“Stardust City Rag”
Star Trek: Picard Season 1, Episode 5 – Debuted Thursday, February 20, 2020
Written by Kirsten Beyer
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
Picard and the gang visit Freecloud in search of Bruce Maddox, but it turns out almost everyone on La Sirena—including the newly arrived Seven of Nine–has a double agenda.
[WARNING: Spoilers from here on]
This episode, much like Freecloud itself, was something of a mixed bag.
With Seven of Nine’s arrival in the final moment’s of last week’s episode, I was hoping we’d pick up right where we left off. Why did she collapse? What would her first conversation be with Picard? How would the others react to her? We never really got that scene, which was a disappointment, especially after the first episodes where the character and relationship-building was done so well. There are other missed opportunities in this one that for me, would have been better choices than what we got.
Now for what we DID see:
We began on Planet Vergessen (which means “to forget” in German), 13 years earlier. There’s a grisly extraction going on, which is not only horrifying to look at, but filled with Game of Thrones-like squishy sounds as Borg parts are pulled out of an un-anesthetized, very much alive humanoid male. His screams of agony make the bloody squishing sounds even worse, and when Seven of Nine comes to the rescue—alas, too late to save his life, but in time for a mercy killing–we learn that the victim is none other than Icheb, Seven’s young friend from Star Trek: Voyager (but now played by Casey King).
Now we know why the evil person removing his parts couldn’t find his cortical node: Icheb donated his to Seven in the Voyager episode “Imperfection.” What doesn’t make sense is why the patient had to be fully conscious while his parts were painfully removed, and why the person doing the procedure was so callous, calling him “buddy” as she talked about her plans for more brain-digging. This is nothing short of pure sadism. It also provides the emotional heart of the episode: Icheb was the closest thing Seven had to “kin,” and she thought of him as her child; his loss fills her with anger and a taste for vengeance. More on that later.
On Freecloud, we meet Bjayzl, the person behind the Borg parts extractions who immediately reminded me of Blackie, who ran One-Eyed Jacks on Twin Peaks. She hears that Bruce Maddox has arrived, orders him killed, then changes her mind on a dime. When we see Maddox, it’s not Brian Brophy from TNG (who’s spending his time as the Director of Caltech Theater these days), but John Ales. Full disclosure: I worked with John Ales years ago on an MTV game show, where he was the host. It’s a testament to what a great job he did that I was able to forget this pretty quickly and buy him as this new, tormented version of Maddox. Bjayzl offers him some tranya (an unnecessary bit of fan service, in my opinion), and predictably, it’s spiked. He falls to the floor after a sip or two, and she makes plans to give him to the Tal Shiar.
Picard and Seven finally have their long-awaited chat in his holodeck study. She’s got his number; when he claims the recreation wasn’t his idea, she points out that he likes it enough to keep it, and guesses he’s got some “saving the galaxy” on his agenda as well. Picard understands her cause but takes issue with the idea vigilante justice, but has to agree when she says, very pointedly, that the only thing worse is giving up. (The Maquis would agree.)
While Picard and Seven bond—and I admit I could watch these two all day—Raffi’s tracking down information on Gabriel Hwang, and going over Picard & Seven’s shared Borg traumas with Rios. Meanwhile, Dr. Jurati is in her quarters watching a video of Maddox in happier days making chocolate chip cookies, spelling out that the two were more than just colleagues with a chocolate chip cookie-kiss. She shuts down the video, tearful. From here on in, pretty much every scene with Jurati features some intense, secretive, tragic look on her face just out of sight of the other characters.
Upon their arrival at Freecloud, everyone on the ship is greeted by intrusive pop-up hologram ads, tailored specifically for each person. Jurati has to punch hers to get rid of it, which is played for comedy (and shows how she and Rios are bonding a little) but has a deeper meaning once you’ve seen the rest of the episode. Elnor wants to know why everyone gets one except him, and so do I! Perhaps he has no vices to exploit; only the pure of heart can escape pushy advertising.
As we reach Freecloud, we get a glimpse of Quark’s Bar (franchise!) and Mr. Mot’s Hair Emporium, a throwback to our favorite TNG barber—which raises some questions about why Mot would want to operate outside the quiet safety of Starfleet, at least for me. He seemed like such a nice fella, and Freecloud doesn’t seem like a gentle place to set up shop.
From here, there was a lot of cutting back and forth between Raffi prepping everyone–complete with costumes and personas–for their trip, and the actual events that took place after they arrive. It wasn’t a great choice. I preferred the pace of the first few episodes, where moments were allowed to breathe a little, but instead we kept flipping between Freecloud and La Sirena as the plan came together. It felt a little choppy, and somewhat rushed, and we never got to see much interaction once they were in their new outfits.
I did, however, enjoy seeing Rios in his feathered hat and fluffy jacket asking for a drink with two umbrellas. It was a little weirder seeing Picard as a Frenchman pretending to be an Englishman speaking English with a bad French accent, complete with eye patch, but Patrick Stewart was clearly having a ball doing it.
Using Seven (and her Borg parts) as bait, they track down Maddox, and offer her in trade. But Seven had a separate plan the whole time; turns out she has a history with Bjayzl. It seems they used to be close—we don’t find out how close, but Seven once trusted and confided in her. Bjayzl used their relationship, whatever it was, to learn about and eventually ambush Icheb. Seven, angry and betrayed, wants revenge. Picard’s face visibly falls as this dawns on him, and he tries to talk Seven out of giving in to vengeance. She relents, and they end up with a trade after all: Bjayzl’s life for Maddox’s. They take Maddox and head back to La Sirena.
Raffi, in the meantime, tracks Gabriel down at a fertility/reproductive health clinic; turns out , he’s her estranged son. She tells him she’s clean, she’s better, she’s here for him, but he’s not having it, and effortlessly triggers her need to talk about the how the synths were framed for the attack on Mars. This all goes by much too quickly to have much impact, but gives us the phrase “conclave of 8,” a new piece of Raffi’s conspiracy theory. Yes, we learn that her obsession drove her family away, but the whole thing comes out of nowhere and wraps up in an instant. Oh, and her son’s wife is a Romulan, pregnant with their daughter. A defeated Raffi returns to La Sirena, and refuses to talk to anyone. I hope she gets back to her scrappy self quickly, and I hope the rest of her backstory is fleshed out better than this quick snapshot. I didn’t know she had a son five minutes ago, so it didn’t have much impact.
Maddox, injured but relieved to be alive, is thrilled to see “Aggie” Jurati, but her face, once again, reveals that tragedy is afoot. Maddox manages to tels Picard about Soji and where to find her, giving him the next piece of the puzzle, and demonstrating that Picard has heard of “the artifact”–the captured Borg cube. Maddox also warns them that it’s not just the Romulans who destroyed his lab and have a stake in the synth ban; the Federation is also involved.
Then we got to the highlight of the week: the conversation Picard and Seven were destined to have about their shared history of being assimilated. She asks if he’s regained his humanity, and he says yes without hesitation, then admits it’s more complicated than that. When she says she’s working on getting her humanity back “every damned day of my life,” I realize I’m ready for a whole other show that starts with Voyager’s return to the Alpha Quadrant and gives us every detail of every moment in Seven’s life since then. Are you listening, CBS?
And… we finally see that scene from all the promos of Seven firing two guns at once at anything and anyone in her path. We can check that off the list.
Seven takes some weapons, gives Picard a way to reach her in the future, then secretly heads back to Freecloud, where she kills Bjayzl after all. Honestly, I saw this as much more than revenge. Seven knows that Bjayzl is going to keep deceiving people and keep brutally dismembering former Borg drones to sell their parts, so what she’s doing is preventive as much as anything, and fully justified. I had no moral issues with it, buoyed by the horrific cruelty done to Icheb. I found myself thinking about Data in TNG’s “The Most Toys,” telling Kivas Fajo, “I cannot permit this to continue,” and then firing. Bjayzl, like Fajo, had it coming.
We end on Maddox and Jurati, reunited and alone at last. The EMH pops up for the second time in this episode, once again alerted by her symptoms to Jurati’s “psychiatric emergency,” but she quickly deactivates it and kills Maddox, weeping. The final straw was his compliment that her “contribution was essential” to the work he did building on Dr. Soong’s legacy. “One more thing I have to atone for,” she says tearfully. “I wish they hadn’t shown me,” she adds, reminding us that we still haven’t seen what happened between her and Commodore Oh a few episodes back. All we can do is hope the EMH has logged those psychiatric emergencies for someone else to find before it’s too late.
All in all, this was an uneven episode, and my least favorite so far, despite the fun outfits and great Seven of Nine moments. It felt a little choppy, and some of its intense character moments deserved more time. The promos made it seem like a bit of a romp, A Piece of the Action-style, but it ended up having some of the most brutal violence we’ve seen so far and a whole lot more tragedy than comedy.
- Bjayzl’s first outfit is a little like the one on the waitress in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, when McCoy goes to a bar looking for a ship.
- Maddox says Dahj had an “embedded mom AI”, confirming what we’ve suspected, that the “Mom” Dahj and Soji call is really a fake AI program for the sisters.
- Freecloud takes its name from the b-side (remember b-sides?) of the David Bowie single “Space Oddity.” The song title was “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” and of course they’re in Stardust City, minus the Ziggy. “Space Oddity” had its big moment in Star Trek: Discovery when Tilly and Stamets sang it as he drilled a hole in her head, and it’s a favorite of real astronauts, too… everyone loves David Bowie!
- Mr. Vup, Bjayzl’s body guard, is a new species named Beta Annari, who are sapient reptiloids with a powerful sense of smell. Vup says he has “…1,253 olfactory receptor genes, which means among other things I can smell a lie.”
- The Breen get a shout-out, along with “Mr. Quark of Ferenginar.”
- I feel like there was a wasted opportunity here with Elnor, who has been raised in “absolute candor” and is now being asked to lie and pretend he’s someone else. They touched on it, briefly, but it seems to me like there was a philosophical conflict there that could’ve been interesting for him. Maybe later.
- Raffi got the best line of the week, telling Rios, “You can’t do your broody existentialist spaceman routine” on Freecloud.
- I’m very confused about the world of Star Trek: Picard. What happened to the future we were heading towards in the original series and the TNG/DS9/Voyager era? Is all of this criminal activity and annoying advertising specific to Freecloud, or is this the world our characters live in now? I’m hoping it’s the former, as idealism is a fundamental piece of what makes Star Trek, Star Trek. I hope they aren’t trying to say that the future we all grew up believe in has failed by the 24th century, with the entire Federation (vs. a few high-up rogues) conspiring in murder and cover-ups.
- On that same note, why is there a medical clinic on Freecloud and why is Raffi’s son there? Does it offer some fertility service he can’t get elsewhere? That seems highly unlikely in the 24th century Federation we know, and Freecloud doesn’t seem like a place everyday people would want to live. It’s more of a place to escape to than somewhere you’d settle.
- I didn’t miss the action on the Borg cube one bit, and I’m now a lot more interested in what happened to random disconnected Borg drones than I am with displaced Romulans. But next week, it’s back to the Borg cube.
The Ready Room
The show opened with a produced piece about Seven of Nine’s return, basically going over what we already knew. Then host Wil Wheaton enthusiastically interviewed Evan Evagora, who plays Elnor, mostly about last week’s episode (“Absolute Candor”) with a few questions about this week’s.
The most entertaining part of the conversation was finding out that Evagora grew up watching TNG and knows it well, and watching Wheaton and Evagora bond over being young Picard protégés (and Patrick Stewart protégés, too). They shared their love of props and their dismay at not being able to play with them between scenes. Evagora also said that last week’s beheading marked the first time Elnor actually killed anyone, which would’ve been an interesting moment to explore if they’d had the time in last week’s episode.
The second package was well worth a watch, with Neville Page talking about how they created the look for Mr. Vun, Bjayzl’s lizard-like henchman and a new Trek species. Making a new species is a creative collaboration between special effects people, makeup artists, costume designers, writers, and actors, as Page demonstrated, and the piece included some behind-the-scenes clips showing that they are having a lot of fun doing it.
The sneak peek was also worth your time: young Soji!
But it’s become clear that the podcast is the place for real insider information, where they dig a little deeper into what could’ve been and how things came together.
New episodes of Star Trek: Picard are released on CBS All Access in the USA on Thursdays. In Canada it airs Thursdays on CTV Sci-Fi Channel at 6PM PT /9PM ET and streams on Crave. For the rest of the world it streams Fridays on Amazon Prime Video. Episodes are released weekly.
Keep up with all the Star Trek: Picard news at TrekMovie.