*****BORG-CUBE SIZED SPOILERS!!*****
This week’s episode of Star Trek: Picard, “The Impossible Box” (a title subject to multiple inferences) was written by Nick Zayas and was nicely directed by Maja Vrvilo. The best thing about this week’s episode (over halfway into the season) is that the exposition/setup portion of the story is now largely over, and the chase is (finally) afoot…
“The Impossible Box.”
The story opens with Soji (Isa Briones), the impossible daughter of the late Commander Data, experiencing a dream of herself as the little girl she never was…walking into her unseen father’s lab on a stormy night, trying to see behind the orchids, until she is shouted at and snaps awake. Of course, her creepy, duplicitous Romulan boyfriend Narek (Harry Treadaway) is next to her and he surmises that she’s getting close to realizing what she is, much to the relief of Narek’s impatiently spying sister Narissa (Peyton List).
On La Sirena, Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) confirms to Picard (Patrick Stewart) that Dr. Bruce Maddox died in the infirmary…conveniently leaving out that little “I killed him” part. Picard, not realizing Jurati’s involvement in Maddox’s death, discusses his intention to rescue Soji from the Artifact (aka, the Borg Reclamation Project; a captured Borg cube where the Romulans are currently rehabilitating former Borg, called “Ex-Bs”). Upon returning to the virtual Chateau Picard environment of his quarters, Picard uses the computer to call up information on the Borg, including the rescued Borg named “Hugh” (Jonathan Del Arco), who is now a head researcher on the Artifact. He also faces his own trauma as he calls up an image of himself as the Borgified “Locutus”… his violent assimilation still haunting him to this day.
On course for the Artifact, located in the former Federation/Romulan Neutral Zone of the Beta Quadrant, Captain Rios (Santiago Cabrera) is engaging in a few expert moves with a soccer ball, when a still-shaken Dr. Jurati wants to talk. She doesn’t come clean about murdering Maddox (a secret which is clearly eating away at her), but she admits to feeling “hollow” inside. He comforts her, they kiss, and (presumably) leave to get some horizontal time together somewhere…
Despite her own implicitly incestuous jealousy, Narissa realizes that her brother’s tactic of sleeping with Soji may be useful in learning where the rest of Soji’s android siblings may be hiding (the Romulan culture is severely AI-phobic). She also teases her brother about his attachment to what appears to be a Romulan Rubik’s cube known as the tan-zhekran (the titular impossible box, also a metaphor for their present home aboard the Borg cube). You have to align the box just so for it to open and reveal its secrets. Narissa never had the patience for such a pain-in-the-ass toy, but Narek enjoys mysteries wrapped inside of enigmas…
Arriving at the Borg cube, Picard and La Sirena’s crew must decide on a strategy to gain access. All suggestions are shot down by Picard, who realizes they won’t hold water since they are technically in violation of treaty.
It’s Picard’s former exec Raffi (Michelle Hurd) who comes up with a solution. She takes a deep drag from her vaping pen (to Picard’s visible dismay), and calls in a favor from an old friend in Starfleet named Emmy (Barbara Eve Harris) who, at the mention of Picard’s still-respected name, reluctantly agrees to give the former admiral a 24 hour window of diplomatic clearance to beam aboard the cube (alone). Picard’s young, eager-to-assist Romulan bodyguard/warrior Elnor (Evan Evagora) is told to stay put…
Meanwhile, Soji is having yet another conversation with her “mother” (Sumalee Montano), whose conversations with her daughter always put her to sleep (insert “having to call your mother” jokes here) at precisely 70 seconds. Awakening from this latest ‘conversation’ with her fake mother, Soji begins to realize that she may not be a human being after all. Grabbing her personal artifacts (childhood photos, lunchbox, toys, etc) she begins scanning them, only to discover that none of her personal effects are older than 37 months. Much like the androids of “Blade Runner”, her memories of a childhood are all artificially implanted, and she was given the cushion of photos, toys, etc. only as a means to reinforce these artificial memories. She trashes her quarters.
Beaming aboard the Borg cube, Picard is overcome with PTSD, experiencing severe vertigo and nearly falling over a narrow walkway, until he is grabbed by two attendant former ex-Bs. Worrying for a moment that he’s being re-captured, Picard is then met by Hugh, who beams a warm, heartfelt smile for the man who liberated him decades earlier (see: TNG’s “I, Borg” and “Descent, Part 2”). It’s a genuine relief to see Picard greeted warmly by someone in this series for a change!
Picard then asks Hugh if he’s familiar with a researcher named Soji. Hugh tells him that Dr. Soji Asha is a close colleague of his, and Picard asks him if they could go and see her. Hugh tells Picard that she’s ‘called in’ today, but he will locate her anyway. Led by Hugh, Picard is shown various stages of recovering Borg, and the former admiral is very pleased with the work Hugh has done with the Reclamation Project. Seeing a recovering tearful ex-B staring at his scarred image in a mirror, Picard says, “They’re victims, not monsters.”
Meanwhile, Raffi and Rios have a couple of nice moments in her quarters, where she is nursing a hangover after pulling off her diplomatic coup for Picard. She tells her old friend Rios about her son on Freecloud, his wife and their pending baby… all of whom she may never see again. He comforts her, then offers her coffee to help sober up. Rios also tells Raffi that she owes him a few bars of latinum for losing a private bet between them; he got word that Soji is still alive. Raffi wonders just what would the Tal Shiar, the Romulan Secret Police, want with a Synth anyway, given the Romulan loathing of artificial intelligence.
A distraught Soji turns to Narek for comfort (which is a bit like turning to a porcupine for a hug), and he suggests the Romulan meditation practice known as Zhal-Makh, the practice of which is strictly taboo for non-Romulans. Using his authority to get past a guard at the meditation chamber entrance, Narek takes Soji into the room, where she is told to discuss her dream as she uses a path on the floor to (literally) retrace the steps of her visions. The goal is to eventually reach the center of the path, to a point of clarity and understanding.
Meanwhile, Narissa is watching this ‘private, intimate’ session via security cameras (wouldn’t Soji realize this, given her extensive knowledge of Romulan nature?). As Soji retraces her dream, she is instructed to ignore her father’s warnings to stay out of his lab, and she persists. She walks past a thick bed of orchids, and tries to see her dad’s face, but his face is undefined. She then sees herself as a life-size wooden doll on the lab’s table. Peering up through a skylight in the stormy skies of the lab, she makes out two red moons. The eavesdropping Narissa instantly tells a subordinate to begin a search for a stormy world with two red moons…
With her newfound revelation that she is a Synth, Narek tearfully tells her ‘goodbye’, leaving an impossible box behind as he locks her in the chamber. The box opens, and releases a radioactive gas. A desperate Soji suddenly begins punching her way through the chamber floor (using the same super-strength that her android father Data might’ve used in her circumstance). She escapes the chamber, just in time…
Picard and Hugh begin their search for Soji with increasing desperation as Picard realizes, “She’s been activated!” Then Soji literally ‘drops in on them’ through the ceiling, like an avenging superhero, thus confirming Picard’s guess. Hugh and Picard take the young woman with them, in a desperate attempt to outrun Romulans who are in close pursuit. An interesting bit occurs as Picard runs past an ex-B, who recognizes Jean-Luc, and says, “Locutus?” like someone who’s just spotted an old college friend in a large crowd. It’s a throwaway moment that adds a bit of history and nuance to the chase.
Hugh leads the fugitives to the “Queen’s cell” of the Borg cube, which has a spacetime projection portal (courtesy of the assimilated Sikarians) that can send them to a distance of up to 40,000 light-years away. Picard calls Rios and Raffi aboard La Sirena and tells them to leave at once, and to rendezvous with him on the planet Nepenthe.
The pursuing Romulans are rapidly closing on their position, when Picard notices that Elnor has defied orders to remain behind and is helping to cover Picard’s escape. Picard, grateful at Elnor’s disobedient initiative, steps into the portal with Soji, with Hugh and Elnor covering their escape…
Summing It Up.
At 54 minutes, there was a bit more story in “The Impossible Box” than we’ve had in typical Star Trek: Picard episodes to date, which usually clock in at around 45 minutes or less. While the first half of the story was a typical slow burn, the second half kicks it into overdrive. Up until now, the show has consisted largely of setting up the mystery, gathering clues and information, etc. but without a lot of forward momentum. Instead, we’ve been treated to lots of atmosphere and character development, which in my book, is a nice tradeoff. Now that the first season of the series is over its halfway mark, it’s starting to feel more like a really long feature film, with the first hour (or five) setting up story/characters, and the second half devoted to its endgame.
Best part of all is that Soji’s story is finally free of the mustache-twirling shenanigans aboard the Borg cube. The scenes with Soji, Narek and Narissa aboard the Borg cube (that other “impossible box”) have been, until now, the weakest and least enjoyable scenes of the series to date. With Soji joining Picard, it looks like all of that is about to change.
Despite the episode’s final jump into overdrive, there were still a few nice character moments aboard La Sirena as well; specifically the moments between Raffi and Rios in her quarters, as he plays morale officer (with no need for Cabrera to play an Emergency Medical Hologram version of himself, either), offering the demoralized, intoxicated Raffi a shoulder to cry on. I also loved her confiding about her lost family to him as well. In fact, Rios’ scenes with Raffi were far more interesting to me than his earlier flirtations with Jurati, who is clearly playing him to her own ends. All of these actors, Michelle Hurd, Santiago Cabrera, and Alison Pill each deserve another round of applause for slowly-but-surely bringing the ‘motley crew’ of La Sirena to life.
Another round of kudos to the late hour heroism of Evan Evagora’s Elnor as well. With his inability to lie, and super-ninja abilities, he is clearly becoming the ‘Data’ of this series; a childlike innocent who is puzzled and intrigued by his shipmate’s behaviors. The paternal Picard (another round for Sir Patrick) seems to naturally attract these odd-duck types with his innate warmth and empathy.
Some might argue that Picard should’ve been ‘over’ his trauma with the Borg so many years ago, especially since it seemed to get ‘closure’ in the 1996 feature film, “Star Trek: First Contact.” For me, that view is ridiculous, and shows a complete lack of understanding of how trauma works. They don’t magically disappear; you simply learn to incorporate them into your being. That is the reality of trauma. Trauma is ongoing; always in the background of one’s psyche, and occasionally leaping forward, as it does when Picard suffers flashbacks of his nightmarish assimilation (and loss of his humanity) to the Borg Collective (“Best of Both Worlds” Parts 1, 2).
I applaud “Star Trek: Picard” for shedding light on Picard’s PTSD in a way that is more far more realistic than the ‘Captain Ahab’ Picard of the movies. Between Picard’s PTSD and Raffi’s issues with substance abuse, I really appreciate the show’s steps toward de-stigmatizing mental illness, something which has been dismissed, demonized, villified or just plain ignored for far too long in television. If a Star Trek hero like Jean-Luc Picard can suffer ongoing issues with PTSD, maybe it’s okay for the rest of us poor ol’ humans to finally acknowledge our own pains as well…
Next week’s episode, “Nepenthe” (a drug in Homer’s “The Odyssey” used to wash away pain or sorrow), promises a sweet reunion with Will and Deanna Riker (Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis). This couldn’t be more welcome. After seeing Picard treated like a pariah on Federation TV and in the halls of Starfleet, we’re finally seeing characters (such as Hugh and the Rikers), who treat Picard with the warmth and appreciation this iconic character very much deserves.
Wil Wheaton’s The Ready Room.
Until next week…
Images: CBS-All Access/ Trekcore.com