No matter how grandiose, science-fictional, or even just flat out bonkers it gets, deep down at its very core, Star Trek has always been a morality play. And so, as Picard sets up the fight to end all fights between its Romulan foes and the android paradise our titular hero has uncovered, it has become one once more—and so far its conclusions paint a grim future for our heroes.
The question “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” asks is one Star Trek has tackled time and time again: What is the true cost of sacrifice? From the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, to Benjamin Sisko burning up his own morals to safeguard the ethics of those around him in a time of war, what we are willing to sacrifice when our backs are against a wall is a familiar conundrum. Throughout “Et in Arcadia, Ego,” we see multiple characters tackle this, but we also see it questioned not just on a literal scale—what does sacrifice mean to a person and the people in their lives that that sacrifice would impact on?—but an existential one. When a situation is existential, what qualities are utopias willing to sacrifice first to ensure survival?
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The latter is an interesting parallel to the ethical decline of the Federation that’s been seen lingering in the background of Picard’s earlier episodes, and we’ll get to it later, but first, let’s deal with the more immediate, literal examination this episode tackles. As La Sirena (and Narek’s Romulan snakehead) find themselves conveniently transwarped right in front of Soji’s homeworld, Coppelius—quickly joined by the timely arrival of the Borg Cube, hijacked by Elnor and Seven—our ships find themselves yanked down to the planet by mysterious giant...orchids, the stress of which seemingly zonks out Picard in a bizarre delirium. His medical condition, it seems, has been aggravated by everything he’s gone through on his mission, and now that it’s been discovered by Agnes in her attempts to stabilise him, he has to come clean with the rest of the crew.
In the moment, it’s sobering. Jurati is already shaken enough about how much she’s had to do to navigate both the demands of Starfleet (well, little did she know, the Romulans) and the horrendous acts she’s had to commit to survive. So learning that the man who roped her into all this is gravely ill leaves her stunned. Raffi, for as much as she has loathed to see Picard rest on his privilege while she suffered in silence, is crushed by the thought of her friend’s impending end. Rios, who only just had to re-navigate the trauma of losing his last captain, now finds himself having to do so with another.
But the crew of La Sirena, and Soji, are emboldened by Picard’s own desire to use what time he has in service helping others. They can’t afford to break down, if only because, as Picard notes, it would piss him off to treat him like a dead man walking. But it’s also because that’s really what Picard’s sacrifice in this moment is all about: giving up the time to care about his own feelings so he can help someone else in need. It’s all they can do to offer him their own assistance.
After checking in on Seven and Elnor aboard the likewise-orchid-grounded Cube, the La Sirena crew learn of a much more immediate threat than Picard’s terminal disease: Narek has lead a huge fleet of Zhat Vash warships to wipe Coppelius off of the face of the universe. It means that Soji’s homecoming is not going to be an amicable return but instead, a plea for aid. One without hope, as whatever idyllic android society Bruce Maddox helped establish on the world now needs to learn that an organic army is on the way to wage bloody war.
What they find at Coppelius Station is indeed that idyllic society—androids in pairs, playing 3D chess in flowing summery robes and generally having a good time. They immediately welcome Soji’s return and her non-synthetic companions with open arms. They also discover another secret: Maddox wasn’t on Coppelius alone, he was working with none other than the latest in a long line of synth-developing Soongs. Brent Spiner makes another grand return to the show, this time as Doctor Altan Inigo Soong—who has seemingly spent his retirement just churning out set after set of synthetic pairs, slowly but surely developing this tiny, beautiful civilisation in peace.
But Picard and Soji’s arrival immediately disrupts that peace. The androids—one of whom, Saga, has even developed the ability to emulate Vulcan mind melds—extracts the dire premonition that shook Agnes to her core so long ago. But it’s not even the premonition’s existence that creates concern. It is its true nature, witnessed by the androids of Copellius as so much more than flashes of a destructive apocalypse. It’s a message to them, it turns out, from a higher form of synthetic life, that carries a warning that the more they develop their own society, the more the organics that made them will fear them, to the point of contemplating sacrificing their search to advance technology to exterminate this new form a life. A form of life, this mysterious synthetic race notes, it would like to see protected and thriving—and is willing to offer protection by exterminating the organics first.
This Admonition is capitalised on by another shocking reveal to Picard’s team: Sutra, the surviving sister of the synth pair that Rios and his captain aboard the Ibn Majid encountered years ago, is quick to capitalise on using the message to push for distrusting organics like Picard outright, regardless of their claims of offering assitance. Sutra is very willing to sacrifice the idealism of Soong and Maddox’s society in the name of defence...an argument that’s made rather well for her when it’s revealed that the synths have managed to capture Narek, exposed as the slimy, gaslighting synth hater that he is. No matter what Picard, or Agnes, or any of team La Sirena could say in the face of his presence pales in comparison to Sutra, and soon enough, Soong and the rest of her fellow androids agree.
But Narek’s presence has a particularly hard impact on Soji as well. She is in many ways like Sutra, beyond the fact that they’re identical (save for Sutra’s particularly gold-tinged skin). They’ve both lost a sister to organics that feared, or feared to trust, such advanced synthetic life. They’ve both seen the duplicity that people will go through to get them to let their guards down, and the costs that duplicity incurred. But where Sutra sees the Admonition as an opportunity to exploit herself—before the organics can—Soji sees that same moral conundrum. Joining Picard in Maddox’s office, she asks him the question that has defined so much of his own anger towards the current state of Starfleet: In a time of crisis, what morals are the first to go? What does it say about the willingness to sacrifice an evolved sense of idealism—to not give in to fear, to not give in to prejudice, to avoid the primal, base impulse of kill-or-be-killed—in any kind of advanced society?
It’s not just a parallel to the Federation’s moral retreat in the wake of the Romulus disaster and Mars attack, but a parallel between the two forms of life: When the existential back is against the wall, that evolved sense of being goes out the window pretty fast, whether you’re organic or synthetic. For all their differences, for all their divides, it turns out that particular fear is one these two very different kinds of beings ultimately share.
Well, maybe not Soji specifically. Her response to this crisis was to turn to Picard, the one person she can turn to to guide her in this moment, a compelling step in their relationship (it wasn’t all that long ago that she could barely stand to trust him). It’s Sutra’s response that sets the stage for all hell to break loose: freeing Narek from captivity, to let the inevitable happen—his prompt murder of Saga on his way out to his freedom—and provide her with the perfect excuse to sow the seeds of distrust against the organics, be it the oncoming Romulans or Picard and his friends.
As Picard, Rios, and Raffi find themselves on lockdown—Agnes standing with Soong and the synths out of her own feelings for Maddox—and the stage is set for war, all eyes are on Soji. What has she, in turn, learned from Data’s sacrifice for Picard so long ago, unlocked in all her synthetic memories, now that her own kind has fallen under Sutra’s charismatic spell? She couldn’t cross the line that Sutra did. But to save Picard, to turn the moral tide in the favour of good, what will she have to be willing to sacrifice?
As Narek makes his murderous escape, and team Picard begins to batten down the hatches ahead of the Romulan assault, the answer to that question of sacrifice will have to wait—its answer no doubt to come in ways more morbidly literal than theoretical in next week’s grand season finale.
Art history time! Et in Arcadia Ego is a 15th century French Baroque painting by Nicolas Poussin depicting a group of Arcadian shepherds gathered around a tomb. It’s commonly read as Poussin making on a commentary on how art and the creative process itself is humanity’s response to the concept of mortality—and that art’s greatest duty is to remind us of the dead, therefore robbing it of its fearsome hold on us.
Also, the title itself, translated in Latin as “And in Arcadia, I Am” is often interpreted as being a reference to the fact that even in a utopia such as the titular Arcadia (a region of ancient Greece often seen by Rennaisance artists as a perfect, harmonious land), death—the titular “I” here—still exists, a comment on the concept of memento mori (remember that you must die). So...appropriate, given everything that happens at Coppelius Station!
I am...somewhat confused as to why some, but not all of Soong’s androids on Coppelius have the weird golden tint to their skin. Why are some androids so lustrous, like Sutra, but others much muted? Is gold the upgrade to Data’s clammy, pallid flesh? Did Dahj and Soji simply look like humans because of their specific mission to go beyond Coppelius and into organic society?
One of the episode’s big lingering moments is that Soong (and Maddox, before he fled Coppellius with Dahj and Soji) has been working on the concept of memory transference to an android body. It’s initially framed as the fact that it’s Soong looking to put his own memories into this new shell, but I have a distinct feeling there’s a chance that either Picard could be offered it—a potential cure from his brain disease—or he’ll be offered a choice of having it for himself or using it to somehow resurrect Data for good. It’d tie in with the theme of sacrifice elsewhere in this episode, at least! We’ll have to wait and see.
Understandably little time was given to it beyond passing mention here—there’s enough going on as it is—but I really wish Picard had a better chance to dive into how Seven felt being reconnected momentarily to the Collective and the Borg Queen. Maybe we’ll actually get some of that next week as she ponders her future, as Picard suggested, as the next generation of galaxy-defenders? Or maybe Jeri Ryan should just get her own spinoff...