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Star Trek: Voyager – Jetrel (Review)

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.

Jetrel is an interesting episode for a number of reasons. It’s another example of how the first season of Star Trek: Voyager seems anchored in the aftermath of the Second World War. The episode exists primarily as a meditation on guilt over the use of atomic weapon, with the Metreon Cascade attack on Rinax standing in for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Negaska in 1945. Jetrel aired three months shy of the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing, and amid a national period of reflection about the morality of Harry S. Truman’s actions.

Whatever the context of Jetrel in 1995, it serves as another example of how Voyager seems like a relic from a bygone age, a snapshot of atomic age science-fiction. Cathexis was the show doing Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Faces was an old-fashioned monster movie. Jetrel wasn’t even the first time that the first season had traded in atomic imagery. The aftermath of the polaric detonation in Time and Again was very clearly designed to evoke the aftermath of an atomic blast.

The devil in the pale moonlight...

The devil in the pale moonlight…

Even without all this baggage, Jetrel still feels like a mess of an episode. The heart of the story finds a member of the ensemble confronting a former war criminal while dealing with issues of war guilt and responsibility – a structure that evokes Duet the penultimate episode of the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. While that episode worked brilliantly, there’s a sense that Jetrel is burdened a little bit trying to offer a two-hander about guilt while tackling the issue of the atomic bomb.

The problem is compounded by a somewhat messy final act that eschews all the episode’s heavy character-based drama in favour of a contrived techno-babble climax that involves a lot of characters spouting nonsense while playing with light-emitting diodes. Jetrel begins as the strongest and boldest episode of the show’s first season, but ends as one of the prime examples of Voyager‘s preference for techno-babble over character work.

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

Neelix is an interesting character. He tends to polarise fandom, to the point where the BBC have described him as “probably the second most hated character in Star Trek, right after Wesley Crusher.” While that might be overstating the case just a little bit, Neelix tends to evoke strong reactions – largely down to the fact that he is frequently used as comic relief in a franchise that doesn’t have the strongest track record when it comes to comedy.

Neelix is, in many respects, Voyager‘s answer to Quark on Deep Space Nine. He’s the roguish outsider who runs the place on the ship where everybody goes to relax. He comes from outside Starfleet, so there’s just the faintest edge to him. Indeed, Voyager gets its own twist Deep Space Nine‘s classic “Quark does something foolish that puts the crew at risk” plot device in Learning Curve, where Neelix’s cooking poses a threat to the safety of the vessel.

Well, that's one way of shutting up Neelix...

Well, that’s one way of shutting up Neelix…

The differences between Neelix and Quark are informative. On Deep Space Nine, Quark is allowed to be cantankerous and adversarial, enjoying an antagonistic relationship with the station’s chief of security. In contrast, after some teething difficulties in episodes like The Cloud, Neelix is defined as a chirpy and friendly eager-to-please addition to the crew, desperate to win the affection of the ship’s security thief. While Quark works hard to stay out of Odo’s holding cells, Neelix signs up with Tuvok’s security detail.

In a way, this speaks to the differences between Deep Space Nine and Voyager. On Deep Space Nine, it was okay for the cast to contain roguish and contrarian elements – characters who existed to provoke and to aggravate their co-stars, with the concession that not everybody would always see eye-to-eye. On Voyager, everybody was best friends almost immediately. Quark worked hard to avoid integrating with the crew, while Neelix is already just a cog in the machinery.

His Chef concern...

His Chef concern…

(That’s why the addition of Seven in the fourth season injected a lot of energy into the show – at a high cost. It had nothing to do with the ridiculous attempt to shoehorn sex appeal into the series, and more to do with the fact that Jeri Ryan was a tremendous actress who was actually allowed to conflict with the crew around her. The dynamic between Janeway and Seven may have been incredibly derivative, but it worked because the early episodes had a strong element of conflict to them – what if Seven didn’t want to be human?)

However, there are some telling similarities between Neelix and Quark. Both Ethan Phillips and Armin Shimerman rank among the best players in their respective ensembles, even if they are burdened with terrible scripts. To be fair to the character of Neelix, he never had to carry anything as dreadful as Profit and Lace. More than that, though, the actors were typically fantastic when given solid scripts that treated them as characters rather than one-dimensional comic foils.

Playing along...

Playing along…

Phillips does some great work over the course of Voyager, even if he’s quickly shuffled into the middle of the ensemble. While the show never gets his relationship with Kes to work, the character does get some surprisingly effective character showcases. Phillips is phenomenal in both Fair Trade and Mortal Coil, which rank among the strongest episodes of their respective seasons. (Even if Fair Trade is rather… flawed in a number of typically Voyager ways.)

Jetrel is really the first opportunity we’ve had to study Neelix as a character outside of the less than flattering glimpses offered in the subplots to Phage and The Cloud. We get a sense of where Neelix has come from, and why he is so eager to travel. Jetrel explains, quite elegantly and understatedly, why the character would decide to randomly join a bunch a strange people heading to a planet of which he had never heard before. The Voyager crew are trying to get home, Neelix is just trying to get away.

Here there be ghosts...

Here there be ghosts…

(Of course, this does raise various logistical concerns. How is Jetrel able to track Neelix down if Voyager is heading on a straight line towards Earth? They appear to have been traveling for months, and it seems like Jetrel is able to find them (and catch up with them) with considerable ease. Then again, this is one of those conceptual nitpicks that goes along with “how big is Kazon space?” or “why do they keep bumping into the Vidiians?” or “how did the Talaxians in Homestead get that far out?”)

Jetrel works best when it puts the eponymous scientist in a room with Neelix to debate the ethics of warfare. It’s a structure that owes a clear debt to Duet, but that’s not a bad thing. Duet was the strongest episode of the first season of Deep Space Nine, so it’s not the worst source of inspiration for Voyager at this point in the run. Certainly, it’s a better idea than doing another holodeck episode set on board a ship that should seem isolated and under pressure.

It still makes him sick...

It still makes him sick…

James Sloyan is superb in his supporting role as Jetrel. It’s really pitch-perfect casting, as Jetrel exists as an amalgamation of Sloyan’s other Star Trek guest characters. His aloofness and fixation on science at the cost of conscience evokes Doctor Mora from The Alternate, the only guest character that Sloyan would reprise on the franchise. However, Jetrel’s (ultimately benign) secret agenda calls to mind Admiral Jarok from The Defector.

Sloyan does wonderful work here, but he spars beautifully with Phillips. A two-hander essentially relies on the two central actors to carry the material, and both Sloyan and Phillips bring their best to the episode. Their interactions are insightful and compelling, and bristle with tension. Neelix’s stubborn refusal to forgive Jetrel and Jetrel’s refusal to apologise for his actions provides a nice springboard for conflict, even if both characters soften over the course of the hour.

I am become some pretty good make-up work...

I am become some pretty good make-up work…

Jetrel is clearly inspired by the decision to drop the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Negasaki, even if Michael Piller took pains to reject that assertion in Captains’ Logs Supplemental – The Unauthorized Guide to the New Trek Voyages:

You can’t say that every show is making a comment. It’s not. Basically, we’re using the Oppenheimer character as an inspiration to tell something about one of our guys. So is it unsympathetic? I don’t know. I look at that show and I find the Jetrel character tortured. And I think Oppenheimer was. He’s trying to correct a grievous wrong. I think that the character is not an unsympathetic one.

However, even ignoring the conspicuous timing of the episode, it’s hard to overlook the many parallels between the two events.

He's hurt inside...

He’s hurt inside…

Writer Kenneth Biller stressed the connection between Jetrel and Oppenheimer in an interview with Cinefantastique:

“I did a lot of research about Oppenheimer and became fascinated by what I learned,” he said. “There were some lines Jetrel said that were actual things Oppenheimer said. For instance, Oppenheimer was once asked if he felt guilty about Hiroshima and he said, ‘Yes I feel guilty, but I don’t regret it’ I think a lot of his motivation was pure scientific curiosity — to see if it could be done. That over-road a lot of ethical concerns.”

There are other obvious parallels between the two scientists.

Voyager was his first (trans)port of call...

Voyager was his first (trans)port of call…

Recalling his experience watching the test of the weapon, Jetrel remarks, “The day when we tested the Cascade, when I saw that blinding light, brighter than a thousand suns. I knew at that moment exactly what I had become.” This is an obvious allusion to Oppenheimer’s rather infamous (misquoted) “I am become death”, a line that has become quite contentious among historians and scholars, with considerable debate about whether Oppenheimer actually said it.

Like Oppenheimer, Jetrel was responsible for a “weapon of mass destruction.” Neelix tells us, that Jetrel was “the scientist who conceived the Metreon Cascade, then he led the team of scientists who built it.” Defending his work, Jetrel argues that his research has intrinsic value. Asked why he would develop such a thing, he replies, “For my planet, and yes, for science. To know whether or not it could be done.” It’s the popular image of Oppenheimer as a scientist so obsessed with he research that he can distance himself from its application.

This is Neelix's time to shine!

This is Neelix’s time to shine!

The Metreon Cascade is very clearly an analogy for nuclear weapons. The imagery fits. “In the blink of an eye Rinax was enveloped by a deadly cloud,” Neelix recalls, evoking the iconic mushroom cloud effect and maybe even the prospect of nuclear winter. Similarly, the Metreon Cascade is associated with fire and burning – the victims that Neelix dreams about are burnt to a crisp. The victims swirl around Rinax, existing as transporter ghosts, eerie effects that recall the infamous nuclear shadows left by those evaporated on the spot at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Even the vaguely articulated science of the weapon is defined as atomic. Discussing the consequences of the blast, analogous to radiation poisoning, Jetrel notes, “It may lay dormant for years, but once it manifests itself, it will cause the body’s atomic structure to undergo fission. The cells will begin to disintegrate. My equipment is specifically designed to detect the sub-atomic signature of the disorder.” It’s noted that the initial blast left “thousands of others to be eaten away by metreon poisoning.”

Atomic age nightmares...

Atomic age nightmares…

Jetrel was broadcast in 1995, almost fifty years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. The issue was contentious at the time, with America trying to properly appraise the decision made to deploy the weapon of mass destruction against two Japanese cities. The debat in American popular culture was largely spurred by the Smithsonian’s plans to host a heated exhibition on the topic, The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War.

Although the controversial exhibit did not go ahead, it served as quite the catalyst for public debate and discourse. This didn’t take place in a vacuum. In 1993, the World Health Assembly submitted a question to International Court of Justice about the legality of the use of atomic bombs in warfare, with the Court ruling them legal in 1996. Indeed, these debates inspired Thomas U. Berger inspired to write War Guilt and World Politics after World War II, which only say publication recently – suggesting the controversy lingers on.

The long Kes goodnight...

The long Kes goodnight…

Much of the debate plays out in Jetrel, with the characters making many of the same arguments that characterised discourse over the bomb. Neelix remembers “preparing for an invasion that never came”, observing that the bomb forced a Talaxian surrender – suggesting that the use of the Metreon Cascade prevented a long and hard-fought ground invasion of Talax. Similarly, Jetrel’s protests that he had not foreseen the lingering affects of metreon poisoning calls to mind debates over how much the United States knew about radiation poisoning before the bombings.

That said, it is interesting that Jetrel focuses on the scientist at the heart of the attempt debate. It’s not a question about the collective guilt of “the Harkonan Order” for the mass murder of Talaxian citizens. It is a question of personal culpability – a question of how much responsibility Jetrel holds for the detonation of the device. Indeed, when Jetrel tries to frame this as a broader debate about his society’s culpability, the episode shoots it down.

No need to get all bent out of shape...

No need to get all bent out of shape…

“Yes, I developed the weapon, but it was the government and the military leaders who decided to use it, not I,” he insists. “That must be a very convenient distinction for you,” Neelix retorts. “Does it help you sleep at night?” This is a question about how much guilt accrues to the scientist for his decision to share his knowledge with the world; the passive complicity in an atrocity like that. After all, Jetrel was developing this technology in the middle of a massive war; it seems unlikely he didn’t foresee its application.

It makes sense for Star Trek to focus on atomic era science, and Oppenheimer is a suitable topic for reflection for the franchise approaching this landmark. In many respects, sending Voyager to the Delta Quadrant was a clear attempt to reconnect the show with the free-spirited exploration of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of Star Trek, and that utopianism was rooted in Kennedy era idealism, itself rooted in atomic era science.

And that's Neelix's cue to exit...

And that’s Neelix’s cue to exit…

Sandwiched between John F. Kennedy’s “new frontier” and the moon landing, classic Star Trek was a monument to the potential of science – projecting a world where the same science that had split the atom had also conquered hunger and made faster-than-light travel a reality. Science may have made it possible for mankind to destroy the planet several times over, but it also provided the opportunity to reach up to the stars. War time advances like atomic power or even V-2 rockets were inexorably linked with the future of space flight.

It’s telling that Jetrel tries to redeem his mistakes through the use of a transporter, a device not readily available to him at the time, but one with almost infinite possibilities. And so it makes sense that Star Trek‘s reflection on atomic era guilt would be addressed through a story about science. After all, Star Trek‘s future occasionally veers into technological determinism – the idea that mankind will be improved when technology advances to a sufficient level, that replicators will build utopia.

"Let's just remember whose character this episode is centring upon, Captain..."

“Let’s just remember whose character this episode is centring upon, Captain…”

The mid-nineties seemed like the perfect opportunity to reflection on this notion – to look back at the atomic age and to try to determine whether everything had been worth. After all, Star Trek has a long and rich association with NASA, to the point where NASA named a space shuttle Enterprise and Star Trek: Enterprise named the second starship Columbia. However, the nineties were not kind to space exploration:

The Clinton Administration came in, in early 1993. This administration had it’s focus on the domestic economy. NASA was so far down their list of priorities that they did not even change the NASA administrator. In February 1993 looking for ways to cut the federal budget the administration suggested that the Space Station would face the budget axe. This was after $9 billion had been spent and almost nothing was actually built.

With budget cuts necessary, NASA was an obvious target. Public humiliations like the revelation that the Hubble telescope was near-sighted did not help. The organisation found itself moving further and further away from pioneering space flight and opened the industry up to international or private efforts. The decline of NASA was such a public spectacle that even shows like The X-Files (Space) and The Simpsons (Deep Space Homer) touched on it.

Facing up to his past...

Facing up to his past…

The wondrous space-faring future of Star Trek seemed further away than ever. Jetrel seems like a way top address these anxieties, exploring the legacy of splitting the atom. It feels like a reflection on early atomic era optimism, wondering whether the cost had been worth it. It was also perhaps a way of mourning the passage of that optimism and enthusiasm – the idea that the future might find a way to turn destructive scientific advances into the gateway to a better tomorrow.

That said, Jetrel starts out strong but quickly muddles itself. Neelix’s revelation that he dodged the draft on a neighbouring planet mirrors the popular history of young people fleeing to Canada to avoid serving in Vietnam. Of course, dodging the draft is not unique to the Vietnam War – it occurs in virtually every conflict where conscription exists. However, Neelix frames the story so as to evoke Vietnam. “I thought the war was unjust, that Talax was fighting for reasons that weren’t worth killing for,” he tells Kes.

"Talax me everything..."

“Talax me everything…”

This certainly fits with the historical narrative of Vietnam, and doesn’t quite fit the history of the Second World War. While this creates a nice sense that Jetrel is charting the cultural history of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond the Second World War, it does serve to muddle the metaphor a bit. It’s a revelation that really needs to carry a bit more weight and focus, to explore the question of whether any war is just or if there was a particular reason why Neelix objected to this particular conflict.

“But the real reason I didn’t report was because I was a coward,” he confesses. It feels like the episode changed the underlying assumptions that come with the nuclear bomb metaphor, only to immediately try to reverse that reversal. There’s an interesting discussion to be had about both of those positions – and, indeed, whether “I really don’t want to die” is somehow less valid a position when dodging the draft than “I object to the philosophical underpinnings of this war.”

If you can't stand the heat...

If you can’t stand the heat…

All of this is introduced far too late (and too fleetingly) in the script, and it serves a rather transparent plot purpose. The episode uses it as a springboard to some pop psychology about how Neelix learns to forgive himself before he can forgive Jetrel. “I hate him,” Neelix assures Kes. “And I don’t think I can stop hating him.” Kes replies, “Maybe you have to stop hating yourself first.” It’s simply a way of getting Neelix’s character arc to move a little bit.

(It also makes it very hard to figure out what the point of Jetrel actually is. Is the episode suggesting that war guilt over the use of the atomic bomb is just a projection of modern day moral cowardice? This seems like a very disingenuous position, but the episode is framed in such a way that the big reveal about Neelix’s resentment of Jetrel is grounded in a projection of what he sees as his own weakness. It seems unlike Jetrel was trying to make this point, but it does feel like the script trips up quite a bit in its second half.)

And then there’s the final act, in which Jetrel tries to magically resurrect the victims of the Metreon Cascade using techno-babble. To be fair, it’s easy to see what the script was trying to do. If Jetrel is a mournful requiem for the promise that emerged from the Second World War, than having Jetrel try to reverse the damage using the power of magic future science makes a great deal of thematic sense. Unfortunately, the sequence is constructed in the clumsiest manner possible.

Most obviously, the episode treats it like a big shocking reveal. Which makes no sense. Jetrel has never been through a transporter before this episode, so one would imagine he’d try to consult with somebody who knew how it worked before trying something this bold. While his own government disowned him for his research, Jetrel has no reason to believe that Voyager (or the Talaxians) would be just as disinterested.

It seems strange that Jetrel did not inform Talax before trying something this risky. He is, after all, directly interfering with the dead from another culture to conduct experiments that would be considered insensitive and morally questionable. One would imagine this would be considered desecration. While it makes sense that Jetrel might want to avoid the risk of rejection, it seems weird that Voyager and Neelix feel comfortable going along with this without trying to contact the Talaxian government.

It also seems weird that Rinax is just a completely abandoned planetoid; there’s only one reference to the Talaxian government in Jetrel. This makes sense in the context of a two-handed episode between Jetrel and Neelix, but it becomes more problematic when the episode teases the possibility of resurrecting an entire planetoid. (As an aside, how far backwards did Voyager have to travel to reach Rinax? Surely it would have been opportune to stop at Talax and pick up supplies and so on? The episode never even mentions this.)

More than that, the eventual scene of Jetrel trying to resurrect the victims of the Metreon Cascade falls horribly flat. It’s just stereotypical Voyager techno-babble.

Re-targeting scanners to wide beam.

Energise. Phase transition coils to maximum.

Aye, Captain.

Is the biogenic field operational?

Affirmative.

It’s incredible.

Atomic cohesion has dropped to forty nine percent, Captain.

Pattern buffers to maximum power.

They are already at one hundred percent.

Take them to one twenty, Lieutenant.

Pattern buffers to one hundred and twenty percent of rated maximum.

We’re losing him.

Atomic cohesion to thirty nine percent. Twenty two percent. Fourteen percent. His pattern is degrading rapidly.

You must increase the power to the pattern buffers, Captain.

We’ve got to stimulate cohesion. Is there anyway to augment the biogenic field?

The degree of fragmentation is simply too great. It will not work. We are overloading the system.

The actors do the best they can to make the nonsense sound urgent, but there’s no weight to any of this. Compare the scene to the final confrontation between Kira and Marritza in Duet. The climax of Jetrel feels like impersonal, disconnected nonsense.

Jetrel starts out as one of the more interesting and compelling entries in Voyager‘s first season, but ultimately winds up feeling a little too muddled for its own good – never maintaining a tight enough focus to let the story properly resonate.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of Star Trek: Voyager:

Episodes produced during the first season, but carried over to the second:

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4 Responses

  1. Yeah, I think you nailed it. The key is that Quark, like all of DS9’s more interesting characters, wasn’t interested in joining the Federation. His relatives happily switched over, but Quark was fine where he was. In fact, the Federation usually *hampered* him more than it helped. His own people revoked his business license and his rivals made fun of him (“The synethol king!”)

    The same goes for Garak. Why does Garak remain a free agent? Well, just watch “Rock and Shoals” to see why. He’s made for a Starfleet spy within minutes, all because he chose to wear a combadge. (“Ah, I was afraid you’d ask about that.”) It isn’t until he betrays his unit’s location – against Nog’s protest – that he regains the upper hand and can meaningfully negotiate. The closer he identifies with the Federation, the weaker he gets!

    Neelix put on a combadge on Day One. In fact, he badgers Tuvok non-stop about becoming a “co”-security chief! The same can be said for everyone on that ship: Naomi fantasizes about becoming a Captain by the time they get back to the Alpha Quadrant, the Doctor fantasizes about upgrading to the Emergency Command Hologram, Seven gradually thaws over and begins exposing the Federation philosophy…

    Anyway, nice review. This has actually inspired me to re-watch VOY for the first time in years

    • Thanks, that’s high praise! (Although I think Voyager is a lot of fun on re-watch with the right expectations, and know what it’s not going to be. Quite similar to Enterprise in that regard, which has aged quite (and surprisingly) well.)

      But I think you’re right about the contrast between DS9 and VOY. DS9 seemed to suggest it was okay if everybody didn’t want to sign on up to Starfleet – even Jake doesn’t sign up in the end, but Nog does, Rom joins the Bajoran Militia. In contrast, it seemed that Starfleet integration was the be-all and end-all of Voyager’s agenda.

  2. Darren, Voyager does contact Talax before they reach orbit. When Janeway and Jetrel are talking in her ready room, she says they’ll get permission from Talax first before beaming aboard a sample of the metreon cloud around Rinax.

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