Star Trek: Picard 1.05 – “Stardust City Rag”

I’ve started to think that Picard is the new Voyager: the characters are great; the writing is a complete mess; Jeri Ryan turns up halfway through and steals the show.

Which is to say, Star Trek: Picard is terrible, but I kind of love it anyway.

There’s just this weird cognitive dissonance when I see reviewers receiving it as Actual Good Television. It kind of makes sense for Trekkies — I’ve realised there are a lot of Star Trek fans who have literally never watched or read anything outside the franchise. But actual professionals? I’m constantly torn between wondering if I’m doing it wrong, versus feeling like the kid who points out the naked emperor.

Does that sound smug? I don’t feel smug. I’ve let go of my expectations that this show will be good, that the pieces will fall into place and the story will be executed with skill and thought — and I feel a real sense of loss.

So much of my Voyager rewatch has me shouting, “Why weren’t you better?” into the void, but I assumed that future iterations of Trek would achieve that. Discovery came close in its first season, and because I’m a sucker, I’m optimistic for its third. And maybe Picard will pull itself together in its second half! Or maybe its second season! And then maybe I’ll finally get that pony!

Nevertheless, with acceptance comes a sort of freedom. Star Trek: Picard is a mess, and “Stardust City Rag” is discordant and slightly unpleasant, and yet — I enjoyed it.

(This is why I don’t like to call these blog posts “reviews”. There is nothing objective about my writing here, even if I do have a nasty habit of expressing opinions as if they were fact. And my opinions aren’t necessarily consistent, except for my love for morally ambiguous older female characters. Just because something is terrible doesn’t mean I don’t like it.)

Do you have an eyeball squick? Do you want one?

A better series might be able to balance the transition from graphic torture to silly costumes and comedy French accents. I shouldn’t fault Picard for having aspirations; I’m just puzzled as to how the execution was allowed to be so very different from intent.

A bunch of my friends have bailed on the series after this episode, including a few people who didn’t make it as far as the opening credits. And I do not blame them in the least.

I think that Icheb’s torture and death were necessary, and that we needed to see it to understand Seven’s pain and rage — but I also think it could have been filmed with a lot more discretion. Or at least some kind of content warning. It’s quite revealing that this episode gave us the most graphic violence ever seen in Star Trek, but still only hinted at the possibility of a queer relationship.

But that’s a rant for another paragraph.

Let’s all take a moment to appreciate Jeri Ryan

I think everyone who watched Voyager in the ’90s had certain expectations about Seven of Nine. And Ryan foiled all of them: her performance was intelligent, reserved, and, despite the costuming, starkly unsexual.

On my first viewing of “Starship City Rag”, I had trouble reconciling the Seven of 2399 with the Seven of the 2370somethings. (Also, I was still quite thrown by the eyeball business.)

I appreciated it more on my second time around. Seven is quite different: she carries herself with a swagger, she uses slang, she no longer gets giggly-drunk after one glass of champagne. But there are glimpses of her “real” self. Moments when she drops the act.

A significant portion of Seven fans these days are autistic women and girls. Just as autistic fans were often drawn to Data, many have taken Seven as a model for a character whose way of thinking is radically different from those around her.

Autism is massively under-diagnosed in girls and women because we’re socialised from a very early age to practice masking, concealment and camouflage of symptoms.

I say “we” because, while I’m not formally diagnosed, there’s a family history, and I neatly fit the description of what was once called “high functioning” autism. (That just means I’m really, really good at masking, and my stimming behaviours are subtle and socially acceptable.)

(I draw heart-shapes with my thumbs, if you must know. It might look to you like I’m tracing circles, but I know they’re hearts.)

(Another common trait in autistic girls is fixating on fictional universes or characters, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.)

Seven’s facade of normality isn’t just pretense, of course — she’s had decades of individuality, she’s experienced grief and violence, and also love.

But it’s also protective colouring: Icheb’s fate demonstrates the vulnerability of a former Borg, and Seven literally wears her past on her face. Just as autistic women mask to protect themselves from discrimination and exclusion, Seven wears a mask to protect herself from physical danger. And, maybe, from the emotional trauma of confronting her grief and rage head-on.

This feels important.

Seven: not quite confirmed queer

So here’s the thing: Bjayzl and Seven are so obviously ex-lovers that, if they were different genders, there would no question whatsoever (except among the more obtuse fans who want to know when in TNG Picard demonstrated any friendship for Data, and those guys are outliers). Imagine a man saying, “I guess Seven didn’t tell you about our close personal relationship.” There’s no other reasonable interpretation.

(I just pictured Jon Hamm as m!Bjayzl, btw, and I really do think he could pull off a shiny transparent jumpsuit.)

But because they’re both women, and because it’s not specifically stated, we’re left in this weird subtextual space where we’re not quite sure.

And that would be quite interesting, except that Star Trek has been in this space for decades. Picard can give us Romulan incest siblings and an on-screen eyeball extraction, but they choose to play coy over a same-sex relationship?

I call bullshit. More specifically, I call homophobia; maybe not intentionally, but that’s the outcome. Once again, queer identities are quarantined in Discovery, safely contained in the 33rd century, never to be spoken of in the 23rd and 24th; and once again, Star Trek writers are cowards.

On the upside, no black people were killed this week, so we’re making incremental progress on the unconscious bigotry front.

A feather in your hat

Imagine if “Chain of Command (part 2)” had a comedy subplot about Data and Geordi’s holodeck shenanigans. That’s how “Stardust City Rag” feels. There are discordant notes which don’t quite come together to form a melody.

But, taken on its own, and setting aside Eyeball Matters, I enjoyed seeing Team La Sirena going undercover. Not least because, for all that Raffi’s background is in Starfleet Intelligence, they’re kind of bad at it. Rios’s idea of flamboyance is a drink with two umbrellas. Elnor has yet to get his pretty head around the concept of pretense. Picard … I’ll get to Picard.

This is exactly the sort of nonsense I said I wanted last week, and I would enjoy more. Every single person on this ship is both hugely intelligent (probably — I guess the jury is still out on Elnor) and a complete idiot.

The exchange itself was more run of the mill — at least until Seven added her own twist to the plan. But that’s fine, we can’t have an elaborate space heist every week. (Or … can we? Please? And don’t tell me to watch Leverage, I gave up after a season.)

Picard is the weak link in the heist chain. The combination of eye patch and sinister accent is too much, and not really consistent with his TNG characterisation — given half a chance, he always went undercover as some sort of street tough persona. I’m gonna pretend the Evil French Villain was Raffi’s idea.

He uses this persona to express truths and fears he wouldn’t otherwise speak: that he is forever tainted by his assimilation, that he will never fully recover. And that is a good concept, both in terms of psychology and writing technique.

But — okay. As a kid, I had very, very firm ideas about how adults should behave, and I was embarrassed and horrified by the end of the TNG episode “The Big Goodbye”, where Picard delivers an important diplomatic overture while dressed as a hardboiled private eye. I understood the plot reasons, but I did not understand that the whole scene was meant to be comedy. It simply didn’t work, because he was not dressed appropriately. I was a super-fun kid to be around.

I’d like to think I’ve evolved as a person since I was nine, but I look at Picard’s scenes with Seven, and find myself desperately wishing he wasn’t wearing an eye patch. Or doing an accent. Some moments are serious, and should be treated as such.

Oh yeah, I should probably talk about Seven murdering her ex

A lot of people are dismayed by that development, and I’ve seen a fair amount of commentary along the lines of, “What would Janeway say?”

I think Janeway’s reaction could plausibly range from “mild disappointment and concern” to “pure rage”, with “Kathryn Janeway cannot take your call right now as she is busy stealing a time crystal from the Klingons to go back in time and save Icheb” as a valid outside option. But what I know for certain is that Tuvok does not approve.

Do I approve? As a person with morals and ethics, no.

As a person consuming a story, well, it makes sense, and that’s the important thing. Seven has always been a very isolated person, and Bjayzl betrayed her and destroyed one of the few people to whom she was close. The damage from that trauma has changed her.

I don’t think that killing Bjayzl will actually resolve any of that trauma — Picard, for once lecturing from a position of experience, tries to warn her. But it makes sense that she’d try.

And, really, Bjayzl has clearly killed many people, and would have gone on to kill many more. Do we really believe she’d have been successfully brought to justice in any meaningful way? She killed a Starfleet officer — if the Federation could have dealt with her, they would have done so by now.

Again, in real life, I do not approve of extrajudicial murder! But in the context of the story, I understand how Seven can justify her actions here, both emotionally and in line with her goal of bringing order to the chaos of the galaxy. These justifications are simultaneously self-serving and true. And that’s … cool.

Speaking of women murdering their exes…

Another reason Seven and Bjayzl’s former relationship should have been explicitly framed as romantic: the clear parallel between Seven and Agnes.

A couple of weeks ago, I said on my podcast that I was afraid the show was going to tell us that Agnes’s relationship with Maddox was romantic, and I absolutely did not want that.

Once again, CBS has ignored my wishes, and here we are. Worse, according to the tie-in novel The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack, written in close consultation with Kirsten Beyer, the relationship began when he was her doctoral supervisor.

Thanks, I hate it!

(I also hate the meme that all literary fiction is about middle-aged professors sleeping with their students, but I cannot help but point out they put a literary novelist in charge of the show, and here is a middle-aged professor sleeping with his student.)

It’s not just that academic-student relationships are unethical. And yes, apparently I’m okay with fictional depictions of murder, but not fictional depictions of relationships with this specific sort of power imbalance. It’s the realism that makes it unpleasant, you know?

Agnes’s achievements are called into question, because clearly her supervisor and boss was biased. I also have to query her judgement, because she was an adult — the novel tells us she had a medical degree, in fact — and should have been cognizant of the ethical problems. And also because, wow, Maddox radiates Big Douchebag Energy.

She’s diminished as a character, and I’m not yet sure if the writers realise it.

On the upside, I no longer think she’s brainwashed — I think she’s acting with full agency based on the knowledge she was given by Commodore Oh. What that information is, and how the story will deal with the fallout from her, you know, murdering a dude, remains to be seen.

Agnes’s contribution

Maddox tells Agnes that Soji and Dahj could not exist without her contribution, and part of me is desperately afraid this is going to turn out to be biological, not intellectual. There’s no point in getting angry about plot developments which so far exist only in my head, but that would make me … unhappy.

BUT. I was so busy worrying about this possibility that I forgot one tiny detail from The Last Best Hope: the whole concept of cloning a positronic circuit came from Agnes herself.

And yes, she gives Maddox credit for it. In fact, if the book is canon — and it was written in close consultation with Kirsten Beyer, so I think we can call it “canon until they think of something better” — Maddox’s work basically involves ripping off several women, and also Dr Soong. Who, come to think of it, did not give his wife credit for her contributions to Data.

So maybe this is going to end up being a feminist narrative which deconstructs a Great Man. Who knows?

Meanwhile, Raffi

Another parallel: both Seven and Raffi are women who have, in different ways, lost their sons.

Raffi’s interaction with her son (yet another Gabriel) was incredibly painful to watch, because she is trying so hard to build this bridge, and she’s making every possible mistake.

She turns up unannounced. She thinks she’s clean, but she’s barely taken the first step towards sobriety. She might be right about the conspiracy, but she hasn’t yet internalised that this doesn’t justify her emotional neglect.

I love this. She has such good intentions, and her mistakes are so predictable — to an outsider. She was a brilliant analyst in her prime, and she’s hugely intelligent, but she can’t apply that to herself. I hated that Gabriel turned her away, even though it was the right thing for him, and I would have hated it just as much if he had embraced her.

I just want Raffi to be happy and stable, but she’s her own worst enemy — and, for all her self-loathing, she doesn’t quite see it.

Have I mentioned that I love her?

Does Elnor have a cat yet?

He does not. To whom do I address my complaints?

Meanwhile, back on the cube…

For all my complaints last week, I found myself missing our cube interludes! Even the bit where Narek and Narissa have the same conversation over and over again!

Is it possible to develop Stockholm syndrome, but for a TV show? Or, say, a whole franchise?

Anyone else in the mood for a Mass Effect replay?

Last week: I wonder if the Picard writers have consumed any 21st century SF.

This week: I wonder if the Mass Effect writers are getting royalties from all the ripping-off loving homage Picard is doing.

In fairness, Mass Effect has been remarkably influential on the genre — The Expanse was literally conceived out of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck‘s dissatisfaction with the end of ME3. I just feel compelled to point out that Freecloud is more or less Omega, and Bjayzl is a half-baked Aria T’loak, right down to having a complicated relationship with her vigilante ex-girlfriend. And I really need to replay the Omega DLC.

(I bet Kirsten Beyer is a Kaiden or Liara romancer. Just a feeling.)

Other observations

  • This interview with Kirsten Beyer contains an attempt to justify the teaser, which some may find of interest.
  • It also attempts to frame the death of Maddox, and the reduction of his character to pure Macguffin, as a feminist narrative. I’d be more impressed if the show hadn’t literally fridged Dahj just a few episodes ago.
  • (Beyer’s comments about “Agnes’s mission for Starfleet Intelligence” is more fuel for the Definitely Not Brainwashed After All theory.)
  • Raffi’s conspiracy theory includes something called “the Conclave of Eight”. I assume we’re going to hear more about that soon-ish.
  • It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but Maddox confirms that Soji and Dahj’s “mother” is an AI subroutine.
  • I don’t think Beyer is a great writer, but I like her work because we have similar priorities, ie, women speaking to each other. Raffi’s small exchange with Seven doesn’t advance the plot, but it adds colour to their characters.
  • The good news is that it was mostly white people who died this week. The actor who played Bjayzl is Iranian-American, I think? But we’re edging slowly towards balance.

In conclusion

Remember how a bunch of my friends have decided to drop the series? They cited some or all of the criticisms I’ve been making for weeks: the poor writing, the violence, the various *isms.

And yet, my first instinct was to say, “No, you should give it another chance!” Which is ridiculous! And I restrained myself!

But at the same time, there were so many things I loved in this episode, and enough that I liked, that despite my very serious criticisms, I’m giving it three and a half eyeballs out of five.

Awards season business

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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