This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.
Eye of the Needle really should be a bigger deal than it is.
Looking at the basic premise of Star Trek: Voyager, a story like Eye of the Needle should be an “event.” It should, at the very least, be a mid-season finalé. Ideally, the episode would serve as the season finalé, bringing a sense of closure to year of adventuring by our crew, suggesting that there is some measure of hope for them. Perhaps home is not as far away as it might seem.
Voyager is a show about a ship stranded on the far side of the galaxy. The crew are isolated from friends and family. The return journey will take seventy years. It is quite possible that this will be a generational voyage. The Voyager crew will return home to a world that has changed without them. It’s heartbreaking even to think about.
So the ship’s first chance to get home should be something to get excited about. It should be cause for celebration; it should feel like a lifeline dangling just within the reach of our characters. There should be a sense that this sort of think might only happen once, and everybody best be prepared for it. Instead, it happens six episodes into the season, and the audience spends forty-five minutes waiting for the other shoe to drop.
We haven’t accepted that Voyager is stranded yet. The show hasn’t convinced us that the crew have really come to terms with being trapped in the Delta Quadrant yet. There’s no palpable sense of desperation yet, no real sense that the horror of the situation has sunk in. Voyager has been on the air for just over a month at this point. One imagines that most of the crew have been on tours of duty away from their families longer than a month.
“Lifetime of travelling” hasn’t really sunk in yet. We’re still in the phase where the journey of the Voyager crew could essentially be written off as “an extended vacation.” In short, this is far too early to do the obligatory “first contact with the Alpha Quadrant” story, even if the episode ends on an ambiguous note. One of the biggest appeals of doing a show like Voyager was the idea that Star Trek could get away from cliché aliens like Klingons and Romulans and Ferengi.
And yet, here a Romulan is, six episodes into the show. Eye of the Needle sets a number of precedents for Voyager – none of them particularly good. We’ve had our first Romulan. It is only a matter of time before the Klingons and the Ferengi show up, which they eventually do. Voyager was created out of an urge to escape the familiar trappings of nineties Star Trek. Instead it seems to bask in them.
Eye of the Needle sets another unsettling precedent. It makes it quite clear that Voyager will be very eager to do “the crew almost gets home… but doesn’t” stories. Television audiences, contrary to popular opinion, are not idiots. They are aware of the format and structure of how television works. Given that “starship lost” is the basic premise of Voyager, even the most innocent and trusting viewer will know that the show won’t be throwing it away a half-dozen episodes into the season. The script seems to concede as much. “We haven’t been gone that long,” Torres notes, explaining in a nutshell why Eye of the Needle doesn’t work.
It’s pretty much assured that Voyager will reach home in the seventh season. It’s marginally possible that Voyager could get home a few episodes ahead of the grand finalé, if the writers wanted to play with expectations and tell character-based stories about coming home. (ha!) It is remotely possible that Voyager could get home at an earlier end-of-season finalé if ratings drop and a sudden re-tool is deemed necessary. There is no chance of the ship getting home after six episodes.
So the outcome of Eye of the Needle is all but assured ahead of time. The audience knows that there must be some way that this opportunity to get home won’t work out. It will inevitably be a near-miss, a ship passing in the night. Eye of the Needle isn’t even wry enough to make a game of this – to accept that the audience knows the ending is a given and instead try to keep them guessing about how it won’t work out. Is the Romulan a trap? Is he an anomaly seeking to eat the ship? What’s the deal?
Eye of the Needle throws a few small suggestions of what is going on, but it’s never playful enough to get the audience engaged with what is happening. There’s none of the fun of Hope and Fear, where we know that the pessimist must be right and the joy is in watching to determine if the other characters are smart enough to figure that out before it is too late. The hurdles thrown out by Eye of the Needle seem woefully arbitrary, more excuses than plot twists.
Why can’t the crew beam back and put themselves in stasis? They could thaw themselves out at the right moment and they’d have one hell of a story to tell. The notion of weighing twenty years against seventy is brought up, but it’s dismissed far too quickly to make an interesting debate of it all. Like Caretaker and like Phage, the moral decision is reached because it’s the moral decision necessary for the show to continue, rather than because it’s the right decision to make.
And there’s something very cynical about Eye of the Needle. It doesn’t even seem to buy into its own premise. It never convinces us that anybody is entirely buying into this chance to get home. Neelix and Kes seem to have decided that they want to go to the Alpha Quadrant, but there’s no insight into their reasoning. What would happen to Voyager itself if the crew beamed to the Alpha Quadrant? Would Janeway destroy her? How many personal belongings (if any) would be allowed to transport?
More than that, though, can the Federation trust the Romulans? Would Janeway readily beam her crew over to a “troop ship”? That sounds suspiciously like the kind of leverage that Sela or Tomalak would love to have over the Federation. It isn’t like the Romulans are long-time allies in the way that the Klingons have been. There is the faintest nod to this when Tuvok volunteers to remain with their guest “at all times while he is on board.”
Even outside of that, doesn’t Eye of the Needle unfold in the lead up to The Neutral Zone in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the Romulans were apparently strictly isolationist? So doesn’t it seem weird that Telek would choose to talk to them? Of course, this is a nerdy continuity question, and the kind of concern that doesn’t really matter in the context of a good story… but Eye of the Needle is not a good story.
(The copious amounts of nonsensical techno-babble don’t help either. The episode is full of people talking pseudo-scientific nonsense instead of pushing the plot forward. “Then you’ve matched your data transmission to the phase amplitude of our comm. signal?” the Romulan asks, articulating the question that nobody at home was really all that bothered with. All this jargon eats up time that could easily be spent on character moments – the crew dealing with the possibility of getting home. Voyager has a reputation for leaning too heavily on techno-babble, and Eye of the Needle certainly does.)
So Eye of the Needle is a forerunner to seven years of “almost but not quite” stories for Voyager. It’s the first story that teases the crew with a way home, only to reveal some contrived reason why Voyager cannot get home at the end. It isn’t even the only such story in this first season – although at least Prime Factors is shrewd enough to at least concede that the magic mechanism of the episode won’t get them all the way home.
More than that, though, Eye of the Needle sets a precedent. It makes it quite clear that Voyager will progress in a strictly episodic manner. The crew won’t get home bit-by-bit over the course of their journey. There won’t be strategic objectives built towards and measured. The final voyage home won’t be the result of seven years of development, diplomacy or research. “Home” is going to be dangled in front of the crew as an all-or-nothing concept, like a treat in front of a hungry dog, and they are just going to get lucky one time.
(Janeway’s opening log tells us that “the crew has been scanning constantly for anomalies that might help us shorten our journey home.” Although it makes sense, this is the first time that the idea has been explicitly mentioned – so it’s quite clear that the search for such anomalies won’t be a recurring plot point and consistent drain on Voyager’s resources so much as it will be a convenient plot point whenever the writers want to tell a story like this.)
The subplot involving the Doctor feels pretty perfunctory. It’s very much a recycled plot point from The Next Generation, reiterating just how blind Starfleet can be on the issue of artificial intelligence. Like Data in episodes like The Measure of a Man or Redemption, Part II, the Doctor finds himself “treated like a hypospray” by the officers on the ship. “He’s only a hologram,” Janeway assures Kes. “We’ve been talking about reprogramming him.” It’s a nice touch that Kes – who isn’t a Starfleet officer and thus not so indoctrinated into treating technological beings as tools – is the one to call her out on it.
It is also nice that the first season of Voyager has had at least one decent recurring plot thread so far, even if it’s as minor as the EMH’s status on the crew. It feels like everything else should be treated like this plot thread – a sense that the ship has to adapt to circumstances radically different from what they planned. The Doctor’s evolution over these six episodes is relatively minor (he gets Janeway to treat him like a person), but it’s substantially better developed than any other plot thread so far.
Everything should be unfolding in a similar manner, in the background of the episode of the week. Supply issues, Maquis integration, the period of mourning, the realisation of what has happened – all of these little dramas should have been playing out in the background of the stand-alone stories in the same way that the Doctor’s evolution has been. And it’s not even that the Doctor’s evolution and development has been particularly organic. It is just the best example of the series managing a character arc because it’s the only example of the series managing a character arc.
Even then, it’s a highly derivative plot, and it’s hard to believe that Starfleet has learned absolutely nothing from the years dealing with Data. It also makes it clear that the Doctor is going to fill the traditional “quirky outsider” role in the Voyager ensemble, at least for the show’s first few years – the role previously embodied by Spock on the original Star Trek and Data on The Next Generation.
Still, the subplot can’t redeem what feels like a very cynical, very by-the-numbers episode of Star Trek. The crew are barely gone; it’s too early to even consider getting home.
You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of Star Trek: Voyager: