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.
Death Wish is an interesting beast.
On the one hand, it is a decidedly cynical cash-in. It is very much a crossover episode that exists to cement the ties between Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: The Next Generation, to the point where it not only features a beloved guest star who bookended the seven-year run of The Next Generation, but also a “special appearance” from the secondary lead of that show. It was also consciously moved around in the production order so it might air in February sweeps, and was heavily hyped as part of the network’s news cycle.
On the other hand, Death Wish is a fascinating episode on a number of levels. It is certainly the best of Q’s three appearances on Voyager, and certainly ranks among some of the character’s best work in general. Death Wish engages with a fairly hefty social issue of the nineties, as Janeway is embroiled in a debate about the morality of suicide. It also serves as a vehicle for writer Michael Piller to put his own version of Voyager on trial, with certain segments of the episode resonating quite clearly with the behind-the-scenes turmoil on the show.
Death Wish is a paradox of an episode. It is bold and daring on its own terms, but it is also cynical and coy. It is an example of Voyager actively steering into its reputation as “Next Generation Lite”, which will cause a lot of problems for the show down the line. This is a shame; Death Wish is actually quite interesting on its own merits.
Death Wish is generally quite loved. Kate Mulgrew has singled it out as one of the episodes that really stuck with her from the show’s seven-year run:
“I thought that our episode Death Wish was just terrific,” she responds. “That’s the one where we were discussing the vicissitudes of suicide in the 24th century, the evolution of suicide, and Janeway’s moral stance. If suicide is devoutly to be wished by a species that, in fact, honour suicide as opposed to a life of, for lack of a better word, drudgery or imprisonment, is it something that should then be considered morally viable? I deeply appreciated that argument. Also, I had two such splendid actors to work with on that show. I had John De Lancie, who is a friend and who I adore, and Gerrit Graham, who played the other Q and was so good. I’m telling you it was just a great joy for me to work on that show.”
She is certainly not alone. Michael Piller cited it among work of which he was very proud in the run-up to the final hours of the show. (Although he also cited Tattoo, so make of that what you will.)
Death Wish is considered something of a classic among Star Trek fans, and understandably so. It is easily one of the best stories about Q in the entire history of the franchise; stories like Tapestry and All Good Things… are probably stronger, but they are not really about Q so much as they use Q as a vehicle for a story bout other characters. More than that, it features John DeLancie offering one of his best performances, playing superbly off Kate Mulgrew. Garrit Graham is also perfectly cast as Quinn, halfway between manic and morose.
More than that the episode hits any number of classic Star Trek tropes. There is a legal proceeding at the centre of the episode, which is very much Star Trek shorthand for “this is an important story.” There is a big moral issue under discussion, one with obvious resonance for nineties America. However, there is also a more basic thrill to Death Wish. It is the first time that the character of Q appears on Voyager, making it a crossover episode that ties some of the shared universe together.
The Star Trek universe is a strange beast. The seven hundred episodes of television that make up the vast majority of that fictional universe aired before the mainstream really embraced the idea of a “shared universe.” It was quite clear that all of the shows unfolded in the same fictional space, but they did not overlap in the casual ways that modern viewers expect with shows like Flash and Arrow or even the much larger “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” The space might have been common, but it was not really shared.
Sure, there were lots of little in-jokes and references that made it clear that these stories all unfolded against the same backdrop. The uniforms matched; the underlying rules of the universe (and of the characters) remained the same. The Star Trek shows could make references to certain shared political events that informed plots across multiple shows; the “Maquis” arc spanned three separate series, even if there was a very minimal overlap in characters and specific events. (Gul Evek aside.)
Care was taken to ensure that each of the Star Trek shows had their own conceptual space, and that each could carry on about its business without worrying too much about what the others were doing. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a fixture of the Alpha Quadrant, even as it made the transition from television to film. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine only took control of Alpha Quadrant politics once The Next Generation went off the air, with the production team giving it unrestricted access to the Gamma Quadrant. Star Trek: Voyager wandered the Delta Quadrant.
These days, it is common for characters to wander the shared universe as casually as viewers might stroll through the real one. Felicity Smoak is simultaneously a major character on Arrow and a recurring character on Flash. Events ripple out from one multimedia event to another, as if disturbing the shared space-time of a fictional world. The collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier informs the end of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., even if Iron Man and Captain America remain unlikely to appear in the show.
In contrast, Star Trek existed against a different backdrop. The idea of the “shared universe” was not so widespread, lacking the same cultural cache that it has today. The Dominion War defined the final seasons of Deep Space Nine, but it had a very minimal impact on the events of movies starring the cast of The Next Generation or the weekly adventures of Voyager. It seemed that “synergy” was not quite the watchword that it would become. Independence was a virtue.
It is interesting to wonder the various factors that informed this decision and the gradual move away from it. Most obviously, nineties prime-time television had yet to fully embrace serialisation within individual shows – let alone across entire media properties. It was just not a feature of the medium, and so it seemed unlikely that the infrastructure could have supported a large-scale shared universe as we understand it. Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor were running Voyager, Ira Steven Behr was running Deep Space Nine; each enjoyed autonomy.
More than that, it suggests a difference in the way that production teams treated the audience. In the nineties, the television audience was huge. Although smaller networks like UPN and the CW had begun to creep into the market place, television was still dominated by the big networks; the erosion that would result from the cable explosion or streaming or time-shifted viewing had yet to really impact viewership figures. As such, there was an emphasis on carving out a big piece of a giant pie; each Star Trek show could claim its own slice.
It is no coincidence that the modern “shared universe” experience came to prominence as the viewing figures declined and major studios became increasingly aware of the changing nature of media consumption. The modern fixation on cinematic and televisual shared universe is all about consolidating viewers across formats rather than recruiting from a large pool. The model seems to accept that there a finite number of viewers, but it is possible to profit off a small enough audience if they are cultivated and managed carefully.
That is why there is such an emphasis on crossover and shared context in contemporary popular culture; if you can’t count on selling the show to a vast outside audience, it helps to be able to draw viewers across from one property (or even media) to another. That is perhaps why the nineties Star Trek shows never embraced the idea of the “shared universe” with the same zeal of contemporary geek culture; the nineties were a very different time, in terms of management and in terms of viewership.
Of course, crossovers still happened between Star Trek shows, but they were bigger events and mostly limited to guest appearances. There was never a single story told across multiple iterations of the franchise; even the Maquis story was disconnected, with the writing staff on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine adopting radically different approaches to the rebel group. To be fair, Deep Space Nine did inherit a number of Next Generation guest stars once the older show went off the air; most notably, Lwaxanna Troi and Gowran.
However, when major characters showed up, it was often either a big deal to promote some event or a tiny cameo. Audiences could count on seeing a veteran Star Trek character in the pilot of a new show – Picard showed up in Emissary to recruit Sisko; Quark showed up in Caretaker to hustle Harry. Similarly, cross-promotion was a big deal. Bashir showed up in Birthright, Part I to remind viewers that Deep Space Nine had started; Jonathan Frakes showed up in Defiant to tie into Star Trek: Generations. (Quark’s cameo in Firstborn is perhaps the exception.)
Similarly, established characters can show up to offer a shot in the arm to a show that is perceived to be struggling. Worf joined the Deep Space Nine cast in The Way of the Warrior as part of a studio-mandated effort to shake things up on the show. Brent Spiner had a three-episode guest stint on Star Trek: Enterprise as ratings continued to decline during the show’s fourth season. The guest appearance of Q in Death Wish is a big deal rather than a casual encounter, with the episode shuffled around in the broadcast order and heavily hyped.
In some respects, Q’s guest appearance on Voyager was inevitable. As with Joel Gray from Resistance, John DeLancie had worked with Kate Mulgrew before; both actors had moved in the same circles in Seattle. In fact, Kate Mulgrew aggressively lobbied for DeLancie to appear on Voyager, going so far as to host dinners with DeLancie and Rick Berman to encourage the production team to bring Q to the young show. The production team eventually decided that it was a good idea to bring Q to Voyager, but they just had to figure out a reason for his appearance.
To be fair, Q makes a certain amount of sense as a crossover character between The Next Generation and Voyager. Unlike the Romulans or Klingons, Q is not a character confined by time and space; there are no story constraints to keep him isolated to one particular iteration of the franchise. In fact, Q had already appeared in Q-Less during the first season of Deep Space Nine, making him a suitable goodwill ambassador for this particular phase of Star Trek history. (It should be noted Q never reappeared on Deep Space Nine.)
There are, of course, issues with this sort of guest-star-driven (rather than event-driven) crossover. Explaining the difficulties managing the shared Marvel Universe, Vice President Justin Lambros has talked about avoiding the artificiality inherent in “small universe syndrome.” Fictional universes do not necessarily need verisimilitude, but it can undermine audience investment in these worlds if it seems like the seemingly infinite Star Trek cosmos is populated by mere dozens of characters who constantly intersect and cross paths.
This is a big problem for Voyager in particular. It makes sense for Gowran to play a major role in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, given how important the ruler of the Klingon Empire is to Star Trek continuity. In contrast, it seems like a coincidence that Janeway should keep running into familiar faces on the other side of the galaxy. The Delta Quadrant is big enough that False Profits can seem contrived; how lucky that the Ferengi from The Price should be stranded right in Voyager’s path back to the Alpha Quadrant.
This is particularly problematic in the wider context of the first few seasons of Voyager. It seems like the crew are brushing up against a relic of the Alpha Quadrant every other week. Shows like Eye of the Needle, Cold Fire and Threshold teased the possibility of getting home. Non Sequitor sent Harry back to San Francisco. In Dreadnought, Torres just happened to bump into a deadly sentient missile that she had re-programmed all the way back in the Alpha Quadrant.
The sequence in Death Wish where Q tempts Janeway with the possibility of returning home would be much more powerful if it ever felt like the ship and crew were far away from home. If that image of Earth hanging in Janeway’s window would have been much more effective if it had been the first time that the audience had seen a hint of the Alpha Quadrant; it might have had weight or consequence. Instead, it serves as a reminder of how some part of home always seems to be drifting within the ship’s visual range.
The production team were understandably wary about including Q for these sorts of reasons. According to Cinefantastique, this had been on of the reasons that the team had avoided doing a story based around Q:
“Everybody wanted to see Q, but we were just not willing to create a Q episode,” said Michael Piller. “We knew he could go anywhere in the universe, but we had to have a story that justified it. I was never happy with the Q episode we did for DS9. It just reeked of stunt casting. We really wanted a show that would advance the character of Q and as it turned out the race of Q and when my son heard me talking about this at home, he came up with the idea that all of us had been looking for for years, and that is a true creative achievement.”
As Jeri Taylor confessed, “There was a great deal of discussion [about] whether we could legitimately get Q on this ship. What were we saying? That Q only appears to starships that have their own series? Why this one?”
That is a perfectly reasonable question from the perspective of the universe’s internal logic. However, one of the most endearing aspects of Q as a character is way that he defies the internal logic of the Star Trek universe; he seems to exist beyond the conventions of Star Trek as a whole. He can put the entire franchise on trial in Encounter at Farpoint and All Good Things… He can distort the narrative around him, serving as both a convenient motivating factor and a nice deus ex machina in Q Who? He can hijack the show, as he did in Qpid.
That is alluded to here during the delightfully goofy second act chase sequence between Q and Quinn. A lot of Quinn’s clever little tricks involve stepping outside the universe as the characters know it; he takes Voyager back to the big bang before shrinking it down so small as to render it invisible. However, his last trick is perhaps the most telling; as a desperate bid to hide from Q, Quinn transforms Voyager into a Christmas ornament dangling from a tree. He turns Voyager into a piece of Voyager merchandising, a rather self-aware twist.
Death Wish is a decidedly self-aware episode. The show seems quite acutely aware of its existence as a piece of allegorical fiction, with the script repeatedly and consciously alluding towards its own fictionality. The teaser features the crew examining a comet that looks uncannily like the comet featured in the opening credits of Deep Space Nine, the first hint of a looming crossover. Death Wish is packed to the brim with surrealist imagery, reviling the use of abstract imagery in The Thaw.
More than that, Death Wish seems to relish the conflicts it creates with any internal Star Trek logic. When Riker makes his brief appearance, he is not dressed in the contemporary Starfleet uniform he donned in Generations, even as he recognises Janeway and Voyager; he is dressed in his iconic Next Generation uniform. Of course, it is hard to have a crossover when everybody still thinks Voyager is destroyed, so Q rather haphazardly handwaves, “I promise it won’t impact the timeline, and no one will remember ever having being here after I send them back.”
Death Wish becomes a crossover that celebrates its own lack of continuity. Given Q’s act of rebellion at the end of the episode, one wonders why he doesn’t just send Voyager back to Earth while he’s at it. John DeLancie offered his own handwave:
They said to me, ‘We just don’t think that you could be on Voyager,’ and when I asked if they minded if asked why, they said, ‘You would be able to get them back home.’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry, but let’s think of what that dialogue might sound like.’
Janeway: Q, do you know how to get us back home?
Q: Yes, I do.
Janeway: Will you?
So that’s sort of taken care of!
Of course, the truth is that Q can’t send Voyager back to Earth because the show around Death Wish simply won’t allow it. It appears that Q is just as subject to the narrative rules of Voyager as any other element of the show, just as hemmed in by its rigid episodic structure. Death Wish just calls attention to it.
Death Wish is an episode that is rather explicitly about euthanasia. That was quite a controversial social issue in early 1996. Pope John Paul II had weighed in with his opinion on the matter in his Evangeium Vitae, published in March 1995. At the same time that Death Wish finally aired, the case of Michael Martin went before the Supreme Court and Doctor Kevorkian was being formally charged for his role in assisted suicides. It was very much an hot-button issue in the mid-nineties.
In fact, Voyager had touched on the issues around assisted suicide during the first season, with Brannon Braga scripting Emanations as a rather knee-jerk allegorical take on the issue. As with a lot of the first season of Voyager, it seemed like the script had been assigned to the wrong writer; Braga was generally stronger with high-concept science-fiction than with social commentary. Death Wish seems to ultimately vindicate this observation, with Michael Piller turning in a more nuanced and insightful examination of the phenomenon.
John DeLancie was very fond of the script for Death Wish, finding its treatment of big philosophical issues resonated with him more than generic wacky comedy hijinks:
I would have liked to have been on the different Star Treks more than I was, as long as the episodes were about big issues. When I was on it with little issues – like Q and Vash – I just don’t think those episodes worked as well. I know some fans appreciate them, but episodes about reclaiming your life, suicide, do you deserve to be out here… those were the ones about the most interesting issues, so those are the ones that had the best scenes and that I think of as the best episodes. So if they’d continued in that vein I would have liked to have been more involved.
It is worth noting that Death Wish is perhaps the last truly philosophical Q-centric episode that the franchise ever produced. The Q and the Grey and Q2 are much more straightforward and generic.
It is worth noting that Voyager was not being too controversial or groundbreaking in advocating for the right to end one’s life. After all, surveys have consistently demonstrated that public support for euthanasia tends to vary from poll-to-poll depending on how the question itself is phrased. In 1996, Gallup found that some 75% of Americans supported the right to end one’s life “by some painless means.” In endorsing this position, Voyager was not exactly trailblazing.
At the same time, there are some rather bold elements of Death Wish. Most notably, the episode seems to accept that mental pain should not be treated any differently from physical pain in assessing an individual’s right to end their own suffering. Janeway’s biggest stumbling block in accepting Quinn’s request is her difficulty distinguishing between physical and mental pain. “And yet, as I look at you, you don’t seem by our standards, aged, infirm, or in any pain.” However, the point of the episode is that Janeway comes to accept that mental pain is just as real.
There is something of a double-standard in the way that contemporary culture responds to physical (as opposed to mental) pain. As Lena Andary, Yvonne Stolk and Steven Klimidis argue in Assessing Mental Health Across Cultures:
There is a stigma associated with pain when such pain is believed to have no biological cause. If a condition is not seen to be “real” (as in having a physical origin) then there is a danger that the associated pain may not be seen as real either. The outcome of this position is to invalidate the experience of the patient.
It is nice to see Death Wish accept that physical pain is not the only measurable and appreciable form of suffering that a person can endure, and that mental pain is no less severe or serious.
That said, Death Wish does touch upon a wealth of mental health issues that it doesn’t necessarily have time to properly explore. While Tuvok suggests that using a desire to commit suicide as grounds for mental instability to prevent a person from committing suicide is “a faulty premise”, the episode never quite explores the question of whether Quinn could be described as depressed and how that might impact not only his decision, but how Janeway weighs his desire.
Certainly, Quinn’s final scene suggests some measure of depression or anxiety. When Janeway asks him to consider exploring mortal life, Quinn quietly opts to end his own existence. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Captain,” he confesses. “But I would only have been pretending to fit in to this mortal existence.” It is a sentiment that sounds quite rooted in depression, rather than in the philosophy of suicide as an act with inherent worth of itself. His behaviour over the course of the episode could certainly be characterised as “manic”, even by Q’s standards.
At the same time, it is perhaps too much to try to examine the mental health of an omnipotent being. Even if it were feasible, these are far thorny issues than Death Wish is willing to explore. Death Wish is rather superficial in its exploration of how a culture responds to those who wish to end their own lives, and the exact nature of the relationship between an individual and the state might be. Death Wish hits a lot of the essential talking points, and takes a very hard moral stance, but the euthanasia feels curiously underdeveloped.
There are a lot of possible reasons for this. Certainly, the script of Death Wish has to cover a lot of ground, and its structure is dictated more by its guest star than by the centre storyline. The episode is structured so as to build up towards Q. The teaser has a character arriving on the ship, claiming to be “Q”; he is just not the Q that we know and love. Upsetting expectations, that means that the “real” Q shows up at the first act break. The second act is devoted to playful hijinks with the two characters, meaning that the audience is three acts in before the story emerges.
John DeLancie confessed to Cinefantastique that the script for Death Wish was somewhat overstuffed:
The problem was that the show was way too long. It was very crammed with words. Because it was almost like a play, we could have sped things up, but only after a more strenuous rehearsal period, which episodic television just doesn’t afford you. So they were in a time crunch, and things had to begin to go. Some of the humor went. Some of the time it takes to have an emotional response went. There just weren’t that many places where the argument could be cut. It was good writing, bare bones, and necessary, so I think that they found themselves between a rock and a hard spot. So they began doing internal cutting.
It would be nice (although unlikely) to see a restored edition at some point.
However, the real reason that the euthanasia element feels undercooked is because it is really only one side of the argument taking pace at the heart of Death Wish. This was the last standalone episode of Star Trek to be written by veteran producer Michael Piller, who was locked in conflict with the rest of the staff about the direction of the show at this point. Piller was advocating that Voyager should move towards adventurous arc-based storytelling that moved a lot faster than the traditional Star Trek model; more traditionalist voices were reluctant.
(Of course, any nutshell summary of Piller’s arguments with the Voyager production team must stress that Piller’s ideas were controversial, but the execution was terrible. Piller was the producer who advocated from the inclusion of Tattoo in the season, and who insisted that the Kazon serve as a recurring foil. His experimental tendencies led the producer to push for a version of Investigations that was told entirely from the perspective of “Breakfast with Neelix”, which seemed to be the breaking point for all involved.)
Much of Death Wish can be seen as an internalised debate about the future and model of Voyager, with Q and Quinn arguing for the merits of the status quo as measured against unpredictable novelty. Q and Quinn are presented as intruders who wander into the narrative from outside continuity, and who proceed to wreck havoc with the internal logic of Voyager (and Star Trek) so as to engage in a metaphorical debate about a venerated institution that has fallen into dull routine.
Tellingly, Quinn repeatedly refers to the “new era” of the Q Continuum, perhaps referencing the second generation of the Star Trek franchise that could be said to stretch from Encounter at Farpoint to Endgame. (If not further, towards The Expanse.) The Q Continuum is presented as a body that has grown staid and tired, divorced from the real world. Death Wish suggests that the Q are trapped in a perpetual and unchanging moment, where there are no surprises awaiting anybody.
When Quinn takes Janeway and Tuvok on a trip to the Continuum, he seems to offer valid criticisms of Voyager as a show. “When I was a respected philosopher, I celebrated the continuity, the undeviation of Q life. I argued that our civilisation had achieved a purity that no other culture had ever approached. And it was wonderful, for a while. At the beginning of the New Era, life as a Q was a continuous dialogue of discovery and issues and humour from all over the universe. But look at them now. Listen to their dialogue now.”
What was once novel and exciting has instead become familiar and trite. When Death Wish aired, Star Trek had been on the air continuously for almost a decade. The show had established a template that was instantly recognisable. However, after nine years, that template must be exhausted. “Everyone has heard everything, seen everything,” Quinn remarks. “There’s nothing left to say.” It seems like Piller is making a bold philosophical argument to justify his attempts to modernise the Star Trek franchise.
It seems like Piller might empathise with Quinn, whose provocative statements and bold ideas seemed to fall on the deaf ears of an institution that was unchallenged and unparalleled. Advocating for change, Quinn insists, “It would force the Q to deal with the unknown for the first time since the New Era began. They’re afraid of me because they’re afraid of the unknown.” After all, Voyager was already feeling very familiar and very safe, a strange creative choice for a show about a ship in uncharted territory.
There are a couple of elements in the story that could be read as almost autobiographical. With the power to warp reality, Q and Quinn are gods of the narrative; they are practically writers. At one point, they have a creative argument about how best to convey the Q Continuum to Janeway and Tuvok; the argument plays like writers bickering over how to present an idea to an audience. “It’s a ridiculous idea,” Q insists. “You would never understand.” He asks Quinn, “I suppose you have some crazy idea how to pull this off?”
It is also notable that one of the witnesses called by Q is William Thomas Riker. Of course, Jonathan Frakes is very much the goodwill ambassador to the rest of the franchise, appearing in each of the three shows following The Next Generation. However, Riker holds a very special importance to Piller as a writer. Piller has confessed that The Best of Both Worlds was written as much about Piller’s own anxieties as those facing Riker. Piller was considering leaving The Next Generation after one season, much like Riker was considering leaving the Enterprise.
Unsurprisingly, Q identifies The Best of Both Worlds as the single most important moment in the fictional life of Commander William T. Riker. “Without Q there would have been no William T. Riker at all, and I would have lost at least a dozen really good opportunities to insult him over the years,” Q reflects. He then adds, “Oh, and lest I forget, without Q, the Borg would have assimilated the Federation.” Quinn is as much responsible for defeating the Borg in The Best of Both Worlds as Riker is – and, logically, Piller.
Notably, the basic structure and conflict of Death Wish harks back to The Measure of a Man. Once again, the characters in the show are asked to debate a profound philosophical and moral question about an individual’s right to self-determination. Of course, Data was fighting to stay alive; Quinn is fighting to die. Nevertheless, Quinn draws attention to the basic parallels. “They were saying that the individual’s rights will be protected only so long as they don’t conflict with the state,” Quinn contends. “Nothing is so dangerous to a society.”
It makes sense to reference The Measure of a Man, and not just because it is a phenomenal piece of television. The Measure of a Man was produced shortly before Michael Piller took charge of The Next Generation, but it was a groundbreaking episode. It was an episode produced against the wishes of Gene Roddenberry, and which dared to criticise and undermine the utopia that most of the first two seasons took for granted. The Measure of a Man changed Star Trek, by demonstrating that the franchise could break from the past in a clear way.
As such, Death Wish makes a similar appeal. It argues that even omnipotence can get boring. It doesn’t matter that Death Wish aired at a point where Star Trek was still hugely commercially successful, that is not an excuse to keep things the way that they are forever. Piller seems to be arguing that the Star Trek franchise must be willing to try new things if it is to avoid decay and entropy. The image of the small shack in the middle of nowhere, and a road that ultimately always leads back to the same place, is as much a criticism of the franchise as it is of the Continuum.
In a way, it feels entirely appropriate that Death Wish should be the last standalone script credited to Michael Piller. It is a thesis statement for what he seems to think about this incarnation of the franchise at this moment in time. Whatever questionable creative decisions he might have made, Michael Piller was not entirely wrong.