With the setting, stakes, and key players already introduced, this week’s Star Trek: Picard is tasked with maintaining momentum and adding some new wrinkles to the season’s ongoing mystery. While definitely a “middle chapter,” “Watcher” is nevertheless a strong episode that gives each member of the ensemble something fun to do and highlights one particularly exciting guest star. At the same time, my personal viewing experience was hindered for the dorkiest reason — inconsistent continuity with a Next Generation episode from 30 years ago.
In last week’s episode, Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) plugged her mind into the ailing Borg Queen and extracted two urgent pieces of information. Now, the team knows that they have only three days to prevent a catastrophic change to their timeline, and they have the coordinates to someone called a “watcher” who can assist them on their quest. The coordinates lead Picard to a bar in Los Angeles that has been owned and operated by his friend Guinan for centuries. There, he finds a younger Guinan (now portrayed by Ito Aghayere) packing her things and closing up shop. Fed up with our planet’s mounting social injustice, Guinan plans to leave humanity behind for good. Picard assumes that Guinan is the “watcher” he’s been looking for, and tries to convince her to stay and help save humanity’s future. But, from Guinan’s perspective, Picard is a stranger, a weird old man who claims to be from the future but refuses to even give his name.
Here’s the thing: no matter how you look at the timeline, Guinan and Picard have already met. One hundred and thirty years earlier, in the Next Generation two-parter “Time’s Arrow,” a 24th century Picard and a 19th century Guinan work together to prevent malevolent aliens from wiping out humanity. This begins a paradox that leads to their deep bond, which they both describe as “beyond friendship.” It’s a critical moment in their relationship, and given that Star Trek: Picard typically revels in callbacks to Trek’s past, this uncharacteristic shrug to continuity made this subplot a bit frustrating to watch. “Time’s Arrow” may not have made the same cultural stamp as the oft-referenced “The Best of Both Worlds,” but it still counts, and it’s right there on the Paramount (PARA)+ app for curious viewers to check out. It’s also the story that establishes that Guinan used to live on Earth posing as a human, something that is accepted as given in “Watcher.” So are we supposed to remember “Time’s Arrow” or aren’t we?
Compounding the problem this episode’s numerous winks to other older episodes and films. The punk on the bus is the same guy from The Voyage Home. Guinan donates her belongings to the 21st Street Mission, which shares a name with Edith Keeler’s shelter in “The City on the Edge of Forever.” There are multiple references to Picard’s favorite pulp detective Dixon Hill, a newspaper headline that namechecks the tech mogul from “Past Tense,” and a pavilion named for the inventor of Nomad from “The Changeling.” The storytellers place in all of these mnemonic cues to remind us of other episodes, but ignore the one that’s relevant to the story we’re currently watching. Even after Picard finally reveals his name to Guinan, she appears to recognize it not from personal experience, but in connection to the mystery of the Watcher — there’s no indication that Guinan recalls that he’s the man who saved her life in the 19th century and whose friendship she’ll seek out in the future.
If you are unaware of this continuity snafu, however, Picard and Guinan’s scenes together are quite effective. Ito Aghayere brings a different energy to Guinan, an exhaustion with life in a crumbling society where she suffers unjust hardship because of her skin color. Guinan succinctly outlines our planet’s overarching ills in language that we’ve all heard before, but with the additional frustration of a being who knows better than anyone born on this planet that it doesn’t have to be like this. She delivers a monologue on humanity’s self-destruction as preachy as any Star Trek speech, but with such passion and sincerity that it works. (It’s also as succinct a summary of our contemporary problems as you’ll find anywhere.) As Guinan, Aghayere doesn’t confine herself to doing a Whoopi Goldberg impression, but there are moments (like when she’s sitting in her truck with Picard) when her body language and cadence are stunningly familiar.
Across town, Raffi and Seven learn that Rios has been arrested by ICE and is being held pending deportation. Concerned that Rios may soon disappear into some remote detention facility, they steal a cop car and set off to rescue him, all the while pursued by the LAPD. Michelle Hurd and Jeri Ryan have settled into a buddy cop rhythm, with Raffi cast as the reckless hothead and Seven her by-the-book foil. Add in their unresolved romantic friction, and you get a textbook but entertaining dynamic. The car chase itself is firmly “good enough for TV,” a novelty since you rarely see a car chase on Star Trek. It doesn’t provide any real jeopardy, but it does give Raffi and Seven an excuse to bicker like a married couple in a sitcom. By the end of the episode, they’ve escaped pursuit and are preparing to spring Rios from ICE custody.
“Watcher” outlines the broad strokes of what makes ICE so terrifying — that the people they arrest can drop right off the map — but there’s no hint at any of the further, more monstrous abuses that the agency is alleged to have enabled or participated in. Rios’ short time in custody doesn’t begin to communicate the scale or scope of the evil that’s been done in the name of “protecting our borders,” though this might be a story convenience to protect our characters from an impossible choice. Rios’ shipmates continually remind each other to protect the timeline and “watch out for butterflies.” Springing a busload of detainees (which appears to be Raffi’s rescue plan) might be something they can get away with, but an entire detention center might create too much of a ripple in space-time, and nobody wants to see their TV heroes turn their backs on people in need.
Across the globe in France, Dr. Agnes Jurati has stayed behind to fix La Sirena, which means she’s alone in the company of our villain-in-a-box, the Borg Queen. The Queen continues toying with Jurati, attempting to exploit her insecurities and convince her to grant her more access to the ship’s systems. Jurati turns the tables, once again tricking the Queen into assisting the mission while giving her nothing in return. While I lamented last week that the Borg Queen is basically a very verbose punching bag, I’m finding her ongoing battle of wills with Jurati to be one of the season’s more interesting threads. Back on Voyager, Janeway or Seven of Nine would best the Queen and that would be the end of the story. In this serialized context, her defeats seem like they’re building towards something. This conflict is also helping us to get to know Jurati better, and learn along with the Queen that she’s not to be trifled with.
The episode closes with a pair of game-changing reveals. First, Guinan leads Picard to meet the real watcher, a being left on Earth in order to protect the destiny of a certain individual. After communicating with her through a number of telepathically-borrowed bodies, we see that the watcher’s true form is that of Laris (Orla Brady), sporting rounded human ears and a very bad attitude. We’re left to wonder what this revelation means for the Laris we know. Is she the same being, living undercover as a former Romulan spy? Is Picard about to begin another important relationship out of sequence with linear time? Second, we check in with Q as he tries to use his powers to induce fear in an unsuspecting human, and she chuckles to herself instead. This is further evidence that Q is suffering from some sort of ailment that is affecting his powers as well as his disposition. Q’s experiment also happens to take place near the offices of the Europa Mission, with Q wearing the project’s insignia on his coat. Is he just playing dress-up, as usual, or has he taken on a new identity and become actively involved in the mission? With six episodes remaining, there’s still a bit of runway for adding new questions before we start getting some answers.