Star Trek: Picard’s premiere re-introduced us to a world where the Federation feels more beaten back and weary of its ideals than it has in years—even than when it was actively at war. Its second episode reveals this weariness has rendered its finest champions frustratingly aimless, to the advantage of friend and foe alike.
“Maps and Legends” is an episode almost entirely predicated on the realisation that the Federation’s despaired retreat from its loftiest of values in the wake of both the synthetic attack on its Mars drydocks and the destruction of the Romulan homeworld has rendered Starfleet a total shell of its former self.
This retreat doesn’t just hold ramifications on the micro-scale of the quest Star Trek: Picard now finds its titular hero on—Jean-Luc attempting to track down Soji Asher, the synthetic sister of the now-dead Dahj—but the macro-scale of the galaxy at large, too.
The episode introduces us to these far reaching impacts immediately, with a parallel to Starfleet and the Federation’s own decline in the face of terror: the ashes of the Romulan Star Empire. Like the Federation, it too has faced a seismic change in the run-up to Picard: arguably considerably more challenging hardship, because it’s the literal loss of their homeworld.
But instead of retreating and cutting itself off—by and large the Romulans sort of do that anyway—and instead of heading into an existential crisis of what it does and does not stand for any more, the Romulans, as we and Jean-Luc learn, have reforged their devastation into a renewed sense of purpose. On the Borg cube Soji is working on, we see them making the most of a dire situation, scavenging its ruins not just to reclaim the severed drones now aboard it, but selling Borg salvage to sustain what remains of its peoples and more clandestine operations.
Those clandestine operations, meanwhile, have only gotten bolder and run far deeper than they ever have before. Acting on Laris’ hunch as a former Tal Shiar agent herself, Jean-Luc investigates Dahj’s apartment, to learn that not only is her sister off-planet but she is being hunted by a force even more dangerous and fervent that the Romulan secret police: the Zhat Vash, who are, essentially, Tal Shiar 2: Tal Shiarder, and for some reason, are explicitly devoted to the purpose of rooting out and destroying synthetic life across the galaxy.
But it’s not just the Zhat Vash’s death squads and their work through Narek (Harry Treadaway, making his proper debut in this episode after the final scene of “Remembrance”) on the Borg Cube, getting close to Soji not through violence but seduction, that speak to the Romulan’s control of their dire situation. It’s Laris’ reveal, and the eventual confirmation in this episode, that they have rooted themselves in the upper echelons of galactic rule, from the Federation to the Klingon Empire, the Gorn Hegemony, and beyond.
It is the infiltration of the first of those elements we see on full display here, when Picard returns to Starfleet HQ in the hopes that, in spite of his recent public outburst, he could have his command temporarily re-instated so he could build a team and investigate the Zhat Vash’s plans.
He isn’t just rebuffed—rebuffed harshly—but shown just how lax and dormant the current Starfleet has become. This isn’t the Starfleet Picard remembers, but one that is willing to compromise itself at any cost in an attempt to maintain control, control steadily slipping from its fingers, masqueraded out of a sense of “unity.”
As he leaves HQ empty-handed, he’s left to truly confront the realisation that Starfleet is no longer his home, the institution so beaten back by the Federation’s struggles that the mere thought of acquiescing to the demands of a former Admiral, even one as revered as Picard, is both impossible and insulting. And although he does not learn it himself, we learn that the Zhat Vash’s infiltration of Starfleet reaches its very core, when the Admiral Jean-Luc is turned away by reports his warnings about the Romulans to Starfleet’s current chief of security, Commodore Oh...an asset already turned by Zhat Vash agent Narissa (Peyton List, in disguise here as Lt. Rizzo).
As bleak a picture as this all paints for the Federation and its place in a tumultuous galaxy—withdrawn and ineffective as both allies and foes capitalise on its stagnancy—however, on a micro-scale it offers Picard the tiniest glimmer of hope. Now truly disavowed by his fallen former home, Jean-Luc can operate against the Zhat Vash in the shadows—starting with someone else left behind by the Federation in the wake of the synth attack, Doctor Jurati.
Her own research stalled by the Federation’s anti-synth ban renders her aimless and ideally placed to quietly nick away at the mystery of Dahj and Soji in her considerable downtime. It leads to her not just returning to Picard’s orbit, but giving him another theory to ponder: if Bruce Maddox was bringing Dahj to the Daystrom Institute to watch over her, why was Soji sent elsewhere, seemingly right into the hands of people that want her dead?
Jurati’s own research into the synths leads Picard to his other grim realisation of the episode, although perhaps more grim on a personal level than a professional one—he can’t investigate Dahj’s death alone, he can’t do it within the constraints of a Starfleet that now disdains him, and above all, he can’t do it with his old friends, as willing as they would be to go on one more mission together.
The pain of it is almost too much for Jean-Luc to bear, still haunted by Data’s sacrifice to save him, to consider asking people like Riker, Crusher, Troi, LaForge, and Worf to come along on a ride that would, in turn, tarnish their names in the eyes of a Starfleet they presumably still admire in some way, even after what they’ve done to Picard.
And so, Picard begins to gather himself a new crew: one built out of people likewise abandoned by the Federation’s current dire state. Jurati doesn’t join him quite yet, as much as Picard’s trailers have shown that she eventually will. It starts with a face familiar to Jean-Luc if not to us (unless you’ve been reading IDW’s Picard prequel comic, Countdown)—Michelle Hurd’s Raffi Musiker, an ex-Starfleet officer who clearly, like Jean-Luc, harbours plenty of regrets about the current state of the organisation.
But, vitally, unlike the crew of the Enterprise, Raffi’s disdain stretches to Jean-Luc himself—an anger that Picard (and a bottle of the ‘86) will have to overcome to bring her into his new mission, a challenge not of recalcitrance as it was with Starfleet, but his ability to effectively convey his latest sense of duty to someone else. If he showed up at Riker or Worf’s doorstep, they’d follow him into hell at the drop of a hat. Turning to Raffi not only shows how desperate he is, but the lengths he’s willing to go to convince people of the good in what he’s doing.
It’s a conviction a weary galaxy, and Picard itself, needs. With the Federation in this state of dismay that feels almost unassailable, the hope Jean-Luc Picard provides—that there are still good people who believed in its mission, that he convinces even those as intrigued as Doctor Jurati or as sceptical and bitter as Raffi of its potential—will be vital to combat that dismay.
Opening with the flashback to the Mars attack lets us glimpse the androids that opened the planet’s defence forces...but even before things get gruesome and tragic, it gives us a shocking window into the state of Android sentience and rights in this current era of the Federation. Given everything Data went through to achieve his own rights as a citizen, it feels alarming to see, even if of less advanced sentience than the Soong-Androids, these workers are kept in fancy shipping containers, openly derided by their human colleagues.
Did these Daystrom-designed synths replace the Holographic labour we saw in Voyager’s “Author, Author?” Does that mean Holograms like the EMH eventually got the rights to spare themselves being treated like tools, but Androids didn’t because they weren’t quite on Data’s level? Why is this show making me think so much about the right of sentient machines? Oh. Right. Star Trek.
So why are the Zhat Vash, in Narek and his sister Narissa, trying such different approaches in their hunt for Synths? There’s maybe something quite damning in the fact that, among his own people, Narek’s cloak and dagger is so effective in luring Soji in, while the discordant state of Starfleet lets Narissa be bold enough running around with death squads in plain sight and turning assets like Commodore Oh.
Jean-Luc’s quest is given a potential ticking timebomb in this episode, with the revelation from his doctor (and former co-worker aboard his first command, the Stargazer) that potential damage in his parietal lobe lingering from his reclamation from the Borg indicates signs of developing a terminal brain disease, regardless of his current excellent bill of health.
It’s an...interesting development, given how openly the show’s cast and crew have talked about their long-term plans for Picard, but still an intriguing callback to both “The Best of Both Worlds” and “All Good Things,” where Crusher’s own examination of Picard’s parietal lobe indicated potential problems down the line.
Yes, contemporary style in our world has radically changed in our world in the time between the making of Deep Space Nine and Picard. But I kind of find it hilarious that, by 2399, audaciously bold pattern prints and incredibly shiny fabrics have given way to muted colours and so much (frankly glorious) knitwear as the hot trends in Federation fashion. Every civilian in this show looks comfy as hell, and I love it.
Between the Zhat Vash, their experimentation with Borg tech, and the Romulans being by and large sneakier than ever in their quest to hunt down synthetic life, Picard’s beginning to draw some fascinating parallels to Star Trek Online. The MMO, set in its own version of the early 24th century, has a ton of storylines that delve into what the remnants of the Romulan Star Empire, and more specifically the Tal Shiar, got up to in the wake of their homeworld’s fiery end. It even involved the Borg, too! It’s cool to see a fascinating idea get mirrored on screen.
So, hear me out, CBS: You’ve got those live-action Trek shows in the works? CSI: Romulus, with Laris and Zhaban. Please. I’m begging you.