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 and State of Flux form something of a duology in the middle of the first season of Star Trek: Voyager. The two episodes might be far from perfect, but they seem to be the closest that the first season of Voyager comes to outlining its vision and ambitions. Taken together, they offer a demonstration that life in the Delta Quadrant might be significantly more complicated than life in the Alpha Quadrant – that everything might not be as it appears to be, that Voyager might not be the perfect Federation vessel.
While both episodes are flawed, they do demonstrate a willingness to take advantage of the basic premise of Voyager to tell stories that simply wouldn’t be possible on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In that respect, they stand apart from surrounding stories like Ex Post Facto or Heroes and Demons, both of which feel like re-worked stories from an aborted eighth season of The Next Generation. These are adventurous and ambitious episodes. They lack the skill necessary to completely realise that vision; but that skill could come in time.
Unfortunately, these two episodes wind up feeling like exceptions – a flash of what might have been, rather than what would be.
There are a lot of problems with State of Flux, even before evaluating it in retrospect. The most obvious is that the Kazon are pretty crappy villains. Star Trek: Voyager hasn’t had the best luck introducing new alien species – which is one of the appeals of taking the show away from the familiar Alpha Quadrant setting. At the start of the first season, the production team set out make the Kazon, the Sikarians and the Vidiians into exciting and credibly threats for the crew. The Sikarians never appeared after the events of Prime Factors; the Kazon are a very troubled construct; only the Vidiians really feel novel or exciting.
There are a wealth of problems with the Kazon. The most obvious is the unfortunate racial connotations of their portrayal. They are portrayed as a savage native race, introduced to the crew in the desert. They seem to lack any understanding of advanced technology and can’t even seem to manage the structure of their society. Given the way that Voyager plays up to the classic Star Trek iconography of “a Western in space”, this all suggests some uncomfortable subtext to the Kazon. That subtext is compounded by the production team’s desire to pitch them as “gangs” reflecting contemporary Los Angeles concerns.
There are other problems. Apart from their absurd hairstyles, they look far too much like Klingons; indeed, with their perpensity for violence, they occasionally act too much like Klingons. The Delta Quadrant is supposed to be about novelty and excitement. The Kazon feel like re-heated left-overs. It’s harder to think of a more obviously generic “rubber forehead” alien, aside from the Klingons.
However, State of Flux reinforces something quite disturbing about the decision to present the Kazon as primitive antagonists for Voyager. The episode focuses on an attempt by the Kazon to use Federation technology. This attempt goes horribly wrong. It kills most of the crew on board a Kazon ship in a variety of horrific manners. So, what was worth dying for? What technology had the Kazon stolen and what were they trying to exploit? Phaser arrays? Shields? Torpedo warheads?
No, it was nothing like that. After all, for the plot to work, the viewer has to believe that somebody on Voyager would willingly give the Kazon the technology. So it has to be relatively harmless. It ultimately is. Torres is horrified when she figures out what caused all of this death and destruction. “Of all the things to die for,” Torres reflects. “It’s a food replicator, or at least it was trying to be.” Janeway offers, “We may take replicators for granted, but imagine what it would mean to a culture that doesn’t have this technology.”
In other words, the Kazon died trying to feed themselves. Given that Caretaker linked the Kazon with water scarcity and conditions of poverty, it’s hard not to pity the Kazon. Would you blame them for trying to figure out a technology that makes it possible to eliminate scarcity? The entire sequence seems to suggest that the Kazon need humanitarian aid – that they are pushed into this cycle of perpetual violence by a lack of resources. They don’t have the magic replicators that mean the Voyager crew will never go hungry.
For all that Janeway makes a fuss about Voyager being stranded alone on the far side of the galaxy, having to scrounge for resources and worry about survival, that is the day-to-day existence of the Kazon. The Kazon are living like scavengers. Voyager live in luxury because they happen to come from a culture that can make food appear from thin air. It almost reads as a criticism of Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic post-scarcity economy, pointing out that the Voyager crew have no idea what desperate means. They’ve never accidentally fused crew members into walls in the hope of getting a warm meal.
(Of course, all of this is rather contrived. We know that there’s a wealth of resource-rich worlds available within the territory of the Kazon. Voyager has visited several. Why the Kazon don’t simply travel to those world for supplies and water is never made explicit. However, it is clear that State of Flux and Caretaker explicitly suggest that the Kazon are scavengers with severe resource-management issues.)
All of this is getting at the central issue: the Kazon in State of Flux are the victims. They don’t work well as the villains. Tuvok and Janeway take their technological superiority over the Kazon for granted, so there’s never a sense that anybody needs to be worried. It’s explicitly stated that the Kazon will not be a threat until back-up arrives. Given Voyager seems able to outrun that back-up at warp four, there’s really no pressure at work. As such, the Kazon really don’t carry the weigh to be villains. And the script never acknowledges their pathos enough to paint them as victims.
The addition of First Maj Cullah doesn’t help matters much. Anthony De Longis is a suitably smarmy villain, but he doesn’t quite have the weight to play the leader of a truly fearsome warrior sect. Instead, with his arrogance and smug superiority, Cullah comes across as a poor man’s version of Gul Dukat. Unfortunately, neither the script nor the performance can measure up to that – with Cullah feeling like an inferior imitation of a far superior character.
It wasn’t only fans that felt disappointed with the Kazon. In a celebratory interview with Starlog, the cast spent almost a page ridiculing the Kazon:
Phillips: We need to phase out the Kazon a little bit. They’re not very exciting.
Russ: Yeah, that’s the only thing that really wasn’t working for all of us. The bad guys we’ve dealt with every other show just have not been that imposing, haven’t been enough of a threat, as it were, for anyone – the characters or the fans – to take seriously.
Phillips: I think we should send the Kazon back to the Gamma Quadrant.
Picardo: Really, other than their hair, the Kazon aren’t too scary.
Beltran: The Kazon don’t have too much intelligence. So, I don’t think we respect them much as adversaries.
Mulgrew: That’s probably because they’re so thirsty all the time!
Picardo: Yeah, but if they had water, they would wash their hair and that takes away any of the fun of having them around.
If the bad guys are such a joke that the entire ensemble can riff on them in a celebratory interview, then something is just not right here.
Apparently the cast weren’t alone in their dislike of the Kazon. During an on-line promotional interview for Mosaic at the start of the third season, Jeri Taylor made a point to assure fans that she was not a fan of rubber-foreheaded the aliens:
Having them as recurring villains for two years now created the curious impression that we were standing still in space, instead of streaking at high warp speed toward the Alpha Quadrant.
Brannon Braga has also gone on record as disliking the Kazon. Michael Piller was a big fan of the concept, and kept pushing them on the show – particularly for the Basics two-parter. It’s telling that the Kazon stopped appearing once Piller took a step back.
The Kazon just eat up so much time in the first two seasons of the show – appearing in a total of twelve episodes of the forty-six produced during those two production seasons. It’s disappointing that the show took that time away from telling other stories, or developing other aliens. In particular, the Vidiians stand out as one of the most striking creations of nineties Star Trek. Although, one suspects, their effectiveness might be down to disciplined use.
Even outside of the Kazon, State of Flux is problematic. It is the last “real time” appearance of Joseph Carey until his cynical reappearance in Friendship One during the show’s final season. It is the last episode to feature Seska as a member of the crew. These are the only two characters outside the main cast who have received any development during the show’s first seasons to date. The fact that both are brushed aside so readily is a step backwards for the show.
Indeed, Voyager might have played out a lot differently had Seska remained on Voyager. One of the defining attributes of Seska’s time on the ship has been her willingness to challenge Janeway’s central philosophy. In Parallax, she was ready to plot a mutiny. In Prime Factors, she is the driving force behind an actual mutiny. Keeping Seska on the ship increases storytelling potential, by having a character who is willing to offer a different viewpoint, who is willing to oppose Janeway’s principled stands.
Having State of Flux end with Seska making an oh-so-convenient getaway does promise that she will return, but it also radically alters the nature of the character. Instead of being a supporting character generating conflict between the crew, Seska is now just a bad guy. She’s a generic bad guy. Indeed, putting Seska off the ship leads directly to some pretty spectacular character derailment. After all, how does beaming over to a Kazon ship help Seska get home? Once she’s over there, why does she care about Voyager at all? If she was able to download the ship’s library in Prime Factors, how come she doesn’t steal some technical specs with her?
At the start of (and throughout) State of Flux, Seska serves as an interesting foil to our heroes. She is a character who desperately wants to get home in one peace, and is able to do whatever it takes to make that possible. Her position should be sympathetic and understandable. There should be some small sense that a few members of the crew might agree. Instead, by portraying the consequences of Seska’s actions as horrific and grotesque, the show reduces her to a moustache-twirling villain.
The introduction of her love for Chakotay doesn’t help. It’s nice to suggest that she has a romantic past with Chakotay. It’s good to get a sense of history between characters, to feel that they existed before the show started. The problem is that State of Flux makes her seem like a psychotic ex-girlfriend. This is what paves the way for baby-mad Chakotay-raping second season Seska. It looks like Chakotay is so good in bed that he can turn Obsidian Order agents into love-crazed stalkers.
This is awkward for a number of reasons. On top of being a horribly sexist cliché, it’s very hard to believe based on Beltran’s characterisation of Chakotay. It also horrifically undermines Seska as a character – reducing her from a ruthless cynic with a point to a crazed ex-girlfriend. Since Seska feels like a concept ported directly over from Deep Space Nine (with both the actress and the concept traced back to that show), it’s a shame that they couldn’t pre-emptively borrow the yet-to-be-written line, “I hate to burst you bubble, Chakotay, but it wasn’t that good.”
Robert Beltran’s performance in the episode’s early scenes doesn’t help. When she tries to romance him, he doesn’t respond with embarrassment or awkward deflection; he rolls his eyes dismissively. It makes it seem less like their brief affair was an awkward misstep between friends, and more like Chakotay is trying to weasel his way out of the aftermath of a one-night stand with a possessive psychopath. After all the care that Prime Factors put into exposing the sexist double-standards applied to Janeway, the use of that most crass stereotype feels like a step backwards.
All of this is a way of distracting from the fact that Seska may have a point. If Voyager can assist the Kazon with food and supplies, they would gain an ally and peaceful transit. Kazon wouldn’t need to die experimenting with stolen technology. There might even be an argument that the Kazon would cease to be so aggressive – no longer forced to expand and compete for food and water. It’s an arrangement that could be mutually beneficial. After all, the Federation does assist other space-faring civilisations when they suffer natural disasters or humanitarian crises.
Of course, it’s easy enough to construct a counter-argument to this. Would the Kazon be happy to receive food and water? Wouldn’t they want the technology themselves? Would they want weapons? Would they use the advantage to make more warfare against their enemies? Would removing scarcity and other concerns ultimately unleash a larger threat on the entire Delta Quadrant? There are all sorts of ethical and moral quandaries complications to that sort of arrangement. However, it’s a debate that would be interesting to have, and would make the whole situation a bit more complex and exciting.
State of Flux also suffers because the outcome is obvious. It isn’t so much a mystery as a march towards a resolution. There may be some ambiguity about Seska’s guilt, but only the faintest amount. While Seska has a history of insurrection, Carey isn’t defined well enough to make a credible bad guy. Sure, he was in on the plot in Prime Factors, but only passively. What good would helping the Kazon do him? How would it make up for being passed over for Torres in Engineering?
In contrast, Seska is introduced in Parallax as a character willing to take matters into her own hands, and early scenes in State of Flux make it clear that she plays by her own rules – to hell with the rest of the crew. The reveal that Seska is a Cardassian feels like it is shorthand. It would be more interesting if Seska were a Cardassian and was opposed to Janeway’s philosophy, but innocent of the leak.
The episode’s production title was Seska, which – as director Robert Scheerer noted in Captain’s Logs Supplemental – “gave everything away.” The finished episode doesn’t hide too much more. State of Flux might have worked better by being up front about the identity of the leak and giving Seska more room to justify her actions. As it stands, it feels a bit too much like a mystery with only one possible answer, which isn’t the most satisfying of plots.
And yet, despite these fundamental problems, there’s a lot to like about State of Flux. For one thing, it does make use of recurring non-regular cast members, even if they aren’t ever really used like this again. It is nice to get a sense that life on Voyager exists beyond the characters whose names appear in the title credits. It’s also quite nice to see a story broadening out to examine a character who isn’t a paragon of integrity and virtue.
It’s also nice to get a sense that the Delta Quadrant has some measure of continuity – that Voyager’s arrival has had some impact on the region. The Kazon might not be the most exciting of villains, but it is nice that the episode builds on the idea that Voyager might have to cross some backyards in order to get home. Kazon space ultimately ends up feeling far too large, but State of Flux does establish some vague sense of Delta Quadrant geo-politics beyond aliens or anomalies of the week.
Out of the context of her guilt, the reveal that Seska is a Cardassian is a brilliant twist. It’s a nice way of upsetting audience expectations. Incorporating Martha Hackett into the background (and later foreground) of the first half of the season gives the reveal a bit of weight. She isn’t just a random character we’ve never seen before, she’s just a character the audience has really taken for granted. The reveal makes a great deal of sense, and carries a lot more weight due to those earlier appearances.
It’s an approach that worked so well Voyager would attempt to repeat it a number of times. Over the rest of the first and second seasons, recurring characters are introduced to pay off short-to-medium-term twists. So Peter Durst’s appearance in Faces is set up by having the character appear in Cathexis. Crew member Michael Jonas appears repeatedly before his own big reveal in Investigations. These don’t work quite as well as Seska’s reveal, because Seska’s reveal changes the rules a bit. Fool the audience once and all that.
It’s worth noting that this is a very utilitarian approach to supporting characters. The first and second seasons of Voyager put feature their supporting crew members because they will be useful later on – and it’s good if the audience recognises them from earlier episodes. While there’s an efficiency to this approach, it doesn’t build an expansive ensemble. Deep Space Nine had a tendency to develop its cast haphazardly and sporadically. Garak and Dukat appeared fleetingly in the first season, but became a core part of the show. Grand Nagus Zek became a recurring character, but his son was forgotten about after The Nagus.
Voyager doesn’t seem particularly interested in developing characters without a clear idea of where it wants to take them. Indeed, after the second season, there is no real effort invested in setting up these crew members of the week. Characters are introduced in particular episodes to serve their dramatic purpose and little else. It’s an approach that feels like it minimises the potential of Voyager. This is a show about just over one hundred people trapped together. It should be full of people constantly bumping into one another walking around the ship.
The production on State of Flux is also quite effective – the set and design for the damaged Kazon ship is suitably disturbing. The Kazon fused with the ship provide a haunting visual, an effective cautionary tale about sharing advanced technology with societies that are simply unable to deal with it. It’s a dramatic justification of the Prime Directive, even if it does feel just a tad heavy-handed in storytelling terms.
Similarly, the opening scene with the crew gathering supplies on an alien planet is a nice piece of atmosphere. It doesn’t make up for the show’s previous difficulty maintaining continuity and a sense of place, but it does a lot to establish that Voyager and her crew will need to make frequent pit-stops on their journey back towards Earth. It is an effective way of reminding the viewer that they are not in the Alpha Quadrant any longer.
That’s probably the best thing about State of Flux. It’s a story that couldn’t be done on any other Star Trek show. Like Prime Factors before it, it’s a story unique to Voyager. It’s not a particularly brilliant story, or one without sizeable problems, but it does take advantage of the show’s unique premise to generate an interesting story idea. Given how much of the first season feels like it’s re-treading familiar ground, this is a good thing.
State of Flux feels like the work of a show that is trying to find its footing. It’s clumsy and awkward, but it’s also heartwarming. If the choice is between episodes like this and episodes like Ex Post Facto or Time and Again, there really should be no choice. Unfortunately, it seems that there is.
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
- Heroes and Demons