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.
Dreadnought is arguably a much better version of Prototype.
Both are essentially horror stories about B’Elanna Torres essentially creating a new mechanical life form, making a decision that has unforeseeable consequences. There is an element of reproductive horror to all this, reinforced by the clever decision to have B’Elanna literally give the eponymous warhead her own voice and watch it engage in a course that is quite literally self-destructive. It is perhaps the quintessential reproductive horror story, the fear that we might create something that will supplant us; that our children become the worst reflections of ourselves.
It is interesting that Dreadnought followed Meld so closely; both are essentially stories about how Star Trek: Voyager (and its characters) cannot cleanly escape their past, as much as the show might push it (and them) towards a generic Star Trek template. The middle of the second season sees an emphasis on the idea that Voyager is composed of two radically different crews – that Starfleet and the Maquis are not as integrated as shows like Parallax or Learning Curve might suggest.
Alliances, Meld and Dreadnought all build on the idea of underlying tensions that were mostly glossed over during the first season. Of course, this creates a weird dissonance, as Voyager seems to actually be moving backwards rather than forwards – attempting a half-hearted do-over of some of its earliest miscalculations.
As the basic title and premise of the show suggest, Voyager is fundamentally about movement. It is about a crew stranded on the opposite side of the universe, making a long journey home. As such, the show relies on a sense of progression and momentum. In a very real way, Voyager should probably feel like a countdown; each episode brings the crew one episode closer to their inevitable homecoming. Kirk and Picard explored for the sake of exploration; Janeway is simply taking the scenic route home. Every week brings them a little bit closer.
At its best, this approach might excuse the episodic plotting of Voyager. After all, the ship is constantly moving on; there is no time to build relationships, every story needs to be self-contained because next week all this will be in the rear-view mirror. This is not a space station positioned on the frontier, or a flying city, it is a rocket powering through the cosmos. The goal is forward momentum, and everything else is just drag. Voyager might be workable if it kept pressing forward, moving with enough energy to account for its lack of depth.
The problem is that Voyager doesn’t really move forward. There is no palpable sense of velocity the storytelling, no progression to the journey. Earth seems almost as far way in Renaissance Man as it did in Caretaker; Voyager is still encountering the Hirogen in Flesh and Blood, nearly thirty thousand light years away from their first encounter with the aliens in Message in a Bottle. Episodes like Timeless and Dark Frontier feature massive leaps in the journey, but without any appreciable sense of distance.
Those figures are just numbers on a mileage counter rather than appreciable distances. It often seems Like Voyager is running in place. Sure, the show’s establishing shots suggest a ship traveling at warp speed, but it never actually seems to go anywhere. Pick random episodes from random seasons and watch them in a random order. Does Janeway seem appreciably closer or further from home at any point? Does anything beyond hair and make-up offer a sense that things have actually changed on the ship? (Beyond the swap of Kes for Seven of Nine?)
More than that, there were points where it seemed like Voyager was doing anything but moving forward; when it wasn’t running in space, it was moving backwards. Voyager wasn’t necessarily moving backwards in a literal sense, but certainly in a creative sense. Voyager was fond of retreating back to familiar Star Trek trappings. The show’s formula and structure were consciously modelled upon an imitation of late stage Star Trek: The Next Generation, with an abundance of “anomaly or alien of the week” plots with tidy resolutions.
More than that, the show longed for the comforts of the traditional Alpha Quadrant shows. Cardassians turned up with surprising frequency. Romulans appeared in Eye of the Needle; Ferengi appeared in False Profits; Klingons appeared in Prophecy; Q and the Borg became recurring fixtures. Even the episode Dreadnought draws from a whole host of Alpha Quadrant mythology, relying on the conceit that the Caretaker somehow abducted a sentient missile from the Badlands and couldn’t be bothered trying to stop it from causing untold destruction.
Indeed, this is perhaps one of the stock criticisms of Dreadnought, and one that reflects a lot of the strange sensibility of the late second season. In Cinefantastique, writer Lisa Klink noted that a lot of the story elements in this stretch of the season might seem familiar:
“Unfortunately, I feel like we’ve done a couple cross-over type of things like bringing Q in,” admitted staff writer Lisa Klink. “I think that was a terrific episode, but it was familiar. It was somebody who we’ve met before. And in Dreadnought we had the Cardassian missile. Individually those episodes worked well, but I think in general they had the effect of making this a familiar neighborhood and I see we’re still doing that in some upcoming stories.”
It certainly does undercut a lot of the novelty of the Delta Quadrant. It makes it all feel a little bit too rote. It’s not too hard to imagine Sisko engaged in a similar plot with many overlapping elements; indeed, Blaze of Glory comes quite close to imitating some of the beats of Dreadnought.
To be fair, there is an argument that this sort of nostalgia makes sense in the context of Voyager; that Voyager is fundamentally a show about going home, and so it makes sense that the series should fetishise traditional Star Trek elements so thoroughly. Kirk and Picard were venturing outwards towards the new and the exciting, while Janeway is heading homewards towards the security and comfort of the familiar. In that context, these familiar pieces of Star Trek lore make sense; they are but breadcrumbs leading the way home.
Except, of course, the series is not structured like that. There is never really a point in the run of Voyager where these elements are missing; there is never an extended period of time where Voyager is completely surrounding by the unfamiliar and so has to venture towards recognisable comforts. The show goes all of six episodes before the crew encounter a Romulan. There is no sense of progression; it is not as if the familiar elements become that much more pronounced as the crew get closer to home.
However, this is not the only way that Voyager moves backwards. The second half of the second season of Voyager seems oddly fixated on revisiting the missed opportunities of the show’s troubled first season. The idea that Voyager is populated by Maquis characters who come from outside of Starfleet is more important in Alliances, Meld and Dreadnought than it is any three consecutive episodes of the first season. The first season botched the handling of the integration of the Maquis into the Starlfeet crew, so it seems weird to revisit it at this juncture.
One of the interesting aspects of the second season is the way that the show consciously harks backwards towards the missed opportunities of the first. The Kazon recur more frequently in the second season than they did in the first season; the Maquis become a bigger issue at this point in the second season than there had been in the whole of the first. There was a sense that Michael Piller was refusing to let go of elements that hadn’t worked, and was trying to find a way to integrate them into the series.
On paper, this isn’t a bad idea. After all, it takes a bit of effort to learn how make things work. Just because a show botches an interesting concept doesn’t mean that the concept should be abandoned. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was very good at this. The characters of Dax and Bashir had never consistently worked in the early years of the show; from the fourth season onward, the show turned them into two of the most fascinating members of a diverse ensemble. Similarly, Ira Steven Behr managed to make the Ferengi work after six years of complete and utter failure.
However, the problem with trying to revisit elements botched by the first season of Voyager was not simply that the elements themselves had been botched. The problem was that these elements had been largely closed off and treated as resolved. It wasn’t as if Deep Space Nine ever forgot that Dax or Bashir existed, in the same way that Parallax tied a neat little bow around the conflict between the Starfleet crew and the Maquis. Revisiting elements like that in the second season means going backwards to reopen old wounds.
Quite simply, it kills momentum. Paradoxically, it looks like the show is not moving forward. The fact that the Kazon feature more heavily in the second season than the first opens up all sorts of logistical questions about how big Kazon space is, and how slow Voyager is traveling if Maj Cullah is no more than twenty hours away in Alliances. The show feels like it is circling back on itself; while the first season’s handling of some of these threads represented a missed opportunity, trying again after so long a gap draws attention to these failings.
There is also the simple fact that, even if circling back after so long a time weren’t an issue, the execution is questionable at best. The handling of Lon Suder in Meld is perhaps the best use of the Maquis in the second season, illustrating that a significant portion of the crew come from a world far removed from that of Starfleet. However, the recurring Kazon subplot that stretches through the season is dull as dishwater and handled in a lazy and haphazard fashion. It is the most uninspiring arc-based storytelling ever.
What does the presence of Michael Jonas add to Threshold, except to remind the audience that he exists? What could use could the Kazon possible have for Warp Ten technology that turns people into lizards when they can’t even get a transporter or replicator working properly? The same is true of his appearance in Dreadnought. What could the Kazon possibly do with the knowledge that the missile was the Delta Quadrant? It is simple a way of reminding the audience that Michael Jonas exists and that he will likely have a plot function later on.
The time spent on scenes of Michael Jonas relaying this week’s plot to the Kazon could be spent on other stuff that might possibly enhance or enrich the arc. It might be nice to learn something about Jonas, or the particulars of why he is betraying Voyager. Jonas never really has a personality beyond “weasel” and he never has a history beyond “Maquis guy.” The closest thing to a character-building moment for Jonas comes before he has any lines, putting a restraining hand on Hogan’s shoulder in Alliances.
It is worth comparing the handling of Jonas on Voyager to the handling of Eddington on Deep Space Nine. Although Jonas was clearly introduced to be a traitor, Eddington developed in that direction organically. Jonas never gets any of the same character development defining Eddington in The Die is Cast or The Adversary, short character-driven sequences that explain a lot the direction in which the character would develop. Jonas gets none of this, and the handling of the arc suffers for it.
There is also a sense that Michael Piller is reluctant to let go of the idea of Tom Paris as lovable rogue. Piller’s vision of Paris conflicted with that of Robert Duncan McNeill and Jeri Taylor, something that really came to the fore during the production of Ex Post Facto. Quite simply, Piller seemed to be the only member of the production team who liked the idea of Paris-as-playboy. As such, when Piller left to work on Legend, this aspect of Tom Paris was largely discarded by the production team.
As such, Paris’ characterisation in this stretch of the second season feels like a conscious throwback. It feels as much like an attempt to capture a missed first season opportunity as the use of the Kazon or the resurfacing of Maquis tensions. More than that, it feels consciously at odds with the character work done with Paris in Threshold. It is a rather jarring transition, with Paris learning to accept himself (and the respect of his peers) in the closing scene of Threshold before working to undermine and destroy that respect as early as the teaser to Meld.
As much as the second season of Voyager seems to aspire towards serialisation of plot, it ignores the underlying idea that such serialisation works best when built upon consistency of character. Both Michael Jonas and Tom Paris spend large chunks of the second season behaving a particular way because the larger plot needs them to do so in order to justify a pay-off. The problem is that the pay-off is not at all worth all the time spent padding out the plot to reach that point. Paris being late for work and Jonas recapping the plot of a given episode is not interesting.
That said, Dreadnought probably does a better job at serialisation than many of the surrounding stories. Most obviously, the script is keenly aware that Paris’ arc needs to be more than just a recurring background detail to justify his decision to leave Voyager in Investigations. So Torres gets to actually confront him about it. “People are starting to talk,” she warns him. Paris mockingly responds, “Are they? People like who? Chakotay?” Torres replies, “No, I mean people. Like me.” It’s a nice touch.
Of course, it underscores the fact that the second season focuses on the least interesting part of the character arc. Paris acting like a jerk is not interesting of itself; however, it is a decision that should have consequences. Paris is lying to his friends, including the senior staff. Nobody except Janeway and Tuvok were included in the deception, which means that Paris effectively betrayed everybody from Torres to Kim. They worried about him, needlessly. What happens when Paris comes back? How do you heal that trust? The show never explores it.
Similarly, Dreadnought offers the first indication that all is not what it appears to be. Paris’ touching scene with Janeway at the climax makes it clear that he is not “the one who’s been wrong; wrong about a lot of things.” Alone with Janeway and Tuvok, Paris is able to demonstrate that he is a hero, and that he does trust Janeway implicitly. “Captain, thanks for everything.” It is a nice touch, one that suggests a deepening relationship between Janeway and Paris. Even more than Kim, Paris is a figure who does need a strong role model and might find one in Janeway.
Again, this little touch in Dreadnought emphasises how badly the show around it misses the mark in handling the Kazon arc. The arc needed more scenes like these short conversations interspaced with the plot of the week, exploring the emotional substance of Paris’ journey. There are some fundamental problems in how Voyager chooses to present this arc to the audience. The idea of structuring Paris’ undercover behaviour doesn’t work as a twist, because there is never any possibility that Star Trek would let it play out straight.
As a result, there is no need to preserve the mystery around the sting operation; the really meaty material is in watching Janeway ask Paris to take this assignment, and Paris deciding to risk all the friendships he has cultivated for the greater good. That is where the real weight lies, as Paris decides that the safety of the ship and his own self-respect matter more to him than the fact that he got a clean break when the ship was taken to the Delta Quadrant. That takes place entirely off-screen, which is a problem when all the stuff on screen is about joining dots.
To be fair, Dreadnought actually does a lot of good character work. As the second season struggles with long-form storytelling, Dreadnought feels surprisingly consistent with character. The opening scene featuring Samantha Wildman visiting the EMH is a delightfully light moment, but one that reminds the audience that there is a community forming on the ship. It is quite similar to the character-driven introductions to Deep Space Nine episodes that get to the story through the characters. (It also harks back to the “Piller filler” approach to Star Trek.)
If the opening sequence of Dreadnought feels like it was lifted from Deep Space Nine, that makes sense. The script is credited to Gary Holland, Vice President and Executive Director of Paramount Domestic Television Advertising & Promotion. However, Kenneth Biller suggested to Cinefantastique that the script was rewritten by new arrival Lisa Klink:
“I gotta tell you, I was worried about Dreadnought,” said Biller. “Roxanne in a room talking to herself for 45 minutes is going to be repetitive. Lisa Klink did a really good rewrite on that and it was well-directed. Except for the really disappointing effects where this really horrible weapon looked like a little box floating around in space.”
It is worth noting that these complaints about practical effects mirror Biller’s objections to Prototype earlier in the season. Lisa Klink had interned on Deep Space Nine and had actually written Hippocratic Oath for the show before Ira Steven Behr recommended her to Jeri Taylor. It looked like she picked up some of her sensibilities there.
The introductory sequence also sets up a nice recurring thematic element for the episode. As with Prototype, it seems that Dreadnought is the story of a mechanic horror unleashed by B’Elanna Torres upon the universe. There is something just a little bit uncomfortable about all this, given the recurring theme of reproductive horror running through the second season for most of the major female characters. Dreadnought consciously plays up the idea that Torres was effectively a mother to the missile.
Most interestingly, the script suggests that Dreadnought actually feels an emotional attachment to Torres; the missile is reluctant to harm her unless absolutely necessary. Rather than killing her outright, the missile plays along until Torres has returned to Voyager. When Torres asks why it waited to continue its mission, Dreadnought explains, “Course was resumed once your safe departure from this vessel was confirmed.” It is a nice touch, and not just because it allows Klink to extend the episode’s runtime.
“If I really was a Cardassian agent, you should have killed me with the first charge,” Torres explains later on. Dreadnought responds not with reason, but with a surprising amount of mechanical compassion. “Probability assessment indicates that you are being coerced by Cardassian forces.” In a way, Dreadnought is presented as a more sympathetic artificial life form than that humanoid robots who featured in Prototype. There is something almost tragic in this reunion, as opposed to the grotesqueness of Prototype.
The recurring motif of Torres as a mother to mechanical monsters is a little awkward, not least because none of the franchise’s male engineers seem to have the same problems. This ickiness is underscored by the episode’s earlier title “Original Sin.” At the same time, Dreadnought does hint at some of the more consistent aspects of Torres’ character across the rest of the show’s run; Torres is inherently self-destructive. It is an idea suggested at a number of points across the series, most notably in Extreme Risk and Juggernaut during the fifth season of the show.
Dreadnought suggests that Torres is self-destructive in a number of ways; most obviously, she lends her own voice to what is a flying bomb. However, the climax of the episode also finds Torres willing to sacrifice herself in order to redeem her past mistake. “You are accessing the detonation control circuit,” Dreadnought observes. “Probability assessment indicates you are attempting to detonate the explosive before it reaches its target.” Torres responds, “Now, that wouldn’t make much sense, would it? I’d be killing myself in the process.”
Torres is one of the most interesting characters in the original Voyager line-up, and perhaps a character who was not adequately served by the show itself. Torres is very much a misfit and an outcast in a way that Chakotay and Paris are not; she is not a terrorist in the same way that Kira was. Torres is a character with no small amount of internalised self-hatred. The show suggests a number of times (notably Faces and Lineage) that this is rooted in her racial heritage, a potentially problematic aspect that is never quite explored as well as it might be.
However, Torres is a Star Trek character with an incredible amount of internal conflict. For all that Voyager is (fairly) criticised for its issues around character development, Torres actually has a reasonably organic character arc; she begins the journey as a character with a confused past and no sense of direction, only to find herself as Voyager gets stranded on the other side of the galaxy. Of course, the development that Torres received should have been the minimum for any of the show’s regulars; instead she is one of the show’s most consistently developed characters.
Dreadnought works surprisingly well, considering (or perhaps because of) its relatively straightforward premise. It is an episode that is all about tension and suspense, with a ticking clock and high stakes. The script jumps to “heroic sacrifice” a little too quickly as Janeway considers sacrificing her ship “to benefit a people [she] didn’t even know two days ago”, but it is a refreshing contrast from the “if you can’t even trust the white people…” morality she displayed in Alliances.
Dreadnought is not perfect. It is a little simplistic and inelegant in places. At the same time, it is efficient and competent. Given everything going on around it, those are welcome attributes.
- The 37’s
- Non Sequitur
- Persistence of Vision
- Cold Fire
- Death Wish
- The Thaw
- Basics, Part I
Episodes produced during the second season, but carried over to the third: