Saturday, March 11, 2023

Star Trek: Picard, Season 3, Episode 4, "No Win Scenario"

I was cautiously optimistic heading into season three of Star Trek: Picard. After all, the trailers promised the return of many beloved characters from The Next Generation – Riker! Worf! Dr. Crusher! Lore! Moriarty!? – and the parts of season one and two that I enjoyed were largely restricted to events involving those TNG legacy characters, particularly the episode featuring Riker and Troi extensively, as well as the season one finale, which gave Data a much more emotional sendoff than he received in Star Trek: Nemesis. However, the writing in season three of Picard continues to be fairly disappointing, reproducing a lot of the problems that plagued its first two seasons (especially season two, which I thought was largely abysmal), even with a much heavier emphasis on characters and relationships for which I have great fondness.

“No Win Scenario” is illustrative of many of the problems and disappointments of this series, particularly its tendency to subtly betray what TNG fans know about these characters, and its inability to instill episodes with compelling conflicts. Watching Picard often feels like watching pod people versions of the characters I know, involved in underwritten plots.

“No Win Scenario” focuses exclusively on Picard, Riker, Crusher, and Seven of Nine trying to escape from a perilous nebula in a badly damaged ship, the USS Titan, all while trying to avoid an alien warship intent on kidnapping Picard and Crusher’s son, Jack, who is also onboard (absent from this episode is one of the only remaining original Picard characters from seasons one and two, Raffi, who is off on her own lackluster espionage plot, although Worf’s appearance in that plot offers some promise of rejuvenation). “The ship is damaged/malfunctioning” and “hostile aliens” are common Star Trek plot types, and have produced some wonderful episodes across many different Star Trek series, but “No Win Scenario” either frustrated me or left me cold in many places.*

*Hell, even calling this episode “No Win Scenario” rather than, say, “Kobayashi Maru,” which for Star Trek is more or less synonymous with the notion of a no-win scenario, is somewhat of a missed opportunity.

The lead-up to this episode is particularly telling. Episode three, “Seventeen Seconds,” ended with Riker – who has taken command of the Titan – reluctantly agreeing to execute Picard’s seemingly risky plan for survival, but the plan backfires, causing critical damage to the ship and sending it even deeper into the nebula. “Seventeen Seconds” ends with Riker turning to Picard and bitterly telling him, “You’ve just killed us all.” Let’s count the ways in which this betrays my understanding of Riker’s character, shall we?
  1. Riker is an admirable commanding officer with a strong sense of duty. He would take responsibility for any orders he gives, regardless of his personal misgivings, rather than blaming his advisors, since he knows the buck stops with him.
  2. Riker has sometimes disagreed with Picard in the past, but even then, they have always been mutually respectful toward one another, stretching all the way back to season one of TNG. However, this exchange suggests none of that respect, just childish, bitter resentment. I suppose it would make more sense if Riker had been reluctant to assist Picard throughout the previous episodes, but we’ve seen only the opposite: Riker has been eager to get the band back together and to go on an adventure (motivated by his needing time away from Troi and their family to deal with his demons after the death of their son). His treatment of Picard here makes it seem like he views Picard as a doddering old fool rather than the close personal friends we know them to be (as established in previous episodes of Picard itself).
  3. Even worse, Riker's outburst occurs on the bridge, in full view of various subordinate officers manning their stations. Even if Riker’s bitterness was well-motivated, he would never humiliate Picard by expressing his displeasure in public like this.
  4. Finally, Riker’s defeatism here is also completely out of character. Why in the world is he so quick to declare their doom? He and Picard have escaped from much more dire scenarios than this. His lack of faith in their ability to do so again makes it seem as though he has forgotten all of the other “no-win scenarios” they have overcome in the past.
Yes, Riker sort of explains himself in his and Picard’s next scene together in “No Win Scenario,” but nothing he says here is enough to overcome how his childish finger-pointing is completely incongruous with some of his core character traits. Star Trek: Picard is full of niggling inconsistencies like these.

It’s also full of unearned sentimentality, exemplified best in “No Win Scenario” by Picard telling his son Jack that a holodeck recreation of Ten Forward is “a place of real significance for me.” By Ten Forward, Picard is referring not to the bar/lounge of the same name where characters spent leisure time on the Enterprise-D, but to a completely different bar in Los Angeles that viewers (and, seemingly, Picard) were only introduced to at the start of season two of Star Trek: Picard. The closest this new version comes to resembling that space is in a background detail: some wall paneling behind the stairs does indeed resemble the paneling that used to adorn the starboard wall of the Enterprise-D's bar.

Perhaps I should give the series the benefit of the doubt, and assume that this Los Angeles Ten Forward has indeed become an important place for Picard in the years between Star Trek: Nemesis and Star Trek: Picard, but we’ve seen no evidence to that effect. If Star Trek: Picard really wanted to sell the idea of the Los Angeles Ten Forward as an important place for Picard, then the bar should be designed to look like a replica of the actual Ten Forward from the Enterprise-D, which is not only a place that is actually important to Picard (as revealed in the first episode of this season, where he suggests that of all the ships he commanded, he is most fond of the Enterprise-D), but is also a place that is important to viewers of the show nostalgic for TNG.

Or better yet, since this scene is set in the holodeck, the writers could have just had Picard conjure a recreation of the Enterprise-D Ten Forward. That he doesn’t do this is likely a product of the series’ production constraints: the show already had this Los Angeles Ten Forward set from last season, so reusing it here (and in the first episode of the current season) makes financial sense. However, it makes no emotional sense. Having Picard suggest that this new location is important to him is simply a lazy gesture toward something that was once meaningful, which really describes a lot of Picard’s problems in a nutshell.

Other minor frustrations abound: Captain Liam Shaw (actual Captain of the Titan, who was displaced by Riker when Shaw needed medical attention in the previous episode) began as a somewhat interesting character, given his rudeness toward Riker and Picard and his disdain for Seven (who serves as his Executive Officer). He is clearly designed merely as way of generating obstacles to Riker and Picard’s goals, but he is effective in that capacity.* However, “No Win Scenario” reveals that much of his animus is a product of his having served aboard a ship involved in the Battle of Wolf 359, where the Borg, led by an assimilated Picard, massacred a fleet of starships. This is territory that Star Trek has already thoroughly explored -- to much greater effect, and through a much more compelling character -- in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Benjamin Sisko. Indeed, a significant part of the DS9 pilot involves the resentment Sisko still holds for Picard, given Picard’s role in that battle. Revisiting that exact same sort of conflict here is simply a derivative, rushed imitation of well-trodden territory.

*Although I’m a little disappointed that the writers continue to feel it necessary to generate conflict between a retired Admiral Picard and active duty members of Starfleet. Why can’t Picard simply have adventures as an Admiral, perhaps by taking temporary command of a starship? It always felt like a weird contortion to force Picard into off-the-books adventures in this series.

Likewise, evidently the species of shapeshifters known as Changelings are a big component of this season’s serialized plot. The Changelings were the primary antagonists for the later seasons of DS9, which concentrated heavily on a war between the Federation and the Dominion. While I like the idea of a separatist group of Changelings -- dissatisfied with the Dominion's surrender -- causing problems for Starfleet, so far, their main representative, Vadic, is a severely underwritten villain. She’s the one hounding Picard and company in her alien warship, but her motivations are vague. She wants Picard and Crusher’s son, Jack, but no one knows why, and as a result she comes off as more of a plot contrivance than a well-developed character. Doubtless her reasons will be revealed in subsequent episodes, but withholding this knowledge up to this point has made it hard to care about her (or Jack, for that matter).

What’s worse, much of the first four episodes of this season have resembled parts of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (damaged starship hides in a nebula from a villain with a vendetta), and Vadic pales in comparison to Khan, whose motivation was always crystal clear. Hell, if Picard wants to mimic Khan so much, why not have Moriarty be the villain pursuing Picard? At least then we'd have more of an understanding of Moriarty's beef, based on his appearance back in TNG (much like how Khan itself was based on an episode of the original Star Trek).

An even more frustrating aspect of the Changelings' inclusion in Picard, however, is that all of the characters seem to have forgotten the protocols developed on DS9 for dealing with the possibility of a Changeling infiltrating a ship. One of the main subplots in “No Win Scenario” involves Seven trying to root out the Changeling hiding among the crew, but neither she nor anyone else she seems to possess any knowledge of the many methods Sisko and company devised for doing so (blood tests, low-intensity phaser sweeps over seemingly-dormant rooms, etc.). Like many other plots on this show, it seems like it has been written by someone with only passing familiarity with previous iterations of Star Trek, which makes it frustrating for the fans to which this show is clearly meant to appeal. 

I am also somewhat surprised that this season of Picard bothered to bring back Dr. Crusher, only to relegate her character to the background once again, as she so often was on TNG. First, she’s wounded and must spend the better part of two episodes in suspended animation (more or less “fridging” her, a trope where a female character is killed in order to motivate a male character to action). She gets a little more to do in the third episode, after she’s revived and she and Picard hash out their differences, but then she spends most of “No Win Scenario” figuring out the characteristics of the nebula in which they’re stranded, which amounts to little more than her standing in a room and reciting a countdown, and then proposing some technobabble for how the ship can be saved. Perhaps she’ll have more to do in subsequent episodes, but right now, rather than a character that has an interesting arc in her own right, Crusher seems like she was included in this season merely as a device to give Picard an adult son, a character whom the series seems far more interested in than in his mother.

Overall, there are still some things I like about Picard. It’s nice to simply spend time with these characters again, even if the writing has made them seem like degraded copies of familiar characters rather than the genuine article. Patrick Stewart is still great; some of the references, callouts, and Easter Eggs are actually fun; the show looks fantastic, with lots of spiffy set and ship designs (I’d happily have a drink in the new Ten Forward, even if it fails to generate the emotional resonance the series suggests), and it even manages to create some genuinely compelling character moments that call upon this series’ long history (particularly in season one). All of these things are enough to keep me watching, but they’re not enough to overcome my disappointment with the problems the writing can't seem to avoid.

Other thoughts:

- Why hasn't Shaw returned to active duty after having received medical treatment? It seems like another lazy writing tic. We want to see Picard and Riker in charge, so we'll just coast on the events of the previous episode, even though Shaw seems like the kind of character who would claw his way back into the captain's chair even on the brink of death. It's yet another inconsistency that makes it hard for me to actually care about his character.  

- I suppose Raffi was the best of all of the other attempts Picard made to introduce new and compelling characters in seasons one and two, but even for her, I sometimes found it hard to care about her plots, largely because they often had nothing to do with the rest of what was happening on the series. This describes, for instance, her estrangement from her family, and her struggle with drug addiction, neither of which ever felt vital.

- A part of me hopes that Picard can do something to redeem Worf, who I thought was greatly maligned by the writing for his character towards the end of DS9. On DS9, Worf seemed to devolve into little more than his worst characteristics: surly, close-minded, and paternalistic, he seldom grew as a character, and seemed to possess none of the wisdom he would occasionally show on TNG. Perhaps Picard can rectify that, although given my frustrations with the writing for the show's other characters, I suppose my hope can't really rise above the level of cautious optimism. 

- I did enjoy two things about this particular episode. The first was Picard's explanation for why the holodeck was still functioning even when the rest of the ship was in crisis: it has a small independent power supply in case of emergencies. I had always thought about how much of a bummer it would be for someone to be using the holodeck at the exact moment when the ship comes across an unexpected anomaly that disrupts the ship's other systems. Now we know that it isn't really an issue. Begone, head-cannon explanations for the holodeck! 

- The second thing I enjoyed was the new-look Changelings. Gone is the simplistic, golden morphing  effect from DS9. In its place is something much creepier: a blubbering, shifting mass of organic-looking material, like some kind of combination between a living tumor and a blood clot. It makes the Changelings into something much more sinister-looking, which I suppose Picard is freer to do than DS9, given that unlike DS9, none of Picard's main characters are Changelings themselves (R.I.P. René Auberjonois).   

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