Spoiler Warning – There will be spoilers ahead for Absolute Candor – the fourth episode of Star Trek: Picard – as well as for all previous episodes in Season 1. There may also be spoilers for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
What a wild ride Absolute Candor was! After a trilogy of episodes directed by Hanelle M. Culpepper kicked off the series, Star Trek legend and former Star Trek: The Next Generation star Jonathan Frakes stepped up to direct this outing for Picard and his new crew – and he’ll also be directing next week’s instalment too.
After the first three episodes set up a lot of story points and mysteries, Absolute Candor felt like the first episode so far to begin the task of exploring and unravelling them. That’s not to say it answered everything – we still have far more questions than answers right now. But some details are beginning to come into focus, especially regarding Picard’s history between when we last saw him in Star Trek: Nemesis and when we met him again in Remembrance at the beginning of this season.
As with the last two episodes, Absolute Candor opens with a flashback sequence. But rather than seeing Mars this time, as Maps and Legends and The End is the Beginning showed us, this time we’re with an out-of-uniform Picard on a planet called Vashti, in the Beta Quadrant. It’s clear quite quickly that this sequence takes place before the attack on Mars – Picard is still working very hard to relocate as many Romulans as possible with time ticking down to the supernova. He’s clearly very popular with many of the Romulans on Vashti, though if he’s working I’m not exactly sure why he’s not in uniform. Picard, at least as we remember him from The Next Generation, was quite a stickler for such things as uniforms – though perhaps as an Admiral he had more leeway in this matter.
Vashti is presented as a kind of “frontier outpost”; it’s dusty, it’s bustling with Romulans, and Picard is in his element here. At least, the town setting on Vashti looks like this. The next setting Picard visits – a convent or nunnery – has a very obvious Japanese inspiration. This blend of aesthetics keeps the two parts of Vashti distinct from one another, with the serenity and safety of the convent contrasting with the unpolished nature of the pioneer town. This contrast will come into play later, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We saw a Romulan using the same style of cards that Ramdha (the Romulan Soji wanted to talk to in the last episode) was using, and their inclusion was a nice way of tying things together, as well as adding to the “wild-west” vibe that the town on Vashti has going for it.
Picard has struck up a relationship with Elnor, a young boy who has been taken in by the nuns. He brings him a gift – a copy of the book The Three Musketeers – and promises to teach him how to fence. His dislike of children is referenced here by the nuns and Elnor, but he reassures the boy, saying he is “very fond” of him. There’s a grandfatherly element to Picard that we haven’t really seen before – obviously emphasised by his age. In The Next Generation, we saw him take on a semi-fatherly role to Wesley – after dismissing his “no children on the bridge” rule – so this is hardly out of character. He also kept the “Captain Picard Day” banner from his time aboard the Enterprise-D, again showing that his attitude to children has considerably softened over the years.
Midway through the promised fencing lesson, Picard gets a call on his combadge (the Generations–Deep Space Nine–Voyager style is back for this sequence) from Raffi. And we know what this must be before anything happens; she’s about to tell him of the attack on Mars. Because we knew this – it had even been included in the montage of previous episodes that played at the very beginning – I don’t think we needed Picard’s line in response. Shock like this can be hard to play right, and it’s no criticism of Sir Patrick Stewart that the line, in which he says “what do you mean synths have attacked Mars?” just fell flat and didn’t really work. A simple facial expression would have conveyed everything we needed to know; the line was unnecessary and detracted from the scene.
Everyone is concerned, and Picard promises to get to the bottom of it and return soon, saying that their work must continue, and then the credits roll. Having seen Seven of Nine feature prominently in the trailers, Jeri Ryan’s name being included in the credits wasn’t a surprise. But, given her role in the episode, it was a bit of an unnecessary spoiler – especially for people who may have skipped the trailers. Seven of Nine only shows up right at the end of the episode. She’s an anonymous pilot flying a small ship, and that whole scene is structured around keeping her identity hidden until the last possible moment, making her appearance on the bridge of La Sirena a surprise – but as this was the last scene in the episode, and we’d seen her name in the opening credits, the element of surprise was lost which was a shame, I felt.
After the credits we’re back in the present day, and after a brief shot of La Sirena in space we get a conversation between Dr Jurati and Capt. Rios. It seems like this may be Jurati’s first time in space, and more than anything she just feels bored while the ship warps to their destination. I mentioned last time how the comment Raffi made at the end of last week’s episode about Dr Jurati not being subject to any kind of security check could be some foreshadowing of her being a double-agent, and this conversation, innocent though it may have seemed on the surface, could also be seen as her probing Rios for information in a disarming style. I’m not sure exactly why yet, but I have a feeling she isn’t to be trusted.
Raffi interrupts the awkward conversation to demand to know where the ship is going – apparently Picard wants to make a stop at Vashti before heading to Freecloud, though he seems to have only told Rios of this, as Raffi and Dr Jurati had no idea. The next scene was confusing for a moment, as Picard appears to be back on the vineyard – but apparently it’s just a holoprogram that Zhaban requested that the “hospitality hologram” on La Sirena recreate for Picard. As with every hologram on the ship, it’s been reprogrammed to have Rios’ appearance.
There’s a close-up shot of Dahj’s necklace on Picard’s desk – presumably a recreation as part of the holoprogram, but this isn’t clear. As I said in my review of Remembrance, I really feel this is a weak prop. The visually unimpressive design just makes it blend in, and for something that was supposed to be so noticeable, and that’s supposed to be a symbol for creating androids, it just looks bland. For a one-off item I could forgive that, and it would be little more than a minor costuming/prop nitpick. But the necklace keeps cropping up, as it did here in the close-up, and I wish it looked better given its role in the story thus far.
Raffi interrupts Picard’s conversation with the hologram, demanding to know why he’s insistent on going to Vashti. It’s clear Picard has been out of touch with goings-on in the galaxy for some time; Vashti will not be the way he remembers it. Rios and Dr Jurati join in as Picard calmly explains that he wants to return to the convent we saw in the flashback – because the nuns there are warriors, and he hopes one of them can be persuaded to join their crew for the mission. He suspects they are being tracked – though interestingly he refers to their opponents as the Tal Shiar, not the Zhat Vash. He will do so again later in the episode when talking to Elnor, and I have a feeling this will come back to be a point in future episodes. Whether Picard doesn’t believe in the existence of the Zhat Vash, or whether he simply doesn’t want to go to the trouble of explaining to everyone what they are isn’t clear.
We get two little hints in this scene that may come into play in future episodes. First is that Raffi makes a comment about how Picard’s decision to go to Vashti makes her “seriously question [his] mental state” – could this be a hint about the terminal condition that Dr Benayoun mentioned in Maps and Legends? Secondly, Picard calls Raffi out on her keenness to get to Freecloud, but Rios says she seems apprehensive about it. What is Raffi planning to do on Freecloud? We know she said at the end of last week’s episode that she’s going there for her own reasons, but here we get a hint that she may not be looking forward to it. Why that is isn’t clear at this stage either.
Vashti, according to Raffi and Rios, is in a bad way, seemingly outside of anyone’s jurisdiction with warlords controlling the planet and the space around it. Picard is surprised by this, and his lack of awareness of the situation shows us, as mentioned earlier, just how out of touch he is with the state of play. Rios mentions a warlord who has control of an “antique bird-of-prey” – and anyone who’s seen the trailers will have spotted that ship, sporting a design not seen since The Original Series.
The nuns, Picard says, are the best fighters he’s ever seen – and enemies of the Tal Shiar. The “Way of Absolute Candor” is mentioned here for the first time, and it appears to be almost the complete antithesis of Surak’s Vulcan teachings. The Qowat Milat, as the nuns are called, believe in “total communication of emotion”. Raffi makes one last attempt to convince Picard to ditch the Vashti idea and head straight for Freecloud, but Picard says that he “may never pass this way again” – another reference to his condition. While this is, in a sense, a side-quest to Picard’s main objective of finding Maddox and Soji, he is taking advantage of his return to space to travel to Vashti to revisit Elnor.
Travelling in space in Star Trek has never really been treated as a big deal. It was something routine, even if some individuals we met had never done so – like Joseph Sisko in Deep Space Nine. But in Star Trek: Picard we’ve had several instances that show us space travel is not just as easy as getting on a starship and taking off. Picard’s appeal to Admiral Clancy in Maps and Legends was brutally shot down, but not before she could say he couldn’t be trusted to take people into space. Next we have Dr Jurati, who is seemingly on her first space voyage, and now Picard himself, who, granted, has been a kind of self-imposed exile in La Barre, but it seems as though travel to Vashti isn’t easy. It took Picard contacting Raffi to track down a pilot who would even take them to Freecloud, when surely everything we’ve seen in prior Star Trek suggests that interstellar travel should be commonplace – and simple. It’s a surprise in terms of the way space travel has been handled thus far in the series, I think, and it’s less in line with past Star Trek and more like something we might expect to have seen in a different kind of science fiction series. I know there are perfectly valid story reasons for why Picard couldn’t just buy, rent, or otherwise acquire a shuttle or runabout – like how they have the Zhat Vash on their tail – but the tone is not what I expected, I have to admit. And it’s the kind of nitpick only some returning fans might have that doesn’t really detract from the story. But when you stop and think about it – surely it should have been easy for Picard and the others to go to Freecloud or Vashti or anywhere else they might’ve wanted.
Next, we get a scene aboard the Artifact, where Soji is watching a video of Ramdha from before she was assimilated, while playing with a similar deck of cards to those Ramdha was using in The End is the Beginning. Last time Ramdha called Soji “the destroyer”, and Soji hears that name again, this time in Romulan. Apparently “Seb-Cheneb” (which seems to be the Romulan name for “the destroyer”) is related to a day called Ganmadan – “the annihilation”. How this ties into Soji’s background and why Ramdha accused her of being Seb-Cheneb isn’t known at this point, but Soji is clearly disturbed by the implications.
After this brief scene we’re back on La Sirena, now in orbit of Vashti but without permission to approach the planet’s defences. Picard says they should simply tell whoever is running the show down on the surface that it’s him – expecting that will allow them to transport to the surface. But apparently Raffi and Rios have already tried that, and it’s clear that the Romulans on Vashti don’t want anything to do with him any more.
After bribing the Romulans, Picard is able to beam down to Vashti. The atmosphere is so different from its appearance in the flashback; the once-bustling town is squalid and run-down, with hard-up refugees glaring at Picard. It’s clear that some of them recognise him, and one whispers something into a communicator. Given that Raffi becomes concerned later in the episode when Picard has been identified by the inhabitants, it makes very little sense as to why they’d let him beam down, alone and unarmed, into the middle of the town.
Regardless, Picard tries to speak to some of the locals, who all ignore him. I liked the use of the phrase “jolan tru”, which returns from its appearance in The Next Generation two-part episode Unification – which saw Picard and Data go undercover on Romulus to find Spock after he travelled there. While “jolan tru” isn’t as iconic in the franchise as the Klingon word “qapla!”, it’s nevertheless a neat little throwback. It would have been easy to disregard that and create a new word or greeting in Romulan, but I’m glad they brought back this element from Picard’s past adventures.
This isn’t the “homecoming” that Picard would have wanted, and despite repeated warnings from Raffi and Rios about the state of Vashti and his own lack of popularity there, the Romulans’ reaction to his presence clearly hurts and disappoints him.
In this scene, I feel like Vashti was channelling Star Trek V: The Final Frontier’s depiction of Paradise City on the planet Nimbus III. That settlement, in a barren desert, was supposed to be a symbol of “galactic peace” – cooperation between the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans. But, much like Vashti, it quickly fell into disrepair as the project was sidelined. There was great hope, both for Vashti and Nimbus III, to be successes, but both ultimately failed and became what we saw on screen. Whether the throwback was intentional or not I can’t say, but I definitely picked up a similar tone when Picard was on Vashti.
Picard travels to the convent, where he meets the nun from the flashback sequence. The nuns are perhaps the only people on Vashti who aren’t unhappy to see Picard return – though she does remark he’s “got old” since their last encounter. And I want to give a little credit here to hair and makeup. My reviews often focus on plot and story at the expense of other elements of a production – it’s something I’m trying to work on! But the way Picard appears in the flashbacks and in the up-to-date sequences does differ – and part of that is his hair. In the flashbacks, Picard has sported a close-cropped version of his grey-white hair that we remember from The Next Generation, and is notably completely bald in the rest of the show. This subtle change does age and de-age him somewhat in the two sequences, as well as differentiating them from one another. It’s subtle, such that it was hard to put my finger on at first, but I think it works well without having to rely on excessive makeup or expensive (and imperfect) digital techniques to make him look younger for the flashback scenes.
As Elnor appears – now a fully grown man – Picard reacts with shock. Before we can see what happens, however, the action cuts back to the Artifact. Ramdha isn’t dead, but she’s been sedated or placed in stasis, and Soji has paid her a visit. Narek stops by – he seems to have been tracking her movements – and she tells him something which I think is important – she felt like Ramdha had “seen” her. Even though she doesn’t know why, as she is unaware of her true nature, she felt like Ramdha had some kind of insight, something that she saw or recognised in Soji that is true. And not to spoil my next theory post, but I have a feeling there may be more Soji and Dahj lookalikes out there somewhere – one of which Ramdha may have encountered. That’s one explanation, anyway, but I don’t want to sink too much into theory-crafting right now!
At a canteen or mess hall on the Artifact, Soji and Narek sit down and discuss what happened last week. She asks him flat-out if he’s been following her, and it seems that this sequence takes place immediately after last week’s episode, as Soji says she “just now” visited the disordered Romulans. She presses him, asking if he works for the Tal Shiar. He says no, of course, but she is unconvinced. We can’t trust Narek at this point, so when he says he doesn’t know what happened to the Romulan vessel or to Ramdha, we – like Soji – don’t believe him. He plays his cards close to his chest and clearly knows more than he’s letting on. In this scene, I wonder if the blue drink they were sharing was meant to be Romulan Ale? This drink has appeared a number of times in Star Trek and it would be a nice reference if it were!
Narek tells Soji he wants to show her a “Borg ritual”, and for a moment I wondered if he might actually know something about Borg behaviour or even their origins. But it turns out it was a joke/metaphor, as the two slide in their socks along an uninhabited part of the Artifact. Narek presses her on her background – she learnt to speak Romulan “some time before May 12, 2396” – which is give-or-take three years before the events of the series. Given that Dr Jurati believed that Dahj only had around three years’ worth of genuine background – everything in her records before then seemed to have been made up – this fits with what we know. Could the 12th of May 2396 be Soji and Dahj’s activation or creation date? Narek pushes Soji too hard for information, saying he knows she wasn’t aboard a ship she claims to have been on around that time, and she takes offence and leaves, pushing past him on the way.
Back on Vashti, Picard explains to the nun that he wants someone to join his cause. Elnor offers him a meal, then storms off, clearly upset at Picard’s reappearance just like the Romulans in town had been. It’s here that we learn – contrary to my expectations, I have to admit – that Picard did nothing to aid the Romulans either on their homeworld or on Vashti after the attack on Mars. After his resignation, he simply went home to the château. No wonder the Romulans are so upset – Picard had been the face of the Federation when they promised to help, and after only a tiny fraction of that help had been delivered, they reneged on it and Picard simply disappeared. He seems never to have returned to Vashti after the flashback sequence at the beginning of the episode, even abandoning Elnor.
The nun calmly scolds Picard – “because you could not save everyone, you chose to save no one”, she tells him, and it’s true, Picard even admits it himself. The attack on Mars is not the issue in and of itself, it was merely the catalyst for what really happened to Picard – Starfleet and the Federation broke their commitment, and when he threatened to resign in protest, instead of recognising the error of their ways and doing things his way, they simply accepted his resignation. This moment is what broke him. The attack on Mars set the stage, but Picard was reminded thereafter not just of Starfleet’s petty factional politics, but of his own unimportance to the organisation he’d dedicated his life to.
He can’t go back and undo it, building up a new fleet and saving lives. It’s too late for that – and it is a regret that he will have to live with. I’m sure we will see more of Picard wrestling with those feelings in future episodes, but for now at least, the nuns give him a chance to begin to make things right for at least one Romulan – Elnor. The shot of Elnor standing outside the convent, holding a thin-bladed sword with the reddish-coloured leaves in the background was clearly inspired by Japan. Elnor is, in this moment anyway, a samurai warrior.
Picard and Elnor sit together, and it’s an awkward conversation as Elnor clearly feels aggrieved by Picard’s abandonment. He had seen Picard as a father figure, clearly, and his disappearance from Elnor’s life left him with the nuns. Picard steers the conversation away from the past to his mission to find Maddox and Soji, but Elnor says that, as Picard is only interested in him now that he finds him useful, he’s inclined to abandon him the way he was abandoned, and storms off.
Dejected, Picard heads back to town. Rios tells him that he’ll have to wait seven minutes before they will be able to transport him through the planet’s defences – and alarm bells started ringing immediately for me! This whole sequence was so well-constructed. The seeds were sown in earlier scenes: having to bribe his way to the surface, the cold reception he received from the townspeople, the nun confirming he abandoned the rescue project, Raffi on board the ship finding out that he’d been spotted and identified, and now finally the fact that he’ll have to wait alone for rescue. A lot can happen in seven minutes – Picard is clearly in danger.
His stubbornness gets the better of him back in the town, and he sits down at a table in one of the saloon-type places, much to the ire of the Romulans who were already there. One confronts him, as we knew was sure to happen, and it turns out that he had once been a Senator – before the supernova.
We get a little more information here about the rescue armada. Some of the ships were already in service at the time of the attack on Mars, and over a quarter of a million Romulans had been relocated to Vashti at the time of the attack. Rather than waiting for the whole fleet to be complete, Picard and Raffi had been working in the meantime. The Senator – and the other Romulans – detest Picard, both for his own failings and for the decision made by the Federation to pull out of helping them. The former seems fair, but the latter does not as we know how hard Picard fought to convince Starfleet to rebuild the fleet and continue to help.
The Romulans throw him a sword and push him into the street to duel – we saw Picard showing young Elnor how to fence, and we’ve also seen him fence on at least one occasion in The Next Generation, but Picard is clearly outmatched here by the towering Romulan. He refuses to fight and tries to talk his way out of the situation, when Elnor shows up. He says “choose to live” – and we assume he’s speaking to Picard, encouraging him to pick up the sword he’d thrown down. But as the Romulan lunges for Picard, Elnor steps in and kills him. His statement was a threat – not to cross an assassin of the Qowat Milat. As another Romulan prepares to pull his disruptor and shoot Elnor, he and Picard are beamed aboard La Sirena.
We do have to again examine Picard’s frame of mind here. He berates Elnor for killing the Romulan Senator, but it’s obvious that he would have killed Picard in a heartbeat. The state of the galaxy, and Picard’s own relationship with the Romulans and other factions is not what it was fourteen years ago – yet he doesn’t seem to have fully grasped that reality yet. Elnor stepping in was the only option in that fight – the only other outcome was Picard’s death. As a great diplomat, as well as a former friend to the Romulan people, it must be hard for him to accept that his words mean nothing to them any more.
Elnor has committed himself to Picard’s cause – and now the whole crew is finally assembled. The last main character has slotted nicely into place, and four episodes in, we finally have the whole cast! This slower-paced introduction of the main characters has been spectacularly successful. Instead of trying to dump them all at once in the first episode, we’ve taken our time and got to know more about each of them as the show introduced them, and that’s really been a great way to handle it.
As Dr Jurati meets Elnor, she finally finds out the answer to a question she – and we as the audience – had from earlier: what was the Qowat Milat’s criteria for signing up? The answer – they only volunteer for lost or hopeless causes.
Narek receives a visit from Rizzo back on board the Artifact. She teases him about his “robot girlfriend”, and half-strangles him to get him to tell her the only useful piece of information he’s found so far – he believes, as Ramdha did, that Soji is Seb-Cheneb or “the destroyer”. He cautions her, pleadingly, about avoiding another activation – as happened to Dahj in Remembrance. But Rizzo tells him that the endgame is the same – they plan to kill Soji when they find out where she and Dahj came from. She gives him one more week to get more information out of her, before she will take action. I’m sure that the “one week” timeframe is no coincidence – it’s a reference to something happening in the next episode!
The episode closes with a final scene aboard La Sirena. The bird-of-prey mentioned earlier, and seen in the trailers, is fighting Rios’s ship, trying to push them into the planet’s defence grid which will destroy them. We get to see the scale of La Sirena better here – it’s much smaller than the bird-of-prey, and is thus more manoeuvrable. However, it takes the intervention of another ship to disable the bird-of-prey and save La Sirena – and as that ship is about to be destroyed, Picard makes the decision to beam its pilot on board. The pilot is, of course, revealed to be Seven of Nine.
Overall, I really enjoyed Absolute Candor. The Qowat Milat are an interesting and unique faction within Star Trek, at least that I’m aware of, and Romulan society – both pre- and post-supernova – is being explored in much richer detail than we’ve ever seen before. Unlike with the Klingons in Discovery, who many have argued overwrote some aspects of Klingon culture and design that had been present in past iterations of Star Trek, nothing we’ve seen of the Romulans so far contradicts what we already knew – it merely advances the story of the faction and adds to our knowledge and understanding. In that sense, the Romulans were a much better choice for Star Trek: Picard’s main faction than the Klingons were for Discovery. Whereas the Klingons’ history and culture had been explored in depth thanks to Worf and B’Elanna being main characters, and the Klingons’ prominent role in many episodes and films, the Romulans, despite being a known faction, were much more of a blank slate for the new creators to work with.
Having the full cast together is great, and now that we’re four episodes in we really should be expecting that. Elnor has two very clear influences, at least in my opinion. This episode played up a distinctly Japanese aesthetic for him – the way the convent was styled and his weapon in particular. The way he fights is reminiscent of samurai stories and martial arts films, further adding to that. But there’s also what I think is a pretty clear nod to Tolkein-esque elves in his appearance – particularly his clothing and his hair. Elnor’s look borrows much from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies – though Elnor is more emotional and less stoic than most of the elves in those films.
I enjoyed a number of the little nods and winks to returning fans: the TOS bird-of-prey, the use of the phrase “jolan tru”, the older style of combadge in the flashback sequence, the bottle of what looks like Romulan Ale on the Artifact, and the comparable state of Vashti and Nimbus III. It’s so clear from practically every moment, whether Picard is on screen or not, that this show is 100% a Star Trek show, and I really needed that. Discovery had plenty of great Star Trek-y moments too, but sometimes those could get drowned out by other elements of the plot. And the Kelvin films similarly had some highs and some lows when it came to feeling like a genuine part of the franchise. Picard, thus far at least, has had very few low points in general, and oozes that elusive Star Trek quality in every single scene.
It was great to see La Sirena in her first real firefight. Rios is clearly a good captain and a skilled pilot – but I’m a little concerned that the ship was so easily outmatched by a vessel a century-and-a-half old. I’m not sure this bodes all that well for future battles, but with Seven of Nine and – possibly – others tailing Picard, perhaps they can count on some additional support.
One of my friends, who I know isn’t a Star Trek fan, texted me yesterday to show me that they were sitting down with family to watch the latest episode. Apparently it has become a big deal for them to watch it together and they’ve loved seeing Picard’s new adventures. I know this is one person and it’s anecdotal, but I really get the impression that Star Trek: Picard is breaking through to new and old fans alike in a way that Discovery never really did. And that’s fantastic news – as someone who loves Star Trek and wants to see more of it, I’m always thrilled when it seems to be a success.
Seeing Seven of Nine again, after such a long hiatus, was great as well, even though she was only on screen briefly. We’ve seen Hugh back, of course, but many returning fans will have much more of a connection to Seven of Nine than to Hugh. The first few episodes have all been about bringing the crew together and setting up mysteries – and this time I finally feel that we’ve turned the page and are now beginning to get some more information about what’s been going on. There’s still so much to learn in the next few episodes, and I can’t wait for next week, where Jonathan Frakes will be back to direct Stardust City Rag. What a great name for an episode!
Absolute Candor – and the previous three episodes of Star Trek: Picard – are available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom and other countries and territories. The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Picard – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.