Star Trek: Picard 1.04 – “Absolute Candor”

The cracks are beginning to show.

To be absolutely candid, Star Trek: Picard has a racism problem. Which is to say, it’s racist.

Every single significant onscreen death so far has been a person of colour: Dahj’s boyfriend (black), Dahj herself (Isa Briones is Filipina), and now the former Romulan senator (black). Even in the second episode, the first person to die in the synth attack is a person of colour, and that massacre is the only time we’ve seen white people die onscreen.

Black people are disproportionately represented here, and they are subject to particularly shocking and violent deaths.

I’m sure this is not intentional, but it’s an ugly and common pattern. It’s thoughtlessness, not malice, but it makes it all too clear that Star Trek: Picard is White Dude Trek — the product of talented white men who have never been confronted with their innate and unconscious biases.

What’s shocking is that there must have been some intent behind the decision to costume Picard as a colonialist relic in the teaser. He beams in, looking like a 1930s adventurer, and is promptly surrounded by a mob of grateful Romulan supplicants — most of whom are played by people of colour.

“Tone deaf” does not begin to cover it.

Next let’s talk about the sexism

In that teaser flashback, Picard asks Zani if Elnor is lonely, being a boy surrounded by women. A charitable reading is that he means Elnor is a child surrounded by adults, but, well, would you not simply say that?

For a nice bookend of sexism, “Absolute Candor” ends with La Sirena being saved by a Mysterious Pilot, for whom the male pronoun is used. Surprise! It turns out to be a woman! Why, they let ladies fly space ships nowadays! What a world, eh?

Oh wait, it’s not 1950, and the twist is not that the pilot is a woman, but that it’s a person we know: Seven of Nine. (And it’s not even much of a twist if you watched the opening credits. Which I didn’t, so I was pleasantly surprised.)

Petition to introduce Michael Chabon to the singular “they” pronoun, and once he’s got his head around that, we can move on to non-binary gender identities.

And the heteronormativity

Four episodes in, and we have all this blatant heterosexuality — even between siblings! — and still no overtly queer characters.

By contrast, by episode four, Discovery had introduced Hugh and Paul — though they were not yet revealed to be in a relationship — and had hinted at heterosexuality in oblique ways that mostly involved Jason Isaacs making eye contact with women and looking a bit creepy.

I really hope that the people running Trek haven’t looked at Discovery, gone “Yep, ticked that box” and decided not to think too hard about representation in the other series. Last year I expressed the fear that, by shooting Discovery to the far future and erasing her from the records, the writers were removing from the main time period  all the diversity that ship and crew represented. But I really wanted to be wrong.

Are we meant to like Picard?

I know I’ve said that I enjoy how Picard’s besetting flaw is his ego — his sheer fucking hubris, if you will. But at some point, say by the fourth episode, I expect him to stop repeating his mistakes.

He sets course for Vashti, assuming it will be the resettlement success story it was fourteen years ago. He is informed that it has essentially become Nimbus 3.5, being riven by violence, criminality and something called the Romulan Rebirth movement. (Which I assumed was a faction of Romulan ethno-nationlists, but it’s not actually defined in any way.)

And still, he beams down expecting a warm, friendly welcome. At this point, it doesn’t feel like naivete, or even simple ego, but the pure entitlement of an elderly white man who assumes he is welcome everywhere — and if he is not welcomed, well, that’s just a mistake on someone else’s part. In removing that Romulans Only sign,  he’s not striking a blow for justice and equality, he’s just being a dick — not least because there’s a No Romulans sign opposite, leading one (me) to wonder why he didn’t go for that instead.

The series keeps raising interesting questions about the intersection of institutional and individual failures, and the limitations of the concept of the “great man”. But at this stage I have no faith that they’ll be answered with any particular insight. I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t say the writing has impressed me so far.

Argh, pacing (as usual)

Over on the Artefact, Soji’s personal story is advancing at an incremental pace. She’s watching old footage of Ramdha (and revealing that Romulans have talk shows; I cannot EVEN) and engaging in very Data-like head tilts. Narek is planting seeds of doubt about her past.

And, because she’s not an idiot, Soji no longer trusts Narek.

This is all good! The plot advances at a snail’s pace, but it’s moving! (“Liz, my flatmate asked, late in this episode, “is anything ever going to happen in this show?”)

But at the same time, Narek and Narissa keep repeating the same conversation, and ramping up the sexual sibling tension doesn’t make it any more interesting.

It feels like we’re spinning our wheels, delaying action until Picard is in the right place. Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery had the same problem, the interminable and repetitive search for Spock. I really do wish they had learned a lesson from that.

On Picard’s end, last week it felt like all the pieces were in place and we were finally ready to do something. I knew we had a couple of key characters to pick up, but I assumed that would be organically integrated into the plot somehow.

Instead, we’re taking a sudden detour to Planet Side Quest, and that brief momentum is lost.

Narissa is turning out to be a problem

Romulans are meant to be intensely secretive, but Narissa is extremely open about being the villain. She was introduced as a ruthless sadist who doesn’t fully understand the concept of delayed gratification, and now, several appearances later, she is still exactly that. She has no layers, no shades of grey, no nuance.

Even her costuming is evil: as the gentlemen of The Greatest Discovery said in this week’s episode, it’s the sort of outfit where you look in the mirror and go, “…Am I the bad guy?”

I’d call her a cartoon villain, but that would do a disservice to all the complicated cartoon villains out there. (Shout out to my girl Azula, who is scarier and more subtle at fourteen than Nerissa is at … I dunno, let’s say she’s twenty-something.)

Let’s just say she’s a one-note character and move on.

Okay, here’s what I did like

Sarcasm party in the holochateau

I’m a bit annoyed that Picard’s ready room-equivalent is a holographic reproduction of his study, given that just last week he confessed that the place never quite felt like home — and, worse, it robs us of seeing more of La Sirena. Yes, sets are expensive and all, but won’t anyone think of my needs?

But the interplay in that scene — Raffi’s anger, Picard answering her sarcasm with his own, Rios’s detachment, Agnes’s determination to be part of the group — was really fun. I know we have some plot to deal with … eventually … and I know I just whinged about the pacing, but I do want to see these dorks hanging out.

Ninja assassin nuns

While I query the decision to name them after Australia’s worst serial killer, I love the Qowat Milat and want to see more of them. Especially in the context of their hatred for/rivalry with the Tal Shiar, and especially if it means I get to see them  hang out with Laris and Zhaban (who have adopted their own version of the Way of Absolute Candor).

My Australian Romulan Ninja Elf Son

There was simply no possibility that I wouldn’t love Elnor. Evan Evagoria is only the third-ever Australian to appear in Trek, and the first who sounds like me.

So yes, we don’t really know why Elnor changed his mind about standing with Picard, and we have to assume that he just really wants to see a cat. And yes, he carries himself with the slightly befuddled air of a hungover Fitzroy barista who isn’t really up to doing the brunch shift but can’t afford to lose the wages. But I love him.

Agnes is extremely brainwashed

I firmly believe that, in the time which elapses between Raffi asking why they’re going to Vashti, and Agnes inviting herself to the sarcasm session in the study, she was updating Commodore Oh on their new destination. Not consciously, of course! But it’s interesting how she manages to be everywhere onboard. On the bridge. In meetings. In the transporter room to greet Elnor and witness his dressing down by Picard for an unauthorised decapitation.

(Jean-Luc. Mate. If you hire an assassin, you need to set boundaries before you put yourself in a dangerous situation. It’s like you’ve never done this outside the holodeck before!)

I mean. Maybe Agnes is just at loose ends, determined to be part of things, and struck by hero worship of Picard.

But she could be all these things, and also brainwashed.

For one thing, in that confrontation in the Romulan cafe, there were several shots of a grey-haired, pointy-eared man who seemed more Vulcan than Romulan in his demeanour. This felt deliberate. And how would a Federation spy know where Picard would be?

My android daughter is so smart, you guys!

Narek may or may not be falling in love with Soji, but she is not down for that nonsense, and it looks like his declaration of Feelings has only served to deepen her doubts.


Other observations

  • The following people need cats:
    • Elnor
    • Soji
    • Actually, La Sirena needs a ship’s cat
  • La Sirena also needs Laris and Zhaban. Yes, someone has to grapesit and look after the dog, but hear me out: Elnor, sweet unsocialised ninja elf raised by assassin nuns who hate the Tal Shiar. And middle-aged ex-Tal Shiar agents. COMEDY ENSUES.
  • I know the Qowat Milat and Elnor look like Middle Earth elves. I just don’t care.
  • This episode did not have enough Raffi.

In conclusion

Not a complete dog (no offence, Number One), but definitely the weakest of the season, and further evidence for my theory that Michael Chabon doesn’t yet have the experience to be a showrunner. Two precious Australian Romulan ninjas out of five.


Shameless self-promotion, again

Various awards are taking nominations! I’m weirded out, yet proud, to say that this blog and I are eligible for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer! If you’re a member of this year’s WorldCon — CoNZealand — please consider me when nominating.

(And if you’re attending CoNZealand, hey, me too! We should get a drink and talk about Star Trek!)

The Ditmars, more or less the Australian Hugos, are also open. Nominations can come from “any natural person active in fandom”, although voting is limited to members of the Australian NatCon, which this year is being held at SwanCon, in Perth. My Star Trek blogging of 2019 is eligible for Best Fan Writer, and also the William Atheling Jr. Award for Criticism or Review. If you are a natural person in fandom, or at least reasonably confident you’re not a synth, and you would like to nominate me, you can do so here.


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