The stats on the other hand don't match my level of excitement for this ship with Tholia One sporting two points for attack, defence, hull and shields. Good thing then that it's got exceptionally fancy footwork to... sorry what? Oh...right....erm...we;ll come to that in a second....

The named, unique vessel also has the advantage of being able to use the Energy Web as a free Action which does offer some mayhem on the board. Also Tholia One can add a further two Weapon upgrades as well as perform the Evade, Target Lock and Scan Actions. The generic ship loses one of those Weapon upgrades and one of the Shield points to reduce the cost from 16 to 14 points - not really worth it considering the power you ditch off. Loskene from The Tholian Web is the top captain option but with a skill of four and a cost of three points that's not saying a lot for him. 

Loskene can field the fabled Elite Action but he does offer more manoeuvrability to your fleet as long as its a ship outside of range three and has a lower captain skill than he does. That second part and potentially the first part are booth incredibly situational given the nature of combat in Attack Wing. Having a captain with a lower skill than a four would work in favour for moving but means your fleet may find itself outgunned very quickly.  If these conditions are met then Loskene provides the chance to perform an extra - and free -  one or two maneuver. 

The Tholian Pilot (cost of one and a skill of two) is an odd second choice in that his Action can only be utilised when on a Tholian ship making him only effective in one role on one craft.  Going green on your moves with this guy equipped allows one shield token repair as your Action which will aid in keeping this cannon fodder around a little longer.

Tholia One does come prepared to strike even if its basic levels are almost laughable. Out of the box we have three Weapon options with a cost of five, four snd three points individually. The three point Photon Torpedoes won’t be a shock and operate using the Disable feature since this is one of the earlier wave expansions before Time Tokens came in. It utilises the Target Lock and any blank results can be re-rolled. Usable at ranges one and two, Photon Torpedoes may have limited use due to the need to reactivate them rather than waiting for them to re-arm with Time Tokens. It also doubles the weapon effectiveness of a Tholian ship hitting an opponent with four attack dice instead of the standard two.

Tricobalt Warhead fills that range three gap missed by Photon Torpedoes and surprisingly offers a better hit ratio. Using six dice and operating at range three, this Weapon works the same as Photon Torpedoes with the card disabled and a Target Lock used. The Warhead is, given the range, a very powerful tool to have in your arsenal especially if coupled with Photons for closer range strikes.

Finally there's the iconic Energy Web and this is THE unique feature of the pack hands down. A five point cost is understandable given the importance of this weapon which can be reused throughout the game. By performing a forward ‘one’ maneuver you can then use your Action to place one of the included Energy Web threads onto the board behind your ship. So what is the benefit? Well, should one of your opponents cross the line during their turn then it acts as an obstacle and will cause damage to their ship. While its pretty cool to action in the game I would recommend having at least two of the Tholian ships in your fleet to properly instigate a network of these web threads in order to incapacitate your enemies.

Last up, unusually, are two Elite Actions. Given that this is a single person craft we are deprived of any Crew but also the Tech options. Tholian Assembly costs three points and acts on every Tholian ship within range three of your vessel. These can all then perform an additional ‘one’ forward. Of course this then means that they would ALL technically be able to place a web thread and fully utilise the key Weapon feature of the craft. Only a Tholian captain can field this one but it does lean to using the pack with a pure Tholian fleet mentality.

Tholian Punctuality (four points) does mean that even if you do choose to single ship the Tholians as part of an Independent fleet for example, it’s not going to be as outgunned as you might think. For a discard here you can add an extra attack die for one round bringing you up to a mighty three red cubes. One to have in the back pocket perhaps for an end of game move rather than blowing this one early on shield damage. 

The Tholian Web mission gets as close to the original episode as possible with a Federation ship attempting to retrieve a Starfleet captain from interphase utilising mission tokens to reflect attempts to get him or her back. To represent this, your Federation captain card is face down until successful - and you can only attempt a rescue at range one to the interphasic rift. The Tholian player has a hefty 50 points to use against the Federation player which has to include ships with a hull value of two or less - which would indicate at least two!

The Tholia One pack is, initially, a bit of a disappointment. The low starting abilities, the average to poor Captain skill and the minimal slots for upgrades do edge this craft more into a support role than a front line starship. I would feel the most effective way to use the Tholians would be as part of a swarm fleet that could all utilise the web feature in line with the Tholian Assembly Elite Action. The Energy Web is a neat draw to this pack but on a solo ship it’s near useless unless you’re very close. It can place obstacles across the board but with some planning these can be avoided.

As a fan of the Tholians it does pain me that this expansion isn't a more attractive offering. Running it as part of an Independent fleet it could be the annoying, buzzing fly BUT it would need to be paralleling something with at least twice its capabilities to make it worth while. 

What's been the best way you've found to use Tholia One?

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Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Collateral Damage: Picard’s Judgement Day

The Section 31 collapse has taken its toll on the Federation with many a secret now out in the open. One in particular is causing concerns for the captain of Starfleet’s flagship. 

Continuing the deeply woven narrative from Heart and Soul, Available Light and the galaxy altering Section 31: Control, Collateral Damage feels like the end of an era. Coming as the final The Next Generation novel to be published before Picard, David Mack definitely has his work cut out and truth be told, he delivers. 

Lets split this book up into its two distinct sections and look at the events aboard the Enterprise. Now under the temporary command of Worf, the E is dispatched to deal with news of a deadly Husnock (The Survivors) weapon which lead them into confrontation with the remnants of the Nausicaan people.  Where we can clearly see the divide between the Literary and the Prime Universes of Star Trek is in the point there has been no Borg mass invasion previous to Picard allowing the galaxy to evolve somewhat differently. 

In Collateral Damage we are seeing more of the results of that destruction with the embers of Nausicaa uninhabitable and its people holding the Federation responsible for leaving them high and dry. Mack also pulls in a surprise addition to the story with the return of the ‘Outrageous’ Thadiun Okona and frankly on the page he comes off as a much better and more bearable rogue than he did 30 years ago on screen. Given the timescale, his progression to work with Starfleet Intelligence is every bit believable and there are certainly signs that Mack hasn't forgotten the smooth charm of the TV original. 

What makes this section of the story more compelling for me is the choice to not only write it from the third person but to dip more intimately into the thoughts and actions of both Okona and the leader-apparent of the Nausicaans, Kinogar. Their motivations and understanding of events feel much closer and relatable however at times you have to catch up for a few lines just to make sure you know which of the two characters we are riding with. With this half playing as the beating pace of the story, the recalling of Jean-Luc Picard to Earth plays at a different tempo. Tying into the Section 31 revelations freed from Control (Section 31: Control), the events here focus on the removal from power and subsequent elimination of Federation President Min Zife. 

Picard’s involvement and to what level is at question and while the outcome may be a (nearly) forgone conclusion, the journey there is enthralling.  In the prosecuting chair we have Phillipa Louvois (The Measure of a Man) once more gunning for Picard and dredging up every incident possible to bring him down.  

The courtroom scenes are outstanding to read and although I'm not exactly a legal professional, the arguments hang together to a point although it does seem to a very unlikely anything is going to stick to the good captain’s name. The choice to return the narrative to Earth ties in well with events on screen, allowing readers to revisit Chateau Picard and places Jean-Luc and his family out of their usual spacefaring context. 

Mack’s writing makes it feel as though the weight of the world is hanging on Picard’s shoulders however there is a slight tug of a cliche with a star witness making a ‘last minute’ appearance to effectively save the day. 

Collateral Damage has to be one of my favourite Star Trek reads for the last year or so. The decision to tie up loose ends ahead of the inevitable Picard novel and upcoming Kelvin tales suggests we may not be seeing much from this line for the foreseeable future with Simon and Schuster potentially focusing more on current products airing on CBS All Access and of which there is much demand. 

There is the occasional colloquialism slipped in although with the 'f' bomb dropping into Picard and Discovery not exactly expletive-free, this doesn't seem as glaring as it did only a year or so ago. I well and truly expect future novels to push even further and as long as they're not used for a literary dalliance and actually because it helps relay a character trait then I'm ok with that all the way. 

Collateral Damage gives the Enterprise's literary crew the chance for a stretch too especially in terms of Smrhova acting at one point as the ship's acting acting first officer, leading a not so successful infiltration mission and having to balance her duties with not trying to cause harm to Thadiun Okona. It also feels that we are on the verge of setting up Captain Worf and if it's not going to be on screen (let's be realistic about it now shall we) then this is the next best thing. Who says we can't have a Klingon starship captain if Picard means Jean-Luc will be sidelined from this strand for a while?

The new format of the books is refreshing too with a much more tactile cover and larger pages. Thee's probably not a fraction more story or higher word count in here but it's just easier to handle and I'm a big fan straight away. Collateral Damage is an outstanding read from start to finish and one which demonstrates that there are always long-reaching effects while echoing the notion that we're seeing on TV that the Federation and Starfleet aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Collateral Damage is available now from Simon and Schuster priced £10.99

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Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Picard: Countdown 3 - Background Info Abounds

If ever a delay told you a thousand stories...

The third and final issue of the prequel comic for Picard landed just after its premiere and you can kind of see why there was a delay given some of the material contained therein.

Note - there are unavoidable story spoilers to follow...

Countdown returns us to Yuyat Beta where Picard and Raffi have managed to avoid imprisonment discover that not all is well within the Romulan populace. 

Revealing a little more than the producers might have wanted to tell about a couple of characters ahead of Remembrance, issue three explores what seems to be a good commander and first officer relationship between "JL" and Raffi. Indeed, it appears that this story takes place just before the attack on Mars and Picard's subsequent resignation from Starfleet.

The action is pretty fast-paced here with us returning to the settlement to discover what the Romulan governor has been up to - and we find that their goal is not what it might at first have seemed. 

Issue three shows us that there has been some headway between the Romulans and Starfleet/the Federation but not a lot considering the dire straits of the former. The biggest factor here is in what we discover about Laris and Zhaban and ultimately how they come to be in Picard's employ at the estate. The characters in the show have received a little fleshing out and their reveal to be members of the Tal'Shiar came in episode two and not as it would have done in this comic had the original release schedule been adhered to. 

My thoughts are that the choice to delay - if it was for that reason - were wise, allowing viewers to query exactly what had driven them to Picard's side rather than remain in the crumbling Empire. Reading issue three after Maps and Legends ties in very nicely and actually makes the two much more distinct in their personalities so the writers here have to be given adequate credit for building on their characters. 

Also significantly and wisely, the relentless nature of the Tal'Shiar resonates through this story and most prominently in this issue - one thing that has already been of the greatest importance in the opening salvos of Picard itself. The distrust of the Romulans is something we have seen since The Original Series although truly manifested most decisively in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Here it still exists, especially when help is coming from a most unlikely source and we know that that source will ultimately let them down.

Picard: Countdown, you realise is one heck of a significant story once you pair it up with the TV series - it's Picard's final mission out in space, his final chance to make a difference and here he stands by all the values we would expect from Starfleet's most revered commander. If you've enjoyed the flashback pieces included in the show so far this will help your understanding that little bit more and since it comes from the pen of Kirsten Beyer who is part of the series' writing staff, you can be confident that this is recognised as fully canon material within the Star Trek Universe.

Picard: Countdown Issues 1,2 and 3 are available now.

You can read our coverage of the trilogy here

What were the key points you took from Countdown?

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Monday, 10 February 2020

Picard: The End is the Beginning

It’s taken three episodes but he’s back in space.... in the last 30 seconds - so let’s skip back 45 minutes to start with!

Episode three fills in more of the Picard backstory with the focus this time being on his resignation from Starfleet following the Mars attack and the withdrawal of help for the Romulan evacuation. 

Michelle Hurd’s Raffi Musiker may well be the stand out character in the show from the off. We have an individual here who goes well against the mould of what we expect from someone who has operated in the ranks of Starfleet. Smoking some form of plant, heavy drinking and clearly suffering from mental strains that haven’t been addressed for 14 years, Musiker may also turn out to be a dangerous liability given her resentment of ‘JL’ over her ejection from Starfleet.

Putting Picard into contact with the off-the-books Captain Rios and his unregistered starship, Musiker lays herself open to be teased/tormented by her former CO to bend her will to join his mission.  Hurd gets a wide range to play even here. Deep guilt, self torture, an eye roll of sarcasm and much more mean that Raffi is already a fully 3D character within seconds of being on screen. 

Rios is cleverly introduced in a twist making us think his Irish accented EMH is the real deal. Rios is also ex-Starfleet as deduced by Picard due to the way I which he manages his ship although just what he did as XO on the heavy cruiser USS ibn Majid which was erased from official records after the death of its captain as witnessed by Rios himself. I like this guy. Not as much as I'm intrigued by Raffi but there's a certain charm to the character which I hope isn't an attempt at creating a Star Trek Han Solo. The two both have a level of grudge against Starfleet and there's a concern that they might develop along very similar lines. The fact that Rios can only seem to really confide in his EMH - which is a version of himself of course - speaks volumes about the loneliness and possible isolation of this character from society.

While Picard may have to dodge Tal’Shiar/Zhat Vash protected by his Romulan defector vineyard assistants Laris and Zhaban, it’s the events on the reclaimed Borg Cube which grab the limelight this week - or at least until Picard steps on a goddamn ship. 

Soji is part of the reclamation project to bring individuals back from the severed collective of the Cube but for some unknown reason is capable of communicating with the Nameless (ex-drones) in their own language which is, apparently, unknown. Spotted by facility director "Hugh" (Jonathan Del Arco back after his last appearance in 1993!!!), Soji is introduced to the Disordered. These are the only Romulans to have ever been part of the Collective and are also the only former drones that have not acclimatised to life away from the Borg.

Picard is showing these individuals as mentally unstable/unwell with a particular focus on the fortune-telling Ramhba who knows Soji and marks her out as the "Destroyer". The sequences with Soji and the Disordered open up more questions for the show to answer in the coming weeks especially where Soji is concerned. The writers have been keen to point out that she can acquire information at an alarmingly quick speed and is exceptionally adaptive. 

Now, cleverly, she could be being set up as the ultimate anti-Borg weapon, hunted by the Zhat Vash and clearly unaware of her significance. The inclusion of her "mother" suggests that this is a way for mission details to be passed to her undetected as part of the transmissions. 

Seeing Del Arco back is amazing after so many years. The makeup is superb, mirroring his removed implants but still giving him that Borg twist so to speak. He's definitely grown up but there's something underlying that I can't put a finger on at the moment. Is he there to help or to hinder and what is going on aboard that Cube? Why are the Romulans so interested in freeing drones? Is it because this ship assimilated the only Romulans the Borg ever managed to capture? So many questions!

The End is the Beginning certainly does what it says in the title, moving Picard away from Earth and allowing the former captain to get out in space and "Engage" once more. I've found the slower pace with the show to be a bit of a godsend especially since there has been an immense amount of set up in these first three weeks and it feels like there's more to come from episode four. 

Of all that's happened so far, this 45 minutes has been perhaps the most satisfying with there being a sense of progress by its closure. The story behind Commodore Oh is also pushed further with her aide, Rizzo (now Narissa) back on the Artifact and sporting her Romulan ears. Interesting touch that Oh is wearing sunglasses when she meets with Jurati before the doctor does a bunk and heads over to France. Is Oh a Romulan or a Vulcan? The series would suggest the latter  as she's described as a useful ally but then again we have seen a Romulan hide behind that veil before (Data's Day) and wouldn't siding with the Romulans be illogical?

Picard may not be all action every second but you can see that there is a lot of building work each week. Whether this could have been condensed....maybe but it's allowing each of the main cast to grow and it doesn't feel like we're rushing ahead with the same high levels of energy that we've been used to with Discovery. The End is the Beginning truly feels just like that - in much the same as we had the first two episodes of Discovery setting up the backstory, the same has been done here - and now it really...well...begins...

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Thanks to Chris Groves for assistance with screenshots

Monday, 3 February 2020

Picard: Maps and Legends

Where Remembrance succeeded in welcoming back old friends, episode two is far less forgiving.

Taking us back 14 years to 2385 (thereby confirming the series is set in 2399) and the synth attack on Mars before returning us to the present to witness Picard get an ear full from the admiralty while out on the reclaimed Borg Cube, Sonji and Narek are building relations and there might be some interference from third parties.

Universe building is something we hear a lot about in the Star Trek franchise these days and was a big part of the repeated delay for launching Discovery. Picard has now taken that matter further in the way it is approaching the latter days of the 24th Century. For one, the ambiguity of the synth attack seen in both episode one and Children of Mars gains meat to the bones and throws up far more questions than the pretitles manage to answer. It’s also our second ever mission to Mars in Star Trek following Enterprise’s sojourn there in its fourth season.

If you’ve been paying attention to IDW’s Countdown triple issue you would also know that there’s more to Picard’s Romulan assistants at the vineyard than just being refugees from the Hobus supernova disaster. 

Even in these two examples, Picard excels itself above Discovery with a more detailed and personal plot which makes you think about the possibilities and plays off cliches to surprise the audience.  The introduction of an illegal Romulan thingamyjig that can scan and replay events looks like it will open up the plot in a classic deus ex machina however it ends up twisted to reveal a much darker secret and a greater threat in existence. 

The opening minutes detailing the spark and subsequent attacks on Mars demonstrate the differences between Data and the synths created by Maddox. These are more "able" to display emotion although they're not quite to the level that Lore appeared in his multiple appearances. Their features are distinctively derivative from the Soong androids and the "F-8" moniker is one of those winks at whimsicality Noonien was fond of with his children. 

Stewart is, again, unsurprisingly magnificent in the lead role but with the added, aging vulnerability has somehow made Jean-Luc more approachable and human than before. His personal mission to find ‘Data’s daughter’ might seem insane but his regret has become a drowning factor and one that has consumed him for two decades unless he can act. Tragically and in a sublime canon reference back to All Good Things, this might not be possible due to readings found during a medical scan.

To bring such a point back all these years later shows how much the writers are in tune with the basic material and even suggests that there’s a beat before date for the series should it continue beyond season two. 

A highlight here has to be the brutal conversation - make that confrontation - between Picard and C-in-C of Starfleet, Admiral Clancy. It’s a moment where you realise how passionately Picard stands by what he sees as the core beliefs of Starfleet which were ‘abandoned’ when it closed itself away to heal the wounds of the synth assault. Ok, there’s a f-bomb in here but who gives an f? It flows naturally and adds to the tense engagement between the pair. To be fair I do see her point that Jean-Luc has just wandered in, demanded a ship and crew right out of the blue after his chosen absence from Starfleet. Of course, the perception of whether or not you believe Starfleet did the right thing in its withdrawl significantly affects if you see Picard as right or not and for once he might not be the one on the right side of the fence.

Then there’s the Romulan part of the Picard equation. Emo-Narek might as well scream Tal’Shiar it would be less obvious although you do have to give it to this series that such a point is blatantly out in the open from the beginning thus avoiding unnecessary revelations and making way for more important development. The Cube in which he and Dahj twin Sonji are working is revealed to be reclaiming individuals from the Collective. The drones are separated from the Hive mind but still appear to be dangerous. Some marvellous makeup here and the similarities with the ‘upgraded’ Borg from First Contact are striking; no big jumps in redesign as we had with Discovery’s Klingons.

Being Romulans you do suspect there’s more to this reclamation (5248 days since an assimilation!) than them doing ex-drones a favour. What precisely is going on in this Cube would seem to have eluded us and this saving of former drones may just be a front for something more devious.

Talking of Romulans, it does actually seem Picard’s concerns about Starfleet are warranted if not for his reasons. Commodore Oh (first commodore for fifty years of the franchise) is a Romulan posing as a Vulcan while Lt Rizzo, her aide, turns out to also be a physically altered Romulan and, in a slightly cringy move, the older sister of Narek. So it all links in nicely although the Kurtzman take on the galaxy has now managed to ret-con in the little known/never spoken of until this moment Zhat Vash.

Maps and Legends continues the hints and hat tips to previous Trek's with the return of a familiar combadge and the name drops of Riker, Worf and La Forge (latter of which confirms he's not been killed on Mars for those, again who've been following Countdown) and even ends with a more than familiar set location. While some of the Romulan segments do feel a little ham-fisted and moustache twirling, the writers have chosen wisely to skip the expected twists and focus more on Picard's journey to the truth, to Dahj's sister and to make good for an old friend who once gave his life for the admiral.

The choice to purposely age Picard with both the hints at his poor health and perhaps space "unworthiness" coupled with the display of him almost out of breath while evading Romulans in Remembrance has helped reformulate the character of Jean-Luc. He's not the grand speech giver, the thoughtful diplomat or on occasion the phaser rifle toting action hero but much more vulnerable and one whose emotions rise to the surface much more quickly than they ever did before.

With the brief introduction of Raffi at the end of the episode, we come another step closer to completing the new Picard crew however we're still a couple missing. A third installment on Earth for Jean-Luc is certainly due next week and the choice to stretch out his time on Earth is somewhat unexpected. Unexpected I might add although welcome and for once it seems that we have a Star Trek series that is trying to be different and push to new territory.

What are your thoughts on episode two? Any theories so far?

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