Star Trek: Picard 1.07 – “Nepenthe”

Is it low expectations, Stockholm syndrome, or a genuine upswing in quality? With one glaring, significant exception, “Nepenthe” was an almost perfect episode of Picard, balancing plot and character development with just a smidge of fan service.

“Nepenthe” is Picard’s version of “Despite Yourself” — big advances in plot, loads of character development, some high quality fan service, and it’s all spoiled by the gratuitous death of a character named Hugh in a moment which reflects extremely poorly on the production team’s dedication to queer representation.

The structure of this episode, with events unfolding in three discreet locations, lends itself nicely to a blog post. Let’s start with the Artifact and get the unpleasantness out of the way.

My friends, Hugh’s death is some bullshit

In my own writing, I have a set of criteria I apply when I consider killing a major or significant supporting character:

  • does it serve the plot?
  • could it have been easily prevented by the exercise of imagination and/or common sense?
  • does it represent a culmination of that character’s arc?
  • if my target is a supporting character, does it also serve the protaganist’s arc?
  • if my target is a member of a marginalised group, are they the only significant representative of that group, and is their death either stereotypical or reflective of common tropes?
  • is there another option?

By these standards, Hugh’s death fails. The plot requires Elnor to be alone, but that could have been achieved simply by capturing Hugh.

Is Picard’s arc served? Only if “piling on more guilt” counts.

Hugh’s arc? Well, Michael Chabon thinks it was served, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Here’s the problem: in a series with no overtly queer characters whatsoever, Jonathan Del Arco is the most prominent gay actor in the ensemble. (Yes, Hugh is only in a handful of episodes, this is a low bar.) And here’s Michael Chabon’s take

This is Some Bullshit

That’s a big chunk of text in a picture, so lemme transcribe, and also add some paragraph breaks for readability:

Have adored the show, but can you explain the heartbreaking choice to kill Hugh? [heart emoji, Vulcan salute emoji]

One of the stories we are telling this season on Picard is a story about the tragedy of being Borg, or more precisely, of being assimilated and then, even more poignantly, being restored from assimilation, and struggling forever after with assimilation’s traumatic legacy.

In a very unique way, Hugh was able to recontextualise his trauma into something which brought healing and hope to himself. But his predicament, like that of all former Borg — as he explained to Picard in episode 106 — remained essentially tragic, and tragically is how he dies, cut down by someone who sees him as a disgusting monster at the moment when he makes his boldest claim to dignity and freedom.

(Emphasis added.)

So here’s the thing. You have a story about people who are outcasts, seen as monsters and threats to society. You have a character, played by a gay actor whose first performance was literally inspired by his partner’s death from AIDS, who saves, protects and advocates for his fellow outcasts. And when he makes that “bold claim to dignity and freedom”, you kill him.

You almost have to congratulate Chabon and team for executing such a pure example of Burying Your Gays without actually going so far as to include a gay character.

Oh, and why are there no queer characters? Don’t worry, Chabon explained that, too.

This is Some More Bullshit

will we see any overt LGBTQ+ rep in S1? I’m loving PIC, but there’s been a lack [sadface emoji] thank you!

You’re right, there has been a relative lack of emphasis there. Our characters’ sexualities, or rather our understanding of them, emerged and evolved over the course of the season, as our actors moved into and began to inhabit their roles. It was an organic process, and references to sexuality identity and history arise in a less explicit way. Next season that understanding will come more fully into play.

So, to recap: we’ve had five heterosexual pairings in seven episodes — Dahj/her boyfriend, Laris/Zhaban, Soji/Narek, Agnes/Rios and Riker/Troi — but those all arose organically. You know. Like when a man and a woman make eye contact and talk a couple of times, then they bang. Organic.

But queer relationships are like sourdough starter: you need to let them develop slowly over time, in the most subtle of ways, and who even knows how yeast works? It’s an organism and we eat it.

…sorry, got off topic. I’ve been watching a lot of the Bon Appetit YouTube channel lately, and I have a lot of feelings about sourdough. The dough can smell fear, you know, just like television writers can…

This metaphor has gotten out of hand. Suffice to say that there is a massive double standard in the Picard writers room, and now, having set up — or inherited — a fascinating AIDS metaphor, they’ve gone and destroyed it in the ugliest way possible.

Rick Berman would be proud.

We don’t even get to learn anything new about Narissa — she’s still impatient, sadistic and eeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil, same as she’s been since her very first scene. Is her hatred of Hugh and the xBs related to the Zhat Vash horror of AI, or is she just a jerk? Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to know.

Hugh was an important character to TNG, and to Star Trek as a whole. Without him, we’d have no Seven of Nine. And he was a beacon of hope in the complicated world of Picard. Killing him off was a mistake, but if he had to die, he should have had a bigger moment. Hugh deserved better.

The subplot with pizza

Just as Hugh Culber’s death marred an otherwise great episode of Discovery, everything else in “Nepenthe” is wonderful. (Which in some ways only makes it worse. Is it better to be killed off in a great episode or a middling one?)

Confession time: I wasn’t really looking forward to the Frakes and Sirtis appearance. I’m sufficiently engaged with the new characters that I didn’t want TNG people taking up valuable screen time, and I expected this subplot to be All About Picard, with Soji sidelined. And, with all the pacing problems this season has had, the last thing we needed was another trip to Planet Sidequest.

I was, to my great pleasure, completely wrong. This diversion to Nepenthe was absolutely necessary for Soji. She needed time and space to adapt to her new reality, and to begin to trust Picard — and she needed the attention of a good psychologist.

Deanna is intrinsic to this story — more than Riker — and frankly, she’s used better in this single episode than in whole seasons of TNG. She doesn’t need to sense Soji’s emotions to understand how she is feeling, and she embraces Soji as a person in her own right, not simply as the lost “offspring” of her old friend.

Then there is Kestra, who is simply a wonderful character: not a Wesley Crusher type of genius, but the sort of homeschooled kid whose intelligence has been nurtured by equally clever parents who love her.

I feel like I know this child, and not just because she has the same haircut as every second adolescent girl I see on the bus. She’s engaging, but also low-key annoying in a very realistic way — she’s perceptive, but she’s also a talker in a way that makes it very clear she’s Lwaxana Troi’s granddaughter.

I suspect she’d be absolutely insufferable if she wasn’t played by such a talented actress, and if her idyllic adolescence wasn’t marred by the absence of her older brother, a benevolent ghost haunting the Troi-Riker family.

Thad is actually the second child Deanna has lost, and also the third lost son in Picard. Not that I’m counting, but it’s an interesting motif. What’s notable is how Will and Deanna have coped: yes, Thad’s room is untouched, but the grief is slowly fading.

They’re not bitter, even though his death could have been prevented had the synth ban not extended to the positronic matrices which could have cured him. It’s an interesting, low-key way to link their story to the main plot, and to highlight the unintended consequences of laws made in haste and driven by fear.

(Deanna’s coping mechanisms are also a lot better than her mother’s, who reacted to losing a child by, ummmmmmmmm, deleting her diaries and pretending that child never existed? Like, no wonder Deanna became a mental health professional.)

All this means that Will, Deanna and Kestra have a sense of the loss Soji has suffered, and welcome her into their home as a person in her own right, not simply an extension of Data. (Although Kestra, who has yet to develop a filter, is here to ask the important questions like, Does Soji have mucus?)

And they also know Picard well enough to guess what’s on his mind, and to call him out when he doesn’t take Soji’s fear seriously. Which is kind of a dick move on his part, but I think he expected her to have the same “trust Picard implicitly” subroutine as Dahj.

Unlike most of the people who have called Picard out this season, though, Deanna also gives him practical advice on how to do better — which actually ties back nicely into the original conception of her character as one who advises and counsels the captain.

Riker is less intrinsic to the story than Deanna, but his presence is no less welcome. He’s become a warm old bear of a man, a protector as well as a nurturer — a stark and fascinating contrast to the “macho ladies man” he was conceived as back in 1986.

(Hey, here’s Some More Bullshit: despite Deanna being the one who is necessary to the plot, only Frakes was included in the opening credits. Unlike Brent Spiner, Jeri Ryan and Frakes himself, Marina Sirtis was relegated to the end credits — and the production didn’t even have the wig and contact lenses she needed for the role ready until she asked about them. She had to supply her own wig. This is sheer incompetence.)

The subplot with cake

How much do I love Team La Sirena? It was a joy to flip back to them from Nepenthe. Yes, even Rios. Yes, even though this episode demonstrates that Rios is an idiot.

The mystery of Agnes has been solved: she’s not brainwashed, merely given information so shocking that she was persuaded that murdering Maddox — and Soji — is the only solution to stopping the rise of the synths.

The vision of synth destruction is more or less straight out of Mass Effect, and honestly, Picard has borrowed so much from that trilogy that I kind of hope Bioware’s lawyers are drafting a shirty letter. It’s clear that Chabon and team have nothing new to say about artificial life, and the only novelty is in applying the cliches to the Star Trek setting. Which is disappointing, but … fine.

What’s interesting is that Agnes isn’t a villain, or a hero. She’s just a normal person who is in way over her head, and who is just plain not suited to murder and espionage. Or space travel, despite having actually been in Starfleet at one point, according to her dialogue in the first episode.

And what’s delightful about Agnes is that, when Raffi dons her Cool Aunt Who Will Get You High persona, what Agnes really wants is cake. And milk. Chocolate milk. She may not be a perfect cinnamon roll (too pure, too good for this world) but she’s lovely nonetheless, and despite that time she straight up killed a guy, I hope she sticks around.

Not delightful, but heartbreaking: Raffi’s insistence that she is merely the wreckage of a good person, who can pretend in an emergency to be good. Honey, that makes you a good person. Raffi couldn’t singlehandedly save the Romulans; she can barely even save herself; but she keeps trying to help people. More than anyone else in this cast, I only want good things for Raffi.

(And yet, I keep wondering if she would be subtly different if there was a black woman on the writing team. I’m tired of seeing black women suffering without reward.)

As for Rios — okay, the day I watch an episode, I usually do a quick reaction post on Dreamwidth, outlining my first impressions. That gets mirrored to Tumblr, because heaven forbid I have an opinion that I don’t share with the entire world. Anyway, last week I suggested that Cris is maybe kind of stupid for continuing to suspect Raffi after Agnes has all but confessed to him. Some Rios fans on Tumblr objected, suggesting that this is in fact an elaborate scheme cooked up between Cris and Raffi.

I thought this was a solid idea, but then I rewatched the episode, and I don’t think it holds up — Rios still behaves as if he’s suspicious of Raffi even when they’re alone, and Raffi is briefly confused, then dismisses it as a joke.

So, no, Rios is simply oblivious. At best, he’s thinking with his dick; at worst, he’s a bit racist. (Again: I think having a black woman in the writers room would make a difference.)

Agnes solves the problem by following her cake binge with a neurotoxin chaser. Is this a suicide attempt, or a calculated risk to disable the tracker? I was enjoying the ambiguity, but then Chabon confirmed it was the latter. I really ought to just unfollow him.

Either way, it’s effective: La Sirena loses Narek, and Alison Pill gets to add some foaming mouth action to her two vomit scenes. Noice.

I don’t have much to say about Narek

Save that I’m glad his storyline has been separated from Soji’s, and that I thought his fidget spinner was a nice way of signalling that he has a lot onĀ  his mind without resorting to angsty monologues.

Where is Elnor’s cat?

I haven’t forgotten.

Fenris swag

Where did the Fenris Rangers-branded light-up SOS doodad come from? This is what Seven gave Picard at the end of “Stardust City Rag”, and I thought he must have dropped it in “The Impossible Box” — but Chabon says it belonged to Hugh, and he gave it to Elnor.

Ensuring that everyone has the right doodad at the right time is a weirdly challenging aspect of writing, but this is another thing which maybe could have been clarified in revisions?

But I’m more curious to know if the Rangers just … hand these glowing keychains out to everyone, or if they have other merch. “Another Fenris Rangers KeepCup? Seriously? At least Starfleet has moved on to tote bags!”

Other observations

  • I would not have assumed Oh’s tracker was edible. It looks like jewellery!
  • Actress Lulu Wilson has rightfully received a ton of praise for her performance as Kestra. She’s only fourteen, but has more IMDB credits than Evan Evagoria.
  • Much as it’s fantastic to see Deanna wearing normal clothes, I feel compelled to point out she still has more cleavage and higher heels than most women would wear for a nice day gardening at home.
  • Michelle Hurd’s physical acting continues to be fantastic. Like, when Raffi is thinking, she has her chin in her hand with her thumb by her mouth, as if she’s holding her snakeweed vape.
  • Rios reiterates here that Picard is a paying customer. How much does he charge? How much money does Picard have? Will the season end with Cris lighting up a cigar outside Chateau Rios while Laris and Zhaban update their CVs?

In conclusion

I wish I could award scores to individual subplots — I’d give four bunnycorn pizzas to the Nepenthe and La Sirena storylines, and one to the Artifact storyline. I guess that averages out at three? But that seems too low for the good things and way too high for the bad stuff. Numbers were a mistake.

A final bit of awards shilling

If you have a membership for CoNZealand, this year’s WorldCon, you still have time to nominate me for Best Fan Writer. (Please also consider my esteemed colleague Jules and her DS9 rewatch blog Bad Pajamas.)

And I’ll also be at Wellington for the con, provided we haven’t all fallen to Covid-19 and New Zealand hasn’t closed their borders — if you’re there, we should catch up! Possibly from a safe distance with plenty of hand sanitiser?

The post-credits scene

Laris and Zhaban’s joint CV:

1. ?????? – 2384: Operatives, Tal Shiar

Skills: Espionage, disappearances, torture, forensics, wine-making

2. 2384-2399: Vintners/estate managers, Chateau Picard

Skills: Business management, domestic management, forensics, admiral-wrangling, wine-making

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