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Star Trek: Voyager – Meld (Review)

This September and October, 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 for the latest review.

Meld is a masterpiece. It is the best episode of Star Trek: Voyager to date. There is perhaps a reasonable argument to be made that it is one of the best episodes that the series ever produced. It is, in many respects, one of the strongest and most compelling exploration of themes that have been bubbling around in the background since Caretaker, offering a more thoughtful and insightful exploration of the nineties culture of fear and anxiety than anything involving the Kazon. It is certainly the best use of Tuvok that the show managed in its seven year run.

Meld is an episode about violence, in its many forms. It is a story about the horrors and arbitrariness of unprovoked violence, but also about the cycles of violence that such actions can create. In many respects, Meld is a more scathing criticism of the death penalty than Repentance, the seventh season episode explicitly written as a death penalty allegory. Unlike many of the surrounding episodes, Meld actually manages to make good use of the show’s Delta Quadrant setting to heighten the dramatic stakes.

"Where's your head at?"

“Where’s your head at?”

In a way, Meld represents a collision of the franchise’s past and future. Meld may be the last truly great Star Trek script written by Michael Piller, the writer who helped to define the modern iteration of the franchise with his work on the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the same time, it is also Mike Sussman’s first story credit on the franchise; Sussman would go on to join the show’s writing staff in its final season and would be one of the few writers to serve a full four seasons on Star Trek: Enterprise.

While the script for Meld is exceptionally well-written, the episode is elevated by a combination of factors. Cliff Bole does great work in bringing a very unconventional Star Trek episode to life. Meld could be seen as a continuation of the second season’s b-movie charms. Following on from the robot wars of Prototype and the body horror of Threshold, Meld plays like a Star Trek serial killer thriller. Bole’s directorial choices are consciously stylised, with delightful little touches like the band of light across Tuvok’s eyes when the body is discovered.

"Funny. I though Braga murdered Darwin last week."

“Funny. I thought Braga murdered Darwin last week.”

The episode also benefits from two mesmerising central performances from guest star Brad Dourif and Tim Russ. Russ was always one of the more under-utilised members of the Voyager ensemble, particularly when his “obligatory emotionally detached character” role was usurped by Seven of Nine in the fourth season. It is a shame, as Russ has a great deal of fun channeling Nimoy in his portrayal of the franchise’s first full-blooded Vulcan regular. Tuvok (and Russ) deserved more attention than the show afforded him.

That said, it is Brad Dourif who steals the show here. Lon Suder is one of the most fascinating guest characters in the history of the Star Trek franchise, and perhaps the only recurring character member of the Voyager crew who made any impression. A lot of that is down to the novelty of a fundamentally violent character in a Starfleet uniform, but Dourif is absolutely brilliant in the part. Dourif might just be the best guest star ever to appear in Voyager, and one of the franchise’s all-time greats.

Beta(zoid) male.

Beta(zoid) male.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect of Meld is the way that it feels very much of its time; it is an episode that firmly engages with a cultural context around Voyager. So much of Voyager seems lost in some sort of weird science-fiction neverland where the fifties and sixties never ended that a well-produced episode that feels of its time is a rarity. Meld is an episode that would feel strange ten years earlier or ten years later, but one which aligns perfectly with the wider context of 1996.

It is a overdue triumph from the Voyager team.

Smile!

Smile!

Meld does a lot of things right. In many ways, it is the most successful exploitation of Voyager‘s premise since Caretaker. A lot of Voyager could be dismissed as a halfhearted imitation of a formula that worked on The Next Generation, with the series doing very little to capitalise on the basic “starship lost” premise established in the pilot. There was often little real sense of the creative decisions that had made Voyager unique, with the show feeling like a bland amalgam of Star Trek clichés.

Meld takes a number of the attributes that make Voyager unique, and weaves them into the foundation of the story. The show has had trouble exploring the integration of the Starfleet and Maquis crews, abandoning any real hint of tension early on. Parallax made it clear that everybody was going to get along perfectly; when Prime Factors established Seska as a troublemaker who had difficulty fitting in, State of Flux promptly exiled her from the ship. The crew had come together rather smoothly.

"Damn. It feels good to be a Vulcan."

“Damn. It feels good to be a Vulcan.”

There were flashes of tension between Starfleet and the Maquis in episodes like Learning Curve and Alliances, but the general feeling was that the two crews had actually integrated smoother than the Starfleet and Bajoran personnel on Deep Space Nine. However, Meld very cleverly harks back to the core premise of the series by reminding viewers that this is a crew that has been stitched together including an assortment of renegades and terrorists. It is hard to imagine Lon Suder serving on the Enterprise, but making him a former member of the Maquis makes sense.

Indeed, Meld draws attention to just how perilous the alliance between the Starfleet and the Maquis crew should be. The Maquis were, by their nature, outlaws and rogues. It seems remarkable that Seska should be the only one to have trouble fitting in, and that all other issues could be resolved with a crash course from Tuvok. Lon Suder might offer the most extreme nightmare scenario for the crew of Voyager, but it is a welcome reminder of just how compelling the show’s premise could be. Being stranded in the Delta Quadrant was a fresh start, but it was not always that clean.

Ready to field any questions...

Ready to field any questions…

All sorts of interesting Maquis tensions run through the background of Meld, without dominating the narrative. Chakotay deliberately decided against warning Janeway about Suder’s violent tendencies. “I wasn’t going to make it harder for any of them here,” Chakotay remarks when Tuvok inquires about his failure to alert the Starfleet crew. “Suder did his job when he was serving with me and he’s done his job since he’s been on this ship.” Janeway seems less than convinced. “It seems clear where your investigation should begin, Lieutenant,” she tells Tuvok.

More than that, Meld suggests that there is some lingering resentment of Tuvok among the Maquis crew. “We all know how you feel about the Maquis,” Suder remarks, a nice passive aggressive swipe. This sense of frustration and anger makes a great deal of sense from a character perspective. It would certainly add a bit of colour or flair to an increasingly generic cast dynamic. It seems strange that Chakotay should harbour bitterness towards Paris while Torres can forgive Tuvok completely.

Upon discovering Brad Dourif was playing Suder, Chakotay was asked how much reasonable doubt he had.

Upon discovering Brad Dourif was playing Suder, Chakotay was asked how much reasonable doubt he had as to Suder’s guilt.

Similarly, Meld also uses Voyager’s unique situation as a springboard for discussion about the death penalty. The question of what to do with Lon Suder would not be a question for Captain Picard or Captain Sisko; they would just ship him off to the nearest penal colony or starbase. However, Voyager lacks those sorts of support structures, making the question of how to deal with Suder a lot more interesting than it would be; adding a lot of dramatic heft to Tuvok’s insistence on the death penalty.

Voyager fleetingly broached the issue in Phage during the first season, when Janeway tried to figure out what to do with a bunch of organ-harvesters. After acknowledging the dilemma, Janeway followed the path of least resistance and decided to just let them go. (Presumably to prey on other travelers through the region.) It was perhaps the quintessential Voyager solution to a unique dramatic possibility posed the show’s distinct status quo; ignore it, and don’t do anything that would distinguish Voyager from generic Star Trek.

"Capital ideas, everyone!"

“Capital ideas, everyone!”

Here, the question gets a bit more weight and discussion. Janeway admits they can’t ship him off to a proper facility. “The brig is the closest thing we have,” she acknowledges. “But I don’t think we can just leave him down in our dungeon for the rest of the trip.” Tuvok responds, “Nor would it be appropriate to leave him in the custody of someone in this quadrant.” This is an interesting question for the crew, and something that is very particular to the basic premise of Voyager. If only other episodes had been as willing to play with these concepts.

These elements aren’t even the central focus of the episode, but serve as building block to other bigger ideas. The notion of a violent Maquis crew member is not the story itself, but a starting point for the story. The question of what to do with that crew member is not the central debate of the episode, but serves as a springboard into bigger themes about the nature of violence in contemporary society. Meld is the sort of episode that Voyager should have been doing a lot more often, using the unique elements of the series to tell stories that feel specific to it.

"Computer, set lighting to 'mood'."

“Computer, set lighting to ‘mood’.”

In a way, Meld continues the “b-movie” feel that runs through the first two seasons of Voyager. The show have a weird retro science-fiction chic to it, with many of the episodes from the first two seasons owing a debt to pulpy fifties or sixties horror. Brannon Braga was undoubtedly an influence of this aesthetic; his script for Cathexis felt like a fifties red scare body-snatching horror, while Threshold transformed Tom Paris into a mutant; Projections was more of an existential psychological horror, while Cold Fire featured grotesque body horror.

Still, the show’s pulpy vibes ran deeper than just Brannon Braga. Persistence of Vision trapped the crew in their own waking nightmares. The Vidiians were a recurring threat, the living embodiment of body horror. Faces split B’Elanna Torres right down the middle quite like The Enemy Within did with Kirk.  Prototype featuring the crew caught up in “a robotic war” between two factions of decidedly old-school robots waging an eternal war in the style of The Doomsday Machine.

Pooling resources...

Pooling resources…

There was something decidedly retro in all this, as if Voyager was consciously harking back to classic fifties and sixties science-fiction. Voyager frequently felt disconnected from its actual historical context, as lost in time as it was in space. If Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a show somewhat ahead of its time, then Star Trek: Voyager was a series well behind the current moment. This was perhaps reflected in the handling of the Kazon, an attempt by the team to engage a contemporary social issue that was plagued by horribly outdated racial politics.

Meld is a b-movie, but it is very much a nineties b-movie. If Threshold was “Voyager does The Fly” and if Cathexis was “Voyager does Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, then Meld is “Voyager does Silence of the Lambs.” The episode is full of countless references and allusions to Thomas Harris’ book, most notably the attempt to understand an incredibly violent mind through conversations conducted on either side of a jail cell. Particularly after the meld helps to “centre” him, Suder takes on a lot of the tone of Hannibal Lecter.

"Well, Tuvok - have the sehlats stopped screaming?"

“Well, Tuvok – have the sehlats stopped screaming?”

(Brad Dourif had a knack for playing these sorts of characters. He had played the role of Luther Lee Boggs in Beyond the Sea, a first season episode of The X-Files. Focusing on Scully, the episode also prompted all sorts of comparisons to The Silence of the Lambs; most notably through the device of having a young female FBI agent consult with a convicted killer to help save the lives of those targeted by a currently active serial killer. The fact that the character Dana Scully had been inspired by Clarice Starling only encouraged comparisons.)

Indeed, once Suder gains a bit of composure from his meld with Tuvok, he occupies a strange place in the narrative. Suder’s dialogue becomes ambiguous and almost playful; is the killer taunting Tuvok into acting on the violent impulses, or offering genuine advice on how best to control those unwholesome urges. Suder becomes an expert in violent psychology. “Studying it and knowing it are two different things, aren’t they?” he asks. “It’s attractive, isn’t it?” It is not too hard to imagine many of his lines as read by Anthony Hopkins.

"Sadly, Mister Neelix does not have a nice Chianti in stock."

“Sadly, Mister Neelix does not have a nice Chianti in stock.”

Although serial killers were a facet of popular culture long before Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs, the author helped to establish the outline of the forensic thriller. In Psycho Paths, Philip L. Simpson notes:

It is little exaggeration to say that Thomas Harris, for all practical purposes, created the current formula for mainstream serial killer fiction back in 1981 with the publication of Red Dragon. His 1988 follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs, solidified the formula (controlling Gothic tone, two killers, a dark and troubled law enforcement outside in uneasy alliance with a murderer) and ensured his status as the foremost writer of serial killer fiction.

Although Michael Mann adapted Red Dragon into Manhunter in 1986, Harris’ creations shot to national attention with the release of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.

C'mon. We've all thought about it.

C’mon. We’ve all thought about it.

The film is frequently credited as the first horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar. More to the point, its cultural cache is demonstrated by its sheer holding power. The Silence of the Lambs was released in cinemas in February 1991; Jonathan Demme picked up the Best Picture Oscar at the end of March 1992. This is remarkable given the relatively short memory of the Academy Awards – with most wannabe contenders crammed into a short “awards season” at the end of the year in the hopes of lodging in voters’ memories.

More than that, The Silence of the Lambs spawned a wealth of imitators. The nineties seemed to be littered with serial killers. Films as diverse as Natural Born Killers and Kalifornia commented on the phenomenon. Meld was broadcast around five months following the release of David Fincher’s se7en, four months following Copycat, and a few months before Matthew Bright would reimagine Little Red Riding Hood as a serial killer film with Freeway. Serial killers were on the national consciousness.

Murder on the mind...

Murder on the mind…

One of the more interesting elements of Thomas Harris’ work with serial killers was the way that he portrayed them in a manner evoking classic horror monsters. In This is the Blind Leading the Blind, Davide Mana suggests that Harris used serial killers to represent the same primary fears previously represented by supernatural creatures:

Thus codified and equipped, the serial killer exercises a strong pull on some of the darker strings of the human imagination: like a modern bogeyman, he is basically faceless, one with the crowd on the streets of the big industrial city. He is the realistic alternative to Mr. Hyde, a believable werewolf for a world that has no longer faith in the supernatural but still feels the fear of the unknown.

This sense of “serial killer as monster” was perhaps typified by Chris Carter’s work on the first season of Millennium, where he rather famously (or infamously) substituted in a much-derided “serial killer of the week” formula for the “monster of the week” formula that had made The X-Files such a beloved piece of horror television.

In darkness dwells...

In darkness dwells…

The fascination with serial killers is a phenomenon very much rooted in the nineties. The serial killer’s stock fell dramatically in the early years of the twenty-first century, as the terrorist usurped the position of “pop cultural bogeyman.” The serial killer still loomed around the edges of popular culture, appearing in massively successful shows like CSI or Criminal Minds, but had to give up the spotlight. It has been suggested that David Fincher held a delayed wake for the genre with the release of Zodiac in 2007.

There is a weird nostalgia and innocence to certain contemporary serial killer stories. Indeed, the final shot of A Walk Among the Tombstones, a serial killer film set in 2000 and released in 2014, closes on a shot of the Twin Towers as if to suggest that the days of the serial killer as a credible pop culture bogeyman were already numbered. Interestingly, it has been suggested that real-life serial killers did not fare much better than their fictional counterparts, with the serial killer in something of a millennial decline.

Shocking...

Shocking…

Still, regardless of the serial killer’s declining popularity in the years since, the archetype spoke very clearly to nineties America. The nineties serial killer was arguably a representation of the sheer randomness and arbitrariness of violence in contemporary America:

The “serial killer” with no apparent motive for his monstrous crimes except the gratification of desire has become, in the nineties, an icon of pop culture. The most difficult of criminals to trace, since his connections with his victims are almost always imagined, such a killer is a romantic figure in reverse: sexually obsessed, isolated by his compulsions, the very portrait of demonic possession: one whose entire outward life has been constructed as a means of satisfying the forbidden. So long as the serial killer chooses his victims from the ever-shifting population of drifters, prostitutes, and the disenfranchised in America–those who seem to lack identity–he can operate with impunity for a very long time. He will be caught only through some blunder of his own, not through police investigation. The serial killer is not simply a savage beast but an anomaly in nature itself, for if, in Darwinian terms, nature is compulsively concerned with the propagation of the very best genes of a species, it is impossible to read the serial killer as “natural” in any way. So a serial killer like Dahmer remains a riddle, a koan, not simply in human terms but in biological terms as well. We understand him, finally, no better than we understand ourselves.

The nineties was a period of great existential angst in American popular culture, a long gap between the Cold War and the War on Terror where it seemed like there was no larger goal or purpose in sight. The world was no longer sway to some grand ideology or design; instead, this was it.

All the feels...

All the feels…

Novelist Patricia Cornwell has speculated that the serial killer became such a popular and relevant archetype because it spoke to the kinds of fears that people lived with in the nineties:

It’s the stranger who tries to car-jack, and drags somebody out of a car and kills that person; it’s the serial killer who stalks somebody he does not know; these are the most frightening cases because they’re absolutely random, and they’re frightening on a much deeper level to us as individuals because they’re the ultimate de-personalisation. If you don’t even have a name when somebody takes away your life, you are absolutely eradicated. You are consigned to oblivion, in a sense. And that is a very frightening thought – it’s sort of like an existential nightmare to people.

It is certainly a convincing argument that explains why that particular monster seemed to become ubiquitous during the long nineties before fading slowly back into the shadows.

The EMH pipes in with an opinion...

The EMH pipes in with an opinion…

It should be noted that Meld is not the first time that Star Trek has engaged with the idea of random violence. Indeed, the third season of Deep Space Nine had suggested that Jadzia Dax had a secret host who had been prone to acts of violence. Over the course of the series, Joran Dax evolved from a confused young man who committed one murder in an uncontrollable rage (as established in Equilibrium) into a space-age Hannibal Lecter who could help Ezri Dax hunt down her own serial killer (in Field of Fire).

However, Lon Suder is a much more compelling figure than Joran Dax, perhaps because Suder fits more comfortably with the aesthetic of Voyager than Joran does with the mood of Deep Space Nine. At its core, Deep Space Nine is not a show that is particularly anxious about uncertainty or randomness; Deep Space Nine is much more uncomfortable with ordered brutality than random violence. By its nature, Deep Space Nine is more fascinating by fascist regimes and corrupt authority than maniacs or serial killers. (The Cardassians and Dominion are explicitly fascist.)

Give his head peace...

Give his head peace…

In contrast, Voyager is a show that seems terrified at the very idea of disorder or randomness. The show’s insistence on getting everybody into matching uniforms and burying any conflict between the crew is an indication of this, as is the structure of the show. By its nature, Voyager cannot truly explore alien cultures and treat them as stable power structures in the medium- to long-term; any hostile alien species is simply an unpredictable obstacle blocking the path back to the safety and security of Starfleet Command.

The difference between the two shows is arguably reflected in the approaches adopted by the writers; Deep Space Nine tended towards a more experimental and improvisational approach to plotting and storytelling, while Voyager felt more comfortable with a familiar structure and formula. Deep Space Nine was a show that seemed almost anarchic in its outlook, while Voyager craved a sense of order and stability. It makes sense that Lon Suder should seem a more effective and disconcerting character than Joran Dax, as he represents a more overt contrast to the tone of the series around him.

Star Trek into darkness...

Star Trek into darkness…

In a way, Voyager‘s own uncertainties and anxieties about a random and chaotic universe were also notable in the use of the Kazon as primary antagonists in the first two seasons. (Although the Vidians notably also lack a central government.) In many respects, Meld hits on a lot of the same basic fears that underscore the use of the Kazon in the first two seasons. Like Lon Suder, the Kazon are portrayed as inherently violent and destructive; they are disorganised and brutal, with no clear sense of purpose of governance.

It is no surprise that that teleplay for Meld came from Michael Piller. Piller had been an advocate for the Kazon throughout the first two seasons of Voyager, insisting on an arc based around the species in the second season and proudly boasting that he would turn them into one of the defining and iconic Star Trek species. While other writers were eager to move past the Kazon, Piller latched on to them and refused to let go. This became increasingly frustrating as the Kazon simply refused to work on any level.

Don't choke!

Don’t choke!

Notably, the Kazon had originally been developed as an analogy for the culture of gang violence in Los Angeles, making some of the racial subtext around the species particularly uncomfortable. According to an interview with Cinfantastique, Piller was drawn to Meld as a way to explore the culture of fear in Los Angeles in the nineties:

When I watch television at night and hear about people who kill nuns and drop children off bridges, as a human being I cannot understand that. It doesn’t fit the logic of life as I know it. So imagine what it would be to a Vulcan. Then to do the meld and ultimately never to understand, but to explore what violence is and how it manifests itself and begins to eat at us as a civilization so that we find ways of expressing violence like capital punishment, and find ways of framing it in our own comfortable armchair way. That touches me.

When I’m walking down the street and it’s getting dark out and I see someone walking up to me and maybe they are wearing their hat crooked, and maybe their hand is in their pocket and I don’t know what is in their pocket, and I look at them for a second and look away. That’s what’s scary about living in Los Angeles today.

Meld is undeniably of its particular cultural moment; it is a story that reflects a lot of the uncertainties and anxieties running through American society (and particularly Los Angeles) in the mid-nineties. And it does so without playing into the unfortunate racial stereotypes that turned the Kazon into an albatross around the show’s neck.

Pot luck...

Pot luck…

There was undoubtedly a racial element to this mid-nineties fear of urban spaces. The focus on serial killers, who are predominantly white, disguised this fact when that anxiety was reflected on screen. Nevertheless, the real life fear of random violence was more concerned with gang-related crime as serial murders. As Sanford Strong explained in Strong on Defense:

The nineties has ushered in a shift toward random, stranger-to-stranger violence. In the sixties, 93 percent of murders were committed by people known to the victims: siblings, lovers, spouses, friends. As of 1993, for the first time in our history, up to 50 percent of homicides are random/stranger-to-stranger. In plain talk, innocent bystanders killed by warring gangs and crime victims killed by career criminals are at the heart of not only driving up the murders in America but also driving down police arrest rates.

The serial killer simply offered a way to deal with those fears that was divorced from issues of race and class, which were understandably touchy subjects in the wake of the Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson trial. The serial killer provided a suitably alien and exotic horror upon which these fear might be projected, one quite disconnected from so controversial a subject.

Psycho killer, qu'est ce que c'est?

Psycho killer, qu’est ce que c’est?

It should be conceded, of course, that the portrayal of this increased fear of random violence in the urban environment during the nineties was largely a white and middle-class concern. Minority communities had been living with issues relating to urban violence for decades, but they had only begun to affect white communities in during the last decade or so of the twentieth century. As Bill Bradley argued in The Crisis of Meaning in American Cities:

For African Americans in cities, violence isn’t new. Mothers have sent their children to school through war zones for too many years. What is new is the fear among whites of ranndom violence. No place in the city seems safe. Walking the streets seems to be a form of Russian roulette. At its core, this fear is a fear of young black men. Never mind that all black males have to answer for the actions of a few black males. Never mind that Asian-Americans fear both black and white Americans, or that in Miami and Los Angeles, some of the most feared gangs are Latinos and Chinese. Never mind that the ultimate racism was whites ignoring the violence when it wasn’t in their neighbourhoods, or that black Americans have always feared certain white neighbourhoods.

Even in the nineties, American popular culture was dominated by white voices; it makes sense that the portrayal of urban violence should be filtered through that perspective, rather than examined in a wider context of socio-economic and political realities. The serial killer construct allowed those fears to be divorced from context and distilled to their purest essence.

Arrested development...

Arrested development…

Meld works so well because it is free of the problematic racial dynamics that undermine Voyager‘s other explorations of random violence in twentieth century America. The Kazon had been a questionable creative choice since their first appearance in Caretaker, but were rendered completely radioactive by their appearance in Alliances. The racial politics surrounding the portrayal of the Kazon as former slaves who formed a violent gang culture are astoundingly outdated for a mid-nineties television show, let alone a franchise that claims to be as progressive as Star Trek.

Cleverly, Meld touches on the racial tensions associated with perceived “random” violence by using Tuvok as its focal character; in an inversion of the panic around random inner city violence during the nineties, it is the black character who struggles to contextualise and understand seemingly random violence perpetrated by a white character. Meld creates a link between the violence perpetuated by Suder and the violence later perpetuated by Tuvok; both the white and black characters are victims and perpetrators in their own way.

J'accuse.

J’accuse.

Indeed, Meld comments on the systems of violence that exist. Suder randomly murders Darwin, but Tuvok advocates for the execution of Suder. Meld suggests that the death penalty is ultimately just violence and murder as legitimised by the state. Tuvok makes a compelling case for the execution of Suder, pointing out that Voyager is not in a position to offer “life without possibility of parole.” However, his emotive appeals to Janeway are the first real indication that something has gone horribly wrong.

When Janeway suggests locking him away in his quarters, Tuvok reflects, “Pardon me, Captain, but allowing him the comfort of his own quarters doesn’t seem an appropriate punishment for murder.” Janeway responds, “If we don’t get home soon, he’ll be in that room a long time, Mister Tuvok. I think this is the best we can do under these circumstances.” Tuvok lands a surprisingly emotional argument for the execution of Suder. “Crewman Darwin’s three sisters might not agree,” he suggests.

Gambling on it.

Gambling on it.

What is interesting is that Meld allows Tuvok to make all of the stock arguments in support of the death penalty, but makes it clear that these are ultimately rhetorical devices used to justify an emotive response. Meld suggests that the death penalty is simply a violent response to a violent crime, no matter what logical principles we might use to justify it. Tellingly, the possibility of capital punishment is not an option that Janeway will even consider, and Tuvok only suggests it because he is struggling from the same violent impulses that affect Suder.

Here, again, the episode’s racial dynamics are much more compelling and interesting than anything featured in the Kazon arc. It is well documented that minority defendant are statistically more likely to be executed than their white counterparts; there is something quite clever and pointed about how Meld inverts the dynamic by having a black authority figure advocate for the execution of a white offender. Without getting too heavy-handed or awkward, Meld touches on all manner of intriguing ideas about cultures of violence.

Psycho(tele)path...

Psycho(tele)path…

Meld aired in the midst of a massive cultural re-engagement with the issue of capital punishment. Dead Man Walking had entered wide release in later 1995 and early 1996, earning a number of high-profile nominations at the Oscar ceremony broadcast a few weeks after Meld. The following month, writer Stephen King would begin the process of serialising The Green Mile. The inclusion of a commentary on the death penalty in Meld is another example of Voyager engaging with mid-nineties America.

It has been suggested that the treatment and exploration of death row in popular culture during the nineties was part of the reason why public support for capital punishment declined over the course of the decade. It is an interesting example of scripted popular entertainment as a mode of cultural discourse with considerable influence. Meld is unlikely to get too much attention in any discussion of the death penalty in nineties media, but it does serve to illustrate how keenly the episode aligned with larger national conversations.

Mind over manners...

Mind over manners…

There is undoubtedly a psychosexual element to Meld as well. It is interesting to note that the portrayal of the Vulcan mind meld has shifted since it was first employed in Dagger of the Mind. In the sixties, the meld represented an almost spiritual joining, a shared sense of oneness between alien minds. In the years since, the meld has become more aggressive and intrusive; there is an element of sexual violence to the way it is portrayed in stories like Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Meld is consciously aware of this fact, and has Suder draw attention to the subtext in conversation with Tuvok. “In a way, a mind meld is almost an act of violence, isn’t it?” Suder asks, almost rhetorically. When Tuvok struggles to understand, Suder responds, “Penetration. Your will dissolving mine. The joining.” The episode frames the meld sequences – particularly the second meld sequence – in a contact that is heavily sexualised; dominance and submission are a part of it, with Tuvok sweating and panting as his urges overcome him.

Nevermind...

Nevermind…

As David Grevin notes in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, the scene plays like something of a male-on-male rape:

In Original Trek, the Vulcan mind-meld is depicted as eerie, unsettling, otherworldly; in later Trek, it’s closer to rape. When the now nearly insane Tuvok storms into the brig to effect a capital punishment-murder on the altered, becalmed Suder, Tuvok, sweating and breathing audibly and feverishly, seems positively animalistic. Clenching the pale Suder’s face in his hands and grunting, Tuvok could just as well be raping as melding with him. The ample homoeroticism and violence of this tautly filmed, disturbing climactic scene intensifies its murky racial politics.

The work by Bole, Russ and Dourif in realising that climactic sequence is astounding; one of the most genuinely unsettling Star Trek climaxes ever.

Yep. Nothing sexual about this.

Yep. Nothing sexual about this.

Given the difficulties that the Star Trek franchise has had with queer representation, there are undoubtedly problematic elements to this. There is a sense that the homosexual undercurrents running through the episode are designed to suggest the “wrongness” of the situation. Certainly, the queering of the Vulcan mind meld has not always worked out well for the franchise; there are decidedly homophobic undertones to episodes like Fusion and Stigma, which work hard to distance their central character from queer culture.

At the same time, this homosexual subtext adds an interesting dimension to Meld. Vulcans are fundamentally repressed characters, and it is quite possible to read homosexual subtext into Spock-centric stories like The Naked Time, This Side of Paradise and Amok Time. Given the prejudice facing LGBTQ people and the fact that they spent so much of the obscured and concealed – in life as much as in popular culture – any allegory for repression and integration lends itself to a queer reading.

Don't sweat it, Tuvok...

Don’t sweat it, Tuvok…

Meld is a story about Tuvok attempting to repress his emotions, burying them far beneath the surface away from the attention of the crew (and arguably himself), and it ultimately suggests this is a psychologically damaging and harmful approach. The decision to link this repression to violence does suggest a homophobic subtext; after all, violent impulses are more likely to be destructive than those based on sexual identity. Nevertheless, it is possible to make a redemptive reading of the episode.

After all, Tuvok is not “healed” through some sort of magical medical procedure. The EMH tries and fails to restore Tuvok’s emotional repression, in what could be read as a commentary on the popularity of “conversion therapy” during the nineties. Conservative Christian groups invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the practice during the decade, arguing that it was possible to “treat” and even “cure” homosexuality. This offers perhaps an indication of how far gay rights have come in the past two decades.

The therapy does not work. Attempting to restore Tuvok’s emotional repression is ultimately self-defeating. Tuvok only manages to come to terms with his emotions when he escapes from sick bay and is able to visit with Suder again. Being able to meld with Suder allows the two men to find some sort of balance, to find peace with one another. The first meld “centres” Suder, but does not satisfy Tuvok; the second meld seems to allow both men to become a bit more comfortable in their own skin.

It is only by embracing their innate queerness that Suder and Tuvok can find peace. Suder actually acts to save Tuvok’s life at the climax, while the EMH notes that Tuvok is on his “way back to being normal.” The EMH adds, “Although I’m not sure how the word normal applies to a species that suppresses all their emotions.” It appears suppression and repression, rather than the act of melding, is the real danger. (Basics, Part I suggests that Suder has found something resembling stability.)

Meld is notable for being one of Piller’s last credited scripts for Star Trek. After Meld, Piller is credited as writer on Basics, Part I, Basics, Part II and Star Trek: Insurrection. There is an argument to be made that Meld might just be the last truly great piece of Star Trek written by the man who had helped to bring the franchise into the nineties. Despite all the miscalculations and errors in judgment surrounding the second season of Voyager, it seems that Michael Piller still understood the franchise.

In a way, Meld looks to both the past and the future of the Star Trek franchise. It exists towards the end of Michael Piller’s tenure on Voyager, but it also serves as the first writing credit for Michael D. Sussman. Sussman would work as a freelancer on several seasons of Voyager, before joining the writing staff full-time in the show’s final year. In fact, Michael D. Sussman (along with his writing partner, Phyllis Strong) would be one of the first writers recruited by Brannon Braga to work on Enterprise. He would remain with the show until the end.

Sussman recalls how he earned his first Star Trek credit:

My future boss and writing partner Ken Biller found a Next Gen script of mine in the slush pile. He liked it, gave me a call and asked if I’d like to do an internship with the Voyager writing staff. Of course I jumped at the chance. One of my duties as an intern was to read scripts that had been submitted by non-professionals, summarize them and then pitch them to Voyager’s showrunner, Michael Piller. Every now and then they’d buy one of these scripts.  But Michael didn’t like any of the ones I’d read. Our meeting was almost over and he said, “Is that all you got?” So I pitched him something I’d been noodling, a story about Tuvok mind-melding with an alien serial killer. Michael stared at the ceiling as I pitched the idea, hands behind his head, then looked at me and said, “I don’t think I’ve heard an idea like that before,” and he bought it. My internship was over that Friday, and the following Monday I was back in the Trek offices as a working writer.

It is a wonderful Star Trek success story.

Indeed, it could be argued that Sussman’s experience paralleled that of Ronald D. Moore years earlier. Moore had happened to be in the right place at the right time to get The Bonding in front of the right people. His subsequent pitch of The Defector earned him a job on staff and encouraged Piller to foster the franchise’s unique “open submissions” policy, inviting outside writers to pitch without the need for an agent or even experience. That policy was unique in Hollywood, and was responsible for recruiting writers like René Echevarria to the franchise.

It seems fitting that one of Piller’s last contributions to the television franchise should be in encouraging and recruiting a young writer who would still be working on Enterprise as the curtain came down on that particular phase of the franchise’s long and distinguished history. Meld is a script that only finds Voyager engaging with contemporary America, but also providing a point of intersection between the franchise’s past and its future. It is a remarkable (and massively underrated) accomplishment.

Meld is a classic. It is perhaps the first truly classic episode of Voyager produced, and perhaps the last classic Star Trek script written by Michael Piller.

10 Responses

  1. I really wish they had not killed Suder off. He could have become Voyager’s Garak. He also would have made an interesting contrast with seven, as she killed people while under essentially mind control, whereas he killed people while enjoying it.

    • Jeri Taylor’s dislike of Suder is well-known. She used the closing of the Kazon arc as a pretext to flush all of VOY’s recurring characters, Seska and Suder included. It was under-handed. But like Darren says, Piller had no clout left.

      More interestingly, this is the last TUVOK is relevant to the storyline of Voyager. I wonder why they didn’t write him out, too. Apart from the ‘cast calculus’ requiring a Worf on the bridge.

      • Jeri Taylor’s re-write of Basics (primarily Part II, I believe) is basically a purge. I think Piller’s on record as stating it was the only time on Star Trek that he didn’t get what he wanted, acknowledging that he was a “lame duck.” (To be fair, Basics is at least the second time that Piller didn’t get what he wanted; he had wanted to write Generations, and felt humiliated by the studio when he was asked to pitch against Moore/Braga, who he considered to be his students and subordinates. But I’m not sure that was public knowledge at the time, he only really discussed it in Fade In.)

        I think the show has at least one good Tuvok episode left in it. But I’m a bigger fan of Gravity than most. Still, all of two character-centric a-plot-driving episodes in seven years is a bit of a joke. I think Harry had a greater focus. (Although Tuvok does get a couple of other stories where he is co-lead, like Prime Factors or Rise. But you’re right. He’s still under served.)

    • Suder as a recurring character would have been great. Although Voyager didn’t really tend to develop supporting Starfleet/Maquis characters. (Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that the mostly-mute Ayala is perhaps the most consistently-developed crew member outside the main cast, excluding the children.)

      I wonder if Brad Dourif could have committed to a regularly recurring role on the scale of Andy Robinson, but it would have been great to check in with the character once or twice a season, even just using him in particularly episodes where he might be relevant. (Indeed, it’s fun to imagine Suder in The Killing Game, for example. Or maybe even as a character in something lighter like Course: Oblivion.)

      • I believe the idea was for Suder to give in to the dark side and join Seska. There is just no way Janeway could allow someone like Suder on the ship after her spiel in “Alliances” about sticking to Starfleet regs, no matter what.

        I mean, it’s tempting to want a do-over of the Bashir/Garak relationship. But that was never in the cards. Suder has more in common with Khan from “Space Seed” or Darheel from “Duet”. He brings out the darker impulses in others from behind bars. (Good-bye tribbles, I’m flying over yooouuuu… ♪)

      • That is just terrible, but sadly par for the course with Piller at this point. Piller seems to have devolved to the great idea and terrible execution phase of his Star Trek career:

        Great idea: a crew of renegades learning to work together!
        Bad execution: Paris goes undercover to infiltrate the Kazon!

        Great idea: serialised storytelling!
        Bad execution: the Kazon will be as iconic as the Klingons!

        Great idea: let’s keep Lon Suder around!
        Thwarted bad execution: let’s have him join Seska so Brad Dourif can practice his Wormtongue in what will likely be cringe-inducing scenes!

  2. Constantly amazed by how much Trek history and social commentary you’re able to pull out of a single episode of Voyager! So enlightening and interesting to read

  3. I think after Threshold, Meld was an attempt at a more modest episode. It’s the kind of talky, character-driven story that DS9 does so well (Meld is really DS9’s Duet, right down to a main character conversing with a guest star from inside a jail cell).

    It’s true that Meld was made at a time when there was a love for stories of law enforcement trying to bring in a psychotic killer that forced them to confront their own dark half. The Silence of the Lambs got the ball rolling but it paved the way for other classics like Se7en and the underrated Copycat (Holly Hunter’s character was Clarice Starling without the emotional baggage).

    In its own way, Meld can stand next to any of the above examples. Suder may not be a criminal genius on the order of a Hannibal Lecter or John Doe but the scenes between he and Tuvok are some of the most electrically charged we’ve ever seen in a Trek episode. And it helps that Tim Russ and Brad Dourif have a perfect rapport that really sells the episode’s convictions.

    Meld is not totally perfect. It unfortunately has to fight for screentime with the Tom Paris subplot, and while the episode does eventually remember to focus on the much more interesting main plot, those scenes do take something away from Meld that could have been better spent elsewhere (like Tuvok having a Groundhog of a Day on the Holodeck with the many different ways he could murder Neelix).

    “Funny. I thought Braga murdered Darwin last week”. I loved that one Darren.

    • I love Meld. I think I’ve mentioned it before, but it might be my favourite Voyager episode. But I think there’s some truth to the suggestion that it is a stealth Deep Space Nine episode. (Ironically, I think Meld is much stronger than DS9’s forays into the “serial killer” genre like Empok Nor or Field of Fire.)

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