This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.
Cold Fire is an episode that exemplifies the feeling that second season’s treading water.
Cold Fire opens with a somewhat unconventional recap of Caretaker. Unlike most “previously on…” sections of Star Trek: Voyager (or the Star Trek franchise as a whole), this block is narrated by Majel Barrett in-character as the ship’s computer. It becomes clear that Cold Fire is interested in following up on the dangling threads left by Caretaker, with the crew of Voyager encountering the female mate alluded to in Janeway’s conversations with the eponymous Nacene character from Caretaker.
This should be a big deal. After all, the Caretaker is the character responsible for plucking Voyager and the Val Jean out of the Alpha Quadrant and depositing them on the other side of the galaxy. Finding another being with a similar amount of power presents a very real and tangible opportunity for Janeway to get her crew home. If the Caretaker could pull them all the way across the Milky Way, then it stands to reason that Suspiria could send them all the way back. Cold Fire presents a potential end to Voyager’s journey.
Unfortunately, Cold Fire never really does anything with that storytelling angle. Even when Janeway comes face-to-face with Suspiria at the climax of the episode, she never asks the powerful entity to send her crew home. So Cold Fire feels like an episode that spends forty-five minutes walking in circles, accomplishing little of note.
Brannon Braga’s teleplay is candid about just how thoroughly it is hitting the “reset” button. To be fair, the first two seasons of Voyager would not abuse the “reset” button as frequently as the rest of the show, but the series would frequently roll back from the daring or challenging implications of certain episode plots. When State of Flux revealed Seska to be a member of the Obsidian Order, she was promptly beamed away from the ship. When Tuvok and Chakotay disobeyed orders in Prime Factors and Manoeuvres, they were never punished.
Here, the closing scenes emphasis that the episode has had no tangible impact on any of the characters. Everybody is back where they began. “We’ve resumed our course back to the Alpha Quadrant but the female Caretaker is still out there with the power to send us home,” Janeway reports. “And I will use all my power to find her and convince her to do just that.” That is a nice sentiment, but it also underscores how completely pointless this encounter with Suspiria has been.
In fact, Cold Fire marks the last appearance for any Nacene characters and any hint of Ocampan culture beyond Kes and her relatives. When Seven of Nine broaches the topic in The Voyager Conspiracy, Janeway doesn’t seem too bothered. “The first time we met a Caretaker, we were pulled halfway across the galaxy,” Janeway explains. “The second time we were almost killed. I’m not eager for a third round.” Never mind the rule of three, the Nacene were lucky to get a second appearance.
Still, it does seem rather strange that Janeway should give up on getting home so easily. As much as the first half of the episode stresses the possibility that Suspiria could send them home, it seems like the last act completely forgets about it. As with any of Janeway’s encounters with Q, it seems like Janeway could gently broach the idea of sending the ship home once the dust has settled on the adventure in question. There is a perfect moment after Suspiria notes Janeway’s “mercy.” It would be the perfect time to add a quick, “if you haven’t anything better to do…”
To be fair, the production staff were never too excited at the idea of a recurring element focusing on the Nacene. In A Vision of the Future, Rick Berman explained that the “Bride of Caretaker” was just an element included in the pilot episode to help assuage concerns from the executives about the basic premise of Voyager:
The studio was very concerned when they first heard the pitch. they felt the idea of the ship being so far away from home was a bleak premise… a hopeless premise. It wasn’t quite “out there” like Star Trek is used to. It’s “getting back.” We convinced them that it didn’t have to be bleak. The inspiration of the captain, the professionalism of the crew.
And frankly we made a concession to finally finish the sales job… we put the one-armed man out there – which is the other entity that we met in the pilot. It’s out there somewhere. We will try to find that entity and contact that entity more than once during the next several years because we know that the entity has the ability to send us back home.
This story is illuminating. It demonstrates the different pressures at work on Star Trek: Voyager as opposed to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Deep Space Nine was syndicated, so no one network could object to the bleakness of a show set after a pseudo-holocaust. In contrast, Voyager aired on UPN, so it was subject to the demands of a fickle network.
The fact that UPN considered the basic premise of Voyager to be “bleak” or “hopeless” explains so many of the defining creative decisions in the early first season. It explains why the show made a conscious choice to downplay tensions between the Starfleet and Maquis crews; it explains why the show has kept the ship pristine and “good as new”; it explains why there have been so few plots about resources scarcity and so many holodeck stories. As tempting as it is to blame the writing staff, there were other forces at play.
On the other hand, it does demonstrate how lucky Deep Space Nine has been to escape most of these notes. Even the instruction to shake things up at the start of the fourth season was a lot less restrictive than the obligations imposed upon Voyager. Ira Steven Behr was able to get away with a massive intergalactic war storyline that spanned the final two seasons of the show, while the producers on Voyager were very much restricted to episodic storytelling that hewed rather close to the franchise template.
Even ignoring the contrivance of encountering Suspiria only to watch the entity escape, there is a sense of pointless futility to Cold Fire. Kes’ growth and development is largely undone by the end of the episode. In the final scene, she tells Tuvok, “I looked at the tea and I tried to make it boil, but nothing happened. Without Tanis’s help, I just can’t do it.” When Tuvok suggests that her latent psychic powers might manifest again, Kes responds, “To be honest, I never want to see that part of myself again.” It provides a very comfortable “out” in case the show decided to never return to that idea again.
Braga is aware of the fact that Cold Fire is just walking around in a giant circle. His script makes a point to bookend the episode with scenes between Kes and Tuvok in Tuvok’s quarters as Tuvok tries to help Kes master her psychic gift. There is a sense that both the audience and the characters have embarked on a fairly epic adventure, only to find themselves circling back around to the point whereupon they departed for their journey. For a ship that is heading straight towards the Alpha Quadrant, Voyager spends a lot of time covering the same ground, moving in circles.
And yet, despite all of this, there are some interesting elements of Cold Fire. The most obvious is that this is a Brannon Braga script. The writer loads the script with all manner of his favourite plot elements and motifs. Cold Fire feels like something of a classic science-fiction b-movie throwback. This aesthetic is perhaps best reflected in the sequences where Kes threatens to boil bother Tuvok and Tanis alive, not to mention the revelation that Suspiria is really a giant purple goo monster with tentacles.
Cold Fire is very much a horror story, one that aligns with the sensibilities of other second season episodes like Persistence of Vision or The Thaw. (Even – gasp! – Threshold.) Once again, Janeway finds herself menaced by a young girl in the incongruous surroundings of Voyager. In Persistence of Vision, Beatrice waited for her in the corridors; in Cold Fire, Suspiria confronts her in engineering. It is interesting to wonder whether this recurring motif means anything beyond the fact that creepy little girls are scary.
Are Beatrice and Suspiria reminders of a life that Janeway will never have due to her situation? Persistence of Vision forced Janeway to confront the fact that her lover was stranded half-way across the galaxy, with no evidence that she was alive. What began as a simple search and rescue mission has become a life-long journey. Janeway’s seventy-year mission back to Earth will cost her the opportunity to have a family; to have children. Given Jeri Taylor’s repeated emphasis on the denial of Janeway’s romantic and sexual desires, the creepy little girls are quite symbolic.
Of course, they could just be an effective piece of horror movie iconography reflecting Braga’s personal interest in the genre. Much like the effectively atmospheric sequence of Torres’ blood dripping on Janeway, it helps to create a suitably macabre mood. One of the more interesting (and quite often overlooked) aspects of the first two seasons of Voyager is the emphasis on the horror and brutality of travel in deep space. The Vidians are truly horrific aliens, but they are not the only ones.
Voyager is repeatedly menaced by all manner of non-humanoid monstrosities and existential horrors. It seems like the Delta Quadrant is populated by Lovecraftian horrors, whether it’s the gigantic space-dwelling organism of The Cloud, the mind-controlling brain-eating parasites of Cathexis, the twisted deep space reflections of Parallax, the waking nightmares of Persistence of Vision, or the mythical monster at the heart of Heroes and Demons. The trend does continue into the third season and beyond (Microcosm and Bliss come to mind), but is most pronounced here.
In a weird way, this provides a very strong thematic connection back to the original Star Trek, where it often seemed like space was populated by horrors that could drive men insane. Caretaker had suggested that Voyager would tie back into the “space western” vibe of the original Star Trek, and so it is interesting that Cold Fire should emphasise that rather macabre connections that exist between Voyager and the original Star Trek show. It feels like the perfect place to bring them up.
The horror elements are not the only aspects of Cold Fire that hark back to the sixties. In many ways, Voyager feels like a conscious science-fiction throwback. It has since Time and Again offered viewers a nuclear allegory set on a planet of people who dress in bright coloured jumpsuits. This is not always for the best – the Kazon feel like a rather regressive adversary for the crew, owing a lot to stock depictions of “savage” foreigners (non-whites) in westerns and adventure cinema. Still, Cold Fire touches quite heavily upon these sixties vibes.
Most obviously, the episode is built around Kes. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Tuvok is a full-blooded Vulcan, Kes feels like the spiritual successor to Spock’s rich counter-cultural traditions. Kes is a young woman with pointed elf-like ears and latent telepathic abilities. She is the member of the main cast who is most vibrant and enthusiastic, and whose first major contribution to the journey was building an airponics bay to grow fruit and plants on an otherwise sterile starship.
Kes is very much a classical waif figure. She is a young woman from a magical and mystical race who was stolen away and kidnapped by the Kazon, only to be rescued by the Voyager crew. In fact, the official Star Trek website explicitly acknowledges Kes’ “waif-like air.” He pointed ears and her bob haircut are intended to evoke Spock, but they also suggest an androgynous look that evokes many contemporary depictions of elves in popular culture. (Tolkein tended to keep his elves beardless and suggested that male and female elves were no different “in strength and speed.”)
In many respects, Spock arrived at the perfect moment to become a counter-intuitive counter-culture figure. The half-Vulcan character really resonated with a generation of young viewers trapped between the world inherited from their parents and the idealistic world that they hoped to build for themselves. Kes feels like an attempt to hark back to some of those elements and ideas, even though the nineties did not really have an equivalent counter-cultural movement with which she might resonate.
It is worth noting that Tolkein’s epic The Lord of the Rings enjoyed a massive surge of popularity in the sixties, that it resonated with the same young audience who looked to Star Trek for a utopean future:
During the 1960’s, so many American youths were drawn to these diminutive creatures that Tolkien became something of a cult figure. “Frodo Lives” was a popular graffito of the time. T-shirts declared that “Tolkien is Hobbit-Forming.” It must be admitted that there was something escapist about this hobbit-habit. Perplexed by our nation’s carnage in Vietnam and by the ultimate threat of a nuclear inferno, a whole generation of young Americans could lose themselves and their troubles in the intricacies of this triple-decker epic. Indeed, the rumor got about — a wish seeking its fulfillment, no doubt — that Tolkien had composed The Lord of the Rings under the influence of drugs.
There is something rather ironic about this particular example of counter-culture. Much like Spock would seem uncomfortable championing “free love”, Tolkein was a somewhat unlikely counter-culture icon.
Nevertheless, certain segments and themes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings struck a chord with a generation struggling against impossible odds to change a world they found unfair or unreasonable:
Also appealing to the burgeoning anti-war, feminist and civil rights movement activists was Tolkien’s political subtext of the ‘little people’, the Hobbits, and their wizard ally, leading a revolution. The military industrial complex targeted by protestors resembled Mordor in its mechanised, impersonal approach to an unpopular war. When he is drafted into bearing the Ring to Mount Doom, Frodo feels an “overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace… in Rivendell.” Those who led the fight against Sauron’s army stood reluctantly, hoping this would be the “War to End All Wars”.
Likewise, Lady Éowyn of Rohan, struggling to overcome the limits of patriarchal society, answered Aragorn’s question, “What do you fear, lady?” with lines that resonated among the second wave feminists of the 1960s: “A cage,” Éowyn said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
It might not have been as overtly utopian as Star Trek, but readers took a lot of inspiration and hope from those epic fantasy tomes.
The portrayal of Kes as a elven (or waif-like) figure seems to represent a conscious effort to provide a crossover between the sixties idealism of Star Trek and the resurgence in fantasy at the same time. Similarly, Voyager puts as much emphasis on Kes’ psychic abilities as the original Star Trek did on those of Spock. While Star Trek: The Next Generation was generally quite clear about what Deanna Troi could and could not perceive, both Spock and Kes seemed to find their powers and skills constantly evolving.
Kes’ ability to “sense” the destruction of the planet in Time and Again evokes Spock’s ability to “hear” the sound of death echoing across the cosmos in The Immunity Syndrome; notably, Tuvok is unaffected. In Persistence of Vision, Kes is able to “reflect” the Bothan visions back upon themselves; in that case, Tuvok is quite quickly captivated by a vision of his wife. If Chakotay is the member of the ensemble most mindful of the spiritual implications of life in the Delta Quadrant, it frequently seems like Kes is tuned to a higher wave-length than her fellow travellers.
Cold Fire emphasises this idea, suggesting that Kes has truly incredible mental powers. Tanis offers to teach her to harness her skills, to develop her mind. Rather tellingly, he does so in a manner that evokes sixties psychedelia and consciousness expansion. “See past the liquid, not with your eyes, with your mind,” Tanis urges her at one point. “What your eyes show you is only the surface of reality. Look deeper.” It sounds a lot like the sort of New Age nonsense running through some of the show’s Chakotay scripts. At one point, Kes references “the fire in [her] mind.”
“The people on this ship, they live their lives trapped inside their primitive skulls, depending on flesh and bone to tell them what the universe is like,” Tanis explains. “They don’t know what it is to see beyond the physical. Touch it. This is how they know the universe. They touch the flower, their nerve impulses travel up their arm to the brain, and in their mind they sense the moisture of the petals, the texture of the leaves, the sharpness of the thorns, and think they know what it feels like. But they don’t.”
Tanis seems to be espousing something akin to the expansion of consciousness, the New Age idea inexorably associated with sixties countercultural icons like Timothy Leary. As Ralph Metzner observed:
As far as I know, the concept of consciousness expansion was first used by Tim Leary and his associates at Harvard, to describe the effects of drugs like psilocybin and LSD, which were also later termed psychedelic (“mind-manifesting”). In a 1961 letter to Leary from Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD expressed his appreciation to Leary for the concept of consciousness expansion, stating that he had been urging Aldous Huxley and others, that while the applications of LSD in psychiatry and pharmacotherapy were important, there were wider implications of these experiences for the enhancement of creativity and deeper understanding of the further reaches of the human mind. In this regard, Hofmann was far more open-minded than Huxley, R. Gordon Wasson and most psychiatrists, who tended to believe strongly that these drugs could only be used safely by psychiatric patients under medical supervision, or at best by elite intellectuals. Tim Leary’s approach was radically different, though it was not, as some believed, opposed to psychiatric research being done with psychedelics.
Tanis seems to suggest that Ocampans can expand their consciousness beyond the limitations of normal people – that they can see more, and more truly, than any of the other people on the ship.
Cold Fire is quite overt about this sixties psychedelia. When Tanis communicates with Suspiria, he does so by sitting in a stance that feels like shorthand for “New Age meditation.” When Kes opens her mind to her incredible psychic power, the episode ramps up the saturation on the plants and flowers around her. The colours in the airponics bay seem ready to drown out the screen, evoking the brighter colour palette of sixties television. Even the flames that threaten to consume Kes are hyper-saturated a bright red rather than a more grounded yellow.
In these respects, Cold Fire does feel like a conscious effort to evoke the mood and tone of the sixties. However, there is a sense of conservatism underlying all of this. Much like the original Star Trek was never quite sure what to make of the counterculture movement, Voyager is rather uncomfortable and awkward with the idea of Kes’ hyperactive psychedelic powers. As much as the episode trades in imagery and clichés associated with consciousness expansion, it seems rather wary of the prospect.
After all, Tanis turns out to be a selfish and manipulative villain who uses his psychic powers for his own gratification rather than for any intrinsic good. His dialogue with Kes suggests that he has moved beyond good and evil, which is the Star Trek franchise’s shorthand for “this character has evolved too far.” after Kes kills everything in the airponics bay, he assures her, “Help people, hurt them, give life, kill, it’s all the same. Once you see beyond the physical, you see the universe as it truly is.”
More than that, the episode suggests that Kes has been playing with metaphorical fire – hence the title and the burning motif. It is suggested that Kes is toying with forces that exist beyond her control. There is a sense that maybe Kes should leave some doors closed. The episode ends with Kes disavowing any interest in developing those particular muscles. This could be read as an example of the franchise’s recurring fears and anxieties around transhumanism, but also as a rather cynical rejection of the countercultural movement as a whole.
As with Braga’s script for Emanations, there is a clear religious subtext to Cold Fire. As with Emanations, it seems like Braga is deeply uncomfortable with the power that organised religion can hold. After all, Tanis is very clearly attempting to “convert” Kes. In fact, Tanis’ conversations with Kes are juxtaposed against Tuvok’s lessons with Kes. While Tuvok espouses logic and rationality, Tanis simply spouts nonsensical clichés and New Age mysticism in place of any practical guidance.
Caretaker suggested that the Ocampa had an almost religious relationship with the eponymous alien overseer; after all, the being took care of the Ocampa’s needs and the very name “Caretaker” suggests a loving parent. In Cold Fire, it is revealed that Suspiria took some Ocampa with her when she left. While the religious subtext of Caretaker is quite benign, Cold Fire offers a more horrifying and unsettling devotion to a divine figure. As if referencing that quote about the difference between religion and insanity, Tanis does not just talk to Suspiria; she talks back to him.
When the crew inquire about the nature of Suspiria, Tanis seems to suggest that he does not question. When he is asked is Suspiria lives on another array, he replies, “Oh, nothing so corporeal as that. She exists as pure sporocystian energy. She only assumes physical form when we need to communicate with her.” Chakotay has his Star Trek techno-babble hat on. “Does she occupy our space-time continuum?” Tanis simply shrugs. It does not matter, ultimately. “I don’t know. All I know is, when we need her, she comes.”
If Suspiria is a god, then Cold Fire makes it clear that she is a vengeful and petty god who ultimately proves no match for the reason and science of the resourceful Voyager crew. Tuvok is able to improvise a weapon that is capable of paralysing Suspiria, at the very least. Tanis is ultimately little more than a spoilt child who has grown detached and removed from the universe around him. This is perhaps another respect in which Cold Fire feels like something of a throwback to the aesthetic of classic Star Trek.
Cold Fire is also notable for the introduction of actor Gary Graham. Graham would go on to play the recurring role of Ambassador Soval on Star Trek: Enterprise, becoming one of the few characters to guest star in all four seasons of the show. Reflecting on his appearance in Voyager, Graham noted some tension on the series:
Though I enjoyed most of the cast members on Voyager, the tone on the set was tense. It wasn’t like the very relaxed and joyously creative set I’d grown used to on Alien Nation. The Enterprise set was also a very relaxed set.
This seems quite consistent with other reports of life in and around the production of Voyager. Still, Gary Graham does a good job as Tanis, portraying a suitably cold and detached antagonist for the episode. Watching his performance, it makes sense that the production team would cast him as a Vulcan.
Cold Fire is a solid and interesting episode, if not an exceptional one. It underscores just how much the first two seasons of Voyager could feel like a throwback to the classic sixties aesthetic of the original Star Trek. Unfortunately, that includes the sense that the status quo can never really change, and that all the pieces must be put back at the end of the hour.
Filed under: Voyager | Tagged: Brannon Braga, caretaker, cold fire, counterculture, Earth, elves, home, kes, nacene, ocampans, psychedelia, reset button, sixties, star trek, star trek: voyager, suspiria, telepathy, voyager |