Picard S3E4: No Win Scenario

We ended last week with a monumental cliffhanger, as tension comes to a head between Picard and Riker, when Picard overrides Riker’s instincts to play it safe, and blunders into disaster. The Titan was last seen crippled, powered down, and floating helplessly towards a gravity well that they have no way to escape.

But we open, as most episodes this season have, with some 70s rock (actually Slam Allen’s 2015 “Can’t Break Away From That Girl,” but Allen’s blues rock wouldn’t sound out of place on a hi-fi set in 1974, and more relevant, wouldn’t feel out of place on the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, an aesthetic this season of Picard has been leaning into.)

We also get two more things this season loves — flashbacks and bars, as a bunch of Starfleet cadets ambush Picard at dinner and insist he tells them an old war story, in which he and Worf set a trap for a fearsome enemy. His story ends with a moral: trust in your crew, and things are never hopeless. But then we leap to a very bleak future, where Picard has put his crew into a hopeless situation, both by not having faith in Riker, and by being the one easily led into one trap after another. Last week, we noted that Jean-Luc Picard has become more aggressive in his old age, but he’s also become impatient, wanting to skip ahead to the part where he wins instead of thinking the situation through and trying to stay two moves ahead.

And his impatience has put Captain Riker in an impossible spot — the ship is literally and metaphorically sinking, as they barely have enough power to keep any systems running, let alone some combination of them that will help Titan escape. Asteroids keep hitting the ship and doing yet more damage. And the mysterious organic anomaly mentioned but not seen last episode is doing damage on top of that. The Titan is doomed.

After exhausting every option to keep the ship running, Riker visits Picard, and while not absolving him of any blame, admits that he was right to question Riker’s judgment last week. He says openly what was hinted at last week — the death of his son changed him, and made him too cautious to do the job. His anger at Picard has subsided, replaced with sympathy and a deep well of regret. This is the end, for both of them, and Riker suggests Picard use it to make peace with his son.

One of Star Trek’s central mythologies is the Kobayashi Maru — a test every Starfleet captain undergoes in which they have to navigate a no-win situation. The test isn’t meant to be passed. It’s meant to show how someone handles themselves when facing death and failure. And Riker passes the test here, concerning himself with crew morale and finding the Changeling saboteur still at large, and putting his effort into running the ship as best as he can in the time he has left.

The show is starting to feel more like Riker than Picard, but that’s a welcome change. Apart from a brief sequence in Star Trek: Insurrection, and a memorable stretch of the all-time great Next Generation episode “Best of Both Worlds Pt. II,” we’ve never seen Number One as, well, number one. Last episode’s confrontation with Picard was the first time we ever saw Riker giving the orders and not taking them.

The only truly worthwhile reason to make this season of Picard, to bring back an entire cast of legacy characters, is to give us a new understanding of those characters. So many legacyquels trot out your old favorites as if they’re the same old action figures taken off the shelf. The ones that do it right allow them to age, and grow, and while Picard is slowly reassembling the cast of Next Generation, this feels like the furthest thing from a rerun of that show. The premise, the character dynamics, the characters themselves, are all brand new. It’s a bold and tremendously successful creative choice in a series that hasn’t made very many good ones in past seasons.

But those characters have to survive first. And into their already hopeless situation storms Amanda Plummer’s loopy space pirate Vadic. She left the Titan to its fate last week, but is ordered to plunge back into the fray by… her left hand, which detaches and turns into a floating head that growls an order to pursue the Titan into the gravity well, even if it means suicide. Is the floating head a Changeling? The ones we saw on Deep Space Nine still had to obey the laws of gravity, so it’s not entirely clear.

We also get more of Captain Shaw. Injured and out of the captain’s chair, but grudgingly willing to help Seven in her search for the Changeling. He’s still a huge dick, and Todd Stashwick is clearly having a blast playing him as such. But he also gets a terrific dramatic moment when we learn why he’s so awful to Picard — he encountered Jean-Luc previously, not as a Starfleet Captain, but as a Borg. Assimilated into the merciless collective, Picard unwillingly led an attack that destroyed Shaw’s ship and killed most of his crewmates (in the all-time great Next Generation episode “Best of Both Worlds Pt. I,”) and the survivor’s guilt Shaw still harbors has curdled into resentment.

And that’s the real crux of this episode. Everyone here is dealing with death. Not only the one that looms ever closer with each passing minute, but the deaths and sacrifices that have been an inescapable part of their trek through the stars. As much as last week alternated deftly between action and character drama, this is almost entirely action-free apart from the final moments, as the characters each face death in their own way, and learn who they really are in the process.

Of course, this isn’t the one where everyone dies. So after facing and accepting death, our crew starts to look for a way out. And we’re back where we started, with Riker advocating caution and Picard wanting to take a bold risk. Except this time, Picard’s in the right. It’s a terrific reversal of last week’s climax, and better still because it’s Beverly Crusher who ends up being the catalyst. 

Gates McFadden was criminally underused as Crusher on Next Generation, so it’s great to see her not only get to be the brilliant scientist who comes up with a classic Star Trek solution to the Titan’s dilemma, but also the emotional partner she resisted being for Picard through both the original series and this one.

A risky plan. A daring escape. A crew (re)learning to work together. Some made-up but cool-sounding science. A few more surprise twists, and a rousing finale. Now that’s how you make an episode of Star Trek.

Stray Tachyons:
• As with last week, Jonathan Frakes is at the top of his game as both an actor and director. We can only hope the remaining directors in the rotation work at that same level, as The Walking Dead and For All Mankind veteran Dan Liu takes the helm for the next two episodes.

• Picard showrunner Terry Matalas started out as a production assistant on Voyager and Enterprise, and the writers named a (fictional) planet after him as an easter egg. Fans razzed him when he name-checked his own planet in the first episode of this season of Picard, and it gets another mention in this episode (which Matalas co-wrote with Sean Tretta). Jack refers to it as, “A vile place, a real dump.” These episodes are filmed far enough in advance that Matalas likely wasn’t reacting to the fan backlash, it’s just nice to see he has a sense of humor about himself.

• We also get a one-word nod to “Encounter at Farpoint,” the first episode of Next Generation. It’s a nice easter egg for fans, and it’s deployed the way nostalgia should be — not as a wink at the audience, but a nod to these characters’ shared history.

• No Worf and Raffi this week, and while their dynamic last week was tremendously entertaining, cutting away to a side story would have undermined the episode’s dramatic tension, so leaving them out was a smart choice. Hopefully we see more of them (and at long last, LaForge) next week.

• The next two episodes are titled “Impostor” and “Bounty,” so I suspect we’ll see more of our Changeling friends, and then we either get a mutiny or some very absorbent paper towels. Stay tuned.