After a decent season opener (“The Next Generation”), the second and third episodes (“Disengage,” “Seventeen Seconds” ) of Star Trek: Picard’s third season were in danger of slipping into the same kind of story morass that defined the unsuccessful second season. However, this week’s episode turns near-death “into a fighting chance to live.” Previously we saw retired Admiral Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Captain Riker (Jonathan Frakes) collaborating with first officer Commander Seven (Jeri Ryan), to ‘borrow’ the starship Titan-A (much to her hotheaded captain’s ire) in order to answer a cryptic, personal distress call from Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden).
Once arriving at the coordinates near a nebula at the edge of known Federation space, Picard and company rescue Beverly and Jack Crusher (Ed Speleers)–Beverly’s son with Jean-Luc. The Titan then encounters a sadistic bounty hunter named Captain Vadic, whose super-starship, the Shrike, vastly outguns the Titan. The needlessly protracted 2nd and 3rd episodes that followed were setting the table for this week’s sharper, more focused episode, which get things back on track, even if the story to date still feels very derivative of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)”…
“No Win Scenario”
The story opens to a flashback of five years earlier, when retired Starfleet admiral Jean-Luc Picard is eating dinner at Los Angeles’s Ten-Forward when he’s met by a group of eager young Starfleet cadets who interrupt his dinner to hear his Starfleet stories. Picard obliges, telling them, among other stories, of a “no-win scenario” when he was stranded in a dying shuttlecraft with his old Academy friend and USS Stargazer shipmate, Jack Crusher…
Cut to the present, and Picard is aboard the battle-damaged Titan-A which, following a devastating attack by the Shrike, is hemorrhaging power and spiraling down the gravitational well of a mysterious nebula—a nebula which is discharging massive surges of energy at regular intervals. Picard’s idea of attacking the Shrike has failed. With all possible power diverted to extend life support, the ship has only a few hours left before being crushed in the alien nebula’s heart. With the surly Captain Shaw wounded, acting Captain Will Riker is alerted by Commander Seven that a changeling saboteur is loose on the ship. Riker asks her to deal with the intruder quietly, without raising suspicion, as not to further destroy the ship’s bottomed-out morale. Acting on advice from Riker (who lost his own son years earlier), Picard is urged to get to know Jack (his late friend’s namesake), in what little time remains.
Going down to sickbay, Picard sees Beverly and Jack timing the powerful bioelectrical charges from the nebula, which are surprisingly regular. Picard asks Beverly if he can talk to his son for a few moments, with he and Jack going to the Titan’s independently-powered holodeck, where he conjures the Ten-Forward bar and they finally talk over drinks. Soon other crew members enter the holodeck, as diminished resources force them to gather in common areas to conserve power. The injured, belligerent Captain Shaw also limps onto the holodeck, and tells a story of survivors’ guilt he blames on Picard after escaping from the infamous “battle of Wolf 359.” The Wolf-359 incident saw Picard assimilated by the Borg, and forced to aid them (as “Locutus”) during their lethal invasion of the Alpha Quadrant. Picard patiently allows the bitter captain to vent, clearing the air between them. Meanwhile, Beverly and Jack’s research into the mysterious energy pulses leads Beverly to believe they’re contractions—as if the nebula were in the process of giving birth.
Elsewhere, Seven’s pursuit of the shapeshifter is stalled when she and ‘former grease monkey’ Captain Shaw are called upon to open the ship’s warp nacelle housings and harness the nebula’s energy pulses in order to jumpstart the ship. As Shaw and Seven go to work, they are met by Ensign Sidney La Forge—or rather her changeling doppelgänger, who fails to correctly answer a personal question asked of her. Seven then kills the changeling. With the nacelles opened, the last few pulses of the nebula’s energy are absorbed directly into the ship. As the recharged Titan retreats from the fading nebula into an asteroid belt, they encounter the Shrike once again. With no patience or appetite for another encounter with Vadic, Riker uses a tractor beam to hurl an asteroid at the Shrike, which cripples the enemy ship, and allows the Titan to escape.
During its final ‘contractions,’ the nebula gave birth to hundreds of massive space dwelling jellyfish—a “new life form,” notes Beverly. With the ship fully restored, and the Shrike temporarily out of action, the Titan warps away. The officers, crew and guests aboard the Titan bond from having survived this “no-win scenario” together.
Note: The ‘new life forms’ reminded me very much of the massive, shapeshifting space jellyfish encountered by the USS Enterprise-D in the 1987 pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint.”
Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart)
In this episode, retired admiral and series focus, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is given chances to mend some fences with both his previously unknown son Jack, and the self-described ‘a$$h@le,’ Captain Shaw. We also see Picard and his trusted friend Will Riker quickly reconciling after a nasty disagreement on the bridge of the Titan at the end of last week’s episode (“Seventeen Seconds”).
There’s a little commentary on Patrick Stewart’s own celebrity status during the opening flashback to five years earlier, when Picard is interrupted during dinner at L.A’s “Ten Forward” bar to regale young Starfleet officers with tales of heroism from his colorful career. At the bar, there is a young civilian man in a hat who asks the admiral about his sacrifice of a family life. Touching on a sore spot, Picard rebounds quickly by playing to the room—telling the young cadets that he’s always considered Starfleet to be his family; an answer met with gale-force approval. But the young man is disappointed with Picard’s pat answer. By the end of the episode we realize (as does Picard) that the young man at the bar was, in fact, Picard’s own teenaged son. Yes, this revelation feels a bit overly theatrical, but it works.
We also learn the reasons behind Captain Shaw’s bitter resentment of Captain Picard’s presence on his ship, as well as his demeaning treatment of his first officer, Seven of Nine. Much like Ben Sisko in the pilot of Deep Space Nine (“Emissary”), we learn Shaw is another survivor from Wolf 359; the infamous battle where Picard was forced to cooperate with the Borg invasion of the Alpha Quadrant after becoming part of their collective. Admiral Picard’s willingness to let the angry captain air his grievances instead of becoming defensive speaks volumes to his own ‘post-mortal coil’ maturity in recent years. It’s nice to see the two characters put this behind them in their shared quest for survival.
Note: Picard’s own cybernetic body is downplayed once again, though I plan to revisit this topic in a future column someday…
Captain Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes)
Promoted to acting captain following the injury of Captain Shaw, Riker once again takes command of the Titan (he captained her prior namesake). Unfortunately, disputes between he and Picard led to Captain Vadic using a ‘portal weapon’ (think: “Dr. Strange”) to cripple the Titan, allowing her to fall into a deep gravity well at the heart of the alien nebula ‘creature.’ This ‘sinking to crush depth’ plot thread (a plot device used in many submarine movies) allows Riker to assess how he faces imminent death, particularly after the loss of his own son, Thaddeus Riker, a few years earlier.
That personal loss has made Riker a bit more risk-averse in his own command style. It also affords him the insight to give newfound father Picard much-needed paternal advice, as Riker tells Jean-Luc to spend every remaining moment to better know his own son, Jack. There’s also a touching scene where Riker tries to compose a final message to his wife, Deanna (Marina Sirtis), with whom he’s had a recent falling out. By the end of the story, we see the previously somber Riker given renewed vigor, after the Titan crew (and guests) unite in common purpose to save the ship.
Note: Extra kudos to actor Jonathan Frakes, who also directed this exceptional episode. Frakes has directed many episodes of the various Star Trek series, as well as the Star Trek movies, “First Contact” and “Insurrection.” Having many other TV shows and some feature films under his belt, actor Frakes is in greater demand as a director at this point in his career.
Captain Liam Shaw (Todd Stashwick)
This week we finally learn the reasons behind Captain Liam Shaw’s (Todd Stashwick) resentment of both his ex-Borg first officer, Seven, and his visiting guests, Admiral Picard and Captain Riker. All three of them remind Shaw of the deep-seated survivors’ guilt he carries with him following the battle of Wolf 359, some thirty years earlier. Shaw was a self-described ‘grease monkey’ aboard the USS Constance, which was one of the forty or so ships destroyed by the Borg during their invasion of the Federation. He was picked at random to get to an escape pod, as other crew were forced to remain with the ship. This guilt manifests itself as a broad anger towards all-things Borg, even past victims of Borg assimilation, like Picard and Seven (it doesn’t help that former-Borg Annika Hansen prefers using her former Borg designation of Seven these days…).
In this episode, we see Shaw, an otherwise strong (if not genial) captain, working closely with Seven to open the ship’s nacelles for vital infusions of energy. Shaw’s life is saved by Seven as she kills a changeling saboteur disguised as helmsman Ensign La Forge. This act of hers, coupled with Picard’s willingness to let Shaw air his grievances against him, allow Shaw much-needed introspection and release. Yes, Shaw’s resentment is identical to Ben Sisko’s in Deep Space Nine’s “Emissary,” but I imagine many older Starfleet officers might feel this misplaced hostility. This was the first time I actually found myself feeling sympathy for Shaw, even if his prejudice against Picard and Seven is unfounded (Picard and Seven were victimized by the Borg as well, in far more invasive ways than Shaw could ever imagine). There’s a potentially great captain buried under all of that anger…
Commander Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan)
Star Trek: Voyager veteran Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) has had a rough time adjusting to life in the Alpha Quadrant in Star Trek: Picard. The ex-“Fenris Ranger” (a league of galactic vigilantes) has officially joined Starfleet with the rank of commander. However, her recent posting as first officer of the Titan-A under Captain Liam Shaw hasn’t exactly been the greatest pairing in Starfleet history. After being relieved of duty by Shaw following her role in Riker and Picard’s mutiny, Seven is unofficially reinstated by acting captain Riker when she learns that a changeling shapeshifter saboteur is aboard the ship. Riker chooses to keep her ‘off-duty,’ affording Seven greater freedom to pursue the matter, which leads her to kill the shapeshifter after it assumes the form of Ensign La Forge. Seven asks the ensign “What is my name?” The doppelgänger La Forge incorrectly answers “Commander Hansen,” prompting Seven to open fire, since the real La Forge always preferred to call her “Commander Seven,” using Seven’s reclaimed Borg identity over her human dead-name.
Note: Seven’s preference for her ‘reclaimed’ ex-Borg designation over her human name is a clear metaphor for the use of preferred trans-identities over birth names. This is not surprising, since actress Jeri Ryan is a strong supporter of LGBTQ-rights (as am I).
Seven of Nine’s assignment as Shaw’s first officer is questionable, at best. One wonders if Shaw picked her (a privilege afforded other captains, such as Picard’s choosing of Riker), or if Seven was absent-mindedly assigned to him. Given Shaw’s bitter history with the Borg, that would seem a really bad idea. At any rate, it’s good to see Seven and Shaw finally working towards common cause instead of clawing at each other. Shaw’s past treatment of Seven (deadnaming her, and demeaning her on the bridge in front of other officers) felt uncomfortably closer to spousal abuse than Starfleet service. With Shaw’s seeming change of heart (after she saves his life), I wonder how their future together will unfold? That said, it’s great to see Seven back in action this week, and not being victimized, as we saw in the preceding episodes. While I’m not the biggest Star Trek: Voyager fan, actress Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine has always been a great character, and her presence on this show is very welcome.
Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden)
Now we come to the character I have the biggest beef with. Namely, Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and her needless estrangement of her former shipmates simply because she chose to have another son (no mention of her other son, Wesley, by the way). Yes, I could understand Beverly’s complicated feelings for Jean-Luc Picard, but to shut out Riker, Troi, Geordi and Worf makes no sense. Moreover, her decision to have Jean-Luc’s child, yet tell him absolutely nothing about his son for 23 years is unconscionable. Her reason for doing so (as stated) was that Picard’s career put him in too much jeopardy to be a reliable father. Yet at the start of this season, we see Beverly and Jack doing dangerous medical runs to forgotten, war-torn regions of the Federation that puts them in considerable danger as well. Perhaps it didn’t occur to Beverly that telling Picard about his son might’ve led to him avoiding such jeopardy—perhaps even retiring from the service altogether, to become the family man he secretly yearned to be (see: “Star Trek: Generations”).
Fortunately, we don’t have to dwell on Beverly’s irrational and unsound reasons for keeping Picard and his son apart, since most of this episode sees Beverly timing the contractions of the great birthing nebula, while also tending to injured in the Titan sickbay. She gets a scene on the ship’s bridge at the end of the episode, after the nebula has disappeared, leaving a school of newborn space-jellyfish in its wake, where she quietly states, “to seek out new life…” This moment punctuates something missing from prior seasons of Star Trek: Picard—that thrill which comes with discovering something new about the universe. Anyway, I’ve nothing against actress Gates McFadden (who seems a lovely person), but the character of Dr. Beverly Crusher has never been a favorite of mine, and this season of Star Trek: Picard only compounds my prior issues with this often poorly-written character.
Jack Crusher (Ed Speleers)
Picard met his son Jack Crusher (Ed Speleers) in a way very similar to how Kirk ‘met’ his own adult son in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (a too-often used template in newer Star Trek). Since that revelation, we’ve learned that Jack is a bright, unorthodox young man who has his mother’s gift for medicine and his father’s tenacity—as well as his dad’s accent(which is quickly and awkwardly explained in “Seventeen Seconds” by Jack’s London schooling). Named after his father’s best friend and his mother’s former husband, Jack is involved in all kinds of back-alley, illegal transactions in the course of his administering medial aid to war-torn, forgotten worlds. This noble calling puts Jack in precisely the sort of danger his mother allegedly sought to avoid by keeping him from his father. Jack’s current danger comes from bounty hunter Captain Vadic aboard the Shrike, for reasons as yet unclear.
Jack’s roguish conman persona was downplayed this week; a fact for which I’m grateful, as it reminded me too much of the dreadfully mediocre TNG episode, “Bloodlines.” I also enjoyed that Picard got the chance to reconnect with his son over drinks in the holographic recreation of L.A’s Ten-Forward bar and grill. There’s still some understandable resistance on Jack’s part, since he once asked Picard (incognito, five years earlier, at that same bar) why he never chose to have a family of his own. Picard’s answer that Starfleet was his family only convinced Jack (however erroneously) that his father wanted nothing to do with him. All of this could’ve been easily avoided, of course, if Beverly had simply been honest with baby-daddy Jean-Luc from the very beginning. That said, it’s nice to see Jack and Picard finally closing that long divide between them… a divide needlessly created in the first place.
Sidney La Forge (Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut)
The youngest daughter of Picard’s former chief engineer, Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), Ensign Sidney La Forge (Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut) was introduced in the first episode of this season (“The Next Generation”) as an eager young officer who had a reputation at Starfleet Academy for crashing shuttles, leaving her with the nickname “Crash La Forge.” Now maturing as a helm officer aboard the Titan-A, La Forge still does things a little less than by-the-book, as evidenced by her friendship with the ship’s ex-Borg first officer, whom La Forge secretly calls by her preferred name of Seven, rather than Captain Shaw’s deadnaming of ‘Commander Hansen‘ (“Seventeen Seconds”).
In this episode, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut (love that name) got to flex her acting chops by playing both Sidney La Forge and her changeling doppelgänger, who raises suspicions by offering to ‘help’ Seven and Shaw open the warp nacelles, despite Riker’s standing order for them to work without help from the crew. That suspicion is confirmed when ‘La Forge’ refers to Seven as “Commander Hansen,” which prompts Seven to fire her phaser at the changeling.
Note: With the revelation of a new, rogue Founder/changeling conspiracy within Starfleet (“Seventeen Seconds”), we’ve seen a stomach-turning ‘upgrade’ to the changelings’ natural appearance. In Deep Space Nine, the changelings’ appeared as a cinnamon-hued, gelatinous fluid. In Star Trek: Picard, the now viscera-laden changelings look more like something out of John Carpeneter’s “The Thing” (1982).
Captain Vadic (Amanda Plummer)
A lot is learned this week about the Shrike’s Captain Vadic (Amanda Plummer). For starters, she is not humanoid, but rather a renegade Founder/changeling. In one scene, she cuts off her own hand, which then forms into yet another changeling—-the very changeling who gives Vadic her marching orders (and which looks more like some kind of Marvel villain, to be honest). Vadic is told to go after Jack Crusher again, but without using the portal weapon. As the newly re-energized Titan emerges from the afterbirth of the space jellyfish, the Shrike is waiting in ambush. Acting captain Riker has lost all patience with Vadic, and uses a tractor beam to tow a nearby asteroid directly into the Shrike (using Vadic’s own tactic against her…or it?). After this humiliating defeat, Vadic seems uncharacteristically resigned. Did she forfeit her life in the attempt? We’ll see…
I’ve enjoyed Amanda Plummer’s work in “The World According to Garp,” “Pulp Fiction” and as an eccentric oracle in the rebooted “Battlestar Galactica.” In Star Trek: Picard, she’s following in her late father Christopher Plummer’s footsteps—almost literally—since he once played the rogue Klingon conspirator, General Chang, in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.” Amanda Plummer’s Captain Vadic oscillates wildly between giddy delight and grim determination; a performance in-line with other wonderfully manic characters Plummer portrays so well.
Note: What remains to be seen is the identity of Vadic’s unknown accomplices, who remain shrouded in all-encompassing masks; are they a new breed of soldiers (like the Jem’Hadar) used by the rogue changelings, or are they conscripted alien allies?
Summing It Up
Written by series showrunner Terry Matalas and Sean Tretta, the story is (once again) composed of familiar Star Trek elements from “The Wrath of Khan,” DS9’s “The Adversary,” TNG’s “Encounter at Farpoint,” “Galaxy Child,” “Bloodlines,” and its own series finale, “All Good Things…” Familiar sound effects from all eras of Star Trek are sprinkled everywhere. We even hear the familiar musical cues from Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner’s movie music scores reused (again) as well. All the same, these familiar elements are soldered together into a satisfying whole this time out.
There are also a few bandaged character arcs which give viewers a much-needed sense of closure. This addresses an often maddening issue with serialized Star Trek, since the debut of “Discovery” six years ago; a lack of containment, wherein each episode becomes a piece of a puzzle instead of a story. That we see the characters aboard the Titan facing their demons and uniting towards a common goal greatly aids this sense of resolution. That we didn’t cut to the Raffi/Worf conspiracy subplot also helped, since jump-cutting from this story could’ve shattered the connections being made aboard the Titan. Up until now, the independently-running character arcs aboard the Titan felt more like a herd of cats. With this story, the Titan finally has a crew.
Helmed by veteran Star Trek director and costar Frakes (who also directed two of the TNG feature films), “No Win Scenario,” is more briskly paced than the previous two (shorter) episodes, “Disengage” and “Seventeen Seconds.” Despite some murky, underlit cinematography (whatever happened to emergency lighting?), and a crew facing death (cheerful), there’s an energy and drive to this episode lacking in the previous two. The sense of closure makes this one feel less like a chapter and more like an honest-to-goodness Star Trek story. It doesn’t hurt that the final moments manage to work in some actual space exploration, too.
Where to Watch
“Star Trek: Picard” is available to stream exclusively on Paramount+, along with most of the Star Trek canon. Star Trek Picard seasons 1 & 2 are also available on BluRay from Amazon.com and other sellers (prices vary).