Picard S3E9: Vox

Star Trek’s all-time greatest villain is an insidious, all-consuming force that absorbs and destroys everything it comes into contact with. No, not the Borg. Nostalgia. Also, the Borg.

Thus far, season three of Picard has largely mastered nostalgia, using the return of old familiar faces not to rehash the past, but to keep the story moving forward. Riker isn’t the brash Number One we used to know, Worf is no longer the snarling warrior, and Data literally isn’t the same Data from Next Generation. It’s tremendously effective storytelling to take old familiar characters and cast them in a new light. And this season was able to do that only because it laid the groundwork to show us not just how these characters have changed but why. 

It felt like the franchise had learned the lesson of Star Trek Into Darkness, which didn’t have much reason to exist beyond, “hey, remember Khan? From Wrath of Khan? Remember when Kirk shouts “Khan”? Because he’s mad at Khan?” It was a low point for the franchise’s 21st-century revival, but the first eight episodes of Picard’s third season seemed to have tamed the beast that is nostalgia.

But the problem with Star Trek villains is, they keep coming back. So, we get the surprise return of the Borg, largely because, hey, remember the Borg? It’s hard to forget them, given they’ve been involved in every season of Picard, after menacing Picard on the big screen in First Contact, showing up several times on Voyager, and even for some reason on prequel Enterprise, even though they were originally presented as a new threat unlike anything humanity had ever encountered.

And they were. The Borg were a thrilling and terrifying adversary when they were introduced on Next Generation, but we’re well past the point of diminishing returns. Perhaps, with two episodes to go in the final season of a show, it’s too much to ask for something new, or even to follow the previous eight episodes’ storyline to a satisfying conclusion. The Changelings who had infiltrated the highest ranks of Starfleet? They’re mostly an afterthought here because, hey, remember the Borg?

So, the voices in Jack’s head, the Stranger Things-esque nightmare visions, his unexplained ability to control Sidney LaForge and read her thoughts? It’s all Borg-related in ways that barely make sense.

Way back in one of Next Generation’s most stunning episodes (“Best of Both Worlds”), Picard was captured by the Borg and assimilated — transformed into a cyborg, controlled by the Borg’s collective mind, and used as a tool to try and wipe out all of humanity. While the crew rescued Picard, he’s been haunted by the experience, and that trauma has carried through the rest of Next Generation, several films, and the earlier seasons of Picard.

Which makes it feel slightly cheap when this episode reveals that the Irumodic Syndrome Picard passed on to Jack (and then died from before being resurrected) was no such thing. The Borg altered Picard’s DNA, in a way no one’s ever detected before now, but trust us, it was there all along. He passed that DNA onto Jack, and now the Borg have a connection to Jack’s mind… because that’s a thing DNA does?

Why doesn’t Picard himself have any of Jack’s visions or abilities? How on Earth would decades of high-tech Starfleet medical examinations miss that Picard suddenly has extra DNA? Why would DNA allow a cyborg collective to have access to your thoughts? None of it makes much sense.

Nor, looking back, does the season’s focus on Jack. We do finally get the villain’s plan laid out in full, and it does have some clever twists — the Changelings were in league with the Borg all along, and they infiltrated Starfleet to monkey with the transporters on every ship in the fleet, so every time someone gets beamed up, they get Picard’s Borg-altered DNA added to their own. Which means they’ve been quietly assimilating all of Starfleet, right under everyone’s noses.

That’s honestly a pretty good plan. And how does Jack figure into it, after eight episodes of hearing how Jack is the key to everything? He doesn’t, really. He struggles with his Borg connection, and we get a legitimately great scene from Patrick Stewart, in which Picard acknowledges that while he loves his son, he’s also terrified of what he could become, because Picard already became that. “I came close to killing everyone I knew. Everyone I loved… and I’ve seen with my own eyes what you are capable of, Jack.” But the reveal feels less like the culmination of Jack’s storyline this season than a left-field twist because the show’s producers wanted to do a surprise reveal.

Jack storms off, with a mad scheme in mind to get close enough to the Borg Queen to destroy her. He quickly discovers resistance is, as usual, futile. She almost immediately takes over his mind and brings her over to the dark side. And she apparently needs him to activate everyone’s rogue DNA, which is something she can’t do herself because reasons . It’s played as a powerful moment, but it doesn’t seem worth the eight episodes of buildup around Jack, and we don’t see how it affects him. In fact, we don’t see Jack again for the rest of the episode.

What we do see is a whole heck of a lot of fan service. We finally get to made-up holiday Frontier Day, where the entire fleet is assembled as a very-well-thought-out easy target. The festivities are presided over by Admiral Shelby (last seen as Borg specialist Commander Shelby in “Best of Both Worlds”), who commemorates the 250th anniversary of the launch of Enterprise NX-01 from Star Trek: Enterprise, with the launch of Enterprise-F (successor to Next Generation’s Enterprise-D and the Enterprise-E of Picard’s big-screen adventures). The episode then grinds to a halt to gaze lovingly at a new ship which doesn’t figure into the story at all and we have no connection to beyond name recognition. In fairness, that’s pretty emblematic of the episode as a whole.

Shelby does also announce a key bit of plot. In what doubles as a thuddingly obvious thematic parallel to the Borg, and an easily-exploitable weakness, the newest ships in the fleet are all networked together and can be controlled remotely. Because having all of the ships in one place apparently wasn’t enough of a glaring security issue.

Which means when the Borg show up, they’re not just able to instantly assimilate everyone who’s been given their magic DNA, they can also take over every ship at once. Except they can’t assimilate everyone, as we need our heroes on their feet. So the effects arbitrarily stop at age 25, when brain development slows down. It doesn’t make much more sense than anything else happening this week, but it means the young crew members on every ship — Titan included — are fighting off their elders, and we get the “Millennials are ruining the _____ industry” meme writ large, as our Boomer heroes are overwhelmed by mindless young people destroying everything in their path. Subtle stuff.

Speaking of subtle, there’s a lot of very thudding “We are Borg. Your fleet is now under our control. Starfleet now is Borg.” dialogue, which makes us miss Amanda Plummer’s scenery chewing as Vadic all the more.

It also makes us miss Vadic as a character. She too was an old villain reimagined for this series, but we got a backstory, a motivation, and a reason for her to be here. Whereas as far as we can tell, the Borg are back for no more reason than that they’re Trek’s most recognizable villains, and apparently someone thought we’d miss them after eight whole episodes without them.

The joy of Star Trek is that these stories can go literally anywhere, and it’s always a disappointment when the franchise drags out a dead horse and sets phasers to “beat.” The idea of the Borg quietly assimilating people and then activating them like sleeper agents is a clever one. But the difference is all in the execution. Jack’s weird visions are a lot of buildup that feels disconnected from the payoff — the Borg didn’t actually need Jack for their plans to work, and we suspect the Borg Queen has been haunting Jack’s dreams all season and lured him onto her ship this week for no reason other than that our heroes are going to need an inside man next week. (Just as the Federation network their ships together for no real reason than to make them easier for the Borg to quickly take over). Like the nostalgia this week, the plot falls flat because the show didn’t invest in making it feel earned. 

And speaking of unearned, there’s one more reveal, but we’ll pause here, because it could be either a powerful emotional moment or an eyeroll, depending on the viewer. If you haven’t seen the episode, stop here, and we’ll talk more about the reveal next week. Otherwise, read on.

With the entire fleet networked together, including the Titan, Picard and crew (with Seven, Raffi, and Shaw conveniently left behind so no one gets in the way of our old favorites) escape to Geordi’s ship museum. Which makes perfect sense. These mothballed ships aren’t networked, so the Borg can’t control them, and they have a lot to choose from. Voyager, which tangled with the Borg on that series. Defiant, a ship specifically designed to fight the Borg before Deep Space Nine used it to fight the Changelings.

But instead, we get the fan service to end all fan service. Geordi’s secretly spent the last 20 years painstakingly restoring the Enterprise D. So we get an overly long and sentimental scene of the cast returning to the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which even formerly emotionless Data gets choked up, just in case it isn’t already obvious how the audience is supposed to react. (Never mind how a ship that previously had a complement of 1000 can be run by seven people — that gets handwaved away with “drones.”) Everyone sits at their old stations, we get a few jokes about everyone getting older, and an old familiar catchphrase. Does it make any sense? Who cares. It’s familiar. Our crew will surely find a way to defeat the Borg yet again. But they’re not powerful enough to resist the black hole pull of nostalgia.

So, congratulations Gen X-ers, your childhood has been painstakingly reconstructed. Resistance is futile. Make it so. Engage. Live long and prosper. The truth is out there. That boy ain’t right. Ay caramba. If anyone needs me, I’ll be in my room.

Stray tachyons:
• There’s no reason at all for Worf to be the one to help Geordi debrief Picard and Crusher on the changes to Jack’s DNA, other than that Worf doesn’t have a lot to do this week.

• Star Trek tradition: any time the chain of command goes to hell, the characters ditch their uniforms for jackets with the Starfleet logo on them, and it’s a good look.

• The Borg were a terrific villain because, like many of the best villains, they’re shadowy reflections of the heroes. The Federation too seeks to assimilate, unite, and integrate other cultures, but benignly, voluntarily. It only takes a nudge to make that concept terrifying. The Dominion — the Changelings’ empire from Deep Space Nine — was also similar. They too were a united federation of planets, but they were united by force and ruled over with an iron fist. So it makes some sense to get a team-up between the two, but once the Borg are revealed as the surprise villain, the Changelings are pushed aside and barely mentioned.

• Last season’s Borg storyline involved the Borg Queen trying to assimilate Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), a scientist who helps Picard through the first two seasons. In the end, Agnes replaces the Queen, and promises a kinder, gentler Borg collective based on cooperation. The internet tells me this episode’s queen is neither, and is played by Alice Krige, who played the Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. As backward-looking as this episode is, it’s weird to just toss season two’s storyline (and Agnes) aside.

• We thought maybe Admiral Shelby would be revealed to be a Changeling, and pushing for the networked-ship thing was all part of her plan. But nope, her Borg-infected crew kill her immediately. We got a lot of buildup on “Changelings have infiltrated Starfleet at the highest levels” and that was completely forgotten.

• Also nonsensical: Starfleet networks all the ships together so they can fly in seamless formation. But their continuing mission is to explore strange new worlds, which involves flying off in all directions. Why would they even need to have the whole fleet flying in formation, other than as a dumb plot point for this episode?

• This is a nitpick, but it bothered me in First Contact and it bothers me here — once the Borg activate their assimilated young people, they all have dark, bulging veins on their hands and faces. Where do those come from? The original Borg added extensive robotic implants to their victims, and the image of Picard transformed into Locutus, his right eye replaced by a glowing red light, was a terrifying one in “Best of Both Worlds.” But here, there are no implants, and the Borg’s victims change appearance for no real reason, without explanation, just so we can keep track of who’s now a bad guy.