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Star Trek: Voyager – Elogium (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.

Elogium is the first script from writer Kenneth Biller, even if it was his second script produced and his third script to air. Adapted from a script by Jeri Taylor from a freelance pitch from Jimmy Diggs, Elogium has gone through quite a few sets of hands before reaching the screen. In many respects, Biller’s script went through the opposite approach of many writers working on Star Trek for the first time.

Ronald D. Moore’s script for The Bonding and René Echevarria’s teleplay for The Offspring both went through story editor Melinda Snodgrass and executive producer Michael Piller for varying amounts of re-writes before their ideas reached the screen. In contrast, Biller’s début assignment is re-writing a script written by an executive producer from a freelance pitch. It’s no wonder that Elogium turned into such a mess.

Love in a turbolift...

Love in a turbolift…

The episode was produced towards the tail end of the first season of Star Trek: Voyager, and it’s almost a shame that it was held back into the second season. While hardly an episode deserving of repeat airing over the summer, it was also a pretty poor way of welcoming viewers into the show’s second season. It’s a problem with all of the hold-overs, except for Projections. The other three episodes carried over are among the weakest episodes of a troubled season. Elogium might not be quite as dull as Twisted or as unfocused as The 37’s, but it is a deeply creepy episode of television.

The two episodes produced during the second season to air in the first six weeks – Initiations and Non Sequitor – might not represent franchise high-points, but they are well-produced hours of television that suggest Voyager might be finding its feet. The hold-overs from the first season undermine that sense of progress.

Neelix was shocked to discover that Ocampan children were not found under cabbage patches...

Neelix was shocked to discover that Ocampan children were not found under cabbage patches…

There are lots of problems with Elogium. From a structural point of view, it feels like début script from a young writer. Kenneth Biller would become one of the longest-serving members of the Voyager writing staff. Although he would leave briefly when Ronald Moore joined the staff, Biller worked on the show for most of its run. When Brannon Braga left to concentrate on launching Star Trek: Enterprise, it was Biller who took over the running of the show for its final year. Biller has written some pretty great Star Trek episodes – including Lifesigns, Tuvix and Worst Case Scenario.

However, Elogium does not count as his strongest work. Indeed, it’s considerably weaker than either of his two scripts that aired before this episode – Faces or Initiations. The episode is stitched together rather clumsily, with lots of foreshadowing layered on so heavy that the episode almost creaks. The teaser has Chakotay stumbling upon a couple making out in a turbolift, making it clear that “sex” is going to be the throughline of this particular show – in the most heavy-handed manner possible.

Talk about getting a little handsy...

Talk about getting a little handsy…

Chakotay broaches the idea of crew “fraternisation” to Janeway. Voyager finds itself caught up in the mating rituals of space-faring organisms. Kes suddenly hits puberty. Ensign Samantha Wildman reveals that she is pregnant. There’s a whole host of contrivance required to get all this working, and the fact that everything overlaps so perfectly feels a little forced. “It seems your concerns about fraternisation were prophetic,” Janeway remarks to Chakotay, although drawing attention to these contrivances doesn’t make them any easier to swallow.

It’s the sort of nice thematic hook that sounds good in theory – it ties all the little threads running through the episode together, leaving no doubt or ambiguity as to what the episode is about. However, the script for Elogium is clumsy and awkward in making these connections. It seems strange that these aliens just happen to emit what can only be described as “sex radiation” that happens to trigger Kes’ elogium; just as it feels weird that Chakotay just happens to stumble across a couple at the start of this wacky adventure.

Turning over a new leaf...

Turning over a new leaf…

(The idea of Samantha Wildman coming forward to tell Janeway about her pregnancy is a stronger plot point – we don’t know how long Wildman has known about the baby, but it makes sense that the events of the episode have led her to reflect on it and to decide to tell Janeway. Chakotay’s thoughts about crew relationships might have worked better if then stemmed from either the alien creatures or the situation with Kes and Neelix rather than a third unrelated event that just happened to occur at a thematically appropriate time.)

There are other problems with Elogium. Apparently the story about the horny space aliens came from a freelance pitch by Jimmy Diggs, and Jeri Taylor thought that it would fit nicely with a story about Kes and Neelix that the production staff wanted to write. Both of these stories have problems – although Diggs’ pitch suffers from the fact that it is so bland. Although it involves stretching the word “anomaly” past the point of recognition, the horny space organisms feel like a trite and cliché addition to the “anomaly of the week” subgenre that already includes Parallax and The Cloud, and would soon feature Twisted.

Dishing the dirt...

Dishing the dirt…

Space-based organisms are – broadly speaking – interesting. After all, the Star Trek franchise is built around the wonder and majesty of space-flight. There’s something deeply romantic about the notion of living organisms that fly between the stars. They are the most alien of aliens – organisms that exist as more than just some extras with distinctive make-up on their faces. If space is an ocean, sometimes it’s fun to look at the marine wildlife.

The franchise has produced a whole host of classic episodes playing with that concept. Tin Man is a vastly underrated episode from the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, while Encounter at Farpoint featured two giant space jellyfish as a jumping off point to the wonders of the universe; the giant space amoeba from The Immunity Syndrome is one of the most distinctive and memorable visuals of the original Star Trek show.

Putitng the best foot forwards...

Putitng the best foot forwards…

However, these aliens just feel generic. The show relies on too much techno-babble to deal with the creatures. Whenever Voyager tries to deal with the problem, the crew string some pseudo-scientific terms together. Torres suggests modifying the “main deflector to create an inverted magnetic pulse” to scare the creatures away. The crew escapes by “venting plasma residue” and rolling over.

There’s nothing wrong with using techno-babble, but the problem lies with treating it as a plot resolution without any logical build-up to the pay-off. Voyager learns to play the role of a submissive male organism. How does that reflect on the main plotline? Where’s the plot threads leading to that decision? What’s the point of it? Why is this story interesting in terms of character or plot, beyond learning about the mating rituals of a fictitious space organism?

Chakotay seems to be really pushing the fraternisation thing, eh?

Chakotay seems to be really pushing the fraternisation thing, eh?

(It wouldn’t be such a big deal if the space organisms were treated as a secondary or minor concern – serving primarily as a metaphor or reflection of the subplot involving Kes. However, they are given almost equal prominence in the episode and revealed as the root cause of Kes’ early entry in elogium. So shrugging them off with some techno-babble and the most basic of biological concepts feels like a cheat.)

That said, it does lead to Elogium treating Voyager itself as a living entity. The Star Trek shows have always imbued the ships with some measure of identity and personality. The Enterprise is just as much a regular character on Star Trek and The Next Generation as McCoy or Riker. However, Voyager takes it a bit further. In a way, it’s building off the logical conclusion of late Next Generation episodes like Emergence and Voyager‘s own character arc involving the Doctor, suggesting that there comes a point where the ships have to be seen as living entities.

A pregnant pause...

A pregnant pause…

The first season has already made an effort to treat Voyager as an organism rather than a ship. It’s quite notable that the crew use “Voyager” as a proper name rather than the definite article. Picard would order the away team back to the Enterprise. Sisko would arm the weapons on the Defiant. Instead, Janeway would order Voyager to maximum warp. The strange emphasis in early episodes about the ship’s “bio-neural circuitry” also invites comparisons to living organisms. In Learning Curve, the ship itself got sick.

So having Voyager behave as a space-faring organism that just happens to have a full crew compliment is an interesting idea – even if it doesn’t necessarily go anywhere in the long-term, or make for a particularly exciting story in the short-term. If the opening credits of Voyager can be seen as a commercial for a car that doesn’t exist yet, Elogium is essentially a more sexualised car commercial – a gigantic ode to the sex appeal of this Intrepid-class starship.

Family matters...

Family matters…

Still, while this all feels a little too rote and overly-familiar, it’s still far more interesting than the episode’s subplot involving Kes and Neelix. Kes is a somewhat difficult character, for a number of reasons. The Ocampa are very much a stock science-fiction concept – an example of the way that Voyager seems to hark nostalgically back to classic science-fiction. The concept of organisms that live their lives at an accelerated pace is something very familiar within the genre.

However, Voyager never seemed to put too much thought into the matter. The Ocampa are not the most logical of species – it’s hard to imagine them existing as a society with centuries of history and a bold future ahead. While the decision to give Kes a photographic memory is a nice way of dealing with the fact that nine years isn’t enough time for a character to develop any real skill at any given profession, too much of the way the show addressed the Ocampa seemed haphazard and illogical.

Tuvok probably knows quite a bit about inconvenient mating schedules...

Tuvok probably knows quite a bit about inconvenient mating schedules…

Talking to Cinefantastique, writer Kenneth Biller explained that Elogium was a nice excuse to play with ideas of alien sexuality:

I wanted them to be living together and doing it, but Jeri and Rick had some concerns that she is so young. Are we sending the right message to say that they are screwing? Isn’t it more interesting if we show the time they have to first confront this issue? Because of when it ultimately ran, 1 thought it began to feel less believable and a little odd to tell the audience almost a year later that these people have never had any kind of sexual relationship. What I’ll also say about this is that they are this is that they are aliens. Who knows what mating is for an Ocampa?

One of the things I thought was fun was we suggested the bizarreness of alien sex. For example, they will have to be bonded for seven days and you saw the look on Neelix’s face that he was metaphorically going to have to keep it up for seven days. So we were trying to play with the weirdness of alien sexuality. Just because they didn’t have a sexual relationship is open to discussion and people can kind of believe what they want.

While it’s nice to reinforce the idea that not all organisms in the Star Trek universe seem to conform to heterosexual human norms, it does leave a number of awkward questions hanging. It feels like Elogium is trying to be bizarre to the point of senselessness.

Don't sweat it...

Don’t sweat it…

For example, the idea that an Ocampan can only produce one child during their lifetime would be an odd choice even if the species weren’t so short-lived. Since only female Ocampa appear to be capable of having children – an assumption, admittedly, but one that fits with what we see on screen – that would mean that every single person in every single generation would have to have twins in order to maintain a constant population level. Before and After in the third season reveals that the Ocampa give birth standing up; one hopes there is somebody there to catch the baby.

There are admittedly variables – what about litters? what if there are more women than men? – but it is very hard to imagine a sustainable Ocampan population. There’s a sense that Ocampan mating habits have been created to seem strange and surreal, rather than simply following a logic distinct from that of human reproductive biology. Elogium really doesn’t seem like anybody stopped to think the ideas through, which makes for a very frustrating episode.

Sickly sweet...

Sickly sweet…

It doesn’t help matters that beyond superficial touches – mustard hands! once in a lifetime! – Kes’ experience is awkwardly designed to reflect the most crass of clichés about pregnancy. The first clue that something is wrong is when Kes gets some strange nutritional urges. “I’m not sick,” she assures Neelix. “I feel fine. I just can’t stop eating.” She becomes a lot quicker to snap at Neelix; she looks exhausted; she demands foot rubs as part of her culture’s mating rituals. It’s a rather laboured analogy (ha!) that relies on some rather sexist clichés about pregnancy.

Elogium seems to want to talk about a pressing issue – to make the social commentary that people associate with Star Trek. If Emanations dealt with the issue of euthanasia, Elogium seems to deal with issues of sexuality and youth. Kes is surprised at the changes in her body – they are happening too soon. “But I’m too young,” she protests. “Much too young. It usually happens between the ages of four and five. I’m not even two yet.” This reflects the reality that puberty – an experience explicitly compared to Kes’ elogium – seems to be starting earlier and earlier for modern teenagers.

And there's the rub...

And there’s the rub…

In that same interview with Cinefantastique, Biller argued that Elogium was a metaphor for teenage pregnancy:

… as we hope to do in a lot of our episodes without being too didactic, there is a little metaphor in there about teen pregnancy. Does Kes, just because she is capable of having a child, have to make the decision to have a child? It’s certainly one of the biggest social problems of our day. I’m not saying we weren’t trying to tell a good story too, but sometimes what happens is you get an interesting sci-fi idea like Kes going through puberty, and as you begin to write it you discover parallels and themes.

Indeed, the episode concludes with Kes wondering whether having the ability to have a child had blinded her to whether she needed to make the decision to have a child. “Maybe I just felt I should have a child because I could,” she confesses to the Doctor.

Seeds of romantic discord?

Seeds of romantic discord?

While trying to engage with such an issue is commendable, Elogium feels rather clumsy. Most obviously, trying to use the elogium as a metaphor for teenage pregnancy is quite awkward. Before the final scene, Kes has no guarantee that she will be able to have another child. For the Ocampa, they only have one opportunity to become pregnant, so the reaction to the elogium must be radically different from the reaction to teenage sex or teenage pregnancy.

Indeed so much of the issues associated with teen pregnancy – from the wider family issues through to options to deal with the pregnancy – are completely ignored that Elogium doesn’t seem to connect with the issue at hand. It’s too abstract and too couched in science-fiction mumbo-jumbo to really resonate with the big issue. While the faintest trace of that metaphor remains, Elogium doesn’t develop it or probe it or play with it.

A fine mess (hall)...

A fine mess (hall)…

More than that, though, Voyager feels quite a bit behind the times. The issue of teenage pregnancy was a hot-button topic in the nineties, with pregnancy rates peaking in 1990. However, despite the moral panic about pregnant teenagers, the teenage pregnancy rate actively decline in the years following. Over the next 20 years, the rates fell almost 30%; the trend was obvious even by 1995. So the reaction to the issue of teen pregnancy feels quite delayed and a little bit too disconnected.

Which brings us to the last big problem with Elogium. To be fair, it’s not a problem exclusive to Elogium, it’s an issue that has been percolating in the background for most of the season. The Neelix and Kes relationship is downright toxic. It’s a questionable choice to have a child – even an alien child – hook up with an adult character. However, it becomes explicitly problematic when the adult behaves in a manner that borders on abusive.

Given Ensign Wildman's news, Janeway considers whether to break out the "baby on board" sticker...

Given Ensign Wildman’s news, Janeway considers whether to break out the “baby on board” sticker…

Neelix is possessive and jealous and petty. His behaviour towards Kes in Phage seems almost passive-aggressive. He adopts a tone of smug superiority towards her in The Cloud. He seems to spend an inordinate amount of time jealously guarding her, poisoning her mind about other men on the ship and being reluctant to leave her presence unless it is absolutely necessary. These are the kinds of stalkerish and possessive behaviours that should serve as warning signs.

(To say nothing of the fact that a significant portion of the male Voyager cast seem to be attracted to Kes. The Doctor and Tom Paris both harbour crushes on the young Ocampan, which is very weird – she is not even two years old. Regardless of her biology, her lack of life-experience makes any romantic pursuit of Kes seem questionable at best and downright creepy at worst. The show runs into the same issues with the replacement character of Seven of Nine, who is – mentally speaking – a child. The show exaggerates those creepier plot elements by actively sexualising Seven of Nine.)

Cutting it out...

Cutting it out…

Focusing on the characters of Kes and Neelix, Elogium pushes these unfortunate elements to the fore. Neelix is introduced aggressively responding to Paris politeness towards Kes and patronisingly assuring Kes that he really means the best for her – she doesn’t understand the way that world works. “You’re such an innocent! I see the way he looks at you. I used to look at women that way. I know what it means.” The subtext is clear – as far as he’s concerned, she’s lucky to have him looking out for her.

Even when the Doctor is giving Kes a foot massage in accordance with Ocampan ritual, Neelix is still possessive. “I don’t know how I feel about him massaging your feet,” he tells her, even though it seems quite clear how Neelix feels about the another man giving his girlfriend a foot massage. Never mind that this is an important part of Kes’ culture that she wants to observe; never mind that the man involved is a medical professional; never mind that he’s acting in the capacity of a family member.

Hey, good lookin', whatcha got cookin'?

Hey, good lookin’, whatcha got cookin’?

The episode feels like a cheat. It ends with Kes deciding that she doesn’t want to have a child, but also with the convenient conclusion that this wasn’t a once in a lifetime choice like she was led to believe. It feels like a way for the show to have its cake and eat it too, allowing for a convenient “reset button” ending. We get a story about Kes and Neelix deciding they might want to start a family, but without starting a family and the vague promise that they might want to start a family at some point in the future. It’s the easiest possible dramatic resolution to the episode; an ending about profound life choices that ultimately changes nothing.

Jeri Taylor is also credited on the script – giving the initial draft to Biller to hammer out. There are a lot of typically Talor touches to the episode. In particular, she gleefully teases the idea of a romantic pairing between Chakotay and Janeway by having the two discussing fraternisation and mating in hushed tones on the bridge together. “I think eventually people will begin to pair off,” Janeway admits. Chakotay asks, “Including you?”

Hugging it out...

Hugging it out…

It’s a pointed moment, and Janeway responds by explaining all the reasons she can’t. “As captain, that’s a luxury I don’t have. Besides, I intend for us to be home before, before Mark gives me up for dead.” It’s easy to see Taylor playing with the idea of pairing the two characters off. The idea of a romantic relationship between Janeway and Chakotay was popular among fans, and Taylor had a wonderful ability to tease viewers with the possibility. She did, after all, write Resolutions. Along with the scene between the two in The 37’s, Taylor really seemed to be pushing the idea forward towards the end of the first season.

Elogium is a mess of an episode, and it’s a real shame that it was one of the episodes carried over to the second season. While it certainly wouldn’t have helped to end the first season on a high note, it would have at least meant that the second season would be stronger out of the gate.

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:

2 Responses

  1. There is a lot wrong with this episode — most of it addressed by the fascinating analysis.

    I did find it a bit annoying that Kes is able to have her cake and eat it too in terms of going through the Elogium. It felt like a cheat and too blatant a use of the reset button to say — oh, well, the Doctor says this was just a false alarm and we can get back to that decision later. It begins a trend in Voyager that I found growing more and more concerning as the voyager back to the Alpha Quadrant continued — a lack of consequences to actions and/or decisions.

    I feel like if Voyager was produced today with television’s fascination with a long-term story arc, it might have been stronger. There are some arcs to the series, but I never felt like it was given the freedom DS9 was to delve deeply into a serial, on-going plot that it needed. It’s here that Trek began to think it had to appeal more to casual fans than the loyal viewers who were tuning in each week to watch the show and who might bring in the casual viewer based on word of mouth.

    • Thanks Michael. You’re right about the convenient non-commital reset button. “It’s a big deal! It’s a big deal! Oh, wait, everything’s back to normal.”

      That said, I don’t think appealing to fans or casual viewers is mutually exclusive. Shows like Friends managed to court both, as did The Next Generation – to pick an example within the franchise. There is a way to straddle that line, but I don’t think Voyager ever really tried. It didn’t even seemed interested in what television viewers want (good stories with good characters told well) as opposed to what it thought they wanted (a collection of comfortable and familiar clichés neatly resolved before the next block of television).

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