This review contains spoilers for Star Trek: Picard season 2 episode 2, ‘Penance’.
There’s a sense that Penance, this week’s episode of Star Trek: Picard, is trying to fill in a missing piece from The Next Generation. One of Star Trek’s most enduring ideas – not just in the series itself, but in pop culture more broadly – is that of the mirror universe, which offers an alternate, darker reflection of the characters we know. The first mirror universe episode aired in 1967, with Kirk meeting an alternate (goateed, of course) version of Spock, and it’s been a staple of the franchise ever since: Deep Space Nine, Enterprise, and Discovery all did a number of mirror universe episodes, in each case amongst the most popular of the series.
But there was never an equivalent episode of The Next Generation, which never opted for that classic story where Picard has an eyepatch or Riker is cleanshaven and they’re all evil. (You could make the case that Yesterday’s Enterprise – namechecked here by Q, not so much breaking the fourth wall as gently leaning on it – fills the same role, and you’d essentially be right, but still.) Penance reads like an attempt to redress that balance, and solves last week’s cliffhanger by whisking Picard and friends away from the bridge of an exploding starship to an entirely new reality. It is, in all but name, the mirror universe: Picard is a bloodthirsty general, and the United Federation of Planets is the fascist Earth Confederation, preparing to celebrate ‘Eradication Day’.
That fannish box-ticking instinct is easy to criticise. How much is something animated by a good idea, how much is it justified on its own terms, and how much is it just a product of wanting to update the Excel spreadsheet and make sure everyone has had their own spin on the classics? It’s maybe especially interesting in Star Trek: Picard, actually, which has always been positioned as something not quite like the rest of the franchise – you can see that tension in particular in last year’s Stardust City Rag, a compellingly awkward attempt to splice together holodeck-style antics with (at least superficially) ‘darker’ storytelling. This kind of box-ticking is arguably exactly what Star Trek: Picard shouldn’t be doing.
But, equally, some wells you keep returning to because they just haven’t run dry yet. The basic concept – dressed up as an alternate timeline, yes, but even so – still works. It’s big and it’s broad, and I don’t think anyone would earnestly argue that Penance makes thoughtful points about fascism, but then it doesn’t really need to either. It’s a lot of fun, working through the classics – in particular for Jeri Ryan (previously star of Star Trek: Voyager, which of course also didn’t get a mirror universe episode during its seven-year run) who’s clearly having a ball as the alternate Annika Hansen. How it’ll fit into the wider serialised arc remains to be seen – is this just a one-off stopping point? – though it’s interesting to note how Star Trek: Picard has tried to become
Speaking of things returning, we’ve also got a much more substantial role for John de Lancie’s Q this week. He’s another figure who looms large across The Next Generation, and one of the most obvious candidates for return in Star Trek: Picard – a returning element that offers genuine new stories beyond the warm thrill of recognition. (Following that line of thinking, it’d be nice to see Worf back, because it’s always nice to see Worf, but he’s less essentially, than, say, bringing back Beverly Crusher – who feels like an increasingly essential character to bring back as Picard continues with its themes of relationships.)
But this Q is also substantially different. It’s a great performance from de Lancie, the familiar foe now more erratic, not just quixotic and mercurial but unstable and volatile: recognisably the same character, of course, but visibly changed too. Intriguingly, this seems to tie into last week’s allusions to Picard’s violent father – when Q hits Picard, it’s entirely unlike anything we’ve seen from the character before. Despite not being especially visceral, that little trickle of blood from Picard’s nose is immediately deeply unsettling – more affecting than any of last year’s bloody excesses, certainly – and points to genuinely uncharted waters for the show and these characters.
Ultimately, it’s a far stronger second episode from Star Trek: Picard this week. Even as it did essentially remain another chessboard, table-setting piece – how much actually happened, in the grand scheme of things? – it makes a huge difference to bring the characters back together again. On some level we’re still procrastinating a bit (this is a strange blend of episodic and serialised storytelling), but just having Rios and Jurati and Seven and Raffi and Elnor and Picard actually interacting properly makes a huge difference.
- Would an un-assimilated Annika Hansen have gone on to be Federation President in the normal timeline?
- Jon Jon Briones – who plays Seven of Nine’s alternate timeline husband here – is Isa Briones’ real-life father, which is quite fun. Isa of course plays Soji, who’s been much missed these past few episodes.
- As with Picard’s first season, I’m finding I enjoy these much more on the second watch.
Star Trek: Picard season 2 airs new episodes weekly on Amazon Prime. You can read our review of last week’s episode, The Star Gazer, right here.
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