This review contains spoilers for Star Trek: Picard, episode 9, “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1.”
A borg cube, a space orchid, and a Romulan fleet walk into a bar. That’s where we begin “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1.” Narek is hot on our heroes’ trail, a friendly borg cube is crashing into a planet, and a space orchid is devouring the ship. It sounds like the setup for a joke, and it feels just as ridiculous, but it is the most Star Trek thing this show has given us. As much as I criticize this show for not bothering to take its ideas seriously, there is a part of me that just loves the absurd, pulpy plots that this universe can cook up.
Once everyone reached the planet, I got Star Trek: The Original Series vibes. I could almost see Rios getting in some awkward fisticuffs with a humanoid lizard. There is skill in pulling this kind of campiness off, and “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” does so perfectly. It almost makes the sappy moments with Picard and Elnor bearable, but not quite.
They’ve really messed up Elnor as a character. For someone defined by his deep relationship to Picard, I feel no chemistry between them and nothing to make me feel these supposedly heartwarming moments between them. It is entirely due to Elnor being split off from the rest of the crew for the majority of his time on screen. There are barely any conversations between the two characters, let alone anything that could make me care about them.
The same goes for Soji and Narek in this episode. Soji is still utterly boring, despite the drama around the synthetics being compelling, and Narek does absolutely nothing. They feel like dead weight.
It’s disappointing, but “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” has a lot more going for it. Star Trek: Picard successfully makes the transition from goofy camp to serious, high-minded themes quickly and without creating a jarring tone shift.
This is where we meet the synthetics.
The Latin phrase used in the episode title is believed to reference the inevitability of death, regardless of where one goes. This is the plight of both the Romulans and the synthetics. The Romulans, upon seeing visions of the synthetics destroying all life, have waged war in an attempt to stave off their own demise. The synthetics, however, see that the reason for their future demise is premised on a lie, that organic life would become jealous of their synthetic immortality and destroy them out of fear, not the other way around. The synthetics escaped to a simpler society and put themselves in exile to survive. But death comes for them as the Romulan fleet approaches, ready to rain fire upon their haven. Even on the planet with two red moons, there are Romulans.
We have only briefly seen the Romulan side of things, however. The ideas at play within “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” have to do with the actions of the synthetics in this defining point in their existence. They have seemingly made up their minds and want to destroy the Romulans in order to protect their existence. Soji and Picard speak directly about this in an argument even more apt given Patrick Stewart’s acting history. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A group of beings are different from the rest of society, so they are cast out.
On one side, there is nonviolence. To prevent extinction, they must help society understand that there is nothing to fear. On the other is an embracing of their power. Of course, society has something to fear because they are more powerful; they should be the ones to rule, nonviolence be damned. This is the philosophical battle between Magneto and Professor X, or, more relevant to this particular situation, the historical philosophical conflict between Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr.
This is where Dr. Alton Soong comes in, the human son of Dr. Noonian Soong, the scientist who created Data using Alton as the model. It’s an excuse to bring back Brent Spiner without all the makeup, and what at first feels like a cheap hit of nostalgia turns out to be an integral piece of this philosophical quandary.
The synthetics are caged animals, and Alton knows that. They are ready to do whatever it takes to destroy the Romulans and take control, something that Alton believes is in the best interest of everyone. Picard objects, saying that he can plead with the Federation to recognize them as equal, that his words can fix that which has been broken. Alton knows how futile that is. The Federation promised many things to the synthetics, but it never delivered and abandoned them. They are in exile because of the broken promises of the Federation, a tale that is common among just about every character in Star Trek: Picard.
If there is one theme that this consistently nails, it’s the idea of Federation and Starfleet abandoning those they swore to protect, and “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” gives us yet another example. Why would the synthetics bother to trust the Federation? Maybe it’s time to seek out liberation over negotiation. It all rings incredibly true to the real-life broken promises made to indigenous communities around the world. Is there justification to violent actions when they have a history of being victims of that violence? “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” asks these questions and shows that there are no simple answers.
This is the depth I’ve been craving, a depth that we’ve only received tastes of until now. Despite still lacking in character depth, especially with Soji still being boring, Narek still being a non-character, and Elnor still being a boring waste of narrative space, I am never fully taken out of the drama in “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” by their presence. Star Trek: Picard always shoots itself in the foot, but it hobbles along with hope in its eyes. There is an incredible show here, and in episodes like this one, we see it directly. I just wish it could all be like that, but nothing is perfect. At least there is hope.