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A determined-looking blonde woman with Borg face implants — Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager, played by Jeri Ryan — points two phaser rifles at a target offscreen. Photo: Trae Patton/CBS Interactive

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Is Star Trek: Picard’s halftime course change a problem for the series?

Two staffers assess the series’ first half, and argue whether ‘Stardust City Rag’ is a fun diversion, or a big problem

Star Trek: Picard, the newest Trek franchise series streaming on CBS All Access, just hit its season 1 halfway point with episode five of 10, “Stardust City Rag.” The midpoint of this launch story seems like a good place to evaluate how far the show has come and where it’s going, so film/TV editor Tasha Robinson and comics editor Susana Polo sat down to consider their Trek fandom, and whether Picard is feeding it or starving it.

Tasha: Straight-talk time, Susana: I was entirely on board for Star Trek: Discovery at first, when we were still in the discovery phase about the characters. But then around the middle of the first season, the characters and the story both started heading in directions that seemed to waste a lot of the show’s potential. And with “Stardust City Rag,” I’m worried about Picard going in the same direction, for the first time this season.

I’m really enjoying Picard’s comparatively small scale and character focus — the story touches on galaxywide problems and big Federation-spanning issues, but at the end of the day, it’s about an old man who doesn’t have many friends left, out trying to solve a problem only he can see. It seemed like we were following a pretty straight-line plot, somewhere between Trek’s usual utopian science fiction, and a noir detective story, with one guy navigating a dangerous path toward saving a potential victim.

But “Stardust City Rag” took us off in a random direction, and it starts piling on the Trek clichés: a lady-villain we know is evil because she’s sexually aggressive, a big moral debate executed in an awfully clumsy way, and a “Whoops, we don’t know this character at all!” reveal for a character we already knew we didn’t know at all. And for the first time, I’m worried about this show.

But before we get too far into the weeds on “Stardust City Rag,” how were you liking Picard up until now?

Villain Bjayzl, in a gauzy peach dress with elaborate shoulders and a high collar, faces down former Borg Seven of Nine, dressed in simple black. Photo: Trae Patton/CBS Interactive

Susana: I’m enjoying it hugely. After every episode, me and my Star Trek buddies get on Discord to yell about Borg origins and Romulan Honesty Nuns. The show is really hitting a surprising sweet spot of feeding our nostalgia for Next Generation and reframing Picard’s character to fit modern concerns.

Our initial review of the show pointed out that Star Trek has only recently been forced to step out of its original Cold War allegories, and I think the show’s exploration of new metaphor-fodder is really hitting me hard, along with my friends of a certain “only ’90s kids will remember this” age. We were raised on “girl power,” Captain Planet, and space-camp commercials, came of age with War on Terror brinksmanship, and hit adulthood just in time for the kings of capitalism to weasel out of any consequences for destroying the economy. Now we’re watching rampant misogyny and racism take hold of the political and cultural sphere, while billionaires take over the space race, and the first palpable effects of unaddressed climate change are felt.

So when Picard’s underpinning turned out to be a refugee crisis, caused by climate change (well, space climate, anyway), and halted by a devastating “terrorist” attack that drove the Federation to xenophobia-laced isolationist politics and a blanket ban on a certain kind of “person,” well. I think we all shot out of our chairs and cheered when our Space Dad pushed back.

As the season hits its middle, I think it’s become less laser-focused on those themes, but I’m not ashamed to say it’s kept my attention with its world-building revelations and deeply nerdy callbacks. “Stardust City Rag” is definitely the most mid-season-Netflix-padding-episode yet, as it juggled Seven and Raffi and Agnes’ betrayal. Too many plots! But I loved it all the same, for being unutterably Star Trek: Very cheesy, a little clumsy, and full of characters pretending to be something they’re not, in the dumbest clothing imaginable.

Tasha: I do think your Space Dad’s outraaaaaageous French ak-sont and oversized slaver character in “Stardust City Rag” are a hoot, and it’s fun to see Patrick Stewart really embracing his inner ham. But as you say, Picard’s themes seemed timely and weighty, and there’s already so much going on in this story that we really didn’t need a filler story to derail the momentum. I’m annoyed that we spent an entire episode on the Romulan Honesty Nuns and Picard picking up his own pet Romulaninja, entirely so the show could then completely sideline him for the next episode. Establishing Elnor as the galaxy’s biggest badass, only to immediately turn his naïveté and incompetence into a running gag, feels like a really bad case of writers not communicating about a character’s place or purpose in the story.

Star Trek: Picard series hero Picard, in costume in a beret and eyepatch, stands next to former Borg Seven of Nine, who has her hands cuffed behind her back. Picard’s Romulan ninja ally Elnor, in a frumpy brown jacket, stands next to them looking like he isn’t paying attention. Photo: Trae Patton/CBS Interactive

Susana: You mean kind of like how this episode gave the A plot to Seven of Nine and her history with a femme fatale, only for her to ripcord out of the squad at the end? “Stardust City Rag” has big bottle-episode energy for something that involves nearly every single cast member, and I think it suffers from coming on the heels of another side-quest (to pick up Romulan Honesty-Nun Kid).

Dressing up in funny costumes to put on silly accents and heist a guy to safety with the help of a fan-favorite guest star might be better suited to a late season break to offset the Main Drama. If the show doesn’t get back to the main plot in its next episode, then even I might start to worry.

Tasha: Apart from sidelining Elnor just after introducing him, “Stardust City Rag” also feels like it sidelined Picard himself. He gets to play that wacky character, but he really isn’t in charge of this mission. He’s doing a ride-along. And given how much of Picard feels like it’s about the strain he’s facing as he tries to do the right thing when it would be easier to stand down and do nothing, I think taking the focus off of him is a huge mistake.

You’re entirely right about Picard’s big themes (refugees, immigration, isolationism, xenophobia, climate change) all seeming hugely relevant to the specific moment. But the other thing that seems immediate and important is the show’s emotional bent. Jean-Luc Picard in this series feels like a direct channel for everyone online who’s struggling with feelings of not being heard in this political climate, and everyone making a stand for empathy and responsibility for others in an “I got mine” environment. The first four episodes are so moving because they highlight the desperation of a man who’s seeing his institutions fail morally, ethically, and emotionally. It feels like the show is setting us up for some kind of catharsis around that theme, and shifting the focus away from it feels like a mistake.

Susana: Star Trek has always pivoted comfortably between serious themes and deeply silly diversions, but the franchise predates the season-long story arc. Star Trek: Picard is the first time even Picard himself has sustained a single narrative arc longer than three episodes or a movie. I guess I wonder if Star Trek’s silliness — which I personally love and think is a vital part of the franchise overall — has a place in our modern television formats without feeling like a digression.

Discovery seems to have solved for this by farming out some of its stand-alone and sillier content to the Trek Shorts program, but that doesn’t much help with mid-season shows. I love Q, and I’d be over the moon to see John De Lancie in Picard season 2, but you make a good point. I wonder how you would fit him into a season-long arc without madness.

Tasha: It’s also a franchise that has boldly attempted to tackle current issues, from racial integration and international tensions in the original 1960s Trek to ill-considered Next Generation episodes handling everything from rape to abortion to gender identity. And it’s often handled these topical episodes pretty clumsily. That’s my other big objection to “Stardust City Rag” — the big central conundrum here is whether Seven of Nine is justified in murdering her old acquaintance Bjayzl, who literally vivisected Seven’s “son” in order to steal his Borg implants. The question of whether lethal violence is justifiable, and whether revenge salves the soul, is just as relevant to present politics as anything else in Picard. But the way it plays out here, with Picard’s simplistic lectures and a lot of long, awkward pauses and then eventually a “Meh, to hell with everything we just decided” strike me as a particularly forced way to address the issue. You loved this episode, though, so ... change my mind?

Susana: Star Trek may have never been as envelope-pushing as it was in the original series, but much of the clumsiness of the ’90s Trek shows is at least somewhat a modern perspective. The most fascinating thing about Star Trek is that it’s a franchise with an impossible mandate — depict a utopia that still allows for narrative conflict. That utopia has always been, and always will be, limited by whatever contemporary myopia its writers possess. Star Trek is always going to date itself within about a decade, and viewers are always going to have to suspend belief to cover the ways the show fudges the exact nature of Regular-Ass Non-Starfleet Officer Life in the Federation.

Which brings me to why I enjoy this episode: Whenever Star Trek tries to depict the “seedy underbelly” of Federation Space — that is, when Star Trek tries to be Star Wars — it turns out entirely laughable. As soon as I knew this was the Bad Part of Town Planet episode, I hung up my “big science-fiction allegory” hat and put on my “laser swords” hat. It honestly didn’t occur to me to view Seven’s moral choice in this episode through the classic Star Trek morality lens: She’s the noir vigilante here, from a world of harder choices than Picard’s ever had to make. Of course she’s going to execute the woman (ex-lover????) who betrayed her in order to torture and murder her son (and, you know, lots of other people belonging to her particular sci-fi-ethnicity). It certainly made more emotional sense to me than Agnes offing Maddox.

A huge, bald, thick-bodied grey alien stands in a brightly backlit bar next to starship captain Rios, who’s in disguise in a ridiculous fuzzy striped green coat and a wide-brimmed, bright red hat with a couple of big jaunty feathers in the brim. Photo: Trae Patton/CBS Interactive

Tasha: But that’s just it! This was so clearly a Laser Swords episode, where everyone dresses up in their silliest outfits (Rios is suddenly a 1970s pimp!) and goes Full Doof Cosplay ... of course Seven is going to execute the predatory murderer who tortured her son to death, as opposed to lightly scolding her and leaving her to do it again! So why did we spend so much time with Space Dad scolding her for doing what we knew she was going to do, and what the narrative set us all up to want her to do? I’m just not fond of stories where a character we otherwise like is set up to be a narrative drag against fun. It’s as if they tasked Dwayne Johnson in the Fast & Furious movies to stand around lecturing everyone at length about respecting the speed limit!

All that aside, we haven’t even talked about the episode’s B-plot, which has Raffi trying to mend fences with her estranged son Gabriel, and getting slapped down hard. There’s so much potential in that setup, and I hated the way it played out — Raffi confronts him at a fertility clinic, with no warning, and dumps all her baggage in his lap, and expects him to respond well? Bad move. (Send a letter beforehand! Ease him into it slowly! Don’t ambush him!) And then he responds like she’s a poisonous snake because she spent too much of his childhood trying to save the population of an entire planet, instead of reading him bedtime stories? Boo-frickin’-hoo. And then he trots his silent pregnant Vulcan wife out in front of him and holds her there like a prop, and she doesn’t make any attempt whatsoever to add a little logic to the irrationally emotional scene playing out in front of her? What was that about? Did you get anything out of that subplot?

Susana: Nope, it was bad, and was it the first time we even knew Raffi had a kid? Send the audience a letter beforehand! Don’t ambush us!

Also, Dwayne Johnson appeared in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Tsunkatse” as an alien pro wrestler who fights Seven of Nine, so he’d actually be a great callback here if not for the fact that his character is presumably still in the Delta Quadrant.

Tasha: Let’s save it for Fast & Furious 27: The Space Years, the eventual big crossover with Trek. Anyway! I’ve spent too much of this conversation griping about Star Trek: Picard, a show I’ve been largely impressed with and in the bag for. And I know exactly why: We just reached the halfway mark where the creators get to decide whether they’re moving forward with the plot at the speed they’d established, or hitting the brakes so as to leave as much as possible to tempt people into demanding season 2.

“Stardust City Rag” feels like a sharp brakes-tap (as Theoretical Scoldy Dwayne Johnson might demand) and it has me unduly worried about next steps for what had the potential to be the Rogue One of Trek stories: a short, tight, relatively self-contained, propulsive story with real stakes. (I don’t want it to end the same way as Rogue One, but you can’t tell me Rios doesn’t remind you of Cassian Andor at least a little.) You liked this episode better than I did — are your hopes for Picard as a whole undiminished? Are you good with more diversions like this one as we head into season 1’s second half?

Susana: We got Honesty Nuns. We got Seven of Nine firing two phasers at the same time in slow motion. I’m done with diversions. Did we even get to see Soji and her Romulan boytoy this episode? You have a good plot, Star Trek: Picard. Get back to it!

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