*****BORG CUBE-SIZED SPOILERS!!*****
Taking a brief break from our shared collective anxieties over the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world right now, the penultimate episode of Star Trek: Picard’s first season, “Et in Arcadia Ego” Part 1 is now streaming on CBS-AA (you know you’re in for some heavy s#!t when they Latin up the title). Written by Michael Chabon, Aleyet Waldman and directed by Akiva Goldsman (who is also credited with cowriting the teleplay), this first part of the two-part season finale had a very familiar ring to it…
“Et in Arcadia Ego,” Part 1.
When we last saw La Sirena, she was entering a Borg transwarp conduit, en route to Soji’s possible home planet… the 4th planet in the Ghulion system, a planet called Coppelius. The conduit propels the ship 25 light years in around 15 minutes; Raffi (Michelle Hurd) congratulates Soji (Isa Briones) on her hijack–er, navigational skills. Agnes (Alison Pill) emerges onto the control deck and wonders why they’re not going to space station Deep Space 12, and if she’s still under arrest. Captain Rios (Santiago Cabrera) tells her she’s getting a temporary reprieve as they take Soji home.
As La Sirena settles into orbit over the Earth-like Coppelius, Narek (Harry Treadaway) re-emerges in his small Romulan fightercraft and fires upon the ship. After exchanging weapons fire, Narek’s cloak fails, as does his life-support systems. Picard (Patrick Stewart), ever the optimist, insists Rios and Raffi beam the seemingly crippled Narek aboard as a humanitarian gesture. Rios doesn’t, and it’s a good thing, as Narek was simply baiting them (c’mon Jean-Luc…that’s literally the oldest trick in Star Trek). Narek used his ship’s cloak as a projector to give the impression he was worse off. Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) then emerges from the transwarp conduit with her newly-commandeered Borg cube.
Raffi makes out five bogies emerging from the surface… they appear to be giant flowers. To be more precise, giant orchids. Talk about flower power (!). One of these orchids envelops La Sirena, while others attach to the Borg cube and Narek’s fighter. These giant space orchids take their captives through the planet’s atmosphere, like a combination tractor beam and old-fashioned ablative heat shield…flaking off as they descend.
As the powerless, captive La Sirena continues her descent, Picard seems to lose consciousness. His worried shipmates gather around, and he says in a distant, somnambulistic voice, “Thank you everyone for coming.” The ninety-something Picard isn’t weathering the rigors of spaceflight as easily as he did in the days of Star Trek: TNG. He then slumps…
Experiencing flashbacks to a conversation he had with his old physician, Dr. Benayoun (David Paymer), a disorientated Picard reawakens in La Sirena‘s sickbay. It’s much brighter inside the ship than usual. Agnes tells Picard the ship has landed on Coppelius, and that Rios has opened hidden shudders to let in sunlight. She is taking care of Picard with an old-fashioned medical tricorder, and she discovers Picard’s secret terminal condition. With the cat out of the bag, Picard comes clean with the crew. Yes, his condition is terminal, but please, he insists, don’t treat him any differently. Raffi, who’s known Picard the longest of the group, is devastated. Her old affection for her former commanding officer has emerged again, after years of drowning it in bitterness and substance abuse.
As the prepare to walk to the colony a few kilometers away, Soji says she was born on Coppellius, and that it feels familiar to her now. Raffi estimates a fleet of pursuant Romulans are only a day or so behind. They exit the downed La Sirena and realize they’re in a desert. Nearby they see the crashed, partly destroyed Borg cube; its mass was simply too great for the ‘tractor flowers’ to safely handle during reentry. They walk over to the downed cube and check for survivors, including their young Romulan warrior shipmate, Elnor (Evan Evagora). Inside cube, they find a handful of Borg survivors, one of whom recognizes Jean-Luc as “Locutus.” Elnor is among the survivors as well; he spots Picard, and unabashedly hugs him, grateful to see the old man still alive. We also hear Seven of Nine, as she kids Picard, “So, are you here to help, or do you just make messes?”
Seven tells Picard she came to rescue Elnor when she received his emergency call; she also tells him the Borg are working to restore some of the crashed cube’s systems. Picard wonders if the cube’s long range scanners might be operating… they are. They confirm 218 Romulan warbirds are still in pursuit. Soji finds a collection of old faked ‘family photos’ from her cube office; the memories still feel ‘real’ to her.
Later, a saddened Elnor tells Picard he knows of his terminal condition now, as Picard shoots a glare towards Agnes. Picard then releases Elnor from his pledge of loyalty, and tells Elnor he’s proud of the young man. Leaving Elnor and Seven behind, Picard, Raffi, Rios and Agnes proceed to the colony settlement…
The colony is a beautifully appointed epicenter of civilization among the wilderness (the location appears to be the real-life Getty Center in L.A). As the group enters, they see many gold skinned, yellow-eyed synthetics, like Soji’s “father”, Data. Other androids in the compound appear more naturally hued in appearance, like Soji. Soji is immediately recognized and welcomed by a bronze-skinned, golden-eyed synthetic named Arcana (Jade Ramsay). Arcana also recognizes Picard; “Data’s captain!” The curious synthetic then touches the telling lines of Picard’s face. The friendly synths collectively welcome the group. Soji takes a moment to warns them of the incoming Romulan fleet, and asks Arcana if they have more defenses, like the giant orchids. Arcana says they have ten more such orchids…not nearly enough to stop the 218 warbirds.
An older, yet very familiar face appears as Picard is introduced to the synth’s caretaker, “mad scientist” Dr. Altan Inigo Soong (a returning Brent Spiner). Altan Soong is the biological son of Data’s creator, Dr. Noonian Soong (while not exactly a continuity retcon, this revelation makes the late Dr. Soong look like a really crappy father...). Soji apologizes to Soong for leading the Romulan fleet to their current location, but Soong dismisses her worries. Soong long ago realized that Maddox’s plan to perpetuate the synth race on Coppelius would, sooner or later, draw unwanted attention.
Picard is approached by a young synth… who is a gold skinned, yellow-eyed twin of Soji named Sutra. Sutra forgives Agnes for murdering Bruce; since the Admonition drove most of the Romulans inane, it’s possible that Agnes herself was compelled by the same insanity, given her mind-meld with half-Romulan/half-Vulcan Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita). Sutra believes that the Admonition was only intended for Synths, not biological beings. To learn the truth, Sutra proposes a mind meld with Agnes, being a student of Vulcan culture (that’s a little weak, given that mind-melding feels more like an innate biological ability for Vulcans, but okay…). Agnes agrees. During the meld, we see the history of higher organic evolution throughout the galaxy, as it invariably leads to the development of synths. The synths see themselves as the perfected progeny of biological life, and historically, biological beings are always jealous of their immortal progeny and inevitably turn on them. Sutra also believes that there are other more powerful synthetic beings throughout the universe…mentally reaching out to them, she channels their ancient mantra, “Summon us, and we will come. You will have our protection. Your evolution will be their extinction.”
Picard is poking around Maddox’s quarters, with a beautiful view overlooking the hills. He notes a holograph of Bruce and Agnes, clearly, passionately in love. Synth butterflies float freely, as Soong casually mentions that he missed butterflies..so he created synthetic ones. Agnes enters, and she remorsefully approaches Soong. Soong still bears much resentment to Agnes for killing Bruce, saying, “You put out a small candle in a vast darkness. You owe a great debt.” For her penance, he asks the brilliant young cyberneticist if she would help him create a stable mind transference for a “golem” (a newly grown synthetic being developed in a maturation chamber of some kind).
Elsewhere, Soji and her ’sister’ Sutra discuss the pending tactical situation with the incoming Romulan fleet. Sutra wants the synths to make their stand. Soji proposes that they cut their losses and run. Sutra tells her sister that they will never be safe if they do so; that biological beings will always hunt them down, because of their innate jealousy of their immortal creations. Elsewhere, the two sisters see that a group of synths have captured a battered Narek from his crashed Romulan fightership. “Well…look what the cat dragged in,” Sutra quips.
Picard, in Bruce’s lab, makes a call to Starfleet to apprise them of the first contact situation with the synth colony. Soji enters, and wants to talk with Picard. She asks him about the logic of sacrifice. “That depends if you’re the person holding the knife,” Picard retorts. Trying to reassure Soji, Picard offers that Agnes may have felt she had no choice when she took on the assignment to kill both Maddox and Soji. Soji tells the sagacious former captain that perhaps killing is the only way to survive. Picard is disturbed…
Narek is behind a forcefield and is being unblinkingly guarded by an Acacia-lookalike synth named Saga. The wily Romulan asks for water, clearly plotting his escape. Soji stops Acacia from turning off the forcefield just in time. Narek, feigns relief at the sight of Soji, who tells Narek to shut up; clearly she’s not buying any more of his bulls#!t. Narek tries mind games, saying he loves her. Soji softens, but adds that she is disgusted by him, and herself… for believing in him. Narek promises death upon the entire colony. Soji says, “No, you won’t,” and storms off. Soji’s sister Sutra offers to watch over Narek for Saga. As soon as Saga leaves, the duplicitous Sutra lowers the forcefield, and seductively teases Narek with a promise of release…
Suddenly, there’s a loud scream heard throughout the compound.
Soong finds a dead Saga, with what her eye impaled. The ‘mad scientist’ grieves over the lifeless body of the dead synth, noting her perfect golden eyes. Narek is freed. Sutra’s plan is to summon her tribe into an all-out war. with the synths, framing Narek for the murder; she is clearly the serpent in this synthetic garden of Eden. Sutra believes the Admonition isn’t a warning… it’s a promise. It can be used to summon the other advanced synthetic life from elsewhere in the galaxy for help. Soong agrees, saying this could be a powerful new alliance, spanning galaxies. Their collective goal would be nothing short of liberating synthetic life everywhere from the threat of all organics. Picard accusingly addresses Sutra, “Did you say ‘all’”?
The Romulan directive to actively hunt down the synths has led to their own prophecy of a cybernetic revolt against biological life…a self-fulfilling prophecy. Picard then uses his famed gift of oratory to appeal to the synth’s better natures, promising to advocate on their behalf before the Federation council. A skeptical Soong tells his ‘children’ that Picard wasn’t even able to advocate on their behalf following the attack on Mars 14 years ago. Sutra, however, notices the power of Picard’s appeals, and immediately orders him to be taken away, worried that his gift of gab might work on other members of the colony. Soji finally, decisively sides with her ‘sister.’ Agnes joins the synthetics’ cause as well (or has she?), saying that they are the living embodiment of her entire life’s work.
Meanwhile, we see the massive Romulan attack fleet arriving through the transwarp conduit…led by the half-Vulcan spy, Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita), now in her Romulan uniform. Duh-duh-Duuuumm!
Once again, we see a Ex-B (former Borg) refer to Picard as “Locutus” (as we saw when Picard escaped the cube a few episodes back, and when Hugh first saw Picard in TNG’s “I, Borg”). It’s interesting that information is shared near-instantaneously throughout the Borg hive consciousness, but apparently few of the drones ever got the memo that the “Locutus” version of Picard was freed from his assimilation 30 years ago, in TNG’s “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2″ (?). We didn’t see any of the Borg drones in 1996’s “First Contact” refer to Picard as Locutus. Just how widespread is the Collective Mind?
As always, we get a brief but delightful appearance from Seven of Nine (the ageless Jeri Ryan) when Picard and company board the crashed Borg cube. I just love this looser, funnier, ballsier version of the character. If we get through this coronavirus pandemic sometime this year, and television shows/movies swing back into production? I sincerely hope some bright-eyed producer at CBS decides to give “Star Trek: Seven of Nine” a whirl. To be honest, I’d be a lot more excited for that series than I would be for a Section 31 spinoff, or another animated series.
Another Prodigal Soong?
This week saw the reveal of yet another relative of the enigmatic Dr. Noonian Soong (Brent Spiner); this time it’s his heretofore unknown son, Dr. Altan Inigo Soong (Spiner), who is also a cyberneticist. Altan joins the ranks of not only his illustrious father, but also his grandfather, 22nd century would-be genetic engineer, and convict, Dr. Arik Soong (also played by Spiner). Arik was doing time in a Starfleet prison for his crime of stealing ‘augmented’ human embryos left from Earth’s “Eugenics Wars” of the late 20th century (remember? It wall all over CNN). These augments nearly began a devastating war with the Klingons until Arik joined forces with Captain Archer and the NX-01 Enterprise to stop them (ENT, “Borderland,” “Cold Station-12,” “The Augments”).
Let me say that I really enjoy actor Brent Spiner, and I certainly welcome a legitimate opportunity for him to return to the Star Trek family. ENT’s Augment trilogy made a great use of Spiner, as it also showed a different aspect of the Soong family tree. Arik was a wily, deceptive trickster who acted almost like a Batman villain at times, rather than just another scientist obsessed with his work. Spiner clearly sunk his teeth into that role, and helped to make ENT’s Augment trilogy one of the most entertaining arcs of ENT’s 4th (and sadly final) season. It was a bit of a stretch to accept Arik’s 1:1 resemblance to his later grandson Noonian, but for the sheer treat of Spiner’s return? It was worth it. Now, we have to buy that same trick yet again, with Spiner playing Noonian’s previously unknown son Altan in PIC. The character of Altan, as written, really doesn’t bring anything new to the table, either. Altan feels a bit like a retread of Arik, minus the escape artistry. This ’new’ character ultimately feels like an excuse to shoehorn in Brent Spiner somehow, sans dream-Data’s complex new de-aging makeup (PIC, “Remembrance”).
Giving the presumptively childless Noonian Soong a lookalike genius son also undermines some of that character’s motivation that I long assumed fueled his need to create his androids (TNG’s “Brothers”). Noonian and his wife Juliana Taynor (Fionnula Flanagan), who is ‘seen’ in TNG’s “Inheritance” (as an android duplicate based on the original Juliana), never mentioned having any biological children. Why wasn’t Noonian’s son with his parents during the Crystalline Entity’s attack on Omnicron Theta (TNG’s “Datalore”)? Perhaps Altan was killed in the attack, and the version we see in PIC is yet another fully human-appearing android, like Juliana… complete with false life readings (?).
It’s hard to believe that Juliana and Noonian never told Data he had a biological brother who just happened to be a genius cyberneticist. Seeing yet another Soong genius who looks & acts precisely like Brent Spiner (again) is one convenient plot device too many for me, despite the actor’s charm. Didn’t any member of the Soong family’s 200-year lineage aspire to be anything else besides scientific geniuses?
One of the things that irked me a bit during this otherwise entertaining installment was the over-familiarity of it all. It took me but seconds to realize that it reminded me very much of the TNG two-parter, “Descent, Parts 1, 2” (1993), where Data’s evil twin brother Lore tries to persuade him to join his army of Borg recruits. Lore’s plan was to help the rudderless Borg, infected by individuality (thanks to Hugh’s return to the Collective in 1992’s “I, Borg”), shed the last vestiges of their biological existence. Together, they would form a new super-army of synthetics that would subjugate all biological life under the artificial thumbs of the “Sons of Soong.”
In both stories, we have the ‘evil twin’ (Lore/Sutra) trying to persuade our a heroic character (Data/Soji) to turn on their friends and join their causes. Both also appeared to succeed. I thought this was the only familiar thread to both stories until I looked a bit deeper. Both stories have idyllic colony worlds that can only be reached through Borg transwarp conduits, both see a wily prisoner escape (Borg drone ‘Crosis’/Romulan Narek), both feature the synthetic works of Dr. Soong summoning a greater galactic ‘army’ for their causes, both see Borg/synths taking Picard prisoner rather than simply killing him, both mark the relatively easy destruction of once-formidable Borg vessels (TNG’s solar flare/PIC’s crash landing), and both feature beings who believe that their brand of synthetic life represents the apex of galactic evolution.
While “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” is entertainingly presented, it doesn’t stand very strongly as an original work. It’s really just a well-crafted quasi-remake of “Descent.” Here’s hoping next week’s conclusion, which officially ends the first season, offers a more original solution to the all-too familiar trappings setup in Part One. At the very least, Star Trek: Picard’s version of this story is very well-acted, beautifully shot, and certainly entertaining enough for an audience largely immobilized, due to the current coronavirus pandemic.
Wil Wheaton’s Ready Room, Episode 9:
Personal log: I sincerely hope everyone reading this stays safe, and takes no unnecessary gambles with their own health, or the health of others. Strength to each and every one of you. Remember, staying in and watching Star Trek is always good medicine.
Until next week…
Images: CBS-All Access/Trekcore.com