Star Trek: Picard: “Et in Arcadia Ego”

Wo-ow, “Et in Arcadia Ego” part one, the first half of the conclusion to this first season of Star Trek: Picard, was one great hour of television. Past Star Trek series had plenty of visits to idyllic worlds with a dark underbelly, but here we’ve had a season of build-up to visiting the planet of the synthetics, and it doesn’t disappoint.

Google Translate tells me that “Et in Arcadia Ego” means “And in Arcadia I am”, where Arcadia is a poetic term for a utopia, which is certainly appropriate here.

One thing to watch for in this episodes is the spectacular acting by much of the cast; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a virtuoso ensemble performance in any episode of Star Trek, where Patrick Stewart might not be delivering the best or even the second-best performance.

I’d originally planned to review the last two episodes together, but this one had enough stuff in it that I decided to cover it separately.

Onwards to the spoilers!

La Sirena arrives at the synthetic homeworld, Coppelius, and Narek attacks it almost immediately. As the two skirmish, the Borg cube comes through the wormhole behind them. But all three ships are taken down by giant flower-like devices that come up from the planet. The crew hikes to the cube where they find that Seven, Elnor and many former Borg have survived and are trying to reactivate its systems. The crew plus Elnor then head to the small settlement where they meet the synthetics who live there, including Sutra (also played by Isa Briones) – who looks just like Soji save for gold skin and Data’s android eyes – and Altan Inigo Soong (Brent Spiner), the son of Data’s creator Noonien Soong.

Sutra is able to perform a Vulcan mind meld with Dr. Jurati, extracting the details of the Admonition. While the Romulans interpreted it as a warning against the dangers of creating synthetic life, Sutra says it has information about a large, ancient collective of synthetics who are trying to find new synthetics as they arise, to protect them – at the expense of their creators, if necessary.

Narek is captured and imprisoned, while Picard unsuccessfully tries to contact Starfleet. Jurati partners with Soong to help create new androids in order to atone for her murder of Maddox. The synthetics give Raffi and Rios a device which can repair La Sirena, but then Sutra announces that they should contact the synthetic collective to save them. Picard tries to convince them to instead come with them on La Sirena, but the prospect of living on the run in perpetuity unsurprisingly fails to appeal to them, given that Starfleet also has shown its hostility. Picard is confined so as not to interfere further, and Sutra frees Narek and (apparently) stages the murder of another android in order to free him to help persuade her people. We see Narek heading for the Borg cube, as the Romulan fleet is at full warp and about a day away from Coppelius.

Let’s start with the acting: We’ve always known that Brent Spiner is a great actor. I happened to catch part of the NextGen episode “Brothers” this week, and other than the awful make-up job he worked under as Noonien Soong, his over-the-top performance in that role was pretty entertaining. His turn as Altan Soong here is quite different, a kind and apparently moral man who is less driven than his father and it seems more interested in supporting his community. Spiner can chew the scenery with the best of them, but his understated performance here is perhaps even more impressive.

Isa Briones matches Spiner note-for-note, however, creepily imbuing Sutra with the sort of moral certainty in the face of a complicated decision which underpins the typical conflict in stories of this sort, even as she plays Soji as a much less certain figure who clearly feels at the mercy of events rather then a driver of them.

And we mustn’t overlook Michelle Hurd’s great moment in Raffi’s reconciliation with Picard – which was really more of a reconciliation with her own feelings towards Picard. Having been rejected by her son, learned that Picard is dying of his brain condition, and now stranded on a remote planet and feeling increasingly alone after losing the last decade of her life, she’s coming to terms – with great difficulty – that her blame of Picard is misplaced.

Finally, I feel that Alison Pill’s performance as Agnes Jurati has gotten overlooked somewhat, perhaps because her character has seemed consistently out of her depth, so much so that she follows Commodore Oh’s orders and murders Bruce Maddox, an act which finally pushes her beyond her limitations. She’s not a heroic figure, she’s actually a rather pitiful one, but she’s also the everyperson in this story, the one who’s not a hero, who saw her dreams crushed when synthetic were outlawed, and who’s just trying to do her best in a situation that’s far out of her control. This doesn’t absolve her of her acts, but Pill’s performance – especially in this episode – has been excellent, conveying a variety of emotions with her expressions.

The story is barreling along towards its conclusion – it packs a lot in here considering its only action scene is at the very beginning. At times it feels like it loses sight that the series is called Picard, although it also reminds us that despite his failings and lack of power, Picard is still a heroic figure: He didn’t use his condition to persuade people to help him out of pity for his medical condition, he motivated them to do the right thing because he’s trying to do the right thing.

This episode has another neat deconstruction of an old Trek trope: Picard’s impassioned plea to the synthetics falls on deaf ears, even to Soong who rightly points out that Starfleet didn’t listen to him years ago, why would they listen to him now? Words can be an effective, persuasive weapon, but their value tends to be revealed in the long term; in a short-term pressure situation, to an unreceptive audience, their effectiveness can be substantially less. I bet this sort of message plays poorly so long-time fans who have fully bought in to the bright, shiny future that they think Trek has been selling, but for my money Trek has always been at its best in showing people overcoming human failings – and there are plenty of human failings, and they’re not just going to magically go away in the next four hundred years. In this way Babylon 5 lapped Star Trek (as it did in so many ways) in showing that human growth on both a personal and a species level is an ongoing struggle, with successes and failures. Picard himself embodies this in this series.

There are a few bits of the episode that feel flat. The Borg cube showing up and being dispatched so quickly is a bit of a thud. While I could believe the cube is just not operational enough to put up enough of a fight, it’s not clear to me what Seven expected to accomplish by bringing it. Unless there’s some payoff here next episode (and no, Elnor and Picard’s exchange is not enough of a payoff to just use it to get him to Coppelius), this feels like a sequence which could have been eliminated or handled some other way.

Sutra being able to mind-meld seems too convenient, too. If this were possible wouldn’t lots of species have figured this out? It’s a small plot device, and maybe the writers just wrote themselves into a corner where they decided they had to just give themselves an out. But it was still an off note.

So what’s left? Well, basically two chunks of things. First is how to deal with the Romulans and where the synthetics go after this. There are a lot of ways this could go:

  • Sutra could summon the synthetic collective, they could deal with the Romulans, and then take the synthetics away, never to be heard from again. (They could alternately start attacking organic planets, but I think it’s fairly unlikely that will happen.) I think this is a fairly likely outcome.
  • They could repair La Sirena and convince the synthetics to instead go with them and escape the Romulans.
  • Seven could get the Borg cube working and take down the Romulan fleet. It’s not clear whether this would really resolve the synthetics’ existential crisis, though. It would probably be disappointing.
  • Starfleet could show up and face down (or annihilate) the Romulan fleet, with Picard having convinced them to act, and them having identified and arrested Oh. I think this, too, is a somewhat likely outcome, in part because it’s a messy outcome: Where do the synthetics go from here? It could be the beginning of a long battle. But, that’s how events of this import often end up being.

Perhaps more important is the resolution of the remaining character issues.

Soji is in an awkward spot here, and might be the key to deciding whether the synthetic collective gets called or not – or perhaps what they do if they show up. Much like Jurati she often acts like she’s out of her depth, but she has more essential agency in the story, even though she doesn’t seem to believe it herself. In a way she is making the same decision that Jurati did when killing Maddox – do the perceived ends justify the means? What does Soji really value and believe? We don’t know, but she’s going to have to tell us.

Finally, there’s Picard. While there’s a small chance that the synthetics will deus ex machina his brain condition away, I rather suspect it’s going to continue to be a plot point in future seasons. (I believe Patrick Stewart has said he thinks they have material for three seasons.) Beyond that, it feels like Picard has resolved many of the issues he was grappling with in the first episode: He’s reestablished contact with Romulans friends, he’s reunited with Raffi, he’s helped solve the mystery of the synthetic rebellion, he knows about Commodore Oh, and he’s helped Soji. But perhaps his last task is to help Soji once more to do the right thing. He may no longer be an authority figure, but his moral compass has often been his greatest strength, and that may be what he needs here.

This is a lot to ask for the final episode, and I bet there will be a few things dropped on the floor (unless this is a larger set-up for a much broader story in future seasons), but I hope they can pull it off.

And one more question: Will we get another Data scene?

2 thoughts on “Star Trek: Picard: “Et in Arcadia Ego””

  1. The episode(s) title is that of a seventeenth century painting of shepherds around a gravestone. The conventional interpretation is that “ego” is Death. Even in utopia there is death. Ominous for the conclusion?

  2. “Coppelius” is the surname of a character in the ballet “Coppelia,” a man who fashions life-sized, wind-up dancing dolls. The ballet has a happy ending.

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