In some ways, Deadlock is Star Trek: Voyager‘s original sin.
Of course, Deadlock is good. It is really good. It is a well-constructed piece of television that moves with an incredible momentum; it gathers speed and builds towards a suitably epic finalé. In many ways, Deadlock is one of the strongest episodes from the first two seasons of Voyager. There is a credible argument to be made that Deadlock belongs on any list of “best Voyager episodes ever”, thanks to the potent combination of Brannon Braga’s high-concept script and David Livingston’s dynamic direction.
At the same time, it is hard not to look at Deadlock in retrospect and see the shape of things to come. It is, perhaps, the ultimate “reset” button episode; it provides a clear template for later “blow up Voyager and kill Janeway” episodes like Year of Hell or Timeless. The trick works very well once; it loses any real impact when it is repeated several times over the course of the show’s run. More than that, the episode feels somewhat generic. Due to the nature of the high-concept premise, there is little room for detail specific to Voyager.
It seems that the end of the second season set the course for the next five years of Voyager. The production team had tried to tell an experimental story specific to Voyager with Investigations, only to fail spectacularly; it would be the last time that the show attempted anything so bold. In contrast, the production team managed to construct a fantastic episode around a generic premise in Deadlock, perhaps indicating that the future of the show lay in that direction. It is easy to see why that production team opted for safe and generic ahead of ambitious and experimental.
Deadlock seems to lend itself to this reading. Imagine, for a moment, two versions of Voyager coexisting perfectly; they look the same, they occupy the same space. They are functionally identical, right down to the smallest molecule. Now imagine that one of these shows had to be destroyed so that the other might live, that the ship could never be quite whole again; that the version of the ship riding off into the sunset would turn out to be nothing more than an echo, a copy, a duplicate.
The two versions of Janeway discuss their predicament. “Both engines have been trying to draw power from a single source of antimatter,” one states. The other continues the old-school Star Trek analogy, “Like Siamese twins linked at the chest, with only one heart.” It encapsulates a lot of what Voyager feels like at this point in the second season; there is one version of the show pushing towards trying new things, and another that is desperately clinging to the familiar. Neither can truly coexist with one another.
This is, perhaps, why Voyager is so fond of duplicates and copies. The idea of a duplicate ship or a duplicate self is something of a recurring motif in Voyager, making it remarkable that the show never produced a mirror universe episode. Since Janeway and Torres found themselves confronted by two versions of Voyager in Brannon Braga’s Parallax, the ship has been haunted by ghost versions of itself. Many of those versions seem fated to be destroyed, flawed copies that could not survive for more than the briefest of moments.
There is the duplicate Doctor in Living Witness, the duplication of the entire crew in Demon, the con artists from Live Fast and Prosper. That is to say nothing of all the alternate timelines and possible futures that span the series. (Even alternate narratives of Voyager in episodes like Worst Case Scenario or Author, Author.) Voyager seems obsessed with alternate versions of itself; what might have been in some other life. It is no wonder that Endgame closes the series with an act of erasure.
Indeed, Deadlock makes much of the idea of Voyager searching for itself, of both versions of the ship intersecting and trying to communicate with one another. “There’s another Voyager out there, and I intend to find it,” Janeway informs her crew; Voyager has had a great deal of trouble finding itself over the past two seasons. Deadlock seems to allow these internal conflicts to come to a head. Not only do the two Voyagers come into contact with one another, one sacrifices itself so that the other might live.
There is something quite telling that the Voyager that survives at the end of Deadlock is the broken and damaged version of the ship. Sure, everything is neatly repaired by the start of Innocence, but this ship has been through the wars. Although Deadlock has a handy reset button that minimises the impact of anything that happened over the course of the episode, this is a ship that lost two of its youngest crew members; Harry Kim has always represented the show’s innocence and idealism, and Naomi Wildman is obviously a child of Voyager.
“I mean, this isn’t really my ship, and you’re not really my captain, and yet you are, and there’s no difference,” Harry states in the closing scene. “But I know there’s a difference. Or is there?” There is a difference, and there is no difference. Both can be true. The fact that the two deaths on the surviving Voyager were its two youngest crew members is highly symbolic. Following on from Investigations, it seems that Deadlock might be the end of the line for anything new and exciting in Voyager.
The Voyager that is ultimately destroyed is the version of the ship that is assaulted by the Vidiians. That version of Voyager is the version most firmly anchored in the Delta Quadrant. The Vidiians are aliens unique to Voyager, it makes sense that they cannot see the broken and damaged version of the ship that survives Deadlock. The version of the ship that survives is the one that will chart a course into the third and fourth seasons, abandoning all the new ideas that were tried (and mostly failed) in the first two seasons. It literally leaves the Vidiians behind.
There is something very generic and universal about Deadlock. It is not an episode tailored specifically to Voyager, save for the fact that it features the birth of Naomi Wildman. Writer Brannon Braga acknowledged as much in his assessment of his script, “I thought Deadlock was classic Star Trek and whatever crew would have been in that episode, it would have been a good episode of Star Trek.” That is a very fair point. The Vidiians could be swapped out for any hostile alien race; Janeway could be any commanding officer.
As such, Deadlock is part of the conscious “generification” of Voyager as a television show. It is not a Star Trek show with a unique flavour, it is a Star Trek show that can be used to tell stories that could be integrated with just about any crew. Deadlock is certainly not the first episode of Voyager to feel this way; Death Wish had a similar vibe earlier in the season, bringing in Q to do a riff on The Measure of a Man. Given how spectacularly Alliances and Investigation failed to give Voyager a unique flavour, who could blame the team for wanting something generic?
(It is worth pausing to compare Deadlock to Visionary, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that hit on many of the same beats; it destroyed a version of the station and replaced one of the leads with a functionally identical doppelganger. At the same time, it was an episode that was still unique to Deep Space Nine. It built off the events of The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II. It also set up the events of Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast, foreshadowing the Romulan response to the Dominion threat.)
Deadlock also codifies a lot of the tropes that would come to define Voyager, for better or worse. Many of the same criticisms that would be leveled at Voyager over the next five seasons can be validly made in relation to the plot of Deadlock. The episode strains to create drama with incredible stakes, only to ensure that there are absolutely no consequences for anything that happens. Main characters die, but the ensemble is in place at the end of the episode; the ship is destroyed, but it is back in business next week; the sets are trashed, but everything is in place for the next instalment.
It is, of course, not the first time that Voyager has done any of this. The ship was almost torn apart in Caretaker, but everything was back in place by the end of the episode. The show waited until the third episode of the first season, Time and Again, to deploy its first true “reset button” ending. There have been plenty of examples of that internal logic at work since them; the early scenes of Manoeuvres and Alliances found Voyager taking a pounding from Kazon ships, only for everything to be fully functional and in pristine condition almost immediately.
Deadlock is perhaps notable for escalating these trends to their logical conclusion. Voyager is not just crippled; one of the ships is crippled, the other is destroyed. It isn’t just extras who are killed to raise the stakes; Harry Kim bites the dust. It is harder to imagine a a way of escalating the wholescale damage and destruction wrought over the course of Deadlock, save actually blowing up the ship and cancelling the show without any warning three episodes into the third season. There is, quite simply, nowhere to go from here.
And, to be frank, the damage and destruction of Voyager becomes a something of a recurring joke from this point onwards. Janeway also mounts a suicide assault on a superior enemy at the climax of Year of Hell, Part II. Voyager is crippled by an off-screen attack before The Killing Game, Part I even starts. Voyager crashes into an ice planet in Timeless. A duplicate Voyager blows up at the end of a shaggy dog story in Course: Oblivion. Captain Braxton goes for broke and manages to blow up Voyager no less than three times in Relativity.
As such, Deadlock could be seen as the show crossing an event horizon; this is a point of no return. The benchmark has been set, audiences have been show what the stakes can be on Voyager. The show is no longer content to threaten recurring cast members or guest stars; red shirts are only marginally more at risk than regular cast members, but without the reassurance of a resurrection at the end of the hour. Voyager is a show where everything is continuously at stake, where everything can be lost.
Of course, the flipside is that when everything is always at stake, then nothing is at stake. The deaths of Lon Suder and Hogan in Basics, Part II are more meaningful than the deaths of Harry Kim and Naomi Wildman in Deadlock, because those deaths are not reversed at the end of the episode. After all, UPN was unlikely to let the production team actually destroy the ship or kill a regular cast member in the middle of the season, so everything was guaranteed to go back in place by the end of the episode.
This leaves Voyager feeling rather hollow; it is like a ship populated with paper characters. Those characters can be torn up and shredded on a weekly basis, but there is always another copy that can be printed before the start of the next episode. No matter what actually happens over the course of an episode, everything will be fine the following week. The self-destruct is conveniently wired into Janeway’s reset button, one simple command handily labelled “do over.” Nothing really matters; no matter how hard the writers might try, nothing can ever be lost.
Of course, it should be noted that Deadlock is very good on its own terms. It is a thrilling piece of television. Braga knows how to structure an episode of television like this, beautifully ramping up the tension through the first few acts before taking a delicious step sideways that wrong-foots the audience. David Livingston is one of the franchise’s best action directors, and he makes sure that Deadlock moves at a breathless pace. Any logical questions are brushed aside by a sense of urgency.
Deadlock moves incredibly fast. A lot of that comes from the script, with Braga pacing each of the show’s big events in a very meticulous and deliberate fashion. Just when it seems like Janeway has the situation under control on the bridge and is ready to visit Ensign Wildman, everything goes to hell. Just when it looks like the two ships might be able to find a solution, the Vidiians turn up. Deadlock is ruthlessly efficient in its pacing, constantly escalating the stakes and its intensity.
Even the decision to open on one version of Voyager before revealing the existence of the alternate version is quite clever. The first two acts skilfully amp up the tension, as things begin to go increasingly wrong. The loss of the baby is shocking; it is a very dark development for a Star Trek episode, but not outside the realm of possibility for Voyager. Then Harry Kim dies; without having seen Voyager do a story like this, the audience wonders how they show is going to get out of this one. Then Kes disappears.
Braga has always had a knack for trusting the audience to follow along with his science-fiction high concepts, never getting too bogged down in rational explanations for what is unfolding. Braga does stuff Deadlock with just a little bit too much technobabble – apparently any problem can be solved by “remodulating” some tech – but the internal logic of the script works on an intuitive level. The death of Harry Kim clues the audience into the idea that the story is broken, the disappearance of Kes seals the deal. A television literate audience reads the cues quite handily.
A televisually literate audience will be suspicious when Naomi Wildman dies; killing off an infant is a very ruthless move for a Star Trek show. Those suspicions will only be enhanced when Harry Kim is sucked out into space. With the exception of Tasha Yar, the Star Trek franchise is not in the habit of killing off credited regulars in the middle of a season; more than that, the departure of a series regular is likely to be a big enough deal that it would be the focus of the entire episode, rather than an early act break.
Once Harry Kim dies, the audience is smart enough to realise that this is a game. The question is no longer “how do the crew deal with this crisis?”, instead becoming “how does the show bounce back into a recognisable shape by the end of the episode?” It is a fun question, at least by this point in the show; the more often that Voyager relies on this storytelling trick, the more frustrating it becomes. Braga is very good at structuring these sorts of escalations, as he did with Cause and Effect. The audience gets it, even without technobabble exposition.
After all, buried beneath all the technobabble is the story of a ghost ship, a crew haunted by visions of their alternate self. Janeway first catches a glimpse of the alternate bridge through flames; they appear as transparent apparitions. The first hint of the existence of another Voyager has nothing to do with sensor readings or biodata; it is a vision whereby Janeway catches a glimpse of herself. “I just saw myself cross the Bridge and enter that turbolift,” the other Janeway explains to her crew. “It was very faint, almost like a ghost image.”
It is no coincidence that Kes is the first character to cross the rift successfully, even if she discovers it by accident. With her elfin ears, Kes has always been the member of the Voyager crew most firmly connected to the ethereal – the “maybes” and the “never weres.” It was Kes who felt the stir of echoes at the end of Time and Again, it is Kes who navigates the possible future of Before and After. Braga tends to emphasise this aspect of Kes, suggesting a deep connection between the Ocampans and the universe itself in Cold Fire.
To be fair, there is one aspect of Deadlock that does make it unique to Voyager. It is the episode where Ensign Wildman finally has her baby. The pregnancy was first confirmed in Elogium, and has been mentioned a few times over the course of the second season – Ensign Wildman appeared in the teaser to Dreadnought, and Tom Paris joked about the pregnancy in the teaser to Lifesigns. The arrival of the baby is a pretty big deal. It is much an example of internal continuity and serialised storytelling as anything involving Michael Jonas and Tom Paris.
Indeed, there is an argument to be made that this might have been a much more effective model of serialisation going forward than the whole Kazon arc. Certainly, the second season is populated with a larger roster of more frequently recurring characters than any other season of Voyager; Wildman, Jonas, Hogan, Seska, Cullah, and even Denara Pel. However, most of these characters never appeared outside of this season; Wildman appeared as frequently in the second season as in the four seasons following.
The birth of Naomi Wildman should be a huge moment for the Voyager crew. It marks another transitory moment for the series, a point at which Voyager should become anything but a standard Starfleet ship as the crew became less of a bunch of people who work together on a starship and more of a wandering family. However, Voyager had a habit of botching these moments; after all, Caretaker should have been an episode that marked Voyager as something mroe than just a Starfleet ship, with the integration of the Maquis and the arrival of Neelix and Kes.
Deadlock makes a great fuss about how big a moment this is. Neelix and the EMH separately describe the baby as their own; the bridge crew await news with baited breath. “You know, I didn’t expect to be this nervous,” Chakotay remarks. “It’s not even my child.” Janeway responds, “In a way, this child belongs to all of us.” It is a very nice sentiment, one that feels like Voyager might finally be willing to embrace its unique status quo in some small way. This is not a conventional Starfleet mission, and this is not a conventional Starfleet crew.
Sadly, this is not to be. Even ignoring the cynicism of killing off a child as a sucker-punch to the audience, the decision to kill the baby on arrival feels like more than just a shock moment. In a way, the death of Samantha Wildman’s child is a symbolic expression of the show’s deep-seated fear of change or growth. If Naomi Wildman’s arrival should mark a point of transition for the show away from a conventional and generic Star Trek show, then killing her off almost immediately is a way of offsetting that change and arresting that development.
Of course, Naomi Wildman does not remain dead. Perhaps the producers thought that killing off a child was too provocative a plot point; after all, Rick Berman had refused to let Ronald D. Moore kill Toral at the end of Redemption, Part II. Instead, the dead child is replaced by a perfect duplicate. It seems like Voyager‘s love affair with the status quo almost cancels itself out. (The show is completely nonchalant about Samantha Wildman’s trauma; imagine knowing your child was a perfect duplicate of your dead baby?)
In some respects, the generic nature of the script works to the advantage of the episode. The high-concept idea at the heart of Deadlock is so big that it tends to crowd out the actual plot. Deadlock makes great use of the Vidiians as stock Star Trek baddies, right down to their eagerness to harvest the organs of a newborn baby. “Where’s the infant?” the Vidiian surgeon demands. “Set your bio-probe to maximum. Find it!” Those newborn baby organs are particular sweet, dammit! (It’s those delicious stem cells.)
To be fair, this isn’t really a problem. Lifesigns did a lot to humanise and develop the Vidiians, and the climax of Deadlock needs a bunch of heavies to prevent the episode from getting too bogged down in magic technobabble solutions to a pretty goofy science-fiction concept. If anything, Deadlock suggests that Voyager really chose to focus on the wrong villains in its first two seasons; the Vidiian hijacking of Voyager is a lot more unsettling and horrifying than a Kazon hijacking might be. (Not least because the Vidiians actually kill the crew when taking the ship.)
That said, a lot of the success of Deadlock comes down to David Livingston’s direction. In Captains’ Logs Supplemental, Jeri Taylor explained that Livingston actually managed to bring Deadlock in significantly under time:
It was like eight or nine minutes short, and we kept writing scenes, and they just kept getting gobbled up on those stages. It’s much better to be long than to be short. There’s never any accounting for it. Why is one seventy-page script eight minutes long and with this one, with the same director, we had seventy-five pages and had to shoot two extra days to get enough material to make it long enough? It was not an inexpensive show as a result, but what I was pleased about was I would defy anybody to know what the added material is. It is seamless. Some of the added scenes are some of the better scenes. They do not stand out as fill at all.
Taylor is quite right; the episode works well enough as a whole that the new material doesn’t stand out; the episode never feels like it stops moving for any extended period of time. Even the talky scenes on the bridge add a bit of personality to an episode that is largely action-driven.
However, just because something is good does not mean that its legacy is also good. That is one of the more interesting aspects of examining something like the Star Trek franchise in retrospect; it is easier to assess the impact and consequences of certain creative decisions with the benefit of hindsight than it is in the moment. Creative decisions that work for particular stories can have a detrimental effect when applied to an entire franchise. A lot of bold ideas work because they seem new or fresh; that novelty is lost through repetition.
It could be argued that Christopher Nolan’s work on The Dark Knight had a detrimental impact on Warner Brothers’ superhero output (and even comic book movies in general) by establishing “gritty verisimilitude” as a tone that worked really well for the Caped Crusader. Going back further, Goldfinger is one of the most beloved Bond movies ever made; it is also the root of a whole host of the problems that would manifest themselves in the Roger Moore era. (It should be noted that Guy Hamilton also directed The Man with the Golden Gun.)
Deadlock marks the point at which the flaws with Voyager all coalesce and become a defining feature of the show. They aren’t necessarily fatal flaws here, with Deadlock moving fast enough to compensate for any issues that the audience might have. None of the problems with Deadlock are new, but this is the point at which they all come sharply into focus and at which Voyager comes to rely on them so heavily that they are worn through the carpet and into the show’s foundations.
Of course, the reason for this is because Deadlock is a very enjoyable piece of television. Had Investigations been a massive success and Deadlock arrived as a wet blanket, Voyager might have turned out very differently. It is impossible to ever know what might have been, but it is fun to speculate.
- 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: