The Best and Worst of Star Trek VOY: Season 4

For previous installments of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

For previous installments of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

For previous installments of Star Trek: Voyager:

 

The Best:

Scorpion Part II, The Gift, The Raven, Year of Hell, Random Thoughts, Message in a Bottle, Hunters, Prey, Retrospect, The Killing Game, The Omega Directive, Demon, Living Witness, and Hope and Fear

320x240

In brief pieces:

  • Scorpion, Part II concludes the alliance between Voyager and the Borg against Species 8472, introducing Seven of Nine in the process;
  • The Gift sees Kes’ telepathic and latent psychokinetic powers begin to grow rapidly;
  • The Raven sees Seven of Nine experiencing hallucinations believing she is being called back to the Borg, but in fact, finds the ship on which she was assimilated;
  • Year of Hell is one of the best time-travel stories in the series, though, it also has a Reset Button;
  • In Random Thoughts, B’Elanna is imprisoned on a peaceful planet of telepaths for having violent thoughts;
  • Message in a Bottle sees the first appearance of the Hirogen on the series, as well as their relay network, while the Doctor becomes the first member of the crew to sent back to present-time Alpha Quadrant aboard the Prometheus-class USS Prometheus, where he meets the EMH II (played by actor Andy Dick);
  • Hunters sees Tuvok and Seven taken captive aboard a Hirgoen vessel;
  • In Prey, Voyager rescues a critically injured Hirogen on the hunt for a member of Species 8472;
  • Retrospect sees Seven believe that a weapons merchant assaulted her;
  • In The Killing Game, the Hirgoen capture Voyager and alter the memories of the crew into a World War III scenario aboard the holodeck;
  • The Omega Directive sees Captain Janeway carry out a top secret mission regarding the most powerful substance known to exist, meanwhile, Seven finds perfection;
  • In Demon, Voyager lands on a Demon class planet in order to refuel, meanwhile, a biomimetic lifeform is discovered;
  • Living Witness sees The Doctor reactivated after seven hundred years, the back-up copy tries to uncover the truth about war crimes supposedly committed by Voyager; and,
  • Hope and Fear sees the Starfleet message decoded finally, but all is not as it seems.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Scorpion, Part II:

Given how promising “Scorpion, Part I” was, it seemed guaranteed that “Scorpion, Part II” would fall under some heavy scrutiny. This is the resolution to one of the most promising cliffhangers in all of Trek, and the hope was that it wouldn’t be botched, because “part twos” to Trek cliffhangers have a pretty spotty track record.

Well, I’m happy to report they didn’t botch it. I think I may have initially set my standards a little bit higher than I should’ve, but as an episode of Trek and a resolution to the promising first half of sci-fi action, “Scorpion II” works.

But not, of course, without its share of problems.

Where were we? Species 8472—a powerful and malevolent race with superior technology—is at war with the Borg, and the Borg are losing. Meanwhile, Voyager doesn’t want to fall prey to the Borg in the relentless assimilators’ vast territory, so in exchange for safe passage across Borg space, Janeway agrees to help them develop a prototype weapon.

It’s a “deal with the devil” premise, which in part one was extremely intriguing. What would be the consequences of Janeway’s actions? What about the disagreement between Janeway and Chakotay concerning the issue? What kind of characteristics and motivations would Species 8472 take on? Would the Borg keep up their side of the bargain?

Combine the answers to these questions along with the fact that “Scorpion II” also had to add the series’ new cast member, Jeri Ryan as human/Borg liaison “Seven of Nine,” and you’ve got a story that had to cover a lot of ground quickly and plausibly.

Well, nine times out of ten, when you’ve got that much ground to cover in an hour, something’s got to give. And there’s plenty that gives in “Scorpion II.”

But, first, the good news. This installment does get a lot of things right. I believe the scene that sets the stage is the early one where the Borg collective announces its intention to temporarily bring Janeway and Tuvok into the fold to “better communicate,” using a neural transceiver (a device that makes sense, especially given “Unity” from last season). The Borg drones force Janeway and Tuvok to the ground and proceed to begin a temporary mind assimilation. Naturally, Janeway wants nothing to do with it. “That wasn’t part of the deal,” she says.

This is probably the most psychologically intense scene in the episode, because it’s what the Borg are all about—stealing your individuality by joining you with the collective. It doesn’t matter that it’s temporary, it’s the very idea itself—that of being forced into such a circumstance. It’s about here where it becomes clear the alliance with the Borg is all but destined to fail. The thing about the Borg—one factor which undoubtedly caused Chakotay to oppose the alliance in the first place—is that when they see an opportunity providing any advantage to them, they exercise all malevolence to take it. This scene effectively portrays this—speaks volumes, in fact.

The scene also makes another thing clear: “Scorpion, Part II” is notabout Species 8472. It’s about the relationship between the Borg collective and human individuality. It’s a reliable if familiar theme, and in many ways this is good, especially considering that the Borg are by far a superior storytelling device to the comparably hollow 8472.

Rather than using the neural transceivers, Janeway convinces the Borg to use a verbal liaison—like Locutus in the Borg’s “Best of Both Worlds” assault. This is where we’re introduced to Seven of Nine (whom I’ll call “Seven” henceforth); a character usage which is among the best things about “Scorpion II.” Jeri Ryan plays the role effectively (we’ll have to see how and where things go from here in subsequent episodes), managing to be intimidating in her Borgness. A few lines, especially the references to “small thought,” are reminiscent of the Borg Queen’s persona in First Contact. Her aura of superiority is always interesting to watch.

The other big selling point of this episode is the argument of efficiency in cohesive oneness versus the discord of individual opinions. This is represented, naturally, by the Borg’s efficiency to do things quickly (like beam crucial survivors to a Voyager cargo bay when their cube is unexpectedly destroyed in a bio-ship attack) and the conflict arising out of the difference of opinion between the Voyager captain and first officer. It’s the core that gives the episode its bona fide relevance. (On an unrelated note, the Borg’s assimilation of the cargo bay is a neat idea—very First Contact-like.)

The “oneness versus individuality” argument works for the most part. But I’d like to present a problem about the way things play out just for the sake of discussion: Ultimately, I believe, the story takes the easy way out by making Janeway and Chakotay both “right.” It turns out that working with the Borg does yield the weapon that defeats 8472. This makes Janeway (kind of) correct. But also, once the 8472 threat is absolved Seven takes the initiative by trying to hijack Voyager so the Borg can assimilate it. This makes Chakotay’s “scorpion” argument fully realized. To really drive home the point of the Borg’s evil, Janeway should’ve realized (perhaps even after the fact) that her decision to see the alliance through—even in the face of so many changes to the agreement—was destined for some major problems. It was foolhardy of her to turn a blind eye to Chakotay’s point of view given the circumstances. After all, as Chakotay pointed out in part one, Janeway’s desire to get her crew home doesn’t make her decision-making infallible.

Instead we get a line about how if Janeway and Chakotay can simply stop “fighting” each other, everything will be fine—which seems a little too clear-cut and naive; not probing enough given the richness of the material. But any episode that can raise this sort of argument is doing a reasonably good job in my book.

Once again, the production was all-around phenomenal. I loved the Borg set design, the makeup, and costume work (Borg are just so visually cool), and the CGI effects were very convincing. The episode also sported the return of director Winrich Kolbe, one of Trek’s finest in my opinion.

However, here’s where we get to some of the significant problems of the episode. For starters, the whole “magical cure” to the 8472 virus was entirely too easy. Ensign Kim’s recovery approached being laughably swift and succeeded in being dramatically shoddy. Here was an element that was a big concern in part one—Harry’s condition of being “eaten alive” was downright ghastly—but with part two, Doc gives him a magical hypo-spray and he’s cured by the next scene, end of story. It just doesn’t have any impact.

Ideas like this one are what threaten to make “Scorpion” fall victim to the same pratfall that “Basics” did a year ago: In part one the writers set up a number of impossible situations, and in part two they quickly resolve them with little regard to emotional payoff.

Less questionable, but still a tad annoying, there’s Janeway’s severe neural injury that Doc solemnly says will take “creative thinking” to repair. Janeway temporarily being incapacitated is crucial to the plot, but the suddenness to which she recovers feels iffy; and I was annoyed at Doc’s line that provided comic relief in the situation (“I’m two for two!”), because it was as if the writers were making fun of our own gullibility—hoping we wouldn’t notice the sudden convenience of Janeway re-entering the story’s equation.

The episode culminates with a visit to 8472’s realm, and the appropriate revelation that the Borg started the war between them by trying to assimilate and, when that didn’t work, destroy them. Then proceeds the big battle between the alien bio-ships and the Voyager, now equipped with the prototype weapons. This works well for action-packed entertainment, and the visual effects are great, but intellectually I was left a bit perturbed.

Not to get too nitpicky, but come on—if these aliens are really as powerful as they’re supposed to be, the bio-ships’ attacks on Voyagershould’ve easily destroyed it. (We are, after all, talking about vessels that can destroy entire planets.) Here we have an all-too-transparent, intentional disregard for continuity. Suspension of disbelief is the byword here, but not with full acceptance.

The ending comes down to the old adage of the ultimate enemy defeated by technobabble weapons. Granted, the road documenting the invention of the weapons was nicely traveled, but it still unfolded awfully easily and with even fewer surprises than I had anticipated. I recommend you just turn your brain off and go with it, because it’s much more fun that way.

But the thing that bothered me the most about “Scorpion II” was that parts of it felt like the standard Voyager Reset Button Plot. As obvious as it became that this episode intended to be about the Borg, I still couldn’t help feeling completely short-changed on Species 8472. We learned absolutely nothing new about them in this resolution; ultimately they’re merely a plot device. And although the possibility exists that they could appear again, there’s a bigger possibility that they won’t. Even if they did, I’m not sure what the writers could do with them given their simplistic, overlarge motivations to “purge” our galaxy. In the end, these guys are just shallow one-time villains. I guess that’s simply the unavoidable consequence of making such large “galactic Armageddon”-type statements in the first place. Braga and Menosky did all they probably could under the circumstances.

Yes, I think this episode could’ve been more than it was. Nevertheless, “Scorpion, Part II” is a solid premiere that gets Voyager’s fourth season started on the right foot—even if not quite on a springboard.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of The Gift:

Let me begin with some issues only indirectly related to this episode. Anyone who hasn’t been living in a closet (or who doesn’t have access to Usenet or anywhere else on the net where Trek rumors run rampant), has probably known for months now that Jennifer Lien would be leaving the series. I heard the unconfirmed news as early as April, and, as these rumors go, I took it with a grain of salt. (After all, Colm Meaney has been very widely but wrongly rumored as leaving DS9 for the past three or more seasons.)

Rumors have also been flying around as to why the actress was leaving. Most of the ones I’ve come across have alluded to the “fact” that Lien considered her character a disappointment, and that even Jeri Taylor admits the writing staff is at fault, having never giving the character the development she deserved.

Now, I’m not here to confirm or deny rumors, because, quite frankly, I haven’t the slightest idea why Jennifer Lien opted to leave Voyager. However, if there’s any truth to the said rumors, I must admit that I’m not particularly surprised. Because of her unique position on the show, Kes is one character that should’ve had some stories that she never had, and now never will.

Most notably, her telepathic abilities never went fully realized. They were introduced way back in “Time and Again,” and used once or twice between then and “Scorpion”—most notably “Cold Fire,” “Persistence of Vision,” and “Warlord.” But, really, it was used mostly as a plot device; it was never really ingrained into the character’s personality.

Then there was the long-standing relationship she had with Neelix, which I never felt was explored the way it should’ve been. And their extremely confusing break-up was handled so poorly that there was a long stretch of episodes where it wasn’t even clear that they hadbroken up.

Why am I discussing all this? Because it’s not every day that a regular member of the cast leaves a Star Trek series, and there are moments within the plot of “The Gift” that perhaps underline the possibility that Kes has been a character that the writing staff wasn’t sure they knew what they should do with.

We’ll get to that in a moment, because, really it’s ultimately less important than the episode’s other half. “The Gift” is one of those shows that has two unrelated plots, and if I had to label one of the plots the B-story, it would probably be the angle involving Kes. The main focus (and an effective one at that) documents Janeway’s attempts to bring Seven of Nine (separated from the Borg collective in “Scorpion, Part II” which took place just days before) into the Voyager fold, whether the lone Borg submits willingly or not.

Most of this angle of the story is pretty powerful. Janeway has sometimes been one for making decisions that can be described as “controversial,” and in “The Gift” she makes decisions for Seven of Nine that all but deny her free will.

Ah, but that’s the argument (I just love Trekkian arguments!). At what point would a Federation/Starfleet type like Janeway deny the requests of an alien guest? In this case it’s a bit trickier, because Janeway can’t simply allow Seven of Nine to return to the Borg collective. That could put the entire ship at risk of Borg assimilation. And, ethically, it’s even more tricky because Seven of Nine was assimilated at a very young age—she never really had the chance to understand what it meant to be a human individual before she suddenly found herself in the Collective among billions. She never had the opportunity to choose her life’s path, because the Borg chose it for her.

So it’s not surprising that Seven of Nine wants nothing to do with Janeway, the Voyager crew, or her chance to rediscover humanity. She wants to return where she can hear the voices of the hive—because she understands the Collective and is psychologically dependent on it. It’s all she has ever known, so how can she be expected to simply give it up? She can’t.

Indeed, the most effective and affecting moments of “The Gift” center around Seven of Nine’s dilemma. Menosky’s script allows us to understand her plight, and there are moments when we feel sincerely sorry for her. We can easily understand her attempt to hijack a communications relay and contact the Borg (which lands her in the brig). We can understand her rage toward Janeway for denying her requests. We can understand her frustration and loneliness; the voices are gone, and she’s left with emptiness.

One scene in the brig is particularly powerful, where she mumbles the word “one” over and over, then says, confused and distraught, “My designation is Seven of Nine. The others are gone. Designations are no longer relevant. I am … One.”

“Yes, you are,” Janeway responds, with a statement that says more than the obvious.

I think Janeway comes across very well in this episode. It shows her personally involved in a situation that will undoubtedly be one of the series’ most ongoing and deeply explored analyses of the human situation. Because Janeway forced this decision upon Seven of Nine, it may seem unjust or controversial on the surface. But the decision had to be made one way or the other, and the way Janeway goes about handling it makes it a very … human decision. Kate Mulgrew was all-around fantastic as ship’s captain and community leader. Her performance really evoked a sense of family throughout the episode, and I rather liked it.

And while Seven of Nine apparently accepts her fate by the end of the episode (which perhaps seems too sudden because of the way the A- and B-stories are assembled), this is very far from over. The character shows a lot of promise, and I look forward to future stories about her. Jeri Ryan did a commendable job, although I think the challenge lies ahead, in creating a believable character who won’t fully understand the human discoveries she will undoubtedly find. A unique bond between Janeway and Seven of Nine seems very likely.

But now comes the bad news: As much as the A-story about Janeway and Seven of Nine had me riveted to the screen, the B-story involving Kes’ sudden development of unique powers—an apparent evolution into a higher life form—fell quite flat.

A very big part of the problem is that the whole transformation is left so utterly inexplicable that it comes across as merely arbitrary. It happens far too quickly to be believable. It feels much more like “Well, we have to get rid of Kes somehow, so let’s make her transform into energy and lots of rippling light.” Kes’ bizarre abilities escalate over the course of the hour. First she can move objects like hyposprays with her mind, and before long she’s manipulating objects on molecular, sub-molecular, and finally sub-sub-molecular levels. The technobabble remains thankfully light, but this still isn’t really interesting in story terms.

The problem is that the episode doesn’t tell us what this means to any of the characters. There are far too many non-reactions to Kes’ extreme powers. I think a big part of the problem was time constraints. There simply isn’t enough screen time for both subplots to work—I was far too engaged in the Seven of Nine story to care about Kes’ story, which was too underdeveloped. Another problem is that since none of the characters really know what Kes is going through or why (Kes isn’t even sure, and I doubt the writers really were either) they have no basis to act. That’s fine in itself, but the episode zooms through the plot so quickly that it’s never evident many people care what’s going on, assuming they’re even aware of it. That I don’t think is fine.

There’s one scene with Neelix and Kes that looks like it’s headed for a genuine, revealing payoff, but it ends with a dumb joke instead. (Why did we break up? Oh, it was the cooking!) The serious discussion should’ve prevailed, but the creators took the easy way out, which left me irritated. Closure here would be nice, but we sure don’t get it.

The final act has a reasonable scene between Janeway and Kes, which gives the episode enough of a “goodbye” feeling without going into maudlin excess. But there’s also an “action” finale where Kes has to make it to the shuttle bay before she finishes her transformation cycle (or whatever it is), destroying Voyager in the process. This is fairly dumb and cliched; I could’ve done without it entirely. Kes’ departure is underwhelming precisely because the plot depicting it is merely a means to an end and little more. The unfinished scene with Neelix and the intentionally vague and perfunctory nature of Kes’ transformation highlights exactly the sort of thing that has held the character back for the past three seasons—and it’s unfortunate.

Ah, but there is Kes’ “gift,” which has some reassuring implications. She accelerates the ship to a very fast speed which puts the Voyager safely beyond Borg space—taking 10 years off the journey. I have some logistic problems with Kes’ newfound abilities—it seems awfully magical and convenient—but such complaints are ultimately unimportant. The shortening of the journey could mean a lot in the upcoming season. It could give the Voyager crew some new hope, and it will also hopefully invigorate the feeling that Voyager is truly exploring the Delta Quadrant. Time will tell.

So Jennifer Lien as Kes leaves Star Trek: Voyager, and overall she goes quietly. Quiet has its merits. Closing the episode is a fabulous tracking shot of Tuvok alone in his quarters holding a candle. It’s poignant and visually impressive. The special effects enhance the meaning: just one person who will ponder the fate of his friend—very nice. It’s too bad Kes’ farewell wasn’t this aptly handled throughout.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of The Raven:

There’s a lot to like about “The Raven.” It’s a handsomely produced episode that simultaneously adds some development to Seven of Nine’s character as well as further fleshing out her backstory—both good things. Unfortunately, “The Raven” is an example of a good story hiding somewhere inside a very tired one. There are moments of the plot here that are so contrived and cliched that they threaten to sink the entire episode. Lesson of the week: Take the story to its most broad emotional level and run with it. Don’t shoehorn in the stock, mundane plot pieces that don’t belong.

Though highly frustrating, “The Raven” is a passable episode. We’ve been getting to know Seven a little better in the course of the past few episodes. “Raven” takes the next logical step in her journey to understand humanity. The teaser opens with a good scene where Janeway tries to introduce Seven to exploring imagination through art and literature. Seven fails to see the point of such activities. They serve no discernible purpose. When she was a Borg she was assigned tasks; when she finished one task she began another. Now she wastes time “relaxing.” It is not efficient, she notes.

A little later Neelix introduces her to the concept of eating food, which is milked for some engaging, low-key humor. (How do you teach someone how to chew and swallow? I’m not sure, but Neelix seems like an appropriate instructor.) Jeri Ryan is a joy to watch here.

These are the types of things that we need to see. Being (A) the new character on the series, and (B) the Voyager take on the humanity commentary and identity seeker—a character vital on any Trek series—are two things that make Seven a fountain of storytelling potential. So far, this episode is probably the most striking example of utilizing that potential by putting Seven into a number of everyday human situations that she finds perplexing.

Some of the plot works okay. Seven begins having hallucinations and dreams that disturb her. She sees images—a bird, Borg drones chasing her—that indicate something inside her is not right. Suddenly, for reasons that are a tad too contrived and arbitrary to make any real sense, Seven’s Borg implants suddenly begin to “reassert” themselves and she instantaneously switches into “Borg mode” in an attempt to flee the ship in a shuttle. In an action sequence reminiscent of Data’s escape from the Enterprise in TNG’s “Brothers,” Seven walks through the corridors on her way to the shuttle bay, with her reinstated Borg technology making her impervious to the crew’s attempts to stop her with phaser fire and force fields. She rams her shuttle through theVoyager shuttle bay door and escapes, intending to follow a mysterious homing signal and rejoin the Borg Collective.

Apart from the contrivances, this setup is mostly fine and dandy; the action even proves pretty entertaining. What most certainly is not dandy, however—and manages to be an element of annoyance throughout the rest of the story—are Janeway’s negotiations with some xenophobic aliens called the Bomar—who, incidentally, wear corny outfits akin to a catcher at a baseball game. You’ve seen these types of guys before on Voyager—they’re the Hard-Headed Aliens of the Week [TM], a Voyager cliche that creates a forced confrontational situation merely so the episode’s problems can be artificially inflated. Not only are these guys painfully uninteresting, but they manage to provide a phony, contrived counterpoint to the crew’s attempted progress. It’s extremely frustrating and entirely unnecessary.

Janeway wants to negotiate a way through their space (it’ll save three months in the journey), but these people have a specific route they want Voyager to follow. The ship must never go faster than warp three, must not make contact with any planet in their space, and must stop at various checkpoints on its way through. If I were Janeway, I’d seriously ask myself if it’s worth a mere three months to put up with such nonsense. (Given the limitations of traveling through their space, one would wonder if Voyager would save time at all.)

Never mind. The negotiations aren’t that important; the Bomar exist primarily so they can be a threat to Seven once she enters their space in her shuttle. I was never quite sure how she was capable of taking on thirty of their ships at once; the story seems to think that because she has her Borg capabilities back, she also has an impervious shuttle. Hey, whatever.

The story improves when Tuvok and Paris take another shuttle to go after her. Tuvok beams into Seven’s shuttle and becomes her prisoner, then uses his respectable Vulcan logic to reason with her. The resulting dialog is good, and throughout the entire ordeal is the sense that Seven is psychologically incapable of ignoring the homing signal. She believes it is the Borg calling her back “home” to the Collective where she belongs, and she’s determined to find them.

What Seven finds instead is more interesting (which is reassuring, because I think we’ve seen enough Borg for awhile). Rather than the Borg, she finds upon one of the Bomar’s planets the wreckage of the Federation ship The Raven—the ship where she was once human, before she was assimilated. The episode’s best dramatic moments come in this scene, in which Seven relives the last moments of her human life prior to her assimilation. The flashbacks are intense images (particularly the sight of two Borg reaching for a helpless child), and Jeri Ryan’s performance echoes the character’s childhood fear quite well—I felt for her when she crawled under the bulkhead to hide. The sequence skillfully highlights the convergence of beginnings and ends. Twenty years ago The Raven is where her humanity ended and her Borg existence began; now it’s the symbolic final chapter of her Borg existence as she begins humanity anew. The idea provides some nicely realized closure.

But then, the exact moment the quiet dialog ends, the episode supplies the obligatory action finale, where the Bomar fire on The Raven from orbit. I couldn’t help but be amused by how hackneyed the whole idea was. Here we were in a perfectly done character scene, and the moment it comes to a conclusion the ship rocks and the music turns to “action” as the Bomar try to destroy Seven. (Besides, why are they so determined to kill her, and so deaf to reasoning with Janeway? Simply because Seven used to be Borg? The motivation here is so cardboard and overstated that it’s appalling.) The Bomar should just be expunged from the episode, as far as I’m concerned.

“The Raven” takes an atypical stab at imagery, but I have mixed feelings about the net result. It’s visually effective under LeVar Burton’s direction. Burton seems good at this sort of visual surreality, as demonstrated by such episodes as DS9′s “Rules of Engagement” and “Things Past.” But on a story level, I have some doubts. The way the episode tries to equate Seven’s dreams of “Raven, the bird” to her relationship with “Raven, the ship” doesn’t strike me as a genuine psychological connection. It strikes me more as a manufactured attempt by the writers to be symbolic—with ultimately transparent results.

The discovery of The Raven in Bomar space also continues the line of the “Voyager discovery coincidence theory,” that convenient story device that allows the Voyager crew to keep finding Alpha Quadrant elements in the vastness of the Delta Quadrant, despite such unlikely odds. It’s the same line of reasoning that allowed Chakotay to find his ancestor race in “Tattoo,” allowed B’Elanna to find the Cardassian missile in “Dreadnought,” and allowed the crew to find Amelia Earhart in “The 37’s.” It’s not a major demerit, but it is something that’s a little bit silly.

And, of course, what cliche-ridden episode would be complete without the Shuttle Loss [TM]? Seven’s stolen shuttle gets left behind in the frenzy of eluding the Bomar. Tally four for this season so far. At this rate, look for the count to be approaching 20 by season’s end.

Because so much of Seven’s backstory and characterization is so nicely envisioned, I’m going to say that this episode is still worth the time of view, despite its pervasive problems. But the plot’s cliches and just about everything concerning the Bomar prove utterly annoying. The show just has too much unnecessary flab. The plot has weaknesses that are weak in the most obvious of ways, and they too often shift focus away from the emotional drive of the story. Janeway and the crew may not get a shortcut this week, but the Voyager writers apparently took some so they could pad out this episode.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Year of Hell, Part I:

Part one of “Year of Hell” has some solid stuff. In a word, it’s entertaining. But there are two fundamental problems that keep this from being a standout offering:

  1. There are a lot of elements about this show that remind me of the “Basics” plot setup. Big events build a situation of an impossibly large scale of consequences, but with enough loose ends that it’s obvious we’re being toyed with and that part two will reverse everything by conveniently utilizing those loose ends.
  2. The emotional impact is somewhat undercut by the fact that this is a story last season’s “Before and After” already successfully tackled. The difference (and what could be the two-parter’s undoing) is that this chain of events comes purported as existing in “real” Voyager experience, rather than as one person’s artificial experience. And since the effects will be wiped clean next week, I’m not so sure where that leaves us.

So, what we have both despite and because of these facts is a refreshing “what if” premise. Anyone who thinks these events will have lasting consequences in the terms they’re given is either truly gullible or fooling themselves. This show is what it is: an interesting mix of slick sci-fi and good characterizations (if not completely engrossing) resulting from the “what if” aspect.

The episode’s format is fresh, beginning with the ominous “Day 1” appearing on the screen as the story begins. By the time the show ends we’ve covered nearly 2 1/2 months in some very hard times of theVoyager crew. On day one, the crew arrives on the border of space occupied by a race called the Krenim, a group first alluded to in last season’s “Before and After.” In that episode we were foreshadowed this “year of hell” by Kes, who was jumping through time and discovering facts in a “what if” premise of its own.

Now the “what if” is really happening—or so it seems. The Krenim don’t initially appear very threatening. But after a mysterious change in the timeline (which we’ll deal with in a moment), the Krenim ships promptly open fire. Their weapons have a “temporal” quality that allows them to pass through Voyager’s shields, putting the Federation starship at a distinct disadvantage.

Question of the week: Didn’t Kes tell Janeway and the crew about the future Krenim attackers in “Before and After”? I thought so, but apparently that’s no longer the case. I thought the first time the word “Krenim” was uttered here the crew would be stricken with a mortal fear and would do everything possible to avoid a confrontation. Nope. But, then again, the changes in the timeline caused by the first “incursion” that wipes out the friendly Zaal alien race makes any number of alternate realities possible.

One complaint I have about the Krenim attackers is that they’re a little too … well, boring. In “Before and After” they were faceless, fearsome enemies with neat ships; here they’re typical humanoids with neat ships. I didn’t fear them the way I did in “Before and After.” And the situation that pits the Krenim against Voyager is a little forced. The Krenim are the usual xenophobes who will hear nothing about a starship crossing their territory. They’re aggressive and arrogant; and in the altered timeline they abuse their power and beat up on anyone incapable of defending themselves from the temporal weapons. That’s okay, though. I can live with this premise even though it wasn’t built upon the most interesting enemy civilization. What makes this episode work in the end are the effects the premise has on the crew and the slick subplot involving the Krenim time ship.

Yes, that’s right—I said time ship. Commanded by an obsessed Krenim man named Annorax (Kurtwood Smith), the crew of this ship has separated itself from society and is protected from the effects of time. They have technology that can alter the timeline in any number of ways. Annorax’s intent is to rebuild the Krenim empire by wiping its conquerors out of existence. Precise calculations are necessary for the time ship to alter history to the desired effect. Annorax has been trying to perfect his restoration of the Krenim empire for centuries … and he has all eternity to get it right.

The time-alteration stuff isn’t particularly new (though it benefits from some neat visuals), but what makes this work is Annorax’s interesting, obsessed character and especially Kurtwood Smith’s engaging portrayal of him. Smith has always been an actor that I’ve found extremely watchable (his appearance as President of the Federation in Star Trek VIwas welcome), and here he’s wielding a low-key obsession that is nearly always kept reserved. He’s a patient, determined man; and although the episode doesn’t say it in so many words, it’s obvious he lost a family or someone else important to him at the hands of his enemies centuries ago—enemies he now wants to erase from the space-time continuum.

There’s a really good scene where Annorax’s first officer remarks that the Krenim empire in the altered timeline is thriving at 98 percent of what it “should” be. Annorax isn’t satisfied (probably because the colony he’s personally interested in restoring was part of the two percent that didn’t return). He quietly announces that it’s a failure, and orders his first officer to begin the calculations anew. When his first officer objects, Annorax remains calm and determined, and convinces his first officer to follow his orders again. Just how many times they’ve had this conversation is an interesting issue in itself. Annorax has an aura of conviction, a power of personality that motivates his crew to continue, even in a hopeless plight for perfection. It’s affecting through Smith’s performance, which is one of the best aspects of this episode.

This plot has relatively little to do with Voyager’s dilemma (other than the timeline machinations and the ending of the episode). Most of the story focuses on Voyager extreme troubles over a 73-day period. The ship takes severe damage. The production crew does a great job of ripping the ship apart for this episode; it’s quite convincing. The episode also benefits from believable special effects. The exterior view of an explosion of an entire deck made me wince, and the batteredVoyager hull in the exterior shots supplied a striking visual difference.

Most important in this episode, however, is the effect this has on the crew. If there’s one sense that “Year of Hell” exhibits, it’s that the crew is a pack of survivors. Everyone manages to do their job well even throughout the constant hull breaches, crew losses, and other hopelessness. That’s not to say there’s no change, because there is, most notably in Janeway. She’s determined with every fiber of her being to see to it her crew survives these attacks, but she has also become grim, sullen, and almost hatefully adversarial toward the Krenim aggressors. This is one no-nonsense Janeway.

This isn’t, as Chakotay once said, “business as usual”—and for once, it truly feels that way. It’s the little details that make the big difference in “Year of Hell.” Such details include a promoted Neelix; a blind Tuvok; Harry and B’Elanna playing a trivia game while waiting for rescue in a stuck turbolift (The first warp ship at First Contact was the Phoenix,answers Seven of Nine—the Borg were present during those events. The reviewer grins.); and the shattering of Janeway’s lucky teacup (read: in-your-face symbol of the week). There are interesting dynamics to be found in the character relationships, especially the teaming of Tuvok and Seven, which works particularly well. A lot of the good stuff in the episode comes down to little bits of dialog here and there—though I don’t feel the need to discuss them all, much of the Janeway/Chakotay interaction worked (especially Chakotay’s symbolic birthday gift to Janeway), in addition to a good scene between Doc and Paris.

The only thing I don’t fully understand is why it is Voyager is in this situation in the first place. After the first attack, one would think there was the option to turn around and go another direction. If Voyager did turn around, why would the Krenim follow? The episode never really makes it clear how it is Voyager got so deep in over its head in the first place. Perhaps the change in the timeline made Krenim space extend far beyond where Voyager had initially entered it, trapping them well inside hostile borders.

Never mind. After more than two months of gathering data from the attacks, the crew finally finds a way to defend itself from the Krenim’s temporal weapons. Unfortunately, using such technology interferes with Annorax’s time-alteration calculations, leading him to promptly track down Voyager and attempt to erase it from existence. I especially appreciated Annorax’s regret that he had to neutralize Voyager. He realizes that Voyager is an innocent victim, but it doesn’t matter—he has a mission to accomplish, and he’s going to do it.

Voyager is miraculously able to escape, but not before Annorax beams away Tom and Chakotay (and it’s loose ends like this that are certainly going to drive the plot next week—I just hope it’s not as transparent as “Federation crewman gains unauthorized access to the time ship controls”). With the Voyager in shambles, however, Janeway orders what she hoped would never happen—the evacuation of the ship and separation of the crew. Only a skeleton crew will remain on Voyager—everyone else will take escape pods and shuttles in different directions, hopefully to be reunited on the other side of Krenim space.

Without a doubt, the theme of the week is the Voyager family. The writers have really been pushing the crew as a unified family this season so far. From “Scorpion II” and “The Gift” to “The Raven” and now “Year of Hell,” it looks like the new direction of Voyager is one that centers on interesting sci-fi discovery (like the time ship in this episode) by one big family trying to get home. I can certainly live with that as a mission statement; I just hope the sci-fi interest can be interesting, like this episode manages—rather than hokey like last week’s “Scientific Method” turned out to be. Janeway’s speech about the subdivision of the family is heartfelt, though a little too stilted toward the end.

One thing I’d better make clear is that “Year of Hell” didn’t rivet me to the screen the way I expected it to. I was interested, yet, surprisingly enough, I wasn’t really moved much emotionally by the plight ofVoyager’s desperation. A better word for my state of mind might be “intrigued.” That’s too bad considering the richness of the material. I think a big part of the problem is that I’m worried not only about the inconsequence resulting from wiping of the slate next week, but that the crew won’t even remember what it’s been through—which would render all of this virtually pointless. That’s a problem I’ll have to tackle next week, though. For now, I’ll try to push it out of my mind and enjoy the “what if” premise on its own terms.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Year of Hell, Part II:

I could be needlessly vicious and rip apart the time travel implausibilities of “Year of Hell,” but what would be the point? The time travel motif is a firmly established device in Trekkian lore (heck, three of the Trek feature films were based on time travel), and the more you try to think about the piled paradoxes, the more futile and ridiculous the task becomes.

Some of the best moments of Trek have centered around time travel and the possible alternate realities that result from playing with the timeline. There’s TOS’s “City on the Edge of Forever,” and TNG’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and the First Contact feature. There’s DS9′s “The Visitor,” “Children of Time,” and “Past Tense, Part I.” What is the fascination Trek writers have with time travel stories?

For that matter, based on the reaction “Year of Hell, Part II” seems to be getting already, why is it that people are hating this episode simply because it “never happened”? I’ll admit that I’m part of the problem—I thought that we were destined for an hour of by-the-numbers plotting, ending with a frustrating push of the Reset Button [TM], and my review of part one ended with some not-so-hopeful predictions about part two.

Okay, so my predictions concerning the ending turned out to be generally right. The episode does end with the expected reset to “Day 1,” and, yes, it is quite frustrating that nothing that happened in these two episodes really has any repercussions. But, really, the case was similar with “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and it was a great episode. Lesson of the week: The success or failure of a “what if” premise that exists outside conventional Trek reality ultimately comes down to whether the drama within the self-contained premise is any good.

So, “Year of Hell”? Well, good, but not great. It’s no “Yesterday’s Enterprise.”

But nor is it the calamity it could’ve been. It’s a bit unfocused, perhaps. If you take into account the first part, the second half completely shifts its focus away from the first’s main theme. Part one had an element of family and tragedy when that family was lost, whereas part two doesn’t really seem to care much about that any more. Part two focuses completely on the nature of Annorax and the time ship, and Janeway’s determination to find and stop it. Ultimately, “Year of Hell, Part II” comes down to the analysis of two characters—Annorax and Janeway and the duality of their obsessions—which is where the real gold of this two-parter lies.

That’s not to say the plot and time manipulation mumbo-jumbo doesn’t get in the way in the meantime, because sometimes it does. One wonders if the implications of Annorax’s ability to “change the fate of a single molecule” is pushing the envelope of all-powerful Trekkian inventions just a little too far. Based on the infinite possibilities that such timeline manipulation would have, one would think the effects would reach far beyond Krenim space, and probably far beyond the Delta Quadrant. But, like I said, such critical thinking on something as inherently ludicrous as a “time machine” is probably just silly. I’d rather take a look at Annorax, the creator of this machine.

For starters, I’d like to send out a big “Kudos” to Kurtwood Smith, an actor who demonstrates his absorbing screen presence while making Annorax a fully realized character. The writers, too, deserve praise for making this character more than a cardboard villain set on doing anything to fulfill his obsession. Annorax is definitely an obsessed man, but his obsession contains motivations much beyond a personal quest to fulfill his own problem. His problem—trying to restore the timeline so that his wife is restored as well—is certainly his driving concern, but within that is his problem of bringing her back while trying to “minimize” the destruction he puts on other civilizations. “Minimize” here is an extremely relative term. His calculations allow him to erase complete civilizations from existence—and then bring them back again. With each change in the timeline he affects billions, sometimes without intending to. In a sense, Annorax’s ability to control time allows him to Play God in an almost literal sense, and one wonders exactly who has the right to be his judge. Chakotay? Paris? That’s where things get interesting.

There’s a scene with Annorax, Chakotay, and Paris that’s really well done. He invites them to dinner, and they dine on dishes created by cultures that have been wiped from existence. A subsequent discussion between Annorax and Chakotay reveals the Krenim time manipulator as a tortured individual full of regret for what he did. He wanted a weapon to wipe out his enemies, but instead he opened a Pandora’s box that wiped out his empire, his wife, and his own future. He simply doesn’t see quitting as an option. He’d like nothing more, but he has to restore things to “the way they used to be”—the way they were before he irreversibly wiped the slate clean. His situation is akin to throwing ten million dice over and over again and getting the same results twice. But he can’t quit until he rolls the dice and comes up with the right numbers. It’s truly tragic. His technology gives him the power to undo and redo so much; yet, when it comes right down to it, all he can do is roll the dice and hope for the best. It’s a very intriguing dilemma, and makes Annorax a very sympathetic character. Indeed, Chakotay is right—Paris cannot even begin to fathom what Annorax has been through.

The other tale of obsession is Captain Janeway, and her character is the one that is best explored by the “what if” premise. The Janeway who has been through this year of hell is one tough and determined individual who will not back down to anything … though I’m not so sure the story paints her all that sympathetically. I respected what this Janeway was trying to do as a leader, but the fact that she answers to no one and recklessly puts herself in such dangerous situations scared me a little bit. Are her reckless impulses and personal convictions always the best thing for what remains of the Voyager crew? I’m not so sure.

A scene where the Doctor relieves Janeway of command for her reckless behavior ends with Janeway refusing to yield … and there’s nothing Doc can do to oppose her. It says something when the captain herself refuses to follow chain of command. For a situation to become so desperate that Janeway embraces anarchy as a way to potentially solve the problem is evidence of a very volatile attitude. The story doesn’t take the cut-and-dry easy stance by making Janeway’s actions necessarily “right” or even justifiable; it makes her decisions questionable, which I find that much more interesting. Janeway is obsessive with pushing forward despite all odds, and the fact that she has lost her objectivity as a result is a pretty powerful statement. She’s a heroine, but definitely not a faultless heroine.

The plot resolves itself in a fairly expected manner, although it makes some good moves along the way. Chakotay’s attempts to bond with Annorax to help him calculate a timeline that puts Voyager out of harm’s way while simultaneously rebuilding the Krenim empire brings about some of the best scenes. And the fact the story wrestles with the moral consequences of changing the timeline to “reset” the game (a reset we all knew was coming anyway) makes such a reset that much more tolerable—because at least the characters know what they’re trying to do, rather than being jerked around by an arbitrary plot. Paris slowly recruiting key crew members of the time ship to unleash a mutiny against the captain is definitely a reasonable idea—for we knew back in part one that the crew, after 200 years of futile effort, are ready to end this game. (And I can’t tell you how glad I am that this didn’t turn out to be “Voyager crew members gain access to time ship controls because of bad guys’ stupidity.)

That brings us to the ending, where I say “I told you so.” We all saw it coming (except, I suppose, for the naively optimistic). The time ship’s internal mutiny brings down the temporal shields, allowing Voyager and its allies to attack it while it’s susceptible. Then Janeway rams her nearly-destroyed Voyager into it. Voyager and the time ship get blowed up real good (in a nifty visual display, if I may add), and the destruction of the temporal core causes a final “incursion” that resets everything to the way things were before Annorax started playing with time. I think.Voyager avoids its year of hell, at the very least.

This was inevitable and proves a little frustrating, but I can deal with it. What I don’t like, however, is the fact that Janeway uses her convenient guess that destroying the time ship’s core will reset everything to zero as a justification for her “heroic” suicide. This is not an acceptable end to the story. It’s weak and arbitrary. For all Janeway knows, she could destroy the entire universe by destroying the temporal core. Or something. I’m not sure I understand what all was undone by destroying the time ship anyway. The final scene seems to indicate Annorax is stuck with his situation for all eternity—assuming his time ship ever existed, that is.

If Janeway’s course of action proves to be the mother of all resets (and literal resets within the story, for that matter), one wonders why Annorax didn’t simply destroy his invention long ago—though I’m guessing his fate is sealed based on the show’s intriguing (if somewhat unclear) final scene, which shows him working at home on time manipulation experiments, apparently some 200 years ago. Can he avoid his destiny? I don’t think so, but it’s so hard to say. Did his role as “time god” ever exist if his time ship never existed? How could his time ship ever exist if it erased its own existence? What did that final incursion really do? Does the story even care? Should I even try? My brain hurts.

Speaking on narrative concerns, one complaint I have is that this episode did not have to take eight supposed months to unfold. In fact, if there hadn’t been prompts flashed across the screen that said “Day [whatever],” I would’ve assumed this episode took place in a week. It certainly could have, for that matter. Based on the way “Year of Hell II” unfolds, there’s virtually no reason for the events to have taken place over such a long period of time—other than, I suppose, to call this episode “Year of Hell.” It’s not detrimental to the story in any significant way, but I did wonder what the point of it was. Ultimately it comes off as a means to a nonexistent end.

But through all its shortcomings, we still have a solid two-parter here, featuring some good drama centering around the tortured Annorax and the reckless Janeway. Did any of it really happen? Who cares?

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Random Thoughts:

The exterior plot sketch of “Random Thoughts” may very well exemplify what Star Trek: Voyager is now all about: a relatively unchanging story setting where the ship and crew can fly in, meet some people, encounter and subsequently solve a problem, and then fly out. In a way, the setting of Voyager has turned into what TOS and TNG originally set out to be. I know this isn’t exactly a news flash; Voyager’s setting has always made it more TOS-like than the other Trek series of the decade. But after watching the original Voyager ideology disintegrate through two disappointing seasons followed by a wandering third, and now witnessing the first consistently entertaining opening stretch of aVoyager season (if a little on the slight side) that I can remember, I find myself realizing that perhaps this series can reconceptualize the TOSmentality for the 1990s—while simultaneously framing it within theVoyager alone-in-the-Delta-Quadrant premise.

There are two very nice things about “Random Thoughts” that elevate it above the average Voyager (or TOS) premise:

  1. This story deals with the Voyager condition in terms of a statement of purpose.
  2. This story brings up some interesting questions about individual responsibility, using an effective device surrounding on the idea of “thought control.”

Now, I personally prefer the building of compelling situations and characters over time the way DS9 has so successfully done (and I still hope Voyager will try doing it again, regardless of the precedent the creators have set). But the above two key strengths go a long way toward making “Random Thoughts” a very capable single-shot installment, featuring one of the most certain themes so far this season. While we still haven’t had a real groundbreaker yet this season, the series does seem to be pulling itself together with a solid streak of good shows (with the exception of “Scientific Method,” that is).

This week, Voyager makes friends with a race of telepaths called the Mari, a peaceful race which has eliminated violence from its society. A problem arises, however, when a Mari named Frane (Bobby Burns) “accidentally” steps on B’Elanna’s foot. She’s angry, but there’s no harm done. But later Frane goes off and beats a man. An investigation by a Mari official named Nimira (Gwynyth Walsh, who played the scheming B’Etor of the Duras house on TNG) leads to the conclusion that B’Elanna had a violent thought, which she inadvertently passed to Frane, causing him to beat the defenseless man. B’Elanna is arrested and sentenced to an irreversible procedure that would remove the violent thoughts from her brain. Tuvok takes on the investigation to prove B’Elanna’s innocence, in a strangely effective mix of “Meld” and “Ex Post Facto.”

Okay, I’ll go ahead and get my qualms out of the way: First, I find it very unlikely that Janeway and the Voyager crew would not have been made aware that violent thoughts could lead to this sort of eruption in the first place. The Mari officials must be awfully stupid not to warn aliens who are not as “enlightened” as they are about the serious repercussions something so simple as a subconscious violent thought could cause. Sorry, I just don’t buy it. Second, I wasn’t totally convinced of the impetus behind the urgent “need” to have the violent thoughts purged from B’Elanna mind (something about preventing a recurrence of the incident?). How exactly would this help? If it is so important one wonders why the Mari would risk hosting alien visitors in the first place (which brings me back to my first complaint).

I have some other plausibility questions, like how the Mari could force B’Elanna into a restraining chair without being affected by more violent thoughts B’Elanna would be thinking—thoughts which any person would certainly have under the circumstances. But never mind, because the debate over this fictional element is probably futile (although the show didn’t always seem to be playing by its own set of rules), and I’d rather look at the story the idea conveys.

Ah, how I love psychological analysis. It’s not every day the dark themes of violence and the perverse fascination with it crosses the path of Trekkian mythos. It’s intriguing here because the Mari’s solution of eliminating violence comes at another price: the inability to think freely. Granted, free thought means something completely different to a race of telepaths, but its denial still has consequences, as evidenced by a “black market” of violent thoughts and images, which is uncovered by the end. (We’ll get to that momentarily.)

The use of Tuvok for investigating this sort of thing is very appropriate, especially considering his role in “Meld.” I usually dislike situations that put Trek crew members at the mercy of alien legal systems (often because such systems create a forced conflict, a subset of the Hard-Headed Aliens of the Week syndrome). But here it works because the story’s alien legal system comes in the form of Nimira—a surprisingly fair character who is truly worried about repairing the unfortunate situation that has unfolded. Gwynyth Walsh turns in a strong, believable performance (transcending her stylized, one-note turns as B’Etor), creating a character we can sympathize with, even though her intended course of action is certain to violate B’Elanna’s rights. There’s an engaging chemistry between Tuvok and Nimira—a respect each has for the other in the way their respective societies have eliminated violence—both Walsh and Russ deserve praise in creating this believable working relationship.

Tuvok’s eventual uncovering of the “black market” is also handled adeptly for the most part. A series of well-documented plot developments reveals that violent images are commonly shared in the “back alleys” by people who want to illegally experience what they’ve apparently become incapable of imagining. Guill, the man Tuvok uncovers as the reason why B’Elanna’s rouge impulse is running awry in the telepathic public (he conspired with Frane to provoke and “capture” the thought, but the plan backfired on them when they lost control of the image), is revealed as a “dealer” in violent contraband images—an interesting idea. I only wish Wayne Pere (who played Guill) had been a little more effective; his performance is a tad bland.

Admittedly, I also could’ve completely done without the second incident that sets Tuvok’s investigation in motion, namely, the script’s less-than-effective murder of Neelix’s new “friend” Talli (Rebecca McFarland) and Neelix’s totally misconceived and dramatically unfulfilling reaction to her death. I also wonder if Tuvok was so smart to conduct his subsequent investigation without first reporting to Voyager (effectively “calling for backup”). His plan backfires on him, which I think he should’ve anticipated. The plot could’ve been tighter without some of the silliness.

Nevertheless, the payoff works. The underlying question that “Random Thoughts” wrestles out of the plot is whether or not violence can truly be controlled or eliminated. Even by outlawing violent thought, the Mari find themselves with a disturbing problem in the realization that it hasn’t truly gone away. Nimira’s stunned disbelief that “peaceful Mari citizens” would want to subject themselves to such darkness is the story’s most pointed social commentary, and I rather liked it. The question of who is responsible for this mess is a difficult one; sanctioning thought is a ghastly idea for us, but the Mari ideology doesn’t see it a problem—yet the issue of violence still hasn’t eluded them.

What also works in “Random Thoughts’s” favor is a wonderful closing scene between Janeway and Seven that successfully reiterates the series’ “mission statement” verbally. Seven’s clear-cut declaration thatVoyager’s goal to get home and the attempt to meet new races in the meantime are inherently incompatible strikes me as a very Seven-like appraisal of Voyager’s mission. I very much liked Janeway’s response that “We seek out new races because we want to.” The most important outcome for the Voyager crew, despite the fact Tuvok and Torres were endangered as a result of the encounter, is that meeting the Mari offered an insight to another culture, hopefully teaching the crew about themselves in the meantime. Janeway’s well-conveyed confidence in stating what may very well embody the new “Voyager manifesto” is extremely refreshing, offering what I suspect Voyager hopes to accomplish as a series from this point on. Dialog exchanges like this one are what make Trek what it is, and that’s probably the highest praise I can give “Random Thoughts.” If the series can keep going and push just a little harder with the storylines, I think we’ll find a direction and have the best season of Voyager yet.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Message in a Bottle:

There are a lot of elements in “Message in a Bottle” that epitomize what has obviously become the statement of Voyager‘s fourth season as a whole—namely, that Voyager is a faster, funnier, snappier, and generally better series all around, but that the stories are primarily lightweight science fiction concepts and adventures that don’t take real risks that go the extra mile to probe deeper into the characters. Strangely, the deepest, most substantive episode yet this season was “Mortal Coil,” a vehicle for Neelix, who is generally the embodiment of lightweight.

And now, the sense of fourth-season lightweight whimsy in the interests of gleeful entertainment finally gets in the way with “Message in a Bottle,” an effective episode on its own terms, but an episode that made me seriously wonder if it was the right episode for its given premise. Although this episode is tons of fun and jam-packed with amusing dialog, there’s too much plot here (or, more specifically, too much of the wrong type of plotting), and not enough reflection.

Yet “Message in a Bottle” is one of the most entertaining episodes all season—an episode that made me care and had me in anticipation over how the end would be handled and how the starship Voyagermorale would be benefited. I guess a big part of this episode’s selling point is in finally seeing a real victory for the Voyager crew. We’ve seen this crew defeated and anguished on several occasions—shows that offered them potential tickets to the Alpha Quadrant (“Prime Factors,” “Eye of the Needle,” “False Profits,” etc.)—but time after time the Voyager crew had their hopes crushed. Finally, here’s a show with a true moral victory for the Voyager crew—something that would make the Delta Quadrant feel less lonely.

There’s some familiar characterization early in the episode—a sense of urgency that’s reminiscent of season one, back when finding a way back to the Alpha Quadrant actually had an impact on the crew’s feelings. Like in “Eye of the Needle,” the crew members find themselves with the chance to send a message to the Alpha Quadrant when Seven of Nine stumbles across an alien communications array that covers huge areas of space. By relaying the signal across the array, they are able to locate a Starfleet ship in Federation space. The only problem is that a communications signal degrades before it can reach the other side of the network. The solution: to send a stronger signal that won’t decay—namely, Doc’s holographic program.

The most effective emotional undercurrent in “Message in a Bottle” is the sense of doubt created by the hopeful yet uncertain situation. As Chakotay puts it, “We’ve been here before”—why get your hopes up (as I mentioned earlier) if you’re setting yourself up to be crushed? There’s nothing that’s certain about the plan, either; It’s a risk—even Doc’s signal may not survive the transfer across such unknown technology over such a great distance. But the decision must be made immediately, because time is short and once the Federation ship is out of range, the opportunity will be lost.

Now, although I’ve heard for months now that Voyager would finally be sending a successful message home, “Message in a Bottle” was still effective in creating suspense and drawing me into the crew’s plight. Seeing the anticipation amongst the crew was compelling in its limited doses, although I wish there had been much more of it (more on that later).

The signal takes Doc 60,000 light years to the USS Prometheus, a brand-new experimental vessel. As luck would have it, this ship has been boarded and commandeered by the Romulans, who have killed the Federation crew that was on board. Having stolen the experimental ship, they plan to deliver it to the Tal Shiar (apparently back in business to some degree), who assumedly could use the technology.

So Doc now finds himself with a challenge: As the only member of Starfleet aboard the ship, he must thwart the 20+ Romulans in their attempt to deliver this ship to their superiors. If he fails, his message to Starfleet will probably never be received. For this mission, Doc recruits some help: The Prometheus‘ EMH program, an updated version (Mark II) with new capabilities and a new face (the EMH-2 is performed by Andy Dick), but with the same overactive ego.

What can I say about this plot? Far-fetched? Probably a little. Superficial? You bet. Amusing? Most definitely. Fast, snappy, entertaining—typical of season four? Yep.

The stunt-pairing of Doc and EMH-2 makes for the highest level of all-out, go-for-broke comic energy on Voyager that I’ve seen in a very long time. While I wouldn’t rate the dialog quite on the level of Doc and Barclay’s sparring in “Projections,” I did find the funny and fast-delivered verbal jousting to be well worth the time. Both Robert Picardo and Andy Dick have their characters’ senses of smug superiority working alongside their senses of ever-worry, and the unlikely setting of “two lowly holograms versus a squadron of Romulans” makes for a particularly good framing of two bemused and unwitting heroes playing against the odds.

While their nonstop self-congratulatory dialog begins to tire near the end, these two remain utterly watchable through most of the episode, their one-liners and tendency to panic in the face of danger allowing the comedy to breathe. The initial idea of the “veteran EMH” playing opposite an EMH who has just been activated is milked for a few fresh notions, bringing out a respectable determination in Voyager‘s Doctor that refuses to see a fellow EMH duck the opportunity to expand his horizons into heroic action. I won’t go into the way these two disable the Romulans and take over the ship (let’s just say it involves the use of fumes that invoke unconsciousness), but the road to get there is entertaining.

Meanwhile, the Prometheus itself is an interesting gadget with some new abilities, like a separation sequence that allows it to split into three pieces and combat its opponents. The Romulans, alas, are fairly cardboard as the requisite villains, although it was nice to finally see them again after all this time. (DS9 hasn’t utilized them in quite some time, throwaway lines notwithstanding.)

Another issue that “Message in a Bottle” works in by way of a B-story, and which I’d like to comment on, is Seven’s rudeness and impulsive action. In short, it must be dealt with. This isn’t a complaint about the episode; on the contrary—I think that Seven’s inept social graces are a necessary part of her integration into the crew that I’m glad we’re seeing. But it’s still something Janeway has to take control of; Seven’s decision to cause a feedback surge and shock into unconsciousness the hard-headed alien (who is threatening Voyager for using his communications array) because “he was not responding to diplomacy” is not the kind of unauthorized action a captain can afford to have a member of her crew taking. It worked this time (and Janeway’s decision to tighten her jaw and let it slide was appropriate under the extreme circumstances), but it’s not something Janeway can just ignore. She needs to find a way of putting Seven in her place—and it needs to happen soon.

A C-story also proves pleasant in a slight manner, involving Tom’s desperate plea for Harry to design a new doctor in Doc’s absence thus rescuing him from sickbay duty. It’s nicely played, with some light laughs and good characterizations—but isn’t this just filler? Couldn’t a more effective use of screen time been conceived in an episode that should have a stunning emotional impact on the crew?

And that brings me back to the overriding problem with “Message in a Bottle”: its serious and emotionally gripping general premise is held back (and held back to a fault) by its utterly inconsequential action/comedy plot. Consider the potential of a story in which Voyagerfinally, after more than three years, makes contact with home. Is there any substantial speculation by the crew about what this will mean for the future of the ship? Not really. Is there any discussion of events that have transpired in the Alpha Quadrant (like, for example, the Dominion war) while Voyager has been away? Not really. Is there anybody on board Voyager wondering what their loved ones are thinking back home now knowing that the Voyager crew (most of it, that is) is still alive? Not really. All we really get is the final two-minute scene where Doc discusses his off-screen dialog with Starfleet Command, which promises to search for a way of getting Voyager home as quickly as possible. As much as I was moved by Janeway’s reaction to hearing this news (even though “60,000 light years feels a lot closer today” is a fairly trite, cornball closing line), it’s just not enough.

As much as I liked “Message in a Bottle,” I’m only giving it a marginal recommendation. This is an episode that, for all its merits, should’ve been so much more. The Season Four Sense of Fun needs to know when to step back and get out of the way.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Hunters:

“Message in a Bottle” three weeks ago perfectly exemplified the uneasy duality of shallow cartoon versus serious drama that Voyager‘s fourth-season adventure angle has supplied. Now “Hunters” drives that point home even further. I’d heard a couple weeks ago that “Hunters” would supply the dramatic character-oriented follow-up that I was thirsting for in “Message.” So I was anticipating what I hoped would be one of the best episodes yet this season.

Well, like much of season four, I’ve been left with a generally positive impression—but at the same time, I find myself disappointed that the show still didn’t nearly live up to its potential. What we could’ve had was a pivotal moment in the series’ run. What we got instead was a good hour with a number of poignant, important moments but also some glaring problems.

At least Voyager is consistent.

“Hunters” is the second episode in what will undoubtedly become known as the “Hirogen arc,” but this episode is really about something much more important to Voyager: the issue of how crew members feel when they receive an update from their Alpha Quadrant friends and families—in the form of letters that come trickling through the alien communications array that Starfleet has managed to further utilize.

Some of these moments have been years in the making, and I think the writers should be commended for biding their time in addressing this issue. They toyed with the idea back in first season’s “Eye of the Needle,” but by waiting three years before finally making it really happen, they’ve allowed the opportunity for family and friends back home to move on with their lives.

It brings up some interesting questions, and that’s where the gold of “Hunters” lies. I very much appreciated that most of the letters from home presented uneasiness rather than quick fixes, because I suspect that’s the way it really would be.

Case in point: Chakotay learns that the Maquis have been decimated by the Cardassian/Dominion alliance. This is good stuff. Not to beat a dead horse, but I think it has been far too long since the word “Maquis” has been uttered on Voyager. The fact that all the Maquis back in the Alpha Quadrant are gone now undoubtedly hits the Maquis population onVoyager pretty hard. Chakotay’s reaction to this devastating news is an especially poignant moment. Similarly, the sullen scene where Chakotay informs Torres of the Maquis’ fate is one of the episode’s highlights.

On the other hand, I still don’t think this will have all the effects I want it to, especially considering the only Maquis crew members we see in the entire episode are Chakotay and Torres. Sure, there’s a vague reference to “all the others,” but when it comes down to it, Chakotay and Torres are the only real Trek characters left who could speak for the Maquis, and they only began to discuss what was worth discussing. I find that unfortunate, because I think there was a lot more that could’ve been said. I can dream of more dialog: Why not some acknowledgement from the non-Maquis part of the crew? Why is there no discussion about it between Chakotay and Janeway? I might as well just keep dreaming, since there’s about zero chance of getting more complex questions out of it. As I’ve said (too) many times before, that aspect ofVoyager is dead, cremated, dispersed, long gone, and forgotten.

But never mind. The true overriding theme is in how suddenly being back in contact with your origins after having been out of contact with them for so long is bound to prove anything but easy. Not only difficult for the Voyager crew, but difficult for the families back home. Chakotay puts it nicely when he mentions that such sudden news proving theVoyager crew is alive is likely to be difficult to those who had finally accepted that their loved ones were gone—especially considering that the ship may not reach home for 60 years anyway.

Janeway’s situation makes a great example of this dilemma. The letter she receives is from her (former) fiancee Mark. And with this letter she realizes that the inevitable has occurred—that Mark has moved on with his life after having held on to his hopes longer than most. He has since married someone else. It’s not something that Janeway finds particularly surprising; it’s just that the fact it wasn’t surprising doesn’t make accepting the inevitable any easier. Her mention to Chakotay that the letter had such a “finality” was well said—perfectly said, in fact.

The strength of “Hunters” lies in its ability to involve the major characters in different ways. Take Tom, for example. He’s hoping that he won’t get a letter at all, because he would just as soon sever all connections he had with home. The fact that he has more on Voyagerthan he ever had back in the Alpha Quadrant is an issue that has a great deal of relevance. I also wonder what much of Voyager‘s Maquis population thinks “home” could offer them now knowing the entire Maquis organization has been wiped out.

I do have some complaints with the way two characters were handled. The first is Ensign Kim, who throughout the episode becomes his own mini-story, in which the suspense is whether or not Harry will get a message from his folks. I see what Jeri Taylor was going for here, but it’s trite and obvious. Very. And it hammers home some larger issues about the whole character of Harry Kim, who is virtually the embodiment of innocent, uninteresting sterility. Harry once referred to himself as “Harry read-me-like-a-book Kim.” That’s a pretty accurate description. He’s becoming as transparent as Neelix, although not as annoying. Garret Wang needs much more challenging material than this, because his kid-like innocence is not believable any more—especially given that the starship Voyager is such a precarious, unusual place for the average Starfleet officer.

The second character gripe is Neelix. I have to point an angry finger at Ethan Phillips this week, who performs the silly Talaxian in a way that leaves much to be desired. Sure, letters from home (even if it isn’t his home) is exciting and everything, but Neelix’s “cute” joyfulness was way, way overdone. The character was absolutely horrendous this week, transforming (temporarily, I hope) back into the “second season Neelix” who was utterly agonizing to watch. The scene where he reads the letter to “Mr. Vulcan” made me want to slap him around—a lot. And when he told Harry, “Don’t pay attention to rumors,” in a voice that would seem condescending even to an average third-grader, I wanted to put him into a photon torpedo and launch him into the nearest star (or perhaps a small black hole given this week’s premise). I’ll grant that his part wasn’t particularly well written this week, but this sort of vexatious portrayal was something I’d thought Phillips had left behind almost two seasons ago.

And even though it doesn’t matter much, I want to voice one other complaint: I find it absurd that the writers seem to think that no one onVoyager has heard of the Dominion. When Voyager premiered in January 1995, the Dominion was already a major part of DS9 lore. “The Jem’Hadar” had aired almost seven months previous.

But before I shift the tone of this review and give the impression that I didn’t really like “Hunters,” I’d better stress that most of the human moments in the story worked well for me, including some bits like the nice moment where Seven realizes that even she may discover some “emotional resonance” if she ever finds her way to distant family members back on Earth.

So that leaves one other order of business for a review of “Hunters”: the subplot involving the Hirogens, a savage race of hunters who, as Tuvok aptly puts it, “lack any moral center.” Quite simply, I could’ve done without this whole thing, which only serves to shift focus away from the emotional core of the story, just as “Message in a Bottle’s” comedy plot did. The Hirogens are rather boring cartoon characters who provide conflict in only the most superficial and forced of ways. They’re the typical Bad Guys of the Week (or, more correctly, the bad guys of this week and the next three weeks). Their dialog is laughable, their characterizations nonexistent, and their line delivery a series of grunts and growls. If this is the nemesis we have to watch in the next four episodes, I’m hoping those episodes will be carried by their action and plotting—because the Hirogens certainly won’t be carrying it.

The “plot” involves the Hirogens kidnapping Tuvok and Seven from a shuttlecraft (which I think, incidentally, was lost, for those out there keeping track). They’re held hostage and threatened, leaving the task to Janeway to negotiate their return. Yeah, right. As Seven might say, negotiation is irrelevant. The Hirogens want to keep Seven and Tuvok so they can slice them up and mount them as trophies.

In the meantime, Tuvok’s attempts at negotiation are pathetic, as the writers give him unbelievably inappropriate lines like “Release us now and you will be safe, otherwise we will destroy you” and “If you kill us, our captain will hunt you down and show no mercy.” These utterances don’t sound like anything that stems from a Vulcan or Federation ethos, let alone Tuvok’s character. It’s just fortunate “Hunters” has so much else going for it, because the story involving the hunters is nearly a total bust.

In more positive news, I liked some of David Livingston’s execution techniques. The opening in particular was nice—somewhat reminiscent of Contact—as the camera looks into the depths of space while a static-laden signal is heard on the audio track. Also, the interiors of the Hirogen ship were impressively decorated and photographed. The Hirogen themselves may be laughable, but at least their sets are kind of neat. And the climax, for all its ridiculous technobabble, was charged with a sense of urgent apocalyptic adrenaline, featuring the latest in micro-quantum singularities as super cosmic vacuum cleaners, which threaten to suck starships into oblivion. Or something.

But I think I’ve said enough. With “Hunters” we once again have an episode that could’ve been outstanding, and once again I’m only giving it a marginal recommendation. How unfortunate.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Prey:

Before I begin, I have two sidebar comments to make:

First, given the two episodes previous to “Prey,” I had become very worried about the notion of creating an “arc” around the Hirogen. The Hirogen we had met in “Hunters” were utter cardboard and terribly acted, with completely unconvincing and unnecessary shouting and grunting. Although I still have some serious reservations about the Hirogen (and I severely doubt they’ll ever be truly interesting), “Prey” was a turn for the better—much better, in fact. The Hirogen here aren’t played anywhere near as over the top as the two Hirogen in “Hunters.” From the moment “Prey” begins, there’s almost a sense that the writers or director or somebody made a conscious effort to tone down the Hirogen to something that’s … well, watchable.

Second, I’d like to point out that this isn’t really an “arc” the way DS9‘s “lost the station” arc was. “Message in a Bottle’s” plot line really had nothing to do with “Hunters’s” Hirogen plot line which really has nothing to do with “Prey.” The only common element are the Hirogen themselves, with which Voyager has never twice come in contact with the same individuals. And the only two reasons I even expect to see the Hirogen return is because (1) I’ve seen the press releases, and (2) every episode ends with a captain’s log where Janeway says something to the effect of “I don’t think we’ve seen the last of them.” There’s really no dramatic connection, which is kind of unfortunate.

But never mind. I don’t mean to start things off on a sour note, because “Prey” is, in fact, the best thing Voyager has done all season. I’d easily rank this in the series’ top ten. This is a solidly constructed, very focused story that transcends the lightweight nature typical of season four by addressing a moral issue and framing it in the context of a punchy action/adventure premise.

We have more Hirogen, of course, but this time they’re part of a much more probing story—and the key Hirogen character is played by someone who can actually act (fathom that!): Tony Todd. (DS9 viewers will recognize the deep, raspy voice from his appearances as old Jake Sisko in “The Visitor” and Worf’s brother Kurn in “Sons of Mogh.”)

The opening is atmospheric and effective, focusing completely on the Hirogen and the hunt for their latest prey, which happens to be one of Species 8472, left behind in our galaxy after the skirmish with the Borg. The two Hirogen hunt the 8472, shoot it, think they have killed it, then transport it onto their vessel. They’re wrong, of course, and it tears up their ship and attacks them, killing one and severely wounding the other.

Enter the starship Voyager, who happens upon the wounded Hirogen’s ship and beams him aboard for medical treatment, after a strong voice of skepticism from Seven of Nine. Janeway attempts to negotiate with the lone Hirogen, with some limited success.

Meanwhile, 8472 breaks into the ship from an access port (there’s a particularly nice setup visual that shows 8472 walking along the outside hull of the ship). As 8472 begins causing havoc on Voyager, Janeway finds herself making a weighty decision concerning the Hirogen, who wants to continue the hunt for his latest “prey.” When the 8472 takes over a deck of the ship and disables life support and artificial gravity, Janeway grants the Hirogen to accompany a team in finding the dangerous alien. But she doesn’t want it harmed; she wants to make a peaceful negotiation.

Does this sound particularly interesting? Probably not, because it’s hard to do justice to the finer points of the plot flow. But much of “Prey” is a very pleasant surprise, particularly once the 8472 alien is cornered with nowhere to run.

From a technical standpoint, this episode is probably one of the most engaging action pieces since “Scorpion II.” The special effects are convincing and appropriately utilized. The use of environmental suits and magnetic boots (a la First Contact) made for a believable situation of suspense. I’m not sure exactly why, but something about the crew’s search for the 8472—perhaps the sense of understated urgency in Allan Eastman’s directing and the cast’s acting, or perhaps the low lighting combined with the “zero gravity” effect—made the scenes build with much more realism, drawing me into them more than usual.

What proves more interesting is the heart of the show concerning the moral dilemma. Should Janeway risk making enemies with another race by saving the innocent 8472, therefore denying the Hirogen their greatly desired prey? Or should she hand the dangerous creature over to the Hirogen reinforcements so that they’ll leave Voyager alone instead of coming in with phasers firing?

Well, this is Star Trek; what do you think?

Like many of Janeway’s decisions, her decision in “Prey” is one that looks out for human sensibilities. But, at the same time, it also putsVoyager and its crew at the significant risk of being hunted down and destroyed by angry Hirogen—and I’m sure there’s a part of everybody that wouldn’t mind seeing the dreaded 8472 taken away if it meant their own safety. But this would of course not be a moral course of action, especially considering the creature’s motives as conveyed telepathically to Tuvok: that it just wants to be left alone and returned to its realm. Janeway intends to do just that, even if it means angering a pack of aggressive hunters.

Not surprisingly, but very appropriately, this is where Seven of Nine comes into play. “Prey” features the long-awaited and, in retrospect, inevitable culmination of Seven’s differing attitudes and actions as compared to Janeway’s. As I said back in “Message in a Bottle,” the kind of assertive, dangerous impulse that Seven is capable of is not something that Janeway can simply allow to happen week after week. There’s a point where the line has to be drawn, and that line is drawn in the latter stages of “Prey,” when Janeway requests that Seven (who would be able to quickly perform the necessary task) open a quantum singularity to 8472’s realm—a request Seven adamantly refuses.

There’s a dialog scene that I believe will go down as one of the highlights of the season because it’s so well acted. There’s energy and frustration boiling in this scene, but it boils just under the surface as the characters wrestle their contrasting points of view into the open. Janeway wants Seven to see this as a chance to reach out with compassion to a helpless being—a chance for Seven to grow and understand the reasons and origins of human values. Seven, still looking at the situation through primarily Borg eyes, thinks it is a tactical risk; she believes the 8472 forfeited its rights when it selfishly put the ship in danger to save itself from the Hirogen.

Janeway’s frustration is perfectly conveyed through Mulgrew’s performance. Meanwhile, I’d like to go on record saying I think anyone who still believes Jeri Ryan is merely eye candy after witnessing the dynamics of this scene is just fundamentally biased against the character, because the performance here is something I think is worth a lot of praise. It’s hard to convincingly convey anger through the Borg-like dispassion with which Seven’s character has been drawn, but Ryan pulls it off here, and the whole scene comes together. I can’t remember the last time Voyager had me on the edge of my seat over a dialog scene, but this one accomplished just that; it’s the best-conceived scene of conflicting attitudes since Janeway and Chakotay’s “scorpion” argument in the first part of “Scorpion.” I really like this stuff.

There’s a lot of substance here, because it gets to the heart of the agenda Janeway has been battling for ever since Seven came aboard: a maternal figure trying to bring someone else into her “family.” It’s a battle Janeway isn’t winning, and you can see how frustrated it’s making her. She probably wouldn’t have been forced to take the disciplinary actions she ends up taking under “Prey’s” circumstances, but the emotional side of it I’m sure has been taking its toll for the months that Seven has been rubbing people the wrong way and disregarding protocol.

In a sense, the family idea echoes elements of how the Starfleet/Maquis alliance used to be before it was unsatisfactorily swept under the carpet. But with Seven the questions are a little easier to deal with because she simply doesn’t understand human behavior.

Still, this wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it ultimately does if there hadn’t been some real consequences resulting from it. Immediately after the dialog scene, my one fear was that the rift that had become evident would be reversed by some sort of redemption on Seven’s part—some redemption that would’ve made Seven see Janeway’s side of the story. Fortunately, this didn’t happen. Instead, theopposite happened when Seven made the split-second decision to beam the 8472 and the hunter onto a Hirogen ship in the middle of a battle situation running out of control.

It’s hardly a neat or tidy solution for Janeway, who watches a moral decision countermanded (effectively sending an innocent being to its death). But she can’t judge the individual who violated her order the way she could any other crew member. It provides Janeway with a true challenge. Just how should she deal with Seven as an individual under such bizarre circumstances? Since Seven doesn’t yet understand her own individuality, how accountable can she be for it?

I also think the final dialog exchange served to strengthen the ending. As much as I understood Janeway’s point of view and the necessary ramifications imposed (barring Seven from computer access) as a result of Seven’s behavior, I had a feeling that this was turning into another “Janeway is right” ending. But “Prey” avoids this possibility by adding a little ambivalence, as Seven announces her belief that Janeway is punishing her because she is not evolving into what Janeway had hoped—and that her individuality, in fact, frightens the captain. It’s an interesting and challenging way to end the episode, and it doesn’t have an easy answer—partly because, in some ways, Seven is quite correct (especially considering it was Janeway who imposed this individuality upon Seven in the first place). As many undoubtedly know, I like questions that don’t have easy answers.

Pretty much everything about “Prey” worked quite well. Even the Hirogen—despite the fact that Tony Todd’s character was still a sketchy, half-defined personality—seemed more fleshed-out and believable. Chakotay’s briefing about their entire society being “based on the hunt” may not make the Hirogen more interesting or deeper than any other member of the Stock Delta Quadrant Alien Club [TM], but it did manage to make their motivation seem a little more focused and a little less dramatically shoddy. But even though the Hirogen worked surprisingly well this time around, I still say forget them, because that’s not where the gold is. The gold, like last time, is within analyzing the behavior of the regular characters.

But if Voyager can use adventure-oriented premises as effectively and with as much panache as “Prey” does, I certainly won’t complain.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Retrospect:

It’s so nice to see the Voyager writers, in what is clearly the best season of this series yet, unlock the potential of their characters—or, more specifically, their newest character, Seven of Nine.

I don’t necessarily want to go on record saying that Seven of Nine is the best thing that has ever happened to Voyager, but I definitely think the character has been very good for the writing staff. Ever since her controversial introduction to the cast, the effective use of Seven has proven wrong the premature fears of skeptics (myself included). The writers seem to have so much control when writing her, and the shows always seem like they have direction when they pick up a story that explores the character’s puzzling dilemmas. These days, my only skepticism is that all the other characters are sitting idly in the background because this one’s getting so much spotlight attention.

This week’s Seven story, “Retrospect,” finally begins to analyze the character’s emotions, something I’ve been long awaiting. It accomplishes this with a fairly standard plot device that benefits from an interesting twist: namely the fact that, for once, the Voyager crew is on the wrong side of a judgment call. Their intentions are good in rallying around Seven in her apparent hour of need, but they make some mistakes which leads to some ugly results.

Perhaps some background would be in order. Still inside Hirogen-traveled space, Voyager comes across a prosperous commerce world featuring This Week’s Friendly Aliens (not to be confused with This Week’s Evil Aliens). Voyager negotiates with a trader named Kovin (Michael Horton), a somewhat hot-headed and annoying man who deals in powerful weapons that would prove particularly useful in the dangerous areas that Voyager is traveling. Janeway has hammered out a barter deal, but the deal is complicated when Seven loses her cool and assaults Kovin in engineering, breaking his nose.

Naturally, there’s more to this than what meets the eye. Seven is on-edge, tense, unusually emotional (in a Seven kind of way). When Doc tries to run scans she grows uneasy and claustrophobic. Doc attributes her uneasiness to memories that have been mysteriously blocked out. When he helps her bring these memories to the surface, she realizes that she was attacked by Kovin when analyzing his weapons stock on the planet surface. Apparently, he shot her with a phaser, confined her to a medical table, extracted Borg nanoprobes from her arm, and then used them to test on another subject—a clear violation of her rights of an individual, not to mention a theft of dangerous technology.

Well, ultimately, the whole point of “Retrospect” is that none of what Seven remembers actually happened. There was indeed an accident: Kovin’s phaser had overloaded, stunning Seven—but that was all, according to Kovin’s story. Seven must have imagined the rest. (Exactly how she inadvertently concocted the Kovin-specific flashbacks with such alarming detail based merely on “previously witnessing individuals being assimilated back when she was a Borg” is beyond me. I don’t claim to be a psychologist.) The episode doesn’t let us in on the truth until near the end of the story. In the meantime, there are some lengthy investigations into Kovin’s affairs, as the Voyager crew tries to confirm Seven’s story.

One question under scrutiny in this episode is just how “impartial” Janeway truly is when a member of her “family” is at stake. Tuvok is by definition impartial, but as “Retrospect” continues, it seems evident thatVoyager‘s search for evidence seems to continue as long as it seems even the slightest bit possible that Kovin is guilty. As the plot would have it (which sometimes proves a little on the contrived side), every clue the investigation uncovers can be read two ways. Is Kovin a liar trying to cover up dangerous experiments? Or is he the innocent subject of people who are very protective of themselves when it comes to their individual rights?

Michael Horton as Kovin has more fire than most guest stars playing aliens, and for this role it’s appropriate. Kovin vehemently professes his innocence from the outset, and he’s completely appalled that Janeway believes he could’ve attacked one of her crew members. It’s interesting to note that if Kovin had really been guilty, he probably would’ve been portrayed by the guest actor as a guilty-seeming persona. Here that’s obviously not the case.

However, of more interest is the regular cast. Once again, the performances are what truly carries this show. Of honorable mention this week is Robert Picardo as Doc, who is supplied with the interesting role of helping—even prodding—Seven to acknowledge her feelings. He explains to her why it would be “healthy” to feel anger and resentment, and the more he talks, the more Seven understands. A pivotal moment in the story comes when Doc tells her, “When Kovin gets what he deserves, you’re going to feel much better.” But now knowing that Kovin was, in fact, innocent, Doc’s course of action seems to me like traveling in dangerous territory, which I suspect is the story’s point.

Kate Mulgrew is typically good as simply “the captain,” trying to take control of the messy situation as it unfolds. And Jeri Ryan, who was wonderful in “Prey” last week, again proves adept at conveying confused emotion in a new and interesting way. Some of this material seemed a bit on the familiar side, particularly when Seven finally found her buried emotions beginning to surface. Lines like “I believe I am feeling anger” seem like they came straight out of Data’s experience inGenerations, but I think “Retrospect” handled this situation much more effectively and subtly overall, rather than going over the top into comic anarchy like Generations did. Besides, this had to happen eventually given the fact that Seven is inherently human, and I’m glad the writers were restrained and plausible in handling it—it made the sentiment much stronger.

Subsequently, when the investigation falls apart (but not before driving Kovin to a panic), Doc realizes he made a serious mistake in his prejudgment, which only leaves Seven more confused. Evidence suggests that Kovin was telling the truth, but by this time Seven has become so emotionally involved in the matter that she doesn’t wantKovin to be innocent. She just wants to feel better when Kovin is finally punished. Seven’s irrational emotional reaction makes sense because, like she said herself, resentment is not objective or structured. Now she’s learning the hard way.

Salvador’s direction over the scene in sickbay where Doc has to inform Seven of Kovin’s innocence uses an effective subtext: It places Janeway, Doc, and Tuvok all on one side of the room looking across at Seven, who suddenly realizes she is alone. Janeway says that no one is abandoning her, but it certainly must not feel that way to Seven. The visual placement gives the moment a nice touch.

Not quite everything with “Retrospect,” however, comes off quite as naturally as it could have. Some of the story’s concluding passages are a bit overwrought. As the possible evidence mounts against Kovin, he becomes frustrated and trapped—which I can understand. But that he becomes so desperate that he panics and flees his own world in a ship didn’t strike me as completely believable; it struck me more as a convenient turn in the plot used to lead the episode to its culmination in disaster. Likewise, when Voyager tries to contact Kovin and explain how they were wrong, he opens fire on them, disbelieving their promises that they now know the truth. He’s killed when his weapons overload and blow up his own ship. Speaking in plot terms, it’s awfully extreme.

However, when looking at the outcome of this series of events, it makes sense in the big picture, especially considering that this episode’s payoff is about the emotional aftermath that the Voyager crew must deal with. There’s some good stuff in here, including Janeway realizing that rallying around a member of the Voyager family can cloud objectivity—something we’ve all seen Janeway do but seldom acknowledge afterward.

Meanwhile, Seven realizing that she is feeling remorse in this “single being’s” death is framed in a nice context. On the surface you can just barely tell she’s being affected by her feelings—and “barely” is a perfectly fascinating level of change. The ending also seems to draw an interesting connection between Doc and Seven. Both are relatively new to reacting to emotions. Doc claims to be an “expert” at times, but he knows he really isn’t, and in the final scene he goes before the captain and asks to be “reset” to his original program, missing the whole point of why people learn from their mistakes. Keeping in terms with the maternal figure that she has represented through much of this season, Janeway explains the point to him. It’s an obvious point, admittedly, but in terms of who Doc is, it’s also a sincere one.

I just hope the writers continue to challenge themselves with logical character evolution. “Retrospect” is a good example of the potential, especially considering all the untapped humanity still within Seven. If there’s one thing that Seven cannot exhibit, it’s a static personality. I hope that if Voyager continues for another two or three seasons I can look back and see that Seven has changed and grown immensely. An episode like “Retrospect” definitely proves that such an evolution is possible within the context of the stories. Let’s just hope the writers take the subsequent steps.

Rating-wise, I’m electing to go with three stars; like with DS9 this week, that’s on a particularly high end of the three-star range. Quite good, but not quite enough to be standout.

In any case, whether you agree or disagree with me, you can consider me a member of the Seven of Nine fan club. Her character has sparked a lot of compelling stories this season. But I still want to see some of the other characters doing interesting things.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of The Killing Game:

There’s a part of me—the part that goes to see movies like Independence Day merely to witness entertainingly large-scaled destruction and mayhem—that enjoyed portions of “The Killing Game.” Unfortunately, this is not the part of me that I consider my most socially responsible part, nor is it the part of me that typically writes these reviews week after week.

“The Killing Game,” particularly its second half, is one of the most anarchic episodes of Star Trek ever created. It’s not just anarchy in the sense that there’s war and violence running amuck everywhere on board the starship Voyager; it’s also anarchy in the sense that the plot is composed of what seems like thousands if not millions of disconnected little pieces trying to come together to make some sort of sense.

It’s futile.

I’m rating the first part higher than the second because it doesn’t push so hard as it unfolds and because it proves to be an adequate (if hardly compelling) setup for the premise. Its easygoing pace is refreshing and movie-like. And David Livingston seems to enjoy taking his time to focus on the little details of the French Resistance/World War II holodeck setting.

As for the second part … well, that’s when most of the anarchy sets in, turning the net result into a far-too-extreme two-part Voyager “event.” Part two is, frankly, off its rocker—aimless and ill-conceived, yet somehow still moderately watchable and not completely horrid.

I’m not going to explain the plot in any sort of chronologically ordered detail, because there isn’t really much “plot,” per se, beyond the rudimentary frame for the action. As the episode opens we learn the Hirogen have taken over Voyager. Suffice it to say that the Hirogen leader (Danny Goldring) wants to learn some things about his “prey” by putting them into violent holodeck settings to see how they react. Furthermore, everyone involved is at the mercy of a neural device that makes them believe they’re whomever the Hirogen program them to be. Therefore, everybody actually thinks they’re the characters that they’re playing.

This strikes me as a canned plot method for role-playing in a 20th-century setting, almost as if the Voyager writers decided they wanted to do “Far Beyond the Stars” for themselves. Unfortunately, the setting is put to very little dramatic use; instead, it merely becomes a wind-up toy. Most of the characters play various people in the French Resistance, residents of a town occupied by a Nazi presence. The town is on the verge of invasion by the Americans. You’d think with a premise like this there’d be room for some social relevance. But this story instead turns into a collection of bright ideas, with the crew members’ identities changing on a moment’s notice (under circumstances that would take far too long to explain), holodeck safeties being disabled, and, finally, the notion that WWII actually spills onto the decks ofVoyager when the Hirogen lose control of their controlled situation. (They had installed holo-emitters on various decks of the ship—although why is never quite clear.)

Of course, there’s also the bright idea of making Neelix a Klingon for his bout of role-playing in a second holodeck setting. I have no comment other than, “uh … no.” (Conversely, I thought Janeway’s brief turn as a Klingon in the opening minute of the show was quite a bit of fun. I didn’t even realize that it was Kate Mulgrew until after the Hirogen said, “Janeway requires medical attention.”)

Meanwhile, the episode goes on to lay waste to half the ship for no other reason, I’m guessing, than because the creators felt they could. Only in “The Killing Game” will you see the holodeck wall blown apart, exposing multiple decks of the ship to the people inside the holodeck. Only in “The Killing Game” will you see Janeway blow up sickbay with a holographic bomb based on WWII technology. And only in “The Killing Game” will a group of holographic Klingons save the day by charging across from another holodeck simulation to slaughter the simulated German army.

Is this interesting to watch? Well, maybe for a while, but not for the length that it continues. Talking about it is kind of fun, just because it’s so bizarre, absurd, and overlarge—or perhaps it’s interesting to discuss for the same reasons I might be excited as I explain to my friends a car wreck I had just witnessed.

The fact of the matter is that watching this becomes tiring and eventually quite boring. By the time the latter stages of the second episode were rolling around, I was sick of the bloodless, pointless gunfights between the fictional armies. The whole exercise became ludicrous. Why was it happening? For some sort of dramatic purpose or storytelling point? No. It was happening because the contrivances of the plot made the holodeck break down so that it couldn’t be stopped. Why couldn’t the simulation simply be turned off? Because the commands were off-line, that’s why. The fact that “the plug can’t be pulled” is a very flimsy device to base the a story around, but that’s exactly what “The Killing Game” does.

This is merely more fourth-season Voyager “fun.” And it’s shallow and inept. There really isn’t much of a story here. It’s just set piece after set piece, with a half-finished theme about Hirogen existence shoehorned in between the plot advances. The tragedy of it all is that the Hirogen theme was the only part of the show that really had any sort of emotional resonance. I found the Hirogen leader to be the story’s sole interesting character. His methods were brutal and exploitative, but he had an urgent purpose for what he was doing. He was fascinated by the fantasy realm of the holodeck and what it could mean for his people, who are threatened with extinction as a result of their inability to change. Unfortunately, he goes the way of Ensign Suder—frustratingly knocked off by the writers to give rise to a “tragic” moment, abandoning all potential for him to teach his fellow Hirogen anything that would make them more interesting to us as viewers. He’s killed by one of his own men, a casualty of his unconventional thinking. I guess it works in the sense that he’s a victim of his own society’s problems, but that doesn’t change the fact that his death is based on plotting by the numbers.

There are also moments when this episode tries to thematically connect the Hirogen to the Nazis (both are groups who prey on others, but for different reasons), but it’s unfortunately lost in a sea of madness, and relevant only for its obvious plot value: to turn the Hirogen number two (Mark Deakins) against his commander.

For good measure, the finale has Janeway being hunted through theVoyager corridors by the evil Hirogen number two. I thought the way she gained the upper hand on him was kind of clever, though part of me wishes Janeway had unloaded four or five shells into the evil Hirogen rather than just one. But that’s probably the same part of me that revels in seeing New York City incinerated by a flaming alien fireball (see Independence Day example above).

So what happens when the moment of crisis is over and the holodeck armies vanish? Chakotay says, rather unceremoniously, “It’s over. Let’s go.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the anticlimax. Half the ship was lying in ruins, yet the characters just log it as another day at the office. And speaking of days at the office, raise your hand if you think the fact that “the damage to Voyager is extreme” will mean a damn thing beyond the one sentence that was used to acknowledge the fact. (You, in the back—put your hand down. You obviously weren’t listening to a word I just said.)

Lastly, the truce at the story’s end between the Voyager crew and the Hirogen isn’t believable. It comes out of nowhere, half-explained in Janeway’s log narration that the standstill in the fighting has provided the Hirogen with no other option. This strikes me as inconsistent with everything about the Hirogen we’ve learned. With the Hirogen leader dead, there’s no dramatic basis for the truce to even happen, so the fact that the remaining Hirogen accept Janeway’s peaceful resolution is nothing more than arbitrary.

As brain dead as “The Killing Game” (particularly part two) is, I didn’t quite loathe it. I certainly didn’t like it, but as an elaborate two hours of “fun” it manages to work in stretches, even though it’s hopelessly nonsensical if you stop to think about it.

Ultimately, “The Killing Game” is a Holodeck Runs Awry paradigm—an oft-dreaded TNG cliche reconceived and ante-upped by Voyager. But because Braga and Menosky didn’t seem content with only one cliche, they had to throw in a change in time periods, lots of crew members behaving as other people, an alien takeover premise, lots and lots of holodeck gags, gunfire, Jeri Ryan singing, explosions, double-crosses, Hirogen politics, more gunfire, and plenty of general mayhem. It’s … just … too … much.

The result is a disjointed, nearly incoherent mess. A mess that doesn’t add up to mean much of anything. The more I think about my ratings, the more generous they seem. But I’m not going to change them, because this is an episode that demands to simply be viewed and then not thought of the slightest bit afterward. The technical credits are impressive, if that’s any consolation.

So, goodbye, Hirogen. You’re another Trekkian alien race for the books, and you won’t be particularly missed. You got to appear in five episodes, but you’re still nothing more than another entry into the log of Stock Delta Quadrant Aliens.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of The Omega Directive:

Ah, this is just what we needed. After a depressingly excessive and pointless “Killing Game,” and a totally pedestrian and plot-hole-ridden “Vis A Vis,” “The Omega Directive” came as a very pleasant surprise to this viewer. This is one of the more original Voyager offerings in some time, effectively utilizing many of Voyager‘s strengths as well as its static story premise in somewhat unexpected yet natural ways.

This is one of the good ways of utilizing the long-standing (and unlikely-to-change) Voyager-in-a-vacuum mentality. This episode doesn’t add anything to any overlapping canvases (what overlapping canvases?) the way a pivotal episode of DS9 might; rather, it’s just a solid stand-alone science fiction story that is sensibly written and sensibly executed. It’s entertaining and reasonably thoughtful, particularly with some of the characterizations that arise late in the story. As an episode of Voyager, it’s pretty original; watching the episode, I got the feeling that I hadn’t seen this story before.

The Omega Directive is an emergency classified Starfleet protocol relegated only to captains. When a certain substance—the mysterious, dangerous, and powerful molecule known as “Omega”—is detected by the sensors, the captain is alerted by the computer and must follow preplanned Starfleet procedures to destroy the molecule at all costs. As the episode progresses, we learn this molecule has great energy capabilities and, of course, great destructive power. In addition to causing destruction on a large scale, it also can cause the destruction of subspace on an even much larger scale, leaving areas of space permanently affected such that travelling through said areas faster than the speed of light becomes impossible. Get a big enough explosion from enough Omega molecules, and an entire quadrant or even galaxy could be affected, ending warp travel and therefore interstellar civilization as the Federation knows it.

The story takes a while to let us in on what’s happening, which is effectively utilized for some mystery, and also brings Seven of Nine into the game earlier than the rest of the crew, since she has Borg knowledge of Omega as assimilated from Starfleet captains. It’s established that the Borg had also experimented with Omega; rather than destroy it, they wanted to learn about and assimilate it. To them it represented perfection, and Seven does not want to simply destroy “perfection” based on her captain’s fear. (Not that she has a choice; she may not be pleased with Janeway’s desire to destroy Omega, but she does seem to have learned when to resign to authority.)

The story, through its ominous mysteries and setups, is a little uneven. It begins shrouded in secrecy, then becomes a complicated tech plot before turning into a standard alien encounter and then ultimately a small character story. It’s a little strange that these parts are all part of a single episode, but, amazingly, they come together into a single story that is ambitious and intriguing. Usually when a story has so many little premises existing in one episode, the unevenness becomes a liability; here, the parts manage to work together much better than they have any right to, so instead of having a problem, we merely have a plot that is complex and engaging.

I think some of the initial secrecy was a little overplayed, though it was interesting. I was definitely intrigued by the secrecy (even the huge letter “omega” that appeared on the Voyager monitors when the computer detected the substance was strangely eerie, though somewhat corny). The idea of Janeway “locking herself in her quarters” for hours on end had my attention, though it seemed a little overly cloak-and-daggerish, especially given the story’s ultimate direction.

The idea of an “Omega Directive” left me with a few questions—like, for example, what happens if the captain has been killed? And just when do promoted captains receive their training for dealing with Omega? And why are captains more qualified to deal with this information than other people, like engineers? And why does Janeway destroy the Omega files after accomplishing this mission? Couldn’t she potentially encounter more Omega particles somewhere? I suppose such questions could be more easily answered in the Alpha Quadrant, where Starfleet would presumably send in special teams to destroy the molecule, leaving the role of a captain who found Omega particles to that of an afterthought. Whatever. Considering that this story was conjured for a single plot, Lisa Klink manages to do a reasonable job of making the idea seem plausible enough, so I’m not going to complain to much about some plot holes.

Since Voyager is alone and the captain has no backup, Chakotay talks her into allowing the rest of the Voyager crew to assist in the procedure, which she reluctantly grants. She briefs the senior staff on Omega, in a scene that shows just how apt a name “Omega” (i.e., “the end”) truly is.

I would, however, like to ask why B’Elanna—the chief engineer, no less—wasn’t in on the briefing about Omega. Was it an episode production issue, or the writers’ conscious decision of “We have Seven, so we don’t need B’Elanna”? As much as I like Seven, I don’t like the idea of “Seven at the expense of other characters,” which seems to have been the case lately.

Overall, I would call “The Omega Directive” one of the season’s better offerings, but it isn’t what I would call a powerhouse. (After DS9‘s “In the Pale Moonlight,” I don’t see how anything could compare, but I’ll try to keep that out of my mind.) Perhaps because we have to learn so much as the story unfolds, it takes a while before the tech story is something we can fully sink our teeth into. And once the danger is established, we realize the key difference between the effectiveness of “Moonlight” and the effectiveness of “Omega” is that “Moonlight” was a visceral experience with high stakes—whereas “Omega” also has high stakes but takes a lot of plot explanation for us to understand what those stakes are. And once we do know the stakes, another problem is that the stakes are so incredibly high (“The end of space-faring civilization as we know it”) that we know from the outset they don’t have the slightest chance of playing out.

But even knowing that, the story is effective, because the characterizations are dead-on. Janeway’s tenacity for destroying this threat seem to make a great deal of sense given her plausibly grounded belief that it’s irresponsible to play with forces that are so powerful and dangerous to so many civilizations. Meanwhile, Chakotay’s appeal to the captain to bring the crew into the mission was perfectly in line with this season’s “family” theme.

And, oh yes—Seven of Nine.

Just what won’t the writers come up with for Seven of Nine this season? She has quickly become more interesting, complex, and subtly multifaceted than many of the other characters on this series combined. Who would’ve thought that Omega meant as much to Seven as we slowly learn it does in the course of this episode? Personally, I was taken by surprise. Through the story’s rendition of what could’ve potentially been an only-average tech plot comes the notion of the Borg’s belief of “perfection” in Omega, which has compelling possibilities.

As the story unfolds through Seven, there are some fascinating moments which transcend the mechanics of the plot. There are three scenes in this episode where, again, I was thoroughly impressed and even moved by the effectiveness of Jeri Ryan’s performance and the writers’ ability to give her such good material. The first is a moment when she appeals to Chakotay as a spiritual man. In a scene where she describes a very personal belief of Omega’s “perfection,” we see that the Borg’s opinion of Omega borders on the deistic, and realize that the destruction of Omega, if necessary, will be a personal tragedy for her. The way Ryan delivers these lines is poignant, showing Seven vulnerable, troubled, and emotional—but it’s so subtle that it’s ten times more effective than histrionics could ever be, and so in-character that it’s worthy of awe.

Another crucial scene is one where the conflict between Janeway and Seven concerning the fate of Omega seems to be developing along the lines of many Janeway/Seven scenes—until Seven realizes, in an moment of growth where she is able to see the other viewpoint, the sensibilities behind Janeway’s need to destroy something as dangerous and unpredictable as Omega.

A third scene is the episode’s coda, in which Seven opens herself to larger possibilities when she considers the unexpected and almost life-like behavior that was exhibited by Omega just moments before it was destroyed. It’s a moment of clarity that she can only equate with religious experiences that the Borg had assimilated from other civilizations—experiences which, until now, she had dismissed. It’s a very intriguing twist on both Seven and the Borg, showing that they are open to ideas outside the realm of simply self-serving assimilation of knowledge.

Seven aside, the plot turns aren’t entirely riveting on their own merit, especially once the source of Omega is located (in an experimental alien-of-the-week laboratory), but the story clips along nicely, never threatening to be mundane or even implausible (as these things go). The technobabble is light, but just present enough to keep the science fiction aspects seeming believable. The story documents the crew as they locate, retrieve, and destroy the Omega molecules. And although I don’t think it was entirely necessary to have the weekly derivation of aliens firing on Voyager when things don’t go their way, the conflict for once didn’t seem completely forced.

The use of little touches also made a difference, particularly the comic idea of Seven giving the crew new names, er, numbers as a means of organizing them to work on her project more efficiently. Harry’s defiance of Seven was also amusing, as was Chakotay’s we-don’t-have-time-to-worry-about-trivial-nonsense way of dealing with the matter (that is, telling Harry, simply, “When in the Borg collective, adapt”).

I do, however, feel I have to raise one troubling logistic issue here, which I’ll pose in the form of a question: What happens if the aliens decide to ignore the dangers of creating Omega molecules (which, based on evidence presented by the story, seems very likely) and decide to continue their experiments? There doesn’t seem to be anything to stop them once Voyager leaves their territory. Considering that Starfleet considers the destruction of Omega so essential that Janeway would carry it out at all costs, it seems a little silly and shortsighted that once the immediate danger is nullified that it’s simply a return to Business as Usual [TM]. If there’s a need to rescind the Prime Directive to destroy Omega, I think it only seems natural that Starfleet would also want to also make sure such aliens don’t have the ability to continue such research and experiments.

Yet I don’t see how this is remotely possible. Voyager is in no position to deny the aliens the knowledge they’ve obtained. After all, the only reason Omega experiments aren’t conducted in the Federation is because the Federation willingly decided to destroy all such knowledge pertaining to Omega in the interests of safety. What happens if some aliens decide their needs exceed the risk and damn the consequences, no matter how large they may be? This is a big example of the can of worms that writers open when they make such huge, encompassing statements of ultimate power. If one civilization anywhere (let alone one that Voyager happens upon in the vast Delta Quadrant) indeed has the means to create a power that could destroy space travel as we know it in the entire quadrant (or even galaxy), then you’d think Starfleet’s attempt to control and destroy Omega is essentially so futilely out of its hands that any pretension of said control is merely pointless arrogance. And if Starfleet finds it likely enough they would ever again encounter such “rare” Omega as to give every captain in the fleet a directive to destroy it, then it’s probably a bigger problem than anyone in Starfleet could want to possibly imagine, especially given that one civilization on the other side of the galaxy can create it based merely on the life’s work of a few nameless scientists. (For that matter, why didn’t the Borg continue running experiments if assimilation was the goal at all costs?)

Or, I don’t know—maybe Starfleet higher-ups don’t live in fear any more than we in 1998 do, knowing that there are possibly untracked asteroids in our solar system that could swing around and destroy our own civilization when we least expect it. My point is, it seems a little simplistic to use such a huge issue that raises more questions than it even hopes to tackle for the sake of one plot that will never be mentioned again in the history of Trek. In that sense, it seems to me like an overlarge absurdity that lives only in a single-episode fantasy world (which is probably the entire intention anyway). Or, I don’t know—maybe I’m just nitpicking (which, by the way, is occasionally fun). But I think I’ve gone on about this point for far too long. I’ve lost sight of any hope of realistic Star Trek commentary, so I’m just going to shut the hell up now. Consider this part of the review a foray into needless discussion, as this article exceeds the ludicrous boundaries of the 2,400-word mark. Ugh. (It’s late, I never intended a review this long, and I’ve clearly gone off the deep end.)

In any case, I can live with it both ways (since the episode does); I did find the issue of an aftereffect that destroys subspace in a way that prohibits warp travel to be rather interesting. The “destruction of the galaxy” would’ve been hopelessly extreme and therefore corny; the destruction of warp-travel capabilities is a little (although not that much) more restrained and original.

But what we’re basically talking about here is effective storytelling. I can describe the plot all I want, but I can’t really convey the manner which it all falls together to make sense. In many ways the writers have a story that is much bigger than it needs to be, or probably can be, under scrutiny. But with the characterizations, dialog, and execution in place, it’s a fresh hour, and works like a charm.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Demon:

Jammer walks into the room on the third floor of the Illini Union. It is the first time he has decided to go to a meeting held by the campus’ Star Trek: Voyager fan club. He has heard that these people usually have nothing but witless praise for the show, and that they do not like people who criticize it. Being that this is the last meeting before summer adjournment, Jammer decides that he wants to have some fun by sitting in and making some comments about the most recent Voyager episode, “Demon.” He takes a seat at the back of the room.

Club president [banging a gavel]: All members, the meeting is now in session. We’ll begin with the usual weekly commentary about this past Wednesday’s episode, starting with our lead speaker and reviewer, Gary. Are you ready, Gary?

Gary [standing up]: Naturally. As you all know, I wouldn’t miss an episode. It’s my favorite TV show. The Bulls are in the playoffs, and I had to miss the end of the game, but one must have priorities, you know. [Some club members laugh.]

Jammer [from the back of the room, trying to incite trouble]: Are you kidding? Voyager is LAME. DS9 is a lot better.

[Gasps come from everywhere in the room. Murmurs from all the members blend together, filling the room with an air of appalled surprise.]

Bob [a member from the front of the room]: Oh, it’s Jammer. We know all about you and your reviews. You really think you’re the man, don’t you?

[The room grows quiet, as members begin to realize a debate is about to begin.]

Jammer: No, I just write them. You don’t have to agree with them.

Bob: Well, whatever. I’ve heard DS9 is just a rip-off of Babylon 5. I don’t watch it much … all that Prophets stuff gets on my nerves and is boring.Voyager is better because it takes place on a ship, the way a Trek series should. Plus, it has that Borg Babe.

[Some members start laughing. The mood lightens.]

Amanda [from the center of the room]: Bob, you’re such a moron. Get over her. She deserves more credit than being reduced to a sex object.[The room grows quiet again.]

Bob: I’m not even going to start, Amanda. We had this discussion two weeks ago. Quit being so politically correct.

Gary: I’ll admit, she’s nice to look at, but I think we have more important discussion at hand.

Jammer: Yes, we do. What did you think of “Demon”?

Gary: Well, it was one demon of a planet. The place was really harsh. Five hundred degrees Kelvin!

Bob: Yep. Don’t forget the poisonous gases.

Gary: The episode was really good. This is Voyager doing interesting exploration and also remembering that the ship is stranded. The deuterium supply was low, so the ship was running out of fuel. I was glad they brought that up, because we haven’t seen anything like that since the second season when the crew would look for food.

Jammer: What? You bought into this?

Gary: Sure, why not?

Jammer: So you’re saying that if you had a car and were running out of gas, you’d drive out to the middle of the Mojave Desert and not look for a gas station until AFTER the needle was dropping below “E”?

Gary: Well, I don’t think that analogy…

Jammer: I suppose you’d leave the air conditioning running full blast, too. That was B.S. All this time in the Delta Quadrant, and all of a sudden Voyager is running low on fuel and conveniently couldn’t find any deuterium? I just loved the way they didn’t turn off the lights and the holodecks until the same day they ran out of energy. I mean, this came out of nowhere, for crying out loud! The crew must be a bunch of IDIOTS! The whole episode was based on a completely absurd, far-fetched, and unbelievable idea. And very, very artificially manufactured. Pulled out of the creators’ rear, if I may say so.

Gary: Well, maybe a little, but…

Jammer: And what was up with Tuvok not letting Neelix keep his book and his blankets? Yeah, Neelix may have been a whining chump this week, but how does one book take up THAT much space?

Amanda: Yeah, what WAS that all about?

[Murmurs from all around the room begin again.]

Gary: Well maybe Tuvok wanted to be fair. After all, the entire crew couldn’t bring their books and blankets if they were being put into general population. Tuvok probably didn’t want to have to worry about books getting lost or stolen and stuff. [Laughs.] Who cares? It was all done for comedy.

Amanda: Yeah, but it was still trite, you have to admit.

Jammer: They sure padded this episode with a lot of stupid scenes. It was supposed to be funny, but it didn’t work. All it did was break up the momentum. Wait—I take that back. There wasn’t any momentum to break up.

Gary: Well, what about the subplot where Neelix decides to go to sickbay as his temporary “quarters,” and then Neelix and the Holodoc get into a fight over it?

Jammer: That was the worst of it all. Absolutely horrendous. Did you actually think it was funny? It had to be one of the biggest wastes of screen time this entire season. Pointless scenes of Doc trying to annoy Neelix and vice versa. What was this supposed to be?

Gary: I’ll admit that it was kinda goofy. But the whole thing of Doc not being able to stay up late so that Neelix could sleep reminded me of the roommate problems I had my freshman year.

Jammer: Did you act the way either Doc or Neelix was acting here? If so, I can see WHY you had roommate problems. This was just dumb; it had both of them acting like junior high kids. I thought even this show was way beyond this trivial crap.

[Murmurs fill the room again. Many people are obviously angry with Jammer.]

Bob: Why should we listen to you? You actually liked “Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night”!

[Shouts of agreement fill the room, as it becomes obvious the meeting is turning into Jammer versus everyone else.]

Jammer [trying to avoid losing the floor to dissension]: Hey, but did you notice: B’Elanna’s back, and she’s not pregnant anymore.

Bob: Yeah, that’s right. She’s still wearing that engineering coat, though. That’s okay; everyone knows Seven of Nine is the real engineer. They should get rid of B’Elanna and make Seven the chief. She has all that Borg knowledge and could run that department, and threaten to assimilate anyone who doesn’t obey her orders. [Laughs.]

Amanda [with disdain]: The Seven worshiper speaks again.

Gary: Hey, did anyone try to win 100 bucks through the TV station with that Trek promo they have this month?

Unnamed member #1 [who is sitting near Jammer]: I actually got through, but I was the fourth caller.

Unnamed member #2 [from the front]: I tried the last few days, but I never get through. I’ve given up and don’t bother anymore.

Jammer: Yeah, when the message came on the screen I tried to get through, but it was busy every time I dialed. Being the tenth caller is impossible. I usually tend to ignore it, but since the show was so boring and tedious, I just went ahead and tried to make some money off it.

Gary: Oh well, better luck next time.

Jammer: Anyway, I thought they were going to crash that shuttle at the beginning, but fortunately they didn’t.

Gary: There! You see, they ARE managing to avoid using the standard cliches.

Jammer: Maybe, but considering the whole premise was based on a DNA-mimicking metallic fluid, I didn’t feel too great about it. I also don’t recall them taking the shuttle back to the ship, but that’s not exactly a surprise; they never show that. It’s not something worth complaining too much about.

Bob: I think you complain enough, anyway. You’re just a nitpicker who hates the show. Anyway, you’re missing the point. This was about Tom and Harry and how they got absorbed by that liquid metal stuff.

Jammer: Well, it was about them getting absorbed, but it certainly wasn’t about Tom or Harry. Anyone could’ve been absorbed, including you or me. This whole show could’ve been done with a bunch of guest characters for all the good it did for the characters who were actually in the show!

Amanda: Well, I like Harry’s character, and I thought the theme at the beginning was interesting—you know, where he decides to be more assertive—even though the DNA mumbo-jumbo was uninteresting.

Jammer: Harry’s issue came completely out of the blue—just like the whole “out of fuel” thing. There’s never any gradual drama on this series. Everything is conjured out of nowhere, and Harry’s personality this week was a perfect example of this.

Amanda: Well, they had some references to other shows; that made for some good continuity.

Jammer: Too bad so many of the references were to BAD shows. The fact Harry attributes his most “worthwhile” experience to bizarre events, like turning into an alien in “Favorite Son” or coming back from the dead doesn’t say much about his character. Hell, I was surprised he didn’t mention his twin getting sucked out into space in “Deadlock.” Now THERE’S something to put on your resume.

Gary: What about the way the plot explained the real reason for everything? It was reasonable science fiction, wasn’t it? I liked the idea that it was a liquid lifeform that copies people’s DNA.

Jammer: DNA, DNA, DNA. I’m not even going to start in. Voyager plays that DNA card way too much. I especially loved the way the copied DNA allowed the liquid lifeform to make replicated people, complete with uniforms and total memories of the past. [Shakes his head.] God-awful science. But what’s the point in being critical of bad science anymore? Really—this episode was like a classic Seinfeld episode: a show about nothing. At least, for most of the way, it was. When it finally decided it was making a point, it pulled plot conveniences out of thin air.

Amanda: You’re so harsh!

Jammer: Well, to be fair, it wasn’t quite as bad as “Threshold.” But it was incredibly slow and pointless, and had a plot that jumped around aimlessly. Easily the worst of the year.

Bob: Whadayamean? This story had the ship land! Blue alert! We haven’t seen that since the second season. And then the liquid metal stuff started to go under the ship and make it sink. That was cool. I liked the way Janeway played the badass and shot the liquid stuff with the phasers until they agreed to let go of the ship.

Jammer: I thought that was a questionable moment, especially seeing how sincere the fake Harry was asking Janeway for help, but I guess you’ve got to protect your own first.

Gary: But you have to admit the way the story handled the fake Harry and fake Tom was done well. I didn’t suspect a thing for the longest time.

Jammer: Yeah, except for that the plot cheats and is completely deceptive in order to do this. Just how is it the mimicking metal stuff remembered that Tom and Harry ran out of oxygen and passed out—which happened AFTER it had copied them? And we never even found out why they had leaks in their suits, or how they managed to survive for an hour with “no oxygen.” And when it was all over with, what was the POINT? To fake out the audience? I was literally amazed at how little sense this made, and how many cheats they used to do it.

Bob [angrily]: Who even asked you, Jammer? You could at least give the show credit for being bizarre and different. It’s a lot more interesting than a bunch of bratty kids piloting a Valiant-class starship, which isn’t believable, either.

Jammer: Oh, come ON! Believable? You want to talk about BELIEVABLE? Okay, let’s go. First, doesn’t it seem silly that Tom and Harry would leave their shuttle door OPEN in 500-Kelvin weather? Seems like it’d be bad for the equipment, or at least the upholstery. Then again, they’d have to leave the environmental controls on full blast in order to keep the shuttle cool, anyway. Man, and I thought cooling my car down on a summer day was bad. And, by the way, the Valiant is a Defiant-class ship.

Bob: I’m warning you, Jammer, don’t make me mad…

Jammer [testing the limits of Bob]: And didn’t you think it was strange that later, after they found them with no enviro-suits, no one noticed that Harry and Tom were okay in that heat? Sure, they noticed that the two of them could breath the poisonous gasses, but no one seemed to notice that they hadn’t become a nice, crispy, charred barbecue.

Bob: Just shut UP, already!

Jammer [having even more fun provoking Bob]: Oh yeah—tell me how much energy it would take to keep the starship Voyager habitable while it’s sitting on the surface of a planet that’s 500 Kelvin. Or how long it would take the ship to reach the planet from .4 light-years away at ONE-QUARTER IMPULSE POWER.

Bob: THAT’S IT! [He begins walking toward Jammer, looking particularly violent.]

Jammer [reveling inside]: And Janeway KILLED Tuvix!

[The room explodes into a fury of shouting and arguing. Bob becomes lost in the pack. One member even picks up a chair, as if he might throw it into the crowd. Jammer considers calling the police, but then realizes that the outbreak is his own fault.]

President [furiously banging his gavel]: Order! ORDER!

[The crowd slowly calms down, and back to normal. Everyone is uncomfortable. Bob is still fuming.]

President: Jammer, you may make your closing remarks, but then you have to leave. We cannot tolerate this sort of dissension.

Gary: I just want to say that this episode was different, which is worth respect.

Jammer: Well, I don’t know what you saw in this. I’ll grant you that it was bizarre and different, and wasn’t bad in any typical way. Rather, it was bad in a way all of its OWN. They really tried pushing the envelope at the end, but it was a big flop that was merely mind-numbingly bland. None of what happened made any sense, and none of the characters seemed to care what was happening around them. Especially the ending, where the fake Harry started to suddenly realize the nature of his existence, was hopelessly contrived.

Gary: What about the final scene with the replicated crew standing around outside the ship? That was sort of poignant.

Jammer: It looked neat, but it was totally thoughtless and without regard to any consequences. Did you even think about the implications of Janeway allowing the entire crew to be replicated, with copied memories of everyone? Now THERE’S a cloning issue for you. What about security? Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad this didn’t turn out to be a simple example of killing the “bad alien lifeform,” but it was almost as bad the way it unfolded. Very poorly thought out.

Bob [calmer]: You think about this show way too much. It’s supposed to be entertainment. I watch it for the special effects, the exploration, and, of course, the Borg Babe.

Jammer: Maybe that’s why you don’t watch DS9—you watch TV you don’t have to think about. I can understand that, I guess. I don’t always want to think when I’m looking for entertainment. But at the same time, that certainly doesn’t mean Voyager has to be completely without a brain. “Living Witness” last week was a great story—didn’t you think so?

Gary [receiving agreement from others]: Yeah, it was. And I guess I didn’t mind thinking about it after it was over.

Jammer: Well, there you go—living proof that this series won’t alienate viewers simply by thinking every so often. I’ve said my piece. Thanks for letting me sit in on your meeting.

Bob [aside]: Don’t you mean destroy it?

President: Please leave now, Jammer.

Jammer: No problem. Just one more thing…

President: What?

Jammer: The Trek novels AREN’T CANON!

Jammer bolts out of the room as it explodes again. He walks down the hall, listening as the shouting and arguing echoes throughout the floor. As he exists the Union, he laughs to himself as he wonders how so many intelligent, college-educated people could enjoy such a lobotomized television episode. But, then again, everyone has their own opinions. Fearing for his life, Jammer takes the bus home, as he wouldn’t want to be assaulted by a gang of Voyager viewers during a short but decidedly dangerous walk down Green Street.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Living Witness:

Seven hundred years in the future, Voyager has become a terrible myth on a Delta Quadrant planet. Voyager itself has come and gone, and its crew and generations succeeding them have come and gone. But on the planet in question in this week’s episode, “Living Witness,” Voyager is a dark and dreadful piece of history—and the people living on this world are still feeling the effects from their encounter with the famous ship.

“Living Witness” is a standout story that is well told and thoroughly engaging. It features a central problem that is both relevant and unique. I haven’t seen a Voyager outing quite like this one, and it pleases me to take in a story that can get its hooks into us for an hour and make us care about what’s happening on the screen. For once, we have a stake in the outcome that goes much deeper than the average example of this week’s possible destruction of the ship.

“Living Witness” isn’t quite perfect, but it manages to pull off a balancing act of Voyager-esque elements and come off wonderfully. It’s original and entertaining, and it made me care about the characters, the most important of whom weren’t even Voyager crew members.

The device used to tell the tale is clever and atypical. The story makes some very good choices, the first being that we never actually see the “real” Voyager crew in the course of the episode. The entire story is set on a planet populated by two peoples: the Kyrians and the Vaskans. The story’s central character is a Kyrian named Quarren (Henry Woronicz), who is a historian that works at a museum devoted to the warship Voyager. His newest exhibit, a holographic rendition called “TheVoyager Encounter,” documents how Voyager teamed up with the Vaskans to unleash terrible slaughter upon the Kyrians all those centuries ago.

In this depiction, the Voyager crew are the bad guys. Janeway’s motto: “When diplomacy fails, there’s only one alternative: violence.” Quarren’s depiction demonstrates how Voyager attacked the Kyrian planet and destroyed its cities, paving the way for the Vaskans to wage a war whose sociological aftereffects are still being felt in the present.

Pace-wise, this story is dead-on. It doesn’t waste any time; it gets right down to business, dropping us into the middle of “The VoyagerEncounter” and showing us the Kyrian version of the Voyager crew. Strangely, this isn’t done with a dark atmosphere of intensity; it’s done with an eerie comic-book tone. Many scenes involving the evil “anti-crew” are exploited mainly for our own enjoyment. It looks like the actors have fun playing evil, over-the-top opposite versions of themselves. I find that interesting, because this story is mostly pretty serious, yet it incorporates the fourth-season sense of “fun” into the plot almost seamlessly—and it for once works toward the episode’s purpose. Watching scenes of the “anti-crew” proves entertaining purely on the level of stand-alone set pieces. Janeway is no-nonsense, vindictive, and murderous. Harry is sadistic, Chakotay (with an exaggerated tattoo that covers half his face) is hypocritical in his use of violence, and Tuvok even dons an evil smile when he fires the phasers. (I did, however, miss Torres in this episode; it would’ve been fun to see an evil version of her, but I suppose the end of Dawson’s pregnancy made that impossible.)

The idea that this “anti-crew” had assimilated Kazon and Talaxians and even Borg into their midst was also interesting, particularly the idea of a small set of killer Borg drones who worked as a special force under Janeway’s command.

I somehow wonder about historical depictions being as melodramatic as in this case (though I certainly don’t dismiss that possibility since they can hold the potential of being quite manipulative). Since the recreation is obviously being told on two levels—one being the way the Kyrians perceive Voyager and the other being the actual filming techniques used for the benefit of entertaining us as the tale unfolds—it seems like a potentially uneasy duality. But it manages to work fine on both levels.

These scenes are strangely amusing, but maybe that’s because we realize how extreme and absurd Quarren’s depiction is. The story’s seriousness emerges when considering the fact that many Kyrians accept this depiction as the historical truth—a “reasonable extrapolation of the evidence,” as Quarren puts it.

The concept is what they call “revisionist history”—your culture makes biased extrapolations and even blatant alterations in order to paint the enemy in the worst possible manner and yourselves in the best possible light. This is a probing topic with some nicely conceived problems addressed within it, and the way it’s handled is downright compelling.

The story takes a turn when a new artifact is unearthed; active data that may prove to offer Voyager‘s own side of the story. Well, this active data turns out to be a backup copy of the Doctor—an actual “living witness” to the events in question. Once Doc is reactivated and learns where he is and what role his crew played in the Kyrians’ history, he’s understandably appalled. Who wouldn’t be? The rest of the story is how he tries to set the record straight.

As a narrative piece, “Living Witness” is effective because it allows us to experience the unknowns of the story right alongside the characters. As Quarren makes his discovery of Doc’s program, which has been preserved for 700 years, it’s a mysterious moment of awe. Likewise, when Doc realizes that it has been 700 years since he was on boardVoyager—which to him seems like yesterday—it allows us to see the Kyrian/Vaskan world from his perspective of the mysterious and unknown. It’s a very effective series of events, and with the story’s setting-away-from-the-usual-setting, I felt the freshness of a truly different type of Voyager story.

Needless to say, what Doc and Quarren know as the truth are two very different things. When Doc programs a simulation of his version of the events, Quarren initially doesn’t want to accept it—and we can see why. The way Doc’s new evidence sends Quarren into outright denial is probably the most believable, understandable, and well-conceived notion in the episode. It rightly understands that people don’t easily let go of things they have believed their entire lives, even when a new answer is sitting right in front of them. Consider: As a result of one archaeological find, Quarren’s historical world comes crashing down upon him, forcing him to rethink everything he has ever known.

At the same, watching Doc squirm as he sees how history has been biased and distorted is painfully effective. The Kyrian’s take is so inaccurate that we fully understand and sympathize when Doc says that somewhere far away “Captain Janeway is spinning in her grave.” Both Picardo’s and Woronicz’s performances pull us into their respective plights superbly.

I also think the way the episode ties its history to the current-day problems between the Kyrians and the Vaskans is a vital piece of the story’s success. This tie-back gives us a stake in seeing that the record is set straight—not just because Voyager‘s name must be cleared, but because there may be bigger issues affected by making the truth known. At this point in time, racial tensions between the Kyrians and Vaskans are dangerously volatile. The Kyrians are still being oppressed by the Vaskans, with whom they share the planet, and the fact thatVoyager‘s role rests somewhere in the middle of the original conflict means the truth surrounding Voyager could reveal new sides to everyone involved—which, indeed, it does.

The ultimate uncovering of physical evidence to prove Doc’s version of events makes for good and believable drama, and the inevitable destruction of the “museum of lies” strikes me as both appropriate and realistic (angry people realizing that history has been twisted aren’t likely to react well, so the ending riot struck me as a natural outcome of events).

I was also moved by the ending’s approach of a history-of-the-history, as it reveals that everything shown to us in the course of the hour is being taught years later, hailing Quarren and Doc as heroes who uncovered a truth that led to a new era of peace. It gave the entire episode a sort of mythical aura, which was just right. It may have been a little on the sappy side, but it was still very effective, and wonderfully executed. (I would say Tim Russ’ freshman effort has earned him another turn in the director’s chair.)

There’s only one real flaw in this episode, and even though I wish I could simply ignore it given the strength of the rest of the story, I just don’t feel that I can. That flaw is the sudden, conjured idea of a “Doctor backup program.” For one, it’s been firmly established on several occasions (even as recently as “Message in a Bottle”) that the Doctor can not be so simply backed up. Suddenly we have a device that not only reverses that notion entirely, but is also conveniently stolen by the Kyrians during the historic battle such that it can be found 700 years later. Both notions strain credulity. I’m not saying that the ability of backing up Doc has to be impossible, I’m just saying that the dramatic device was obviously invented solely for the benefit of this story. It’s a completely changed premise, and I feel like I’ve been lied to—as if the basis for this story is built upon a fundamentally contrived plot element. It’s probably the only reason this episode falls short of a four-star rating. (*)

I also wonder about the implications of Doc now having this backup module (if they built one that got stolen, they can presumably build another). Does this mean he can be stored forever, essentially immortal? And that he can also be essentially cloned? These questions are part of an entirely different issue, and I wonder if we’ll ever see such an issue tackled. I’m frankly not counting on it.

But I wouldn’t want these questions to take away from the great merits of “Living Witness,” because they are admittedly minor issues in comparison. This is one of the best episodes of Voyager yet, and certainly the best story so far this season. It’s engrossing, imaginative, and has something to say.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Hope and Fear:

Somehow, somewhere along the line, between last week’s episode and this episode, I actually opened my mind to the possibility that the starship Voyager might actually find its ticket home in the course of “Hope and Fear,” a season finale that comes hyped by the promos as “the ultimate homecoming.”

Okay, well, sure—I know better than to listen to the trailers; they’re over-hyped nonsense and always have been. My first thought was, “Oh, come on, anyway. The crew is obviously not getting home.” But some twisted logic in my brain started churning away and it actually began to get the better of me. Ultimately, it managed to convince me not to abandon all hope that the trailers weren’t simply lying to us per usual.

Consider: We’ve already done the “failed attempt to get home” story theme on several occasions (e.g. “Eye of the Needle,” “Prime Factors,” “False Profits,” and even—gag—”Threshold”); doing it again would be pointless and probably unforgivable, so why would they pretend to give it to us yet another time? Maybe they really aren’t kidding around this time.

Consider: We have Rick Berman, of all people, garnering a story credit on an episode, something he hasn’t done on this series since the pilot, and hasn’t done on DS9 since “The Maquis,” which itself was used to set up backstory for the launch of this series. With that in mind, maybe he was involved in preparing something really big—maybe even a completely new direction for the series.

Consider: The plot gives us a ship that could potentially take Voyagerback to the Alpha Quadrant in a mere three months, bringing theVoyager crew home just in time for the beginning of season five following the three-month summer hiatus.

Consider: We have (in an ideal storytelling world that, admittedly, strikes me as far too daring and long-term for the Voyager creators to touch) the possibility that the fifth season of Voyager could focus on the crew’s reintegration into Federation society.

Consider: We have a preview that is so deceptive in its use of visuals and so fundamentally misleading that the only two foreseeable options are that (a) the lie used to hide the reset-button nature of the plot is so audacious that it would be almost too appalling to imagine, or (b) we’re actually being told the truth for once and big changes are in store, possibly as the show vies for a ratings boost. For a while, I actually found myself considering option “b.”

Okay, so now I just feel like a big dupe—perhaps like the entire crew ofVoyager has felt each of the times they realized their ticket home wasn’ta ticket home. Once again, the crew of the starship Voyager has seen a potential end to their journey, and once again it ends in utter disappointment as it slips through their fingers. I’m asking myself just what it’s supposed to mean to us as viewers. Is the tension in the plot supposed to boil down to “just how can the Voyager crew be foiled thistime?”

At its fundamental core, a story like “Hope and Fear” strikes me as almost completely pointless. We’ve seen over and over again that the crew just nods and presses on—even after a lost dream like this—where they should probably be mutinying and beating themselves with blunt objects under such emotional turmoil. (I’m not even going to start in on how many opportunities this series has abandoned concerning the exploration of normal people’s emotional vulnerabilities.) Maybe I should’ve just turned off my brain and realized that the producers would simply go the route that deep down I knew they’d go: the Trekkian Status Quo. Nothing of any importance ever changes on this series; heck, I learned that back in season two.

But, to be perfectly fair and honest, the trick used this time around is packaged about as reasonably as it probably could’ve been under the circumstances, as it gives Janeway the role of calm skeptic from the outset. In the process, the story also brings about some very interesting character elements. It’s almost enough to make the story workable on its own sneaky terms.

But “almost enough” is not enough, because there are so many other glaring elements here that make the episode’s underlying intentions turn out to be nothing more than a big con on the audience—a con that is so seemingly precalculated that it’s all but unforgivable.

The story brings This Week’s Seemingly Friendly Alien [TM] named Arturis (Ray Wise) on board Voyager. His people are expert linguists. Give him five minutes with a dictionary and he can speak your language better than you. His unique abilities allow him to help the crew translate the damaged, encrypted file that was sent from Starfleet across the Hirogen-operated communications array back in “Hunters”—a message Janeway has unsuccessfully been working to crack for months.

Before too long, and perhaps too easily, Arturis (whose species resembles the Tenctonese from Alien Nation) decodes the damaged transmission, the directions of which lead the Voyager crew to a hidden experimental starship that Starfleet apparently sent as a means to bring the crew back to the Alpha Quadrant. It’s the USS Dauntless, a ship that operates on a “quantum slipstream drive,” capable of making the 60,000-light-year trip home in a mere three months. Might this be the end of the journey? The crew grows excited.

Strangely, maybe because I was partially duped, I actually felt the excitement the crew was feeling. Everything about the episode—Dennis McCarthy’s wondrous score, the impressive sets built for the new starship, Winrich Kolbe’s stellar direction over the awesome discovery of the new ship, the discussions among the crew that prove more promise of hope than we’ve seen in years—gives it a larger-than-life feel, as if the show were pulling out all the stops for something truly interesting. I guess I have to give the episode some points for actually having me engaged as it unfolded.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what exactly the creators were going for here. Upon seeing how the episode unfolded, the only possible intended message I can think of is something along the lines of “don’t get your hopes up, because deception comes in unlikely packages and getting your hopes crushed hurts a lot.” Unfortunately, that’s not something I really want to see on this series, because all it does is turn potentially interesting drama into obvious rehashes of “Eye of the Needle” or other examples.

Now I have to ask myself just what the point was for Starfleet to send such a large, encrypted, mysterious, seemingly important message—a message that apparently just said, “Sorry, but we’ve found no way to bring you back.” Come on—that’s absurd. Frankly, I find it more believable that a large, encrypted message would reveal the hidden whereabouts of a magical starship than it would simply say “too bad, but good luck.” But, of course, this turns out not to be the case. Now I wish I had never known about the encrypted Starfleet message in the first place; it feels like a waste of a perfectly good mystery. If this is the best the Voyager creators can do with a major mystery revelation, then I’m not sure what’s left to find in the Delta Quadrant that could possibly be interesting.

For that matter, Arturis’ method of revenge really strains credulity. In four words: I don’t buy it. It turns out he has been following Voyageraround for months, “waiting for an opportunity” to hatch his vengeance. Boy, it sure was lucky for him that the crew happened across the communications array back in “Message in a Bottle,” and happened to also receive an encrypted message from Starfleet command. I wonder where his Master Plan [TM] would be without these convenient happenstances. Now he hopes to lure the entireVoyager crew aboard this fake Federation ship (which does indeed have a real quantum slipstream drive) so that he can quickly deliver them to Borg space, where they will be assimilated in order to satisfy his perverse need for poetic justice. When he can’t get the entire crew, he manages to kidnap just Janeway and Seven, instead.

Basically, what we have here is a plot with pieces that are cobbled together out of unlikely coincidences and prior story events that have been twisted to fit the end result. And the reason for this end result to me seems motivated more by an obligatory need for the creators to revisit the “let’s get home” theme rather than to tell a real story.

That’s not to say the episode is completely without merit, because working in “Hope and Fear’s” favor is a great deal of stellar character work and some surprisingly effective closure. I liked, for instance, a lot of the motivation behind Arturis’ need for revenge (even if the methods of his revenge are extremely unlikely). The fact that Janeway’s negotiation with the Borg in “Scorpion” had negative consequences on other Delta Quadrant peoples is an interesting idea, and Arturis’ pointed accusation that Janeway can’t see beyond her own crew’s interests brings forth some valid observations. The use of the Borg collective as a dramatic device to bookend the season also works rather well.

Characteristically, this episode continues to capitalize on the growth of Seven as an individual. Seven fearing the prospect of living in a human society is both relevant and interesting. The bond between Janeway and Seven here is played so well that it’s actually moving. The argument in the astrometrics lab is beautifully acted and directed. And little moments like when Seven casts a smile in Harry’s direction, or catches Janeway off-guard with a joke, make for priceless character scenes. True, the repeated use of Seven continues to demonstrate how little the creative staff seems to care about the other characters, but it’s still great stuff in a vacuum.

Despite the cast’s best efforts, however, the problem is that the rest of the episode falls apart at the seams. All the mechanics of the plot strike me as being carefully and deceptively manufactured so they can be initially read as a “possible way home,” only so they can later be cunningly revealed as a “sinister alien plot.” Given the great lengths that the story goes to so that all the clues can be read two ways, and all the plot holes that subsequently arise as a result, I am not happy with the end result of this season finale. I feel like I’ve watched an hour of manipulative television that set out strictly to make me care about a problem that fundamentally has no right to be cared about.

The contrivances are so pervasive that it borders on the ridiculous. After months of trying, Janeway finally happens to stumble across a way to decode the real message in order to confirm her suspicions that Arturis is lying. How fortunate. Janeway and Seven, locked in a holding cell, manage to escape so they can try to stop Arturis. How fortunate. The Voyager plays deus ex machina by temporarily adapting the slipstream technology to their own engines so they can catch up with Arturis and rescue Janeway and Seven In the Nick of Time [TM]. How fortunate. Naturally, this technology can’t be used to get the crew home, because it’s too likely to destroy the ship in the process. How fortunate, or unfortunate—depending upon whether you’re Captain Janeway or Brannon Braga.

Sure, I’ll gladly accept the intriguing, well-realized character themes that arise as incidentals, but if I look at “Hope and Fear” for what it really is, I see an episode that exists simply to bait and hook viewers with a lie and then offer them a meretricious “real truth” in an attempt to make them forget they’ve been misled. As for the lengths Arturis goes to in order to gain his elaborate revenge—sorry, but as Janeway said, “All of this is just a little too perfect.” By episode’s end, Ray Wise’s performance as Arturis goes so far over the top in trying to convey tortured obsession that it merely becomes hokey.

What we have in “Hope and Fear” is some sincere and probing subplotting at the mercy of a sorely misguided premise. There are moments of the story that work, but I felt far too misled by pointless pretense to see the episode as anything more than a crafty attempt to make me care about a problem that inevitably ends the way every other analysis of this theme ends—in a failure that the crew doesn’t even seem to react to. The particulars of the story being told—that of an alien out for revenge—could’ve been told any number of other ways, so using the theme of getting home is ultimately just a gag to get our attention. I see no reason why it should get our attention anymore.

 

The Worst:

Scientific Method, Mortal Coil, and Vis à Vis

Mortal-Coil-1455050922

In small blurbs:

  • Scientific Method sees a group of aliens perform experiments on the crew without their knowledge;
  • Mortal Coil sees Neelix find himself in deep existential and spiritual crisis after being revived on an away mission by Seven of Nine’s nanoprobes; and,
  • In Vis à Vis, a genome thief switches physical forms with Lt. Tom Paris.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Scientific Method:

Well, here’s hoping that “Scientific Method” fulfills our Fun With DNA [TM] requirement for season four, just as “Threshold” did for second season and “Favorite Son” did for third season. It’s somewhat worrying that Voyager would supply its inept DNA episode this early in the season, for there’s a long way to go. There had better not be another one.

Why do the writers do this? The DNA mutation premise makes for incredibly contrived and weak drama (or is that “drama”?)—and has become one of the most dreaded of Voyager cliches. I’ll admit this installment is probably one of the more tolerable examples of playing with DNA (especially when “Threshold” and “Favorite Son” are the other noteworthy alternatives), but probably only because it abandons the DNA mumbo-jumbo to turn to another—if only slightly better—story premise. The sickbay scenes with Doc explaining his “startling” findings are thoroughly worthless and extremely tired—I found myself saying “No, no, please no” to my TV set through most of these scenes (especially the opening of act two when we find out Chakotay has suddenly aged to an old man, at which point I wanted to throw objects at the screen). Who in the world finds this sort of stuff genuinely interesting? Remotely believable? At all insightful or relevant to the characters in any way? Not me, times three.

How goes the game known as the “plot” this time around? Well, it’s funny, because the plot runs around like a decapitated chicken nearly as bad as “Coda” did last season. It jumps around, disjointed, shifting narrative focus all too frequently, as if it were written piece by piece by a committee and thrown together with total disregard to any kind of aesthetic story structuring. It’s strange, because this quality of jerry-rigged plotting typifies many of the really bad Voyager offerings. In such cases the story can never decide which characters are important and which aren’t; rather, it just tosses everybody into the mix and gives them a few key actions and then shoves them aside when they no longer serve a convenient purpose. These aren’t people—they’re plot pawns.

The episode’s first act is its best, centering around the relationship between Paris and Torres. The story depicts them as rather juvenile. They can’t keep their hands off one another. They make out in public locations, trying and failing to remain hidden and discreet. (Tuvok catches them in the act of a PDA, which is good for some laughs.) There’s a two-minute scene in a turbolift where Tom and B’Elanna discuss entering the briefing room separately, as to avoid suspicion. Too bad their behavior has been so adolescent that everybody already knows about them anyway. The scene where Janeway busts them for their behavior was both appropriate and fun … the only problem is that the whole premise is so sophomoric. (And, at that rate, I probably mean high-school level.) I’ll admit that it’s reasonably amusing, as are other parts of the show (which I’ll get to in a moment)—but it’s also lowbrow and dumb. And if you think about it, you begin to wonder if the characters would really do what the story has them do.

But never mind; that’s only act one. (Indeed, the most watchable scenes are the ones featuring Tom and B’Elanna that bookend the episode, probably because (a) the scenes actually exist in normal reality, and (b) they maintain a believable chemistry with a sarcastic edge that has typified the two characters’ friendship in the past.) Act two is when the show really begins to take its unfortunate form, beginning with the DNA stuff (which is truly awful) before turning on a dime in act three and getting a little, though not a whole lot, better. It turns out the mutations are being caused by a race of aliens who are walking around the ship conducting bizarre medical experiments, using some sort of phase-cloak technology to hide themselves. I won’t go into the way Doc discovers this crucial information—it’s far too elaborate and mired in technobabble to waste words in describing.

Suffice it to say that Doc has to hide out in the holodeck to avoid deactivation by the alien intruders. He then contacts Seven by tuning into an audio implant in her brain, then recruits her in an effort to quietly and carefully investigate the alien threat. The aliens could be anywhere, so Seven has to begin the secret assignment alone.

There are a couple neat ideas in here, like Doc’s “retuning” of Seven’s optical implants so that she—and she alone—can see the cloaked aliens. At this point the story shows signs of becoming interesting, as it reveals the aliens are everywhere, following the crew around and studying them like lab rats. I also somewhat enjoyed the effects of the alien experiments on Janeway: They give her headaches and increase her stress level, wondering where her breaking point is. This causes Janeway to be short-tempered and on-edge throughout the episode. Kate Mulgrew’s performance is engaging and believable. But it’s also ultimately futile, because then I have to ask myself why such characterizations can’t be caused by a real-life situation instead of a goofy, contrived premise.

And so on. The interest of Seven’s quiet search isn’t allowed to build for more than a few minutes before the alien plot is uncovered and the narrative careens off in a new direction. That direction is an attempted and failed diplomacy when Janeway tries to reason with one of the uncovered alien intruders. It turns out these pesky people are studying Janeway’s crew in the interests of important medical research, never mind that the lab rats are mutilated or killed in the process. And, of course, because these are Hard-Headed Aliens of the Week [TM]—Voyager cliche #2 for you—everything Janeway says falls on deaf ears. Ultimately, we get Janeway’s, “Sorry. These lab rats are fighting back,” a line that seems wanting to scream “TAGLINE! TAGLINE!” so bad it’s merely hokey. The alien responds that if they don’t get cooperation, “The entire experiment and its subjects will be terminated.”

Terminated? But of course, they say. Screw it, I say. “By the numbers,” can you say? “FORCED CONFLICT,” per se?

By miracle, this scene avoids turning into a lame 20th-century allegory on the morality of using research animals, something that it very seriously looked like it was going to become. At least the creators dodged that bullet.

After the negotiation attempt, Janeway watches one of her crew members die because of side effects of alien research, which fuels the fire inside her (“This ends right now!”), driving her over the edge into a manic take-no-prisoners, I-have-had-enough attitude. The captain locks in a course straight toward a pair of binary stars, refusing to budge until the aliens leave, period. The aliens, not willing to call Janeway’s bluff, take the hint and leave. This finale is more energetic and madcap in nature than the show probably deserves. And I must admit that I actually enjoyed Janeway’s role as the badass of the week. Mulgrew proves engaging, even if completely insane. But, again, the ending proves entertaining in only the most sophomoric of ways. I cheered the destruction the bad guys’ ship because I didn’t like their smugness and wanted to see them get their just desserts. Beyond that I probably couldn’t care less about any payoff in the plot.

At the very least, “Scientific Method” seems to have learned from “Favorite Son” not to take itself too seriously. While I wouldn’t call this a comedy, I would say that at least some of it is tongue-in-cheek (like the scene, for example, where mutant-Chakotay and mutant-Neelix sit in sickbay trying to one-up the other in the tale of who is worse off). That makes it at least bearable, rather than almost completely unwatchable, like “Favorite Son” turned out to be. I hate the fact that the plot is so hopelessly transparent and stupid that it knows nothing that happens within itself really means anything … but at least it’s honest enough to admit as much.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Mortal Coil:

Once upon a third season there was an episode called “Sacred Ground” which tried to tackle a troubling situation of faith. That episode, alas, was not successful because it was all too convoluted and ponderous, and collapsed under the weight of its excessive dramatic devices and meretricious script manipulations. In “Mortal Coil” (a.k.a. this week’s title’s Hamlet reference), Neelix is zapped and killed during a shuttle mission, but is revived after 18 hours by a special Borg medical procedure that Seven of Nine enacts. Neelix effectively comes back from the dead, though his troubles are far from over.

Neelix is convinced he should have experienced the Talaxian afterlife during this temporary death. To the very best of his knowledge, however, he experienced “absolutely nothing,” which leads him to seriously question a faith that he has held his entire life—a faith he says had “kept him going” through his difficult years during the Talaxian war when he lost his friends and family.

“Mortal Coil” proves a little obvious at times (Neelix stories are rarely subtle, and in addition this episode is, without a doubt, partly a meditation on people who have had near-death experiences), but I think its simple, in-your-face nature may be a big part of why the episode works so well. It builds its story around the actual crisis of one character, rather than trying to ask and answer so much in irresolute symbolic terms—the approach that was ultimately “Sacred Ground’s” undoing. Instead of so hopelessly and unclearly trying to draw lines between “absolute reality” and “spiritual perception” in story terms (as “Sacred Ground” did), “Mortal Coil’s” agenda is much more plausible from all sides of the table: It doesn’t turn a religious situation into something that requires evidence to suggest a faith as necessarily “true” or “untrue”; it examines the far more practical approach of what happens when a person experiences doubt in his faith, looking at the specific difficulties experienced by a character faced with such a dilemma. In a sense, by being more simple, this episode succeeds at being deeper, finding its complexity under the surface.

In the broadest of terms, then, “Mortal Coil” is a tightly woven character piece about Neelix, using his faith crisis to offer insight to a part of him we rarely see. Faithful readers will know that I have never been a big fan of Neelix. Second season reduced his character to that of an utter annoyance with painfully shallow shows like “Parturition” and “Investigations.” Third season had the effective “Fair Trade,” but subsequently offered none of the necessary follow-up. “Rise,” on the other hand, was horrendous. And ever since, Neelix has faded into the background as a nondescript supporting personality with very little worthy of mention for good or ill.

That’s why I was glad to see “Mortal Coil” supply this guy a meaty story (far meatier than even “Fair Trade”). Neelix is by nature a pretty transparent guy, and when used effectively that transparency can be the basis for good character drama. He’s the guy who tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve, as they say. These emotions are almost always of cheer and optimism, but when the troubled side of Neelix emerges—as in this episode—the results can be quite engaging.

This isn’t a story of audacious sci-fi twists or original plots; the real strength of “Mortal Coil” is its even-handed reasonableness, and the sensible sentiments it conveys. The problem grows out of a relevant, real-life issue and allows Neelix to react as a person rather than simply a plot device.

Specifically, there are two things that make “Mortal Coil” stand out: the writing and the acting. I know, that’s a pretty general statement, because those two qualities can probably be attributed for the success of all drama. But Bryan Fuller’s script is simply a solid piece of work—a tight, focused, confident story that puts Neelix through an understandable wringer while supplying the supporting characters with some reasonable reactions. Meanwhile, Ethan Phillip’s performance is stellar work, and the supporting actors also turn in good performances, which could easily go overlooked.

One interesting facet of Neelix’s dilemma is the way his conclusions concerning death are based on the worldly perceptions of the living. After being revived he expects to “remember” something he would’ve experienced in death. The fact that he doesn’t is the source of all his distress. Does that mean there’s no afterlife? Not necessarily. To expand upon something Chakotay tells Neelix, perhaps it’s simply not something that the living can understand. From the agnostic’s point of view, the afterlife represents the total unknown and, ultimately, the unknowable. Maybe Neelix is incapable of comprehending death in a living state. Does that mean his worries are unfounded? Absolutely not. A crisis of faith under a situation as unique and frightening as Neelix’s strikes me as very realistic. And with interesting dialog (including responses like Chakotay’s “Death is still one of the greatest mysteries there is”) this episode did a great job of prompting me to think deeply about the issue at hand, which is an admirable feat.

Subsequently, Neelix’s distress was very well conceived. Understandably, Neelix initially tries to forget his experience ever happened. He tries to go on about Business as Usual, but it doesn’t work. Denial turns into introspection and introspection into despair. He tries to pretend he hasn’t been affected, but he obviously has been; Neelix is not himself, and it’s here where his transparency proves interesting. Chakotay offers to help him through his difficulties, which is a prudent move that rings true; the episode makes good use of the commander’s spiritual side (something we haven’t seen in quite a while), and Beltran’s performance is carefully measured, appropriately understated and reserved.

Another performance that made me take note was Jeri Ryan’s; the actress continues to impress me with her subtle style. Seven’s role in bringing Neelix back from the dead harbors more human compassion than what one would’ve expected out of her immediately following, say, “The Gift.” Here Ryan accomplishes this with a single line or a glance—I particularly liked her line to Neelix about reviving him: She says it was a Borg technique that she simply modified … “But you are welcome,” she adds with a hint of genuine cordiality. This is noteworthy character growth done subtly and plausibly. The use of Seven for comic relief during the Prixin celebration scene also worked pretty well. She may be growing, but conversation is still definitely not one of Seven’s strengths.

The celebration scene also did a reasonable job of showing Neelix hopelessly trying to ignore his problem and push on as if nothing happened; his preoccupied speechlessness made sense. Allan Kroeker’s use of slow motion and other imagery also worked without going overboard; there were times that it felt as if Michael Vejar were directing. And Neelix’s inability to bear his problem builds slowly and interestingly. Some of the details—like his certain but uneasy observation that “all of us” are going to vanish into nothing as did his own holographic rendition during a holodeck simulation—make all the difference. And when Neelix’s repressed rage eventually comes to the surface, it explodes onto Seven in a fiery scene that made me wince. Although Neelix doesn’t say it in so many words, what he believes he is missing because of Seven’s intervention is his very soul.

Finally comes the time when Neelix accepts Chakotay’s help in seeking subconscious images to help him understand his problem—something that the commander warns Neelix is not a “quick fix.” In a surprisingly and compellingly dark turn of events, what Neelix finds when he looks inward is hardly comforting; everybody tells him that he has been lied to about his faith, and they ominously say, “You know what you have to do.” Neelix concludes that life is meaningless, not worth living. He decides to commit suicide.

His suicide attempt (by way of transporter) is a genuinely tense moment that Chakotay tries to talk him out of. The performances here shouldn’t go overlooked. Beltran conveys a sense of cautious urgency, trying to tell the Talaxian why he should go on living while not pushing the sentiments over the edge. Phillips, meanwhile, paints his character as confused concerning his intended course of action, as if to convey that Neelix killing himself would be the easy way out of a problem that requires time to be solved. Obviously, Neelix doesn’t kill himself, but I did very much like the way his planned suicide was signaled in previous scenes. His “final” discussion with Seven followed by his “last” shutdown and lights-out of his kitchen were striking, foreboding moments.

A key part of Neelix coming to realize that he still has something to live for revolves around his importance to Ensign Wildman’s young daughter Naomi. It’s nice to see the writers acknowledge that Wildman and her kid still exist (“Deadlock” was the last use of them), and here they appear for the sake of benefiting the story rather than for the sake of making an appearance. Little kids fearing “monsters in the replicator” strikes me as a problem very much in need of a Neelix solution.

The episode’s final shots of Neelix and Naomi are hopeful—perhaps even too hopeful, because they seem to bring about Neelix’s self-reconciliation faster than what may prove ideal. I’d like to see the events of this episode play a role in the way Neelix’s character is painted in future episodes, but this ending makes me fear that such follow-ups will not happen. At the same time, however, we probably can’t end the episode on a note of desperation. The ending works, though I also hope that these problems are not so quick and easy for Neelix to sort out. As Chakotay said, they need to take time. I just hope I don’t get burned with nonexistent follow-ups the way I did with the aforementioned “Fair Trade” and with Doc’s “family” in “Real Life.”

But regardless, “Mortal Coil” is a winner that relies on complex writing undertones and thoughtful acting rather than gimmicks or standard premises—very nice work. I have a new respect for the writers’ portrayal of Neelix.

According to Jammer’s Reviews review of Vis à Vis:

“Vis A Vis” is the epitome of Voyager mediocrity. It puts a 100 percent typical Voyager spin on an established storytelling device, moving through the plot with no real tension. There are some amusing lines and a couple interesting moments, but the show pretty much left me feeling that I’d seen another Voyager episode come and go—and nothing more. It was competently executed, I suppose, but that’s probably the biggest tribute I can give it. When the credits rolled, I just sat on my couch and shrugged.

Okay, raise your hand if you didn’t see this as Face/Off adapted toVoyager. That’s funny—my hand is in the air. Why? Because Face/Offbenefited from some emotional weight under its high-concept premise. The characters who switched identities in that film were forced to wrestle with the extreme and often terrifying consequences of accepting that identity. They found themselves inside the lives of other people and had to cope with troubling personal situations.

Voyager‘s take on this idea, on the other hand, is incredibly obvious—and incredibly glib. The premise isn’t anything more than a means to drive an hour-long plot. And the plot is laid out ever-so-routinely on the ground such that it’s like a trail of bread crumbs leading to its pedestrian finale. Follow it from point A to point B to point C, and you realize you’re essentially being led down an obvious path to a payoff that has nothing to say. It’s just another silly adventure, like much of this season of Voyager has been … except that this time its characterizations are far too thin to allow the adventure to be much more than an exercise.

The plot brings this week’s alien, named Steth (Dan Butler), into a tolerable but rather brainless story. Steth is something of a lone daredevil, always looking for something new in his life. He pilots an experimental ship that utilizes a technology called “coaxial warp,” a means of travel that is incredibly fast—something Starfleet had apparently considered in theory but abandoned when it couldn’t be made to work in practice.

The story’s setup documents Steth’s encounter with Voyager, who rescues him when his ship fails during an experimental test flight. With the help of expert pilot (and apparently newly skilled engine mechanic) Tom Paris, Steth works on repairing the coaxial drive. Paris takes a liking to Steth, in whom he sees part of himself—an adventurer and a risk-taker, always on the lookout for something new.

One of the big problems with “Vis A Vis,” however, is the way Paris’ character is utilized. Sure, we know him as the adventurous type, but there are character scenes in this episode that seem to have been scripted out of nowhere, covering ground that has been well traveled in the past. Suddenly, Paris has grown tired of his “boring, settled life” (though by the end of the episode, of course, he comes to grips with it), and he yearns for a change of pace.

I appreciated that Robert Duncan McNeill downplayed the obvious intentions of his character arc (indeed, his restraint manages to save the entire sentiment), but the story’s notion is so blatant yet so ponderously conjured that it feels forced, as if the writers decided, “Hey, we need a Paris show, so let’s make him bored of life on Voyager.” It pains me that every Paris-heavy character analysis seems to deal with the same theme of “comparing where Paris’ life was before he was part of the Voyager crew and where it is now” (including, yes, that horrendous installment known as “Threshold,” as well as more recently in “Hunters”). And the resolution always comes out to be the same. You’d think by now the writers would have moved on, but instead we get yet another rehash. It’s not bad writing, per se, but it’s several steps shy of good, and given the “been there, done that” nature of it all, it’s a perfect example of, well, Voyager mediocrity.

Then there’s the early scene in the mess hall with Tom and B’Elanna, which simply had me scratching my head in confusion. B’Elanna was extremely cool-headed and reasonable about Tom being late for their dinner. Yet everything she says here is answered with Tom’s wrong-headed histrionics. Why? To create a forced conflict between them that could be happily swept into oblivion by the final scene? If the reasons for his bad attitude had been supplied before the end of the show I might’ve been more receptive to it, but the reasoning was merely weak and arbitrary, if not nonexistent; the extremity of Tom’s impatience just didn’t make any sense.

But never mind. Plot is given the priority here more often than not, and as I was saying before: Face/Off. The gimmick of the week is that Steth is really a unique form-changing alien who can “overwrite” a person’s DNA, taking a victim’s body in exchange for his own. Boy, am I tired of “DNA can do anything” premises. It’s a tribute to Robert J. Doherty, who wrote the episode, that he manages to keep the technobabble explanations to a minimum. Personally, I’d be content with no explanation, because sci-fi can sometimes be most convincing when the unknown is left to the viewer’s imagination. But you know Voyager; they’re never content to do anything without some sort of explanation, plausible or otherwise.

Anyway, I’m not all that concerned with “DNA overwrites” or “coaxial warp drives”; what makes “Vis A Vis” so bland is that the swapped-identity story is put to surprisingly little imaginative use. It’s mostly reduced to stock cliches. Once Steth steals Paris’ body and assumes his role on Voyager—leaving the real Paris behind, stranded on the coaxial vessel with no one aboard Voyager the wiser—the story becomes conventional and predictable. We have scenes of “Steth” wandering the ship—although it seemed he knew where to go and what to say far more often than he should’ve. We have the obligatory scene where “Steth” seduces B’Elanna—which is neither believable nor interesting, and doesn’t come back to mean anything whatsoever later in the story. And, of course, there’s “Steth’s” improvisation when he’s close to being found out; in a reasonably and deceptively executed scene, he switches Paris’ body with the captain’s.

But there’s just no substance here. The story brings no attitude to the material; it just drops it in the audience’s lap. There are no characters pondering their fates. No real consequences of Steth or Paris being genuinely confused or out of their element—except maybe for extremely brief moments where the real Paris realizes what has happened, and mentions to another alien who is in a similar dilemma (Elizabeth McGlynn), how much he wants to be back in his own body.

The story misses its biggest opportunity by keeping Janeway, who has been transferred into Paris’ body, unconscious (and therefore out of the story) until after the alien body-switcher has been captured and everyone has been magically returned to their own bodies. Can you imagine the acting possibilities of McNeill playing Kathryn Janeway? That alone would probably have been more interesting than anything else in this episode.

The one saving grace in “Vis A Vis” is the use of subtle, effective comedy. There’s one reasonably amusing scene of “Steth” looking for sickbay, as well as some good lines when he interacts with the Doctor and when he has a brief conflict with Seven of Nine (while slightly intoxicated). But most of it is depressingly by the numbers. After a mundane ending sequence that is terribly anticlimactic, the whole episode seems to write itself off as trite little lesson for Tom Paris: He should’ve spent more time with B’Elanna rather than working on his holographic 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. Only on Star Trek: Voyager will you get a lesson like that.

 

big-virus-macrocosm

The next in best and worst is Season 3.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Star Trek VOY: Season 4

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek VOY: Season 2 | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek VOY: Season 1 | The Progressive Democrat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s