This article is part of our ongoing Picard Explained series, featuring the insights of our resident Starfleet officer Brad Gullickson.
The first season of Star Trek: Picard has presented a lot of old enemies sporting new faces. We have the Romulans, the ever-reliable nogoodniks, exposing a secret sect of anti-synthetic assassins, as well as a more agreeable samurai outcast in the form of Elnor (Evan Evagora). There are the Borg, or at least, the EXBs, looking to make a new life for themselves as both captives and guinea pigs to the Romulans. Then you have the usual batch of wretched Starfleet officials who used to thrive as a minority within the organization but in the 20 years since Star Trek: Nemesis have grown into a dominating force. They’re real bastards, but not the ultimate threat.
This week’s episode, entitled “Broken Pieces,” reveals the beast forever in conflict with Star Trek: Fear. Its face has always been the same. Ours.
Since the show began, nearly every week, I’ve been discussing how Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is pulling himself together in the wake of the Romulan supernova, Starfleet’s refusal to lend aid, the synthetic rebellion on Mars, and the resulting positronic ban. What little Starfleet we’ve encountered in this series looks nothing like what we’ve known from the previous incarnations of the franchise, and this sends shivers of frustration and disappointment into long-term fans. We feel the way Picard must have felt 14 years ago when he bailed on the Federation for the vineyard. Gut-punched.
As Picard regains his purpose through assisting Soji (Isa Briones) in her search for answers, and the location of her birth, we too begin to rediscover our faith in the ideals that once upheld the institution. If we had any doubt about this being the mission statement of the series, our rankled former Admiral spells it out for us in “Broken Pieces.”
La Sirena captain Rios (Santiago Cabrera) was introduced as a former Starfleet officer who similarly attracted institutional despair when his mentor lost his brains across the bulkhead of their vessel. We learned this week that Captain Alonzo Vandemeer ate his phaser after murdering two synthetic ambassadors, including Soji’s predecessor, by the name of Janna, after receiving a “black flag directive” from Starfleet. Rios did not know they were synthetics at the time, but when he finally comes face-to-face with Soji, he sees the mask of Janna staring back.
Starfleet ordering hits on civilians? Why? Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita) is responsible. The Vulcan/Romulan security chief is manipulating the Federation from inside by orders of the Romulan synthphobic cult called the Zhat Vash. As it turns out, they’re the ones who programmed the androids on Mars to rebel, sparking terror and dread across the universe.
Decades ago, when Dr. Noonian Soong had his positronic breakthrough with the android Data (Brent Spiner), the Zhat Vash began their secret invasion of Starfleet with the sole purpose of discrediting and destroying synthetic life. They were privy to a doomsday vision depicting the destruction of a vast technological civilization 200,000 years ago. We thought they had experienced prophecy and used it to influence the assassination of Dr. Bruce Maddox (John Ales) by Dr. Juarti (Alison Pill), but it was, in fact, a mere warning.
This old civilization concocted artificial intelligence, and it was their downfall. The vision they granted the Zhat Vash was them begging “please don’t follow in our footsteps.” AI can only go so far before turning on its creators. In Soji, they believe the 24th century has met the threshold for a mass extinction (go read Our Final Invention by James Barrat).
Rios reconsiders the death of his old captain. Maybe it was the right move. Maybe he protected the rest of us from an unimaginable hell.
Soji is our Destroyer.
Picard casts a crooked eyebrow at such a notion. Why should a doomed civilization be the blueprint to the one we’re living? Just because they had their shot and blew it, doesn’t mean we’ll retrace their follies.
Hearing the tale of Captain Alonzo Vandemeer, Picard is definitely dismayed by the actions committed. He leans closely into Rios and shakes his head. “I felt he was a good man,” he says.” one of the best Starfleet had to offer.”
Rios responds that he was a good man. He killed himself because he couldn’t deal with the choice he made, and the order that drove him to it. What’s tearing Rios apart now is that his captain died believing Starfleet had betrayed his morality when it was actually the machinations of the Zhat Vash.
Here’s where Picard gets on his soapbox and condemns to the cheap seats. “Starfleet did betray him,” he explains. “We did betray ourselves. Long before Oh gave Vandemeer that order. The ban itself was a betrayal. The Zhat Vash set the trap, but we could merely have sidestepped it. Instead, we gave way to fear.”
Picard and his crew can not succumb to dread. The past is written. A civilization was destroyed 200,000 years ago. We’re told it’s because of their dalliances into artificial intelligence. Ok, possibly. There’s no changing that. The future, however, remains an unknown. Picard can’t write the past, but he can write the future.
All the Zhat Vash have is fear, and that might be enough, for it is the great destroyer of worlds. Not Soji.
“We have powerful tools,” he continues. “Openness, optimism, and the spirit of curiosity.” As the words rattle off his tongue, we hear the classic Jerry Goldsmith score swell beneath them. This is Star Trek.
The adventure and hope of the final frontier exist in Picard, and through engaging with him, Starfleet can find its place as a beacon of betterment once again. The universe is in pieces, but repair is possible. All we have to do is commit to the future we want, and reject the future we fear.