Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Impossible Box – the sixth episode of Star Trek: Picard – as well as for the rest of Season 1. There may also be spoilers for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
After last week’s bombshell ending, I really had no idea what to expect from The Impossible Box. One great thing about online streaming when compared to broadcast television is that episodes can be adjusted in length to suit the story – they aren’t constrained by a set runtime to fill a slot. And The Impossible Box was the longest episode of Star Trek: Picard to date, clocking in at almost 55 minutes – ten minutes longer than any other episode we’ve had so far this season.
It certainly made full use of its extended runtime! The Impossible Box was an edge-of-your-seat ride almost the whole way, and the tension ramped up to an amazing climax as Picard finally met Soji. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The Impossible Box gave me that same feeling of “wow, what have I just watched” that I got during Remembrance at the beginning of the season. It was everything I’m looking for in an episode of Star Trek in 2020 – visually beautiful, tense, dramatic, exciting, and seasoned with little throwbacks to the past that complemented the plot without being overwhelming. I know I’ve said this before, but Star Wars really should sit up and pay attention to how Star Trek: Picard – and, to a lesser extent, Star Trek: Discovery – have used the theme of nostalgia, because it’s been pitch-perfect.
After a recap, The Impossible Box opens with a young Soji, carrying the stuffed animal we’ve seen in her room on board the Artifact. She’s had a nightmare and she’s looking for her father on a stormy night. This is, of course, a dream sequence, and Soji awakens from it abruptly. After Narek had essentially accused her of lying about her background and whereabouts in Absolute Candor a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised that the two of them are still intimate. Something about the way Narek presents himself clearly causes her to let her guard down – he’s either very well-trained in the art of android seduction, or he got lucky with Soji. He presses her about the dream – finding out what she was dreaming about is clearly important to him as part of his mission.
For me, the Narek and Soji storyline has been interesting. But it does feel, in this moment, as if it’s run its course. We’ve seen the same basic scene play out several times now, and while a one-week break definitely helped (Narek and Soji were absent from last week’s episode) the formula is close to overdone by this point. Breaking this cycle – as will happen from this point on – is going to be to the benefit of the series because there was definitely a danger of it becoming repetitive and thus less interesting. I’m glad, then, that this episode breaks up Narek and Soji and they’ll be able to go their separate ways, at least for the time being.
The action jumps to more or less where Stardust City Rag left off last week. Dr Jurati and Picard are discussing Maddox. The crew are aware that he’s died, but Dr Jurati has – at least so far – managed to keep her involvement secret. Given that La Sirena’s EMH caught her in the act, I’m sure she won’t be able to maintain her cover for long, though. Perhaps they’re saving that revelation for later because Dr Jurati still has something to do for the story, or perhaps it was simply to keep the already-long runtime in check, but either way it was a surprise to see her not only not get caught but brazenly talking about Maddox and lying about his death. Dr Jurati is clearly better as a spy or undercover operative than I previously gave her credit for. It seemed for a moment that Elnor might have caught on to what was going on, but he didn’t, at least not in this moment.
I’m glad to see Elnor back in this scene. After all the trouble Picard went to to recruit him in Absolute Candor, he was almost entirely wasted last week. He’s such an interesting character – as well as being good comic relief at times – that it was a shame to see him underused, and I had hoped we’d see more from him.
It’s in this sequence that we get a glimpse at the kind of fearful anger that Picard demonstrated in Star Trek: First Contact – as well as to a lesser extent in the episode I, Borg from the fifth season of The Next Generation. The latter episode introduced Hugh – who we saw briefly with Soji in The End is the Beginning. Picard’s assimilation experience, while a long time ago by now, still haunts him, and colours his feelings toward the Borg in this moment. As he said in First Contact, he wants to kill them all – and not just to put assimilated people out of their misery.
Dr Jurati seemed to push him here – whether it was accidental or on purpose isn’t clear. But what is clear is that people who study synthetics know a lot about the Borg – could this tie into my theory from last week that there’s Borg technology involved in the creation of synthetics? Again something we’ll have to look at in my next theory post, so stay tuned for that.
Clearly disturbed by their destination, Picard retires to his study. After regaining his resolve, he asks the computer for information on the Artifact, treaties, and the Borg. We’re then treated to some great camera/effects work as Picard scrolls through a few images of his past engagements with them. There was a still from the Battle of Sector 001 from First Contact in which the Enterprise-E could be glimpsed, a picture of the Romulan Senate that may be new or may have been from Deep Space Nine or Nemesis (I’m not sure on that one), an unnamed Borg drone which may have been from Voyager or First Contact, Hugh as he appeared in The Next Generation, then again as he appears in the current series, a shot of Paris which is where the Federation has its main government offices, a couple of shots of ex-Borg being de-assimilated, and finally the picture Picard didn’t want to see: himself as Locutus. The image lines up perfectly, shot from behind the holo-screen, it’s as if Picard were again Locutus of Borg – a reflection, no doubt, of how he feels as he’s forced to confront his most feared adversary – and his own memories – once again.
We then get the opening credits, and I have to say that the Star Trek: Picard theme is really growing on me. Aside from Enterprise, every Star Trek series has had an instrumental, orchestral opening. What we know of today as The Next Generation’s theme was actually written for The Motion Picture almost a decade earlier, but it’s now firmly associated with the series not the film. The Picard theme has, at the very end, a callback to that theme, and I think because we associate that piece of music very strongly with Picard himself, it works really well. It’s definitely a halfway house, somewhere between the theme used for Discovery, which I’d argue is quite toned-down and minimalist by Star Trek standards, and the theme from The Next Generation. Music is incredibly subjective – even more so in some regards than film or television – but I’d rank the Picard theme somewhere in the top half of my list of favourite Star Trek themes. It’s definitely one I’d like to come back to and I could see myself listening to it just as a piece of music.
One of the downsides presented by a shorter series is that character interaction and development can feel rushed. And while Dr Jurati and Capt. Rios had spent some time together by now, their on-screen interactions had been limited; I think there’d only been one scene so far with just the two of them. So when, after the credits, they hook up it seemed to come a bit out of left-field. It does make sense in-universe, given what Dr Jurati is going through in particular, but I’m not sure it was set up especially well as a story point. However, I can understand Dr Jurati looking around for distraction and comfort – and also, if we put our cynical hats on for a moment, a potential ally. Remember that, as far as we know, she’s the only one on La Sirena who knows this horrible Zhat Vash/Commodore Oh secret, one worth murdering for. Seeking an ally in the midst of all that seems at least plausible. Her decision to remain on board La Sirena means she’s in incredible danger of getting caught. The next time someone uses the EMH she could conceivably be found out. So there must be a reason why she’d stay aboard – perhaps to kill Soji? We’ll explore that in more depth in my next theory post.
Seeing Capt. Rios practising with a football (soccer ball if you’re out in the USA) was a nice little character moment, though. He’s someone who spends a lot of time on his ship – aside from the mission on Freecloud he hasn’t left La Sirena at all – so it makes sense he’d want things to do to fill his time. Kicking around a football is exercise and it’s also something to do during the long hours warping between systems! The fact that he was playing alone, instead of with one of his holograms or with a crewmate, also shows us that he’s a pretty self-reliant person. Football is a team sport, yet Rios is content to kick the ball around on his own. There’s an individualism to doing that, and Rios has been an isolated figure since leaving Starfleet.
Rizzo pays a visit to Narek back on the Artifact, and they discuss Soji’s dream. Rizzo seems uninterested, feeling Narek has not made sufficient progress. Narek uses a Romulan toy – similar to a rubix cube – as an analogy. This is the titular “impossible box”, and he says that he’s carefully manipulating each piece in order to unlock the prize inside – referring, of course, to his interactions with Soji.
The question of why Soji dreams was interestingly addressed. Narek speculates that it’s part of her programming trying to reconcile the two different aspects of her personality – her true synthetic nature and her programmed belief in being human. Narek intends to use Soji’s subconscious and dreams to get her to reveal where she came from – which is still the objective of their mission. Given what we learned last week about Bruce Maddox’s lab being destroyed, this was a bit of a surprise. It’s obviously possible that Maddox had more than one lab, but given the ban on synths and the fact that he was clearly out of options when he went to see Bjayzl, I’m not sure that makes a lot of sense. Basically the fact that we know Maddox’s lab has already been destroyed threatens to open a plot hole: Narek and Rizzo are trying to get Soji to tell them where she came from so they can go there and destroy the lab used to create her, and any other synthetics they might find there. But if Maddox’s lab is already gone, what’s the point of their mission, exactly?
Picard and the crew of La Sirena are discussing how they could blag their way aboard the Artifact. There is a treaty in place which means that the Borg Reclamation Project – the de-assimilation of Borg spearheaded by Hugh – is neutral and not fully under Romulan jurisdiction, even though the cube itself is. Dr Jurati suggests using her credentials as a synthetic researcher, but all of the plans have an undoing in that Picard is instantly recognisable to the Romulans – and, he believes, also to the Borg. Picard is clearly struggling with the idea of being back on a Borg vessel – despite the fact that the cube has been disabled for well over a decade, he believes that the ship or the ex-Borg will recognise him, compromising the mission.
Raffi ends up saving the day – and we learn her last name, Musiker, in the process. This had been widely reported in pre-release material, but as far as I remember at least, it was the first on-screen use of her surname. She contacts a friend at Starfleet – a captain, judging from the rank pips on her uniform – and manages to talk her way into getting Picard diplomatic credentials to visit the Artifact. This was a fun scene as Raffi talks her way around this Starfleet captain, but we see that she’s slipped back into her snakeleaf and alcohol addictions in the aftermath of her disastrous meeting with her son last week. I’m sure getting Raffi clean is going to be a feature in later episodes – but showing how addicts can relapse ties into the theme of Raffi’s story. We saw her paranoid, we saw her manage to get clean enough to try to reunite with her son, and now we’ve seen her undo that and slip back. It will be a familiar story to anyone who’s known an addict; the pattern of breaking the habit and slipping back into it is all too common. We’ve seen Star Trek look at the theme of addiction in the past – notably in Enterprise with T’Pol – and given the current opiod crisis in the United States and elsewhere, it’s a timely issue to look at. I hope Raffi’s story will have a happy ending.
Soji tells Narek about her dream, and Narek still tries to push for more details. He suggests she call her mother – we know, thanks to Maddox last week, that the “mother” is in fact part of her AI subroutines, and not a real person. Narek then drops a bombshell on her – every single call she has with her mother lasts the exact same length of time – seventy seconds. He offers to show her the logs, but really what he’s doing is attacking her sense of self. He’s trying to undermine her self-belief so that he can start extracting information from her.
After a short scene with Rios putting a drunk and drugged-up Raffi to bed, in which we see a more caring, kind side to La Sirena’s captain than we have thus far, we’re back on board the Artifact where Soji contacts her “mother”. During the call, we seem to see a bug or glitch in the “mother”, and then Soji collapses. Clearly this part of her programming – calling her “mother” – is designed to put her to sleep.
La Sirena then arrives at the Artifact and we get confirmation that Raffi’s friend was able to get Picard the diplomatic credentials needed. How she managed to pull that off given Picard’s bust-up with the head of Starfleet wasn’t shown on screen! But evidently the captain was able to issue Picard a one-day permit to access the Artifact. However, the catch is that the permit is valid only for Picard himself – no one else is allowed to go. I loved this setup, because it provides a perfectly valid reason for why Picard couldn’t have anyone else with him – forcing him to face his return to a Borg cube alone. In First Contact and in later Borg stories in The Next Generation, Picard could always count on his crew to help him get through a Borg encounter. This time, however, he has to head into the heart of a Borg vessel on his own – and it’s clearly a frightening prospect.
I didn’t like, however, Picard’s treatment of Elnor in this scene – and indeed at several other points since Elnor pledged himself to Picard’s cause. He seems to snap at him and treat him like a servant, dishing out orders as though he were an upstart ensign. Given their history, and that Picard had seemed to want to make amends, I just feel that the way he treats him isn’t appropriate. Elnor didn’t have to join the mission, after all. He could have stayed on Vashti, and despite that he seems to get little by way of thanks.
Soji awakens in her room on the Artifact and realises she has once again fallen asleep while talking to her mother. She starts rummaging through her possessions, scanning them all in turn only for the scanner to tell her each one in the same age: 37 months. This ties into what Dr Jurati said about Dahj’s background being faked before the three-year mark, and with what Narek said about Soji studying the Romulan language “some time before May 12, 2396.” 37 months is three years and one month, which gives us an approximation of how long Soji has been active. Devastated, Soji scans her necklace too – her most prized possession – and it too is only 37 months old. This scene was the culmination of Soji’s story since we first met her at the end of Remembrance. She tears apart her room, desperately looking for anything in her possession that might disprove what she now thinks about herself – that her life has somehow been faked.
She’s also a victim of Narek – his manipulations and gaslighting led her to this point. I’m not sure if the gaslighting aspect of the Narek-Soji relationship was intentional – Narek is, after all, revealing the truth to Soji in a way, as opposed to tricking her into believing outright lies – but I certainly picked up on that aspect of the relationship, and it can definitely be interpreted that way. The term gaslighting, if you are unfamiliar with it, comes from the 1944 film Gaslight, and means a person is manipulating someone else – often, but not always, a romantic partner – into questioning reality and ultimately believing themselves to be losing their mind. Narek and Soji have this aspect to their relationship, and especially in the days of online relationships, gaslighting has become increasingly common.
Picard beams aboard the Artifact, alone and in an unoccupied section. The trauma of being back on board a Borg cube is overwhelming for him at first, and he starts to think he can see and hear the Borg, including the Borg Queen. We get an updated shot of Picard as Locutus – albeit very briefly – and something about the combination of the whole Picard-Borg sequence, the music, and the digital effects used on this new look at Locutus was incredibly creepy. By the time Hugh arrives to save the day, the short sequence has us feeling almost as unsettled as Picard.
If Soji’s storyline at this point is an analogy for gaslighting in relationships, then in this moment, Picard’s is analogous to post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD victims can suffer flashbacks when exposed to sensory triggers – which is why some war veterans, for example, greatly dislike fireworks. In Picard’s case, the sights, sounds, smells, and overall sensation of being back at the scene of his worst moment – his assimilation, where he lost part of his humanity and was forced to do horrible things – was too much. He suffers auditory and visual hallucinations, flashing back to those moments where he was under Borg control. Some PTSD sufferers will tell you that they never really “got over it” – even years or decades later, they can still suffer this kind of a reaction. Picard had been away from the Borg since the events of First Contact, living quietly at the vineyard for fourteen years. But his Borg experiences still traumatise him, and we see in this moment the result of that.
Hugh and Picard share a touching reunion, and seeing an old friend seems to snap Picard out of the flashbacks. They catch up as they stroll through parts of the cube, and when Picard enquires about Soji, Hugh reveals he’s aware of Narek – the “Romulan spy”. In Soji’s quarters she’s called Narek – turning to him for comfort and reassurance as she has no one else to share her feelings with. He pretends to comfort her, and offers her a Romulan meditation technique to unlock her dreams and memories – suggesting disingenuously that she may have been hypnotised or had false memories implanted in her. Again this ties into the theme of gaslighting in relationships; manipulators like Narek want their victims to have no one else to turn to for help and support, allowing them to sink their claws in further.
On their way to find Soji, Hugh takes Picard on a detour through one of the Artifact’s de-assimilation areas. Unlike the medical facility where we saw Soji at work on unconscious Borg, the ex-Borg here are very much awake. Many are voiceless, still processing what’s happened to them, but they are having some of their implants and technology removed. Picard is shocked that de-assimilation can take place on this scale – and crucially expresses even greater surprise that it’s the Romulans who have managed to accomplish it. Again, spoilers for my next theory post, but this does tie into one of my theories regarding the Romulans and the Borg.
Aboard La Sirena, Raffi has awoken from her blackout and is recovering with Rios. He shares with her the news that Soji is still alive – but they both wonder why that is. “What does the Tal Shiar need from a synth?” asks Raffi. And it is a good question – but we already know that Rizzo wants to find out where Soji came from so the Zhat Vash can travel there and destroy any other synths and synth research that may be ongoing. Again, though, this ties into what I said earlier about Maddox’s lab already being destroyed – could there be more to it than that?
Narek takes Soji to the meditation room, and on the wooden floor, a twisted path is mapped out. Soji must close her eyes and walk the path to uncover the meaning behind her dreams. This is the moment Narek has been building toward – an unactivated Soji who trusts him completely and is willing to tell him everything she sees and learns.
While Rizzo watches on from a hidden room, Narek guides Soji through the walking meditation. He’s pushing her not to wake up, not to open her eyes, no matter what she sees or thinks she sees from her dream. This is the culmination of everything he’s been working toward, but Narek is clearly nervous. Part of that is of course to do with his mission – he doesn’t want to fail. But part of it is clearly do with how he feels about Soji; he’s never quite been able to reconcile the part of himself that cares for her with the part of himself loyal to the cause. Soji has changed his attitude to synths, in much the same way that spending time with Data changed Maddox’s view on the subject in The Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man. Despite what he’s doing – and will continue to do – Narek is conflicted.
Narek guides her through the dream that we saw in the beginning of the episode, up to the moment Soji’s father shouting at her snaps her out of it. He pushes her to continue, to look beyond what she can see in the room. Picard and Hugh are alerted to Soji being “missing”; Hugh suspects that someone – i.e. Narek – has managed to conceal her from his scans. They visit her room, seeing the mess she made while scanning. Picard could – and probably should – have explained to Hugh who she is. It wouldn’t have taken very long at all to say “she’s Data’s daughter”, and Hugh was Data’s friend too, so if anything he’d be even more motivated to help. It’s possible, however, that owing to the ban on synthetic life, Picard isn’t sure who he can trust with Soji’s secret – and he hasn’t seen Hugh in a long time.
As Soji pushes through the moment her dream should end, we get two pretty shocking scenes in quick succession. First is that Soji’s “father” has no face – or rather, his face has been digitally erased in her memory such that she cannot remember or describe it. This is clearly something done by Maddox to keep himself safe – but the figure in the dream may not have actually been Maddox. Next, Soji sees a wooden doll on her father’s workbench, only partly assembled, with her own face. This is the secret that the dream was keeping – she is aware of her synthetic nature somehow.
Rizzo and Narek don’t care, of course; they already know Soji is a synth. What they’ve been looking for is what Soji sees next – she looks up through the skylight in her dream and sees two red moons.
If I were to nitpick – and you know I must – this isn’t a lot of information to go on. Narek ends the meditation at this point, and Rizzo calls someone to ask them to find a planet with “constant electrical storms and two red moons”. Firstly, how many planets and other celestial bodies (moons, dwarf planets, and asteroids can have their own moons) must fall into that category? Even if we were to limit it to M-class worlds – and again, Soji provided Narek so little information that that cannot be assumed – there could be dozens or even hundreds of possibilities. Secondly, nothing in Soji’s dream suggested that storms are a “constant” presence on this planet. Most places on Earth suffer occasional lightning storms, and the fact that one was occurring in Soji’s dream does not mean they are a permanent fixture on that planet. Thirdly, many factors could cause the moons to appear reddish in hue from the surface of a planet that aren’t present in space. On Earth we get the “blood moon” phenomenon, a result of the lunar eclipse. In short, Soji gave Narek and Rizzo a clue – but only one single clue. While it could somewhat narrow down their search, they could still easily have lots of planets to visit, spread out across vast distances. The information Soji gave them is not conclusive and, in an area the size of the explored galaxy, surely won’t be able to pinpoint one single location. I mean it will be able to, because plot, but logically it shouldn’t be able to.
Narek abandons Soji, leaving her in the meditation chamber with his “impossible box” toy from earlier – which he has rigged to be a weapon. The box opens, releasing a cloud of red vapour – Narek describes it as “radiation”. Soji begins to choke as she tries to escape, but the radiation has the unintended consequence of causing her to activate – we now know this means her self-defence subroutines are activating – and she smashes a hole in the floor to escape the chamber.
Narek sheds a tear – he did really care for Soji. And he really had to force himself to conclude his mission, as doing so broke his heart. However, he did it – he tried to kill her. His failure in that regard is not because of anything he deliberately did to help her escape – his actions triggered her self-defence activation.
After escaping the meditation room, Picard and Hugh can detect Soji on their scanner again and race to meet her. Narek has alerted the Artifact’s Romulan guards – so it’s a race between them to get to Soji first. She breaks through the ceiling of a chamber and Picard and Hugh are there. Picard implores her to trust him, even showing her Dahj’s necklace. Having nowhere else to turn, and realising the Romulans are not safe to be around, Soji really has no choice. The three of them escape – Hugh using his knowledge of the Borg cube’s layout to lead them to a room called the “queen cell”. Here we got a nice little throwback to the Voyager episode Prime Factors from its first season. The species in that episode, the Sikarians, are mentioned, as is their “spatial trajector” technology – which they had refused to share with Voyager’s crew. The Borg have evidently expanded at least as far as Sikarian space, incorporating the spatial trajector into their vessels thereafter. Hugh is familiar with this technology and knows how to operate it, and Picard seems familiar with the queen’s chamber despite never having been in one. Here we get a look at how the Borg’s hive mind works, and how knowledge, information, and even memories and sensations can be copied and distributed to the entire collective. The Impossible Box has looked at how subconscious works with the Soji and Narek storyline, but here we see how the Borg also make use of the subconscious. Picard instantly recognised the room – that information was stored somewhere deep in his memory from his assimilation. I found that aspect to be interesting; I wonder what other Borg secrets Picard, Seven of Nine, Hugh, and other xBs could be hiding without even realising it?
Raffi and Rios are following what’s going on aboard La Sirena, and Soji uses her now-advanced hearing to let the others know that more guards are en route. Before the guards can harm her, however, Elnor intervenes – he apparently beamed aboard while no one was looking. Picard finally shows Elnor some gratitude – despite first berating him for beaming over. There was a touching moment between them as Picard says he doesn’t want to leave Elnor behind again, but with more guards on the way he has no choice, and he and Soji escape through the spatial trajector to a place called Nepenthe – which is also the name of next week’s episode. Hugh and Elnor remain behind to shut down the trajector and conceal where it sent them. Elnor should be fine thanks to his skills, but Hugh may be in serious danger from Rizzo and Narek. Has he just compromised the entire Borg Reclamation Project?
So that was The Impossible Box. As I said, I loved the episode – despite my little nitpicks. The way it approached complicated topics like abusive relationships and PTSD was classic Star Trek, using its science fiction setting to tackle real-world topics. Seeing Hugh back again, getting the chance to reunite with Picard, was also great to see. And finally Soji and Picard are together – but without the rest of the crew, I wonder what will happen to them on Nepenthe.
There were some great little callbacks to previous iterations of Star Trek: Soji had a “Flotter” lunchbox or container in her room, which is a reference to the childrens’ character who debuted on Voyager; Rios mentioned “slips of latinum”, which was of course a callback to Ferengi currency that was prominent in Deep Space Nine; we again saw the blue drink that must be Romulan Ale; and as mentioned above, there was the reference to the Sikarians and their spatial trajector. None of these points overwhelmed the episode. Even Hugh’s inclusion was well done, and crucially made sense from a story point of view. The episode flowed naturally, and we’re one giant step closer to getting to the bottom of some of Star Trek: Picard’s mysteries.
I was on the edge of my seat with The Impossible Box, and after the episode drew to a close, fifty-five minutes seemed to have flown by. The editing and the music contributed massively to this, taking what was already an amazing story up a notch or two.
Picard and Soji managed to escape, but their escape came at the cost of Hugh, Elnor, and the rest of La Sirena’s crew. Yes they have a rendezvous point, but first they need to get Elnor back – and perhaps rescue Hugh as well – before they can even think about travelling there.
It seems like next week we’ll get to see Troi and Riker, and I absolutely cannot wait for that reunion. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for Elnor, Hugh, and the others, because Star Trek: Picard has learned a lesson from shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead in that it isn’t afraid to kill off characters. With practically the whole crew in danger, I’m genuinely not sure at this point if they’ll all make it out alive.
The Impossible Box – along with the rest of the first season of Star Trek: Picard – is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom and other countries and territories. The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Picard – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.