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Star Trek Picard “Stardust City Rag” - Detailed Analysis and Review

February 22, 2020

Things get serious in the 5th episode of Star Trek Picard. There's a lot to talk about, I dig deep. What a fascinating mixture of brutality, darkness, and light-hearted adventure. We get to spend some time with Seven of Nine, and finally catch up with Bruce Maddox. But there's a lot lurking in background here. This episode has it all. Laughs, triumph, drama, and heart-break.

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Welcome to Nerd Heaven.

I’m Adam David Collings, the author of Jewel of The Stars.

And I am a nerd.

 

This is episode 15 of the podcast.

Today, we’re discussing the fifth episode of Star Trek Picard, Stardust City Rag.

 

The description on Memory Alpha reads

The La Sirena crew begins an unpredictable and lively expedition on Freecloud to search for Bruce Maddox. When they learn that Maddox has found himself in a precarious situation, a familiar face offers her assistance.

 

This episode was written by Kirsten Beyer, 

directed by Jonathan Frakes

And it first aired on the 20th of February 2020.

 

Make it so.

 

In America, CBS All Access have been showing little “Next week on Star Trek Picard” clips. We don’t see those in Australia on Amazon Prime, but a few screen captures usually make their way to the internet.

I’d seen images of Picard wearing an eye patch and Rios in a silly hat. I was prepared for this to be a very silly cheese-fest. I was prepared to not like it.

Well, imagine my surprise when we were served up what is probably the darkest episode of the show so far.

Notice also that we didn’t once cut to Soji and Narak on the cube. Last week, they spent some time over there, but that plot wasn’t really advancing.

This time, I think they made the good decision to just focus on Picard and crew. IF nothing is happening with the other plot right now, then let’s just not cut over there. And there was plenty happening with Picard and his new crew.

 

The episode begins, as always, with a flashback. A former borg drone is having his implants rather violently removed from his body. And surprise surprise, it’s Icheb!

I picked it up from the shape of his nose. I said to my wife, “I think that’s Icheb.” Then, when we saw the shape of the implants that had been removed from around his eye, it was confirmed.

I had such mixed emotions during this scene.

I was so excited to see Icheb back. Great to see that he fulfilled his dream of becoming a Starfleet officer. I’ll bet he was a fantastic one.

But then the very real sorrow when he died. That was so sad. I always liked Icheb, so it was heart-breaking to see his story end this way. But what a powerful scene. It had so much more emotional resonance because it was a character we knew and loved.

Icheb was like a son to Seven. She calls him “my child” as he dies.

We just know that she’s going to get some payback for this heinous crime.

And it sure was heinous. They did all this to him without anaesthetic, and then left him to die slowly. Seven is left with little choice but to put him out of his misery with a phaser. For them to be that monstrous is almost cartoonishly evil.

 

It was a pretty bold move to kill off a beloved character in such a brutal way. And while, he was never in the opening credits, Icheb probably got more character development in the year and a half he was on Voyager than Harry Kim and Chakotay together.

 

It wasn’t the original actor playing him. That’s a shame, but it worked for me anyway. We’ve already seen another actor play Icheb at around this age in the Voyager episode Shattered.

We can be sad that Icheb came back for a few seconds only to die like this, but I think it makes me appreciate his journey up to this point all the more.

Iheb was assimilated as a child, because of uncaring parents who wanted to use him as a weapon. He was doomed to spend his entire life as a drone. But then Voyager rescued him.

And because of that, he got to have a life. He got to grow up. He got to pursue a career in Starfleet. He got to make a difference. And most of all, he got to know what it’s like to be loved. He had a family. He had a mother-figure in Seven. His life may have been short and it may have ended badly, but he had a full life, one he never would have had if Voyager hadn’t rescued him from that cube.

 

Also, did you notice the line where the doctor asks “Where’s your cortical node, Buddy? Gotta be in there somewhere.” That was a very nice touch, and is of course, a reference to the Voyager episode imperfection.

 

I’m talking about this first scene a lot because it had a big impact on me. And honestly, I’m still sorting out all the emotions it has made me feel. But that means the writers did their job well. This made me feel deeply, and that’s what a writer is supposed to do. That’s their job.

 

But before we leave this scene, we need to acknowledge that this has got to be the most violent scene we have ever seen on any Star Trek. It was graphic. It was horrific. If the swear words weren’t enough of a hint, we have no doubt now that this is firmly an adult show.

 

Then we jump to almost present day.

We meet up with Bruce Maddox. Finally. Again, it’s not the original actor, which is a tremendous shame. But I’m sure they tried. He’s played here by John Ales. It’s been a long time so I guess I can accept that a much older Bruce could look like this.

He’s been in hiding and his meeting with a woman called Bjayzl. If you had a keen ear you’d have noticed the evil doctor in the previous called out the name Bjayzl when she heard Seven entering the room.

And they’re drinking Tranya. Nice TOS reference.

So Bjazyl is the loan shark Maddox went to, but he can’t repay her since the Tal Shiar destroyed his lab, and almost killed him.

So, I guess that’s why he disappeared after the Mars attack.

So Picard better get to Freecloud quickly, because Bzayzl is gonna sell Maddox to the Tal Shiar.

 

So Deven is awake and comes to see Picard in his holographic ready room. It seems she’s moved on from the purely practical nutrient supplements. She drinks bourbon now. And it does kind of suit her harder, more world-weary personality.

 

Seven is a member of the Fenris Rangers. Self-appointed police officers, trying to keep the peace in the power vacuum left behind by the Romulan Star Empire. That’s why she came to Picard’s aid at the end of last episode.

Picard sees them as vigilantes and is a little uncomfortable about their role and self-appointed judge, jury and executioner. But as Seven points out, they are the only law that region of space knows.

Seven’s motivation is to help people, the little people, one at a time, as best as she can.

She represents what Picard could have been if he hadn’t given up. Something she points out rather bluntly.

So when she hears Picard is on a mission to help someone who has nobody else to help them, she’s interested.

 

We get confirmation, through a holo-recording, that Agnes and Maddox were together, romantically. I wasn’t surprised by this, because I’m reading the Picard novel, which seems to be setting things up in this direction.

 

Funny how we see her tear as she watches, and think she’s just missing him. Not realising there’s a lot more beneath the surface.

 

The holographic pop-up ads as they near freecloud were …. Interesting.

Very much targeted advertising. Rios gets the offer of ship repairs from a Red Bolian. I wonder, does this suggest that there are red Bolians? Humans have different skin tones, so it’s possible.

Picard gets an offer of high tea in a classy restaurant.

 

Agnes gets a job offer from an entertainment robotics company and has to behead the thing to make it go away.

 

And Raffi gets an offer of snake leaf, the drug she was smoking back in episode 2.

 

And Elnor, poor Elnor doesn’t get any, because he’s lived in isolation with the nuns, so he has no presence on the space internet. He seems almost disappointed. I’ll admit, that got a laugh out of me.

Anyway, this whole targeted ad thing was very topical for the present day. But it doesn't feel completely out of place in the 24th century. It reminded me of the jingle Quard had programmed into Deep Space Nine’s computer.

 

Seven’s ears prick up at the mention of Bjayzl.

When Picard says “Options” to his new crew, well, it felt like the old Picard we knew. He’d often say that to his Enterprise crew.

 

So they’re gonna pose a go-betweens to put Bjayzl in touch with the Tal Shiar. And they have to perfect bait. Seven.

She’s more than willing to help them, of course, but not for the reasons they think.

The exterior context shots in this show all look great. I’ll bet there’s a few easter eggs hidden amongst the los vegas lights of freecloud.

 

And I just spotted one. It seems Mr. Mott has gone into business here. He was the hair-dresser on the Enterprise. He now has a shop here called Hair Enterprise. And right next door is a bar called Quark!

Is this actually our favourite Ferengi? He’d likely have more lucrative business on Freecloud than he ever had on Deep Space Nine. Or is it just a place called “The Quark Bar” named after the elementary particle?

 

This show loves to do this thing where it intercuts two scenes jumping backward and forward through time every sentence, or just cutting to a different location entirely. Most of the time, it has been jarring and annoying.

This time, it works. Because it makes this whole thing feel like a heist movie. It’s been a negative every other time they’ve used it, but this time, for me, it’s a positive.

 

So now we get to see the costumes.And, they do look silly. There’s no denying that. And yet, when you see them down on the planet, they fit in a lot better than I’d have thought. It actually works for me, a lot better than I thought it was going to. And Raffi gives a good practical reason why they’re dressing this way.

Rios especially sells it.

Did you notice the guy in the bar with holographic angel wings? That was …. Different.

Why are there so many translucent holograms about? It’s well established that in the 24th century, they have opaque holograms that you can feel and touch. Anyway, At least the EMH is opaque.

 

Rios’s contact is Mr. Vup. A Beta Annari. They’re a reptilian species that can smell a lie. IS there any scientific basis to such a concept? I’m gonna guess…  probably not. Maybe some species give off different endorphins when they lie vs when they tell the truth. I dunno. I’ll go with it.

 

And we get an actual name drop of Quark. Which was very welcome. I still want more. There’s plenty of TNG and Voyager, but I need me some Deep Space Nine.

Anyway, the fake references they created for Rios include him assisting Quark with some trouble relating to the Breen. Interesting.

 

So, Rios is gonna offer Bzayzl an alternate buyer for Maddox. The payment being Seven of Nine. A dangerous game. Bzayzl is not gonna want to go back on a deal with the Tal Shiar. Honestly, Seven is probably the only bait that would ever entice her to consider it.

 

It’s a good thing Rafi’s medications can fool his senses.

 

Which only goes to strengthen Rios’s position more than if Mr. Jup hadn’t been able to smell truthfulness and deceit.

 

I love how through all of this, Elnor is trying to get his head around their deceit. Remember, he’s grown up with the doctrine of absolute candor. The never concept of a lie is a concept more alien than anything he’s encountered.

When it finally clicks for him and he says “It’s a lie.You’re all behaving as someone other than who you are.” I had a good laugh. But then he realises “everybody except me.”

Elnor’s inability to be dishonest may be a danger on this mission.

I laughed again when he said “I don’t know how to not be Elnor.” So Picard and Seven give him good advice. “Then be Elnor. An Elnor that doesn’t talk.”

 

And can I point out that Patrick Stewart’s idea of a French accept is so stereotypical it probably borders on insulting. He sounded like Inspector Cleaseu from The Pink Panther. Again, it got a little laugh from me, but I’m not sure it’s truthful for Picard, who is supposed to actually be French.

 

Why is Agnes so afraid of operating a transporter console? She’s a blooming robotics engineer. And not knowing how to operate a transporter is probably the equivalent of not knowing how to drive a car. Sure, not everybody can drive, but it’s a fairly normal everyday activity.

I’m just not buying that somebody as technologically minded as her would be so anxious about having to beam somebody aboard.

 

You’ll notice they’re putting a reasonable amount of humour in here. Now, I am not one of those people who say “you’ve gotta put levity in everywhere, or that everything has to be made light.”

I like a serious story. But I’ll admit, the humour they add to this episode is useful. It does help to balance out the really heavy darkness and brutality we also see. I’m not saying that darkness always has to be balanced out in a story. Often, I find it’s impact is lost when you try to do that. But here it worked for me. And I think one of the big reasons is that the humour comes naturally out of the characters. You’ll hear me say that a lot. Humour needs to come believably and naturally out of the characters. That’s where I think the Marvel movies often fall flat (and I love the marvel movies, don’t get me wrong) but they have characters cracking jokes in the middle of tense situations that is totally unbelievable for me.  I

n my opinion, this episode did it well.

 

And now we get to see what Rafi’s business on Freecloud wa sall about. She’s beaming down to see somebody called Gabriel Hwang

So I’ve mentioned before that Picard is setting up a lot of mysteries. And I’m not the only one who’s been wondering if the payout of those mysteries would be satisfying. Why do they have to keep Rafi’s business on Freecloud secret? Now we get the payoff. And to me, it was satisfying. Because it’s a character beat. We learn something about her, and we have a very emotional experience with her. And honestly, this is something she probably wants to keep private because it’s so personal.

 

But first we have a touching goodbye between Rafi and Picard. It seems they’ve kind of repaired their relationship. Which is nice.

And this point, I’m invested as much in their relationship as I am with Picard’s relationships with Riker, Data, and all the TNG characters.

 

So Gabriel is Raffi’s estranged son. Agin, he’s been mentioned in the book.

When Rafi took the job as Picard’s first officer on the Verity, she had to leave her husband and son back on earth for an extended period of time. But we get the impression that even when she was back home, she was a mess. Her drug addiction may have been a bigger problem than we realised, and she became obsessed with her conspiracy theories about the Federation and Romulans working together to allow the synth attack on mars, making her an absent mother even when she wasn’t away.

I’m still keen to find out if Rafi is correct with her theories.

Gabrial wants to know if she’s really changed, or if she’s still obsessed with what he considers a crackpot theory. So he tests her by bringing it up and calling it nonsense. And of course, she immediately defends it.

Kinda proving that she hasn’t changed as much as she wants to make him believe.

This is all powerful character stuff. Gabrial is carrying a lot of resentment. He’s not going to let go of it easily.

We learn that Raffi’s name is actually Rafaella.

Gabe is married to a Romulan named Pel and they’re expecting a daughter.

I really hope that over the course of the show, Raffi and Gabe can work out their differences, for the sake of the baby if nobody else.

She deserves to have a relationship with her grandmother. And how heart-breaking would it be to have messed up with your child, and then not even have a chance with your grandchild.

Of course, Gave is worried that Rafi will let down his daughter as she let him down.

Anyway, let’s hope they can all get it together.

 

I’ve been hoping we’d hear the Rios EMH says “Please state the nature of the medical emergency.” We almost get there in this episode. It says ‘What is the nature of your psychiatric emergency.”

This scene makes so much more sense on second viewing. We think Agnes is just panicking about using the transporter console. But no. She’s frantic about something else she knows she has to do. She’s so worked up it automatically launches the EMH. I guess it is programmed to monitor the crew’s vital signs when it is turned off. Which actually makes perfect sense.

We get confirmation of something I’ve long suspected as head-canon. If you reclaim a borg drone quickly, there is much less technology that needs to be removed. You can more fully restore them. But when they’ve been assimilated for a long time, since childhood, they’re so riddled with it, you can never get it all out. That’s why Picard is so much more Human than Seven and Icheb ever were. It’s why Janeway, Tuvok and B'elanna, who were all assimilated, seemed to come back from that with no lasting consequences. Heck none of them even got their eyes replaced.

 

Picard and Rios realise that Seven and Bjayzl know each other. She even calls Sevan Annika. Her original human name.

 

Picard drops the act and returns to his normal accent when he asks Seven what the hell is going on.

And then Elnor says “Are we still pretending?”

I laughed out loud at that line.

The way Evan Evagora delivers that line, I think it’s a bit of the self-deprecating Aussie humour coming out there. I love it.

 

Picard points out that murder is not justice. He pleads with Seven not to squander her humanity by killing Bjayzl. And he’s right of course. This is classic Jean-Luc Picard. And yet, the way that set this up at the beginning, the way we saw Icheb treated, I find myself rooting for Seven to take revenge, dare I call it justice, against Bjayzl. I agree with Picard, but I find myself still wanting Seven to kill that monster.

This is why it kind of had to be Icheb, It wouldn't have worked any other way.

 

Seven listens more to the practical argument from Rios than she does to the moral argument from Picard, but she beams up with them all, leaving Bjayzl behind.

There’s a nice moment when Seven asks Picard if he ever felt he regained his humanity after being reclaimed from the Borg. He answers yes without hesitation. But when pressed ,he admits, not all of it. But it’s something he and Seven are still working on.

 

As seven beams away, there’s a hint of the Voyager theme. I didn’t pick up on it the first time, but a friend brought my attention to it.

 

So Seven wasn’t as willing to leave Bjayzl as she lead Picard to believe. She beams right back down.

Picard still thinks there’s a place in the galaxy for mercy and Seven didn’t want to disillusion him. And I believe her when she says that. 

So seven gets her revenge and then walks out of there shooting two phaser rifles at once.

 

So Maddox explains to Picard some of what he doesn’t know. We get confirmation of what I’ve long believed, that Dahj and Soji’s mum is an AI built into them.

As maddox tells Picard where to find Soji, we can’t help but wonder what’s going on with Agnes. Why is she off to the side looking so sad. Why isn’t she by Brice’s side?

So Bruce sent Soji and Dahj to the cube and earth respectively, to find the truth behind the synth ban. It seems the Romulans aren’t the only ones after Soji. The Federation is involved somehow. Seems Rafi might be right.

 

Speaking of Rafi, after failing to reconcile with her son, she’s back on board the ship. I guess she’s got nowhere else to go.

 

And then we get the shocking final scene.

So Brue has fulfilled his life’s work. He has replicated Soong’s work.

We still don’t know where he got one of Data’s neurons.

Agnes clearly regrets her role in helping to create the androids. She calls it one more thing she has to atone for.

And then …. She kills him.

Agnes Jurati kills Bruce Maddox.

I didn’t see that coming.

Some people have been talking about Agnes since Episode 3.

Commodore Oh went to meet her, then she signed on to Picard’s mission.

Some felt she wasn’t entirely what she seemed.

It appears they were right.

“I wish you knew what I know,” she says, as he chokes.

“I wish I didn’t know what I know. I wish they hadn’t shown me.”

She kills the man she not only respected, but loved.

What would drive her to do that?

I must know!

Things are getting real now.

And that’s two classic Star Trek characters this episode has killed.

 

Wow.

I don’t know what to think about all of this.

To me, Agnes was always the nice kindly, somewhat awkward character we could all relate to.

But she’s just become something very different. I don’t think any of that was a lie, but whatever Oh showed her, it was serious.

 

I guess we’ll find out more next week on the episode “The Impossible Box.”

 

So, in the tradition of shows like The Walking Dead, I’m not going to play any outro music this time.

Let’s just have a moment of silence for Icheb.

And for Bruce Maddox.

And, well, for Jurati’s innocence.

See you next week.

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