Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1 and the preceding eight episodes of Star Trek: Picard Season 1. There may also be spoilers for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
So I suppose I should just come right out and say it: Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1 is my least-favourite episode of Star Trek: Picard so far. We’ve had some great episodes this season which really hooked me in, took me on a rollercoaster journey, and got me feeling happy, nervous, excited, nostalgic, tense, and emotional. This week I really didn’t get any of that for the bulk of the episode. There were a handful of good moments sprinkled throughout, but the pacing of the episode as a whole felt off – it seemed to rush from point to point with no time permitted for any story thread to properly develop or be explored.
For an episode that was supposed to be the first part of the culmination of the entire season, it ended up falling flat on its face. And that is pretty disappointing. Every Star Trek series – and every season of every series – has had duds: episodes which misfired, told bad stories, or for various reasons failed to hit the mark. The problem that Star Trek shows have today is that when the whole season is one continuous story, a dud episode can have ramifications for the entire season instead of being a one-off rotten egg. I hope that Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2 next week manages to pull things back – and there is precedent for that, as Star Trek: Discovery’s second season episode Perpetual Infinity pulled off a great recovery from The Red Angel a week prior, which is my personal pick for Discovery’s worst episode.
Aside from the pacing and rushed feel to the story, my second main point of criticism is the aesthetic of parts of the episode. I’ve mentioned before that every location in Star Trek: Picard so far has been a barely-disguised California, and Soji’s homeworld – variously called Coppelius and Ghoulion IV – was another example. I come back to what I said last week about the use of indoor sound stages: with special effects and CGI being so good nowadays, a lot more can be done with that format than in previous decades. If it’s a choice between seeing five planets that all look the same because they were all filmed within fifty miles of Los Angeles, and seeing different-looking planets that were perhaps smaller in scale because they were filmed on sound stages I’ll always prefer the latter.
The second visual aspect that I felt simply did not work was the makeup used for most of the synths. The yellowish-gold tinted skin the actors were sporting didn’t make them look like Data-type androids; they looked like humans wearing cheap and bad makeup. It was something that would’ve felt at home in The Original Series, and if I’d seen those characters in an episode from the 1960s I’d have dismissed the amateurish look as a product of the limitations of the time. But Star Trek: Picard’s aesthetic has been so good until now overall that I legitimately wonder how they managed to make the synths look so bad. Was it because they were largely filmed outdoors in natural sunlight? Because earlier looks at Data in Picard’s dreams or F8 and the other synths in flashbacks to Mars looked far better. Whatever it was, the makeup ended up being a huge distraction, because every time Evil Soji or any other synth was on screen it was all I could look at. I actually had to rewind the episode a few times because I’d missed some line of dialogue or other.
I wish we’d seen something, either this week or last week, to make it obvious that Seven of Nine and Elnor were on their way, because the Artifact arriving at Coppelius mere moments after La Sirena was a story beat that I felt didn’t work in the moment. Ironically, after last week’s scenes on the Artifact being some of my least-favourite, I greatly enjoyed seeing Picard and the crew return there this week – albeit that the sequence was far too short. I wanted to spend more time there as Picard learned of Hugh’s death – which actually didn’t even appear on screen – and mourned him. But even in what I suppose was my favourite sequence there were issues – the length, as I mentioned, is one. But what was up with the ex-Borg calling Picard by his Borg designation of “Locutus”, which is the second time that’s happened now, only for Picard to basically ignore it and get back to what he was doing?
Elnor learned of Picard’s illness off screen too, which would have been another scene I’d have wanted to see – one which could have added some genuine emotion to an episode which was largely devoid of it. Some more time spent on Hugh’s death would’ve been nice too; Picard mentioned it in a single line of dialogue but Soji didn’t even acknowledge his sacrifice, despite their friendship and despite his death being a direct consequence of aiding her escape.
When we learned last week of the “Mass Effect Reapers” hiding out somewhere beyond the galaxy, waiting to show up and destroy all life, it seemed for sure that the climax of the story couldn’t simply involve hiding from that and avoiding pulling the trigger – somehow, Picard and co. would have to confront the wider threat. And we saw in Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1 the way in which that trigger will be pulled: Soji’s evil twin, Sutra.
Villains can be hard to get right. Rizzo, for example, took a while to hit her stride after coming across as a fairly one-dimensional character in her earlier appearances. The story has since fleshed her out a little more, providing her with background and motivation, as well as even the smallest shred of pity for what she’s been through. Sutra has very little of that, and unfortunately Isa Briones, who had done an admirable job portraying Soji and Dahj, didn’t really manage to pull off a convincing performance as an antagonist. Sutra’s motivations are understandable, sure – she wants to save her people from what seems to be an existential threat. But overall, the way she was portrayed strayed way too far into the kind of “I’m evil and I love it” attitude that felt so awkward and inauthentic about Rizzo in her earlier appearances.
I called this phenomenon the “24th Century Heinz Doofenshmirtz” – and I get that that’s a niche reference, so let me explain. In the cartoon show Phineas and Ferb, Heinz Doofenshmirtz is a wannabe evil scientist. He builds machines usually designed to get petty revenge on his brother or other people he feels wronged him, and he’s tied his entire identity to being evil for the sake of being evil. That’s what Rizzo felt like, and that’s what Sutra feels like now – she hasn’t bothered to consider any other options, she went straight into arbitrary arrests and plotting genocide. Perhaps she’s meant to be a parallel for Rizzo and Commodore Oh, but both of those characters feel far more complex. And I’m afraid the point must be reiterated: both of those characters were acted better.
The premise for her actions is understandable, though – just as Rizzo, Narek, and Commodore Oh being motivated by their interpretation of the vision is understandable too. As a story point, I’m not really criticising Sutra’s basic motivation and desire to protect her people from harm. And the way it has been established that both Starfleet as an organisation and Picard as an individual are people she and the synths might find difficult to trust was well-established over the course of the prior eight episodes.
Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1 has tried to pull off a last-minute plot twist with Sutra. Instead of the synths needing to be rescued from Romulan aggression, Sutra’s plan is to summon the “Mass Effect Reapers” and become the aggressor herself. But if the story of Star Trek: Picard has wanted to say that the ban on synths was wrong, and that even Starfleet and the Federation need to be more accepting of different kinds of life besides their own, what message does it send when the Romulans, who have been the season’s antagonists the whole way, are actually right?
The entire premise of the Romulans’ desire to exterminate synthetic life is that if they don’t, the synths will trigger this apocalyptic event – the arrival of the “Mass Effect Reapers” – and kill everyone in the galaxy. That’s a powerful motivation, and covers all manner of sins because, as the episode itself tried to address, there’s a calculus involved even when dealing with matters of life and death. If one’s intention is to save a trillion lives, it can be easy to justify ending 90,000. This is what the Romulans did on Mars. Star Trek: Picard – and Picard himself within the show – are trying to present this kind of ends-justify-the-means thinking as abhorrent, but that message has become incredibly confused thanks to the insertion of the character of Sutra and the revelation that she plans to do exactly what the Romulans fear that synths will do.
In yet another example of the episode racing from point to point, the name of this faction Sutra is planning to summon is not even mentioned. I’m calling them the “Mass Effect Reapers”, because, as I mentioned last time, they serve a very similar purpose to the antagonists in that video game series. But who are they? There’s only one episode left not only to find out who they are and what motivates them, but also to defeat them.
One visual element that I loved were the “orchids” – some kind of planetary defence system which resembles giant flowers. It wasn’t clear whether they were crewed ships or just automated, but they looked absolutely stunning and the CGI work to bring them to life was fantastic. However, as a concept I’m not sure they really make sense. Firstly, they seem to be single-use things, which seems like waste of time and resources. Secondly, and most importantly, they don’t actually serve a useful purpose when it comes to defence – in fact, they achieve quite the opposite. By capturing ships and dragging them – intact – to the surface of the planet, all the orchids manage to do is bring any enemies directly to the planet’s surface. If the ambition is to disable an attacking ship that plans to strike from orbit then that could be useful in the short-term, but all it really does is shift the problem for the synths to one they have to deal with on the ground. In the case of the Artifact, for example, it was dragged out of orbit and crashed on the planet’s surface – but if it were a fully-operational Borg cube the synths would then have to deal with tens of thousands of drones literally on their planet. Not to mention that no synths showed up at the crash sites of either La Sirena or the Artifact to apprehend their crews.
If the aim was to demonstrate that the Coppelius synths are basically unprotected, then why not leave them unarmed? Picard and his crew were going to land or beam down anyway, and it would’ve been possible within the story to get everyone to the planet’s surface without the use of a kind of planetary defence system that really doesn’t achieve what it should. At best it moves the problem from space to the ground, and at worst it could actually aid the synths’ enemies in a potential invasion event. In short: cool visuals, but an illogical concept.
I’m okay with the idea of Dr Soong – Data’s creator from The Next Generation – having a son, and that character following in his father’s footsteps to work on building synths. It might not have been my first choice of storyline, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. However, not for the first time, the presence of the actor’s name in the credits telegraphed the arrival of the character before we knew he would be appearing on screen. This happened in Absolute Candor, when Jeri Ryan’s name showed up in the credits, despite her character only appearing in the final thirty seconds of the episode. Spoilers are commonplace online, and because in the UK we get Star Trek: Picard 24 hours after its US premiere I have learned to be careful where I go online on Thursdays and Friday mornings! But for a show to spoil itself in its own opening titles is just plain silly – what would be wrong with crediting Brent Spiner in the end credits and making his inclusion in the episode and the reveal of his new character a genuine surprise? This has happened twice now, and it’s just not nice to know someone is coming before they show up on screen.
There’s also the question of the payoff to Soji’s dream – is Dr Soong supposed to be the figure in her dreams? There was the tiniest flicker of a hint at that: Dr Soong is wearing a similar outfit to the faceless figure Soji has dreamed about, and Soji seemed to do a double-take on seeing him, almost as if she recognised something about him. Yet neither of those things were acknowledged.
I did like, however, that Dr Soong is not a synth. When we’d heard of the existence of other synths I speculated that maybe some would share Data’s appearance in the way that some shared Soji’s appearance, but I’m glad to have gotten a human character instead. It was unexpected and interesting – and hopefully the plot thread of Dr Soong transferring himself into a synthetic body will be explored further.
Unfortunately, like all of the various competing stories in Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1, this was barely touched on and needed much more development. In a way, this encapsulates the problem with introducing a whole new civilisation and cast of characters in the final two episodes. There simply isn’t enough time remaining for Dr Soong and Sutra and the other synths to all have their own stories that are as detailed and interesting as those stories we’ve already seen playing out for the past eight episodes. Given how rushed this episode felt, and how it tried to cram so much into a 45-minute runtime, some elements – like Dr Soong’s desire to become a synth – could’ve been dropped to give more screen time to other, more important story beats.
And I think we’ve come to the crux of my complaints about Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1. The episode introduced several new major characters, a new antagonist, a new location, new obstacles for Picard and his crew to overcome. Yet it’s supposed to be the first part of the finale, and finales are meant to bring everything that’s already happened to a head and begin to wrap up the story. It’s simply too late now to open up whole new plotlines and for dumping whole news sets of characters onto the audience. The only story thread that feels somewhat concluded is Picard’s redemption in the eyes of Elnor – and that had arguably already happened in The Impossible Box.
The story of Star Trek: Picard has been, at points, meandering. The diversions to Vashti and Nepenthe in particular were close to standalone stories, taking Picard on a personal journey through parts of his past. And they were good stories, giving Picard the chance to redeem himself with Elnor, a character he’d been a kind of substitute father to, and to draw on the advice of two of his former crew: Riker and Troi. And of course for us as the audience to see those characters return was a nostalgic treat. Yet the revelations in Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1 that Sutra actually wants to fulfil the Romulans’ prophecy and bring about the end of days, and that Dr Soong is hoping to transfer himself to a new body make those episodes feel, in retrospect, like wasted time. If there was all this important plot to get through before the season ended, we should have been spending our time here, having Picard and his crew arrive on Coppelius earlier to allow more time for these “main” story beats to be properly and fully explored.
As it is, Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1 feels like an episode that should mark the halfway point in the story and in the season. Sutra needs time to explore the vision in more detail, figure out who to contact and how to contact them, rally her people to her newfound cause, demonstrate to the audience precisely what the implications of summoning the “Mass Effect Reapers” will be, who that faction even is, work out a plan, and above all, develop as a character and let us get to know her. Dr Soong needs more screen time too – he needs to explain what this vaguely-hinted-at illness is that means he needs a new body, show how and why he’s failed at successfully building it so far despite being surrounded by hyper-intelligent synths, demonstrate what Dr Jurati can do to help that means he needs her support, and show us as the audience whether he’s a “good guy” or a “bad guy” because right now he’s ambiguous. Ambiguity in characters is fine, and it’s even good in some cases as it ramps up the tension and mystery. But when a character’s motivations and goals are unclear simply because they haven’t had sufficient time in the story for us to know anything about them, well that just isn’t very interesting. Worse, it can be frustrating.
Instead of taking its time, Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1 tried to cram everything I listed above into about thirty minutes of screen time. I’d absolutely argue, based on what we saw this week, that there’s several episodes’ worth of story there, and that’s what I mean when I say the episode felt so poorly-paced and rushed.
There were several other moments that could have been spread out across multiple episodes. Picard and his crew trekking from La Sirena to the Artifact and then to Coppelius Station, for example. Instead we got a single drone shot of them walking and that was it. For an older man hiking over rough terrain, initially several kilometres away from where he needed to go, Picard isn’t exactly going to be speedy and we could have had several scenes with ample time for character development both on the way to the Artifact and on the way from the Artifact to Coppelius Station. There was certainly scope for more time spent with Seven of Nine, Elnor, and the xBs. It’s totally unclear what will happen to them now – are they marooned on Coppelius? Can the Artifact be repaired again and get back into space? What are their objectives? Is Seven of Nine their leader? Are the xBs even thinking for themselves? Have they got over their assimilation experiences? How many survived? So many unanswered questions, and given how much time we spent on the Artifact in earlier episodes, to just try to brush it all away and move on to this new story about Sutra, Dr Soong, and the attempts to trigger armaggeddon and/or fight the Romulans leaves a lot of things unresolved.
There’s also a point of consistency, and it connects to something I wrote in my review of The Impossible Box. When Narek finally got Soji to explore her memories, she provided two clues to the location of her homeworld: electrical storms and two red moons. We saw the red moons in the episode, but where was the storm? Narek and Rizzo took it to mean that the planet had “constant” storms, and even Kestra used this information to ask Capt. Crandall to find the planet’s location in Nepenthe. I felt that two clues did not provide much information to go on when locating a planet, especially as lots of locations can have occasional lightning storms rather than suffer from them continuously, but for one of the two established features of Coppelius to be ignored entirely – and for that point, which had been important in earlier episodes, to not even be given lip service just adds to the sense that there was too much to cram into Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1. Otherwise the show’s creators are being inconsistent – setting up story points that work in one episode but are ignored in others. Another example of this is from Stardust City Rag where Maddox said his lab had been destroyed. Picard was literally sat in Maddox’s room this week, and it didn’t look destroyed to me. Is that going to be explained properly, or are we just going to have to live with the fact that these inconsistencies exist and only served to drive the plot and get the characters to the right place at the right time for other story beats to unfold?
Picard’s illness was something that the story had set up way back in Maps and Legends that I’d been waiting to see some development on. We finally got that this week, as Picard suffered a blackout. His scene explaining to the crew that he had been diagnosed was one of the few emotional moments in the episode, and in particular I was moved by the reactions of Dr Jurati and Raffi. The “I love you” moment with Raffi later in the episode was both awkwardly funny and touching – and the pay-off to a relationship that had been built up and explored over multiple episodes. That scene was probably my favourite; a diamond in the rough.
Other points I liked were: seeing Commodore Oh on the bridge of her ship at the end of the episode, the Artifact emerging from transwarp, seeing Picard and the crew all together on the bridge of La Sirena, Picard’s speech about his illness, Raffi calling Narek Soji’s “asshole Romulan ex”, the synthetic cat and butterflies, and the costumes the crew of La Sirena wore after leaving the ship. None of these moments, however, could redeem a bad episode.
So I know this hasn’t been a typical review. I usually like to spend more time on each episode and break down more of the scenes in detail than I have here, but honestly I just want to see the back of Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1, and going back and re-watching it several times in order to pull out a few more points just doesn’t hold much appeal to me right now. I’m looking forward to the finale with nervous anticipation. I’m hopeful that the story can be concluded in a satisfactory manner, and that the currently-unresolved plot points will be wrapped up. Just because Part 1 didn’t hit the mark, that doesn’t mean Part 2 will necessarily be a disappointment as well, and I remain hopeful that I’ll enjoy next week’s outing a lot more.
Remember to stay tuned for the theory post in the next few days, as I check a few more off the list!
The first nine episodes of Star Trek: Picard’s first season are 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.