In which the crew evidently took a break mid-episode to remember how keeping your cover intact is supposed to work.
We open in a wreched hive of scum and villainy. I’m not sure this set isn’t actually the Mos Eisley Cantina. Troi, in her civvies, is looking for someone and using both aplomb and guile, because I like those words. She’s also put on a bit of an affected accent, and seems to be describing Picard. Sadly, this bar is known for its discretion. Nor have Riker and Worf gotten anything more than vague leads and oh lookey Beverly’s here too. A whole bunch of threats get bandied around, but ultimately the alien decides to tell what he knows despite the person who threatened his life still being in the shot.
Picard was around a short while ago, talking to some aliens, who threw him against a wall. There’s also evidence of damage consistent with a weapon discharged, after which discovery their witness confirms that Picard was vaporized. Troi confirms the truthiness of this statement. Also, let’s talk about how Crusher pulled out her Starfleet service pistol in the middle of a criminal hive and all she gets is a “who are you people” from their lead. Just because she was done with her cover doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t have gotten up, screamed “it’s the fuzz!” and ran out.
Riker is now acting captain, possibly permanently, now that Picard is officially dead. Riker is also somewhere between the first two stages of grief, and not ready to mourn until someone answers for this. A nice little touch – when a call from Admiral Chekote (not to be confused with anyone else) comes in, Riker says he’ll take it in the ready room. Not his ready room. Just a neat little piece of character scriptwriting. Riker has also requested the discretion to take point on the investigation, stepping on some jurisdictional toes. Chekote agrees, and the Enterprise is officially placed on detached duty whose mission is whatever Riker says it is.
The alien lead is taking full advantage of being on a Federation ship with a replicator. He’s trying to bargain for a shuttlecraft, but after badly misjudging Riker’s tolerance for games settles for a light sentence in a Federation prison rather than a Klingon one. Turns out the aliens that killed Picard were a mercenary crew and heading to the Baradas system.
The planet is full of ruins from a two-thousand-year-old civilization, and Riker is going down over the objections of Data, who’s parroting Riker’s own hypothetical objections against Picard leading a hypothetical away mission. On the surface, Riker, Worf, and the rest of the away team find an archaeological dig in progress and a dead ensign. Oh wait no, they brought that one with him. A firefight ensues, Riker takes some rock shrapnel to the face and gets knocked out and then kidnapped.
Shortly thereafter, the mercenary ship makes its escape. Bear in mind that their ship is the size of one of the Enterprise nacelles, and the only reason it doesn’t get immediately disabled with a single targeted terawatt phaser burst is that Riker is on board. Fortunately for the mercenaries, their ship is fairly stealthy on long-range sensors, and having lost the initiative, Data has lost the pursuit. Therefore, the next plan is detective work, because Data is in charge and Data loves detective stories.
On the bandit ship, the captain is being very demanding about getting the engines repaired and getting answers from Riker. He’s got agonizer technology! Apparently, his predecessor implaned pain implants in the entire crew to keep discipline. And then got lax. Plus, it can be targeted and activated with a single touch. It kind of looks like the Merc captain, Baran, is targeting specific people by pointing the hip-mounted control at them, but I think the thing might be like a lot of other tech in this universe, and have a low-level telepathic field that responds to user intention. Just enough to designate targeting.
And Picard is among them, and seems to be a member of the crew. He argues towards killing Riker, and he’s going by Galen. He seems to be establishing an alternate backstory for Riker that will make Baran believe he’s an asset, then creates an opening so that Riker can prove himself useful while establishing an enmity between them. He’s no Michael Westin, but it’s a solid play.
Apparently, the mercenary weapons have the ability to paint target dots for transporters, which is why Picard was ‘vaporized.’ That’s a pretty nifty bit of tech. The reason Picard is here is because someone raided one of his sites, and he managed to convince the crew that he’s a smuggler, and is being kept on to scan stolen Romulan artifacts for a known energy signature. This is likely shorthand for a spectrum of radioactive isotope dating, and he’s looking for artifacts from a specific period and manufacture.
The next step of this heist is a Starfleet outpost, and Picard suggests forcing Riker to use his Starfleet access to compromise the facility as the preferable alternative to a firefight and civilian casualties. With that plan generated, Picard goes to do his job of cataloging broken pottery. Finally able to practice his passion as a vocation, Picard is suddenly in a perfect position to discover that archaeology is largely painstaking gruntwork and is mind-numblingly boring compared to running a starship or running a heist.
Also, Baran’s second in command, a Romulan woman, seems to be either fishing for mutinous thoughts or trying to build allies for a mutiny of her own. Or flirting. Possibly all three. The point being there’s an interesting power dynamic on this ship. When they arrive at the outpost, Riker fails to get them to drop shields, and then has to order Data to back off. He also uses some command codes to drop the shields, even knowing that Starfleet has updated its security procedures and changed his codes as soon as he was captured. This probably became policy after Wolf 359. Data picks up on this and plays along, and Picard shoots his own ship down.