For the first forty minutes of its forty-two-minute running time, “Stardust City Rag” is a fantastic episode, my favorite episode of Picard so far (okay, fine, the competition isn’t exactly fierce yet, given that we’re only five episodes in, but work with me, here). It is full of so much amazing stuff from beginning to end, and runs the gamut from hilarious to sad to dramatic to action-packed to horrific. This is the first solo script by Kirsten Beyer, who is not just supervising producer and co-creator (and also a friend of your humble reviewer), but is also the author of several brilliant Star Trek: Voyager novels which did powerful character work with Seven of Nine.
Then there’s the last two minutes.
This should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyhow: THERE ARE SPOILERS FOR THE VERY ENDING OF THE EPISODE IN THIS REVIEW. Having said that, I’ll get to that later on, as I want to start with the stuff I liked, which was 95% of it.
One reason why I liked it so much is that stuff actually, y’know, happens this week. We’ve had four episodes of setup and backstory, and it’s nice to get significant forward movement, though there’s still way too much left unsaid. Still, Picard actually finds Bruce Maddox and we learn why Musiker wanted to go to Freecloud and we find out what Seven of Nine’s been up to in the 22 years since Voyager came home. Oh, and we also find out more about how horribly cured Borg are being treated, already hinted at by Hugh in “The End is the Beginning.”
This is a great vehicle for Michelle Hurd. Musiker came to Freecloud because that’s where her estranged son Gabriel Hwang (and his pregnant Romulan wife Pel) are living. She’s come to make peace with Hwang, but he very obviously wants none of it. Mason Gooding and Hurd are both magnificent in this scene. Gooding’s body language is hostile from the nanosecond Hwang sees his mother, and while there are moments where you can see that he loves and misses his mother, there’s way too much anger there for that love to stay at the forefront for long. And then Hwang throws her conspiracy theory about the attack on Mars in her face, and Musiker immediately goes into a rant about how she was right, dammit, and as soon as that happens, it’s obvious that there will be no peace between mother and son. It’s a heartbreaking, brilliant scene, and Hurd, Gooding, Beyer, and director Jonathan Frakes all deserve tremendous credit for it.
Before that, we see why Picard relied on Musiker so much as his aide, as she very much knows how to get shit done. While she’s not present for the mission to retrieve Maddox, she’s the one who sets everything up, including creating a backstory for Rios that allows him to be an interfacer, acting as intermediary between Bjayzl and the character Picard is playing, setting up the exchange for Maddox.
For that alone, this would seem to be Musiker’s episode, yet she’s only a small part of it. While “Stardust City Rag” is a fine title, it could just as easily be called “Seven of Nine is Back and She’s Pissed!” In the two decades since Voyager came home, Seven has joined the Fenris Rangers, helping keep law and order in a lawless and chaotic area of space. She has tremendous bitterness toward the Federation, and a particular animus toward Bjayzl, which is the real reason why she helps Picard.
We get the first hint of that in the opening flashback from fourteen years earlier, where we see Icheb—the former Borg drone who served on Voyager during its final two seasons—being tortured and killed, his Borg implants being violently removed. When Seven shoots him in the end, it’s a mercy killing to end his suffering.
There are two nice touches in this scene: Icheb was an officer on the U.S.S. Coleman, having completed the Starfleet training he began on Voyager, and the person removing his implants can’t find his cortical node, which Icheb donated to Seven in the Voyager episode “Imperfection.”
Icheb is also one of two returning characters from past Trek series who are re-cast. It’s perhaps not surprising that Manu Intiraymi was replaced as Icheb given his comments on Twitter calling Discovery actor Anthony Rapp a “whiner” for accusing Kevin Spacey of inappropriate behavior with him as a teenager.
The other re-casting is Maddox, where the reasons for the re-casting are less obvious. Brian Brophy played Maddox in his only other appearance, way back in “The Measure of a Man.” Brophy is currently the Director of Caltech Theatre, so it’s possible the schedules didn’t work out. In any case, John Ales plays him instead, and doesn’t really look or sound anything like Brophy, who gave Maddox a distinctive arrogant, mannered style of speech.
A much stronger guest is Necar Zadegan—who can be seen on NCIS: New Orleans as Hannah Khoury—as Bjayzl. Zadegan plays her with a preternatural calm, never losing her cool, not even when Seven of Nine is choking her out. She’s got no morals, and obviously cares for nothing but herself. She’s an easy villain to hate.
The setup for rescuing Maddox is a fun little game of dress-up—and I love that Elnor, who was raised by fanatical truth-tellers, has serious issues dealing with an undercover mission where people pretend to be something they aren’t. It makes sense that the same Jean-Luc Picard who indulged in the Dixon Hill holodeck programs would pose as an eyepatch-bedecked mercenary. And after 33 years of listening to people bitch and moan about how Picard talks with a British instead of a French accent, to hear Sir Patrick Stewart put on a comedy French accent for his part is just hilarious. The only thing missing was him farting in someone’s general direction.
There are continuity touches galore in this one. There’s Icheb’s cortical node. The establishing shot of Freecloud shows signs for Mot’s Hair Emporium (nice to see that the Enterprise-D’s erstwhile barber is doing well for himself) as well as a branch of Quark’s Bar. Indeed, part of Rios’s fake interfacer backstory is a testimonial from Quark for helping him deal with the Breen. (I am now dying to see Armin Shimerman as Quark in an episode of Picard.) And there’s Rios fangoobering Seven of Nine, having already fangoobered Picard in “The End is the Beginning.”
However, the most powerful continuity hit is the reminder that Seven of Nine and Icheb and Hugh and Ramdha aren’t the only former Borg we’ve seen on Picard: there’s also the title character, who was assimilated and made into Locutus of Borg in “The Best of Both Worlds” two-parter. The moment when Picard and Seven bond over that shared history is one of the most dramatically effective scenes on Picard so far. Traumas don’t ever completely go away, we just try to manage them as best we can, and Picard admits that he’s still not completely recovered from his assimilation experience. Seven’s time as a Borg was much longer, of course, and went back to childhood, so recapturing her humanity is a lot harder. Still, it was fantastic to see that moment of understanding between the two of them. (Equally fantastic is that Seven has become a bourbon drinker…)
And, indeed, Seven doesn’t have nearly as much humanity in her as Picard hopes. At first it seems that Seven has been convinced not to kill Bjayzl by Picard’s words about revenge not solving anything, though it’s more Rios’s practical argument that the subsequent bounty on all their heads would cripple Picard’s ability to do anything that convinces her. But then, once Picard and the gang are safe with Maddox on board La Sirena, she goes back—with two phasers she got from Rios’s armory—and gleefully shoots Bjayzl. Seven has seen too much both as a Borg drone and as a Fenris Ranger to ever truly be a hero, but she knows that Picard has that in him, and she doesn’t want to ruin his optimism, because the galaxy needs more of him and less of her.
Speaking of non-heroic behavior, we have Dr. Jurati.
I’ve been worried that Commodore Oh’s approach of Jurati was to suborn her to her side, and that she joined Picard’s mission under false pretenses. Those worries came to a head at the end of the episode—an episode that also established that Jurati and Maddox’s relationship wasn’t just as friends and colleagues, but as lovers—when Jurati has Maddox alone in sickbay and, citing things she now knows that she wishes she didn’t, and that she wishes Maddox did know, kills him.
From this point forward, Jurati is utterly, completely, totally, thoroughly irredeemable. She murdered an injured helpless person. Worse, she murdered an injured helpless person she supposedly loves. Here’s the thing: whatever Oh showed her that so devastated her, it obviously was enough to convince Jurati to change her position on synths and AIs and such—so why doesn’t she first try to similarly convince Maddox? Or, failing that, why not put him in a coma or in stasis or contrive some other way to keep him out of action without killing him? Why take this appalling, despicable, extreme action?
Plus, she did it stupidly! The EMH already knows that something was going wrong with Maddox, and La Sirena likely has internal sensors and such that record what’s going on in sickbay. Are we supposed to believe that the same Dr. Jurati who could barely operate the transporter is now able to erase medical logs and internal sensor data to cover up her appalling crime? And even if she is able to erase that, the erasure will be a red flag. Hell, given Musiker’s skills at data interpretation and manipulation, she should be able to see through any cover-up Jurati could attempt in two seconds flat, which means that the next episode really needs to have Jurati thrown in the brig and being held until they return to Federation space, and if it doesn’t, I’m probably not going to be a happy reviewer.
Because Jurati is a murderer, period, full stop. I’m pissed, because I like the character, and because Alison Pill is a really good actor, but the character is forever tainted by this action.
No Narek or Soji this week—indeed, no scenes at all on “the Artifact”—which is fine, as that subplot has been spinning its wheels, and I didn’t miss the two of them and their sodden romance in the least. Next week, according to the previews, Picard will actually go to the dead Cube, and then Narek and Soji’s plot can finally move forward as well. And we’ve had more hints of a big-ass conspiracy, both from Musiker and from Maddox, and it would really be nice if we got some forward movement on that, too…
Keith R.A. DeCandido is at Farpoint 2020 this weekend as an author and musical guest, alongside Trek actors Mary Chieffo (L’Rell), Penny Johnson Jerald (Kasidy Yates), and Anthony Montgomery (Travis Mayweather) and fellow Trek authors Derek Tyler Attico, Peter David, Dave Galanter, Allyn Gibson, Robert Greenberger, Glenn Hauman, David Mack, Aaron Rosenberg, Howard Weinstein, and Steven H. Wilson. Keith’s full schedule can be found here.