Star Trek: Picard – Season 3 Episode 5
Star Trek: Picard deals with paranoia and mistrust as the scale of the threat against the Federation starts to become known.
Conspiracy plots are nothing new on Star Trek. The first season of The Next Generation infamously set the stage for a returning threat that has so far never been explored in canon, Deep Space Nine produced episodes that had a paranoia-induced coup originate at the highest levels of Starfleet, Star Trek Into Darkness clumsily included a warmongering Admiral secretly building an arsenal of weapons as well as a large death ship and the nefarious cabal of spies Section 31 have become increasingly prevalent since their introduction. Picard season 1 also included a clumsily handled conspiracy element that didn’t really go anywhere.
Star Trek is a sci-fi franchise that has its foundation in optimism. Right from its inception it has been a show about people coming together to maintain a utopian future. The values and idealism have touched people for decades and it’s generally seen as a future that we should all aspire to. It’s only natural that stories would be created that explore whether Humanity is truly as enlightened as the franchise would have you believe and explore the possibility of the idyllic society being built on lies and corruption. It has become increasingly popular in recent years because of the world the franchise now exists in but Star Trek in its heyday wasn’t without challenges to the utopian idea. Gene Roddenberry was so against the idea of corruption within the Federation that the season one Next Generation story was altered to feature body-snatching parasites as the culprit so that the Federation could be preserved as the perfection he wanted it to be.
His death allowed for more direct challenges like the one depicted in “Paradise Lost” and “Homefront”; another story featuring Changelings where the thought of them was almost more dangerous than the Changelings themselves. This story dared to pose the idea of Humanity being as flawed, paranoid and fearful as they ever were and question whether being under even the slightest pressure revealed the truth about what we are as a species. The Next Generation‘s “The Pegasus” also built itself on the idea of fear being a gateway to corruption and Deep Space Nine‘s “In the Pale Moonlight” was a story that put one of our beloved Captains in the role of a liar scheming to trick the Romulans into joining the Federation’s side in the Dominion War. Other striking examples exist throughout the franchise’s nearly six-decade history so it seems appropriate to open this article countering those who may claim that conspiracy plots have no place in Star Trek. They don’t fit with the values that the Federation upholds but they absolutely fit with the franchise.
Of course, the fact that these types of stories have a place in the franchise doesn’t automatically mean that such a plot will be any good. The Changelings were introduced to Picard in the third episode of the season and have so far failed to make a strong impression. In “Seventeen Seconds” one of the Changelings was brutish and unintelligent, likely nerfed by the plot force so that Jack could survive the encounter. In “No Win Scenario” it was made canon that all Changelings use buckets of a similar design to the one used by Odo to regenerate in. So far, not a great showing for the Changelings in Picard. There is no actual evidence to back up that they are the sort of threat they are stated to be.
This episode works to create a sense of paranoia and force characters to question who they can trust. The dead Changeling holds the form of the person it was imitating prior to being killed, in this case – Sidney La Forge, and approximates blood when cut. In Deep Space Nine the Changelings reverted to their liquid state when killed and any part that was separated from them would also revert. It’s clear that they managed to find a way to trick the blood test but that was never explicitly explained so it could be that it was a continuity error that went by relatively unnoticed. Beverly outlines that they have evolved to be the perfect imitators who can’t be caught by blood screenings and are able to fool bioscans which makes them nearly impossible to detect. That was also the case in Deep Space Nine but there were at least some methods that could root out a Changeling infiltrator. That isn’t the case here as the only current method is testing the knowledge of someone you suspect which would likely tip them off and prompt a violent response.
The trouble with this show is that it doesn’t capitalise on Changelings being the perfect spy as they completely lack in finesse when making their move. Previously, the mere suspicion of a Changeling infiltrator was enough to turn friends to enemies or destabilise governments. By impersonating Martok, a single Changeling was able to facilitate a conflict between the Federation and the Klingons that was designed to weaken them both in preparation for a Dominion invasion. The possibility of Changelings on Earth encouraged a Starfleet Admiral to try to seize power from the legitimate government. This episode features a total of four Changellings trying to attack Jack at once and none of them even attempt to use their transformation ability to fashion a weapon. Jack does get wise to them and take them out very quickly but they give him plenty of warning rather than doing something like posing as his mother and trying to convince him to go with them or even simply stunning him while he was distracted by a familiar form. Instead, they gang up on him and are all killed because they behave stupidly. Not only does this make them victims of the plot force but it makes them far less interesting as antagonists as they seem more likely to engineer their own undoing through sheer incompetence.
Fortunately for them, the incompetence of other characters helps them along in their plan. The knowledge that there are Changelings in play doesn’t prompt those in the know to take any precautions whatsoever. Picard, Riker, Beverly, Seven and Shaw act as if they dealt with the only Changeling on board and focus entirely on examining the corpse they have rather than considering whether there might be others. Shaw posited the detection method of questioning suspects in the hope of tripping them up in the previous episode and follows up on it when the Changeling mistakenly calls Seven Commander Hanson when in the guise of Sidney La Forge. A logical progression would be to start questioning the crew -or at least discuss the possibility of doing so- while they have a moment to breathe. Shaw doesn’t waste time in contacting Starfleet to make it their problem which fits what we know about his character but the others are oddly passive when it comes to the threat being faced.
The questioning method does come into play with the arrival of The Next Generation alum Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes), a former traitor who left Starfleet to join the resistance group, the Maquis after coming to believe in their cause. She is back in Starfleet and now a Commander who happens to be in charge of the inquiry into Picard and Riker’s deceptive behaviour that led the Titan into the situation they have recently escaped from.
Ro’s appearance allows for a long-delayed conversation between her and Picard about her betrayal. He is incredibly angry with her because he sees what she did as an affront to everything he stands for as well as a betrayal of the bond they shared based on mutual respect. It’s an odd position for Picard to take as he has absolutely no empathy for Ro and makes no effort to understand her point of view. He comes across as self-righteous and closed-minded as he makes their conversation all about how he feels about it while Ro’s words consistently fall on deaf ears.
They did have a connection that was more personal than Picard shared with most of his crew. He noticed things in her that he believed could be nurtured to make a great officer and even sponsored her entry into Starfleet’s Advanced Tactical Training program so she was something of a project for him that he put time into. The relationship they shared was more framed as a mentor taking special interest in someone under his command he believed to have excellent potential rather than the deep bond that Picard refers to in this episode. it’s possible that the years between encounters has coloured his perception of what that connection was but his entire approach in this episode feels off because it isn’t consistent with what came before. It has been altered to suit the narrative playing out in this episode which would be fine if it didn’t rely so heavily on the viewer buying into a connection that existed in another show that they may not have watched.
Picard’s feelings about her betrayal are also inconsistent as he places the blame fully on her shoulders. In The Next Generation episode “Preemptive Strike” he sends her on a mission to infiltrate the Maquis and she ends up becoming sympathetic to their cause after experiencing what they have to deal with first-hand. She highlights to Picard that she doesn’t know where she stands which is followed by the threat of Court Martial should she do anything to sabotage the mission. At the end of the episode, she decides to leave Starfleet behind and join the Maquis. The episode ends with Picard silently contemplating what had happened. It isn’t stated but the implication is that Picard recognised that he was far from blameless in Ro’s betrayal. He sent her on the mission and had an inkling that she was wavering on a couple of occasions. All nuance is stripped away for the purposes of this episode so that their conflict can be framed through the simple binary of Ro betraying Starfleet as well as him personally and Picard being angry about it.
That’s not to say the scenes aren’t good. Patrick Stewart and Michelle Forbes are talented performers more than capable of conveying what the episode needs them to but boiling it down to such a simple argument does a disservice to the prior relationship that was established. Of course, if the complexity is acknowledged then this episode can’t accomplish what it needs to so both characters are victims of the plot force.
Picard’s lack of understanding of Ro’s perspective doesn’t even make sense when considering only what this episode has to offer. Shaw lists some of Picard and Riker’s previous exploits including the events of Star Trek: Insurrection where Picard ignored the Prime Directive so he could “snog a villager on Ba’Ku”. It’s an oversimplification of the events but the key fact is ignoring the Prime Directive. As an aside he also references the anomaly in the Devron system from The Next Generation finale “All Good Things”, an event that took place in an alternate timeline so didn’t actually happen. It’s another example of past events being referenced without taking the time to ensure the accuracy of the reference.
Since Picard once ignored the Prime Directive to stand up for what he believed was right and was reminded of that in this very episode, he should be in a position to understand Ro’s point of view as she betrayed Starfleet to stand up for a cause that she believes in. The alternative is that Picard believes that it’s only ok to commit treason when he does it because he holds the highest moral authority which would support the self-righteousness exhibited in his interactions with Ro. That isn’t who Picard is though, not even in this show’s present. The first season sees Picard embark on a quest because he feels that Starfleet is wrongfully ignoring it and there are other examples of him displaying empathy for those wronged by institutions. He even displayed deep cynicism about what Starfleet had become in the very first episode of this show and there has been no indication that he has fully changed his mind on this.
The argument itself is repetitive which is often the case where both sides of it are so inflexible but it exists to get to the point where both can trust one another. For them, trust comes from pain as they could only be so angry and upset with one another if they are truly who they claim to be. It’s an effective moment that shatters the paranoid atmosphere created in their scenes together at the right moment and allows the plot to progress. Getting to that point was contrived but on an emotional level, the shift works because of the talented performers delivering it. They fully sell the idea of a deep emotional bond that was damaged by what happened when they last met. Acknowledging the pain and establishing that trust allows them to push that aside to address the crisis at hand.
Ro tells Picard that the Changeling infiltration is so much larger than he knows and she can trust very few people. One of the steps taken to mitigate that to some degree is transporting most of the Titan’s crew to the Intrepid in order to thin the herd of potential infiltrators and hopefully leave behind a skeleton crew of the trustworthy. It’s far from a foolproof plan but it is at least an attempt to address the problem. More people means potentially more spies so Ro’s plan means there are fewer people to keep an eye on. She takes steps to position the Titan as a trusted ship that can fight against the Changeling plan.
The trouble is that Starfleet can’t be trusted so fighting against it means going rogue and being one ship against the entire Federation. Amusingly, Ro is asking Picard to do something very similar to the thing she did that deeply offended him. In keeping with the lack of nuance on display, Picard comes to understand Ro’s decision moments before her death which clears him to be the one going against Starfleet to fight for something he believes in. It does function as the completion of an arc but there was minimal development of that arc so the conclusion is unnatural and doesn’t land. His change of heart also exists to add weight to Ro’s death which is an impactful moment by itself though it does rely on the viewer having an existing connection to her as the episode only characterises her down very specific lines.
Picard and Riker pleading with Shaw to pay attention to what’s happening around him and act in the best interests of his ship, crew and the Federation makes for a very tense exchange. Shaw is encouraged to see past the personal issues he has with them and approach the situation objectively as a Captain should. Ultimately he makes the right choice and the Titan crew all become fugitives in pursuit of putting an end to the Changeling threat. The prospect of them being one ship against an enemy with access to functionally infinite resources is an interesting one but also runs the risk of falling into the trap of empty impossibly high stakes that runs rampant in franchise storytelling.
Jack being the most wanted person in the galaxy receives more attention but no answers. He is hidden in a Starfleet uniform which obviously does nothing to keep him from being discovered and Picard asks if he might consider a career in Starfleet once all of this is over. It’s a flat no from Jack as he has no interest in following in his mother or father’s footsteps though this could be setting up an arc that will end with Jack finding a place to belong in Starfleet as many others have.
His main problem is the unexplained visions he has been having. A voice in them beckons him to come home, instructs him to find and fear whoever the voice belongs to and there’s even an instruction to “connect us”. As with the previous episode, there isn’t enough information to start theorising though it’s looking more likely that Jack is the key to some sort of apocalyptic scenario based on the flashes of destructive imagery accompanying the voices. If that’s the case then it’s a very tired plot both in Star Trek and elsewhere. The second season of Discovery featured an apocalyptic scenario as did the fourth to an extent and both previous seasons of Picard dealt with the end of the universe of erasure of the timeline. These sorts of stories are so prevalent that they have become narrative white noise and fail to be captivating. If characters are always dealing with the end of everything then the notion of stakes becomes meaningless. A TV show can still be -and usually is- more interesting with relatable personal stakes and situations that are difficult while still being realistic.
Personal stakes currently still exist where Jack is concerned at least. Along with the vague red-tinted apocalyptic visions and ominous voices, he also has visions of losing control and surgically murdering the crew. He imagines this happening on the bridge and in the transporter room. This causes him immense distress and his mother notices it which prompts him to talk about it. Praise is deserved for this as Jack doesn’t continue to keep what is happening to him a secret when looping other people in might help find a solution so there is meaningful progress on this as now Beverly is aware.
Her conversation with him establishes that this isn’t a recent issue as she mentions nightmares that he used to have. They apparently either stopped occurring or Jack stopped remembering them but the problem has returned and it’s worse than ever. His visions also have an extra element to them as evidenced by his dealing with four attacking Changelings with no trouble so there are abilities within him only accessible by embracing the voices. How all this affects Jack as a person is far more interesting than what is happening to him as the emotional toll on Jack is significant and Ed Speelers creates a compelling connection to it through how he portrays the fear Jack is experiencing that he covers up with false confidence.
The Worf and Raffi plot does little more than spin its wheels in this episode. They are still an engaging pairing and the Vulcan gangster, Krinn (Kirk Acevedo) is a fun novelty but very little actually happens. The characters aren’t meaningfully developed by what they experience and the narrative is only furthered by their gaining possession of a device that they will use later. It all seems to be built around the fakeout of Worf’s death which isn’t left to linger long enough for the viewer to consider the possibility that he might actually be dead. It happens and then seconds later he turns the tables on Krinn by revealing that Raffi didn’t actually kill him.
A more engaging way to do this would be to spend some of their scenes with Worf preparing her for the eventuality of having to continue their mission alone and have her isolated for a period of time before Worf makes his triumphant return. The way it actually plays out is just a sequence of things happening that aren’t interesting or impactful. There is a promise of Raffi and Worf joining up with the characters on the Titan which finally brings Worf back into contact with Picard and Riker. It may be interesting to see how those dynamics have shifted.
An underwhelming episode that has some effective moments but centres itself on a repetitive argument that is simplified to support the story it’s trying to tell.
- an impressively tense atmosphere created
- Michelle Forbes and Patrick Stewart’s performances
- trust coming from pain working on an emotional level
- shattering the tension by establishing the trust and allowing the plot to progress
- the impressive exchange when Shaw is being convinced to see what is going on around him
- the personal emotional stakes associated with Jack’s visions
- the lack of depth in Picard and Ro’s conflict
- more empty and inaccurate nostalgic referencing
- the Worf and Raffi plot spinning its wheels
- the Changelings completely lacking in finesse
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