*****BORG CUBE-SIZED SPOILERS!!*****
This week’s episode of “Star Trek: Picard” is titled “Nepenthe”… a title that is very telling. Nepenthe, in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” was a drug that brought relief from pain and sorrow for one who takes it. That’s exactly the reaction I had from this installment, scripted by producer/showrunner Michael Chabon, with a cowriter credit from Samantha Humphrey, and directed by Doug Aarniokoski. It’s a respite from the darkness in the ongoing saga of Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the late Commander Data’s android ‘daughter’ Soji (Isa Briones). It’s a warm and charming episode.
The story begins with a flashback from three weeks before, at the Daystrom Institute in Okinawa, Japan. We see the rest of an earlier scene from episode one, “Remembrance,” when Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) was approached by Starfleet Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita). What we see in this flashback are the missing pieces of that scene, which explain why Jurati murdered her ex-lover/colleague Bruce Maddox and is currently lying about it to her shipmates on La Sirena. Commodore Oh tells Jurati that her discreet meetings with Picard didn’t go unnoticed.
Pressing her further, the Vulcan Commodore performs a mind-meld with Jurati, to show the naive cyberneticist what would happen if any remaining Synths were allowed to survive. She floods Jurati’s mind with the deeply classified story from the 23rd century, of a rogue artificial intelligence that nearly destroyed all sentient life in the galaxy (see: “Star Trek: Discovery”’s 2nd season arc). The incident was part of a highly classified operation gone awry and was covered up; the starship Discovery and its involvement with stopping the A.I. was virtually erased from Starfleet’s records. After the mind-meld, Jurati pukes (her reaction to most bad news, as we learn). After Jurati regains her composure (a bit), she agrees to help the Commodore and ‘volunteer’ to help Picard in locating the Synth on behalf of Starfleet’s interests. Oh gives Jurati an ingestible tracking device, which she swallows.
Back to the present, we see the fallout after Picard used a Borg escape device to take he and Soji to the planet Nepenthe, with La Sirena and her crew fighting a Borg tractor beam lock. Captain Rios (Santiago Cabrera) and pilot Raffi (Michelle Hurd) every trick they can to break free of the Borg ship, but to no avail. Suddenly, a sick-with-guilt Jurati suggests they tell the Romulans aboard the Cube that they just want to go home. Rios reminds her that he and his ship are under contract by Picard to go where he’s needed. In frustration, Jurati storms off.
Since the Romulan treaty with the Federation to do research on the Borg Cube forbids murder of a Federation citizen, Narissa (Peyton List) tells Borg reclamation project manager Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco) that she will kill several random ex-Borg (“exBs”) unless he tells her where Soji has gone. He refuses, and she coldly executes the Ex-Bs. A broken Hugh is in agony over his failure to help the ex-B hostages.
Meanwhile, Narek (Harry Treadaway) steals a small Romulan fightercraft from one of the hangars of the Cube to find Soji on his own…which should be easy enough, using the transponder device inside of reluctant spy Agnes, aboard La Sirena.
The Borg tractor beam on La Sirena is finally released, and Rios offers to beam Picard’s pledged Qowat Milat Romulan warrior Elnor (Evan Evagora) back aboard La Sirena. Elnor refuses, recognizing that his current ‘lost cause’ is with the Borg Cube. He was too late to help the ex-B hostages, and offers Hugh his assistance…
Picard and Soji are whisked away by the Borg Queen’s secret escape device to the planet Nepenthe. It is verdant and beautiful. Soji is still in shock from the events of her past few minutes…being revealed as the android offspring of the late Commander Data, and of Narek’s deceit. It’s too much for her to accept, so her reaction is to disbelieve everything. She assumes everything she sees from now on is either a lie or a ruse.
In the trees, they notice a teenaged girl with an arrow aiming their way. Believing her to be a hostile native, Soji is weary…until Picard steps forward, arms raised and ‘surrenders’ himself to Kestra Riker (Lulu Wilson), the daughter of Picard’s former first officer from the USS Enterprise, William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Will’s wife, former ship’s counselor Deanna Riker (Marina Sirtis). Soji notes Kestra’s compass, which she carries with her despite the fact that it doesn’t work. Kestra was named after Deanna’s late sister (see: TNG’s “The Dark Page”). Kestra, dressed and face-painted to look like a wild Viveen. The girl leads Soji and Picard to her parent’s cabin…
Picard meets Deanna in front of the house, and the former longtime shipmates enjoy a warm embrace. Kestra calls to her father who is busy in the kitchen scraping cheese for his homemade wood-fire pizza (yum!). He looks up to see his former captain in the doorway, and with his typically broad, beaming smile, Riker runs over to hug Jean-Luc in a hearty bear-hug (“Oh, man!”), leaving cheese stains on Picard’s jacket (hehe). This scene radiates so much warmth, it can turn your TV or computer into a makeshift fireplace…
Immediately Riker asks, “You’re in trouble. How bad?” Picard replies, “Bad enough.” Riker gives a voice command to his ‘smart cabin’ and immediately raises shields around the residence. “We’ve been having some trouble with the Kzinti, a foe from Star Trek: The Animated Series’ “The Slaver Weapon” (written by Larry Niven). Picard tells him the trouble is with Romulans, so Riker orders up an “anti-cloaking scan” as well. Years ago, he warned Picard, during the Romulan rescue, that he would be “ass-deep” in Romulans for the rest of his life…seems he was right. Riker’s rugged individualism is very much apparent in his domestic life, with a fully-shielded house, a wood-burning stove and other such independent touches. Clearly writer Michael Chabon dug deep into Riker’s Alaskan upbringing for inspiration. Even the jazz music he plays while tinkering in the kitchen. Smart character choices, all around…
Troi offers Jean-Luc a place to sleep in their late son Thaddeus’ room; the Rikers moved to Nepenthe when young Thad was diagnosed, resigning their commissions in order to give the ailing boy a chance at a home life away from living aboard starships. Young Thaddeus, who used to invent whole languages for fun, passed away because the cure for his disease (“Mandaxic neurosclerosis”) used positronic technology, the same technology which created Data’s brain, and which was no longer available following the Synth attack on Mars 14 years earlier.
Meanwhile, Soji is bunking with Kestra, who follows her around, abuzz with curiosity. Kestra wants to know all about the android daughter of Data, whom Kestra has heard so much about from her parent’s stories. She asks if Soji has mucous, and if she kisses. Soji is not dismissive of the curious teen either, as the girl is asking questions she has about herself.
La Sirena is still being pursued. Rios notes that the pursuer stays just far enough out of range to make a positive ID difficult. He begins evasive maneuvers, trying to shake his pursuer using a warp jump, taking a less-direct route to rendezvous with Picard on Nepenthe. Meanwhile, the deeply conflicted Agnes is an emotional wreck. Raffi offers to take care of her… with cake, of course. Because cake cures so many ills.
Picard and Will are chatting outside as Will fires up his outdoor ovens (wood-burned pizza…yum). Soji walks outside, having read and memorized Thadeus’ Viveen dictionary in two minutes (super-reading speed was another characteristic of her late android father). Will walks up to Soji, realizing they’d not been properly introduced. Even Will notices the way Soji occasionally cocks her head when observing…very much like her late ‘father’ Data. Data is in her DNA. Jean-Luc confides that he has difficulty getting Soji to trust him, so Will offers his expertise with teenagers, as dealing with children was never Picard’s forte (see: TNG’s “Encounter At Farpoint”, when Picard first asked for Will’s aid in dealing with the ship’s children).
Troi offers Soji a homegrown tomato from their vegetable garden. The young woman is amazed by how ‘real’ it tastes. Soji opens up to the former starship counselor about how everyone, including her ‘lover’ Narek, used her and that she still can’t accept any of the Rikers’ outward hospitality, believing it all to be yet another elaborate ruse. In an ill-timed move, Picard attempts a bit of reverse psychology, telling Soji that yes, their hospitality is all part of a plot against her. Angered by his ridicule, Soji shoves Jean-Luc hard with her android strength, nearly throwing him to the ground! Riker is alarmed, but Troi thinks that perhaps Picard deserved the shove. The former counselor reminds Jean-Luc that Soji’s entire life has been one of deceit, and that nonacceptance of her current circumstances is perfectly natural.
Back aboard the Borg Cube, Hugh and Elnor vow to retake the cube from Narissa’s control. Narissa, unfortunately, is right behind the two of them, and reminds Hugh that such an act of mutiny would be a treaty violation. At this point, young Elnor steps in, as Narissa looks forward to combat with the Qowat Milat warrior. Qowat Milat vs. Zhad Vash. They’re a near-even match, but in their combat, Narissa fatally injures Hugh and beats a retreat.
Remembering that he still has Seven of Nine’s “Fenris Rangers” calling card, Elnor sends an SOS, as a dying Hugh tells Elnor he will need an ex-B in order to use the Borg Cube’s escape transjector… the same device that Hugh and Soji used in their escape earlier. The nearly dead Hugh smiles, and asks the Qowat Milat warrior if their current defeat is “lost cause” enough for the warrior to pledge his skills. Reluctantly, Elnor makes his way to the Queen’s former lair to use the transjector…
Aboard La Sirena, over red velvet cake, Raffi tries her best to calm a clearly upset Agnes, who then cries, and barfs. Capt. Rios walks in, sees the red vomit and asks “Is that blood?” Raffi assures him it’s just post-barf red velvet cake. In a later scene, Rios whisperingly confides to Agnes his concern that Raffi might be a spy. Agnes realizes, with a great deal of anguish, that Rios is accusing Raffi of the very thing she is guilty of herself. Agnes comes close to confessing all to Rios, but stops short by simply stating, “It’s not Raffi.” In the ship’s infirmary, Agnes replicates a hypo spray with a neurotoxin and injects herself, collapsing to the deck. Her collapse triggers the ship’s Emergency Medical Hologram (also played by Santiago Cabrera). Rios asks for Agnes, and the EMH reports she’s in a coma.
Later in the evening, at the Riker’s dining table (lots of candles…once again, Riker is a guy who likes prefers life Alaskan-rustic). Picard, fearing La Sirena might be lost, admits he may have to go find another ship. Riker mentions a nearby spaceport, and Kendra chimes in by recommending Captain Crandall’s services (“he’s really old…older than Picard”). Picard then tells Soji about how he tried to help her late sister Dhaj, and implores her once again to trust him, and to tell him what she told Narek… the location of her home world. She tells Picard of the two red moons she saw in a very stormy nighttime sky, as seen from the skylight of her father’s lab (how one sees two moons on an overcast rainy night is beyond my astronomical skills…).
As Soji describes the sky above her father’s as-yet-unknown lab location, Kestra is using her PADD (personal access data device), a wry commentary on how kids too-often text over dinner these days (as do most adults I know, as well). Turns out Kestra isn’t idly sifting through her social media…she’s been texting her friend Capt. Crandall about a planet matching Soji’s description. And Crandall has sent her an answer… Soji’s destination is a planet in the Vayt Sector, the Ghulion system. Smart kid.
The following morning, Will and Picard are enjoying a nice walk. La Sirena is nearly in range. Will asks his former captain what his new crew are like. Picard jokingly refers to them as a ‘motley crew’, generating more drama than all of the crew of the Enterprise. Picard mentions if Will has ever thought of returning to space, and Riker mentions that technically he’s on active reserve.
Taking a moment to sit, Riker puts an arm on his old friend’s shoulder and asks about his medical condition’ (a condition mentioned by Picard’s former doctor in the 2nd episode). Picard shrugs it off for the moment, and thanks his former first officer and loyal friend for so many things…particularly never trying to talk him out of anything. Riker jokes that he recognizes when he can’t win. There is much more openness and honesty with how Will and Deanna relate to their former captain now…they don’t speak to him as a superior officer, but with the frankness you’d have with a friend who’s clearly in over their head.
Kestra makes a drawing of Soji, whom the young girl finds fascinating. A bit of hero-worship, perhaps? The wise-beyond-her-years Kestra tells Soji that she should trust in Picard, as her own father and mother had. Sound advice. Kestra offers Soji her broken compass to remember her by.
The Rikers take their former captain in a loving, warm group hug. Picard beams back to La Sirena…
From their wedding in 2002’s “Star Trek: Nemesis” to 2020’s Star Trek: Picard, the Rikers have had an interesting married life together. We see their great pride in their daughter Kestra (Lulu Wilson), as well as pained memories of their late son Thadeus. Along with the O’Briens of Deep Space Nine, this may be one of the most realistic depictions of domestic bliss ever seen on Star Trek. Just seeing Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis back in their old characters again was like a hug from home. Frakes, who’s already worked on Star Trek: Picard several times as a director, radiates such natural exuberance at the sight of Picard; you just feel it when he shouts, “Oh, man!” It’s a scene so natural it almost feels like an ad-libbed moment. Sirtis’ Deanna tears up as she hugs her former ‘captain’, and the emotion is both real and earned. Despite the fact Will & Deanna are no longer on active duty, they still play the role of first officer and counselor respectively, with Riker “raising the shields” on his cabin for defense, while Troi offers Picard advice on how to deal with a sensitive, traumatized young woman.
So many of the Rikers’ character details just feel so right; Will’s preferred rustic existence (wood stove) in a ‘smart cabin’ (“Shields up!”), the Rikers’ naming their daughter Kestra after Deanna’s late sister, Will’s love of jazz and cooking. The Riker’s cabin also looks very much like Kirk’s “Nexus cabin” as seen in 1994’s “Star Trek: Generations” (In fact, I wonder if it might be the same location redressed?). Deanna felt very true as well; her Betazoid empathic powers failed to register Soji, just as she used to be unable to read Soji’s android father, Data. I also enjoyed Deanna’s tough love with Picard, who chose a very poorly-timed moment to taunt Soji. Friend/former-captain or not, Deanna lets Jean-Luc know that he really screwed up when it came to dealing with this traumatized young woman.
The Rikers’ life is seemingly idyllic, but not entirely carefree; yes, they have a clever and witty daughter, but they’re also still dealing with the loss of their son Thaddeus. As in real life, none of us ever truly lives ‘happily ever after’ without the specter of eventual loss or sorrow. That the Rikers lost a child is even more tragic, yes, but loss of family and friends are eventualities we must all face. As Picard said in the aforementioned “Generations”, “It’s our mortality that defines us…it’s part of the truth of our existence.” We see the Rikers facing their loss with bravery and perseverance, but an ache that remains as well. You never completely get over such a profound loss… you just learn to incorporate it into your being as you move forward. On that sad note, Marina Sirtis herself lost her own husband, musician Michael Lamper, late last year.
So Long, Third of Five…We Hardly Knew Hugh.
“Nepenthe” also said goodbye to the recurring ex-Borg character of Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco). Del Arco first appeared as Hugh on Star Trek: The Next Generation in “I, Borg” (1992), returning in “Descent, Part 2” (1993), and three episodes of Star Trek: Picard.
In real life, Del Arco is close friends with another famed Star Trek Borg, actor Jeri Ryan, who played “Seven of Nine” on several years on Star Trek: Voyager, and is also returning to Star Trek: Picard as well (in fact, she returns again next week, apparently answering Elnor’s distress call…).
Rogue Artificial Intelligences And Ill-Tempered Cat People.
The mind-meld between Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita) and Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) shows flashbacks of the deadly artificial intelligence that threatened to destroy all sentient life in the galaxy during Star Trek: Discovery’s 2nd season. The existence of the deadly AI was then classified and apparently never spoken of again (“Such Sweet Sorrow” part 2). The starship Discovery herself was propelled into the 32nd century (see: Discovery’s upcoming third season) in an effort to escape the deadly AI, and was declared lost with all hands in her native 23rd century. The AI does bring up an interesting point however; if Starfleet intelligence is so keenly aware of the potential dangers from AI (as we infer from its mid-23rd century experience), how did they ever allow Data to serve in Starfleet in the first place? Better yet, why did they ever allow computer scientist Dr. Richard Daystrom’s deadly M-5 to gain control of a Federation starship in The Original Series (TOS) episode, “The Ultimate Computer”?
From TOS’ vantage point, the AI near-armageddon of Star Trek: Discovery’s 2nd season was only a few short years before the M-5 incident. I’m assuming the reason for the late 24th century’s sudden renewed zeal in stopping any/all experiments in AI stems from increased paranoia following the devastating Synth attacks on Mars (the Federation’s own 9/11), but did they ignore the lessons of Captain Pike’s experience aboard the starship Discovery as well?
Riker mentions he installed shields and other safeguards for his cabin because of “trouble with the Kzinti.” These would be the pink-spacesuit wearing Kzinti; felinoid aliens first seen in Star Trek: The Animated Series’ “The Slaver Weapon” and briefly in “The Time Trap.” The Kzinti should not to be confused with the Caitians, another felinoid race seen in TAS. One of these Caitians, Lt. M’Ress (voiced by the late Majel Barrett) served as a relief communications officer aboard the USS Enterprise. This reference to the Kzinti was a nice nod to the greater Star Trek universe, and recognition for the too-long overlooked Animated Series, which I love, despite its occasional goofiness.
Wil Wheaton’s Ready Room.
Jonathan Frakes and Brent Spiner are interviewed by Wil Wheaton in a TNG mini-reunion:
Summing It Up.
A warm, character-driven episode which, like its titular fictional drug, allows the viewer to forget their sorrows (at least for an hour). It reminded me very much of TNG’s “Family” (1990), which was similarly character-driven, though “Nepenthe” has just a touch more realism and relatability (Kestra feels much more like a real kid than the too-innocent Rene Picard). Episodes like this are precisely why I have been a Star Trek fan for most of my 53-year life (yes, I’m as old as TOS). You don’t mind the lesser stories for every one like this. It’s so wonderful having Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes back that you almost never want to leave the Rikers’ warm embrace. I realize not every episode can be such an unapologetically sentimental love fest, but damn if it didn’t feel good while it lasted. Going back to the stark harshness of life in the Borg Cube or even aboard La Sirena feels almost like a kick to the head after chillin’ for an hour with the Riker family.
Images: CBS All-Access/Trekcore.com