While this week’s Star Trek: Picard bears the unfortunate title of “Stardust City Rag” (possibly the least catchy Star Trek title ever), it is nevertheless a solidly entertaining entry in this young Star Trek series. The episode was written by Star Trek novelist/producer Kirsten Beyer (“The Farther Shore”) and again directed by longtime Trek veteran Jonathan (“Will Riker”) Frakes. Lots of exposition in this episode, which aims for a bit of fun amidst the darkness with a sleazy, hi-tech “Vegas in Space” (with all apologies to “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”)…
“Stardust City Rag.”
The episode begins in flashback, 13 years ago, on the planet Vergessen, in the Hypatia system in the City of Seven Domes (a needlessly complicated location name). Reformed Borg-turned-Starfleet officer Icheb (Casey King) is held captive as a doctor (with a surgical mask…possibly Agnes?) is removing his Borg implants without anesthetic (!). We then see Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) storming to the young man’s rescue, but she’s too late… the mortally wounded young man asks his former mentor and parental figure to kill him. Tearfully, she obliges.
We then cut to the present, on the planet “Freecloud” (the aforementioned Vegas in space), where ruthless Borg implants-dealer Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan) is having a drink with her ‘associate,’ former Starfleet cybernetics-whiz Dr. Bruce Maddox (John Ayles). Bjayzl offers her ‘guest’ Maddox a drink, only to drug him, as she suspects he’s double-dealing her.
On approach to Freecloud on their quest to find Dr. Maddox (and humanoid-android Soji), Picard (Patrick Stewart) is confronted in his holographic Chateau Picard quarters by Seven. She is now a member of the “Fenris Rangers”, a group of galactic vigilantes, who (like last week’s Romulan warrior monks) champion hopeless causes. Seven has a personal score to settle with Bjayzl, who was behind Icheb’s murder, so she agrees to join Picard. She offers a plan to go to Freecloud as Picard’s Borg “bounty”, in exchange for Maddox (hey, it worked with Chewbacca on the Death Star, right…?).
As La Sirena enters orbit over Freecloud, the crew are greeted by personalized holographic advertisements to come on down and enjoy the city (clearly the holograms know each of their personal tastes…which kinda blows their covers, right?). Raffi (Michelle Hurd), who plans to permanently disembark at Freecloud, helps Picard, Captain Rios (Santiago Cabrera) and Romulan warrior-monk Elnor (Evan Evagora) get into their cover characters in order for them to locate Maddox. Apparently every other person on Freecloud dresses like a stereotypical pimp out of a ‘70s blaxploitation movie…
Rios, complete with pimp gear & feathered hat, acts as the ‘facer’ who will negotiate with suspected former Mos Eisley denizen “Mr. Vup” (Dominic Burgess), a reptilian beast who can literally smell deceit. Of course, Raffi thought of that as well, as she is seen giving Rios a hypospray of a counteragent to his natural deception scent before he beamed down.
Picard (with beret, eyepatch and Inspector Clouseau accent), will pretend to be Seven’s ‘handler.’ Elnor is looking forward to his first-time at “pretending”, since he was raised with the monks in a house of ‘absolute candor.’
Meanwhile, Raffi beams down to a family planning clinic on Freecloud for an awkward, brief and deeply painful reunion with her estranged son Gabe (Mason Gooding). Gabe and his pregnant Romulan wife Pel (Ayushi Chhabra) are expecting a baby girl. Gabe makes it clear to his mother, who abandoned him during the worst of her substance abuse, that she’s not to be a part of his new life. He is still deeply angry at her for choosing to pursue a conspiracy theory about the Synth attack rather than be with her own family. Ouch…
Aboard La Sirena, we see a very nervous Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) standing by the transporter console to beam Picard and company back to the ship. Her escalating vital signs trigger the ship’s Emergency Medial Hologram (the talented Santiago Cabrera, who plays all the ship’s holograms). It seems there’s a lot more to Agnes than meets the eye. More on that in a bit…
Back on Freecloud, Mr. Vup takes Picard, Elnor and their ‘bounty’ Seven to Bjayzl, who to sell her Borg implants to the Tal Shiar. Bjayzl taunts Seven, with talk of Icheb’s murder. This triggers Seven, who with her enhanced reflexes, breaks free of her shackles and grabs a gun…which she trains on Bjayzl, demanding that her guards lower their weapons. They do so.
Picard, realizing Seven had been using them, orders an emergency beam-up of he, Seven, Elnor, Rios and the badly beaten Maddox. The still-nervous Agnes, glad that her first time at transporter duty worked, rushes to the side of her former lover/mentor Bruce Maddox, and helps him to the ship’s infirmary.
Picard has a final scene with Seven, before she departs La Sirena. The two of them discuss their experiences as former Borg. Seven asks him if he ever regained all of his lost humanity back. Picard brusquely replies, “No,” reaffirming that it’s an ongoing process…just like Seven’s day-to-day struggles. A subtle, heartfelt message for survivors of abuse…for which Picard and Seven’s Borg ‘assimilations’ have always been allegorical. She also asks Picard to loan her a pair of phaser rifles; after all, Freecloud is a dangerous place, and a Fenris Ranger can always use another pair of weapons. He agrees, and she beams down with the weapons…
Once back on Freecloud, Seven (in “Kill Bill” style) takes her bloody vengeance on Bjayzl’s mob crew…saving Bjayzl herself for last. With Bjayzl’s crew mostly dead or beamed away, Seven has Bjayzl all to herself. The two have a bitter confrontation over Icheb and of Seven’s lost innocence. For Icheb’s memory Seven disintegrates Bjayzl, and then shoots her way out of the black marketeer’s lair just as the backup security arrives.
In La Sirena’s infirmary, Picard meets with Maddox, his former adversary in TNG’s “Measure of a Man”, and breaks it to the mortally wounded scientist that Dhaj (Isa Briones) is dead. Maddox reveals that Dhaj’s twin Soji is still alive, and aboard the reclaimed Borg cube. It is also revealed (within Agnes’ earshot) that Soji was deliberately sent to the Romulan’s reclaimed Borg cube to learn the truth behind Starfleet’s falsely-predicated Synthetics ban, which was implemented after the attack on Mars by (apparent) rogue androids….something which both Bruce and Raffi don’t accept. This conspiracy theory, which has haunted Raffi, is part of what destroyed her relationship between she and her family.
Speaking of Raffi, Picard learns she is remaining aboard La Sirena…but is in no mood to talk with Picard, who quietly mutters to the locked door of her quarters, “Welcome back.”
Agnes, finally reunited with lover/mentor Bruce in the infirmary, tearfully disconnects the badly injured Maddox from life support (!), as she tells him how she wished he knew what she knows, something that she regrets seeing… a secret that is worth killing the ailing cyberneticist over. Maddox’s flatlining vitals once again trigger an appearance of the ship’s Emergency Medical Hologram, which Agnes deactivates in order to let Bruce die.
Summing It All Up.
Much exposition is unpacked in this episode; some of it is done gracefully, some of it is just rattled off like so many ingredients. Either way, we learn an awful lot in “Stardust City Rag”… except perhaps why writer Kirsten Beyer chose such a terrible title. Honestly, it sounds like a failed 1990s grunge band. Moving on...
While the CGI-neon/holographic vista of Freecloud borrows quite a bit from “Blade Runner,” (hey…steal from the best) there a few nice little easter eggs hidden around the cityscape, including “Mr. Mot’s Hair Emporium”, a reference to the hairless Bolian barber (formerly of the Enterprise-D crew) as well as a new locale for “Quark’s.” Quark, of course, is the Ferengi saloon proprietor aboard “Deep Space Nine” (would love to see a return visit from Armin Shimerman someday). One assumes unrepentant capitalist Quark sought a new, bigger location for his former space station bar, once his brother Rom implemented all-new socialist policies (after Rom became Ferenginar’s Grand Nagus).
Another saving grace of this installment is that we were spared the mustache-twirling melodrama taking place aboard the reclaimed Borg cube, which, as I’ve pointed out, is my least favorite aspect of this series to date. I’m not at all in love with the semi-incestuous “Game of Thrones”-style theatrics going on between Romulans Narek (Harry Treadaway) and Narissa (Peyton List). I’m equally averse to the mystical mumbo-jumbo of Soji (Isa Briones) being some kind of foreseen “destroyer.” I thought (hoped) that “Deep Space Nine” put all of that hugger-mugger prophecy stuff to bed. The cube situation with Soji was referenced, as Picard finally got to talk with Maddox. We learned that Soji was deliberately assigned to the cube to get to the truth behind the Federation’s Synth ban. At least bit of info cleared up my concern that Soji had been too easily suckered by the duplicitous Narek.
Once again, director Jonathan Frakes injects a bit of humor into La Sirena’s motley crew and their attempts to ‘blend in’ on Freecloud. Patrick Stewart’s Picard, with his eyepatch, beret, and ridiculously over-zee-top accent, seems to be having a lot of fun. Santiago Cabrera’s Rios looks rightly more embarrassed in his ‘70s pimp-wear. The deliberately comedic overacting in the Freecloud scenes has a similar pitch to Marina Sirtis’ drunken counselor Troi in the Frakes-directed film, “Star Trek: First Contact.” This week’s heavier material is given to Michelle Hurd’s Raffi and Alison Pill’s Agnes, both of whom have a bit more dramatic meat to chew on in their respective scenes of confronting an abandoned son and deliberately terminating an ailing lover from life-support.
If I had to give an MVP award to the episode, it would be for Jeri Ryan’s returning Seven of Nine. She does it all in this episode; she’s part rogue ranger, part-grieving foster mother, part-kickass avenger and she even manages to squeeze in a bit of humor (“You need a feather in your hat”). She and Picard also has one of the episode’s most anticipated scenes near the ending, as the two confront their own personal violations by the Borg. We learn that Picard never fully recovered from his assimilation (something inferred from “First Contact”), and that Seven is still in the thick of dealing with hers. I’m very much hoping this isn’t the last time she and Jean-Luc cross paths.
Two other previously-seen Trek characters in this episode were The Next Generation’s Dr. Bruce Maddox and Voyager’s Icheb. Maddox was the driven cyberneticist who wanted to dismantle Data to create more Soong-type androids in TNG’s “Measure of a Man”, and Icheb was one of a group of Borg children recovered from an abandoned Borg vessel by the crew of Voyager later in the series. Maddox was later convinced of the worth of android sentience in his one-off episode, while Icheb was raised by Seven of Nine, who nurtured the teenaged drone as a foster parent. Curiously, Brian Brophy didn’t return to play Maddox, and Manu Inturaymi didn’t return to play Icheb. Instead, Maddox and Icheb are now played by John Ayles and Casey King, respectively. Not sure exactly why the original actors didn’t return to their roles, but it’s possible that Brian Brophy, with his very distinctive, slightly Peter Lorre-ish delivery, may not have fit the specific interpretation for Maddox that we see in this episode. And poor Icheb’s character is basically reduced to a screaming body on a table, so there’s that…
Other than an unfortunate title and an exposition-heavy script, “Stardust City Rag” is a solidly enjoyable outing, with Patrick Stewart’s wonderfully silly accent, Raffi’s heartbreakingly brief reunion with her son, a rogue Seven of Nine getting her bloody vengeance, and ‘naive’ little lab-rat Agnes murdering her ex-lover! More like this one, please.
Wil Wheaton’s Ready Room.
Until next week…engage!
Images: CBS-All Access / Trekcore.com