Star Trek: Picard, S1.4: “Absolute Candor” opens up…

*****STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS!!*****

Written by series’ showrunner Michael Choban and directed by former “Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) costar/veteran director Jonathan Frakes (“Commander William T. Riker”), the 4th episode of “Star Trek: Picard” takes a closer look at Romulan culture following the aftermath of their star system’s supernova (2009’s “Star Trek”) and in the wake of the Federation’s discontinued evacuation and resettlement efforts after the Synth attack on Mars. The personal repercussions for Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) following the withdrawal of Federation aid to the Romulan people have been devastating…

“Absolute Candor.”

The episode begins, once again, on the date of the Synth attack at Mars 14 years earlier (April 5th, 2385), but this time the event is shown from the perspective of then-Admiral Picard, who was deep in resettlement efforts on the planet Vashti, in the Beta quadrant, when the incident occurred.

Picard’s bright ensemble reflects his optimism during this time, as well as screams “Tourist!”

Picard beams down to Vashti, looking dressed for a holiday, in breezy summer clothes and hat. He is greeted as a local hero to the Romulan refugees, who are working (with heavy reliance on Federation aid) to build a new city on the new planet, giving Vashti it the feel of a frontier town of the American Old West, with a heavy dose of older Asian cultures as well … specifically the all-female, Shaolin-like clan of Romulan warriors called the Qowat Milat. The order is feared within Romulan society, even by the deadly Tal Shiar (a Romulan black ops group). These Qowat Milat warriors, contrary to the deeply secretive Romulan culture, practice “absolute candor” within their temple. People has become close to the head of the local Qowat Milat, a strong, earthy woman named Zani (warmly played by Amirah Vann).

Picard the hero, in happier times, leading the Romulan relocation.

Picard has also become close to a young Romulan boy named Elnor (Ian Nunney). Elnor was adopted by the Qowat Milan in the wake of the supernova disaster, and is called ‘sisterboy’ by the locals, who find a boy among the traditionally female order to be somewhat untraditional. Picard has been giving gifts to the boy, whom he’s become close to during the resettlement (despite his earlier dislike of children that we’d seen many years ago on TNG). Picard’s latest gift is a copy of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers”, and we see a very different side to the admiral as he play-fences with the boy as the call comes from Picard’s exec Raffi (Michelle Hurd) aboard the evacuation ship Nightingale that the Synths have attacked Mars…this was the 9/11-like tragedy that caused the Federation to become increasingly xenophobic and risk-averse. As a consequence, the Federation cancelled their remaining resources and efforts toward the Romulan relocation and resettlements, allowing many Romulans to die and others to forage on their own without aid… including children like Elnor.

Capt. Rios, reading “Tragic Sense of Life.”
Deep….

Present day, aboard the privately owned starship La Serina, Captain Cristobal Rios (Santiago Cabrera) is deep in his existentialist book when he’s interrupted by a visit from Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill), who’s joined Picard on his Quixote-like quest to find Soji (Isa Briones) the only surviving synthetic twin daughter of the late Commander Data. Jurati, Rios and Raffi later meet in a holodeck recreation of Picard’s vineyard, where Jean-Luc reiterates that he ordered Rios to take them to Vashti, which has become more dangerous with rogue warlord factions following the Federation’s abandonment (a timely parallel of bungled post-war refugee efforts with Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq). This change of course takes them away from their initial objective of finding Dr. Bruce Maddox, the cyberneticist who may hold clues to Soji’s creation and current location. Over Raffi’s objection, Picard insists on maintaining their current course to Vashti. Ex-Starfleet officer Capt. Rios complies…

Sonji, sporting her twins’ necklace (a copy of which also belonged to her late sister) enjoying Romulan ale with her Romulan friend-with-few-benefits Narek…

Meanwhile, aboard the “Romulan Reclamation Site” (a secret Romulan/Federation-occupied Borg cube), Soji continues her work trying to understand the possibly psychic, Tarot-playing ex-Borg Romulan named Rhamda (Rebecca Wisockey), who goes into a frenzy at the very sight of Soji, calling her “the destroyer”… a reference to a Romulan prophecy of an artificial life form who will be their undoing (more ‘chosen one’ hugger-mugger nonsense…ugh). This ‘destroyer’ prophecy vaguely echoes the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita; “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”, a line once quoted by Robert Oppenheimer (one of the inventors of the atomic bomb). Soji also continues her unwise affair with the duplicitous Romulan operative Narek (Harry Treadaway) in a meandering storyline that is taking its sweet time to getting to anything resembling a point. Soji and Narek have a silly ‘date’ where he takes her sliding on a wet floor deep within the cube (*yawn*), and, of course, they immediately bicker over their mutual distrust of one another.

Narek and Narissa, sitting in a tree, S-N-I-F-F-I-N-G…

Meanwhile, Narek is also carrying on a boundaries-crossing relationship with his kinky, somewhat incestuously-inclined sister Narissa (Peyton List), who essentially drops by to sniff her brother, flirt with him, and give him a reiteration of the exact same warnings she gave him last week; get results, or we snuff Soji. The only way I will find any of this ‘Borg Cube: 90210’ stuff worthy is if we get a clear sign that Soji is actually playing four-dimensional chess with the Romulan Boris & Natasha. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time, and is the least interesting part of this otherwise terrific series so far.

Picard in gray and black, reflecting the more somber mood of his return to Vashti…

La Sirena then enters orbit of the now heavily-defended Vashti space. Under the direction of Capt. Rios (who’s much less of the cliched ‘macho’ stereotype this week), they carefully manage to penetrate the planet’s outdated, haphazard yet still effective defense grid, allowing Picard to beam down. Once there, Picard is disillusioned (though not at all surprised) to find he is no longer welcomed as the hero he was 14 years ago. His traditional Romulan greetings of “Jolantru” (first heard in the TNG episode “Unification, Part 1″) go unanswered. Dispirited, he makes his way back to the House of Absolute Candor, home of the sisterhood of the Qowat Milat (we are learning a great deal about the complexities of Romulan culture in this series…far more than we ever did in any of the previous series or movies).

Reuniting with warrior nun Zani, an interesting variation on the lore/legends of the Shaolin monks, who occupy a popular niche in martial arts cinema…

Reuniting with Zani, who hasn’t aged a day, Picard asks about the child Elnor, who has become a fully trained member of the Order, despite his being male. The young warrior was raised with the women as the halted resettlement efforts prevented his adoption elsewhere. This is a reversal on the typical gender spin of a female who is trained among traditional ‘male warriors’ in fantasy/martial arts tropes, and it works very well for Romulan culture. Going back to TOS Star Trek, we saw a female Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville) in “The Enterprise Incident” who oversaw several warships, so seeing Romulan women in positions of great power and strength is hardly anything new to Star Trek…though it is always welcome.

Picard and Elnor, remembering Data’s orange tabby Spot…

Picard tries to recruit the now-adult warrior Elnor (now played by Evan Evagora) into his cause to find Data’s daughter (Elnor remembers stories of Data and his cat from tales told to him by Picard in his youth). Despite Picard’s best efforts at persuasiveness, Elnor refuses, as he still harbors a major (understandable) grudge against his former hero for his perceived abandonment, something which was beyond Picard’s control.

“Who you calling Sisterboy?”

Later on, we see Picard going into the village, spoiling for a confrontation with the surly locals, deliberately knocking down and stepping on a “Romulans Only” sign at a local watering hole. Picard then enters the segregated establishment and plays the role of the ‘ugly tourist,’ loudly calling for a waiter. This stirs the ire of the locals. One of the locals, a former Romulan senator (Evan Parke), challenges the outworlder to a duel. Picard, once a master at fencing, is out of his league as a ninety-something human trying to match skill sets with a younger, much stronger Romulan.

Once again, the Romulans wield swords, very much in keeping with their reimagining as seen in 2009’s “Star Trek”…

We realize that Picard has staged all of this to get the attention (and assistance) of Elnor, who takes up his own sword, and in a shocking single blow, decapitates the former Romulan senator (!). Picard is in shock as he cries into his communicator for Raffi to beam he and Elnor aboard, just as one of the locals pull a disruptor pistol on Elnor…

Raffi saves the day, though she doesn’t get to do much else in this episode (though her introduction last week was amazing).

Thanks to Raffi’s quick work at the transporter, they are beamed to the La Sirena, where Picard angrily rebukes Elnor’s needless murder of his Romulan challenger. The still-simmering Picard makes Elnor swear (using a Romulan oath gesture) that he will not act so rashly on his behalf in the future.

Picard’s current understanding of Romulan culture reflects a certain curiosity he’s shown about them ever since TNG’s “Unification” parts 1 & 2 (1991).

Picard introduces Elnor to the rest of the crew as the ship prepares to break orbit. Throughout the story, we see Dr. Jurati acting as an audience surrogate, asking lots of “Who’s this?” and “What’s that?” type questions of Picard, Raffi and Rios. Normally, this might get old very quickly, but Jurati’s charm and refreshing naïveté among these space-traveling vets makes it work better than it otherwise might. Jurati’s the academic who’s never left the office… something new in a Star Trek regular. Even “Enterprise”’s Hoshi Sato was a commissioned Starfleet officer (however inexperienced). In some ways, Jurati reminds me more of a Doctor Who companion. Kudos to Alison Pill…

Having most of the action aboard La Sirena taking place on a single large deck makes the staging much more cinematic than the relatively cramped decks of TNG…

Upon leaving Vashti, the crew runs afoul of a very old Romulan Bird-of-Prey warship (the classic design seen in TOS’ “Balance of Terror”). Despite its age, the old warship has greater speed than La Sirena, which has greater maneuverability. The scenes of the crew leaning hard to port and starboard during the attack had a nice, classic Trek-feel, as the casts of those older shows used to lean hard in their seats to fake the act of breakneck maneuvers on a micro-budget. I’m guessing director Jonathan Frakes had a lot of nostalgic feels when he crafted this moment…

“Helm hard to port….hard to starboard!”

Unexpectedly, a smaller, highly maneuverable vessel joins the battle. The ship allies itself with the La Sirena, delivering crippling blows to the older Romulan vessel, eventually leading to the warship’s destruction.

La Sirena (left) and an unknown ally (top) bear down on an old-style Romulan Bird of Prey; the same type of ship that Captain Kirk went up against in TOS’ “Balance of Terror” (1966).

As the smaller vessel faces destruction in the planetary forcefield, Picard orders Rios and Raffi to beam the pilot aboard (over Rios’ objections). The ‘pilot’ is beamed up to the command deck, and it is reformed ex-Borg Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan, looking not a day over 35), who notices Jean-Luc (“Picard…. you owe me a ship”), right before collapsing to the deck!

Best line of the show: “Picard, you owe me a ship…”

The End.

Making It So.

Under Jonathan Frakes’ surefooted direction, the warmth of the characters is turned up a few degrees. The former TNG costar and veteran director did something similar with his episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” as well. Michael Chabon’s script continues to teach us much about Romulan society, alluding to its matriarchal warrior sect, its taboos and its deep-seated secrecy, without ever feeling like naked or clumsy exposition. Grace incarnate.

^ This is the part of the show I’m not loving so much…though it is far from unsalvageable.

In the spirit of “Absolute Candor” (hehe), my biggest gripe with this otherwise terrific episode is the clunky, somewhat dull stuff happening aboard the captured Borg cube. The character of Soji, despite the sheer vivacity of Isa Briones, is not as intriguing as her more haunted, desperate, ill-fated twin sister Daj. I’m also not exactly over-the-moon with her clandestine lover Narek (Harry Treadaway) either. Narek’s Machiavellian mustache-twirling is so achingly insincere that I’d be completely gobsmacked if Soji truly believes a word of it. Her romance with him makes her look like a fool (and no, not a fool for love…just a garden variety idiot). My hope, as hinted in the episode, is that she is also playing him for information. To what end, I have no idea, and I’m honestly not caring much, either. The Tarot card ‘prophecy’ revealing Soji to be some kind of ‘chosen one’ destroyer feels more at home in an “Omen” ripoff rather than the more secular Star Trek universe. Narek’s kinky, incestuous sister Narissa (Peyton List) also feels like a lame attempt to “Game of Thrones”-up the show. I’m really not enjoying this storyline, which I find tedious and dull compared to the A-story of Picard and his new ‘motley crew’ heading out into space. Here’s hoping it improves quickly. With a few writing patches here and there, this B-storyline is not unsalvageable.

Glad to finally see Jeri Ryan out of her catsuit…okay, that didn’t quite come out the way I read it in my head.

While Michelle Hurd’s Raffi gets somewhat shortchanged in this episode, it is easily forgivable, since she had such a terrific introductory segment last week (such is the nature of ensemble TV casts…every week, a different focus). It was also nice to see the ageless Jeri Ryan’s triumphant (and surprisingly funny) return as Seven of Nine. My hope is that the new (and welcome) arrival of Seven doesn’t overshadow the regular characters, as some complained of Michael Dorn’s “Worf” when he came aboard “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” in its 4th season. Personally, I never objected to Dorn’s presence on that series, and felt the overall DS9 ensemble was better served with him in the cast. While “Star Trek: Voyager” was perhaps my least favorite of the Star Treks, I’ve always felt that Jeri Ryan’s amazing acting chops very much elevated the series for the four seasons she was aboard. Most of my favorite episodes usually revolved around Seven of Nine (“Body and Soul” is one of the rare Star Trek comedies that actually makes me laugh aloud; “Drone” makes me bawl like a baby with colic). At any rate, it’s a real boon to have Jeri Ryan on this series, and in regular clothes, too.

Hope she’s burned those damned silly catsuits…

The Ready Room.

Finally, here’s the latest episode of former TNG-cast member Wil Wheaton’s after show “The Ready Room”, in which he interviews Santiago Cabrera (Rios). Captain Rios was a bit less cliched this week, and I’m growing to enjoy his multiple holographic selves as well. It was also nice to hear him grumbling in Spanish, too (the actor is Chilean-born).

“The Ready Room” Episode 4 also includes an exclusive scene from episode 1.5, “Stardust City Rag” (sounds like a ‘90s alternative band...).

Images: CBS-All Access

One Comment Add yours

  1. Largely agree with your take on this episode. I don’t hate the story on the Cube as much as you — I can’t stand Nerek, but the parts that don’t directly involve him are fine — but it’s definitely the weaker thread at the moment.

    I’m really enjoying the deep dive into Romulan culture. I’m imagining the Qowat Milat as the last remnant of Romulan culture as it existed at the birth of their civilization. Their philosophy of Absolute Candor seems to be a direct counterpoint to Surak’s emotional repression. They’re like the anti-Vulcans.

    Liked by 1 person

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