I started 2020 with an announcement of the Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch, following up on my rewatches of the prior three Star Trek series. Yesterday, I posted the final one for 2020, as Tor.com is taking it easy for the final two weeks of the year. So I thought I’d post some highlights from each episode’s rewatch. I did season one yesterday, and here’s some excerpts from season two…..
Having all the 37’s remain makes even less sense. Keeping in mind that this is an Amelia Earhart whose transatlantic flight was only five minutes ago subjectively speaking, there is absolutely no way, none, that she would stay on the planet when the alternative is to get to fly through space in a spaceship. This is one of the pioneers of air travel at the height of her career as an aviator and there is no way, none, that she would make any other decision than to join Voyager.
But she couldn’t because the actor playing her had another gig. Sigh.
While the script was done in by production decisions, it wasn’t all that to begin with. Why were those last few 37’s never taken out of stasis? How did the truck wind up in space? Why did the truck still function? How did 300 people from 1937 manage to dope out advanced technology enough to evolve to a community of 100,000, especially since 300 isn’t enough of a diverse gene pool to avoid genetic stochastic drift? This was a point that was understood by a truly terrible TNG episode, “Up the Long Ladder,” so it’s even more embarrassing that “The 37’s” doesn’t get that right. (Then again, in “Up the Long Ladder,” Picard and Riker knew what an SOS was, too…)
We get a bit of Kazon history here to go with the cultural mores—which really are akin to that of street gangs, with initiation rituals and early indoctrination of youth—and their past enslavement by the Trabe has left them with a cultural distrust of uniforms and military order and such. So the option of coming on board Voyager is also rejected by Kar, because he finds the very idea of being on a Starfleet vessel repugnant.
I realized watching this that one of the things I like about the EMH is also one of the things I like about the characters of Jonathan Banks’s Mike Ehrmantraut on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul and Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House on House: characters who are smarter than everyone around them and who have absolutely no patience with people dumber than them, which is pretty much everyone, and they’re just disgusted and fed up with all of it.
But Picardo adds another dimension to the EMH because, while he starts out that way—mainly because that’s also Lewis Zimmerman’s personality, as we later see in DS9’s “Dr. Bashir, I Presume?” and the character’s two subsequent Voyager appearances—it’s leavened with the desire to expand his experiences, to learn more, to become less a program and more a person. It’s similar to the journey Data went on, only with a thousand percent more sarcasm.
“Elogium” fails in two different directions here. With Kes, it’s the one and only thing I remembered about the episode twenty-five years later: The elogium makes absolutely no sense. The Ocampa are short-lived beings (average age is nine), which means they would need to procreate at a bunny-like, if not tribble–like, rate in order to keep the population numbers viable. If Ocampan females can only have babies once in their lifetime, there’s no way they could possibly replenish the populace enough. It’s a case of “hey, let’s do a cool alien thing with their pregnancy” without actually thinking through what it means. In this case, it means the Ocampa should’ve gone extinct long before the Caretaker showed up.
Seriously, Kim is (a) not trapped on a ship 70,000 light-years from home, (b) now engaged to the love of his life, and (c) working for the S.C.E. on the verge of a promotion (that he will never actually get in the main timeline). What possible reason does he have to fix things? What possible reason does he have to go back to that other life? Supposedly, there’s the fact that Paris is so miserable on Earth, but I’m sorry, being stuck in another quadrant is not, by any stretch of the imagination, better than being home.
The whole notion of turning Voyager into an Escher drawing is such a great opportunity for surreal craziness, but everything looks the same. There are no seams, no changes in orientation, no damage to the hull, no nothing. Just doors opening to odd places, sometimes, and people bumping into each other.
It would’ve been so much more fun to have people walking on the ceiling or have there be obvious breaks in the walls or something to ameliorate the sheer lethargy of people walking through familiar corridors that look exactly the same as they always do, except for the labels on the door, which we can’t read anyhow. All it does is shine a light on how generic the ship sets are.
On the other hand, in order to get there, we have to suffer through an hour of my two least favorite characters on the show. It boggled my mind to read that the episode was prompted by a belief that Paris was underused in season one, as it flies in the face of the season one that I just watched. (Hell, he was pretty much the POV character and lead protagonist of “Caretaker” and “Heroes and Demons” portrayed him as if he were in charge of the damn ship.)
I appreciate that Paris is trying to improve himself, and he will over the course of the series, but the show is way more invested in it than I am, and I mostly find the character unpleasant. Neelix can be a strong, complex character—”Jetrel” proved that—but the writers have proven to be less interested in showing that than in having him be a tired caricature, a mix of Scrappy Doo and a 1950s male sitcom protagonist.
It’s amusing to see the progression of starship captains who need R&R but won’t take it. In “Shore Leave,” Spock had to engage in rhetorical trickery to get Kirk to take leave on the pleasure planet they found. In “Captain’s Holiday” that same rhetorical trickery by Crusher didn’t actually work on Picard, but eventually the sheer weight of various crewmembers importuning him to take a vacation already got him to go.
And in “Persistence of Vision,” all it takes is the chief medical officer telling Janeway she needs a break, with all the authority he can muster while being six inches tall and a hologram.
It’s actually rather refreshing that Janeway doesn’t need to be tricked or bullied into taking a vacation, that she’s actually mature enough and self-aware enough to realize that she’s pushing herself to the point of exhaustion and needs a little Gothic romance/horror to reset her brain. It’s a welcome change from the tired machismo of Jim Kirk and the stoic idiocy of Jean-Luc Picard.
In the three decades since “The Paradise Syndrome,” we’ve gone from portraying Indigenous people as ignorant savages who talk like children and who need a white dude to come and show them how to do cool things like irrigation and gourds, to here portraying Indigenous people as noble “primitives” who are at one with nature and are a pure form of humanity. Or, uh, something.
Voyager is hardly the only piece of popular culture that was guilty of this overcorrection in the 1990s. In order to apologize for centuries of oppression and war and genocide, and for many decades of portrayal in popular culture as inferior, we instead get New Age environmentalism. As a result, we get shiny happy Indigenous people who commune with nature and are pure and wonderful, which is just as patronizing an attitude as viewing them as technologically inferior savages was, albeit one that’s at least, y’know, nicer. It comes from a better place, but it’s still self-righteous, prejudicial nonsense.
Tuvok is supposed to have a long history as a teacher, but the only previous example we’d seen was in “Learning Curve,” about which the less said the better. But here, his advice to Kes is good and strong and useful. I particularly love his response to her never wanting to feel the joy she took from destruction: “Without the darkness, how would we recognize the light? Do not fear your negative thoughts, they are part of you. They are a part of every living being—even Vulcans. … The Vulcan heart was forged out of barbarism and violence. We learned to control it, but it is still part of us. To pretend it does not exist is to create an opportunity for it to escape.”
Way back on the original series, “The Naked Time” established that Vulcans aren’t emotionless but that they in fact tightly control their emotions, and “Balance of Terror” and “All Our Yesterdays” made it clear that Vulcans have a violent past. Too often, Vulcans are mistaken for emotionless rather than controlled, and Tim Russ’s performance in general and that speech in particular beautifully encapsulate that important truth.
Kenneth Biller reportedly wanted to have Chakotay suffer real consequences, but that’s not a thing Star Trek does, really. Spock kidnapped a captain, forged orders, stole a ship, and assaulted several people in service of violating a general order that came with the death penalty, the Defiant went to the Gamma Quadrant to rescue Odo against orders, Agnes Jurati murdered her lover in cold blood, Worf abandoned his post to kill someone, and Tuvok did a back-room deal with the Sikarians against orders, and none of them suffered any real consequences, so it’s probably disingenuous to ding this episode in particular. But the scene where it happens is so weak, with Janeway coming out and copping to the fact that the consequences are meaningless when she says, “I’m putting you on report, in case that means anything anymore,” and Chakotay’s assurance that it does rings completely hollow.
There are also far too many storytelling shortcuts here that undermine the episode, starting with the magical transporter module that somehow bestows full transporter technology to its user, yet can sit out in the open and get shot at. Then there’s Torres beaming people onto the ship while shields are raised, which has never been possible on Star Trek since the beginning. Plus, somehow Culluh and Seska are able to gather all the sects in this region of space which is ten months’ travel away from the Ocampa homeworld, all in the time it takes Voyager to repair a hull breach. Speaking of that hull breach, man, does the Voyager crew look like idiots in the opening. The nanosecond that the Kazon showed up after luring them with information that only could have come from Voyager‘s computer (the security code was one that was on file but not yet implemented), everyone’s first thought should have been of Seska, yet they’re all surprised to see her with Culluh, even though she was last seen buggering off to a Kazon ship after sabotaging Voyager.
Then there’s the solid script by Lisa Klink. It would have been very easy to play Caylem’s delusions for cruel laughs, with Janeway growing angry and frustrated by his delusions, but Klink’s script keeps Janeway’s reactions reasonable and understandable and kind, without her ever losing track of her most important mission, to wit, finding and rescuing the rest of her team. I also like the way Klink handles the Tuvok-Torres scenes, as Torres makes the oh-so-common mistake that Vulcans are emotionless, when in fact they have very turbulent emotions that they suppress through logic and discipline—which are hard to maintain when someone’s torturing you.
It’s funny, because instinctively you want to side with Torres when she and Janeway have the discussion about whether or not they should help 3947 build a power module. For all the hand-wringing about the Prime Directive, one of the most important aspects of it that this episode shines a light on is that it keeps the Federation from jumping in to interfere before they have all the facts. 3947 withholds important information from Torres throughout, including the rather critical fact that the AUs wiped out the Builders because they had the temerity to try to make peace.
There are very good reasons for not dealing with the Kazon as anything but antagonists, starting with the fact that they were introduced to Voyager’s crew as the people who kidnapped and tortured one of their own (Kes), and who since then have twice held their first officer prisoner. On top of that, there’s their cultural bias against women, which Seska has been forced to work around, and which undermines Janeway’s negotiating position from jump. It’s maddening that neither Neelix (the one with the most experience with the Kazon) nor Kes (who spent quite a long time as their prisoner) nor Chakotay (who observed this both times he was their prisoner) ever mentioned this issue to Janeway at any point.
But just jumping into bed with the Trabe is also ridiculous, partly for reasons outlined by Tuvok. The Kazon hate the Trabe even more than they hate Voyager, and seeing their two most hated enemies together is just going to piss the Kazon off more, and that’s before Mabus’s incredibly predictable treachery on Sobras.
First there’s the flight itself, where Paris is somehow everywhere at once, yet just the act of shutting the warp drive down puts him right back where he started. But where is that, exactly? Voyager was following along the shuttle at warp nine-point-nine or whatever, which is roughly nine thousand times the speed of light. When you’re going that fast, where, exactly, is “back where you started”? For that matter, after a deluded, mutated Paris buggered off (pun intended) with Janeway at infinite speed, hitting every point in the universe, how is it even remotely plausible that they wound up on a planet that’s only three days away? (Also, given how much time they spend at warp nine and higher in this episode, they should be nowhere near any Kazon or Vidiians anymore. And yet, there’s Jonas, calling the Nistrim…)
Also, Paris’s mutations took a couple days. Yet somehow, Janeway mutated completely into this new form, mated with Paris, gestated their kids, and gave birth all in three days.
The episode is made by three grand performances. Tim Russ beautifully plays the collapse of Tuvok’s control. The scene in sickbay when his emotional control is completely removed is a bit too over-the-top—and I’m sorry they couldn’t contrive to get Neelix there to get a lesson in being careful what you wish for, as that’s when Tuvok smiles the way Neelix wanted him to, and it’s when he’s discussing homicide—but the scene in his darkened, destroyed quarters is devastatingly effective. Director Cliff Bole—one of the most prolific and talented of the stable of directors used by the first wave of Trek spinoffs going back to TNG’s first season—films the scene magnificently, with Tuvok staying shadowed for most of it.
Robert Picardo is his usual great self, also, adding his acid commentary to the proceedings, from his analysis proving that it was a homicide all the way to his bitching about how mind-melds never seem to work right. (Not the last time the EMH will provide meta commentary on the various Trek tropes.)
And then there’s Brad Dourif, who excels as the sociopathic Suder. The role could have been played as a dead-eyed automaton, but Dourif manages to give Suder depth and complexity and even a slight tinge of tragedy.
The heart of the episode, though, belongs jointly to Roxann Dawson and Kate Mulgrew. Janeway’s conversations with Kellan are excellent, putting a human face (well, sentient face, anyhow) on the threat to Rakosa. A bond quickly develops between the two, and we once again see that Janeway’s superpower is to develop a rapport with someone she’s just met in about half a second—we’ve seen it before with Telek R’Mor, with Labin, with Jetrel, with Amelia Earhart, with Caylem, and with Mabus. Throughout, Janeway makes sure that she’s dedicated to saving the lives of the Rakosans no matter what, which is what heroes are supposed to do. Credit to Dan Kern for making Kellan a real person whose fate the viewer becomes invested in.
And Dawson’s dual performance as Torres and the Dreadnought computer is simply amazing. What I particularly like is that the computer talks like a computer, repeating certain key phrases, and engaging in the circular logic of a machine. The exchanges between Torres and the computer are a much more clever version of all those original series episodes where Kirk managed to somehow talk a computer into putting up its little feet and go “urk!” The scenes in “Dreadnought” are written by people with a much better understanding of the binary nature of computers, and it’s fun to watch. I especially loved when both computers were competing with each other for dominance, both using the same key phrases to try to assert that dominance.
What makes all of this even more frustrating is that, independent of Voyager and its setup, this is actually a really good Q episode. It’s a strong, powerful, thoughtful look at the Continuum, and about the downside of immortality and omnipotence. It plays along nicely with the general Trek theme of finite life forms who seek out new experiences and try to improve themselves precisely because their lives are short and precious and how immortality can rob you of that.
It even has character growth for Q himself, which goes back to TNG. After he was let back into the Continuum following his selfless act in “Déjà Q,” he was a good little Q, doing things that the Continuum wanted him to do like go after Amanda Rogers and follow up on Picard’s trial and find out how Quinn got out of his prison. In interviews, deLancie himself described Q as being similar to how Lord Byron was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb: “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and Quinn’s pleas during his hearing bring him back to that mode.
It’s a tribute to how well Picardo has inhabited the holographic doctor that this romance is completely believable. His romance with Freya was, to some extent, dictated by the circumstances of the Beowulf program that she was a part of, and he was throwing himself into the part—though he also did seem to have a genuine attraction for her. (That “Heroes and Demons” was never referenced once is maddening.) In this case, though, he finds himself with someone who speaks his language as a fellow physician, someone who is genuinely compassionate and kind, and someone who enjoys his company. As a Phage sufferer, who also spends her life treating other Phage victims, she’s had little joy in her life, and the EMH has given her that. The EMH has also found himself drawn somewhat to intelligent women, mostly seen in his relationship with Kes, and Pel is cut from the same cloth as the Ocampan.
And Susan Diol is superb. I was worried about this bit of casting, after the cringe-worthy performance she gave in “Silicon Avatar,” but I needn’t have been concerned. Given a good script, Diol shines, subtly playing the character’s neuroses, exhaustion, and slowly burgeoning happiness.
Chakotay’s authority as first officer is completely undermined, as two of his subordinates are engaged in a covert mission behind his back, with the full support of his captain. And it makes no sense for it to be Paris who does this anyhow. Think about this for a second. One the one hand, you’ve got a Starfleet commander who left Starfleet of his own accord and became a talented enough Maquis cell leader that an entire ship was sent just after him. On the other hand, you’ve got a Starfleet washout whose history involves getting people killed and getting his sorry ass caught and imprisoned.
Which of those two do you think would make a better stalking horse for the spy on board? I’ll give you a hint: he has a tattoo on his face. But, once again, the show is far too invested in making sure that the white guy gets to do all the cool stuff.
The tension in the first few acts is powerful, as Voyager is falling apart around everyone, and nobody has any idea why. We even get tragedy, and for all that we know that neither Kim nor the Wildman baby are going to stay dead, because it’s television, the stakes are still upped by those two characters dying.
And then there’s the brilliant transition as Janeway abandons the bridge, and we cut to another, intact Voyager. The sudden jump to another Voyager that’s in the middle of its own story is beautifully realized, as effective as similar transitions in one of Brannon Braga’s best scripts, “Parallels” on TNG.
Tim Russ proves himself once again to be one of the best parts of Voyager, as he imbues Tuvok with a strong sense of compassion, of efficiency, and of logic. Best of all, though, is that he shows that he’s an excellent parent. Yes, he is a bit blunt with the kids, but he’s also honest and straightforward with them—and never condescending. Speaking as someone who works with kids a lot (teaching them karate), I’ve found that talking to children like they’re people (rather than talking down to them like you’re a grownup and they’re dumb kids) is much more effective, and that’s how Tuvok talks to Tressa, Elani, and Corin.
The episode also has one of the most devastatingly effective endings in Trek history, as the simulation slowly fades to gray and then black as the clown and the fake Janeway exchange final words and the world vanishes before we see the executive producer credit over a black background. (I’d put this on the same level as “Necessary Evil,” “Blood Oath,” and Part 1 of “The Best of Both Worlds” for gut-punch endings in Trek.)
What’s infinitely, horribly worse is that we don’t see how Tuvok and Neelix react to it! Do the two of them feel the same way Tuvix did? Are they upset that he’s dead? Are they grateful? Do they have mixed feelings? This is extremely important information to have. I mean, my guess would be that Tuvok the rationalist is more okay with it than Neelix the emotionalist, but we don’t know.
And it absolutely ruins the episode, because the moral dilemma here is a terrible one, one that results in the captain of a Starfleet vessel—an organization that is supposed to be upholding the Federation’s firm belief in the rights of the individual regardless of what species that individual is from—forcing a sentient being to undergo a medical procedure against his will. On the face of it, it’s a hugely despicable act—it’s so far beyond the pale that the EMH out-and-out refuses to do it. On the other hand, Starfleet is a military organization, and Tuvok, Neelix, and Tuvix are all serving under Janeway’s command, and ordering subordinates to their death is something that every ship captain is likely to have to do at some point.
I haven’t even gotten to my personal favorite part of the episode, which is Tuvok being incredibly brilliant as captain. True, it takes him a bit of time to come around to the notion of approaching the Vidiians, but he does come around. He remains true to his Vulcan heritage, and unlike a previous case of a person of Vulcan heritage sticking to his logic guns while surrounded by emotional assholes, Tuvok does see both sides of the equation.
And his response to the Vidiian ambush is perfect. He’d been doing battle drills because the Vidiians betraying them was eminently predictable, and he adjusts his plan on the fly when the EMH informs him that Pel still is trying to help them. Throughout, he keeps his cool, implements his battle plan meticulously (“Here is the sequence of events”), and wins the day, getting the antidote in the bargain.
And then there’s the matter of how the Kazon can even operate Voyager, much less take it over. This would’ve been a much much much much better endgame for Jonas’ ongoing sabotage than the limp “Investigations,” having him work to transfer command codes for the ship to Culluh to lock the Starfleet and Maquis crew out of ship’s functions. Instead, we’re supposed to believe that any idiot can just walk on and control a starship that is loaded with weapons and defenses that can lay waste to a planet. (Yes, we’ve seen it before, from “Space Seed” to “By Any Other Name” to “Rascals.” It’s still frustratingly idiotic.) Plus, it’s, y’know, the Kazon. Sure, they’ve got Seska to feed them intel, but she’s been away from the ship for a long time, they should be able to defend against her knowledge, and, again, it’s the friggin Kazon. This is not a worthy foe who can match our Starfleet heroes wit for wit like, say, the Romulan Commander who looks like Sarek or Kor or Kang or Tomalak or Dukat. This is just a bunch of aliens with bad hairdos who were introduced to us as being too stupid to figure out how to get water.
Second season overview
On the one hand, you had several episodes that were brilliant, mainly because they colored within the lines, as it were. UPN and Rick Berman were determined to keep the show standalone and to avoid long-term consequences, and keep the recurring elements to a minimum, so the episodes that worked best were the ones that worked within those boundaries. All of the ones I rated a 7 or higher were stories that were complete within the hour, with everything back to normal at the end, the story completed. Yes, some of them could have had more long-term consequences, but still, in those cases, there is a satisfying resolution. The strong character study of the Kazon in “Initiations” (which sadly was not properly followed up on—those Kazon would’ve made for interesting antagonists, but they proceeded to make them less interesting after that), the EMH’s mindfuck in “Projections,” the heartbreaking images of home in “Persistence of Vision,” the absolute brilliance of all aspects of “Resistance,” the strong science-fictional adventures of “Prototype” and “Dreadnought,” the beautifully played telepathic insanity of “Meld,” the magnificent love story of “Lifesigns,” the wacky sci-fi goofiness of “Deadlock,” the excellent-despite-the-surprise-reveal-which-was-dumb Tuvok spotlight of “Innocence,” the horror-movie insanity and brilliant guest performance by Michael McKean of “The Thaw,” and the eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too Janeway/Chakotay romance in “Resolutions” (that one a particularly clever way to indulge a particular desire without spoiling the standalone nature of the show).