Picard S3E3: Seventeen Seconds

At its best, Star Trek is a heady mixture of science, philosophy, and two-fisted action, and “Seventeen Seconds,” far and away the finest episode of Picard to date, delivers all three in spades. Our heroes on the USS Titan are completely overmatched by the horribly beweaponed pirate ship Shrike, they have a saboteur on board, and they’re wrestling with issues of family, duty, sacrifice, betrayal, and confronting the past, while also trying to unravel the mystery of what the Shrike is actually after, and getting hints that the nebula the Titan is trying to hide in is more than it appears.

It’s frankly remarkable how this episode crams so much of what we love about Star Trek into 46 minutes, especially given how uneven Picard has been up to this point. While the writing is terrific and the entire cast are operating at the peak of their powers, the real MVP here is Jonathan Frakes. Over the course of the episode, his Captain Riker goes from being Picard’s wry, chummy sidekick, to being the center of the action and the moral center of the show. Frakes also directs the episode, and it’s a master class in balancing action, suspense, and character moments, with a couple of terrific reveals that each hit like a lightning bolt. (As opposed to last week’s “I am your father” reveal hitting like a bag of wet cement.)

Picard is, in fact, Jack Crusher’s father, and the episode spends a lot of time meditating on fatherhood without bringing père and fils face-to-face. Instead — after a cold open that reminds us that the Titan is overmatched, on the run, and trying and failing to hide from the Shrike — we start with a flashback to Riker as a new parent, opening up to Picard about his son nearly dying in childbirth (the “seventeen seconds” of the title refers to the length of a panicked moment when he thought his newborn wasn’t going to make it). The knowledge that that same son would still die, years later, of an incurable illness, hangs over the speech without ever being mentioned.

But Frakes isn’t the only one who gets some great acting moments. We finally get the face-to-face confrontation between Jean-Luc and Beverly. And as great as Patrick Stewart is at speechifying, his best acting moment of the episode is the hangdog stare he gives Beverly before either try to speak. He just keeps his eyes fixed on her and lets the look on his face express twenty years of longing and regret and recrimination. The dialogue between the two that follows is excellent, but that one long look from Picard nearly makes it unnecessary. 

Nearly. But what follows is a smartly-written argument that gives both sides equal credence. Picard argues that he had a right to know that he had a son, and he’s not wrong. Beverly hides Jack’s identity from Picard because she’d never stop worrying about the constantly-in-danger Picard, and that as the son of the famous Admiral, Jack would always have a target on his back. And she’s not wrong either. Both characters can see the other’s side; neither can back down or apologize. It’s far closer to real life than the one-sided confrontations you usually get from a sci-fi show, and it’s buoyed by terrific performances by Stewart and Gates McFadden. 

But we don’t just get great acting moments on board the Titan. We also get the return of Worf, and Michael Dorn is note-perfect as the stoic Klingon. Next Generation didn’t always have a handle on Worf — in the early seasons, he mostly either urged the most aggressive course of action on the table so we could all admire how measured and thoughtful Picard was by comparison, or we’d get a clumsily-written storyline about Worf wrestling with being an inter-species adoptee, that usually ended in him growling, “I… am… Klingon!!!” at someone. Then he graduated to getting a beatdown any time an episode wanted to show what a dangerous threat that week’s enemy was.

A handful of Ronald D. Moore-penned episodes in which Worf gets embroiled in Klingon politics did wonders to flesh out the character, as someone who’s estranged from Klingon culture, but embraces its values more devoutly than the corrupt Klingon elites. But it wasn’t until Worf moved over to Deep Space Nine that the character hit his stride. The show used him well as an implacable badass, but also gave his stoicism just a hint of self-awareness that gave Worf a wonderfully dry sense of humor.

Every part of that is on display here, as Worf brings Raffi up to speed on the secret mission she’d been working on while being kept largely in the dark. From the first line, he’s a delight, as he maintains the same unwavering stoic tone through, “I am Worf, son of Mogh. Bane of the Duras family. Slayer of Gorwon. I have made some Chamomile tea. Do you take sugar?”

Raffi’s B story largely felt like filler in the first two episodes, but it kicks into high gear as she and Worf track down and interrogate another suspect. Besides the hilarity of Worf playing good cop to Raffi’s bad, we get an unexpected reveal as to who the season’s true villain is, and it’s a doozy. Picard has already burned through the Borg, evil androids, the Romulans, and Q. But there’s another classic Trek villain hiding in plain sight, and just as Worf and Raffi realize exactly who they’re up against and that the stakes are much bigger than they imagined, Seven of Nine and Jack Crusher have the same revelation on board the Titan. The terrorist attack at the end of the first episode, the Shrike’s fight with Picard — those are just distractions from a much bigger plot that our heroes are only seeing the faintest outline of.

But they still have to survive long enough to see the rest, and it’s not going well. While the Titan is handily outgunned by the Shrike, the pirate ship’s real menace is that the pirate captain, Vadic, doesn’t simply rely on brute force. She uses one clever stratagem after another to keep Picard and Riker off-balance. Usually a Star Trek villain underestimates our heroes’ resourcefulness at their peril, but here the reverse is true. There’s no clever turning the tables against Vadic — even starting with an advantage she’s the one to turn the tables on the Titan again and again, as one escape plan after another fails. She’s a cat toying with a mouse, and the mouse’s panicked dread grows as the episode stretches on and the inevitability of defeat draws closer.

And, again, for a lesser episode of television, that would be enough. But the best plots are ones that serve the characters, so that impending defeat also strains Picard and Riker’s relationship, which in turn brings out a fascinating new dynamic as their original roles are reversed. Riker — cast as the Kirk-like charismatic man of action on Next Generation — wants to hide from the Shrike until they can fly to safety. Picard — always the cautious diplomat back on the Enterprise — wants to fight head-on. The reversal works only because Picard has carefully laid the groundwork, and shown us these two characters’ growth. Riker’s older and wiser, having raised two children, lost one, and shouldered the responsibility of command. Picard has spent the full run of Picard trying to relive his glory days, without ever acknowledging that that’s what he’s doing. And with Titan’s Captain Shaw injured, Riker’s in command of his old ship, with Picard reduced to sniping at him from the sidelines.

We mentioned this in the first episode’s review, but the smartest choice behind Picard was to eschew the usual “your old favorite is back and he’s still got it!” tone of these kinds of revivals and instead meditate on Picard’s failings and regrets. We get a fully human view of Jean-Luc Picard that we only glimpsed on Next Generation. It’s used to tremendous effect when he confronts Beverly about hiding Jack’s existence from him, and then again at episode’s end when his philosophical differences with Riker come to a head.

Which brings us to the last thing “Seventeen Seconds” does well. A number of conflicts between all of these characters flare… and yet the tension never breaks, it only builds and builds, as every reveal puts Picard, his friends, his (borrowed) ship, and the Federation itself into a deeper and deeper hole. Next week’s episode, “No Win Scenario,” also directed by Frakes, promises to bring more of the same. We can’t wait.

Stray tachyons:

• We’re so unused to seeing blood on Star Trek that there’s a visceral horror to some of the injuries sustained in the ongoing battle with the Shrike. Trek (and TV in general) has always tried to generate suspense from putting a character in jeopardy that everyone knows full well isn’t going to die. But it’s devastatingly effective here because of the effect that facing death has on the characters, as Picard gets his own “seventeen seconds,” waiting to hear the fate of someone he cares about.

• We’ve given a lot of deserved credit to Frakes’ direction, but he’s working with the benefit of an airtight script by Jane Maggs (a writer-producer on this show, as well as The Man Who Fell To Earth reboot and Anne With an E) and Cindy Appel (previously the showrunner on Superior Donuts). The episode deftly moves between character drama, action, humor, pathos, and plot twists without a false note or a wasted moment — Maggs, Appel, and Frakes are juggling chainsaws, and they make it look easy.

• So much is going on in this episode we left out a chainsaw — a mysterious organic cloud within the nebula whose gravity threatens to suck the Titan in. It’s both one more pitfall to throw at our beleaguered crew, and one more mystery to set up for a future episode.

• We get our first appearance of Counselor Troi in a brief moment during the flashback, but while Geordi is name-checked, he still hasn’t shown up. Poor Levar Burton gets passed over as Jeopardy! host, and now he’s the last one invited to the class reunion.

• Paramount’s long term plan is to keep five Treks in constant rotation, and it feels very much like they’re setting up Seven and Sidney LaForge (who have a quick bonding moment here) for a Titan spinoff to replace Picard in that rotation. It’s also possible the rumored Michelle Yeoh-led series about covert spy agency Section 31 will take Picard’s slot next year, and Titan will replace Discovery at some point. The stellar Strange New Worlds should be on the air for years to come, and our guess is that Lower Decks and Prodigy’s slots will remain devoted to a lighthearted show and a kids show, respectively, once those two have run their course. Stay tuned to Subject, as so long as people are trekking through the stars, we’ll be watching.

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