My wife Anne has been a Star Trek fan since at least high school, which is how long I’ve known her. I’ve tagged alongside her for the past few decades and watched a few hundred episodes myself. I’ve never 100% caught up to her but have seen Deep Space Nine in its entirety and can confirm it reigns above all. We attended multiple local Trek conventions and bought the occasional toys, comics, and other merchandise, but up until six months ago we had no investment in the new Trek works on Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access) because we weren’t in the mood to collect ALL the streaming services. And to us, CBS All Access at launch sounded like a non-starter. We regretted the Trek universe leaving us behind, but our longtime favorite geek universes have broken our hearts before. We planned to cope and move on.
Then life found a way. Last year Anne’s little sister, a fellow Trekker who lives out of state, enthusiastically loaned us her copy of Picard season 1 on Blu-ray. We were stunned by its faithfulness to The Next Generation, its creators’ sharp eyes for curating forgotten characters and plot points from way back when (I practically cheered at the return of Hugh Borg), its tastefully subdued approach to nostalgic fan service, and its overall aesthetic quality control up until that last preposterous bit during the final fifteen minutes of the season finale, which wasn’t quite deus ex machina but is the sort of solution to a problem that radically changes the status quo and will probably never be mentioned again. Also, the surprise development that the universe Gene Roddenberry built (albeit arguably nearly ruined later in life) now has F-bombs all over it was really, really jarring
Otherwise Picard was one of the best SF shows we’d watched in a long time. To be frank, we don’t brake for as many SF shows as you’d expect, so that superlative assessment isn’t as deeply informed as it might sound. By and large, the show was a cracklin’ good time. We appreciated my sister-in-law doing us that favor.
Then last November, our cell phone provider offered a deal I couldn’t refuse: one free year(!) of Paramount+, after which they’ll start hitting us up for $4.99/month. We can keep up with all the Trek we’d like for the low price of one monthly comic book and three ounces of coffee. That’s a far better deal than either Amazon Prime or HBO Max, both of which we’ve refused. For now, we’re in.
As of this writing Picard season 2 has aired five of its ten episodes. We were already on board before we knew a thing about it. Then they announced John de Lancie would be returning as Q, the omnipotent trickster who was a thorn in poor Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s side for eight episodes, a mischievous troll to Captain Kathryn Janeway for three key Voyager episodes, and a onetime intruder on Deep Space Nine who noticed the lack of a welcome mat when Commander Benjamin Sisko punched him in the face. He is, I would venture to say, one of Anne’s Top 3 Favorite Fictional Characters of All Time. When she and I used to work at the same McDonald’s (1989-1995), she would frequently quote entire scenes’ worth of dialogue from his episodes. And as you’d expect, she’s met de Lancie at conventions. Suffice it to say Picard season 2 has our full attention and then some.
This isn’t a full review per se, I have no plans to recap the entire season at extreme length despite the temptation, I’m not listing the entire cast, and I refuse to rank the episodes as I did with The Crown, another must-watch series in our pop-culture portfolio. The first five episodes have made quite the puzzle box and we have theories about the abounding mysteries that I need to write down before they’re proven, disproved, or stolen and turned into fanfic. Or worse, before we learn our notions have already been turned into fanfic.
At this point we end the rather ho-hum “Picard is cool for old-school Trek fans, really worth a look” pretext and move on to major spoilers ahead that I mean to talk through — some for the episodes aired to date and some for our guesses in case any of them are even in the same area code as what’s about to happen over the remaining five weeks. We don’t have nearly enough info yet to hazard guesses for every question, but a few have come to mind. Keep reading if you’d like, but if you have zero interest in the show, here’s your airlock.
…so, previously on Picard: after a successful first season, Our Heroes are forgiven for all the times they’ve quit or enraged Starfleet, and even a few crimes have been pardoned or acquitted, even that time Dr. Agnes Jurati (my favorite cast member, Alison Pill from Devs and Scott Pilgrim) straight-up murdered her own boyfriend, found Not Guilty by Reason of Space Insanity. Everyone’s found meaningful jobs millions of miles away from each other. Picard fields a pass from his happy helper Laris, but rebuffs her because he’s too old for this stuff, or he’s already married to adventure, or we’re in for an episode where he comes out as asexual and it’s another victory for diversity. Laris’ reaction to getting friendzoned is somewhere in the narrow gray zone between inscrutable and Deeply British Suppression of a Killing Frenzy. Picard’s other diversions include giving a speech about the awesomeness of being the last of the Picard family line, and swinging by Guinan’s place to say hi to Whoopi Goldberg.
Then there’s a Borg Invasion led by a new Borg Queen sporting spiffier CG FX than ever, curiously wearing a full face mask, and demanding to speak only to Picard. Our Heroes are all reunited aboard the USS Star Gazer, Captain Rios’ new command, coincidentally named after the first ship Picard ever served on. The Queen jacks in and begins taking over the entire fleet. Picard decides they should all self-destruct and perish rather than let that happen. The Borg Queen quotes something Picard’s mom once said to him (“Look up!”), the countdown reaches zero and…poof goes reality.
When everyone awakens, the timeline’s gone all Captain in the High Castle. Starfleet is evil and mean; Seven of Nine is President but was never a Borg so she’s just President Annika; and a maskless, captive Borg Queen (Annie Wersching from Timeless and Marvel’s Runaways) is scheduled for public execution because America loves those now, and so it goes likewise in this darker timeline, which we learn pivoted from the One True Continuity in April 2024. Our Heroes have to reunite again, but this time they gather a bit more quickly and commence easy-peasy time travel as the original series did it in episodes such as “Assignment: Earth” with that whole Sun-slingshot mechanism because chronatons are basically a quantum compound comprising helium, hydrogen, and magic.
Everyone splits up yet again, but this time partly of their own accord. Picard seeks out Young Guinan (Ito Aghayere from the Patricia Heaton vehicle Carol’s Second Act), who points him toward a Supervisor, also called a Watcher, not unlike Marvel’s Uatu or Giles from Buffy. More accurately, it’s the same job Gary Seven held in the aforementioned “Assignment: Earth”. In the middle of a park Picard meets a Watcher named Tallin, played by Orla Brady, who in previous lives was a key character in the Doctor Who Christmas special “The Time of the Doctor” and Walter Bishop’s wife in five episodes of Fringe. More importantly, she also plays the jilted Laris. Tallin agrees to help Our Heroes with their mess, which appears to revolve around an ancestor named Renee Picard (Vampire Diaries‘ Penelope Mitchell), an astronaut gearing up for what may be the most important space mission in the correct timeline.
Theory #1: Tallin knows far more than she’s letting on. That’s not much of a theory, but we don’t have much to go on. Tallin and Laris have to be connected somehow unless Brady is playing both as a cost-cutting measure, like when voice actors on animated series are asked to play multiple characters. This show doesn’t look that cheap.
Meanwhile, Raffi and Seven of Nine do the runaround thing for various fetch-quests while working on their whole will-they-or-won’t-they vibe that’s been simmering ever since that furtive hand-holding at the end of the season-1 finale. Theory #2: Duh, they will, as long as Raffi doesn’t have to sacrifice herself so Elnor can live. Let’s hope not.
Speaking of which, also meanwhile, Elnor is dead due to combating and whatnot. Theory #3: Duh, obviously Elnor will live again. His life is among the prizes waiting at the end of the game board.
Differently meanwhile, Captain Rios is reduced to a MacGuffin for a while, and spends his subplot playing out the rather believable consequences to the question, “What if a Latino time traveler showed up in present-day California without any paperwork?” His jaunt passes by several references to the Deep Space Nine two-parter “Past Tense”, which also involved time travel to 2024 and involved a historically significant riot
Concurrently meanwhile, Dr. Jurati has been babysitting the upper half of the Borg Queen. At one point she hacked into her brain for critical plot-point info. At first she thought she gave the Queen what-for, but now the Queen is inside her head. Blowing away the Queen with a shotgun made nary a difference; they’re sharing head-space now, definitely more truly and possibly more deeply than Gaius Baltar and Number Six. So another one of Jurati’s screw-ups may once again cost Our Heroes some karma points and cause collateral damage later on.
How much damage are we talking? Theory #4: The masked Borg Queen from the season premiere was a time-traveling Jurati, either mentally subsumed by the Queen or fully co-opting her Borg tech and talents. Why mask her from us unless she’s hiding a familiar face? (“To look cool” is a possible answer, but the show tends toward slightly more cerebral motives.) But was she/they trying to destroy them all, or was she hacking the entire fleet to save the timeline? I’d expect a scene of Picard telling Jurati about his mom so she’ll have that little “Look up!” tell to give him later/before.
And then there’s Q. Far be it from me to omit the single largest ego in the game.
The amazing colossal John de Lancie returns for five seconds of deepfaking in his ’90s face just as a showrunners’ flex to announce, “Sure, we could copycat The Irishman or The Book of Boba Fett, but nah.” Q condescending to age himself forward for Picard’s sake seems contrary to his vanity, but it’s totally worth burying the boring practical issue. More distressingly, Q is much angrier and less snide than we’re used to. It could be an odd choice for an older actor to play him gruffer. Or the writers have this odd notion that Q needed to be grimmer and grittier. Or it could be Q himself has been affected by the timeline alteration. If Trek history as we know it was radically altered, it means the catastrophe has tossed out all of the character development he underwent from “Encounter at Farpoint” to his previous farewell to the character, the Voyager episode “Q2”. And make no mistake, if you watched his every episode, he was not the same omnipotent being at the end of that trail. (Whether or not you liked Voyager’s handling of him is moot for our ultimate point here, which I’ll get to. Honest! But, y’know, eventually.)
Q confirms to Picard he saved the Stargazer crew at the last minute. Picard assumes the darker timeline is Q’s doing. He sneers in return, “Show them a world of their own making and they ask you what you’ve done. How human.” Q’s expectation is of course that Picard will attempt to fix everything. Picard’s expectation is Q is still a big fat jerk who’ll ruin everything just because he can.
Next time we see Q for more than ten seconds, he’s sitting at a cafe the next table over from Renee Picard. He mutters to himself, “You can’t do it. And you know it. Oh, sure, you played the game for awhile when nothing was at stake and the only challenge was fooling everyone into thinking you had the nerve. But now it’s real and the fear is choking you. Well, here’s the truth: you can’t do it. People are gonna die and now your fear, your doubt, is the loudest voice in your head.” Then he snaps his fingers — his trademark signal for meddling with the fabric of reality — and nothing happens, to his surprise. Was he fake-muttering to Renee for his own amusement, entertaining an imaginary friend, or talking to himself and his own fear? That would be a new frontier for him.
(For matters of time and relevance I’m resisting the urge to cover the Easter eggs in that scene. I recognized one; Anne, another.)
Episode 5, “Fly Me to the Moon”, lays down the remaining cards we needed that spurred this entire geek bloviation. With three days to go until Renee Picard’s space mission that will irrevocably alter the timeline for the worst, Q begins to take a more active puppet-master role. he couldn’t use his powers to do…uh, whatever he intended to Renee, so instead he somehow insinuates into the role of her therapist. Her descendant Jean-Luc sees the footage and assumes Q is trying to derail her and ruin everything. At this point we haven’t nearly enough clues to Renee’s destiny except that in the original timeline her deeds beget first contact and thereby all of Trek. That’s no small weight on her shoulders, whether she’s made aware of it or not.
The more important interactions come on a new front, the home laboratory of Brent Spiner’s latest addition to the Soong bloodline. The scientist Adam Soong seeks a cure for the rare illness afflicted upon his daughter Kore, played by Isa Briones, centuries before another Soong would use her as the template for the twin androids Dahj and Soji in season 1. Soong’s cure attempts have all failed. Q couldn’t use his powers to mess with Renee, but he can concoct a cure for Kore, with enough precision that it’s only temporary, a tantalizing taste of the real deal. But first, he needs something from Dr. Soong, who of course wonders why he should negotiate terms with a complete stranger.
Sayeth Q, “Because you’re a father. And you’re desperate.”
A few more words are exchanged, a bit more bemoaning of fates. Q further pontificates, “We’re all hostages to what we love. The only way to truly be free is to love nothing. How meaningless that would be.”
As I said, this definitely isn’t Q from “Encounter at Farpoint”. You might see where this could be going if you’ve read similar stories in this vein. Personally I’m reminded of one of my all-time favorite comic book stories, an Astro City short called “The Nearness of You”, originally released as the Wizard Magazine extra Kurt Busiek’s Astro City #½.
Why is Q strangely gruff in the first two episodes? And why is he talking about love as if it’s something he has any use for? In interviews de Lancie has stated he liked the ideas proposed to him and the fact that they would move things forward for Q so he wasn’t just reprising the same-old. But how’s that work here from a story standpoint?
Consider: if Federation and Starfleet history didn’t go down the same way, if Earth instead honed its explorers into an army of xenophobic space conquerors subjugating strange new worlds, seeking out new lifeforms and new ways to slaughter them, boldly going where no survivors are left in their wake…that means no Picard and Q meeting at Farpoint, no cat-and-mouse between them, and the insufferable Q not learning life lessons from Picard and realizing omniscience means little without a conscience. It also means never getting punched by Sisko, which is a shame.
No Next Generation means no reason for Voyager to get stuck in the Delta Quadrant and no reason for Q to go bother Captain Kathryn Janeway. No Q aboard Voyager means their crew didn’t tag along to help resolve the civil war in the Q Continuum in the episode “The Q and the Grey”. One side effect of that fracas was Q hooking up with another Q (Suzie Plakson). No god-level whoopie for Q means no son, whom we met as an aggravating teen brat in the aforementioned “Q2”, played by de Lancie’s own son Keegan.
Theory #5: Q didn’t change the timeline. For whatever reason he can’t change it back with a simple finger-snap. Whatever it takes is apparently far more complicated than merely changing the gravitational constant of the universe. And he means to fix it one way or the other — mostly through manipulating others — because as a result of the timeline change, his son Q has ceased to exist. And one does not simply erase an omnipotent being and get away with it.
This really is a Q we’ve never seen before because in all of Trek history he’s never had anything to lose. Sure, his powers were revoked the one time, but that was a temporary setback easily rectified. In all his omnipotence he’s never had anything that any mere mortal could take away from him.
And now, someone has taken from him the only other being in reality that he loved. His son. Hence his sympathy for beleaguered father Dr. Soong.
It’s a good bet we’re about to see at least two new facets of Q he’s previously never felt: fatherly grief and godly rage.
I know at least one de Lancie superfan who’s thoroughly excited to see where this goes next.