Star Trek: Picard review, Episode 202: “Penance”

Last time on Star Trek: Picard, we caught up with the crew and discovered that much has changed. Raffi and Rios are both back with Starfleet, and a whole new crisis is underway as the Borg make their long-awaited return. Proclaiming peaceful intentions, they seem anything but, and after a firefight, the auto-destruct on the USS Star Gazer is engaged. Suddenly waking up back at Chateau Picard, the admiral finds himself face to face with his old nemesis Q.

“Penance” really couldn’t start any other way than by following up on the face-off between Picard and Q, and it’s every bit as delicious as the classic confrontations in The Next Generation. However, the showrunners wisely don’t attempt to replicate those encounters; these characters have changed since then. For all his desire to get back into the action, Picard sounds tired here, not only of Q but the games he plays. This Picard has seen too much during the Romulan supernova to have the patience. Likewise, this is an angrier Q; this isn’t simply fun to him. There is a viciousness and urgency underneath the smile.

Q has taken Picard and the rest of the USS Star Gazer crew to an altered version of the present, one where Picard wasn’t a hero but a bloodthirsty general who subjugated a galaxy. Seven of Nine holds a high position in this reality, serving as the President of Earth.

The alternate Picard’s trophy room is truly horrific and all too reminiscent of horrors in our own world; the specter of fascism hangs heavily over the episode. The scene is even more effective because it invoking characters familiar to long-time fans like Martok, Dukat and Sarek.

What Q actually wants from Picard isn’t made clear in the episode. However, it’s probably connected to the admiral’s “failure” during the Romulan evacuation; his journey this season is an introspective one where he deals with not being the hero he believes he should have been. Picard is always running towards the stars, but what is he running from?

In this universe, Picard is everything he isn’t in our world: a tyrant, an authoritarian, and a racist. He even drinks coffee instead of tea, a sure sign of reality turned upside down. It will be interesting if, in future episodes, we get any hint that our Picard ever had the potential for for this kind of dark turn.

“If we want to save the future, we have to repair the past.”

The bulk of “Penance” concerns Eradication Day, when the leaders of Earth publicly execute the leaders of the worlds they have conquered.

Seven, Rios, Agnes, Raffi and Elnor are all shown waking into their new lives. Seven’s is perhaps the most different; in this reality, she was never part of the Borg and became president. She has a husband played by Jon Jon Briones, the father of Isa Briones, who played Soji.

DS9 gets another shoutout with an appearance from Ben Sisko as a general. Rios finds himself in the thick of the Vulcan war, his action-packed lifestyle not being that different from how it was in the other reality. And Elnor is living a violent but righteous life as a rebel, and Raffi is the security officer tasked with bringing him in. This is intriguing, because Elnor was on the USS Excelsior, not the Star Gazer. That means that Q has deliberately handpicked the crew from last season, rather than just those near Picard on the bridge of the Star Gazer.

Naturally, the crew tries to reunite. We’re also reintroduced to the Borg Queen that we all remember rather than last week’s version; she is another victim in line for execution. As it was with Hugh and Seven, casting the Borg as victims rather than oppressors is effective.

Picard meeting the Borg Queen is the second big reunion of the episode. She recognizes him as Locutus and wants to come with them so she can help save the Borg. But there’s the problem of her execution to deal with.

“Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” — Episode #109 — Pictured: Alison Pill as Agnes Jurati of the the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Aaron Epstein/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“A safe galaxy is a human galaxy.”

Patrick Stewart’s performance throughout the episode is wonderful, from his stony face after Agnes’ hilarious info-dump to the subtlety he employs playing a Picard unsure of his role and attempting to be a bloodthirsty tyrant. There’s no doubt that Stewart is relishing his return to his most famous character. Both Jeri Ryan and guest star Jon Jon Briones are excellent as well.

The scenes of the braying mob awaiting the execution are disturbing, all the more so because they evoke scenes from our own universe, as well as being reminiscent of The Next Generation pilot episode, “Encounter at Farpoint.” From the red, black and grey color scheme to the hanging banners, this is Fascism 101. It’s not subtle.

After as much stalling as possible, a firefight ensues out front while Elnor and Raffi take care of things in the back. Elnor cutting the throat of one Confederation officer is a rare moment of bloody violence for the show; it’s definitely not the Star Trek of old. The crew, of course, make it out just in time, but the magistrate captures them and the episode on a cliffhanger.

Rating: 8.0

My biggest complaint about “Penance” is that it doesn’t feel very original, as the theme of alternative history has been explored extensively in the Star Trek universe and elsewhere. So too have fascist dystopias, and while the episode is excellent, it doesn’t say anything new. That said, the fantastic performances, cinematic look, action scenes, and the returns of the Borg Queen and Q all combine to make up for the lack of originality. Much like last week, this again feels more like classic Star Trek than season 1 did, albeit heavy on the action. But the introspective and thoughtful moments with Patrick Stewart are what stand out.

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