Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Seasons 1-2. Spoilers are also present for the following Star Trek productions: The Next Generation, Voyager, First Contact, and Discovery.
I found Monsters to be a frustrating experience – with the odd moment of sheer brilliance. While the story edged along in incremental steps, overall this side-mission inside Picard’s mind seemed to drag just a little too long. That being said, when the amateur Freudian psychoanalysis let up, we got some interesting moments with Seven of Nine and Raffi as they hunted for Dr Jurati, and from Picard and Guinan as the episode drew to a close.
Despite having mixed feelings about the season overall – particularly its time travel story – some of the promotional images released for Monsters looked intriguing, so after a couple of weeks where I’d been uninterested to the point of near-apathy in Picard, this time around I managed to work up some excitement and interest for the latest outing. To summarise, I guess I’d say that Monsters didn’t deliver what I’d hoped for, and the show’s 21st Century setting continues to be a drag, but there were some genuinely insightful and interesting moments, especially as the episode neared its end.
As last week’s episode drew to a close, I felt that there was potential in a story that explored some of Picard’s psyche, and that seemed to be borne out by a couple of the promotional images released before the episode aired. These pictures showed Picard sitting aboard a 24th Century vessel, meeting with a new character who was wearing what looked like a new Starfleet uniform variant. Based on those pictures and that setup, I was hopeful that a season which has been content to stay in the modern-day for the most part might actually show us a little more of Star Trek’s future – the part that I find a thousand times more interesting, exciting, and inspiring.
Unfortunately we didn’t really get any of that – at least, not in the way I had hoped. We returned to the château of Picard’s childhood, and spent a lot of time running around in the dungeons while monsters from low-budget horror films chased after Picard, his mother, and later Tallinn. I think the problem with this story is more fundamental than just its B-movie horror aesthetic, though. If a decision is made to psychoanalyse a character in this fashion, diving deeply into their subconscious mind and buried memories, by the time we reach the end we should feel like we learned something – anything, really – that could inform and educate us about why the character behaves a certain way or has a particular personality trait. We came to the end of this coma-dream with Picard awakening… and I don’t feel like I understand him any better than I did before watching this entire drawn-out storyline.
We’ve spent a lot of time with Picard over the past thirty-five years, and in that time we’ve seen him go through many significant and traumatic events. There are more things from his past that we’ve only heard about in passing; lines of dialogue in The Next Generation that informed a story or gave us a tidbit of information about the man and his personal history. This episode, and the framework it used, could have explored any of those. Just off the top of my head, we could’ve seen Picard wrangle with the death of Jack Crusher – husband of Beverly Crusher – during his time in command of the Stargazer. We could’ve seen him dealing with the trauma of Tasha Yar’s death, or the loss of his family in a fire at the château that we heard about in Generations.
Instead, Monsters chose to introduce a wholly new backstory element to Picard’s character, giving him a moment in his youth in which he was traumatised by being trapped in the passageways below his family’s château, as well as his mother’s mental health condition. I can deal with the fact that this seems to clash with depictions of Picard’s mother in The Next Generation; the two shows are very different, and while there’s definitely a major difference in tone, there’s nothing that stands out to me as being wholly contradictory. But what I find difficult to get on board with is the fact that this entire sequence feels meaningless to the story overall – we didn’t learn anything significant about Picard, nor did we unlock anything that might be key to understanding the story of the season.
I don’t recall it ever being mentioned prior to Monsters that Picard had a fear of confined spaces. I can recall many occasions in the past where we’d seen him in the Jeffries’ tubes, for example, and that never seemed to bother him. If it had been mentioned even an episode or two ago we could’ve at least said that Season 2 was trying to set it up, but even that didn’t happen, so I find it being brought up here particularly odd. Not only that, but this supposed claustrophobia didn’t even feature in a big way in the story at all – there was no moment where Picard was in a confined space either in reality, in his mind, nor in his memories. The dungeon was certainly a frightening place, but young Picard seemed to be trapped in a pretty large room.
Obviously trauma and the development of phobias is a more complicated thing than that, and I get that. But even so, this attempt to depict Picard’s supposed trauma feels weak. More importantly, though, it doesn’t seem to have accomplished much of anything, certainly not enough to justify producing an entire episode dedicated to it.
Star Trek: Picard promised to show us the beloved character in his later years, going on new adventures with a new crew but still fundamentally the same man we remembered from his debut thirty-five years ago. There was scope in a story about memory and digging into someone’s trauma and psyche to draw on something from Star Trek’s past – either something that was underdeveloped during The Next Generation era or something merely referenced – to flesh out some unknown or unseen part of Picard’s character. This episode took that open goal and missed it by a country mile by telling a disconnected and just plain odd story that feels functionally and narratively irrelevant. A ten-episode series can’t afford to waste time – something Picard learned to its cost in Season 1 – so Monsters feels not only like a disappointment, but an episode that could potentially be a weight around the neck of the entire season.
When I deconstructed the failings of Et in Arcadia Ego (the two-part Season 1 finale) a few weeks ago, I concluded by saying that I hoped the lessons of that rushed pair of episodes had been learned. Whole storylines ran out of road, characters disappeared, new factions came and went in the blink of an eye, and narrative threads that could’ve been weaved together had there been more time ended the season just dangling, unresolved. With three episodes remaining in Season 2 to resolve this new story, I feel a sense of anxiety. The past three episodes essentially revolved around the astronauts’ party and its aftermath, without much input from Q or significant progression of the season’s main story arcs. There isn’t a lot of time to get back on track – especially if we get any more short episodes like the half-hour Two of One last week.
To return to the dungeon and the monsters, when this storyline kicked off with young Picard and his mother, it seemed like it had potential. As someone with mental heath issues myself, I briefly felt some of what I’ve experienced being reflected in the depiction of Yvette Picard. There was scope to expand upon this – and perhaps a future episode will tell us more about her nameless condition. Unfortunately, though, what we got in Monsters may have began in a relatable way – so much so that, for a brief moment, it felt uncomfortably close to my own personal experience – but it quickly descended into pantomime and farce.
Mental health conditions are not easy to depict in fiction. It takes time, it needs a nuanced portrayal, and it requires a creative team who all understand the condition in question and what the purpose of its depiction is. Yvette’s condition wasn’t shown for its own sake, and wasn’t even trying to be a sensitive or sympathetic depiction of whatever unnamed condition she suffered from. It existed purely to attempt to inform us as the audience about the trauma Picard himself feels from those events, and that already relegates it to a kind of secondary status that perhaps was always going to prevent a nuanced or at least decent attempt to portray it.
The Star Trek franchise hasn’t always dealt with mental health particularly well. I noted as recently as Season 1 of Picard how the franchise can lean into unhelpful one-dimensional stereotypes, and Yvette feels barely a step ahead of that. The decision to include hallucinatory elements was potentially an interesting one – but to then turn around and make those hallucinations B-movie horror monsters rendered any impact it could’ve had utterly meaningless.
I’ve tried to be an advocate for better depictions of mental health in fiction, but more than once I’ve found myself exasperatedly saying that if a story can’t get it right – or at least make an effort to do better with the way mental health is depicted – then maybe it’s preferable to leave it alone. If there isn’t time in a series like Picard – which understandably has its focuses elsewhere – to show Yvette’s mental health condition in more detail and more sympathetically, then maybe this angle shouldn’t be included. With a few rewrites, the story could get to the same place while skipping over a pretty uninspired and occasionally problematic one-dimensional depiction of an unnamed but somewhat stereotypical “mental illness.” Otherwise it feels like the series is paying lip service to an important subject; touching on it in the most basic and meaningless of ways.
So what was this story trying to say? That Picard’s desire to explore strange, new worlds is connected to trauma related to his mother? That seems incredibly clichéd and basic, even by the generally poor standards of mental health stories that we’ve just been talking about. I want to believe that this story has more to give; some twist or turn that will pull out a passable ending to a narrative thread that will otherwise be disappointing in the extreme. I’ve jumped the gun before with these kinds of things and been too quick to criticise, so I guess we need to wait and see what comes next. On its own merits, though, this part of Monsters – the part that took up the majority of the episode’s runtime – was poor.
There was a glimpse of something better (or at least something different) at the close of the episode. Picard visited Guinan’s bar to try to “summon” Q (or another member of the Q Continuum, this wasn’t 100% clear). I liked that we got callbacks to past iterations of Star Trek; Guinan’s “claw” pose that we saw in Q Who made a comeback, for example. And this part of the story filled in a blank from all the way back in The Next Generation’s second season, potentially explaining the animosity between Guinan and Q, or at least the El-Aurians and the Q Continuum.
This is the kind of thing I’d hoped Picard Season 2 would do more of. Season 1 had a fairly narrow focus on the Romulans and synths, and while we got a deeper dive into one aspect of Romulan culture in particular, there was a lot more that the last season could’ve done to connect its narrative threads to Star Trek’s broader canon. Because of how it quickly stepped out of the prime timeline and then shot back in time, Season 2 hasn’t really had much of an opportunity to do this, and when elements from Star Trek’s past have been introduced they haven’t really been explored or fleshed out in a substantial way; take Tallinn and the mysterious organisation she works for as a case in point. So I greatly appreciated the Guinan-Q connection here.
Picard and Guinan being apprehended may yet have a deeper significance to the story – if the “FBI Agent” isn’t who he claims to be, for example. Stay tuned for my theory post for more on that! But if it really is the FBI and 21st Century Earth authorities, I’m actually kind of glad that the story went down this road! Picard and the crew, despite their best intentions, have made a lot of noise since arriving in the 21st Century – so it makes perfect sense that, in the highly-surveilled world of 2024, the authorities would be attempting to track them.
We got several cute moments this week with Seven of Nine and Raffi. Their relationship, which had been teased at the end of Season 1, hadn’t developed as much as I’d hoped or expected this season, and with Seven being sidelined for the entirety of last week’s outing, I’m glad that the show’s writers haven’t entirely forgotten about this angle. We caught snippets of their conversation aboard La Sirena that suggested that their relationship is built on solid foundations, even if they don’t always have time to acknowledge it to each other, and I think in a busy episode with a lot of storylines on the go, I can accept such moments of exposition.
What I would say, though, is that we’re really feeling the impact of modern Star Trek’s shorter seasons, and I noticed that in particular with Seven and Raffi this week. After they returned to La Sirena, tracking down Dr Jurati, figuring out how the Borg code got into the ship’s computers, and coming up with a plan to counteract it and figure out what happened could’ve been an entire episode in itself during The Next Generation and Voyager eras. As it is, we got a couple of lines of dialogue and a cut-down sequence. That isn’t bad, but it’s definitely something that could’ve been expanded upon.
Rios now officially irks me. His regression from the Starfleet captain we were reintroduced to in The Star Gazer to the Han Solo-inspired rogue that we met at the beginning of Season 1 had been bugging me all season long, but now it feels like there isn’t time to do anything about it. If we hadn’t seen Rios in such a different – and arguably better – state in The Star Gazer, I guess I’d just roll with his storyline. But because we’d got a glimpse of Rios at his best and seen what he can be, this Season 1 presentation feels wrong. The fact that he doesn’t seem to care at all about the ship and crew he left behind (on the brink of self-destruction and death, no less) is the icing on a particularly unpleasant cake.
One of Rios’ lines this week also felt unearned. He referred to Picard as a “father figure” that he had been seeking, but I just don’t feel that from Rios in any way. I can’t actually remember a significant moment that the two characters have shared in either season of the show, aside perhaps from Picard’s remark all the way back in Season 1 that Rios kept his ship to Starfleet standards. They’ve just been on different narrative trajectories, and while they seem quite happy to work together, I’ve never felt that Rios saw Picard that way.
“Show don’t tell” is the advice that creative writing teachers often give their students; show the audience how a character feels, what they’re thinking, etc. through their actions and behaviour, don’t just try to dump clumsy lines of expository dialogue and assume that’s good enough. And that’s basically the Rios situation. I’d seen nothing from him to make me feel he saw Picard as a father figure, so this line of dialogue didn’t land in the way it should’ve.
One of Rios’ lines this week was pitch-perfect, though, and continues a season-long trend of making references to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. When Teresa was figuring out the truth about who Rios is, we got a riff on the lines spoken by Dr Gillian Taylor and Captain Kirk in that film when Rios told her that he’s from Chile, but works in outer space. It was an incredibly neat reference, and I genuinely wasn’t expecting to see The Voyage Home called back to in so many different and unexpected ways this season.
Was Rios right to tell Teresa the truth? And then, having done so, was taking her and Ricardo to La Sirena a good idea? Part of me feels that Rios will bring Teresa and Ricardo to the 25th Century with him – as Kirk did with Gillian Taylor – so stay tuned for my theory update for my thoughts on that! Regardless of whether it was a smart idea, the moment where Teresa materialised on La Sirena’s transporter pad was pitch-perfect, and Sol Rodriguez captured that moment wonderfully.
Dr Jurati was only glimpsed this week, but the Borg Queen’s influence is clearly growing. The “endorphin rush” concept is an interesting one, with the Borg Queen needing to trigger endorphins in order to speed up or help the assimilation process. I certainly hope we learn more about how this works, as well as what exactly the Borg Queen is doing. Is this, as Seven seemed to think, the “birth” of a new Borg Queen? If so, that presumably tees up Dr Jurati (or rather, her assimilated body) for being the masked Borg Queen seen in The Star Gazer at the beginning of the season! There’s also the possibility on this side of the story to learn more about the Borg and how Borg Queens work in a general sense.
I would’ve liked Monsters to spend more time on this side of the story. With the bulk of the story dealing with the coma-dream that Picard was experiencing, it feels as if the episode had its focus in the wrong place. Whatever’s happening with Q is clearly still important – but the potential for a Borg Queen to be loose in the 21st Century and growing in power should bring everything to a screeching halt. Picard and the crew need to tackle this problem, and they need to do so urgently! But as far as we know based on what we saw on screen this week, Seven of Nine and Raffi haven’t even told Rios or Picard what they’ve learned about Dr Jurati.
As I suggested in my last theory post, there’s all sorts of ways that this story could go. A Q-Picard truce or even a temporary alliance is one possibility, with a weakened Q working with Picard to prevent the assimilation of Earth. But it feels like the season is running out of road to tell all of the stories that have been set up. We didn’t get any advancement this week of Kore or Dr Soong’s stories, for example, and Q himself – despite being mentioned – was also absent. If we’re to see this Borg Queen story play out in anywhere close to as much depth as it deserves, a change in focus is urgently needed.
So I guess that was Monsters. It was an episode that dragged in places, one that feels like an unnecessary sojourn in a short season that really doesn’t have time for such indulgences. Yes, it’s possible that the story of Picard’s youthful trauma will come back later in the season in a way connected with Q. But even assuming that will be the case, Monsters feels like a gratuitous and self-indulgent look at this part of Picard’s backstory and psyche that simply ran too long.
I’m reminded in a way of Nepenthe and, to a lesser extent, Absolute Candor from Season 1. These two episodes advanced the main story of Season 1 in increments, but given the way the story ran out of road by the time we got to Et in Arcadia Ego, they feel somewhat like wasted time in retrospect. Monsters feels like it could end up the same way – but unlike the two Season 1 outings mentioned, it wasn’t a strong or particularly enjoyable episode in its own right. If we look back on the season later and feel that more time was needed to allow things like the Borg Queen story, Q’s story, or Kore and Dr Soong’s stories to play out, Monsters will feel like the standout example of what should’ve been cut.
There were interesting ideas here, and if the same framework or story concept had been used in a different way, I think we could’ve been looking at the episode in more of a positive light. But the barebones and clichéd depiction of Yvette’s mental health condition, the uninspired “haunted castle” and B-movie monsters, and the more interesting storylines being sidelined makes it one of the season’s most disappointing outings so far.
Star Trek: Picard Season 2 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States, Scandinavia, Latin America, and Australia, and on Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Picard and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
17.04.22 Additional thought:
It only occurred to me as I was re-reading this review, but one thing to say about Monsters – and the season overall by extension – is that the season’s main characters, as well as important secondary characters all feel disconnected from one another. They don’t seem to be communicating at all, with Rios taking Teresa and Ricardo to La Sirena seemingly without consulting Picard or anyone else, and Raffi and Seven of Nine chasing Dr Jurati also without a word to Picard or Rios. This is in addition to Q doing his own thing away from everyone else, and Kore and Dr Soong off on their own, too. There are occasional bridges between these groups of characters; meetings or pairings in which they get together. But for the most part, everyone feels like they’re in their own little narrative box, taking part in their own story that’s disconnected from everything else. This is a very odd way to structure a season of television in a show like Star Trek: Picard.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following Star Trek productions: The Original Series Season 2, The Voyage Home, The Next Generation Season 6, Deep Space Nine Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Enterprise Season 2, Short Treks, Picard Season 1, Lower Decks Season 2, and Prodigy Season 1. Phew. That was a lot!
The world can be a crappy place, and not just because of wars and pandemics. Sometimes we all need to switch off from current events and seek out some escapism. For me, films and TV shows with very heavy themes, lots of violence, or dark narratives don’t always provide the best escape, and on days when my mental health suffers I find myself reaching for something lighter and comforting. On this occasion, I thought we could pick out a few Star Trek stories that I believe fit that description.
The Star Trek franchise has long been an escape from reality for me. In both its older and modern incarnations, I find that jumping head-first into a future that looks safer and better than anything we could imagine today feels pretty great! Star Trek has always had an underlying setting that feels optimistic and hopeful for a better tomorrow – and that’s something we all need to hear sometimes.
So with that in mind, let’s consider a few Star Trek stories that I believe make for lighter, comforting viewing. As always, this isn’t a ranked list; the episodes are listed below in the order they were first broadcast.
Number 1: A Piece of the Action The Original Series Season 2
The Original Series made very creative use of some of the limitations of its time! It wasn’t always possible to visit a brand-new planet every week that looked and felt very “alien,” so The Original Series used sets intended for other films and TV shows in different – and occasionally silly – ways. A Piece of the Action sees Captain Kirk and the crew encounter a planet whose entire population have based their society around the Chicago mob!
When A Piece of the Action was written, the 1920s were only forty years in the past – the equivalent today of the eighties! So perhaps to viewers at the time it was more relevant and less… camp. But I’ve always found A Piece of the Action to have a light, almost comedic flair simply because of its setting; the ’20s-inspired dialogue, the old fashioned suits, and the general tone of a “Golden Age of Hollywood” gangster flick all contribute to that.
The notion of going to a faraway planet in space and finding a society based on the Chicago mob is silly, but A Piece of the Action sells it in the best way it can, making the very odd juxtaposition of scenes aboard the Enterprise and scenes on Sigma Iotia II flow surprisingly well. But above all, it’s a fun story that imitates, in a very Star Trek way, classic mobster films from a generation earlier.
Apparently A Piece of the Action was going to be the basis for a Quentin Tarantino-directed Star Trek film that ultimately didn’t enter production. It seems as though I’m in a minority, based on the reactions to this news from Trekkies I’ve spoken with, but I’d have been interested to see what a director as undeniably talented as Tarantino would’ve brought to Star Trek. A new film from such a big name would surely have been a box office draw, at the very least! But maybe that should be the topic of a longer article sometime.
Number 2: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Also known as “the one with the whales,” The Voyage Home is arguably the most lighthearted and fun of all the Star Trek films to date! After the very heavy stories of loss and death in The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, the third and final act of this trilogy came along like a breath of fresh air. I feel that The Voyage Home is the most dated of the Star Trek films thanks to being set in what was, at the time, the modern day. But that doesn’t detract from it; the kitschy eighties flavour is all part of the appeal!
There are some fantastic moments of pure comedy in The Voyage Home. I won’t spoil them if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, but suffice to say that bringing a 23rd Century crew to the modern day and forcing them to interact with basic things like cash and computers led to some absolutely hilarious, iconic moments.
There’s an ecological message at the heart of The Voyage Home, and the threat posed by the alien “whale probe” is definitely serious. But that theme doesn’t present as excessively weighty, and by the time Kirk and the gang are running around San Fransisco in 1986, the focus is more on the fun side of that premise.
With Star Trek: Picard Season 2 fast approaching, it could be fun to go back to The Voyage Home to see the most recent use of the “slingshot method” of travelling through time – something that may be making a return to Star Trek very soon!
Number 3: Relics The Next Generation Season 6
I wanted to put at least one crossover episode on this list, and this time it’s Relics that makes the cut! Bringing Scotty into The Next Generation was a lot of fun, and having him overcome his “fish out of water” status to eventually work alongside Geordi La Forge was absolutely fantastic, and made for a wonderful, heartwarming story.
With no evil villain to defeat nor a war to fight, Relics posed a scientific puzzle for Star Trek’s first two engineers to overcome – and in the process they were able to save the Enterprise-D from being trapped inside of a Dyson Sphere! There’s definitely a message in Relics: that older people have a lot to contribute if younger people are willing to take the time to listen.
When I first saw Relics back in the ’90s, I wasn’t prepared for Scotty’s arrival. This was before the days of spoilers on social media, so I went into the episode completely unaware of what I was about to see. When Scotty materialised on the transporter pad for the first time I was absolutely blown away! The Next Generation had been my first port of call in the early ’90s, but by the time Relics came around I’d seen all of The Original Series films and quite a few episodes, so I was really excited when it turned out to be a crossover episode.
Relics is, in a lot of ways, a very fan-servicey episode. But it’s also a comforting one, and more than that it feels almost like a slice of pure Star Trek. There’s a scientific mystery that’s both interesting and exciting, there are some wonderful character moments between Scotty and Picard and Scotty and La Forge in particular, there’s more than a dash of humour, and there’s an underlying message that may just strike a chord with some folks in the real world. It’s an all-around Star Trek episode!
Number 4: The Magnificent Ferengi Deep Space Nine Season 6
The Magnificent Ferengi takes what should be a dark and upsetting premise but manages to put a lighthearted, comedic spin on it thanks to the inclusion of the titular Ferengi. After a less than spectacular introduction in the first season of The Next Generation, in which they were originally supposed to replace the newly-pacified Klingons and become a major antagonist, the Ferengi carved themselves a new niche in Deep Space Nine thanks in no small part to a wonderful performance by Armin Shimerman as Quark.
We came to see the Ferengi as comic relief on a number of occasions, as in The Magnificent Ferengi, but they were also a people with depth. Issues within Ferengi society surrounding the pursuit of wealth at all costs, the second-class status of women, and so on were topics that Deep Space Nine tackled, and the fact that the Ferengi can be funny didn’t detract from those attempts to use them to examine some more serious subjects. But that’s not why we’re here today!
At the height of the Dominion War, Quark and Rom’s mother is captured by the Dominion, and Quark leads an all-Ferengi rescue operation. With the exception of Grand Nagus Zek, this episode brings together practically every Deep Space Nine Ferengi character, and musician Iggy Pop has a guest-starring role.
The plot descends into a comedic farce – naturally, given Quark’s leadership – and if you’ve ever seen Weekend at Bernie’s… well, you know what to expect! The Magnificent Ferengi is a ton of fun, and a great episode for showcasing some of Deep Space Nine’s recurring characters.
Number 5: Message in a Bottle Voyager Season 4
Once again we have an episode with a potentially dark premise that goes in a very different and fun direction! The Doctor is the star here, as he’s sent to the Alpha Quadrant to attempt to make contact with Starfleet for the first time since Captain Janeway and the crew became stranded 75,000 light-years from home… but he finds himself aboard a ship that has been captured by the Romulans!
Comedian Andy Dick guest-stars as a newer version of the Emergency Medical Hologram, and forms an astonishingly funny pair with the Doctor, who was often used for moments of comic relief during Voyager’s run. Seeing the two holograms working together to outsmart the Romulans in a comic story that could verge into slapstick is absolutely hilarious, and there are some real laugh-out-loud moments.
I also find Message in a Bottle to be a very uplifting episode. It marks the halfway point of Voyager’s seven-season run, and the first moment that the crew are able to contact the Federation. After four years of being alone, the crew finally get to inform Starfleet that they’re okay and working their way home, and there’s something incredible about the episode’s closing moments as a result.
The Prometheus-class ship is a pretty cool inclusion, too – a brand-new class of ship which has features that even the USS Voyager or Enterprise-E couldn’t match. I always wanted to see more from this ship, but aside from a couple of background appearances, we haven’t yet!
Number 6: Carbon Creek Enterprise Season 2
Carbon Creek uses a frame narrative to tell the story of the first time Vulcans came to Earth… and it wasn’t in the mid-21st Century, as Captain Archer (and us as the audience) had been led to believe! Instead, T’Pol tells the tale of her great-grandmother, and how she and a small crew came to be stranded on Earth in the 1950s during a survey mission.
Carbon Creek is fun for its fifties atmosphere, and Enterprise really manages to nail that feel through some wonderful sets, costumes, and dialogue. It’s also an episode that shows off how Vulcans can be unintentionally funny in Star Trek, particularly when confronted with different or unusual situations. In this case, T’Mir and her crew have to blend in with a town of very emotional humans.
There are definitely some lighthearted moments scattered through the entire episode, and the frame of T’Pol recounting the story to a stunned Archer and Tucker adds to that as well. It’s also a great example of how a prequel story doesn’t have to tread on the toes of anything established previously; nothing in Carbon Creek fundamentally changes what we already know about first contact between humans and Vulcans. In many ways it expands it – knowing that Vulcan had humanity under observation decades ahead of official first contact gives them a reason to be surveying the area during the events of First Contact!
All in all, a fun episode that steps away from many of Star Trek’s familiar elements like starships to tell a story with some interesting characters in a fun setting.
Number 7: Ephraim and DOT Short Treks Season 2
It’s a shame that we haven’t seen more Short Treks lately; the most recent batch of episodes ended with Children of Mars shortly before Picard Season 1 kicked off in early 2020. The idea of telling one-shot short stories in the Star Trek galaxy may have been a fairly blunt and obvious way for CBS All Access (since rebranded as Paramount+) to convince Trekkies to remain subscribed in between seasons of the main Star Trek shows, but several episodes ended up being fantastic in their own right.
Ephraim and DOT was one of two animated Short Treks episodes that were broadcast in December 2019, and it’s something that we hadn’t really seen the Star Trek franchise do before. Thirty-five years after The Animated Series went off the air, this was Star Trek’s first return to animation, and where The Girl Who Made The Stars was more of a conventional story, Ephraim and DOT was framed very differently!
Telling the story of a tardigrade named Ephraim and a DOT-type robot aboard the USS Enterprise, this Disney-inspired tale sees the unlikely duo team up to save Ephraim’s eggs. With an enthusiastic narrator who sounds like they’ve come from a National Geographic documentary, the short story is a lot of fun – and packs a surprisingly emotional punch at its climax!
Ephraim and DOT also shows off a handful of fun clips from The Original Series that have been reimagined for animation, and this “greatest hits” montage was absolutely fantastic; a blast from the past that elevated the episode.
Number 8: Nepenthe Picard Season 1
If you don’t have the same connection to the characters from The Next Generation that I do, maybe Nepenthe won’t be one of your “comfort episodes.” But for me, seeing Picard reunited with Riker and Troi was one of the highlights of Picard Season 1 – and Nepenthe is one of the best Star Trek episodes that I’ve seen in a long time!
After several tense and dramatic episodes in which Picard and the crew of La Sirena had to unpick the mystery of Bruce Maddox, the synths, the Zhat Vash plot, and so on, Picard was able to rescue Soji and use a spatial trajector to escape to the planet of Nepenthe – home to Riker, Troi, and their daughter Kestra.
There are some very sweet moments between Soji and Kestra as they bond, and while the story has some very bittersweet moments as we learn that Riker and Troi’s elder child had passed away, there are some absolutely incredible and heartwarming character moments as well. After more than eighteen years away from the 24th Century, Nepenthe felt like the homecoming I had been waiting for.
Seeing Riker and Troi enjoying a peaceful life away from Starfleet was something that I needed to see, even if I didn’t realise it beforehand! Although there were issues with the Picard Season 1 finale that meant that, realistically, taking an entire episode away from the main plot to slow down and hang out with Picard, Riker, Troi, and Soji was arguably a mistake, I just can’t find it in my heart to fault Nepenthe for the way it comes across on screen. It’s a beautiful, emotional episode, and sitting down to eat pizza with the characters after everything they’ve been through just feels right.
Number 9: First First Contact Lower Decks Season 2
First First Contact might be my favourite episode of Lower Decks so far. It isn’t as hilarious as some of the show’s other offerings, but as an uplifting story with a real “Star Trek” feel, I don’t think it can be bettered! The episode sees the crew of the Cerritos teamed up with the fancier and more powerful USS Archimedes – under the command of one Captain Sonya Gomez, no less – to undertake their first ever mission of first contact!
But naturally, things don’t go to plan. The Cerritos is called into action to save the stricken Archimedes, and the entire crew pulls together to perform the very difficult and dangerous task of literally stripping off the ship’s outer hull! Lower Decks ditched its usual two (or three) storylines format here, and put all four ensigns and all of the ship’s senior staff in the same story – and the result was absolutely fantastic.
Lower Decks goes out of its way to recreate the look of The Next Generation era, and I’ve always appreciated that. But it doesn’t hesitate to bring new things to the table, and we get our first look at Cetacean Ops in this episode – an aquatic department that had been mentioned in background dialogue in The Next Generation but never seen on screen.
All four ensigns have roles to play in the story, and after the Cerritos had to be saved at the climax of the Season 1 finale, the poetic symmetry of being the one to save a disabled Starfleet ship was absolutely beautiful, and a great way to bring the show’s successful second season to a close.
Number 10: Kobayashi Prodigy Season 1
The Kobayashi Maru test seems like an odd choice for a “comfort” pick, doesn’t it? But the way Prodigy pulls it off feels like a love letter to Star Trek, bringing in classic characters from The Original Series, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine in holographic form.
There’s more going on in the episode than just the Kobayashi Maru test on the holodeck, and Prodigy’s ongoing story arcs come into play in a big way throughout. But for me, the moments on the holodeck with Dal and the holographic versions of some wonderful characters from Star Trek’s past are what elevates Kobayashi and what makes it so enjoyable.
It’s such a shame that Prodigy remains (officially) unavailable in most of the world, because it’s been one of the most surprisingly fun Star Trek projects, and despite its kid-friendly atmosphere and intended audience, there’s so much to love for Trekkies. I hope that the rollout of Paramount+ internationally will see Prodigy grow in popularity and bring in hordes of new fans – and with episodes as strong as Kobayashi to ease them into the world of Star Trek, there’s a good chance that’ll happen!
The character choices may seem like an odd mix at first – and seeing Odo on the bridge of a Galaxy-class ship definitely felt strange! But each of them is given a moment to showcase their strengths, and what they brought to Star Trek in their original appearances. It makes the entire holodeck sequence feel so very special – and with such an eclectic mix of characters, there really isn’t anything quite like it in Star Trek’s entire official canon!
So that’s it!
Those are my picks for ten “comfort episodes” – or rather, nine comfort episodes and a comfort film – from the Star Trek franchise. We don’t need to repeat why the world feels so messed up right now, because we can all see what’s going on. Certain news stories have become omnipresent, completely taking over social media and other apps. If you find yourself doomscrolling, take a break. Do anything other than wallow in the mess of the real world.
The Star Trek franchise has been my comfort place for decades, and I find myself drawn to it when the world feels too much or when my mental health suffers. A future where humanity has succeeded at conquering not only the problems of today but also many of the baser, more primitive aspects of our own nature holds an appeal that can be difficult to put into words, and I find that practically every Star Trek story – even those darker in tone – have a lot to offer.
So I hope this was a bit of fun and maybe gave you some viewing inspiration! I had a great time going back to these episodes to put this list together, and with everything going on in the world I thought it could be a good time to share something like this.
The Star Trek franchise – including all episodes and films discussed above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for Nepenthe, as well as for the first six episodes of Star Trek: Picard. There may also be spoilers for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise, including Star Trek: Discovery Season 2.
Hugh! Poor, poor Hugh. When I heard Jonathan Del Arco was returning for Star Trek: Picard, well before the show had premiered, my first reaction was “What? Really?” Of all of the characters in Star Trek’s history, I just felt that Hugh, who had only appeared in a couple of episodes of The Next Generation, wouldn’t have been my first choice when thinking about characters to bring back. But I was wrong – the way Hugh has developed as a character between The Next Generation and his appearances this season was incredible, and his death this week was genuinely heartbreaking.
Star Trek: Picard’s death toll, for legacy characters anyway, now stands at three – Bruce Maddox, Icheb, and now Hugh. In the aftermath of series like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones this was always a possibility – no main character on television should consider themselves “safe” any more. But of the three, Hugh’s death hit me the hardest.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! Where last week’s episode, The Impossible Box, was an edge-of-your-seat wild ride, Nepenthe was a quieter affair, but intensely emotional. Simply processing everything that happened will take some time. Nepenthe didn’t merely advance the storyline of Star Trek: Picard, it took us on a detour that looked at Riker and Troi, and thus broadened our understanding of how the overall story of Star Trek has progressed since the events of Voyager and Nemesis. In that sense, it felt like an episode that was “made for fans” far more explicitly than anything else we’ve seen so far this season, even counting Seven of Nine’s appearance.
If someone were to ask me why I’ve been so in love with Star Trek: Picard, I could give many reasons. But Nepenthe encapsulated them all perfectly. It brought back those nostalgic feelings, but it used characters and name-drops from the past in a way that made sense and tied in perfectly with the main plotline of the show. Unlike some other franchises we could mention, nothing in Nepenthe felt like fanservice, or overplayed the nostalgia card; Star Trek: Picard has been like a perfectly-cut jigsaw puzzle, with each piece of the story slotting neatly into place as the overall picture is now slowly coming together.
After the standard recap to bring us all up to speed, the episode kicks off with a flashback to just three weeks ago. We see more of the meeting between Dr Jurati and Commodore Oh from The End is the Beginning – and we see why it wasn’t shown in full in that episode. This is the moment Dr Jurati was recruited to join the Commodore Oh-Zhat Vash conspiracy, and I think we can now say with relative certainty that Commodore Oh is not a Romulan agent, but is in fact the Vulcan she has always claimed to be. While, in theory, there should be no reason Romulans can’t mild-meld, it’s never been shown on screen and that further adds to the evidence that Commodore Oh is a Vulcan. Whether her alliance with the Zhat Vash is new or not is unclear, but she is certainly fully signed up with their anti-synth crusade.
I had to go back and look at one part of this sequence several times before I could be sure, but at least part of what Commodore Oh showed Dr Jurati in her mind-meld is taken directly from Star Trek: Discovery’s second season. The two shows were always close from a thematic perspective, as both were looking at the possibility of rogue AIs and how they could be a danger, but this sequence seems to suggest that there’s more to it than thematic coincidence. In Discovery, the AI named Control was trying to acquire data stored in the USS Discovery’s computer which contained many millennia of information collected by an ancient lifeform, and if it had been successful it would have used its newfound power to wipe out all organic life in the galaxy. This seems to be the reason for the Romulans’ fear of synthetic life – that they will go rogue and start killing their creators. At least two of the shots of life in the galaxy being wiped out that Commodore Oh showed Dr Jurati in the mind-meld were identical to the vision Michael Burnham and Spock received.
Could this simply be a case of reusing shots to save money? After all, in the past Star Trek has shown the same Klingon ship blowing up on half a dozen occasions or more, and numerous models were reused over and over again from the era of The Original Series films through The Next Generation and its spin-offs. Given that the two clips I could identify in the mind-meld were less than a second long, I suppose we shouldn’t discount the possibility entirely. However, I’m not convinced that this is the reason. CGI nowadays requires far less effort and financial investment than many practical effects – like exploding starships – did in the past. For the sake of a couple of seconds’ worth of footage it would have been relatively inexpensive and not particularly time-consuming to make something altogether new if that was the aim. So I’m getting the sense that there’s a connection between Discovery’s Control AI and the Romulans in Star Trek: Picard – as I have been saying for several weeks in my Star Trek: Picard theories series! While I will save further speculation about what this could mean for my next theory post, I wanted to acknowledge it here too.
Mind-melds have been inconsistent in the way they’re presented in Star Trek. This one was more in line with the confusing jumble of images that Spock showed to Alternate Reality Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek film, rather than the calmer, slower-paced mind-melds that we’ve seen in The Original Series and The Next Generation. Obviously we didn’t get the full effect that Dr Jurati did, because the horrors she was shown caused her to vomit up her lunch. It was enough to immediately convince her, without any further persuasion needed from Commodore Oh, to sign up with the conspiracy and do anything – even kill her former friend and love interest and betray Picard.
Dr Jurati is given a tracking device, which she has to eat – and yes that is “eat” not “swallow”, which was interesting! The action then jumps to the present day, where La Sirena is caught in a tractor beam that the Artifact has deployed. Raffi and Rios are scrambling around on the bridge trying to break free. While Raffi attempts to break La Sirena free, she hacks into the Artifact’s computer and seems to see some drawings – possibly those drawn by Ramdha or another xB. Whether these will come into play or not is unclear, but the drawings, which were a pattern of circles repeated over and over, were at least visually interesting. So many aspects of Star Trek: Picard have been brilliantly set up by the creators and writers that almost everything we see or hear on screen has the potential to turn into a story point!
Dr Jurati is clearly terrified, trying to get Raffi and Rios to tell the Romulans that they “just want to go home” as it’s not really La Sirena that the Romulans are after. The others dismiss her semi-hysterical shouting, and then we get the beginning of Hugh’s punishment for the crime of aiding Picard. I didn’t expect Hugh to turn on his friend, and he never did, but there was always the possibility, as he didn’t know that Soji was synthetic, that learning her true nature might’ve shifted something for him. However, he stands by his promise to protect Soji and Picard, even as Rizzo executes one of the xBs. Even knowing the stakes he refuses to tell her – putting his loyalty to Picard ahead of his feelings for the room full of xBs, who Rizzo orders executed when he refuses to tell her where they went.
Rizzo also confirms that the operation to track and extract information from Soji has been ongoing for several years and has involved a number of different people, which is a neat thing to know I suppose.
This was definitely an emotional scene, and as I mentioned already, Jonathan Del Arco gives an amazing performance as Hugh sees people he has worked so hard to help cruelly and coldly murdered in front of him. His reaction to their deaths was raw and heartbreaking.
Peyton List, who plays Rizzo, was also on good form. Some of her earlier performances in the series have been a tad one-dimensional in parts. Rizzo as a character is, like Michelle Yeoh’s Terran Empress from Star Trek: Discovery, someone who is basically evil for the sake of being evil – or at least, that’s how I characterised her before this scene in Nepenthe. We finally get to see Rizzo’s motivation here – helpfully informed by the earlier mind-meld sequence. Far from being evil, she’s terrified. Synthetic life frightens her, and she genuinely fears that, were Soji allowed to live, all sentient life in the galaxy – “a trillion souls” as she puts it – would be wiped out. How it is that the Zhat Vash have come to know this – or rather, believe this – is not yet clear, but again I think the Control AI from Discovery surely has a role to play somehow. This second dimension changes what has been a rather flat villain and we are finally a big step closer to understanding why the Zhat Vash are so militant in their anti-synthetic crusade – and why, despite his feelings for her, Narek felt he had no choice when it came to killing Soji.
Speaking of Narek, he boards a one-person spacecraft in the Artifact’s hangar bay and departs the cube. La Sirena is no longer caught in a tractor beam – though Rios and Raffi realise it is undoubtedly a trap. We get a great scene as La Sirena skims along the Artifact’s hull at close range, showing off the incredible level of detail that has gone into the CGI work on both vessels. Elnor, who seems to have struck up a bond with Hugh since we last saw him, opts to remain behind to help the xBs after seeing them executed, and La Sirena warps off toward Nepenthe with Narek close behind.
For the first time since the show premiered, the main cast actually felt like a crew in this moment. And I know it seems silly as they’re all split up, but leaving Elnor behind was emotional for Rios, Raffi, and Dr Jurati – they clearly think they will never see him again. Whether they’re right or not doesn’t matter right now, because in that moment there was a sense of camaraderie; a bond between La Sirena’s crewmates. This is definitely something that Star Trek: Picard has lacked when compared to other shows. Even Deep Space Nine and Voyager, which both had different interpretations of a “divided” crew, had a sense of fellowship – and finally, seven episodes in, we saw some of that here. It was a nice throwback to the way crews have been in other Star Trek shows, and I really hope we see more of that going forward as Soji joins the crew and they’re all – hopefully – reunited with Elnor in a future episode.
If you’ve been here before and read my other reviews, you’ll know I like to nitpick. And even in an episode as good as Nepenthe, there are still small things to pick at. After the credits roll, we’re with Picard and Soji as they materialise on Nepenthe – a few minutes’ walk from Troi and Riker’s house. That was some luck with the spatial trajector! I know it’s possible to get exact transport coordinates, but did Picard tell Hugh exactly where on the planet to send them? Did he know, by heart, the rough location of Riker’s house? Anyway, after they materialise they’re set upon by a girl brandishing a bow and arrow. Picard makes reference to his artificial heart – as seen in the episode Tapestry from the fifth season of The Next Generation – and it’s clear he recognises the girl. He calls her Kestra – which was the name of Deanna Troi’s sister from the seventh season of The Next Generation, specifically the episode Dark Page. It was nice to get a couple of little references in quick succession like that – and as always, neither of them got in the way of the flow of the story. Star Trek: Picard has handled its links to the franchise extraordinarily well.
While walking with Kestra to her home, Picard drops two huge bombshells on Soji. The first is that her father is Data, which means she’s an android. And the second is that Dahj has died. Soji, unsure really of what’s happened or who to trust, doesn’t really react. In this moment she doesn’t have space to process what she’s feeling, so grieving for Dahj will have to come later. Whereas Dahj seemed to have, as part of her programming, a desire to find Picard and an inherent feeling of safety in his presence, this seems to be absent in Soji for the duration of the episode. While she will, later, start to warm up to him and come around to the idea of trusting him, that feeling of safety and a desire to turn to Picard for protection does not seem to have been programmed into her in the way it was with Dahj. If I were to speculate as to why, I’d say it was probably because Dahj’s assignment was on Earth, whereas Soji’s was on the Artifact. It makes sense for Dahj to run to Picard as he was someone Maddox knew he could trust and was a stone’s throw away. On the Artifact, running to Picard would be difficult if not impossible, and Soji may have had someone else programmed into her as part of her activation, or she may have simply been programmed to defend herself. It’s also possible that, as Picard and Hugh intervened, Soji is not fully activated in the way Dahj was.
Picard was clearly expecting a different reaction from Soji. Even though he only knew Dahj for a short time, she trusted him implicitly, turned to him for help, and even saved his life. Because Soji and Dahj look identical – “more than twins”, as the show puts it – I wonder if he’s expecting her to behave in an identical manner too. When she doesn’t, it almost seems as if he doesn’t know what to do or what to say; she isn’t what he expected, and he may even feel disappointed by that, underneath the frustration of constantly messing things up.
The cabin was an absolutely lovely set, and must have been a fun location to film on for the actors. It’s rustic in its appearance, but it’s what I’d call “21st Century rustic” in that this is clearly not a log cabin from the 1800s! It makes sense as the home of a couple who know their way around technology but want the appearance of something from an earlier time, and as we’ll see that is basically exactly what the cabin is. Of all the sets used so far in Star Trek: Picard, including the vineyard, this is the one which feels most like a modern-day building, though. I liked that, because I could see how that kind of design could still be popular or could make a comeback, but I can also see that being a point of criticism for some, as it is definitely different from any other 24th Century buildings we’ve seen in earlier Star Trek shows.
While we’re dealing with the aesthetic, though, Star Trek: Picard has definitely fallen into the trap that The Next Generation and its contemporaries also fell into in that every planet visited is clearly California! We had Picard’s home in France, the town on Vashti, and now Nepenthe. While they are all different in some respects, they’re not so different that you’d be tricked into thinking they weren’t all filmed within fifty miles of each other. In a way, I think we’ve probably been spoilt by big-budget shows like Game of Thrones, which famously had filming locations right across Europe from Croatia to Northern Ireland and Iceland. Expecting something on that level was unrealistic, and to the credit of the showrunners the locations mentioned do all have a different tone – it’s just that they are all very definitely filmed in California.
The music in Star Trek: Picard has generally been great, but the music played as Picard reunites with Troi was a cut above and absolutely outstanding. Much of the emotion in any scene is tied to the music, even if we as the audience don’t realise it. And as Kestra delivers Picard and Soji to her mother we get a beautiful piece that ebbs and flows with the emotions of the characters.
Troi, as an empath, can tell that Picard is in trouble – which is of course why he came to them in the first place. However, it’s her next moment after they embrace that really got me. We know, as of Maps and Legends, that Picard is dying. And Troi wordlessly touches his face and conveys, with just a bare look, that she knows his health is beginning to fail. He tries to reassure her that he’s fine, but of course we know better.
The next scene is the one we’ve all been waiting for since we first saw Riker in the second Star Trek: Picard trailer last year: the reunion between the Captain and his Number One. Jonathan Frakes’ performance in this scene reflects perfectly what the audience has been feeling for this whole journey: the excitement and pure joy of seeing an old friend again. That’s what nostalgia is, in a way. We’re just as happy to be reunited with Picard after all this time as Riker is in this moment. The last time we saw Riker and Picard, at the end of Star Trek: Nemesis, they were parting ways as Riker was moving on to take command of his own ship. A lot has happened since then as Troi and Riker seem settled in their home and with a teenage daughter to boot.
Riker’s home is not as rustic as it seems. Upon learning that Picard is in trouble and hiding out, he barks orders at the cabin’s computer: “shields up!” being my favourite, a classic Riker line from The Next Generation, delivered in exactly the way we’d remember from that show. There was also a neat little name-drop of the Kzinti – a feline-like species that featured in an episode of The Animated Series back in the 1970s! That might actually be my favourite one-line reference so far in the whole series; tying Star Trek: Picard to Captain Kirk’s lesser-known adventures.
The young actress playing Kestra does a great job in this scene as she brings a hunted “bunnicorn” to Riker to prepare for dinner. It’s clear that, having grown up in a rural setting, Kestra is much more comfortable with hunting and skinning than many would be in the 24th Century – or even in the 21st! Sometimes younger performers, especially those cast for smaller roles, can end up coming across inauthentic in their delivery of lines and the way they inhabit their roles, but none of that was the case here. She did a great job and was convincing as the daughter of Riker and Troi.
Soji takes a shower – outside, of course, to add to the feeling of a rustic cabin-in-the-woods – and Kestra pesters her with questions, all of which related to things Data enjoyed or could do: playing the violin, reading Sherlock Holmes, and finally her physical abilities like running and jumping – which we sad Dahj do in Remembrance – and being able to bend steel. Soji has just done this, when she ripped a hole in the floor of the meditation room to escape, but we also saw Data do so on several occasions, notably in Star Trek: Nemesis and in The Measure of a Man, the second-season episode of The Next Generation which introduced Bruce Maddox. Kestra is immediately accepting of Soji. Not that the others weren’t, of course, but she takes to Soji as a friend whereas Picard sees himself as more of a guardian. Soji needed that, I feel, after everything she’s been through.
The questions Kestra asked about whether she has, among other things, saliva, were reminiscent of the observations Dr Bashir made of Data in The Next Generation episode Birthright, a two-parter from the sixth season. Both Bashir and Kestra were interested less in the extraordinary things an android could do – like calculate unimaginably huge numbers in an instant – and more in the ways that their creators had tried to make them ordinary. Data could breathe and had a pulse, and Soji has normal body fluids like saliva. Whether intentional or not, and I have to assume it was given how much care and attention has gone into Star Trek: Picard at this point, I loved this little callback to Data and The Next Generation.
Kestra’s parents have clearly told her so much about Data, and again as a long-time fan I think that’s something I wanted to see even if I would never have realised it. To know that Data, who died in Nemesis almost twenty years ago, is still remembered by his friends is a great feeling – and as someone who had longed to be human, this most human of legacies is something I think he would have approved of. As Kestra keeps up her questions and discussion of Data, Soji says that, until she heard the word “android” used, she was still hoping that she might be human after all. This is a lot to take in for her, as in the last few hours her whole life has been exposed as a lie and everything has come crashing down: her boyfriend, her job, her family, and her whole identity. Now she’s stuck on a planet she doesn’t know with people she’s never met, and she feels horribly unsettled not just with them but in her own skin – or whatever the android equivalent of skin is.
It was a nice touch to see the term “android” back in Nepenthe, after previous episodes of Star Trek: Picard had almost entirely used the terms “synth” or “synthetic” when discussing artificial life. I still feel, despite the presence of holograms on La Sirena, that there must be a reason for that. The vision Commodore Oh showed Dr Jurati, and the idea of rogue AIs destroying sentient life which motivates her and the Zhat Vash, are not exclusive problems caused by Soji-type androids. As we saw with Control in Star Trek: Discovery, any kind of AI is potentially susceptible.
An emotional Deanna leads Picard to her son’s bedroom, and we learn that not everything worked out for the Troi-Riker family after we last saw them. Their son, and Kestra’s older brother, died a few years previously. As is not uncommon with grieving parents, Riker and Troi have kept his bedroom as he left it, and as it’s presumably the only other available room, this is where she offers Picard a rest. We got a nice photo of Picard – in his post-Nemesis uniform – holding Thad as a baby, and Deanna gives Picard a very unconvincing “we’re fine!” when discussing him. It’s clearly still incredibly painful for her – whether she feels the loss even more as someone who has empathic traits isn’t clear, but as an episode dealing with the loss of a child and looking at how families and parents respond to that, Nepenthe was right up there with many other Star Trek episodes throughout the years that have tackled complex emotional topics.
One thing that is clear, though, as Picard and Troi continue this conversation, is that she is uncomfortable with their presence. Not because she didn’t want to see him – she clearly does – but because of the danger their visit poses. Having lost her son, she cannot bear the idea of her daughter being in any kind of danger. Nepenthe can be a stopover for Picard and Soji, then, but any hope of a permanent shelter or even a longer stay is dashed – and Picard knows that. He probably knew it before they ever arrived, but if he had hope of staying beyond a few days it’s gone without Riker or Troi having to come out and say so.
La Sirena is up next, and the trio still aboard have realised that they’re being pursued. Narek is clearly an expert pilot, and has managed to get his ship to sit in a kind of “blind spot”, almost unnoticeable to Rios. They discuss how to throw him off their tail, and Rios performs a new manoeuvre of dropping out of warp very suddenly so that Narek will “overshoot” La Sirena without realising. Star Trek’s warp drive has always been a bit of a mess in canon, so this being a new tactic is fine. I think it’s not original in that it’s something other sci fi franchises have used in the past, but as a narrative device it worked well here, I felt.
Dr Jurati then pipes up asking Raffi and Rios if they really want to go to Nepenthe or if they can instead pack up and go back to Earth. We know, as the audience, that she’s getting cold feet about her mission, frightened of what might happen if she ended up face-to-face with Soji. But Rios and Raffi don’t know what’s going on – or how it is that they’re being tracked – so Raffi assumes she’s just frightened and takes her off the bridge. Dr Jurati made reference to a gormagander in this scene, which was a space-dwelling life-form seen in Short Treks and Star Trek: Discovery, continuing the theme of the episode tying itself into other stories in the franchise!
Riker is cooking dinner on Nepenthe when Picard walks up. He’s reluctant to tell him too much about Soji or what happened, but Riker is able to figure out much of it from Soji’s behaviour. Picard has been a man alone in his mission so far. Dr Jurati, the only person on La Sirena who we thought was on his side is actually working for the enemy, and the others are just along for the ride or for pay. Even Elnor, who had signed on for Picard’s hopeless cause, has chosen to stay on the Artifact where he feels he’s more needed. So in this moment, when he had a genuine friend offering to help, it seems strange that Picard chose not to. Of course part of it has to do with what happened to Riker’s son and the presence of Kestra and Troi – he doesn’t want to endanger them any further. But telling Riker the full truth – something he failed to do for Hugh, the only other trustworthy face he’s seen since he left Earth – was an option.
Seeing Soji immediately pick up on Thad and Kestra’s made-up language was great, and we’ve seen her in previous episodes speak Romulan and the language of the xB called “nameless”, so we know it’s a skill she possesses. What I absolutely did not like in this sequence, or rather, what I felt had not been set up at all and failed to work, was Soji’s awkward Data-esque head tilting motion. That was a Data trademark from his earliest appearances in The Next Generation, but we’ve never seen Soji behave in such an artificial way. Whatever techniques Bruce Maddox and his team used to create her, they had improved upon the formula used by Data’s creator Dr Soong, meaning we shouldn’t see her do something that looked so odd and artificial. It was clearly put in as a story point, one which Riker immediately picked up on, and I know as a single second of screen time it doesn’t seem worth commenting on, but of all the Soji moments in Nepenthe, I felt it was by far the weakest, and its inclusion was not a good decision given that it had never been set up. There were plenty of other ways for Riker to pick up on Soji’s true nature, or of course, as mentioned above, Picard could have explained the situation.
Riker gives Picard a piece of his mind – calling him out for trying to carry everything himself and not let anyone help, calling it “classic Picard arrogance”. This wasn’t an attack, it was the “absolute candor” of an old friend. (See what I did there?)
In the tomato garden, Troi offers Soji a home-grown tomato. For someone who’s only ever had replicated food, she can sense the difference right away. There’s a message here too, I think, for us as the audience. We live in a world where food is increasingly processed, and more often than not something that comes in a packet from a supermarket. Many of us in the modern world are out of touch with food production and where our food comes from, and there is a uniqueness to something grown at home that I think we can all relate to.
Troi uses the example of the tomato to explain to Soji why “real” isn’t always better. Soji says that she is not real – like replicated food as they had just been discussing. But it turns out that the illness that killed Thad was something that could have been cured using a positronic matrix – i.e. an android brain. Unfortunately, due to the ban on synthetic life, no such matrix was available to synthesise a cure, and Thad died as a result. While an interesting metaphor, and something Soji desperately needed to hear, this also adds a personal dimension to the synth ban. Not only has it gotten Dahj killed, but we now know that the ban directly resulted in the death of Troi and Riker’s son. I’d absolutely argue that this raises the stakes even higher in Picard’s coming battle against the Zhat Vash and their allies in Starfleet.
Soji finally opens up, telling Troi a little about what happened with Narek and how he betrayed her trust. Narek has really done a number on Soji. In addition to everything she’s gone through and learnt in the last few hours, she finds it impossible to really trust anyone, and that’s all thanks to Narek’s manipulations. I wrote last time that the Narek-Soji storyline can be seen as analogous to gaslighting, and again I feel we see part of that here. Having been lied to, having had her head messed with and dissected by Narek, Soji is finding it incredibly hard to trust anyone, even Picard.
Their conversation is interrupted by Picard and Riker, however, and Soji storms off after Picard tries the old “reverse psychology” technique. He should have left the counselling to, well, the counsellor, because he really just managed to make things worse. Troi gives him a second dressing-down for the way he acted, and he starts to realise in this moment what’s going on and why Soji hasn’t behaved the same way that Dahj did. He will have to earn her trust, despite going out of his way to save her.
Elnor and Hugh are racing around the Artifact with a mission – they plan to return to the “queen cell” that they used to help Picard and Soji escape, and use the “immense power” it contains to seize control of the Artifact. Unfortunately they run into Rizzo, who has been tracking them. We finally, for the first time since Picard left Earth, get a mention of the Zhat Vash and confirmation that Rizzo is indeed a Zhat Vash operative. That aspect of the show had all but disappeared as Picard and everyone else insisted on referring to their adversaries as the Tal Shiar. As I said last time, this does make a kind of sense from an in-universe point of view, but I think it could be offputting for casual viewers in particular, as following the ins and outs of various Romulan factions is not easy, and the last thing viewers want when watching a show is to not understand the basics like who’s who and what’s going on.
Interestingly, Elnor doesn’t really seem to react to this revelation, though it is clear that the Zhat Vash and Qowat Milat know of each others’ existence. I had speculated that Elnor, having been told by Picard that he was facing off against the Tal Shiar, might have reacted badly to the involvement of the Zhat Vash. He still might, if he learns that Picard knew and didn’t tell him, but in this moment he doesn’t even react at all, he simply continues the fight. After dispatching a couple of Rizzo’s guards, the two engage in a hand-to-hand battle, but Rizzo uses a hidden blade to kill Hugh. In his dying moments, Hugh tells Elnor to find an xB and use them to activate whatever is in the “queen cell” – presumably something which will allow them to work together and overthrow their Romulan guards. Rizzo beams away before Elnor can avenge Hugh’s death, but I’m sure she’ll get her comeuppance sooner or later.
Raffi and Dr Jurati are sharing cake in the back of La Sirena. One thing I liked, both with the replicator in this scene and with transporters in various episodes since the show premiered, is that the materialisation process for both replicators and the transporter is significantly faster than it had been in The Next Generation and shows of that era. The faster pace, which allows both people and goods to appear almost instantaneously, feels like a natural progression of those similar technologies, and I appreciated that. Dr Jurati breaks down on being told she’s a good person – she’s been wrestling with her feelings and emotions since she killed Maddox. In that moment she was able to do the deed, but it’s broken her and, if she survives, her usefulness as an operative to the Commodore Oh-Zhat Vash conspiracy is surely at an end. If she did plan to stick around and kill Soji, I just don’t see her being able to go through with it.
As Dr Jurati vomits up her cake – the second time in this episode that poor Alison Pill has had to throw up on screen – Raffi escorts her to sickbay. Rios informs them that Narek is still on their tail, which I’m sure could only make Dr Jurati feel worse at this point, as it’s her presence that allows him to track La Sirena.
Dinner is finally served at the Troi-Riker cabin. After Picard has been unable to contact Rios aboard La Sirena, Kestra mentions a Capt. Crandall who has a ship, and again we got a couple of name-drops, this time of the Klingon homeworld, Qo’nos, most recently seen in Star Trek: Discovery, and Tyken’s Rift, which refers to the episode Night Terrors from the fourth season of The Next Generation. Picard and Soji did leave Nepenthe at the end of the episode, but I wonder if this Capt. Crandall will come back into play in future, as Star Trek: Picard has hardly wasted a second of runtime in any of its episodes on dead ends.
Picard uses himself, or rather, his physical state, to try to persuade Soji to trust him, remembering his encounter with Dahj and getting Soji to use her newly-activated skills to assess him to determine whether he’s telling the truth.
During the conversation, Picard confesses to Soji and the others his true reason for helping her. Partly it’s a desire to help Data, to repay Data’s sacrifice by helping what Picard considers to be his offspring. But the other element to his willingness to help is that Dahj essentially snapped him out of a fourteen-year-long depression, giving him motivation and a cause again, which is clearly something he never felt he’d get. I’ve written before about how Picard has been depressed in Star Trek: Picard. The first two episodes in particular looked at that side of him and his life since Nemesis, but it’s in this moment that Picard acknowledges it for himself. It can be hard for someone dealing with depression to even realise what’s happening, and acknowledging that privately to oneself is incredibly difficult to do because it means acknowledging what society still considers to be a weakness. Picard has been depressed, and if anyone says “but the Picard I remember never would be depressed!” then I have two things to say. First is that they should go and watch The Measure of a Man from the second season of The Next Generation – a review of which can be found here – and watch how Picard acts when he seems like he’s going to lose the case. Watch him in the scene with Guinan in Ten-Forward and compare it to how he was acting in the premiere of Star Trek: Picard. Also look at his emotional, angry reaction to the Borg in First Contact and compare that to his fear and hatred in last week’s episode. This is the man we’ve known. The second thing I’d say is that anyone believing that certain people, even fictional characters, could “never” fall into depression needs to get some fucking empathy because that can happen to anyone, at any time, for any reason or for no reason. Anyone who’s lived a life has had ups and downs; Picard’s “down” was intense and long-lasting, and just because someone has been lucky in life never to suffer like that, or see someone close to them suffer, well that doesn’t mean it can’t happen or that it doesn’t happen to others. This moronic criticism plagued Luke Skywalker’s characterisation in The Last Jedi a couple of years ago too. It was as stupid, insensitive, and ignorant about mental health then as it is now. Rant over.
Picard acknowledges for the first time how bad he’d been feeling. And though he doesn’t say it, his gratitude to Dahj for snapping him out of it and giving him something worth believing in again is a powerful motivator when it comes to helping Soji.
This was a deeply personal speech, but delivered in the calm Picard style that we remember from The Next Generation. He doesn’t raise his voice, he doesn’t try to be sarcastic or pushy or aggressive, or anything else. He gently makes his case to her, and after everything she’s been through, Soji relents and shares with Picard and the others the information she gave Narek. Last week I nitpicked this information, saying that in an area the size of the explored galaxy, a planetary body with two red moons and a lightning storm is hardly conclusive. There are other issues, too, such as the fact that nothing in her dream indicated that lightning storms were a constant presence on that world, nor that whatever caused the moons to appear red from the surface would be noticeable from space. I also said, however, that none of this would matter for the sake of the story! And in moments, Kestra has texted this Capt. Crandall and found the location of the planet – an unnamed world in the Vayt Sector.
So much to unpack here, but let’s start with Picard saying “thoughts?” to Troi and Riker. For a brief moment, we weren’t at a cabin in the wilds of Nepenthe, but on the Enterprise-D in the briefing room. That moment, as Picard asked the two for their opinions and they replied in turn could have been transposed to that setting and it would have slotted perfectly into place. I loved it as a nostalgia trip.
Next, though it wasn’t necessarily approached this way in the episode, how do we feel about young Kestra having a literally under-the-table text conversation with Capt. Crandall, who Riker describes as “unstable”? In another episode of Star Trek, perhaps that concept could be explored more. As we live in a world where almost all young people over the age of nine or ten have an internet-enabled device, what they use that technology for and who they communicate with is an issue that parents, schools, and governments will have to face.
Armed with the location of Soji’s homeworld – or at least, a good candidate for it – there’s a renewed optimism to Picard’s mission, and hope that he and Soji might be able to get there in time – though what exactly they will find there isn’t known. Troi and Riker, when they discussed Maddox around the table, seemed to imply that Soji and Dahj may not be the only synthetics living there – could there be a machine civilisation on this world for Picard to make first contact with? And how does this tie into what we already know from Stardust City Rag about Maddox’s lab having been destroyed by the Tal Shiar?
Rios takes Dr Jurati to the sickbay area of La Sirena. We get a better look at this area than last time. La Sirena is a small ship, but still larger than the Runabouts seen in Deep Space Nine or Voyager’s Delta Flyer. The rear area of the ship seems to double as a sickbay with a couple of beds and also a meeting/conference area with a table. Rios suspects they’re being tracked by Narek, which is how he keeps finding them. But he’s mistaken in his choice of who to trust – he feels that Raffi, after her time on Freecloud, may be spying on them or being tracked herself. This had been set up perfectly last week – not the suspicion of Raffi itself, but that Rios, when left with only two people on board, would turn to Dr Jurati having shared an intimate moment with her last time. He’s known Raffi longer, but he also knows she has a drug issue. He hasn’t known Dr Jurati very long at all, but they have shared a very close moment – possibly the first time in a long time that the lonely starship captain had been with anyone. His suspicion of Raffi only makes Dr Jurati feel still worse, and she comes right out and admits that she’s the one being tracked, but in that same moment Raffi calls Rios to the bridge to deal with Narek. There’s a look between Rios and Jurati that could be interpreted as him understanding what she said – or at least planting a seed for that understanding next week. In the moment, however, he has to deal with Narek and runs to the bridge.
Overwhelmed, unable to cope, and now having probably blown her cover and ruined her relationship with the only person on La Sirena she could have conceivably turned to for help, Dr Jurati uses the replicator to synthesise poison, which she uses a hypospray to inject herself with. Alison Pill was phenomenal here, no exaggeration. Without saying a word, the expressions on her face, the shaky way she raises and lowers the hypospray before finally taking the plunge and using it was riveting and disturbing to watch. Even though Star Trek: Picard is science fiction and her suicide method was a hypospray, there was something gritty, realistic, and outright disturbing to watching her try to take her own life. Suicide can be hard to portray on screen, often being overly dramatic and stylised, or worse, the “noble” suicide where a character kills himself or herself for the greater good. This scene was neither of those things. Dr Jurati made the attempt on her own life because she couldn’t live with the double guilt of what she’d done to her former friend, and that she was putting her new friends in danger. She was at the end of her rope, and felt that she had nowhere to turn to and no other option – it was an act of desperation. And it was portrayed as such. The camerawork stayed on her face and upper body throughout the scene, starting with her dash to the replicator and ending with her collapsing on the floor.
I don’t think this is the end for her – La Sirena’s EMH will make sure of that – but her crime will now surely be exposed, and it will be up to Picard, Soji, and the others what to do with a murderer and a spy.
Taking the poison does appear to have the side-effect of neutralising the tracking device, at least temporarily. Aboard his ship, Narek watches a single light blink out on his map, and is unable to find it again. For someone who had seemed to be wavering, Narek feels, in this wordless scene, like he’s once again found his faith in the Zhat Vash cause. Whether that will hold up if he meets Soji again is not clear, though.
On La Sirena’s bridge, Rios is clearly still suspicious of Raffi, but the EMH’s call notifies him that Dr Jurati is in a coma and they both seem to drop that conversation as he runs to be by her side in sickbay. Raffi remains alone on the bridge, seeming to dismiss his short investigation with an eye-roll. The action then jumps back to the Artifact, where Elnor is now alone and hiding out from Rizzo’s security forces. He spots a Fenris Rangers badge/chip and activates it – the call will bring Seven of Nine and her vigilante group to the Artifact. Elnor just has to lay low until they get there, then he can – presumably – use Seven of Nine to do whatever it was that Hugh wanted to do with the “queen cell”. In another scene with no dialogue, I really got the impression of Elnor being a man alone, trapped against impossible odds. He’s way out of his depth as a man with a sword on a Borg cube – and he knows it.
It’s time for goodbyes on Nepenthe, and we get a scene glimpsed in the trailers as Riker and Picard sit down on a wooden dock. They talk, one-on-one, about the mission, about Picard jumping back into galactic affairs, and again Picard’s “condition” – i.e. his terminal illness – is again referenced. Picard always valued Riker’s advice, and had always insisted on being given his unfiltered opinion, and just as in The Next Generation, Riker obliges here.
There was a strange kind of Americana vibe to two older men sat on a fishing dock that I feel served the scene well given their conversation. The staging, in that sense, was fantastic, even if it wouldn’t have been something we’d necessarily say was “Star Trek-y” just reading about it. Seeing the full scene unfold, however, was a different experience, and just like how in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, seeing Kirk, Spock, and McCoy camping in the wilderness was a great scene, so too was this one. The “thank you” Picard gave to Riker – not just for letting him stay but really for everything they did together – was beautiful, but tinged with emotion knowing that Picard thinks he may never get another chance to say it.
I get the sense that Riker would have signed up in a heartbeat – but Picard can’t and won’t ask him to leave his family. He has obligations on Nepenthe, and Picard is content to head off to Soji’s homeworld with the new crew he has put together.
We already knew Picard, Riker, and Troi have a great connection. And that was on full display in Nepenthe, no doubt. What really surprised me, however, was the bond between Soji and Kestra. They got together like kids whose parents are friends often do – how many of us remember something like that from our own childhoods? But the bond they forged was genuine, and when Kestra says she will miss her, she really means it. Partly, I’m sure, that’s because she lives in a quiet, rural area, and Soji represents someone new and something altogether different and exciting. But largely it is because the two young women got along really well together – Soji may have made her first genuine friend on the show thus far. The hug between them as Soji and Picard prepared to depart was no less emotional than Picard’s was with Riker and Troi.
As La Sirena enters transporter range, Picard and Soji are beamed aboard, leaving the Troi-Riker family behind. I can’t tell right now whether it’s the last we’ll see of them in the series, or whether we might get Riker steaming back in to save the day if something goes wrong. We’ll have to see as the final episodes unfold.
So that was Nepenthe. As I said at the beginning, a quieter episode in some respects, but an intensely emotional one. The theme of nostalgia was once again perfectly played and never overused, with enough screen time given to all of La Sirena’s crew to balance out the scenes with Riker and Troi. Unless the show’s creators have a surprise in mind for later episodes, which they just might, I think we’ve seen all of the legacy characters that we knew would be in the show now.
After The Impossible Box, I sat back in my seat and felt this amazing sensation that you might experience after an intense rollercoaster at a theme park. When the credits rolled on Nepenthe, I almost cried, such was the intensity of emotion than ran through almost every scene. Some of them hit particularly hard – as some of you may know if you’re regulars, my own mental health is somewhat complicated, and my history with some of the issues raised in the episode brought feelings and memories to the fore.
Overall I loved Nepenthe. Seeing Riker and Troi was a treat after so long, and finally Picard and La Sirena now have their final destination in mind. Elnor may need help first, though.
Nepenthe is available to stream now, along with the first six episodes of Star Trek: Picard, 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.