“Baby steps…” — Star Trek: Picard’s “Nepenthe”

Back in 1979, it was a moment of joy to be able to walk into a movie theatre and, for the first time in ten years, see William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig again play the iconic roles they’d played on TV (and also voiced on the animated series). After ten years of watching the same episodes over and over again, we had our old friends back, and it was lovely, even though the movie was terrible.

Back in 1987, no one quite knew what to expect from this new version of Trek. There was a very vocal contingent of fandom that rejected the very notion, that you can’t possibly do Star Trek without Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the gang.

And yet, in 2020, I got the same moment of glee watching “Nepenthe” that I got from first seeing The Motion Picture 41 years ago.

Even more than any of the previous half-dozen episodes, even more than the appearances of Data, Seven of Nine, Icheb, and Hugh, “Nepenthe” has the same homecoming feel of that first movie. The cerebral captain, the confident first officer, the counselor who had all the feels, here they are more than three decades later getting together as old friends who’ve been through hell and back, and it’s glorious.

Reportedly, Jonathan Frakes was concerned about getting back in front of the camera as—ever since his first directorial effort thirty years ago, the TNG episode “The Offspring” (in which Data creates a daughter, amusingly enough)—he has slowly transitioned from actor to director, at this point becoming one of the best and most in-demand TV directors in the business. He hasn’t acted in ages, and to not only have to do so, but to be standing next to the likes of Sir Patrick Stewart, Marina Sirtis, Isa Briones, and Lulu Wilson while doing so was apparently intimidating.

He had nothing to worry about. The book on William T. Riker from jump was always relaxed confidence and competence, and Frakes perfectly embodies the older, wiser version of that guy who strode onto the Enterprise in “Encounter at Farpoint.”

There’s a lot to like about “Nepenthe,” but the thing I like best as the seventh episode of the first season of Star Trek: Picard in particular is that finally we have people who will call Picard on his bullshit. Raffi Musiker is still his subordinate in many ways, Rios is just an employee who will do whatever the client needs, Elnor is pledged to help him and that’s it, and Jurati only just met him. His relationship with all of them is one of a superior officer or employer or mentor. However, Riker and Troi’s relationship goes back much farther, and there’s an ocean of water under a dozen bridges among the three of them. As a result, they are in a perfect position to tell Picard he’s being a complete jerk at different points in the episode. Riker’s is done in a friendly manner—the same way he’s done most things in his career—by gently pointing out that being an arrogant ass who must be in the thick of things is practically a requirement when you’re a starship captain, but is a bit more fraught when you’re dealing with, in essence, a teenager. Troi, meanwhile, goes into full counselor mode, whupping Picard upside the head for how he’s so focused on helping Soji in the abstract that he is completely not getting how much pain and suffering Soji is actually going through.

It’s wonderful to see this trio, who were originally envisioned as the “big three” of TNG before Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn forced Data and Worf into more of a spotlight, sharing drinks, sharing food, sharing truths, sharing the deep love they hold for one another, and sharing the years of experiences, both together and apart, that have brought them to this place.

The love is particularly strong. And it’s more poignant for those of us who saw the forging of these bonds over seven years of TV episodes and four movies (not to mention hundreds of novels, comics books, and short stories featuring these folks over the last 33 years), so the reunion in this episode feels organic and real and very important to everyone involved. And those of you who didn’t see it can easily go back and do so, since TNG can be viewed on either CBS All Access or Netflix…

It would have been very easy for Briones’s Soji to get lost in the nostalgia shuffle here, but she very much doesn’t. Her entire world was turned upside down and sideways last week, and she’s not dealing very well with it. She just found out her life was a lie, so she assumes that everything happening on Nepenthe is also a lie. She out-and-out tells Troi that the nicer and friendlier she is, the less she trusts her.

Which is completely understandable, and it’s fun to see Troi work with her and diagnose her with such ease—because that’s what she does. Even though, now that Soji’s activated, Troi can’t actually empathically “read” her.

We also get the unintended consequences of the synth ban, as Troi and Riker had two kids, Thad and Kestra. (The names are perfect, by the way. Riker was established in Voyager‘s “Death Wish” as having an ancestor who fought in the American Civil War named Thaddius Riker, a.k.a. “Old Iron Boots,” and TNG‘s “Dark Page” established that Troi had a sister named Kestra who died when Troi was an infant.) Thad, however, contracted a rare disease that was curable before the synth ban—it’s a silicon-based disease, the cure for which requires a positronic matrix, which is no longer available.

The circumstances under which that entire story is told, after being hinted at throughout the episode, is beautifully done. Nepenthe has regenerative soil—that is why Riker and Troi went on inactive duty and moved there (presumably from the U.S.S. Titan)—and they have a huge garden. Soji eats her first non-replicated food, a tomato right off the vine, and she loves it, and the realization that real is better is yet another kick in the ribs. But Troi tells her Thad’s full story by way of reminding her that real isn’t always better.

(By the way, the first mission of Titan with Riker as her captain was supposed to be to help rebuild Romulus after the events of Nemesis when Shinzon turned the senate to pixie dust and took over, and then got killed himself. I was hoping that would play a bit more of a role in things.)

Thad was apparently a brilliant child, having created several languages and stories before his death, as well as an entire culture of wild girls in the woods known as the Viveen. Kestra continues to dress up as a Viveen, often speaking Viverna, the language Thad created for the Viveen. Indeed, that’s how we’re introduced to her, as she’s out hunting bunnicorns (yes, Nepenthe has unicorn bunnies, because of course it does) when Picard and Soji show up.

For many years, I have always answered the question, “Who’s your favorite Star Trek character?” with “a tie between Worf and Kira.” (Before DS9, it was just Worf, and before TNG it was a tie between McCoy and Sulu.) As of “Nepenthe,” the answer to that question is “Kestra,” and it’s not even close. Lulu Wilson puts in an amazing performance here. Trek has had a hit-and-miss track record with kid characters, but in Kestra, they absolutely nail it. She’s charming, funny, inquisitive, sarcastic, smart, thoughtful, friendly, and still in several kinds of pain from losing her brother. She’s honestly the perfect child of these two characters, and I am totally invested in seeing lots and lots more of Kestra. In fact, that really needs to be the next show on CBS All Access. The hell with Section 31, The Lower Decks, the other animated series, or the Pike series we’ve all been jonesing for since Anson Mount showed up on Discovery—they can all go hang. I want Star Trek: Viveen, Wild Girls of the Woods, and I want it now, dagnabbit! Get on that, Secret Hideout!

I’ve been raving about this episode, but it’s not without its flaws, and the need to create a tragic midstory for Riker and Troi is one of them. Troi’s sister died when she was a girl, so to have so similar a set of circumstances for her own children is a bit repetitive and feels like writers piling on a character. It also feels like a constructed excuse to keep them out of the action. Troi’s weakest moment in the whole episode is when she briefly breaks down when she brings Picard to Thad’s old room and says she can’t bear to have Kestra in any kind of danger. (She makes up for it later with her talk with Soji and her smackdown of Picard.) So we have a built-in excuse for this guest appearance not to last beyond this week, but, again, it feels constructed to do that more than anything.

Screenshot: CBS

And it’s not the only tragedy that feels forced. Elnor fails in his duty to protect Hugh, as he falls for the “let’s fight without weapons because it’s more pure” trick from Rizzo, who then whips out a weapon and kills Hugh with it mid-fight. There was no need for that, and again it feels constructed. There’s also a scene missing, as the last time we saw Elnor, he was defending Hugh from the oncoming onslaught of Romulans, and the first time we see Hugh here, he’s being lined up by Rizzo and her Zhat Vash thugs with other XBs (whom she also slaughters), with no sign of Elnor. He doesn’t show up until later, and, um, where was he?

By the end of the episode, Elnor finds himself alone and hiding on the Cube—Rizzo beamed away before their fight could finish—and the last thing we see is him calling in Fenris for help. (This likely explains why Seven of Nine is back in the trailer for next week.)

The now-expected opening flashback in this episode is one that only goes back a few weeks, as we get some of the rest of the scene between Oh and Jurati when the former questioned the latter about her visits with Picard. We get more information here. For starters, it’s confirmed that, contrary to what Jurati told Picard (and as many of us assumed), Oh sent her to him specifically, complete with a tracker. In addition, it’s confirmed that Oh really is a Vulcan (as opposed to a disguised Romulan), as she forces a mind-meld upon Jurati.

Unfortunately, that’s all we get. We now know how Jurati received the information that led to her committing the cold-blooded murder of her former lover, but we don’t know what the information is. And we need to know what’s so fucking horrible that it would lead a moral scientist to cold-bloodedly murder a person she loves so brutally. (Yes, I’m harping on this a lot, but the lack of consequences and the lack of explanation for her utterly despicable act has cast a pall on the proceedings.) Now, the fact that Oh did force the mind-meld on her leaves open several possibilities, including that she was, in essence, brainwashed into killing Maddox by this mind-meld. Still, given that Jurati also appeared to be in complete control of her actions and the killing was premeditated, I don’t see how she gets redeemed.

Jurati is also now getting cold feet. She tries to convince Rios and Musiker to go back to Earth and abandon Picard and Soji. Rios shoots that down, as Picard’s a paying client, but Jurati doesn’t want to go back to Earth because she’s sick of this trip, she wants to go back so that Narek will track her to Earth instead of tracking her to Picard.

So she injects herself with noranium hydride, which neutralizes the tracker and also puts her in a coma.

That’s where we leave off this week, and I’m curious to see where this goes next week, because we’ve only got three episodes left, and Jurati’s actions rather desperately need explaining, especially since the action appears to be at least in part moving to Soji’s homeworld. That’s presumably where Rizzo is going, and La Sirena‘s headed there now as well.

“Nepenthe” was an absolute nostalgic delight, but it also moves the story forward without drowning in that nostalgia. Too often, when Trek revisits its past, it’s wrapped in a really dumb story (“Sarek,” the “Unificationtwo-parter, “Flashback,” “These are the Voyages…”). When they get it right, though (“Relics,” “Blood Oath,” “Trials and Tribble-ations,” “If Memory Serves,” and, now, “Nepenthe”) it can be a beautiful thing.

My hope for the final three episodes are that we finally get some answers regarding why Jurati felt the need to commit murder, and especially that Picard actually listens to what Riker and Troi told him and stops being a twit.

Keith R.A. DeCandido urges everyone to support the Bad Ass Moms Kickstarter. The next anthology from Crazy 8 Press. It’s a nifty anthology about, well, bad ass moms, and if it makes its first stretch goal, it’ll also include a story by Keith about a woman in New York City who is both a mother and a hunter of supernatural creatures. Other contributors include Mary Fan (who also edited the anthology), Star Trek fiction writers Derek Tyler Attico, Peter David, Michael Jan Friedman, Robert Greenberger, Glenn Hauman, Paul Kupperberg, and Aaron Rosenberg, as well as Danielle Ackley-McPhail, T. Erik Bakutis, Russ Colchamiro, Paige Daniels, Kathleen O. David, Heather Hutsell, Kris Katzen, Karissa Laurel, Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, TJ Perkins, Jenifer Purcell Rosenberg, Joanna Schnurman, Hildy Silverman, and Denise Sutton. Click here and please consider supporting it!

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