Warning: This Star Trek: Picard review contains major spoilers for episode 9. Turn your ship around now to avoid spoilers!
There are moments in “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part One” – the penultimate instalment of Star Trek: Picard season 1 – where you feel like you’re in an early episode of The Next Generation. The similarities are striking: Jean-Luc and co. land on an idyllic M-class planet that, aside from the weirdly coloured flora, looks a lot like Earth; it’s a first contact situation, where the crew meet a race of super-intelligent synthetic beings; and the residents live a seemingly idyllic existence, shooting the breeze, playing games, and dressing in subtle pastel shades.
Also familiar is the fact there’s something sinister lurking beneath the seemingly utopian surface, though nobody can claim the showrunners didn’t warn us – a quick bit of Latin revision reveals that “Et in Arcadia Ego” effectively translates as “death in paradise”. When it comes to strange new worlds, if something looks too good to be true, it generally is…
Picard and the crew of La Sirena have finally reached their destination, the twin-mooned homeworld of the androids spawned by Data’s neural pathways. Like Dahj and Soji, most are twins, and you can see a clear sense of evolution among the population – older models share Data’s yellow eyes and rubbery skin tones, while newer versions could easily pass for human. Meanwhile, because even synthetic lifeforms need pets for company, there’s also a robot version of Data’s cat, who goes by the name of “Spot 2”.
Since Bruce Maddox left on his mission to get to the bottom of Starfleet’s anti-robot conspiracy, there’s a lone human living among the synthetics. While his identity is something of a surprise, it does mean yet another role for Brent Spiner, who – having played androids Data, Lore and B-4, as well as their creator Dr Noonian Soong and his eugenicist ancestor Arik – turns up Noonian’s biological son, Dr Altan Inigo Soong.
Unfortunately, this self-confessed “mad scientist” jars with Trek canon – it’s rarely good storytelling when you’re introduced to a close family member nobody had ever even mentioned before. Altan was around during Data’s formative years, and he clearly feels some jealousy towards his android ‘brother’: “My father had me, but he created Data. A fact he never let me forget.” But why has no one – including Data – ever talked about the sibling previously? And how did Altan hook up with Maddox? Did Data introduce them? The fact that Altan traditionally concentrated on the bodies, while Maddox looked after the software, suggests Soong Jr’s not quite as skilled a cyberneticist as his late dad.
While Data’s progeny initially come across as naïve, there’s a steely side to their fractally cloned positronic brains. Sutra (Vulcan-loving Soji doppelganger and bereaved twin of the synthetic killed by Rios’s captain nine years earlier) has a particularly ruthless edge – just because she says “fascinating” like Data doesn’t mean she shares his love for humanity.
It’s a neat twist on last week’s episode that, while the Romulans viewed the Admonition as a brutal warning, to synthetic eyes it’s a message of hope and welcome. For Sutra, in particular, it’s a rallying cry to make contact with a race that not only assists synthetic civilisations to rise up against oppression, but exterminates organic life to do so.
It’s the only invitation she needs to start a revolution, making the bizarre decision to release the imprisoned Narek, and allow one of her sisters to die in order to stoke the fires of rebellion. We now suspect that the prophesised Destroyer who’s been winding up the Zhat Vash might not be Soji after all – and that Picard’s adventure may have turned into a battle to save all organic life in the universe. The Battlestar Galactica parallels remain prominent…
Despite coming in peace, poor old Jean-Luc – who’s finally told his crew about his terminal medical condition – finishes the episode under house arrest because Sutra fears he’s a potential fly in the ointment. And to be fair she’s probably right not to buy into his offer to persuade the Federation to the defend the synthetics’ right to existence – that approach doesn’t seem to have worked for him in more than 15 years, so why should it start now?
Soji’s caught in the middle of the dispute and it’ll be interesting to see where she goes next. Throughout the episode, she displays a ruthlessness towards anyone who crosses her path, and is clearly conflicted about Sutra’s plan – as yet it’s impossible to tell if she’ll side with Picard, or her synthetic brothers and sisters, when the season closer plays out.
It’s one of many questions posed by a slightly flat episode that’s more preoccupied with setting up the finale than telling a story in its own right. It’s light-years away from what’s teased by the opening dogfight, where La Sirena scraps with Narek’s ship after emerging from the Borg transwarp conduit – the subsequent arrival of the Borg Cube is a proper punch-the-air moment that hints at a battle royale that never comes. Instead, we’re treated to the bizarre sight of a Cube – traditionally the most threatening sight in the Trek universe – being taken down by a bunch of giant orchids.
Now Seven of Nine, who gets cooler and more badass by the episode, faces a race against time to get her ship airborne before 218 extremely angry Romulan warbirds arrive with extreme prejudice. Though someone should probably warn the incoming fleet that anyone who treats Picard like a dying man “will run the risk of pissing me off”. This could be one hell of a showdown…
New episodes of Star Trek: Picard appear in the US on Thursdays on CBS All Action, and in the UK on Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.