Three things I’d never expected to see at all in Star Trek: Picard (let alone within the same episode): an outrageous 1970s Pimp hat; an even more outrageous comedy French accent; and horrific body harvesting. Yet here we are.
Following on from ‘Absolute Candor’ doing its own take on Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, this week Picard has done another change of style, landing itself firmly right in ‘caper movie’ territory, complete with a dip into the dressing-up box. A sort of ‘Ocean’s Seven (of Nine)’, if you would. We’re finally on Freecloud, the next stop on Picard’s quest, going straight into the seedy underbelly of the unlicensed, wholly illicit criminal underworld outside the Federation. It appears what happens in Stardust City, stays in Stardust City. Well, mostly.
A major activity taking place within these circles is a trade in Borg implants, which seem to go for a tidy sum on the black market. However, the donors don’t need to actually be dead before they’re sliced up and vivisected, as evidenced in one of the most gruesome scenes ever shown in Star Trek. At the episode’s opening, we flash back 13 years, and see poor Icheb (Casey King), an ex-Borg who was taken under the wing of Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) way back in Star Trek: Voyager (when he was played by Manu Intiraymi), getting carved up for parts while still alive.
For fans of Voyager, they’ll realise how maternal Seven is when it comes to Icheb, and how protective of him, given that he was going through a similar experience of having been severed from the Borg collective when they first met, and she’s taken him under her wing. This is the setup for where we find Seven as a character now, as she becomes driven on getting revenge, after finding out she’s not only been betrayed, but by someone who she’s involved with at the time, which makes it far worse for her.
The revelation later on in the episode that Seven’s partner was another woman places her firmly into LGBT+ territory, which is another example of Star Trek making up some lost ground when it comes to representation in this area; we’ve had Hikaru Sulu being outed in Star Trek Beyond, as well as the first openly gay couple in Star Trek: Discovery’s Dr. Hugh Culber and Paul Stamets, but it appears that there’s still more to be done. It’s not actually a new notion Seven would have had female lovers, as it goes all the way back to Voyager, when it was rumoured that she might be the first lesbian character in Star Trek.
Sadly, studio squeamishness firmly stamped on that idea at the time, but with the knowledge that it was the intention to have Seven as an LGBT+ character all along, it feels like the Picard team have given closure on what was unfinished business, rather than having just thrown this in there as a character trait for Seven to have, in lieu of giving her some actual development. At least this is faithful to what Seven’s creators had in mind for her in the first place, and it shows evidence of an effort to follow up on what was planned in previous iterations.
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There are also a few nice nods here for the fans, with use of the Voyager theme tune at one point for Seven, as well as neon signs in Starlight City advertising premises owned by Mr Mot, the ship’s barber from The Next Generation, plus an establishment going by the name of ‘Quark’s Bar’, which suggests either the Ferengi has moved on from Deep Space Nine to pastures new, or – perhaps more likely – he’s gone and franchised the concept, so he can bring in even more of that gold-pressed Latinum he loves.
With so much attention to detail, it seems rather a curious decision both the parts of Icheb and Bruce Maddox should have been recast, with Brian Brophy playing the latter in the TNG story ‘The Measure Of A Man’, only to have John Ales take over for the character’s return here. Brophy is Director of Theater at the California Institute of Technology, so he’s still active; he also hasn’t turned his back on the franchise, as best evidenced by his 2016 musical parody of Star Trek at Caltech – ‘Boldly Go!’ – which is currently available on YouTube in its entirety.
But then ‘Stardust City Rag’ is full of a number of somewhat curious creative choices, the biggest of which is the strange meshing together of attempts at comedy with visceral body horror. Going to try and strike a deal to take Maddox off the hands of Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan) – a businesswoman in the criminal underworld (and Seven’s ex-lover) who’s owed a debt by Maddox, and is planning to sell him to the Tal Shiar who are hunting him down – Picard and his team decide to assume new personas in order to hopefully pull off the job and rescue Maddox.
The ‘Space Pimp’ outfit worn by Rios (Santiago Cabrera) is nothing short of spectacular, not to mention hilarious; the hat with massive feather is worth a four star review on its own. Similarly, Patrick Stewart looks like he’s having a whale of a time playing an eyepatch-wearing gangster, chewing all of the scenery in sight with aplomb and joy. Of course, there’s something undoubtedly strange in having an Englishman who plays a Frenchman with an English accent then having him playing a Frenchman with the thickest accent this side of John Cleese in Monty Python And The Holy Grail. Well, that’s Universal Translators, I guess.
It’s not that the comedy doesn’t work, it just feels like too much of a sharp contrast against the tone of the rest of the episode, and that’s why it seems so out of place here. While you have to admire the writers for trying to cover as much ground as possible in their attempt to keep Patrick Stewart happy and (no pun intended) engaged in this new version of Picard, it just sticks out like a sore thumb in the context of this episode. Perhaps Stewart and the director, former co-star Jonathan Frakes, were just having too much of a good time, especially after last week’s totally straight and serious story.
The overriding theme at the core of this episode relates to humanity: Seven and Picard have a heart-to-heart about their experiences of being turned into Borg, and they both admit to each other that neither have really regained all of their humanity since they came back. Raffi (Michelle Hurd) visits her estranged son on Freecloud, trying to atone for her past mistakes and showing she’s cleaned up her act, only to have all of her efforts rebuffed. Seven is tarnished by her overriding desire for vengeance. Oh, and as for what happens with Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill)…
Its strange that we’re halfway through the season, and it feels like we’re already treading water to some extent. In a traditional 20+ episode run like the TNG of old, this would have probably passed as acceptable filler material, but with a much shorter duration, it tends to stand out far more, and feel as though it’s taken up precious time. Granted, the last two episodes have given us some texture, by showing us life beyond the Federation, but things really need to get going properly now, otherwise there might be a real temptation to start thinking that Picard’s existence is futile.