Sunday, March 8, 2020

Picard, Season 1: Nepenthe

http://www.treknobabble.net/p/rating-system.htmlPicard, Season 1
"Nepenthe"
Airdate: March 5, 2020
7 of 10 produced
7 of 10 aired

Introduction

Picard decides to postpone the main plot yet again in order to visit some friends that he arbitrarily decided not to a few episodes ago.


Three characters we actually care about who are also not actively murdering, betraying, or lying to anyone. BORING!


Writing

Matthew:
I'm going to start with the good stuff, here. It was nice to see Riker and Troi. They were written basically in character, and the relationship between them and Picard was also in character. I liked the basic idea of them retired on a beautiful planet and making pizza in wood-fired ovens. OK, now, beyond that, what was the point of this interlude, and why did it occur in the 7th episode of the season? The answers are.... very little, and because the writers seem to be horrible at structuring a serial plot. As best I can tell, the only thing that was accomplished by this interlude was giving Soji an opportunity to see Picard being trusted by his friends. Umm... was this really an effective use of 30 minutes of screen time when it comes to the overall plot? And why in heaven's name did this occur so deep into the season-long story? I am utterly baffled as to what the show runners were thinking here in terms of the structure. We are 70% done with the story, and we have only the vaguest idea of the stakes - a vague "prophecy" and a quick cut "bad stuff" montage, none of which the main character of the show is even aware of yet. The closest thing to an actual connection with the main plot was the (painfully dumb) attempt to make Thaddeus Riker's death be an unintended side effect of the "synthetic ban," because his... disease could only be cured by incubating something or other in a positronic brain. Oh, come on.

Kevin: I think they were this close to getting the point with this. I certainly don't mind an interlude episode, provided what becomes before and after, it can actually work quite well. If I had cared more about the action that got us here and had more faith in where we were going, it might even have been nice to have a moment of calm to reassess. That said, I think they actually clear the hurdle of justifying the trip narratively, just not as cleanly as they think they did. Last week, Matt and I had a conversation about what the show is about, and in this context, that means more than a brief summary of the events. TNG episodes had those is spades. The events are "scientists are in trouble" or "alien appears hostile but actually isn't," and those episodes are about things like ethics and morals and compassion. I think this episode came very close to being about friendship and healing and the virtues of getting to decide for yourself what is 'real' even if outside forces suggest otherwise. That is some sweet, uncut TNG right there, and told through the lens of characters I adore, would be a pretty awesome episode. It's crowded out by all the killing. Again. But let's stay focused. At it's core, I see this thread as bringing back old friends to remind us why old friends are important and what these relationships mean in particular. That works like gangbusters for me. The dead unseen child was just dumb though. The writers really don't know how to add depth without traumatizing people. As evidenced by Kestra's namesake, it's not like these people haven't lost people they care about. We didn't need to add more casual trauma to give their interactions stakes.

Matthew: I guess I should feel grateful that they went back to the Commodore Oh/Jurati scene, since it was totally asinine that they arbitrarily skipped it when it occurred in plot (just to ramp up "mystery" and allow for a SHOCK TWIST). But... they didn't really give us the scene this time, either. We still don't even really know what Oh really told Jurati, we just got a quick cut montage of bad things. As such, with 70% of the story finished, we don't know what the bad guys are up to, or why. We don't know if the Romulans and Starfleet are working together, and why if so. Why was Narek following the Sirena again? It seems like his mission hinges on murdering Soji. Does he think she is on board? We don't know, because he received no dialogue. This isn't mysterious. This isn't some sort of masterful technique. It's dumb. Every "revelation" we are treated to here would have been better delivered earlier, when they would have organically occurred in story. It would have been a better story if we had known that Jurati was planning to kill Maddox, and why. Will she or won't she? It would be a better story if we had been presented with the Zhazhhh Vazjhazzhh's rationale for their otherwise inexplicable animus towards "synthetics." Good storytelling, and good Star Trek, creates dilemmas, it doesn't hide them from us. Good storytelling makes all sides of a conflict intelligible. This does not, and time is running out to do so.

Kevin: My complaint with the Jurati teaser is why not just show that the first time they did the scene. We already knew that Oh was evil, or at least evil adjacent, and we knew that Jurati was up to something. Letting us know that sooner would add a dimension to every seen she's in that lets us invest more because we know how Jurati feels and know what she's feeling it. This is just another case of the twist being more important than the story or the characters. I was in the car with a friend and discussing Star Trek this morning and we got to DS9 and its final arc. Was Dukat masquerading as a Bajoran a twist? Sure. But it works where these don't. Because we knew what was going on the whole time, the narrative focus is not our shock at the reveal, but the dread leading up to the moment Winn finds out. That's about a character and therefor more interesting.

Matthew: Then we have the obligatory helping of torture and murder. This wouldn't be the Alex Kurtzman Murder-Verse without it! I fail to see both what was accomplished in the plot for Rizzo to have killed the ex-Borg except to remind us that she is eeevil. Then, Hugh buys the farm in the most perfunctory and random manner - from a stray dart to the neck. Was I supposed to read his death as heroic? I fail to see how. Was it supposed to motivate Elnor? What is his motivation at this point, anyway? He seems to have deserted Picard with no realistic hope of reuniting with him.  All of these scenes read like pointless violence designed to remind us that any character who lacks plot armor can die. 

Kevin: I don't know if I should find it oddly comforting that the Romulan woman, whose name I still don't recall actually, is a terrible character even when she's not pulling a Cersei Lannister on Narek. Hugh's death managed to be as offensive though thankfully incrementally less graphic than Icheb's. Thank heaven for small favors I guess.

Acting

Matthew: Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis do an excellent job of making us wonder why the show runners seem insistent on creating 45 new characters while completely sidelining (or killing) characters we know and love. They seem to have no problems finding their characters again, creating an excellent rapport between each other as well as with Picard. I believe these people love each other. Wait a minute - why am I watching people who hate each other again? Oh yeah, some dumb garbage about Picard not... wanting people who.... Jesus, I don't know.

Kevin: They really killed it. I was able to completely set aside all my other problems for like half an hour and just basked in the warm glowing, warming glow of these characters. Other than finding it frustrating we have to introduce and kill a child in the same breath to build character I guess, everything works. It even kind of makes Picard's attitude problem over the last six episodes work when his friends call him on his bullshit. I want to compliment these actors for so effortlessly bringing these characters back to vivid life. I know that the writers clearly think I am just jonesing on the nostalgia, but I am actually riding very high on the continuation of the careful work they spent 15 years doing to create and communicate characters with interior lives, motivations, and meaningful relationships. Also, more than ever, I would absolutely watch their spinoff. In terms of direct praise, watching Riker smile and watching Troi describe her son invent a language for the flaps of butterfly wings made my heart feel better. They are just very good actors, full stop, who know how to land a line with just the right amount of effort to feel effortless.

Matthew: Allison Pill is doing yeoman's work here - almost succeeding at selling a story that is so poorly founded in the script that I can forgive it. Almost. Her physical acting abilities in terms of her face and her skin flush response are truly exceptional.

Kevin: I am thiiiiis close to really liking everyone on the Sirena. The actors are clearly trying and if we only gave them recognizable motivations that were explained on screen, they would be great. Hurd in particular is acting like she's in a real story and I would kill to see the show give her one.

Matthew: OK. Does Lulu Wilson's Kestra bear any resemblance to either of her parents? Nah. But that's certainly not her fault. She does a great job creating character and making us care. Gosh - it's almost as though spending extended time with a character who is not being a complete effing shitbag helps us to like them. She had a nice chemistry with Isa Briones. Again, it calls into question why the story is just not about these characters. How much better would a story be about trying to find the long lost positronic beings in order to obtain medical treatment for Kestra?

Kevin: Yeah, the precocious adolescent girl could have gotten annoying and artificial really quick, but Wilson nails the balance between being smart for her age and actually her age. In a way, she is the character I've wanted in the broader narrative. She is her parents' daughter and embodies the kind of empathic faith in people that the Star Trek I like embodies. On a purely technical note, she handled more than one fake language with ease in a way that didn't make me roll my eyes, and frankly, even Tolkien failed at that sometimes.

Production Values


Matthew: The Borg cube lighting is terrible, and should come with a seizure warning. Did they think flashing bright spotlights intermittently across a black screen would be cool and dramatic? Why am I asking questions I know the answers to?

Kevin: I liked the aesthetic last week when it felt like a modern riff on TNG-Borg specifically. Now, it just doesn't make sense. These corridors only exist to enable the fights that take place in them.

Matthew:
The location shoot for the Troi-Riker home was very pleasant. The location had a wooded vibe similar to Kirk's house in the Nexus, and the house was the sort of tasteful "glam" wood beam cabin that people pay big bucks to stay in in the Pacific northwest. The house itself was dressed nicely, and was filled with lots of little details that made the space feel lived in.

Kevin: The comparison to Generations occurred to me too. I think I may prefer it to the chateau. One other technical note, apparently Marina Sirtis stole her wig from Nemesis and has clearly been taking care of it with the skill of a seasoned drag queen, because her hair looked amazing.

Conclusion
 

Matthew: So, 20-30 minutes of this episode were a pleasant diversion.  It was nice checking in with some old friends. But as per usual, subjecting the story to even the slightest scrutiny reveals how hollow and shabbily constructed it is. The show is nearly done, and none of the themes that we were promised in the pilot have come to fruition, or even been developed for more that a smattering of dialogue. Refugees? Nah. Xenophobia? Nope. The dangers of anti-science sentiment? Nuh-uh. What it means to be human? HAHAHAHA. No, yet again, we are told (for the third season of Kurtzman Trek in a row) that the stakes here are nothing less than The Destruction Of All Life In The Galaxy. Is this explained in any way? Nope. We are just expected to accept it as Plot Fuel. Well, I don't. It's boring, and it's wholly unearned. At no point have these stakes been dramatized. We have seen no portents of them, nor have we seen real effects of them. We are just told, in a hasty flashback no less, that they are DIRE. We are also treated to the pointless killing of another canon character, a death which served no plot purpose and did not offer any redeeming value to the character. I don't like sounding like a "hater" or a curmudgeon. But this episode doesn't fool me. I am not swayed by the obvious (and reasonably effective) fan service. The overall plot is dumb garbage, and it's not getting better, it's getting worse. 30 minutes of tangential fan service does not a good episode make. This is a 2.


Kevin: I may be easily swayed by the Riker/Troi story, but I don't care. If Hugh had lived, just that one change, I would be toying with a four. I'm serious. Not only was the Riker/Troi stuff good as pure nostalgia, it is the closest the series has come to teaching a lesson. At the end, after they beam out, Riker puts his arm around Troi and kisses the top of her head in a gesture that felt intimate, familiar, and so effortless that it made me feel all the history behind in a way that almost brought me to tears, and that's all while I was still angry about them killing Hugh. That balances out to a 3, and honestly I'll come back and give it a 4 if it turns into a back door pilot for The Rikers.

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