This review contains spoilers for Star Trek: Picard, episode 4, “Absolute Candor.”
I wish Star Trek: Picard were a fully terrible show. That would make things so much easier. I could watch an episode, write all about how it is incompetently made and badly plotted with uninteresting characters, and move on with my week. But no, Star Trek: Picard is so consistently close to the edge of greatness that it just sticks in my mind like a terminal illness put into my brain conveniently to create an artificial ticking clock.
It is a show defined by cowardice, seemingly afraid of crossing the threshold into nuance and unwilling to explore the implications of these high-minded ideas. You know — the entire purpose of Star Trek! The sheer number of ideas that “Absolute Candor” leaves on the table without even bothering to explore is obscene, but the Qowat Milat might best personify the show’s fear to do anything interesting.
The Qowat Milat are an exclusively female organization of Romulan warrior nuns that go directly against one of the main ideals that Romulans hold: They speak their emotions directly, and without letting thought get in the way. They are the sworn enemies of the Tal Shiar, functionally making these Romulans enemies of the Romulan state. That sounds really interesting, right? They are clearly going to spend at least a few episodes talking about how they split off, why they believe what they do, and how they see themselves as Romulans, and we’ll spend time allowing our crew to question their very assumptions about how they viewed this monolith.
No. In reality, we are told all of that information through a couple lines of dialogue, we meet the Qowat Milat, and that’s it. There is barely a conversation about any of that with the actual Qowat Milat.
Do you see why Star Trek: Picard angers me?
I’m just happy that they even brought up some interesting things about this organization instead of fully leaving the implication hanging. It’s still terrible, but this show is so consistently terrible that I feel that I need to grade on a curve.
The closest that “Absolute Candor” comes to being genuinely passable is with the planet Vashti.
Just before the Romulan supernova, then-Admiral Picard made numerous visits to a planet now housing many Romulan refugees, including the Qowat Milat. This is Vashti. Picard put a young boy in the care of the Qowat Milat and left for negotiations with Star Fleet, never to return.
In the present, we are back on Vashti where, since the abandonment of the Federation, crime and poverty have taken over. All of this happened because an organization that offered their help to desperate people failed to follow through. Countless died, the rest cast out amongst the stars in abject poverty. The federation wouldn’t help because, well, they’re enemies.
It’s impossible not to compare this to real life, to our unwillingness to help refugees, to paint them as enemies even when in the end they’re just people. The Romulan supernova and the Federation leaving them to die is the single most compelling moral quandary that Star Trek: Picard has been able to muster, and it is infuriating that they are only barely starting to truly explore it.
To reiterate this show’s snail-like pace, we are four episodes in and finally have a fifth member of the crew. This time, it’s Elnor (Casey King), the Romulan samurai.
In this reality, the Romulan samurai are called Qalankhakai, highly trained fighters that bind themselves to lost causes and will give themselves over with a good conversation. They train within the Qowat Milat, so they are typically female. They’re Romulan samurai women. This is where we meet Elnor, the boy that Picard left with the Qowat Milat and eventually trained with them.
We do not get much of Elnor, but I am not willing to discount him just yet. I hope they don’t ruin him or, worse, not do anything with him. Knowing this show, it will definitely be the latter.
I hoped this show wouldn’t fall back on Picard terminal illness. It created a ticking clock and undercut every single possible motivation he could have in his quest. At this point, I’m not sure what I was expecting. The trip to Vashti was a detour, and the writers needed a reason for Picard to quickly ignore his mission to go. In a little moment, Raffi points out this fact, and Picard uses his illness as the reason to go.
It’s a writing crutch for sure, but the part that enrages me is that they do give a good reason to go there! Picard needs to go to the Qowat Milat because he wants to take on the Tal Shiar alone and needs a member of the Qalankhakai to help. Did they really need to bring the ticking clock back up? Why add the terminal illness to the motivation? It just muddies the water in a time when the water needs to be clear. This is tiny, but it goes back to why giving Picard a terminal illness was such a bad idea.
Rios was a problem for me last week with his holograms and all the actor’s zany accents, but this week it goes a bit too far. He has a pilot hologram come up during a quick space battle, and he speaks with what I can only describe as every Mexican stereotype rolled into one. It’s on the level of Speedy Gonzalez from Looney Tunes, but at least Speedy Gonzalez is a cartoon mouse. This is a post-racial, post-interhuman bigotry future and this accent is straight out of the racist uncle playbook. I legitimately had to pause the episode in shock. Why would you do that? I mean, it’s clear it is meant to be a bit of comic relief, but I sure wasn’t laughing. Are we really not better than this?
Star Trek has consistently been one of the most progressive shows on television. The show broke boundaries of race, sex, creed, and culture through empathy and science fiction. It explored concepts that were considered too taboo to even touch, and I look at a hologram giving a racist Mexican accent and question whether the people making this show know how that spits directly on the legacy that this series holds.
I haven’t talked about the Soji and Narek subplot yet because it is even less interesting than last episode. Nothing happens, and yet they feel the need to keep cutting back to these two characters whom we do not care about failing to learn anything new and sapping the narrative pacing for the rest of the plot.
It would have been nice to see some tension around Narek’s motives, but that would’ve required some restraint on the part of the people making the show. If we are meant to believe their romance is real, as the score and dialogue are clearly trying to tell us in the most saccharine way possible, then why show us that Narek is obviously filled with anti-synthetic bigotry and that he wants to kill Soji? If this is leading to a character turn for Narek where he sides with Soji against his superiors, then they should show some doubt in the man. This subplot is in limbo, but in a way that removes any intrigue from the proceedings. It’s not a mystery; it’s inconsistent characterization.
“Absolute Candor” is better than “The End Is the Beginning,” as if that is some sort of praise. Despite still not bothering to dig into any issue, at least this episode has some hints at redemption. The best episodes of TV, and the best art in general, get you asking questions. The only question I asked after the credits rolled on “Absolute Candor” is, “Why am I still watching?”