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.
Prime Factors has some great ideas, but blunders awkwardly in the execution. In that respect, it genuinely feels like a first season episode of a new show in the same way that The Cloud did – there’s a sense that the series is trying to expand its own comfort zone in a way that offers potential for future storytelling opportunities. Prime Factors might make a few pretty serious missteps along the way, and often seems a little too timid to commit to its bolder ideas directly, but at least it feels more ambitious than Time and Again or Ex Post Facto.
Continuity is a funny thing. It’s easy to point to continuity as common narrative threads running through a series, a sense that “a leads to b leads to c” even outside a single unit of story. It conjures up images of long-form storytelling and worldbuilding – a sense that a show inhabits a real world where events have an appreciable impact on what happens going forward. This is one view of continuity, and it’s traditionally the view that leads to criticisms of Star Trek: Voyager for its perceived lack of internal continuity.
And these criticism are perfectly valid. Even in the first season, stories about resource scarcity seem to exist as fringe details on the edge of stand-alone stories like The Cloud, Phage or Emanations. There’s not even a sense that Voyager is consistently looking for the same resources over the first season. In The Cloud, it’s replicator energy; in Phage it’s unrefined dilithium; in Emanations it’s a new element that could help with upkeep and maintenance. There’s no sense that there’s a logical pattern to this, or that this is a single continuous story in any real sense.
And yet, there are other forms of continuity. These are subtle elements that tend to build up around a show over an extended period of time. Characters who recur, little nods to shared back story. These don’t create a sense that these episodes are individual chapters in a single story, so much as that these are all stories launched from a single starting point. The first season of Voyager works on this sense of continuity a lot more than most people give it credit for. Unfortunately, it’s an approach the show would eschew in later years.
And so Prime Factors works as a great example of this – building on what has already been established and leaving a lot on the table for later episodes to explore. It is based around the idea that Tuvok is the crewmember on Voyager with the closest relationship to Janeway. It features two recurring guest stars, crewmembers who appeared in the show’s second episode – Parallax – as if reinforcing the idea that this is a ship inhabited by just over a hundred people; you’re bound to see many of the same faces.
So, in the context of what came before, Prime Factors is a little exciting. It’s taking ideas and characters from earlier episodes and using them to enrich the story being told. Positioned in the middle of Voyager‘s first season, it looks quite exciting. Sure, the first season has wasted or ignored a lot of its potential, but Prime Factors would seem to be learning. This is a lot more like what Voyager really should be. The fact that it serves as a companion piece to State of Flux is particularly exciting – it seems like Voyager is pushing itself in the right direction.
It’s not too hard to understand why Prime Factors was greeted with enthusiasm and excitement on initial broadcast. Cinefantastique gave it three stars out of a possible four. Contemporary fan reaction on usenet was pretty positive. Voyager seemed to be following through on its thus-far-unfulfilled promise. However, watching television in real time is a different experience from watching it with the benefit of hindsight.
There is less excitement and novelty to it – less capacity to be surprised or awed by particular twists or revelations. At the same time, it’s a lot easier to contextualise each episode. It’s possible to place each episode in its proper place, to appreciate how it shaped what would follow, and what it means in the larger arc of the show. Some episodes benefit greatly from this retrospective appraisal; others suffer. In hindsight, Prime Factors seems like a false dawn.
However, most of the steps taken by Prime Factors and State of Flux are subsequently undermined and ignored. After all, despite the sense of community developing on the show, it’s worth noting that Lieutenant Ayala is the only character outside the lead cast to appear in both Caretaker and Endgame; and he doesn’t have any lines in either. Even the recurring guest stars from the first and second seasons feel somewhat utilitarian in application – they aren’t developed organically so much as introduced with an intended purpose and discarded later.
For example, Lieutenant Peter Durst is introduced in Cathexis so his death in Faces has weight; Michael Jonas appears in Alliances so he can recur through the second season leading up to Investigations; Seska has been recurring throughout the first season of Voyager so far, but Martha Hackett has confirmed that the production team had the basics of her arc mapped out from pretty close to the beginning of the show.
Even then, Voyager‘s really stops introducing those recurring crew members after the second season. Seska is pulled one direction and dropped from the recurring cast at the end of the second production season, or the start of the third broadcast season.) Joe Carey ceases to exist in Voyager‘s present after the events of State of Flux, coming to symbolise Voyager‘s past, a handy indicator that a given episode involves a time travel or an alternate timeline.
With all of this in mind, Prime Factors ultimately seems far more cynical in retrospective. A lot of time and effort is invested in developing Seska as a potentially subversive personality – she’s ready to do whatever it takes to get home, even if that involves lying and mutiny. That’s a pretty great card to have tucked away; something that could undoubtedly come in handy at some point down the line. Unfortunately, the show tidies away that potential as quickly as possible.
(That said, there is a great deal of fun in the way that State of Flux reveals that Seska is blatantly manipulating Torres. Stories about promises made to her brother and talking about the vows made to protect the De-Militarised Zone seem cynical enough in context, but are brutal in light of subsequent revelations. Even with that in mind, the beautiful pay-off to those interactions doesn’t feel like a fair trade for all the storytelling opportunity lost by the resolution to State of Flux.)
There are other ways subsequent plot developments undermine Prime Factors. As Tim Russ noted in an interview with Cinefantastique, some of the later episodes in the same season tend to pretend that Prime Factors simply doesn’t exist:
Russ gives as an example a scene in Learning Curve, in which Tuvok forms a kind of Starfleet Academy night school for the Maquis crew members. In the story, Tuvok claims to be a stickler for protocols, yet, as Russ explained, “Clearly, in Prime Factors he directly violated protocols up and down the line. Then two episodes later, you have him talking about how stern he is about protocols? This is the kind of thing I’m talking about. There’s a line in an episode we just finished, ‘I’ve always respected the Captain’s decisions.’ And that line was difficult to say when, in fact, we know he again violated protocols by taking matters into his own hands. The bottom line is: it is very difficult to believe a character and stay with him if you are going to consistently jump the ship in terms of what he’s laid down.”
This would become a common complaint from the cast working on Voyager – that there was no real sense of development, no real acknowledgement of the past actions of certain characters and how that should affect their future decision-making process.
Indeed, even the conclusion to Prime Factors feels like a bit of a wash. Janeway has just discovered a mutiny on her ship, led by her best friend and most trusted confidante. And, yet, nobody involved in the cover-up is punished. Both Torres and Tuvok receive a firm tongue-lashing from Janeway, but there’s a sense that her fury and righteousness is ultimately impotent. It amounts to little more than “don’t do it again!”
While Star Trek isn’t really built to support episodes with heavier long-term conclusions, it still feels like a cop-out. When Sisko came down softly on O’Brien’s mutinous conduct at the end of Captive Pursuit, it was made clear that this was a passive endorsement of O’Brien’s conduct. At least Sisko’s criticism of Worf in Change of Heart gave the impression of having consequences. Picard never really had to deal with a moment like this in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but even his brutal criticism of Wesley in The First Duty has more bite than this.
Here, Janeway’s dressing down of Tuvok and Torres feels superficial. Coupled with the way that Ex Post Facto completely glosses over Paris’ unprofessional conduct and Phage has Janeway lazily refuse to punish the Vidiians for their crimes, it does a lot to undermine Janeway as a character – making a case that she is more bark than bite, prone to over-the-top melodrama without a willingness to back it up.
Part of what’s interesting about Prime Factors is the fact that – despite this ending – it’s very clearly written with a view to strengthening Janeway’s character. Janeway is the first female lead in a Star Trek series, just as Sisko was the first non-white lead character. It’s strange how much difficulty Voyager had with writing Janeway as a woman when Deep Space Nine had no real difficulty with Sisko as an African American.
To be fair, Star Trek has always done better on issues of race than on issues of gender. Uhura’s position on the bridge of the Enterprise was notably primarily due to her ethnicity – it was great to have an African American in such a prominent position. Uhura’s position is a lot less flattering viewed through a feminist lens – Nichelle Nichols has conceded that Uhura was essentially the Enterprise’s receptionist. While episodes like Court Martial and The Ultimate Computer presented African Americans in positions of authority, The Turnabout Intruder made it clear that there were no women starship captains.
While Code of Honour was an embarrassingly racist moment from the first season of The Next Generation, the series had issues with its characterisation of female characters through to its final season, to the point where Beverly Crusher’s big story of the final season (Sub Rosa) involves her having sex with a candle. While Deep Space Nine did better, it’s still notable that their later mirror universe episodes were preoccupied with the notion that “girls kissing girls are hot” and produced episodes like Profit and Lace.
All of this is a very roundabout way of suggesting that Janeway was probably always going to be tough character for Star Trek to write, and that the show needed to be very careful with her. As far as feminism has come in recent decades, there are still any number of pre-conceptions that exist and are casually perpetuated. Women in positions of authority are particularly likely to be stereotyped. In fact, observers are likely to use the behaviour of women in authority to reinforce and validate their own sexist beliefs.
Indeed, no matter how a woman in authority acts, there’s likely to be a stereotype to account for it. Concerned about those under her? She’s a “mother.” Aggressive? She’s a “ball-buster.” Intuitive? “Overly emotional.” Logical? “Ice queen.” It is very easy to fall into the trap of playing into sexist stereotypes because there are so damn many of them. One could easily justify the various zig-zags taken by the Voyager writing staff in characterising as attempts to avoid various pit falls. However, swerving to avoid one stereotype means you wind up hitting another. It’s a lose-lose situation.
It was a problem of which producer Jeri Taylor – one of the driving forces behind Janeway as a character – was acutely aware. As she explained on Voyager: Inside the New Adventure:
One of the… dangers in choosing a woman with a show that has a high male demographic is that the men in the audience would not accept her as a commander, so we knew that we needed to find someone who would be convincing, who would have a sense of authority, who had a sense of power and presence that you would believe a crew of starship people would follow anywhere.
It is worth noting that a considerable amount of complaints and criticisms of Janeway as a character came from a very vocal minority of sexist Star Trek fans.
Prime Factors seems mindful of that, and seems written to play with the idea. Janeway enjoys a potentially flirtatious relationship with Gathorel Labin, but she’s never unprofessional. She’s polite and flattered and enthusiastic, but it’s hard to imagine Sisko or Archer (or Kirk) being any less so. The gentleman is polite (at first) and generous; this is a respite from a cruel quadrant. And yet, because Janeway is a woman, it’s very easy to play into sexist stereotypes and read the relationship a particular way.
Seska does as much, trying to sew dissent among the crew. “The Captain is so infatuated with the Sikarian Magistrate she can’t think straight,” she contends. We’ve seen little evidence of this. The moment Janeway realises what Labin wants, she orders Voyager to depart orbit and continue on its quest for home. She isn’t conflicted by any “infatuation” with Labin, and instead acts in the best interests of the crew.
(This admittedly seems like an extreme reaction in context. Is Sikarian altruism any less valid because it’s ultimately selfish? There’s a school of thought that might suggest most altruism is about making yourself feel better. While that may be debateable, is the good deed that you do for somebody else undermined by the fact that you take pleasure in it? Surely that’s the best possible outcome – literally everybody is happy.)
Seska is very clearly just playing up a sexist stereotype to undermine Janeway – pretty much everything she says in Prime Factors is exposed as manipulation by the events of State of Flux. The double-standard being applied to Janeway is stressed by the fact that Harry Kim is able to run off with a female Sikarian without anybody gossiping or rumour-mongering. Janeway may be involved with a man back home (just as Kim is involved with a woman), but she doesn’t sneak off to another planet to get some privacy.
Drawing attention to this double-standard is a very clever piece of writing, particularly because it seems to be quite astute. It’s interesting that one of the first thoughts that crossed Anthony De Longhis’ mind when cast as Maj Cullah was that “he may be romancing her a bit.” Of course, that didn’t end up being the case, but it speaks to a subtle double standard about female leaders. One suspects that the Voyager writers were mindful of this. While Kirk, Picard and Sisko all got romantic subplots in their first two seasons, Janeway has to wait until the fifth season episode Counterpoint before she gets a romantic involvement.
That said, the Voyager writers do deserve some measure of credit for their work with Janeway. The character ends up hazily defined and internally inconsistent, but – barring the occasional exception like Fair Haven – the show avoids quite the most obvious sexist clichés. The problems affecting Janeway’s characterisation are similar to those which plagued Scott Bakula’s Jonathan Archer during the first two years of Star Trek: Enterprise – a sense that the writers had no idea who Janeway was meant to be.
That said, Voyager does have problems with some of its other female characters. Introducing a catsuit-wearing Seven of Nine, dressing Jeri Ryan in outfits so tight that she would get faint on set, was a massive set-back to the show. That said, it wasn’t as if the objectification of Seven of Nine was Voyager‘s first misstep. The relationship between Neelix and Kes is downright creepy at times. Seska’s character development during the second season reduced her to little more than a jilted lover rather than a credible antagonist.
So it’s interesting to see Voyager wrestling with this sort of character issue in the first season – stressing the double-standard that exists for Janeway as a character. Even though the episode’s finalé undermines Janeway’s credibility significantly, it has absolutely nothing to do with her gender. Pre-empting this sort of attitude and criticism is a very shrewd bit of meta-commentary. One of the best aspects of Prime Factors is the way that engages in that sort of discussion of the show.
The Sikarians were apparently originally considered as recurring antagonists, along with the Vidiians or the Kazon. Ultimately, that didn’t pan out. While there are a lot of problems with the portrayal of the Sikarians in Prime Factors, there are also some vaguely interesting ideas. For example, they seem to represent a nice analogue to the classic Ulysses myth – Voyager’s encounter with a paradise trying to convince them to stay can’t help but recall the island of lotus eaters from Homer’s classic poem.
That feels appropriate, as we discover that Sikarian culture is based around the value of story and mythology. “Stories are an important part of their culture,” Harry explains. “They seem to provide more than entertainment. They’re kind of a measuring rod of values and beliefs.” In a way, then, they serve as a fairly effective commentary on the franchise itself – the ideal of stories that carry big ideas and transcend mere entertainment; stories that mean something.
After all, certain factions of the Sikarians are willing to trade for their technology. They want the stories. They want Voyager‘s stories. It feels like a very clever piece of writing – after all, getting home would ultimately be the end of Voyager‘s story. Getting the Sikarian technology and using it to magic themselves home would rob them of their stories – the stories that they might have, if they remain; the seven years that lie ahead.
Indeed, Janeway and Labin’s discussion about the future seems like a discussion about Voyager as a show. Stopping on Sikaria would mean an end to the story; getting home would mean an end to the story. Ultimately, Janeway decides that the ship and the show needs to push ahead under its own power, rejecting immediate gratification in favour of “the reward of relationships that endure and grow deeper with the passing of time.” In other words, a slow burn and organic development. Ignoring the fact that Voyager never manages to fully realise all that potential, it’s a nice sentiment.
In keeping with the episode’s meta-commentary, there’s a subtext to the conversation that seems to cast Lubin as an entitled Star Trek fan, possibly the type of Star Trek fan the production staff found themselves dealing with on a regular basis. Lubin wants stories and immediate gratification; he’s willing to tolerate and flatter and indulge Voyager for as long as it entertains him. However, he is just as quick to turn against it – like the vocal fans unsatisfied with the first season so far.
As such, Janeway’s response to Labin feels like an opportunity for Voyager to directly address those fans. “That’s all you really care about, isn’t it?” Janeway asks. “Your pleasure. All your hospitality, your graciousness, it was never about giving us pleasure. It’s all been to gratify yourselves. We’re nothing more than the latest novelty.” For a show having trouble courting its fanbase during the first season, it’s an understandable sentiment.
That said, despite the fun inherent in the premise, the Sikarians do feel a little awkward. Most obviously, they don’t seem alien. As with Time and Again, it doesn’t make the Delta Quadrant seem unusual or alien. These are people in silly outfits. It doesn’t help that the whole “pleasure planet” idea seems like an awkward throwback to the Gene Roddenberry school of science-fiction. Prime Factors doesn’t turn Sikaria into a sex paradise, but it does feel a bit too much like a generic outer-space holiday resort.
These impressions are not helped by the decision to cast Ronald Guttman as Labin. In Captains’ Logs Supplemental – The Unauthorized Guide to the New Trek Voyages, Michael Piller incorrectly identifies the Belgian actor as French, but that underscores the point. Labin seems like a generic European stereotype – a seductive and sensuous hedonist who doesn’t seem to do any work. Not only does this reduce his credibility as a potential antagonist for the show, it also makes him feel like a cartoon character.
It is worth noting that writers Eric A. Sitwell and David R. George III originally imagined the Sikarians quite differently:
Being true to our Trekkie origins, the pitch for Prime Factors sprang from a TOS reference in the episode Assignment Earth, when Gary Seven is sent by aliens from the other side of the universe to intervene in the course of human events. Scotty makes some reference to a transporter beam coming from some far away part of the galaxy so distant that the Enterprise sensors couldn’t reach that far. So David and I speculated what might happen if the Voyager crew happened upon that civilization. What if they had the ability to transport our crew back to Earth, but because of some terrible failure caused by their intervention on another world in the past, they’d adopted their own kind of Prime Directive to avoid any such disasters in the future? This was the essence of our pitch. Again, Michael Piller didn’t like the so-called gimmicks from TOS, but he liked what he considered the fool’s gold nature of the story. He likened it to the film The Treasure of Sierra Madre and hired us to go write the story. Even though David and I didn’t get to write the screenplay, I think the final version of the episode was true to our original vision. And it was a defining moment in the relationship between Janeway and Tuvok in the early days of the series, so I was very pleased with it. The writing of the episode was also nominated for a Sci-Fi Universe Award.
While the premise is so fannish that it could easily have aired during Enterprise‘s fourth season, Sitwell and George did come up with a nice hook that made its way into the final episode.
The idea of turning the Prime Directive on its head is fantastic. It does a lot to help the uncomfortable implications from Caretaker that Voyager would be the most advanced race in the Delta Quadrant – dealing primarily with primitive civilisations. Having our characters on the flip side of the Prime Directive is a wonderful narrative inversion, even if it’s crowded out by everything else going on in the episode.
Similarly, the idea of the mutiny is a great idea, the sense that not everybody on the ship will agree with Janeway. After all, what’s the point of integrating the Maquis if they will just fall into Starfleet group think? Unfortunately, Prime Factors isn’t quite able to deliver on this premise. It really just feels like Seska making trouble, rather than a legitimate sense of crew unease. As the leader of the Maquis, it really feels like Chakotay should be more involved here than he is. While the idea of having Tuvok betray Janeway makes for good drama, the plot doesn’t do enough to explain it.
It is worth noting that Tuvok’s betrayal is a rather cynical portrayal of Vulcans, suggesting that Voyager buys into the same logic as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Far from a rational ideal, Prime Factors seems to present logic as a philosophy easily corrupted – falling into the trap of suggesting that human “feeling” is objectively the right way to view the universe. “You can use logic to justify almost anything,” Janeway explains. “That’s it’s power, and it’s flaw.” She stops short of suggesting that one must follow their gut.
Still, despite these (sizeable) flaws, Prime Factors does feel like it is trying to develop and expand what Voyager can be. It stumbles along the way, but it is a first season episode of a Star Trek spin-off. It is supposed to stumble. That’s how it gets better later on. The strengths of The Next Generation and Deep Space were built on the foundations laid by pretty troubled first seasons. A lot of the first season of Voyager has been content to be a redux of The Next Generation. Prime Factors is trying to be something different. Even knowing how that turns out, it’s hard to complain too loudly.
You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of Star Trek: Voyager:
- Time and Again
- The Cloud
- Eye of the Needle
- Ex Post Facto
- Prime Factors
- State of Flux