Warning: This Star Trek: Picard season 2, episode 3 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
There’s no humpback whales or maiden warp speed flights to save, but the influence of The Voyage Home and First Contact is unmistakable in the latest episode of Star Trek: Picard. Of course, if you’re going to take inspiration from any of the Trek movies, the much-loved fourth and eighth entries in the series are a good place to start – and there’s something refreshingly familiar about a Starfleet crew playing fish-out-of-water in present-day California. Besides, even the oddities of our world must feel like a breeze after last week’s misadventures in the totalitarian Confederation.
The problem with revisiting old ground, however, is that ‘Assimilation’ – a clever title that works on more and more levels as the episode progresses – too often falls back on old Trek clichés. The first well-worn trope appears as early as the opening scene, when last week’s cliffhanger is resolved ridiculously quickly. Indeed, after Seven’s Eradication Day cheerleader/husband the Magistrate – played, coincidentally, by Jon Jon Briones, father of Dahj/Soji actor Isa – is dispatched with remarkable ease, you can’t help feeling his brief jaunt to La Sirena was more about giving us a reason to tune in for this episode as advancing the story arc.
That said, the Magistrate’s actions have major consequences, with a phaser blast to Elnor’s chest putting serious pressure on the production team’s supplies of green Romulan blood. Raffi’s doing her best to stop him bleeding out, but with ruthless Confederation forces pursuing La Sirena with extreme prejudice, the rest of the crew have more pressing matters to deal with.
Salvation comes in the unlikely form of the Borg Queen who – after the stasis field holding her captive proves it’s not fit for purpose – is now very much at large. Using her techno-tentacles – techtacles? – she takes mere seconds to commandeer the ship, obliterating enemies and rolling out pithy catchphrases like “the past is now”, before initiating the complex slingshot maneuver that will transport the crew back to the 21st century. It’s a spectacular sequence, though fans of Star Trek 4 may be disappointed that Picard and co don’t get the surreal clay head treatment experienced by Kirk and the crew in The Voyage Home.
The high-speed trip around the Sun is successful, but the “targeted crash” of a severely damaged La Sirena has left a pair of the passengers in critical condition. Rather than disconnecting the comatose Borg Queen to divert the ship’s power to saving Elnor in Sickbay, Picard argues that keeping the Queen alive is paramount – after all, she’s the only link they have with the “fissure in time” they’ve traveled back to repair.
When Elnor ultimately passes away – a genuine shock in a franchise that rarely kills off lead characters – it’s impossible to know if the admiral has made the right choice. While there’s a chance the idealistic Romulan will be brought back to life, if and when the original timeline is restored, the unknown “causality loop’ mechanics of the situation mean there are no guarantees.
Raffi makes no effort to hide her feelings about her commanding officer’s choice describing an “intense, sharp disappointment in leadership, before blaming Picard’s decades-long sparring match with Q for Elnor’s death. She poses an intriguing question: how much is Jean-Luc addicted to his tussle with the omnipotent entity? Is his perpetual state of annoyance at the trickster’s actions really just a front for an epic confrontation he can’t get enough of? In an episode that limits Q’s involvement to some dangerous whispers in Jean-Luc’s ear, it’s a shame we don’t learn more about the rules of the game.
But with the fate of the future at stake there’s little room for debate or grieving, and a field trip into the 21st century gives Raffi the perfect excuse to get away from JL. Along with Seven and Rios, she makes sure her clothes are era-appropriate – “fascist bastard” chic is definitely out – and beams into 2024 LA. They’re looking for evidence of future tech that might signify the presence of the elusive “Watcher”, while making every effort to avoid the Ray Bradbury-style “butterflies” that might have a catastrophic effect on the timeline.
Having played Marty’s mum in the Back to the Future trilogy, ‘Assimilations director Lea Thompson has time travel in her blood. And while this isn’t quite as accomplished as Marty and Doc Brown’s adventures through time – what is? – there’s an undeniable sense of fun as La Sirena’s crew find themselves in a truly alien world. Though there’s nothing quite as memorable as Spock using a neck pinch to mute an antisocial punk on a bus in Star Trek 4, Seven does get to tell a kid she’s a superhero when she arrives by transporter. Meanwhile, a billboard advertises The Europa Project, seemingly a TV show whose “To Boldly Go” catchphrase is remarkably familiar…
If Raffi and Seven seemingly get the fun end of the assignment – lying about their engagement to blag their way to the top of the tallest building in LA – Rios’s bad landing leaves him face down on a sidewalk and running the gauntlet of 21st-century medicine. (Echoes of Chekov in The Voyage Home.)
Although his scenes with an altruistic doctor are among the strongest in the episode – sowing the seeds of romance in a season where love will presumably be in the air for Jean-Luc as well – they also jar with the more comedic elements of the 21st-century culture clash. From Rios’s arrest by Homeland Security officials to Raffi’s historical assessment of the era – “I’ve never been able to understand how a society could exist with so many contradictions and not collapse sooner than it did” – the episode displays an admirable level of social conscience. But these moments plunge the episode into a hinterland between comedy and quasi-realism that the script isn’t quite smart enough to integrate.
It does, however, get the Borg Queen totally, chillingly right. Having been used sparingly and intelligently in The Next Generation, the Collective popped up so often in Voyager that they lost a lot of their mystique. Annie Wersching’s portrayal of the Big Bad, however, adds intriguing new dimensions (first, second, third, and fourth) to a character originated so memorably by Alice Krige in First Contact.
Her evolution across the episode s remarkable, channeling classic horror as her torso eerily hauls itself across La Sirena, before spending most of the running time in a Borg recovery mode, as if she’s a PC. And yet even when she’s silent, she remains a threat, like a coiled cybernetically-enhanced cobra waiting to pounce.
Dr. Jurati volunteers to face the monster head-on, hooking herself up to the Queen in an effort to reactivate key systems, before the Queen can assimilate her. The sequence is deceptively simple, its three-actor set-up giving it the feel of a stage play with a colossal production design budget. But despite the lack of simulated memory palaces or other VFX fireworks, the scene is remarkably gripping and tense, as Jurati goes through all the emotions trying to stay one step ahead of the invader in her subconscious.
Stealing information about the Watcher the Queen was using as a bargaining chip gives Jurati an unexpected upper hand, but she may have opened up a can of worms she isn’t prepared for. “What you have done is more difficult and vastly more dangerous than you realise,” the Queen says ominously. “You’ve impressed me.”
If we’ve learned anything about the Borg, it’s that brushes with assimilation tend to leave a mark – don’t be surprised if Jurati isn’t quite herself next week…
New episodes of Star Trek: Picard season 2 beam onto Paramount Plus (US) and Crave (Canada) on Thursdays. Viewers elsewhere can watch the show on Amazon Prime Video on Fridays. For more Trek action, check out our reviews of Star Trek: Discovery season 4.
3.5 out of 5
Star Trek: Picard season 2 episode 3 review: “An antagonist to savor”
The latest incarnation of the Borg Queen is an antagonist to savor, but some jarring tonal shifts ensure that Picard’s second trip back to the 21st century isn’t quite as memorable as First Contact.