Star Trek loves itself a nebula. It loves itself a starship that gets stuck inside a nebula. When that nebula is actually a living being? It’s downright giddy. This week’s Star Trek: Picard not only did all three, it used that classic premise to give all its characters a choice: come together or crack under the pressure.
“No Win Scenario,” the fourth episode of Star Trek: Picard season 3, builds on last week’s barnstormer of an episode where Picard, Riker, and everyone else aboard the Titan were having the absolute worst time of their lives. Turns out, there’s always a way to make things worse! With the Titan all but scuttled by Picard’s failed, hail-mary attack on the Shrike, the ship’s dwindling power reserves leave it in a tailspin down deep into the gravity well at the heart of the nebula. If that wasn’t enough, their power reserves are so low the Titan’s life support systems are very close to shutting down, so the crew is either going to freeze, asphyxiate, and/or be crushed by the gravitic forces within the nebula. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a changeling saboteur operating aboard the ship, and no one really knows where one of Star Trek’s most sinister foes is lurking, or who they are.
Suffice it to say, if “No Win Scenario” was about getting out of all these individual no-win scenarios and nothing else, it’d be a pretty tense, exciting episode of Star Trek. But Picard continues its strong streak this season by not really focusing on the hows and whys and technobabbles of these plot threads, but their immense impact on the characters—the pressure of multiple lethal scenarios compressing them into the best versions of themselves, primarily through a lot of hurt.
Riker, fresh off of his very public dust-up with Jean-Luc, spends any time he’s not trying to keep what’s left of the Titan together long enough to figure out a way out while reflecting on how the loss of his and Deanna’s son Thad—which he used to reassure Picard about getting closer to his newfound son last week—has left him emotionally distant, damaging their relationship along the way. Doing so lets him reflect long enough that if this is the end, he can’t leave Picard on the terms he did last week, leading to an emotional calming of the waters between them.
Picard, meanwhile, tries to spend what could be his last hours with Jack, retreating to the holodeck’s recreation of Ten Forward (the Picard bar, not the TNG one, alas) alongside several other distressed members of the Titan crew to try and calm his son in the face of almost certain death. It’s a powerful series of scenes, as Patrick Stewart exhibits a rawness rarely seen in his portrayal of Picard—human, funny, melancholic, a little expletive—and the bittersweet nature of it all is contrasted with a series of flashbacks to the actual Ten Forward back on earth, as Jack, unbeknownst to his father, surreptitiously overhears him regale a crowd of Starfleet Academy students about his history. There, Picard concludes when a student asks him if he ever intended to start a family, that Starfleet was his family, breaking the heart of his unseen son. But in the present, just as Jack and Jean-Luc are on the cusp of finding some connection together, the moment is thrown into emotional chaos instead... as a recovering Captain Shaw enters the bar.
It turns out part of Shaw’s animosity to Picard isn’t just the way the Admiral bludgeoned his path aboard his ship with his own legacy. Shaw was stationed aboard a ship that took part in the infamous Battle of Wolf 359, where Picard, as Locutus, led the Borg in a devastating assault on Starfleet. There were no heroic survival tales of determination like the ones Picard tells, Shaw bitterly rails at the Admiral, assuming this is the only chance he’ll ever get. He survived his ship’s destruction by being randomly selected to escape on the remaining life pods, then watching his friends die in his place. For a season already bringing as much Deep Space Nine nostalgia to the fore as it is TNG by making Changelings the big threat of the show, there’s a fascinating parallel between Shaw’s relationship with Picard and Benjamin Sisko’s relationship with Picard as seen in DS9's premiere, “Emissary,” 30 years ago in that the bitter recriminations of survivors of Locutus’ assault undo the man completely. Before Jack can come to his defense, Picard glumly accepts both Shaw’s hatred and that his moment with his son has passed, retreating from the bar and into himself while the Titan faces its doom.
Speaking of Shaw, the other rocky relationship we get this week comes in the form of his questionable bond with Seven of Nine, who is still technically awaiting court martial even as she runs about the Titan trying to do her job. Tasked by Riker with finding the Changeling saboteur as quietly as she can, Seven finds herself having to go to Shaw for help, who only begrudgingly agrees to offer information when Seven likewise begrudgingly admits she needs his familiarity with the Titan to find the saboteur. Seven and Shaw work together to trick the Changeling after destroying its regenerative bucket (which, apparently, tells us all Changelings copied Odo’s bucket design, which is oddly sweet) while Shaw tries to hotwire the Titan’s engines after Riker and the bridge crew come up with a madcap plan to get out of the living nebula. In a moment of catharsis, everything comes together, and it’s the important connections everyone has made in the pressure of this episode—Shaw and Seven, Picard and Riker, Picard and Jack—that win the day. When Ensign LaForge shows up to help Seven and Shaw, the former plays on her friendship with the young officer... goading her into revealing she’s the Changeling in disguise, referring to Seven as “Commander Hansen” instead of “Commander Seven,” as the real LaForge does.
And so, after all this tension and intrapersonal drama, Star Trek: Picard allows itself a moment of catharsis—the Changeling agent is dead, the Titan escapes the nebula (timing its velocity with the release of a wave of newborn nebula-jellyfish), and Riker even gets to return the proverbial favor and use its tractor beam to lob an asteroid at the Shrike on the way out. Everyone’s happy, everyone’s alive, and for the first time in a few episodes, almost all of Picard’s characters can catch their breath.
It’s a great climax to this opening chapter of Picard’s final season, even as it’s very clear things aren’t over. The question of just why these Dominion renegades want Jack Crusher still plagues Picard, and Jack himself is still likewise plagued by his strange visions. And, of course, albeit a bit battered, Vadic is still out there and eager to claim her bounty. But if “No Win Scenario” proved anything, it’s that even if things are bound to get worse again from this moment of respite, the crew aboard the Titan, in spite of their differences, are more than ready to face the pressure.
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