Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Picard, Season 1: Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1

http://www.treknobabble.net/p/rating-system.htmlPicard, Season 1
"Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1"
Airdate: March 19, 2020
9 of 10 produced
9 of 10 aired


Picard and crew reach the planet of the androids, with an armada of Romulan ships close behind them. The Big Secret to why everything else in this season is wrong is revealed, which necessitates a Big Decision by the androids and their supporters.

Agnes is about the break out her Signature Cry Face when an android performs a mind meld on her. Hey, I felt like crying, too.


Matthew: Well, I suppose this season is barreling towards its conclusion. So I guess that's good? Things were revealed. The real threat has been uncovered. It's... kind of dumb. After eight episodes of foreboding about the Borg cube, about one episode of talking about "the synth home planet" and how the Romulans want to destroy it, and about two episodes of "THE DESTROYER," we discover that in fact (it should go without saying that if you read beyond this point, there will be SPOILERS) none of that stuff was real. Sigh. In fact, the Borg have very little to do with this story except to provide a potential Deus Ex Machina (literally). The prophecy of the DESTROYER was in fact a mistake - for several hundred thousand years, the Romulans have been acting on bad intel. They thought the vision was of AI destroying all sentient life in the galaxy, and so they are bent on destroying all androids for some reason (but not holograms, and excepting the very public Data and all of his cronies for 40 straight years, but whatever). In fact, the vision was of AI destroying all sentient life in the galaxy if it messes with androids. Whoops! The message was left by an intergalactic federation of AI beings so advanced that they can move stars, and so immoral that they wouldn't blink twice at exterminating ALL LIFE WITHIN A GALAXY if someone honks them off. Umm... did they not think their message might be misinterpreted? Do they do nothing to check on the locales that thiey have left these messages in? Why don't they just proactively exterminate organic life and then seed galaxies with their own AI progeny? I just... this story is DUMB. I'm going to explicate the many ways in which it is dumb, but I want to put that theme out there as a general sign post.

Kevin: There is a Star Trek plot here to be found if you squint, like a magic eye poster. On some basic level, I think there are the core elements of a straight forward Star Trek story here, they are just being executed in the clunky modes of expression that dark, serialized storytelling forces on it. The idea that Romulans misinterpreted the warning to bring about the very thing the warning should have ostensibly prevented is neat idea, and if the Romulans themselves were more involved in the story as characters, that twist might have actually landed. And Star Trek has explored what responses are acceptable to an existential threat, particularly when the nature of the threat is not propaganda. The Romulans represent a literal threat to the existence of these androids. When the Borg threatened the Federation, Picard considered, and Necheyev later explicitly countenanced genocide at a near-galactic scale, if not truly universal one. There is good drama to be mined there, but it would basically require more careful character work with the Romulans and arriving at the android world weeks ago. As a fun hypo, what if Picard and Co. had gotten there by week four and really learned about and become attached to the society. And while we're brainstorming, instead of the dourly threatening Oh or the Romulan Wonder Twins, picture the Commander from The Enterprise Incident. A cool, collected person who even if she is an adversary of the Federation, is certainly not amoral or a monster. That episode mined effective drama by sketching an enemy who simply values their way of life as much as the Federation values theirs. What if you presented her with this ersatz warning? We could get episodes of her wrestling with the inevitability of her decision and the conflict of her morals versus her patriotism...much like we watched Picard wrestle when it came to Hugh. I'm getting a little far afield, but I want to drive home, I see things that are at their core good Trek. They are just being executed at a pace and with priorities almost diametrically opposed to telling that kind of story well.

Matthew: Let's discuss the nuts and bolts of this episode's plot. We get a stupid pew pew space battle, which is an ill portent for the finale, and this battle causes all three participants (Sirena, Narek, and Borg Cube) to crash on the planet. Um, can a Borg Cube crash on a planet without utterly devastating it? Eh, don't ask questions. If the Death Star can do it... Anyway, somehow the good guys determine that an armada of 218 Romulan Warbirds is on the way to destroy the android homeworld. Oh, no! This is apparently the DOUBLE SUPER SECRET Zhad Vazh B'Gazh armada. How do they keep such an armada secret? Presumably in the same way Section 31 did in Discovery. SHUT UP, that's how. The armada is "a day or two behind them." OK. So then, when they get to the planet, the decide to go in the opposite direction from the androids to warn them. Nope, they're going to walk several miles in oppressive heat with an 80 year-old in the opposite direction. How in the hell does postponing warning the synths to visit the Borg cube make sense? They're literally going to lose 50% of their lead time. This is like Trump Administration Coronavirus preparation-level stupid. And look - I know it makes sense from a CBS perspective - as do most decisions in the creation of this show. Visiting Seven of Nine again will drive social media engagement and potential subscriptions. But it completely contradicts the arbitrary rules created within the confines of this story. It's DUMB.

Kevin: The Borg ship crashing but remaining intact was a bit...much..and it felt like it was just there to allow Seven and Elnor another scene for no apparent reason. I assume Elnor has one more charging in to save the day, but if this it for the Borg, why were they even here? It was apparently just to justify getting in some guest stars and trading on some IP. If Soji worked at a Starbucks, literally nothing about this plot would have changed. And I get that they might tie it all together in the last episode, but I am getting very over having to watch a whole season of a show to find out if it's any good.

Matthew: Suddenly, after basically an entire season of ignoring it, Picard's NOT IRUMODIC brain syndrome (are they saving $4 per mention in royalties or something?) becomes integral to the plot once again. Why? Well, as far as I can tell, it's only to gin up some cheap emotion - specifically from Raffi. She is so moved by Picard's plight that she says she loves him "for all you've done for me." Umm, What exactly has "JL" done for Raffi? At the beginning of the series, she ranted at him about how he abandoned her to her desert hovel while he enjoyed antique furniture on his fancy estate (which burned down circa Generations, but whatever) She hated his fucking guts not two episodes ago. Now she loves him and thanks him for all he's done? This is the same sort of crap they pulled in Discovery, in which characters profess their undying love for each other before a series finale, without precedent and even in contradiction to previously (barely) established characterization. Does this work? Do people buy this? Is this what we've sunk to?  It's DUMB.

Kevin: It's not as bad as Discovery's shortcuts, but over and over, they gave Picard a scene with a character and the music swelled, but there was none of the work behind it to make it payoff. The only time those moments really worked was with Troi and Riker, and that's trading on seven years that came before. And to be fair, it's not like the TNG crew was tight after ten episodes, but even inside a movie, you can construct credible relationships. The actors are clearly capable, but they just aren't being given the material. Every episode should have gone back and removed one scene of horrifying violence and replaced it with these characters talking.

Matthew: When we meet the androids, there's maybe twenty or thirty of them. We meet the twin counterpart to the chick Rios met (who has gold skin, which he didn't mention at all when he said she looked identical to Soji, but whatever). The androids are peaceful and beautiful and gosh shouldn't we save them? Then we meet Dr. Retcon Soong (no, I'm not going to look up his given name, because that's what I wrote in my notes, and this show doesn't deserve it). Huh? So Dr. Retcon is Noonien Soong's biological son. I guess this was with Juliana Tainer, before she was turned into an android by Soong? Whom he (and she, and Data for that matter while scanning colony records) never mentioned, even in passing? Who wasn't called to his deathbed along with Data and Lore in "Brothers?" Who appears to harbor no beef against his dad for obviously caring way more about his brothers? So the Android leader PERFORMS A MIND MELD with Jurati (I can't even right now with this, I am letting it pass without significant comment), uncovering the astoundingly massive error in the Romulan interpretation of the doomsday vision (that no one else uncovered in the course of 200,000 years), and then decides along with the rest of the peaceful wonderful androids that KILLING TRILLIONS is definitely the Way To Go given the threat they're under. Ummm... really? These androids seem to possess at least a modicum of hospitality, they don't kill things, they care about their own survival.... but they're willing to sign off on this? And just how quickly can the AI OVERLORDS intervene? Within one goddamned day? How fast does this message travel to another galaxy, even if it's the nearest neighboring one? THIS STORY IS SO DUMB!

Kevin: I'm going to play devil's advocate here. Most of these problems are problems we have hand-waived away in the past. The mind meld for example. The mind meld itself is magic. It was hand-wavy (literally) magic from its first instance in TOS. And Voyager, by volume, is probably a worse offender for adding things to what Vulcan mental powers can do. Reduced to a core idea, that an android built to mimic human neurology could also learn to mimic Vulcan neurology sounds at least as Star Trek as "Imagine thought and time and space are somehow all connected." On its own that idea doesn't even blip for me. The reason we weren't mad at the magic of the katra in Search for Spock, but were mad at the magic of mushroom ghost of Culber in Discovery is that one served a tighter, character focused story and one did not. A narrative shortcut to help tell the effective, character driven story you want to tell in the time allotted is fine. A narrative shortcut in lieu of a good story and presented as clever for its own sake is not. And for the record, the one that got me was the android being killed by being stabbed with her necklace. Why would that harm let alone kill an android?

And as for the broader issues you discuss, again, I think "huge war predicated on multiple iterations of everyone being fundamentally mistaken about the conflict's priors" is a Star Trek idea to its core. The idea that everyone is wrong and overreacting and that spurs other people's overreactions is a pretty solid morality tale, and one relevant to today. They just didn't spend the time developing it that they needed to make it work. If you came to me with the elevator pitch for this series largely pulled from this episode, I would think "Yeah...all that could work if you could thread the needle of building the relationships and connections to give all that weight." I don't think the ideas in this episode are dumb, per se. I think they were ineptly executed in a way that robbed it of stakes for me.

Matthew: Presumably, the way this will play out is that the Federation fleet promised by Admiral Foulmouth will show up in the nick of time and convince the androids, and perhaps the whole super duper AI federation, to let life in the milky way live. O...K? Could this have been an interesting story? Sure. Maybe. An extragalactic AI federation? Why not. It creates some problems (e.g. why has no one heard of this before now, why are they avoiding this particular galaxy), but it's of the moment in terms of science fiction thinking about the potential for life in the universe. I think the threat should have been to just the Romulans. I think the mechanism of the "prophecy" should have been tightened up and better explained. The ethical conflict could have been interesting. But it's so overboard and so poorly thought out that it just insults me as a viewer. It's like they want to make an interesting conflict (or crib one from Mass Effect 3, but whatever), but they are intent on doing it in the dumbest way possible.

Kevin, I am not claiming that the basic ideas are inherently foolish. They're basically fine sci-fi ideas. A comparison to TNG's "Gambit" or "Captain's Holiday" is instructive. Each of these featured a weapon of immense power that in the former case was misinterpreted and in both cases were basically a mystery to everyone. These constraints on the stakes of the weapons and the knowledge that people had of them ameliorated the obvious concerns of incredulity. In "Gambit," the whole of Vulcan society was not based on a misapprehension of something that should have been obvious, especially since they (in "Picard") were still in regular contact over thousands of years with the primary source of information (while in "Gambit" they are not). In "Captain's Holiday," knowledge of the weapon is essentially occult, abstruse archaeological rumor. The stakes of both stories are made personal - there is no need to threaten all sentient life in the galaxy, which is possibly the single most boring threat you can make in a plot, since it can essentially never be carried out. Now, I am not claiming that either TNG story could be stretched to ten episodes. Of course, I think such attempts are foolhardy undertakings. But both stories, within their constraints, work far better than this one does. Kurtzman and crew took basically decent sci-fi ideas and clothed them in every possible stupid storytelling decision they could manage to perpetrate - out of laziness, incompetence, contempt for viewers, or some mix of all three.

Kevin: Gambit is a good reference point. That episode basically worked, because as silly as the idea of the weapon and its application were, that wasn't what the episode was about. The episode was about throwing the crew into new positions and deriving some drama from watching them adapt. The implications of the Stone of Gol (yes, I had to look it up) weren't the only things driving the story. Not even the threat to Vulcan was really the focus of the episode, so if the stakes didn't quite bear scrutiny to me, the episode could still succeed because I believed the characters believed the stakes, and I care about them more anyway. Basically, I don't think the core of this story is particularly worse, or even that different than a lot of TNG we ended up liking, it's that the absence of character work really leaves you nothing else to hang on to. Ultimately, I think it comes down to how important you view the smaller, less momentous character work of 90s Trek. I forgave "Rascals" for a painfully dumb set up because they found insanely good character work to do for all four characters. In a real sense, I gained actual insight into four characters via that episode, so the dumb idea was worth it. There's just no emotional stakes to go with the practical ones, but I think that's a matter of execution rather than the initial idea.

I don't want to keep recapitulating the extremely long discussion, so I'll end by saying that even if they find a way that technically satisfies the corner they have painted themselves into, I am pretty much certain not to care. It's not going go make me enjoy the parts of the show I didn't enjoy retroactively.


Matthew: Brent Spiner was pretty good. I hate his character and the story is stupid, but I believed that he had emotions and desires with respect to the plot, and he performed them well. Allison Pill was yet again quite good. Her character makes no sense, but she almost convinces me every episode. I don't think there were any particularly bum notes in this episode. If I had to nitpick, I'd say that Jeri Ryan's smirky delivery doesn't fit her character's recent experiences.

Kevin: Spiner was shocking in how effortless he made it look. I thought Briones was doing her best, and maybe it's the makeup forcing the comparison, but covered in gold and standing next to Spiner, the comparison to Data (or even Lore) is inevitable and she came up a little wanting. Jonathan Frakes had a great line in an interview about The Offspring of looking for actors to impersonate Data and how obvious it makes how good his performance is watching actors fail to replicate it. I want to give a continued shout out to Michelle Hurd for acting like the script worked. She really sold her emotions with absolutely no support in the last nine episodes.

Production Values

Matthew: The set designs and android costumes were giving me serious "Cost of Living" vibes. But the location shoots were nice enough. Why do the peaceful androids have a brig at all? Shut up, that's why. It all looked fine. The show looks fine. The space battle was dumb and doesn't fit the aesthetic of pre-2009 Trek. But I guess I need to let that go, especially because we're set for a doozy of another one next episode. I renew my objection to the stupid fucking shakycam camera work during over the shoulder conversation shots. Who is this impressing? Is it supposed to make me feel like I'm there? I don't shake uncontrollably during my conversations with others, so I'm just not feeling it. It distracts me, it doesn't excite me.

Kevin: I actually got more "Greco-Roman TOS deceptively peaceful planet" from the design choices, which hey....turned out to be right. The outdoor locations were great. I really actually wish we got more substantial time here.


Matthew: I was thinking this is a 3 last night. But after actually pondering and evaluating what transpired, I guess this is a 2. I can understand a 3, given the feeling that Things Are Happening, but I can't shake the feeling that this story is bereft of well-developed ideas, that the characters are acting foolishly or in contradictory ways, that the stakes are absurd, and that this will result in yet another Big Dumb Pew Pew Battle. So there you have it. I can't enjoy this show. I'm a curmudgeon. Lots of people online seem to think this is a masterpiece. I guess this is yet another development in the past ten years or so that just mystifies me because it is so wholly opposed to the things I value and think are "good."

Kevin: I do have a lot of problems with the season and plenty of critiques for this episode in particular, but this is still a 3 for me. The lived experience of the episode, save the painfully obvious detour to the cube, worked for me. All the characters technically responded to the episode's events in ways consistent with their priors, even if they did so a little quickly. (Jurati needed an extra week to really drink the Kool Aid.) But like I said, I think at its core both side of the conflict are faced with the issue "How far are you allowed to go to save your people from destruction?" and while it may have been obvious to Picard in the moment the speech wouldn't have worked, Picard still gave a fairly orthodox speech about Federation values in response to a Star Trek problem. In the balance, this levels out to a three for me. I was mildly entertained throughout, and I was only ever mildly annoyed at the obvious shortcuts rather than outraged by them. That's an average episode for me. That makes for a total of 5.

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