What I like best about this episode is that it is, at heart, a perfect Star Trek episode. The underlying theme of the entire franchise has always been a future where people cooperate instead of fight. Sure, fighting happens, but ultimately it’s compassion that wins the day, from Kirk helping Balok even after he nearly killed them all to the Dominion War ending due to Odo offering to help the Great Link to the Burn being solved by Saru helping a hundred-year-old child.
This is the sort of thing that’s most fun about Lower Decks. Things like this and second contact show the parts we never get to see on the mainline shows: what happens next. The drudge work, the cleanup, the paperwork, and all that stuff that is too mundane for a one-hour show about people having adventures. (It’s also why cop shows rarely show them doing paperwork, which is actually about 85% of their job.)
There are two aspects of this episode that work. One is Torres’s complete frustration with every nanosecond of this whole thing. She doesn’t want to be the Virgin Mary equivalent in a Klingon cult, she doesn’t want to have to have a security guard on her at all times, she doesn’t want her husband to fight to the death, and she especially doesn’t want a deadly disease. Even when she does go along with Kohlar’s plan, her recitation of her great deeds is somewhat less than convincing. Roxann Dawson plays it perfectly as someone who is incredibly uncomfortable with this manner of boasting but trying her best. (Contrast this with the story Kor tells at the top of DS9’s “The Sword of Kahless,” which John Colicos tells with verve and panache. But Kor is used to being a bombastic Klingon, Torres really really isn’t.)
The other is Kohlar himself. Wren T. Brown imbues the character with great gravity and also significant exhaustion. He wants very much for this quest to be over with, but he’s not being stupid about it. His plan is actually a good one, and he’s earnest in his desire to do right by his people, both by the terms of the prophecy and in terms of getting them to stop being nomads on a fruitless quest.
Okay, it’s obvious that the Benkarans are meant to substitute for people of color who are disproportionately imprisoned and sentenced compared to white criminals. But instead of shining a light on this disparity, we find out that the Benkaran whom Neelix has befriended is not an innocent person being put to death, but a nasty-ass criminal just like Yediq said he was. He even tries a lame attempt to get the same consideration that Iko got—trying to claim that he, too, is mentally ill.
Meanwhile, Iko is a Nygean, one of the “mainstream” species, and he gets a redemption arc. So the equivalent to the white guy gets to be forgiven by the audience, if not by the victims, and the equivalent to the POC gets to be the asshole who stages a prison break and goes back on his word. This isn’t quite failing your saving roll versus social commentary, but it’s a very very low roll…
On the one hand, there’s a level of elitism here that’s totally at odds with the Trek ethos, but I’m willing to forgive it on this occasion when I haven’t in the past for two reasons: 1) it’s funny (not always a given on this show that’s supposed to be a comedy), and 2) it provides some truly excellent character moments for Freeman, Mariner, and Boimler.
The B-plot with Tendi amuses the heck out of me, because one of the hoariest clichés in the book is the people who refuse to go for their physical. This is especially ridiculous in the world of Star Trek, where the physical mostly consists of a medical professional non-invasively examining you with a tricorder for a few seconds. And yet, lots of incredibly lazy writers use the character-refuses-to-go-for-a-physical as a spectacularly lame plot device. (Astute readers might be aware that your humble reviewer used this very same plot device in his 2007 TNG novel Q & A, wherein the Enterprise-E’s new chief of security keeps putting off his physical. Guilty as charged.)
First of all, in this episode written and directed by men in a season in which the show-runner is a man, it’s a really bad look that the entire episode is about men telling a woman what she can’t do with her own body during a pregnancy. This is especially hilarious on a show with a female lead as the captain—said captain is notably absent for most of the episode, showing up briefly to congratulate the happy couple and again to decline the invitation to get involved. What a waste.
As a kind of final-season tribute to everything Voyager has been through over the years, this works nicely. As an actual story, it’s kind of nowhere. And it actually pissed me off in several spots, in ways that everyone who’s been reading these rewatches for the past nineteen months can probably guess…
With all that, though, this two-hour episode doesn’t quite cohere. Part of the problem is that Iden is a nowhere antagonist. Jeff Yagher has no discernible personality (Cindy Katz and Spencer Garrett do a much better job), and his transition from bland affable leader to megalomaniacal murderer is utterly unconvincing. It’s a narrative cheat to make the EMH’s decision easier, but it makes the arguments far less convincing. The holograms generally are not the nicest people around—they kidnap both the EMH and Torres, they pretty much torture the EMH to make a point—but it was up to Yagher to show how they were evolving past that, and he never really did that. He was unconvincing as an antihero, as a resistance leader, or as a lunatic.