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Star Trek: Voyager – Learning Curve (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.

So, Learning Curve is the last episode broadcast as part of Star Trek: Voyager‘s first season. It’s hard to get too excited about – or be too disappointed by – that.

Learning Curve is a bit of limp finalé to a mediocre season. Like a lot of the season before it, it’s a passable execution of what should have been a fantastic concept. (Boy, that really is Voyager in a nutshell, isn’t it?)

Is the show finally starting to gel?

Is the show finally starting to gel?

Learning Curve‘s position in the broadcast order was apparently a bit of blind luck. It was actually the fifth-last episode produced of the show’s first season. It just found itself broadcast in the “season finalé” slot when UPN decided to hold back the remaining four episodes of the season until the Fall, to broadcast leading into the second season.

However, despite this, Learning Curve seems as good a choice as any to close out the first season – and certainly a better choice than Brannon Braga and Jeri Taylor’s preferred candidate, The 37’s. It returns to the conflict between Starfleet and the Maquis promised in Caretaker, but only fleetingly acknowledged in episodes like Parallax or State of Flux. Although the execution leaves a lot to be desired, it does create a sense that the show has come something of a full circle.

It's Chakotay or the high way...

It’s Chakotay or the high way…

The choice was purely pragmatic from a network standpoint, and arguably a demonstration of the strings that came with broadcasting on UPN instead of in syndication. As Robert Picardo explained to Cinefantastique, it was a strategic issue:

“That was strictly a network decision, about wanting to premiere the show in late August to attract additional viewers to sample other UPN shows,” he said. “What they’re doing is patterning themselves after the successful strategy that Fox employed in their early years, of early Fall premieres.”

It gave the second season a bit of a buffer and comfort zone, even if that ultimately felt like something of a mixed blessing – given the episodes carried over.

Mocking the Maquis...

Mocking the Maquis…

The producers were less than thrilled with this decision. Also talking to Cinefantastique, Jeri Taylor voiced her concerns:

“We had no idea that this was intended by the network,” said executive producer Jeri Taylor. “We always plan our closing episode rather carefully so that it builds to a climax, leaves people wanting to come back, and says something about the franchise. It’s a special kind of show that we design. We didn’t ring the first season to a close. It simply ended. It stopped mid-stream on an episode that never would have been selected as a closing episode.”

It’s worth noting that Taylor had written the script to The 37’s, the episode that would have gone out in the slot instead of Learning Curve.

"Bet you'd ended up on Deep Space Nine now, eh?"

“Bet you’d ended up on Deep Space Nine now, eh?”

Kenneth Biller argued that the decision to truncate the broadcast season hurt the show over the summer, limiting the pool of repeats available for the network to broadcast to reel in new viewers:

“It was really frustrating between the seasons when I knew we had totally lost momentum. We had fresh episodes sitting in the can, but the audience was forced to watch not just re-runs, but because it was a new show, re-runs they had seen just three weeks before. I think it really hurt us. We ended on a run-of-the-mill episode where Tuvok was the drill instructor. It wasn’t a cliff-hanger. It wasn’t a season-ender. It had no bang. We just sort of disappeared.”

It is worth noting that there wasn’t necessarily agreement among the producers about how to end Voyager‘s first season. According to The Official Star Trek: Voyager Magazine, Brannon Braga was the only writer really pushing for a cliffhanger to the season, and The 37’s seems to be a bit of a mess because none of the staff knew what they wanted from the script.

The gold standard...

The gold standard…

On the other hand, Learning Curve makes a reasonable amount of sense as the final episode of the first season – at least on a conceptual level. The conflict between Starfleet and the Maquis came baked into the premise of Voyager. However, it was almost immediately side-lined in favour of adventure-of-the-week storytelling. It’s quite clear that Learning Curve is really the last opportunity the show will take to seriously address the topic. (After all, only Parallax and State of Flux have touched on it in anything approaching a meaningful way.)

Voyager will occasionally bring up the topic of the Maquis in the future. The second season arc has a little to do with the Maquis, even if it’s never quite foregrounded. Worst Case Scenario from the show’s third season reminds the audience that the Maquis exist. The subject comes up again as part of the background to the plot in Extreme Risk during the show’s fifth season. And the Maquis provide a nice hook for the episode Repression in final season. However, none of these stories are about the Maquis crew in a substantial way – it feels more like window dressing or a way to tell an unrelated story.

Cleaning up his act...

Cleaning up his act…

Learning Curve is really the last time we deal with the fact that Voyager is a ship staffed by two different crews that come from two very different backgrounds. At this point, the show has so effectively distinguished itself as an episodic adventure that it’s no surprise that three of the four featured crewmembers never appear again –  it’s much more remarkable that Chell pops up again briefly during the show’s final season. (Indeed, when Voyager revisits the idea of under-performing low-ranking crew members for Good Shepherd in the sixth season, it uses Starfleet crew members.)

However, Learning Curve does address at least some interesting questions raised by Caretaker. What happens to the Maquis who don’t want to join Starfleet? What about the people who don’t slot into a carefully regimented command structure so readily? How do you enforce discipline on a ship like this when Janeway can’t be bothered throwing the organ-harvesters from Phage into the Brig? Learning Curve makes a few nods towards these questions, even if the answers aren’t entirely satisfactory.

The big cheese...

The big cheese…

Learning Curve is essentially an episode about how a bunch of Maquis crew members are bullied into falling into line with Starfleet. This is a perfectly legitimate story. After all, Voyager is trapped a long way from home – discipline needs to be maintained. The lives of everybody on the ship may come to depend upon one of these crew members. It’s unfortunate they didn’t sign up, but compromises have to be made for the greater good. It may not be fair, it may not even be moral, but it’s an understandable decision to make.

Unfortunately, Learning Curve never seems too interested in exploring the implications of this. After all, these Maquis crew members have effectively been conscripted into Starfleet. While Star Trek: The Next Generation might have been a little uncomfortable with the idea of Starfleet as a military organisation, there’s no way around it here. These crew members did not volunteer for Starfleet – and are uncomfortable working on Voyager at the moment – but the ship needs them to function as cogs in a military machine.

Blowing a gasket...

Blowing a gasket…

There’s no ambiguity to Learning Curve. Nobody on the senior staff stops to consider that Starfleet is essentially adopting the same strong arm tactics that the Cardassians used in the DMZ – “fall in line, or else.” Tuvok may not be the most scrupulous member of the senior staff, but you would imagine that Janeway or Chakotay would reflect on the irony of the situation. When Dalby (quite correctly) points out that Janeway isn’t going to lock them up for the rest of the voyage, Chakotay shows up to beat Dalby into line.

Humiliating Dalby in front of the entire mess hall, Chakotay ends their little “talk” with a threat. “We can do that tomorrow, the next day, everyday, until you report to Lieutenant Tuvok. You understand me?” This is the first officer on a Federation vessel. It’s likely meant to seem like “a taste of Dalby’s own medicine”, throwing his nostalgia about the Maquis back in his face. However, it doesn’t play that way. If Dalby had dared to hit Chakotay back, he’d likely be sent to the Brig.

Chakotay's command style really floored him...

Chakotay’s command style really floored him…

Given the trouble that Torres got into for throwing a punch in Parallax, it seems downright hypocritical. (It also undermines Chakotay as a character, making him seem completely unsympathetic to his former crew, and little more than Tuvok’s muscle.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. After all, Battlestar Galactica was full of pragmatic hypocritical behaviour when those characters found themselves in troublesome situations. The problem is how Learning Curve addresses this.

There’s no sense that this represents a massive (if necessary) compromise to the crew of Voyager. For all that Janeway talks about upholding Federation ideals, those Federation ideals also represent a duty of care to those under her charge. If Dalby and his friends don’t want to serve in Starfleet, forcing them to serve is a very morally questionable act. After all, the ship houses Kes and Neelix outside the Starfleet command structure. Why can’t Dalby and company serve a similar function?

He's going to argue with Tuvok until he's blue in the face...

He’s going to argue with Tuvok until he’s blue in the face…

The episode brushes over this sense of compromise, and asks the audience to just accept it at face value – as if to buy into the idea that this is for their own good. Voyager learned a lot from The Next Generation, but it seems to have inherited its occasionally blindly idealistic attitudes towards the Federation and Starfleet. Of course Dalby has to become a functioning Starfleet officer! There’s no alternative! Whatever the crew have to do to make that happen is perfectly justifiable. The ends justify the means!

There’s something deeply uncomfortable about the ease with which Learning Curve accepts all of these assumptions. It also unsettling how completely disconnected the main cast seem from any of these issues. Writers Ronald Wilkerson and Jean Louise Matthias were responsible for the story to Lower Decks and it seems like Learning Curve is very much an effort to transpose that story to the Delta Quadrant – another example of Voyager eagerly emulating The Next Generation.

Some needling from Neelix...

Some needling from Neelix…

The problem is that Lower Decks received a polish from René Echevarria, one of the strongest writers focusing on The Next Generation in its final season. Echevarria was able to tailor the script so that the glimpses of the main cast seemed perfectly natural from the audience’s perspective, but also quite cliquish and exclusive from the viewpoint of the episode’s focus characters. It also helped that we’d had seven years to come to understand Riker’s own particular brand of jerkishness, while Learning Curve is the finalé of a truncated first season.

The main characters do not come off particularly well here. Janeway is using her gothic romance holonovel when the first system failure takes place. The holonovel itself remains somewhat troublesome, feeling a little cliché and a little bit indulgent. However, there’s also an awkward sign from Janeway when the system fails. It is more like exasperation than outright concern; it seems like Janeway is more frustrated she had to interrupt one of her stories than worried about the possibility of massive system failures on the ship.

Mornin' Guvness...

Mornin’ Guvness…

Coupled with her complete lack of engagement with Tuvok and Chakotay’s management of the Dalby situation and her minor role in the rest of the episode, Janeway seems decidedly aloof and disconnected from the ship. The gel pack subplot means that the focus of the episode isn’t taken entirely off the main cast. With Torres, Neelix and the Doctor all involved in the gel pack mystery and Tuvok and Chakotay taking an active role in Dalby’s subplot, Janeway’s minor role doesn’t feel as organic as it might otherwise.

Given the decision to open the episode inside Janeway’s holographic fantasy, the episode seems to be drawing attention to how disconnected Janeway is from what is going on around her. This is not quite on par with Jean-Luc Picard’s aloofness, as you even Picard seemed more engaged with Barcley’s performance issues in Hollow Pursuits and would definitely be more actively worried about a mechanical fault with his starship.

The gravity of the situation dawns on them...

The gravity of the situation dawns on them…

Instead, Janeway seems to be playing by herself in the holodeck, arguably foreshadowing one of the directions in which her somewhat disjointed character arc would branch. The recurring holonovel sequences seem to point towards Janeway as a more withdrawn and introspective commanding officer – suggesting that perhaps she isn’t the sort of leader a ship like Voyager needs under the present circumstances. (As noted before, one of the first season’s consistent character threads is that Janeway is a scientist rather than an adventurer or diplomat or builder.)

Even if the episode’s portrayal of Janeway is far from the ideal way to close out the first season, Learning Curve does at least nod towards the basic premise of Voyager in a number of ways. It doesn’t explore these satisfactorily, but it does acknowledge them. The Maquis issue is a nice bit of continuity, even if the episode doesn’t engage as enthusiastically as it might. The episode also alludes to the possibility of resource scarcity for a ship stranded on the other side of the galaxy.

Packing it in...

Packing it in…

“Ordinarily the loss of a gel pack would be a minor inconvenience,” Janeway’s log informs us, “but here in the Delta Quadrant it’s a reminder of the precarious nature of our journey.” It’s a nice sentiment but – like the Maquis issue – it’s never anything with which Learning Curve engages. We are told the crew are investigating alternate power sources, but there’s never a sense of anxiety about the possibility of being stranded. (We also don’t get any sense that Voyager is trying to ration the packs.)

The plot’s resolution – Voyager is under threat because Neelix decided to make cheese – is hardly the most satisfying of denouements, feeling like a spiritual companion piece to the classic “Quark brings something risky on board” plot device that was popular in early episodes of Deep Space Nine like Vortex or Q-Less or Invasive Procedures. It doesn’t work any better here, and it feels a little strange that Voyager works entirely on biological circuitry without safeguards to identify particular risks.

True colours...

True colours…

This is really the only time in the show’s run that the ship’s “bio-neural circuitry” is used as a plot point. It feels like something of a wasted opportunity – a chance to focus on how Voyager is different from the Enterprise or the Defiant. That said, the production design is quite endearing. In particular, the light blue colour of the packs (paired with the yellow and red lighting inside the wall panel) is a nice way of understatedly evoking the bright primary colours of the classic Star Trek, a show that Voyager seems to be consciously attempting to emulate.

As a piece of television, Learning Curve is incredibly paint-by-numbers. The character arcs are obvious from the outset – the notion that Tuvok might need to loosen up feels too much like an “easy” moral. The stakes never feel particularly high. The climactic fire that allows Tuvok to earn the respect of his recruits feels like a contrivance of the highest order. We even get a cliché training montage to help establish that Tuvok is really putting the team through their paces. In short, there’s never a sense of excitement or surprise to any of this.

Things are really heating up...

Things are really heating up…

Learning Curve is a perfectly bland piece of Star Trek that closes out what has been a perfectly bland season of Voyager. It doesn’t feel like the show is limping across the finish line, but it doesn’t feel like a sprint either. Due to the decision to save four episodes for Autumn, it seems like Voyager‘s first season finishes with a sense of “business as usual.” That may, in fact, be the reason it feels perfectly suited to serve as the first season finalé.

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:

9 Responses

  1. Stuff like this is what turned me off VOY for 15 years. The first two years are full of this kind of low-rent, ethically confused blather.

    …Well, on second thought, even the great seasons feel kind of low-rent! That’s part of the uniqueness of VOY. It somehow manages to look expensive (top of the line CG) and cheap (cheesy fade-outs, Ed Wood caliber acting) at the same time.

    I’m not sure what that says about the production staff and their priorities. I listened to a rifftrack of Aliens. v Predator by RedLetterMedia, and Mike said something apropos:

    “Space battles and special fx are like icing on the cake – but you need a *cake* to put it on. Otherwise you just eat the icing, and, uhh — it’s too sugary, and you get the diabetes.”

    • That’s nice line!

      The first two years really are a mess. I’m waiting until next year to do the second season (barring the episodes that aired between the episodes produced in the first season block), and I am really dreading it. I really don’t want to have to sit through that Paris arc again. (As much as I love The Thaw and Meld and… for all its flaws… Tuvix.)

      • That is a great line, and it reminds me of another from the S2 episode Investigations, when Harry is critical of Neelix’s new programme: “It was like a steady diet of dessert, which is fine but sooner or later, you want some meat and potatoes”. That also sums up Voyager in a nutshell, eh Darren?

      • I think it does.

  2. I’m having trouble finding any evidence that anyone else noticed this – but when they begin the job by climbing up a jeffries tube, everyone but the blue guy is wearing black shoes. For the rest of that job, everyone is wearing gray shoes. I cant find any mention of this continuity error anywhere . . . surely someone else must have noticed?

    • I hadn’t noticed it, but I’m not a very keen continuity watcher, I must admit.

      • The funny thing is, i’m not either, but as they were climbing, their feet passed right in front if you, and those black shoes reminded me of what I wore on my feet in the 80s, cooking for Denny’s, so I was vaguely aware and then suddenly they were more like moon boots

  3. You can tell Learning Curve was never intended to be a season finale because when it was written up in The Star Trek Fact Files, instead of devoting one whole page to it like season finales got, that only got half a page, but funnily enough so did The 37’s. I should have known Neelix’s cooking would get them all killed someday. I do believe there is still room for the Maquis conflict on Voyager, but apart from the Michael Jonas arc and Season 7’s Repression, it always seemed a peripheral issue. In Good Shepherd, Chakotay recommended relieving the three officers of duty to pursue their own projects, but that never comes up here, mainly because I think it’s impractical. Sorry to be picky Darren, but Voyager is stranded on the other side of the Galaxy, and not the Universe. The gel packs do resurface in later episodes like Macrocosm and One but despite the critical role they supposedly play in regulating Voyager, they tend to get reduced to mere side-issues; I wonder if that bio-mimetic gel is what’s used to create them?

    • Good spot on the other side of the galaxy bit. Corrected, cheers.

      The gel packs really are a strange bit of mythology for the show, forgotten all to readily despite the intriguing potential they suggest. (After all, they would make Voyager akin to a living organism, right?)

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