Star Trek: Picard – Season 1 Episode 9
“Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1”
Star Trek: Picard brings Soji home with a large Romulan armada on their tail looking to destroy it.
Admittedly it’s not my best attempt to summarise an episode in a single sentence but at a very high level that’s all this episode is really about. Picard and crew make it to Soji’s home world and try to prepare for an attack that will be upon them very soon. Of course more goes on here but very little of it is all that interesting so I felt it more appropriate to keep the summary simple.
The episode opens with a really entertaining and well executed action sequence involving Narek attacking La Sirena in order to wipe Soji out of existence. Their dogfight is interrupted by the arrival of the Borg Cube followed by the deployment of some really unconventional planetary defences. Flowers attach themselves to both the Borg Cube and La Sirena to deprive them of power before pulling them down to the surface. It’s a very wacky sequence and feels in line with a problem the crew of Kirk’s Enterprise might encounter. It’s good to get a reminder that Star Trek wasn’t afraid to indulge in the ludicrous once in a while.
Unfortunately the rest of the episode isn’t half as interesting as everything plays out in more or less the expected way. Picard and company head to the downed Borg Cube to see if everyone aboard is alright, they find Seven and Elnor as well as a number of xBs working to get some of the systems back online. Picard learns about Hugh’s death in what amounts to little more than a passing comment that doesn’t allow for any emotional connection and Seven talks about being connected to the Cube while completely sidestepping any impact that may have had on her. I mentioned in my review of the previous episode that her connection to the Cube was set up as something that would have significant personal consequences for her given her history with the Borg but went nowhere. It also goes nowhere here which means it’s just something she did that adds nothing to her character. She is able to take over and pilot a Borg Cube without it impacting her in the least which is disappointing at best and an insult to Seven’s character at worst. Everything about this character is founded on her being a survivor of trauma trying to find a sense of identity after it was stolen from her and nobody writing this show decides to take advantage of the perfect opportunity to face her with the prospect of risking everything she had been working towards in order to service a greater good. The ingredients were right there and they came to absolutely nothing.
Following the detour to the Borg Cube, Picard and his crew arrive at a settlement populated almost entirely by Androids. Just as the opening action sequence calls back to The Original Series with its lunacy this calls back to it with the overall design aesthetic. The decor is minimalist and almost impossibly clean and the androids are clad in colourful loose fitting clothing that look like they were plucked right out of an episode of TOS. All of this contributes to the shorthand that they are entering a peaceful place populated by people who revel in their simplicity. Of course many of those episodes started out that way before quickly revealing that some kind of dark secret was being hidden just beneath the surface and this episode follows that template to some degree. The -sort of- “dark secret” comes in the form of Sutra; a less Human looking android also played by Is Briones. She is clearly an earlier model than Soji as indicated by her gold and glittery skin but she’s no less a living being who deserves recognition as an individual. Her introduction is supposed to be a surprise as indicated by her being obscured when she first approaches Picard but it doesn’t quite work because we already know that at least two other Androids that resemble Soji existed so the reveal that there is another doesn’t have the impact the writers would probably like it to.
Another issue with her is that she is obviously the villain as she very quickly appears standoffish, makes no attempt to hide her contempt for organic life and is casually cruel on several occasions. Isa Briones deserves credit for bringing a third character to life. Dahj was memorable despite how briefly she was featured, Soji is well performed but suffers from repetitive plotting along with inconsistent characterisation and Sutra is similarly well acted but suffers from the fact that she only exists to serve a specific plot purpose which means that she’s ultimately a really shallow character.
Her first goal is to learn about the Admonition and she achieves this through Mind Melding with Jurati. I think many will take issue with the fact that an Android can perform a Mind Meld even though Vulcans can only do so because they have mild telepathic abilities but I don’t have any problem with this as I’m of the opinion that anything can be created synthetically so it’s entirely possible that telepathy could be built into Androids since Vulcan brains will have that capability because they contain something that others don’t. Such a thing could theoretically be manufactured and applied to an Android.
The Mind Meld confirms her theory that the Admonition was meant for synthetic brains which explains why it had such a devastating effect on most of the attending Romulans. It’s simply too much information to be processed properly which means that fragments of images stand out and drive whoever experiences it insane. The Admonition is meant to send a message that an advanced race of synthetics that exist outside of space and time can be summoned in the event of synthetic life being placed in grave danger by organics. With it also comes a cautionary tale about organic life progressing to the point of creating synthetics and eventually looking to get rid of them once they realise that synthetic life doesn’t age or die. There’s the suggestion of a superiority complex on the part of this unknown race of synthetics as they assume that all organic life will react the same as -presumably- their creators did so have taken steps to ensure that future synthetics don’t suffer the same sort of prejudice. Sutra definitely shares that mindset as she immediately subscribes to the idea of summoning the synthetics to help her and her kind out.
There is a major problem with this as summoning the synthetics would mean the end of pretty much all organic life in the galaxy as punishment for their treatment of synthetics. Sadly we have a ridiculous Apocalyptic scenario playing out here with Picard involved in it to a frustratingly limited degree so far. Yes he started this mission and continues on because he believes it’s worthwhile but when it comes to the overall plot he doesn’t actually do much as his role is to point younger more able people in a particular direction so that they can take action. Rios pilots his own ship, Raffi does whatever is required to move the plot along, Seven brings the resources of a Borg Cube, Elnor theoretically protects people with his sword and Jurati freaks out a lot. I wish I could say that Picard was acting as a leader to all of these people but he isn’t because they mostly act on their own initiative in order to drive what he wants. He’s more of a catalyst to what is supposed to be his own story which is a baffling decision to make in a show that bears his name.
This coming Apocalypse isn’t interesting because we have no idea who the synthetic race are, what their history is and whether their hatred for organics is justified. We have one episode left this season and I very much doubt it’s going to answer those questions in a satisfying way, if at all. The fact that Sutra is all for wiping out all organic life in the galaxy -despite her suggesting she will save who she can as an obvious dig at Picard for failing to do that with the Romulans- comes as no surprise because of the way she behaves pretty much right out of the gate. Her defining trait quickly becomes that she doesn’t like organic beings and has no problem with them being wiped out in favour of synthetic life.
I did mention in my review of the previous episode that this plot was reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica or the Mass Effect video game series. This episode further invites comparisons to those properties by essentially copying the ideas that they explored. True originality isn’t something that really exists any more as any idea you have will have been used elsewhere in one form or another but there are always ways to play around with well known ideas in ways that make them feel new and exciting. This show doesn’t do that in the least; all it does is recycle the idea of synthetics appearing to wipe out organic life. This was only confirmed in the previous episode with no exploration to speak of in this one where the two properties I mentioned had this concept at the root of the narrative and used it to ask high minded questions about what constitutes life whereas Star Trek: Picard doesn’t do this.
There is an interesting debate buried beneath the surface of this. Sutra and her people are terrified that their way of life is being threatened when all they want to do is simply exist and live in peace. The episode wants us to think that their community wants nothing more than that so ultimately this could have been a story about people fighting for their right to exist. The Romulans are a barrier to this for obvious reasons but the Federation also threaten them in less extreme ways. They banned synthetic life as a fear driven response to an attack which is a perfectly understandable reaction while also being a regressive one. Previous iterations of Star Trek have portrayed the Federation as a progressive organisation that doesn’t give into fear but things have changed significantly for them in the years since the events of Star Trek: Nemesis which has prompted decisions that aren’t in keeping with the previous philosophy.
Banning synthetics sends a clear message that the Federation are afraid of them because of what they are and what they could be. This wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the attack but it does prove that the Federation were only one bad day away from ceasing recognition of synthetic life. This has terrifying implications when you really think about it as it raises questions over what else the Federation would dismiss under certain circumstances. It would appear that this show has no real interest in exploring these ideas which really is a pity as this is the sort of thing that entire seasons could be framed around rather than the pedestrian Apocalypse plot.
In the context of this episode, the ban on synthetics is all the proof Sutra needs to put forward the idea that the Federation are their enemy and deserve to be wiped out by the highly evolved synthetics waiting to be summoned. Picard puts forward the counter proposal of taking all of the Androids on La Sirena and going to the Federation. He offers to be an advocate on their behalf and promises to make the Federation listen to him. This shows that Picard hasn’t really learned anything this season as he has no concept of the strong possibility that the Federation won’t listen to him just as they haven’t been listening to him every since they decided to ban synthetics. Despite repeated evidence Picard doesn’t seem to have noticed that he has lost most of the respect he once commanded. People in authority regard him as a nuisance that long since ceased to be relevant and brush him aside. That’s why he had to find alternate means to get back into space. It’s absolutely baffling to see Picard with a complete lack of self awareness though thankfully he’s rightly called out on this and ends up failing in the attempt.
Many in the fan community seem to blame any alterations to Picard’s behaviour on his neurological condition that was mentioned earlier in the season. I think it’s far too easy to write off any questionable choice Picard makes as being a symptom of the condition. Accepting this means accepting that the character often has no agency of his own and is acting on the whims of his altered mental state while people follow him. This would invalidate almost every choice he has made as he wasn’t in his right mind which means that other characters were foolish to even entertain the idea of following him. He’s either in control of his faculties or he isn’t. If he isn’t then this entire show is a complete farce and if he is then Picard has very much fallen from grace. I do prefer the idea that he has simply lost touch with the man he once was and fails to realise it though this season should really have been about him learning that and accepting that his time of adventuring and making a difference in the galaxy is over. Of course there will be a second season of this show which means Picard can’t realise that he has reached a stage in his life where he has to stand aside and let others shape the universe which makes me wonder what Picard’s arc is actually supposed to be this season. He realises that he is more at home in outer space than he is on his family’s Vineyard but the season doesn’t make a strong enough case for why the galaxy is better off with him back out in it. He will play some part in stopping the Apocalypse but it’ll end up being a favourable resolution after a string of bad decisions. Any success seems more like dumb luck than anything else at this point.
Despite this character assassination in a broad sense all of the strongest moments in this episode feature Picard. His broadcast to his makeshift crew where he tells them about his condition and promptly closes the topic because he has no desire to discuss it is well done because it shows Picard willing to offer something of himself to this crew of people he barely knows because they have followed him every step of the way. The follow up to this when Raffi tells him that she loves him followed by him telling her the same back was nicely done as well. Their relationship has been intermittently developed over the course of the season and some of the biggest missteps taken with Picard as a character have been in the way he behaves around her but their connection has been a believable one at times and the actors do a good job selling the fact that there is a history there so the mutual declaration of platonic love is earned to some extent.
Another great scene is Picard and Soji’s discussion about taking lives and what motivates people to do so. It follows on from Picard pointing out the distinction between killing an attacking enemy and killing a helpless one during the action opening even if that doesn’t entirely work as the apparent helplessness came after the attack. Soji has recently had everything she thought she knew about herself turned upside down so is trying to build herself up from nothing once again after realising that she comes from a completely difference race than she once though. It causes her to reconsider things she once took for granted such as life and death and how important the preservation of life is. She’s trying to understand the logic of taking lives and what enables decisions to be made. Picard is immediately concerned by her line of thought and suggests the perspective depends on whether you’re the one doing the threatening or the one being threatened. As with many things there’s the suggestion of something interesting here that has almost no time to breathe.
Soji discovering her true origins happened too late in the season to be used effectively. “Nepenthe” did a good job of starting her on her journey to making peace with what she is but the time since then hasn’t been used effectively especially when all we get is reminders that she’s confused and desperate to find her place in the universe. There was real potential to do a complex exploration of identity and how memories shape the people we are. Soji’s memories are fake so there was an entire arc to work through around whether that makes them any less valid that the show doesn’t have the time for. I’m unsure if it’s a time factor or if the writers just weren’t interested. I’d struggle to accept the latter as finding Soji was the very root of Picard’s motivation.
The lack of development means that her decision to side with her fellow Androids doesn’t have the impact it should have. It’s unclear if she truly identifies as one of them or feels like she should follow them since they are “her people”. How Soji feels about returning to this place is something the episode barely touches on so hanging a moment of tension over whether she will side with Picard or the other Androids doesn’t work because there is very little grounding to that conflict within her.
Part of the problem is that the Android society barely qualifies as one. There’s no sense of structure or culture to it beyond a group of people who like to smile and practice something that looks like Yoga. The episode certainly doubles down on their desire to be peaceful but is there anything beyond that? There was mention earlier in the season of Soji being interested in the XBs making a culture of their own. If this area of interest had been something that defined her character then it would have naturally flowed into an exploration of the Android culture. Instead of bringing Soji to this planet in the penultimate episode of the season she could have spent several episodes here as she figured out what her place in the context of this culture was. Soji is very much a wasted opportunity and this culture of Androids feels as shallow as practically any one episode planet in the history of the franchise despite being build up to being so much more.
A surprise in the episode comes in the form of Dr. Altan Inigo Soong (Brent Spiner); a biological son of Data’s creator Dr. Noonian Soong. He worked with Bruce Maddox to bring the Androids to life and lives among them as a father figure for all of them. The introduction of a previously unknown son of Data’s creator is something I found to be very odd as there was a strong implication that Soon created Androids because he never had children of his own. I don’t recall if it was ever covered in any level of detail in TNG but it certainly makes sense as a motivation. Picard accepts this Soong’s existence at face value which is pretty much the only available choice in an episode that rapidly runs between plot points. His appearance is certainly suspicious as is his assertion that the Federation aren’t to be trusted. Enlisting Jurati to help him with his project involving “mind transfer” is equally suspicious. He strongly hints that he’s looking to transfer his consciousness into an Android body for an urgent reason but it’s something he can’t finish himself. He encourages Jurati to help by reminding her that she’s a murderer before offering her the chance to make up for it by helping him complete his work. It’s not so subtle manipulation but Jurati could in theory be so consumed by guilt that she’ll latch onto anything that will help her live with herself.
Outside of the fact that Brent Spiner plays him, there isn’t much to Soong. He’s unfortunately stuck with some less than ideal dialogue that even Brent Spiner struggles to make work. Brent Spiner playing the character did get my attention which was almost certainly the purpose behind casting him in the role but it wasn’t enough to disguise the fact that his purpose in the episode was shallow. Brent Spiner’s in the flesh return to Star Trek outside of a flashback or dream sequence should have been a celebrated event instead of him playing a character so poorly defined that he could have been anyone played by any actor. This show had so much promise and has systematically failed to live up to it as the season has progressed.
A weak episode that offers very little of substance with the characters or the story that is happening around them. The answers to the central mysteries arrived too late in the season for them to be explored effectively and this episode makes no real attempt to make up for lost time The Android planet does have some fun visual nods to The Original Series but ultimately proves to be a really shallow culture devoid of much in the way of identity. This makes it difficult to explore whether they deserve to exist or not and leaves the central debate feeling muddled. It also doesn’t help that Sutra is obviously a villain right from the minute she’s introduced and does nothing to dissuade the audience of this. Her contempt for organics is clear and the fact that she supports the idea of summoning an ancient race of synthetics to wipe out organic life in favour of synthetic makes her completely unsympathetic. Isa Briones has done a good job with different roles over the course of the season but has been let down by the writing in almost every case. Sutra is a very shallow character who never rises above this. The Apocalyptic plot fails to be anything close to interesting with other properties doing far more with pretty much the exact same idea. There was potential for an interesting debate especially around the Federation’s approach to dealing with synthetic life but as with everything else there’s no time to do it nor does there seem to be any interest.
One of the biggest problems the show has is with the portrayal of Picard. He’s a character who seems to learn pretty much nothing. Despite constant evidence that he is no longer the man he once was and doesn’t carry the same clout he still thinks that the Federation will listen to him if he becomes an advocate for the synthetics. This season could have been about Picard going back out into space and realising that he has to make way for others to shape the universe because times have changed and moved on without him. Instead it seems to be a show about a man desperate to matter and muddling through with dumb luck despite overwhelming odds. It’s not a good use of the character at all. The best moments in the episode come from Picard such as him opening up to his crew about his condition, mutually declared platonic love with Raffi and a discussion with Soji about the morality of killing. Soji is a problem character as she found out about her true origins too late to explore what that means to her properly so she is uncomfortably adrift. It doesn’t help that there’s no sense of culture to the Androids so there’s no identity for her to latch onto. Brent Spiner’s appearance as an unknown son of Noonian Soong seems suspicious as does his behaviour but beyond that there’s not much to this character. Seven is painfully underused with no follow-up to her experience of connecting to the Borg Cube other than a brief mention that doesn’t suggest any emotional consequences whatsoever. Its clumsy, lazy and an insult to a good character. The action sequence that opens the episode is at least delightfully wacky and fun to watch.
- the wacky action sequence that opens the episode
- fun visual nods to TOS on the Android planet
- Picard’s various moments with different characters
- the shallow Android culture
- Sutra being such an obvious villain from the moment of her introduction
- the uninteresting Apocalypse plot
- exciting potential for debate going completely unaddressed
- Picard’s continued problematic characterisation
- the attempt to disguise Soong’s lack of depth by having him be played by Brent Spiner
- no emotional consequences to Seven’s experience with the Borg Cube
What did you think? Select your rating in the “User Review” box below
User Review( votes)
We’d love to know your thoughts on this and anything else you might want to talk about. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter or just leave a comment in the comment section below. You’ll need an account for Disqus but it’s easy to set up. Don’t forget to share your rating in the “User Ratings” box
If you want to chat to me directly then I’m on Twitter as well.