There’s a lot going on in “Stardust City Rag.” We’ve got the return of Voyager legend Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine. We’ve got a costumed caper that feels ripped right out of Star Trek’s cheesy core. We’ve got big twists in Star Trek: Picard’s ongoing mysteries. But above all, we’ve got a realisation that our crew have all been lying to themselves, in ways big and small, and how tragically, beautifully human that all is.
“Stardust City Rag” is perhaps paradoxically Picard’s funniest and darkest episode yet, balancing a timeless Star Trek tradition—comical, disguise-driven capers on alien worlds—with some major insight into our motley crew of the heroes, the damage that they all carry with them, and how they all cover it up. Both of these things are brought to the episode primarily through the lens of Seven of Nine, who, after making a dramatic entrance on La Sirena at the end of last week’s episode, finds herself pulled along for Picard’s ride to the seedy planet of Freecloud, finding out that the ex-Admiral’s hunt for Bruce Maddox will allow her to cross paths with a mobster and former ally named Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan).
From the get-go, Picard and Seven are presented at uneasy odds, despite their shared common ground as former Borg. The opening moments show just how much grimmer Seven’s post-Starfleet life has been in comparison to Picard’s, and just how dire the state of the galaxy is. She’s now as a “vigilante” member of a group of peacekeepers called the Fenris Rangers, patrolling what was once the neutral zone between the Federation and Romulan Star Empire’s interstellar reaches. The revelation that a black market for Borg parts has become commonplace in the lawless remnants of the neutral zone carries a devastatingly personal cost for Seven. She discovered that Icheb, essentially her adoptive child aboard Voyager, one of several ex-Borg children the ship collected in its time in the Delta Quadrant—the only one to come with the ship back home—had been kidnapped from his Starfleet vessel and brutally harvested for parts, leading to her being forced to euthanize him.
Picard’s attitude to her involvement with the Rangers, just as he was with both Raffi and Elnor, once again speaks to the privilege he received in his own retreat from the world after resigning from Starfleet: he chides her from his moral high horse for taking her the law into her own hands, despite the fact that literally what he’s doing right now is taking the law into his own hands. What law, Seven retorts—the lie they tell to themselves to believe their cause is just, whether that’s Picard’s belief that his actions are to wrong the injustices of the Federation at large, or Seven’s own that her vigilantism will enact as some semblance of peace or purpose.
It is just the first of many lies our heroes tell themselves in the episode but first: that aforementioned costume caper! After discovering that Maddox is being held by Bjayzl for a trade with the Tal Shiar, Raffi sets up Picard, Rios, and Elnor as faux-criminals looking to offer their own trade in exchange: the suddenly very conveniently positioned Seven, jam-packed with Borg bits. It’s a moment of levity in an episode that desperately needs it: Raffi relishing in making Rios and Picard look as dumb as possible in their bold, gaudy disguises is brilliant, as is Picard’s accustomed ease to bad accents and silly hats from a lifetime of cosplaying on the Enterprise’s holodeck. But all it really does is set the stage for things to go downhill very quickly for our crew.
Let’s start with Raffi, who declines to participate in the team’s hijinks on Freecloud to part ways with them altogether, as she promised to do back when she first boarded La Sirena. For all the airs and graces she puts on in her farewell to Picard, it’s quickly revealed that the motives behind Raffi’s exit are as personal and bittersweet as Seven’s: she wanted to go to Freecloud to try and repair a broken relationship with her son. As Raffi previously railed to Picard, she was not afforded the same graceful, ennobled exit from Starfleet as he was. Her firing in the wake of the Mars attack effectively destroyed her life, as she turned to drugs and her theories about who was really behind it all. Her husband and her son Gabriel’s exit from her life were just a few more disgraces for Raffi to endure.
When Raffi finds Gabe on Freecloud, she tries to present herself as changed: she’s given up the drugs (or at least, has since boarding La Sirena recently, it seems), she’s given up the conspiracy theories (she hasn’t, otherwise she wouldn’t be where she is in the first place). But tragically Gabe can see through the lies Raffi is telling herself—until she drops the pretense altogether and can’t help but dive into her thoughts about the synth attack—and for all those lies she can’t let go of her past. Gabe, joined by his pregnant Romulan wife for an extra twist of the knife, is forced to do so for her, and cut ties entirely. And when she turns back to La Sirena as there now really is nowhere else for her to turn, she lies to herself and to those around her again, cutting herself off from Picard and the rest of the crew to spare herself the hurt.
Trying to spare that kind of human tragedy with a lie, whether to yourself or those around you, is the theme “Stardust City Rag” hangs on. It comes up again in the big climax of the episode as Picard, Rios, and Elnor’s parley with Bjayzl quickly turns sour with a little lie—well, more like an omission of the truth—that exposes Seven’s real role in the plan: Bjayzl was one of Seven’s former Rangers before deciding the black market was a better career path, and our ex-Borg is out for revenge. For a brief moment, Picard, once again from his moral highground, manages to get everything he wants, securing Maddox’s safety and convincing Seven that killing Bjayzl wouldn’t resolve her trauma over Icheb.
But it’s that which leads to the biggest lie of the entire episode. In a truly tragic moment, after the crew has beamed back aboard La Sirena with everyone in one piece, Seven bids her farewell, and asks Picard a question, one liberated drone to another: did he ever truly feel like he regained all of his humanity after returning from the Borg? Picard’s response is one of hope: no, but he is working on it, just as Seven is, believing that his words about taking the moral high ground with Bjayzl might have helped her on that path. Seven’s lie then, is one to let Picard believe in that hope for a little longer. After responding in the affirmative, she beams away—not to a waiting Fenris corsair, but back down to Freecloud, phasers in hand, where she promptly takes her revenge and guns her way through Bjayzl and her goons.
It’s a profoundly stunning moment not, just for us to revel in the momentary badassery of Seven, phasers akimbo, on the warpath. But also because this really is the humanity that Seven has taken on for herself: the anger, the pain, the violence of it all. It’s both very Borg, this unstoppable object, and yet also deeply human because she’s doing it all in Icheb’s name, of her grief over losing the closest thing she has to a son. She cannot afford the liberty of the humanity Picard chases, these heightened sensibilities of right and wrong, of not giving into the primal emotions of revenge. At least, not yet. Maybe with Bjayzl gone, now she can—we’ll have to wait and see, should Picard ever require the aid of a Ranger again, and take Seven up on her offer. But for now, she lets the ex-Admiral believe in a world that’s a little better than it is, the only mercy she’s willing to grant.
That said, I tell a little lie myself: Seven’s twist is actually the second biggest lie the episode has to offer. Because we end with the biggest twist in Picard’s tale so far: Doctor Jurati is absolutely not who she seems. After the private revelation that she and Maddox were more than work colleagues, his return to La Sirena is made shockingly brief, when a horrified, tearful Agnes reveals that she’s really on Picard’s mission to kill her former paramour, having been confronted with some unknown despair about his work on Dahj and Soji. As Maddox fades away in confused fear, pumped full of something unknown by his love, Jurati’s lie leaves us with only questions. But unlike the other lies of this episode, they’re not ones of her humanity or her capacity to feel.
Well, unless it’s the question on all our lips: who’s she lying for, the Federation or the Romulans?
Sometimes, you just hate to be right: ever since we got that glimpse in the trailers, I had a sinking feeling that body Seven was cradling would be Icheb, and lo and behold. Alas, that wasn’t Manu Intiraymi playing the poor, butchered ex-Borg (Casey King stepped in for the role here), but as a Voyager fan, I wasn’t expecting to be so completely blindsided anyway over that whole moment. Poor guy came all the way from the Delta Quadrant, enrolled in Starfleet, only to go out like that.
Speaking of familiar faces played by new actors, it felt...odd that Bruce Maddox wasn’t played by Brian Brophy here—instead by John Ales. Given Maddox’s import to Picard’s wider arc, surely an attempt was made to bring the actor back, but I guess if Maddox was only going to show up here and get offed almost immediately, it doesn’t really matter if Brophy came back or otherwise, but given all the twistiness that unfolded in this episode, I can’t shake the bizarre and incredibly baseless theory that Ales’ Maddox could’ve been a synthetic replacement and the real Maddox could show up.
All the gaudy space fashion in this episode is incredibly good, in that it feels less like a modern interpretation of what people would wear in the future, but a modern interpretation what like, TNG-era creatives would think people are wearing in the future. Holowings! sparkly dresses! Feathered hats!
Upon realising that last week’s line about “comms chatter” going wild was basically the 2399 version of blowing up on Twitter, this week’s holographic take on tailored internet pop up advertising is both making me want to see more of Star Trek’s future extrapolation of our current hell, and also less of it because my god it’s depressing.
Bless Elnor, the only person in this episode who’s just atrociously bad at lying to people, but has zero qualms with participating in a stick-up, complete with dual phasers pistols.