Warning: This Star Trek: Picard review contains major spoilers for episode 5. Turn your ship around now to avoid spoilers!
Let’s get that elephant in the room out of the way first. Jean-Luc Picard dressed in a beret and an eyepatch? Speaking in a ludicrees Fronch axont? What the hell were the showrunners thinking? Considering Patrick Stewart’s been playing a Frenchman for over three decades – albeit one whose accent is more Royal Shakespeare Company than Bordeaux – it’s remarkable how cartoonish and unconvincing he is.
Of course, that wouldn’t be a problem if this was one of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck episodes, but the fact that Picard is supposedly undercover – in a hostile environment – makes this particular artistic choice feel like something of a misstep. Especially as “Stardust City Rag” is an otherwise brilliant episode, featuring plenty of action, a heist, and double-crosses. It also answers some big questions about the show’s mythology while asking many more.
Picard and the ragtag crew of La Sirena have finally reached Freecloud, a Blade Runner-ish casino world where visitors are greeted by pop-up ads so aggressive they literally assault you. They’re not just there for the gambling and the nightlife, however. While Picard leads a dangerous mission to rescue AWOL cyberneticist Bruce Maddox, Raffi tracks down her estranged son, Gabe, who believes she abandoned him as a kid, blaming her “crackpot” conspiracy theories about the synth attack on Mars.
With the Raffi subplot something of a diversion – though there is a tender scene rebuilding of her relationship with Picard, and an intriguing tease about the “Conclave of Eight” that’s somehow tied into the aforementioned Martian plot – the episode is very much shaped by two characters new to the show: Maddox and Seven of Nine.
In his first on-screen appearance since Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man” (John Ales replaces Brian Brophy in the role), Maddox is such hot property that a criminal gang have kidnapped him so they can collect a lucrative bounty from the Tal Shiar. Maddox spends most of the episode as a McGuffin. He’s the bruised, broken target of Picard, Rios and Elnor’s attempts to channel Ocean’s 11, using the highly prized Seven of Nine as collateral in the deal to “buy” him back. It’s a wonderfully directed sequence (Jonathan Frakes, TNG’s Commander Riker, is behind the camera), with the heist cleverly intercut with the planning stages – it’s not easy getting past a reptilian henchman with the handy ability of smelling lies.
But it’s when Maddox gets safely back to La Sirena that things really kick off. He reveals that he was responsible for dispatching Dahj and Soji to Earth and the captured Borg Cube, respectively, hoping to get to the bottom of the Romulan/Federation plot – an incredibly risky mission for two unique, “perfectly imperfect” beings, don’t you think? It’s then that the previously passive Dr Agnes Jurati reveals an unexpected new side to her persona, switching off Maddox’s life support and leaving him to die. So many questions!
If the pair were in a romantic relationship, what prompted her to turn on her former lover? How was her contribution so essential – along with those of Maddox and Dr Noonian Soong – to the creation of Dahj and Soji? What is it that she wishes “they” hadn’t shown her? What did Starfleet security chief Commodore Oh say to her when they met at the Daystrom Institute in episode three? Has she been a spy from the beginning, or has something been implanted in her brain? Whatever the explanation, she’s clearly under some duress seeing as she twice manages to trigger the Emergency Medical Hologram’s “psychiatric emergency” function.
While we still have lots to learn about Jurati, we already knew plenty about iconic former Borg Seven of Nine. Decades on from her Star Trek: Voyager days, Seven’s a vigilante fighting for those who can’t protect themselves – and incredibly sceptical about Picard and his mission. It’s an exciting, logical progression for a character who was always a fan-favourite – and whose humanity has continued to evolve from the moment Captain Janeway and co freed her from the Borg Collective.
Here she’s driven entirely by the desire to avenge Icheb, the former Borg who became a surrogate son on Voyager, and begins the episode being brutally, fatally scavenged for Borg parts in the show’s ickiest sequence so far. The person Seven holds responsible is crime boss Bjayzl, and she’s so keen to take her out that she’s prepared to double-cross Picard to do it.
But, aside from being a thoroughly nasty piece of work, who is this seemingly integral player in the Alpha Quadrant’s criminal underworld? How does she know so much about Seven of Nine’s past? Why does she address her as Annika, Seven’s pre-Borg human name? When she alludes to the “Annika of old”, we have to admit we wondered whether she was referring to Seven of Nine’s pre-assimilation days, and whether Bjayzl might be a Borg Queen in human disguise. The fact she’s subsequently vaporised may have put that particular theory on ice, but Borg Queens have come back from far worse…
And yet, Seven of Nine’s most telling contribution to the episode may also be the quietest. When she asks Picard if he believes his humanity returned after being assimilated by the Borg, his admission that not all of it has is a genuine shock – in fact, we’re starting to wonder whether we ever actually knew Jean-Luc Picard at all. With the Borg, the Romulans and Data – not to mention his illness – all very open wounds, it looks like Jean-Luc will have plenty to deal with over the coming weeks. So with all that in mind, it might be a good time to ditch that eye patch.
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.