TV reviews

Star Trek: Picard 1×09 – ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ (Part 1) – Review

For all its moments of cowboy diplomacy, phaser shootouts, fistfights and epic space battles, Star Trek – and The Next Generation in particular – has always looked to pride itself on being something a little bit deeper and more intellectual than the typical militaristic SF you might find elsewhere. In the case of the latest Star Trek: Picard, for example, it has taken its episode title from a piece of French Baroque art by Nicolas Poussin.

Et in Arcadia ego is translated as ”Even in Arcadia, there am I”, with Arcadia as a representation of an idyllic, utopian land, and the ‘I’ being widely accepted as referring to Death. The spectre of death has loomed over the whole series thus far, with Soji (Isa Briones) seen as being ‘the Destroyer’, and her return to her home world of Coppelius threatening to bring about the prophecy foreseen by the Romulans, resulting in the ultimate end of all organic life, and the ascendancy of the Synthetics.

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Death has also been stalking ex-Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) himself, as his diagnosis in ‘Maps and Legends’ of an abnormality of his parietal lobe could lead to the onset of the Irumodic Syndrome which was foreseen in a potential future timeline as depicted in TNG’s finale, ‘All Good Things’. This has come to the fore early on during ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ (Part One), as Picard has the first sign of symptoms affecting him during an attack on the approach to Coppelius, temporarily incapacitating him.

It’s a bold move not only to address the passage of time for a much-loved character, but also to show he’s no longer at the height of his powers. However, herein lies one of the core conflicts at the heart of Picard, as it doesn’t seem to have quite decided precisely what kind of show it wants to be: for every impulse to be a nostalgia-fest for fans, with an episode like ‘Nepenthe’ bringing back Riker and Troi, it also seems intent upon pulling in the opposite direction at the same time, and being the anti-TNG.

We’ve seen that we’re no longer in Kansas anymore, with a seemingly cold and insular Federation going a very different way than what we’ve become accustomed to; there’s also a sense of lawlessness and danger, following a power vacuum which has opened up following the collapse of the Romulan Empire. All of this has been done deliberately to reflect our current reality, in a world which has become increasingly divided and alien, with leaders we can seemingly no longer trust, and that’s certainly a valid move to make.

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However, it still doesn’t seem to have quite got the balance right, and ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ (Part One) almost pushes it a bit too too far. As well as Picard admitting to his frailty and mortality to his shipmates, he now states that his condition is terminal; it seems to be quite the leap from getting the diagnosis a few episodes ago to Picard painting himself as being virtually at death’s door, and appears to be rather too sudden a development. It’s the case of Chekhov’s gun (or, if you prefer, Chekov’s phaser) being misfired.

Another drive to see a push back against the safe and cosy world of TNG is the point where Picard’s entreaties towards the Synthetic inhabitants of Coppelius falls flat, and ends up being very markedly undercut when it’s pointed out the Federation didn’t listen to him before, and he no longer has any sway or influence. It’s undoubtedly a dramatic moment, as it notably emphasises the sort of profound speechifying which Picard could have done standing on his head in TNG no longer works.

Taking away Picard’s superpower is one way to ramp up the stakes, and place him in greater jeopardy. However, coming right on the back of his episode with Irumodic Syndrome, it runs the risk of enfeebling and emasculating him too much; if it was more carefully paced, it wouldn’t really be an issue, but instead the close proximity of these events just conspire to turn him into a helpless bystander in his own series. But, then, it seems as though it hasn’t been his own series after all.

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It’s become clear now that the whole purpose of Picard has been to walk back the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. While it took the original Star Trek the space of just two movies to kill off and then resurrect a much-loved character, with TNG it’s been a slow burn of almost 20 years, and the crux of the whole series has been a focus on bringing back Data (Brent Spiner) in some form or other. It opened with Picard as a broken man, haunted by the sacrifice of his colleague and friend, and trying to find a way to come to terms with it.

As well as visions of Data in dream sequences, we also got to see the disassembled B-4 stored away at the Daystrom Institute. With news that Bruce Maddox (John Ales) had managed to use Data’s positronic neurons to create the Asha sisters – Soji & Dahj – it was suggested that Data’s memory engrams may yet live on. Everything appeared to be pointed firmly towards resurrecting Data, using Soji to somehow have Data’s mind recovered, perhaps uploaded into an upgraded B-4, and essentially completing what was suggested at the end of Nemesis.

However, Picard‘s ended up going another way altogether, and not content with giving us what are effectively Data’s twin daughters, we now have an entire planet filled with neo-Datas, complete with tinted skin tones and brightly-coloured eyes (yet somehow looking less convincing than what TV makeup artists managed to achieve around 30+ years ago). This could all be seen as a desperate amount of overcompensation, even before the next big twist came to be unveiled.

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Not content with giving us a whole world of ersatz Datas, the makers of Picard find a way to bring Brent Spiner back without giving us the android himself, and in the process fall back on one of the laziest tropes of all: the previously unknown lookalike relative. Yes, not content with bringing us Data, Lore, B-4, Dr. Noonian Soong and his ancestor Arik Soong, we now get Alton Inigo Soong, son of Noonian and (notionally) Data’s ‘brother’. It does seem as though we’re getting more than a fistful of Datas.

Heck, the fetishisation of Data is so strong, they even went to the trouble of replicating the bloody cat (which does beg the question as to why they didn’t just call the episode ‘The Search For Spot’). The writers seem to be intent on drawing a parallel between Arik and Alton – the former was creator of a race of genetically superior beings called Augments, the latter has created a masterpiece society of Synthetics, with both so fiercely protective of their ‘children’, even though it may spell the end for them personally.

With the big revelation of the end of humanity potentially being brought about by an alien AI, which feels so hugely reminiscent of the whole of the last season of Star Trek: Discovery, this is all coming over as reheated seconds, and not the bold new path which was being charted out at the beginning of Picard. Combined with the story largely being backloaded so it’s being rushed through with indecent haste at the end of its run, neither the whole nor the constituent parts are coming over as being especially satisfying.

Unless they manage to pull off a minor miracle, then the whole enterprise (no pun intended) runs the risk of (in the very words of Jean-Luc himself this week, no less) pissing me off.

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