Star Trek loves all time travel, but perhaps the kind of time travel it loves most is a chance to take a sideways step into our current moment. From The Voyage Home to Voyager and DS9 episodes like “Future’s End” and “Past Tense,” Star Trek cannot help at times but to wrest itself from its future to play with our contemporary time — and Picard is proving to be no exception.
“Assimilation,” the third episode of Picard season two, is more of a middle chapter than it is a real progressive step forward in Picard’s current, scattershot adventure, smashing together both Q’s time-fiddling antics and, well, a literal trip back in time. Immediately picking up from last week’s escape from the fascist Confederacy that has replaced the Federation in this altered timeline, things start bad when poor Elnor gets shot. Then, they get worse when Picard informs Rios that in order for them to find out just how and where the timeline was tweaked by Q, they have to give over La Sirena to the Borg Queen (or what’s left of her) to plot a slingshot around the sun that will tear a hole back to the past, and the location of a mysterious “Watcher” who will provide team Picard with the next steps.
And if you thought Elnor dying after La Sirena’s power fails following a crash-landing in La Barre (he might get better if they fix the timeline, TBD, TBD) was bad, things are even worse for the crew: they have to go to Los Angeles! Oh, and it’s 2024, so, as diehard Trek fans will know, the U.S. of this time was not in a very good place in terms of, well… anything, really. It’s not reflected so much on-screen — although Raffi, who pushes aside her grief for Elnor to lead a mission to scan for traces that could expose something not of the current time to help track the Watcher, does promptly beam near one of Sanctuary Zones styled like those seen in “Past Tense,” and nearly gets mugged for good measure. But instead Picard uses the chance to be in a future quite near our own to examine more explicitly contemporary themes and struggles.
While Seven and Raffi go on a meet-cute at a nearby observation tower hoping to get an accurate scan of the area, this examination is mostly centered through poor Rios’ experience of 2024. Which honestly starts rough — the not-quite-operational transporter beams him out mid-air, leaving him to face a bloody hard landing — and gets rougher when he’s forced to confront both the state of contemporary American healthcare and the long, prejudicial arm of U.S. law enforcement. Taken in at a nearby medical centre run by a young doctor named Teresa (guest star Sol Rodriguez), Rios finds himself not just shocked at having to hazily adapt in an attempt to keep his nature as a time traveller secret, but after a raid by U.S. immigration officers on the centre leads to the arrest of both Teresa and himself — his combadge left behind. He’s left to confront the more explicit idea of what it means to be an immigrant and in particular a person of colour at this moment in time, an element that Star Trek’s past sojourns into “modern” periods have brushed upon but rarely had the chance to centre like Picard does here, albeit briefly.
All of the contemporary action in LA meanwhile is contrasted with another threat from the past that Jurati and Picard are left to deal with aboard the crashed La Sirena: the Borg Queen, herself momentarily knocked out by the power fluctuations and crashed landing, is now less of a frenemy and more of just well… a plain old enemy. A risky plan by the two to jack into the queen’s central systems — one deemed too risky for Picard given his history as Locutus, even though his new body has no direct connection to his former assimilation — sees Jurati expose herself to potential assimilation through a link to the queen, in the hopes she can gain access and at least partially revive the Borg matriarch and let her tell them the information they need to know. It’s an incredibly intense sequence, playing off the rapport that Picard and Jurati had throughout season one: a game of cat-and-mouse between the two to learn more about each other, but in this case a game that builds on that connection to keep Jurati rooted in her humanity. We get to learn more about her past and her real feelings about the people she now surrounds herself with in fits and starts, but it’s all laced with the tension that, the more human and open she gets in an attempt to ground herself, the more the Borg Queen could potentially overwhelm her.
It’s arguably the most threatening the Borg have been in Star Trek in a very long time, and even in victory — when Picard snatches Jurati out of the link at just the last second, and she lords over the now-reactive queen that she has no power over either Jurati or Picard, with all the information they need inside her head — the queen’s whispered threat that the real danger is that Jurati has impressed her makes for a suitably chilling moment. (And, of course, an inevitable hook for when things go even more horribly wrong for the crew at some point later in the season.) As Picard himself knows, no one goes mind-to-mind with the Borg and comes away unscathed — a past lesson learned that, like so many classically Trek elements that Picard is relishing in embracing here, is going to become vitally important as this story progresses. Hopefully it can keep this playful trend of lovingly homaging Trek’s past adventures going, without it all feeling a little nostalgic for its own sake. But for now, even as the stakes slowly raise, it’s good to see Picard is having a little fun with itself in the moment.
New episodes of Picard arrive Thursdays on Paramount+.
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