Star Trek: Picard Recap: Death on Mars
Maps and Legends
Season 1 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating 4 stars ****
Among the biggest blanks left unfilled by “Remembrance,” the first episode of Star Trek: Picard:just what kind of androids went on a rampage of murder and destruction on Mars 14 years ago, leading the Federation to abandon its mission to rescue the Romulans and driving Picard to quit in protest? “Maps and Legends,” the series’s second episode, wastes no time providing an answer: the creepy kind. That’s the short answer, anyway, based on the time we get to spend with F8, the “synthetic” we see turning on his human co-workers as part of a coordinated attack on Mars. (Coordinated by whom remains another big blank.)
But even those who’ve had a chance to get to know F8 and the other “plastic people” before the attack still find his kind creepy, and it’s not hard to see why. Looking like a cross between the cover of Kraftwerk’s Electric Café album and crash-test dummies, they’re this close to being able to pass as humans. But not close enough. The same goes for their behavior. F8 can mimic human gestures and reply with a hearty “Hell yeah!” but it’s only mimicry. He knows to smile at a joke but couldn’t explain why it was funny. They may live alongside human co-workers but they appear to have crawled out of the uncanny valley.
Their action remains a mystery but their origins don’t. They’re the products of the vanished Daystrom Institute employee Harry Maddox, and it’s starting to look like finding him will be central to Picard’s quest to figure out where Dhaj came from, who murdered her, and her connection to Data. In fact, Harry Maddox’s name comes up so often in this episode that it almost feels like there’s some sort of Poochie clause in the script. (“Whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s Poochie?’”) It might be notable that no casting has yet to be announced for the role, which may mean we won’t be seeing Maddox this season, or it could mean that the casting will come as something of a surprise. Or maybe we’ll never see him. As Jurati tells Picard, people in their profession tend to be a bit “secret plan-ny”
Either way, it looks like we have a long way to go before we get there. As the action returns to the present, Picard is conferring with Laris (Orla Brady) and Zhaban (Jamie McShane), his Romulan vineyard managers/aides-de-camp who tell him of a legendary Romulan cabal even more secretive than Tal Shiar, the Romulan secret police: Zhat Vash. Dismissed by many as legend, they’re said “to keep a secret so profound just learning it could break a person’s mind.” (How Lovecraftian.) Though no one knows exactly what this secret is, it’s somehow tied to the Romulans’ “deep, unassuageable loathing” of artificial life, a loathing that also seems to be at the heart of the series (as we learn by episode’s end).
But first, some detective work. In Dahj’s apartment, Picard learns that Laris is not above employing some old Romulan forensic tricks to figure out what happened and that Dahj has been talking to someone in deep space. You can almost see the wheels turning in Picard’s brain as it becomes increasingly obvious that he’s going to have to head back to the stars. But there are two problems. First, his doctor (David Paymer), an old friend who served beside him on the Stargazer, has some bad news about his health. He has an abnormality in his parietal lobe (a callback to a condition diagnosed by Dr. Crusher after Picard returns from his time as a Borg) that will someday kill him.
Undaunted, Picard decides to head out anyway. It’s then he hits his second problem. His request for a ship, even if it means getting demoted to Captain, is denied with extreme prejudice by the testy Admiral Kirsten Clancy (Ann Magnuson). “Sheer fucking hubris,” she tells him (a reminder that, yes, this show is rated TV-MA for a reason). After dismissing Zhaban’s suggestion that he round up the old Enterprise gang, Picard’s only remaining course of action seems to be to reach out to Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd), who doesn’t seem too happy to see him but reluctantly lets him join her because he brings a choice bottle from the Picard vineyard and entices her with talk of a Romulan in their midst. Who is Raffi? And what is her history with Picard? That seems to be a subject for another episode.
There’s plenty of action elsewhere in this episode, however. Dispensing with any will-they, won’t-they tension, Soji and Narek have already started sleeping together. They don’t, however, know that much about each other. Or, more accurately, Soji doesn’t know much about Narek, who we learn has been sent to spy on her and reveal the location of the “nest” of Romulan-detested androids. And who’s sent him? His sister, currently working undercover disguised as a human Starfleet officer named Lt. Rizzo (Peyton List). And who’s pulling her strings? No less than Starfleet’s Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita), who appears to be a Romulan passing as a Vulcan. They’re all very concerned about tracking down androids, although the way Narek looks at Soji it seems like his personal agenda might be shifting.
Then again, it’s hard to tell what he’s thinking behind a surgical mask. Observing Soji at work, he watches as he helps de-Borgify a mystery species that others call “the Nameless,” a tag Soji dislikes. Who are they? Where did they come from? And what do they have to do with a Romulan conspiracy that stretches all the way to the top ranks of Starfleet? The mystery keeps deepening even as the episode draws to a close.
• And that’s really the biggest difference between Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Michael Chabon (who co-wrote this episode with Akiva Goldsman) is telling a serialized story, one that doesn’t break down neatly into episodic installments. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine proved this was possible years before, but tended to use shorter arcs and break up serialized stories with self-contained installments that touched on the overarching narrative without dwelling on it. Star Trek: Discoveryhas told two season-long stories, but each has been made up of other, smaller stories. That’s not the case here, but it’s working so far. (And Picard has yet to feel like one of the shapeless attempts at ten-hour movies that have made many streaming-era series such a drag.)
• It’s nice to get a glimpse at the life of an everyday employee during the Mars flashback. The “fuelies,” as the credits call them, have to work on First Contact day. No wonder they’re so grouchy.
• It’s also nice to see Magnuson, who’s always fun, pop up in what appears to be a recurring role. She’s tweeted that her character begins as “Margaret Thatcher in Space” before becoming “increasingly more Barbara Stanwyck.” Intriguing!
• The thin line between humans and androids is emerging as one of the series’s core themes. The challenge here is to do something with that theme that Battlestar Galactica hasn’t done already.
• “Fourteen species within the Federation said ‘Cut the Romulans loose for we’ll pull out.’ It was a choice between allowing the Federation to implode or letting the Romulans go,” Clancy tells Picard. It’s kind of hard to argue that she doesn’t have a point, even if Picard has the moral high ground.
• Stewart’s expression when he’s not recognized by the young ensign at Starfleet is priceless. Is it weird that, based on its trailer, the new Bond movie has the exact same gag?
• Like last week’s premiere, this episode is directed by Hanelle Culpepper, the first female director to launch a Star Trek series. Her direction has been admirably crisp so far, and she stays behind the camera for the next installment, “The End Is the Beginning.” The fourth episode, however, finds a familiar name taking over directing duties: Jonathan Frakes.
• “You need a crew: Riker, Worf, LaForge, hm?” Zhaban tells Picard. That means those three are alive and well (and Riker is due to appear on an upcoming mission). As for the others, there’s no mention of Dr. Crusher or Deanna Troi (though the latter’s also due to appear). Wesley is maybe off doing Traveler stuff? (Though Wil Wheaton is hosting the Picard aftershow.) As for Guinan, Stewart recently extended an offer for Whoopi Goldberg to appear when he guested on The View. Let’s hope they make it so.
• Is Harry Maddox any relation to Bruce Maddox, the cyberneticist who tried to dismantle Data in the second-season TNG episode “The Measure of a Man”? That can’t be a coincidence, right?
• Picard putting his combadge back on. Chills, right?