This article is part of our ongoing Picard Explained series, featuring the insights of our resident Starfleet officer Brad Gullickson. In this entry we recap the Star Trek: Picard episode “Stardust City Rag.”
The one-two punch of the Romulan supernova and the Synthetic attack on Mars did more than damage Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart)’s ego and transform Starfleet into a xenophobic pack of provincials. The two cataclysms cut a nearly incomprehensible wound across all of space, tearing into myriads of beings whether they are aware of it or not. With each passing episode of Star Trek: Picard, we catch another sector of sentience scarred by those disasters and their poisonous effect on the characters we adore.
Episode 5, entitled “Stardust City Rag,” seemingly features Picard’s crew all under one roof, but by the end, we may be facing yet another roster shakeup as a result of the fear bubbling beneath the surface of every character. In creating artificial life, we initiated our doomsday. All kids replace their parents.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The meeting of Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) and Jean-Luc Picard is epic, and the stuff usually reserved for awkward fanfic or inevitably disappointing expanded universe content. Never before have they shared a screen, and as a long-time fan of both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, it’s an incredible thrill to see these two Ex-Borgs interacting with each other.
We tend not to think about Picard as an Ex-Borg. He did his therapy in Star Trek: First Contact, and with his thrashing of the Borg Queen, we thought the Captain of the Enterprise had put his time under their rule behind him. As we see here, in his conversation with Seven, Picard is still quite tormented by the memory of Locutus, and the Federation lives lost under their collective instruction.
In a moment of reflection between the two, Seven asks Picard, “After they brought you back from your time in the Collective, did you honestly feel that you regained your humanity?” He responds, “Yes.” She pushes further, “All of it?” He responds, “No, but we’re both working on it, aren’t we?”
We hate to see our heroes struggling with themselves. Seven and Picard are broken vessels, valiantly attempting to pick up the pieces and glue themselves back together in some shape resembling their glorified past. When the Voyager returned from the Delta Quadrant, Seven probably imagined a happy ending where she would reconnect to her child self stolen by the Borg, but there are no endings, happy or otherwise.
Like Picard, what she has are those that need her. She threw herself into protecting the similarily inflicted. Icheb (Casey King, replacing Manu Intiraymi from the original series), the ex-Borg rescued by Voyager during its seventh season, became her adopted child. In the role of mother, she found peace, but when that was also robbed from her through treachery and Icheb’s vicious vivisection, Seven found her despair.
While Picard was sulking on his vineyard these past fourteen, un-televised years, Seven of Nine was also experimenting on a life away from Starfleet. The destruction of Romulus lead to the disabling of the Neutral Zone, and with it arose a vast space of lawlessness. Seven took up with the Fenris Rangers, a group of self-appointed space cowboys who act as judge, jury, and executioner against those deemed villainous.
Seven tells Picard that she’s sworn to defend the weak and the defenseless, and she doesn’t have the luxury of quibbling over morality. There is good, and there is bad. The bad gotta go.
Picard is operating in shades of gray. Shades even he was uncomfortable with when in the chair of Enterprise. The big two differences between their two characters is that Picard is only recently starting to pull himself out of his pit of despair. The knowledge that Data’s daughter Soji (Iso Briones) is somewhere out there has reinvigorated his spirit and got him back in into space. Picard will rekindle his faith in humanity – sorry, I mean sentient life – to honor the friend who was always chasing his.
Seven never left space, she simply charged herself upon its many paths of revenge. To honor her lost loved one, she is determined to eradicate the one who killed him. This quest brings her and Picard together on Freecloud, which is like Las Vegas minus the subtlety.
Picard is on the hunt for Bruce Maddox (John Ales, replacing Brian Brophy), the disgraced scientist blamed for the atrocities on Mars, and the only one who knows Soji’s location. He’s being held captive by Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan), a pleasure madam looking to make a quick buck by selling the drunk doctor to the Romulan Tal Shiar. She’s also the individual responsible for gutting Icheb for his pricey Borg pieces.
A series of comical shenanigans involving goofy pimp disguises, an eye-patched Picard, and a sharp-shooting Seven of Nine secures Maddox on the side of the angels. There is one dicey moment where it appears Seven will obliterate Bjayzl on-site, but Picard talks her down so they can return safely aboard their La Sirena. This is when Picard and Seven have their chat about their humanity, and Picard walks away, thinking they have come to an understanding.
Seven lets Picard have his belief. She doesn’t have it in her to philosophically spit in his face. However, she returns to Freecloud, points two phaser rifles at Bjayzl, and pops her body into a cloud of blood. Satisfaction? Doubtful. We know how these stories go. Seven will be back, but like every character in this new world order of Star Trek, her journey out of apathy and anger will be a long one.
Wounded, the final frontier and its inhabitants are numb from the pain. The ideals upheld by previous Star Trek shows are in shreds barely held together by equally tattered individuals. Picard is barely recognizable, and he’s the most well put together soul. Seven is hemorrhaging rage, Raffi (Michelle Hurd) is lost to weed, Captain Rios (Santiago Cabrera) is literally adrift, and poor, sweet Dr. Jurati (Alison Pill) ends this episode a murderer.
Jurati’s meeting with the suspect Commadore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita) in episode three apparently concluded with instructions to assassinate Bruce Maddox at her first available opportunity. As he chokes to death before her, Jurati is apologetic, claiming she wishes she didn’t know what Oh had told her. We can infer it went something along the lines of “Blah, blah, blah, Soji is the Destroyer, and you are responsible.” Her actions are too little too late, as Picard already uncovered Soji’s location aboard the Romulan Reclamation Site.
We must wait until next week to see how Picard will react to Jurati’s betrayal (nevermind Seven’s murder of Bjayzl that will most likely never come to his attention). His crew is a wreck. They’re ugly, pathetic creatures unfit for uniform…but are those currently wearing the uniform fit for theirs? Not at all.
“Stardust City Rag” reaffirms a Star Trek unlike any other. The universe is in a state of doubt. What was once sacred is no longer. Only in the heart of one man remains a belief that sentient life is inherently good and worth saving. The needs of the many cries out, Picard will answer, and in his answer, he will encourage others to join.
The wounds inflicted by the Romulan supernova and the Synthetic rebellion on Mars can not be mended in an episode. One-and-done Star Trek is over, and one-and-season may not cut it. Star Trek: Picard is proving to be a saga. Old Trek fans are deeply uncomfortable in this arena. Kirk’ing the computer or a double-fist chop to the plexus won’t solve anything. Only time will.
A tiny flame of altruism burns inside Picard. As grief has spread across the cosmos, the hope is that a similar fire will wash over all he surveys. He’s gotta bring his hope to the people. It begins with him, then his crew, and then we, his audience, will follow.