This February and March (and a little bit of April), 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.
With Basics, Part I, the second season comes to an end.
In a very specific sense, of course. The production team decided to retain the strategy that they had employed during the show’s first season, adding an additional filming block on to the end of the season in order to film a bunch of episodes that would be broadcast at the start of the third broadcast season. At the end of the first season, four episodes were produced and held back – Projections, Elogium, Twisted, and The 37’s. As such, four second season episodes were produced after Basics, Part I – Sacred Ground, False Profits, Flashback and Basics, Part II.
However, Basics, Part I marks the end of the show’s second broadcast season. It is very consciously designed as season finalé, something that the first season had struggled with by slotting Learning Curve into the broadcast slot. Basics, Part I also marks the beginning of the end for various threads running through the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. It is the first part of the last Kazon story, the last Seska story, the last Lon Suder story, the last Star Trek television story written by Michael Piller.
It marks the beginning of the end of a troubled era for the show and for the larger franchise.
The second season of Voyager had been tense for everybody involved. Despite the fact that Voyager had emerged at the peak of the franchise’s mid-nineties popularity, the series had floundered out of the gate. Fans were highly critical of the show, the series’ profile was arguably hampered by its ties to the struggling UPN, and there was chaos behind the scenes. Robert Beltran confessed as much in an interview with Cinefantastique during the third season:
“The end of last year [second season] we were a little depressed because we know we had a good show. We know that we have a great ensemble of actors. I’d put us up against any show on television right now, and we’ll hold our own against anybody. We have some very, very good actors on the show. But it seemed to me that we weren’t being appreciated and we weren’t being watched. We weren’t being publicised the way we should have been. We don’t complain, we just do our job.”
Of course, it is debatable how much actually improved from the third season onwards. Beltran would certainly find the way to both do his job and complain during the later seasons of Voyager, making several high profile (and broadly accurate) critiques of the show while it was still on the air. Still, however troubled the later seasons of the show might have been, they were never quite as fraught as the second season had been.
There was considerable tension among the writing staff during the second season. Following a perceived snub with regards to the scripting duties on Star Trek: Generations, writer and producer Michael Piller departed Voyager halfway through the first season to produce the television series Legend. The show last half a season before being cancelled, allowing Piller to return to Voyager at the start of the second season. Piller immediately began trying to impose his own vision upon a writers’ room that had changed in his absence.
Some of this involved trying to force new techniques upon an unwilling writing staff. Piller wanted to consciously speed up the pacing of Voyager‘s scripts, in order to keep pace with the larger market. Unfortunately, he decided to attempt this on Tattoo, which might be one of the worst episodes of Star Trek ever produced. He also pushed the show towards a model of serialised storytelling that was very much in line with (and might even have pulled ahead of) contemporary television. There was just one problem; it was tied to the Kazon.
The writing staff did not take kindly to Piller’s direction of the series. In fact, several senior members of the writing staff took to the fan and industry press in order to publicly criticise his decisions. Reading Cinefantastique over the course of the second season, it was hard to avoid the criticisms made of Piller’s creative directives by writers like Kenneth Biller and executive producer Jeri Taylor. In particular, Taylor seemed to have a different long-term vision of Voyager, something a lot more conventional in its storytelling than Piller’s vision of the series.
This was not a conducive creative atmosphere. Piller had departed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on good terms with Ira Steven Behr and his writing staff, politely accepting that it was Behr’s choice whether or not to kill off the character of Vedek Bareil Antos in Life Support in the middle of the third season. In fact, Behr still gets sentimental talking about the letter that Piller sent affirming Behr’s right to make a different creative decision and to follow his own creative process through to the end. Piller’s departure from Voyager was a lot rougher.
During the second season, there was something of a palace coup organised against Michael Piller. He recalls the experience in the introduction to his unpublished memoir Fade In:
There was a writers’ rebellion of sorts on my last year as head writer at Star Trek, four years after Roddenberry’s death. Some of the writers at Voyager went to Rick to say they wouldn’t return if I came back. It was nothing personal, Rick told me. We were all friends. But my rules were holding them back. My creative demands were suffocating them. They wanted to be free to do the things I wouldn’t let them do as writers.
Piller is remarkably even-handed when talking about the events of the late second season, but even his retelling gives some sense of scale to everything that was going on. A bunch of writers had offered a “him or us” ultimatum to Rick Berman, forcing Michael Piller to step aside.
This is a remarkable turn of events. To be fair, Piller was a notorious combative executive producer who could generate no shortage of controversy in the writers’ room owing to his undiplomatic style. Piller is largely credited with salvaging the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation following a discordant first two seasons, but his first year on the show was almost as turbulent as his last. Many of the strongest and most compelling third season episodes were held together by nothing more than blood and sweat.
Yesterday’s Enterprise was rewritten by the core of the writing staff over Thanksgiving, locked in the office to pull together a script that was simply not working. Piller was highly disappointed with René Echevarria’s first draft of The Offspring, and the script became a point of contention between Piller and story editor Melinda Snodgrass. Everything exploded when, against the recommendations of Ira Behr, Piller sent an infamous “writing 101” memo to the show’s staff. There were mass resignations, including Hans Beimler, Richard Manning and Melinda Snodgrass.
Nevertheless, certain writers thrived under Piller’s stewardship. Ira Behr left The Next Generation at the end of the third season, but he was headhunted by Piller to oversee the day-to-day running of Deep Space Nine. Ronald D. Moore cites the combative nature of Piller’s style as something that helped The Next Generation to find its own voice:
Michael created an atmosphere where you really felt free to voice your opinions. You could argue with the boss. I argued with Mike a lot, right to the point I thought I should be fired, but he never even came close to that. That’s a tribute to him. What he really fostered was this sense of, ‘We’re all in this together, and it’s just about the work. It’s just about making the best show that you possibly can.’ That was always everybody’s top priority.
It should be noted, of course, that Moore never worked with Piller on Voyager. Moore was working on Deep Space Nine at the same time that Piller was trying to drive Voyager. Without actually being in the writers’ room on Voyager, it is hard to know if that same logic applied to Piller’s final years on the franchise. Maybe his outlook had changed, or maybe he was simply working with a staff that was less engaged with that particular style.
Whatever the reason, Michael Piller stepped aside at the end of the second season. The Basics two-parter was very much intended to be Piller’s swan song on the franchise, his attempt to bid farewell to Star Trek. Of course, it wouldn’t take. Despite the fact that he was snubbed on Generations, Piller would be approached to write the script for Star Trek: Insurrection, the third film based around the Next Generation cast. It would have a similarly troubled production history, particularly from Piller’s perspective.
In some respects, Basics, Part I is a classic Michael Piller script. In many respects, it is the classic Michael Piller script. Although more obvious parallels present themselves with Scorpion, Part I, Basics, Part I represents a conscious attempt to emulate the formula and tempo that made The Best of Both Worlds, Part I such an effective season finalé. There is an argument to be made that Piller never wrote a better Star Trek script than that third season cliffhanger for The Next Generation. Watching Basics, Part I, it would seem that Piller would agree.
The key to The Best of Both Worlds, Part I has nothing to do with plot or theme. The beauty of the episode is the unrelenting tension. The Best of Both Worlds, Part I marches the show towards its first cliffhanger. The tension is gradually ratcheted up as each scene ticks by. Very little actually happens in terms of plot. Picard is abducted by the Borg and transformed into Locutus, as a gigantic Borg cube hurtles towards Earth and the Enterprise tries (and mostly fails) to stop it. However, to focus on the plot is to miss the point.
The Best of Both Worlds, Part I is about constantly escalating the stakes on a level both personal and epic. The threat posed by the Borg is established in the closing shot of the teaser, and never really changes. Riker grapples with the offer of a command that everybody knows he will never accept. The Borg focus on the Enterprise, expressing an interest in Captain Picard. All of these elements are very straightforward, but they move like clockwork. The simplicity of the script allows for both effective character-driven scenes and a sense of mounting anxiety.
Basics, Part I hews quite close to that template. The teaser establishes a clear threat and objective for the episode, with Chakotay receiving a message warning him that his child is in danger. The executive officer faces a tough decision, although Chakotay’s challenge is much more personal than that facing Riker. Over the course of the hour, the ship commits to a singular and focused mission. There is a sense of mounting tension and anxiety, reinforced by the sense that a Kazon plan is slipping gradually into place around the crew.
To be fair, this is not the firs time that Piller has attempted to apply the sensibilities that he brought to the third season of The Next Generation to the second season of Voyager. Most notably, he had tasked writer Kenneth Biller with drafting an internal memo intended to flesh out the history and traditions of the Kazon as part of his work on Initiations. Piller had asked the same of Ronald D. Moore as part of the development of what would become Sins of the Father. Of course, the Kazon were no Klingons and Kenneth Biller was no Ronald D. Moore.
There is a weird sense of symmetry to all of this, with Michael Piller ending his last season of Star Trek with a cliffhanger that consciously calls back to the end of his first season on Star Trek. After all, The Best of Both Worlds, Part I was the episode where Piller had effectively decided that he was going to commit to Star Trek in the long term, after carefully weighing his long-term options. Basics, Part I feels like an attempt by the writer to bookend his tenure on the franchise, bringing everything a full arc.
Indeed, Piller has admitted that he played out his own career crisis through the character of William Riker in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I. Much like Riker was considering his future on the Enterprise, Piller had been considering his future on Star Trek. If that is the case, it is interesting to wonder what internal conflict Piller was playing out in Basics, Part I through Chakotay’s crisis of parenthood. Certainly, Chakotay’s duty of care for an unwanted child could be read as a commentary on Piller’s own strained relationship with Voyager.
Certainly, Piller could be quite critical of Voyager‘s failings. Consider his discussion of audience testing in Fade In:
When testing was done on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the results told us that audiences were unhappy that the characters on board the space station didn’t always get along. And they complained that the “station doesn’t go anywhere.” In other words, they were asking for more of Star Trek: The Next Generation. We made a few adjustments to Deep Space Nine, but the real impact of that research was on the creation of Star Trek: Voyager. It was decided early on that it would be a ship-based show and there were to be no serious conflicts between the characters because that’s what the fans wanted. (emphasis original)
It seems quite clear that Voyager had not turned out in the way that Piller had originally wanted. It was not the baby he had hoped for.
Certainly, this reading becomes more interesting when considered in light of how Basics, Part II approaches the issue of Seska’s baby. In a way, the baby serves as a potent metaphor for Voyager itself. However, there is a conscious shift between the two halves of the two-parter. In Basics, Part I, it seems that Piller has cast himself as Chakotay; the man grappling with a show that is not quite what he intended it to be. In Basics, Part II, Piller is recast as Seska; a blood sacrifice of a version of the show that is carried away and never seen again.
Regardless of the circumstances behind the scenes, the Basics two-parter works reasonably effectively as a big season-bridging cliffhanger. The storytelling engine that made The Best of Both Worlds, Part I such a great piece of television still works, even more than half-a-decade after the episode aired. Basics, Part I creates a tangible sense of anxiety and dread. There is a sense that something is deeply wrong that runs through the episode, an inevitability into the trap facing Voyager and her crew.
It helps that Winrich Kolbe is a fantastic director. Kolbe is one of the most underrated Star Trek directors, but who has an uncanny knack for generating tension and claustrophobia. There is a sense of mounting dread to Basics, Part I, even during long dialogue-heavy scenes that do not necessarily advance the Kazon threat. The scenes featuring Lon Suder are particularly uncomfortable. Much like Cliff Bole did in Meld, Kolbe presents Suder as a monster, shooting him at odd angles and off-centre to create a sense of the uncanny.
Kolbe also does great work with Basics, Part II. Of particular note is the sequence in which Lon Suder massacres the Kazon in Engineering. On paper, it is a big action sequence; it is Suder’s big heroic moment where he saves the ship. However, Kolbe eschews the set piece itself and keeps the camera firmly on Suder rather than the action around him. The result is decidedly unsettling, conveying how eerily at ease Suder is with violence while making the audience feel claustrophobic. It is an unconventional way to shoot the scene, but it is very effective.
Of course, Basics, Part I cannot measure up to The Best of Both Worlds, Part I. It can demonstrate that the basic storytelling engine is fundamentally sound and that the production team can put together an effective thriller. However, The Best of Both Worlds, Part I was more than just an effective narrative structure. It capped a phenomenal (and redemptive) season of television. It featured a cast and writing staff working at the very top of their game. It featured one of the most compelling Star Trek antagonists ever created.
Basics, Part I simply cannot compete on that level. No matter how effectively Piller and Kolbe might rachet up the tension, the story has one fundamental flaw. It hinges upon Janeway and her crew being outwitted by the Kazon. Despite Piller’s best efforts over the second season, the Kazon simply are not scary or threatening. They are a bunch of tribal roughians who wear rocks in their hair. Their failed attempts to use a stolen transporter and replicator in State of Flux made them appear almost pitiable, tragic victims of their own lack of technical knowledge.
Basics, Part I features the Kazon hijacking Voyager and exiling its crew to the surface of a barren world. The only person who considered this scenario to be remotely workable was Michael Piller. Kenneth Biller acknowledged as much to Cinefantastique:
I have to agree that it was another instance of us getting outsmarted by the Kazon. Here are these semi-primitive aliens who seem to be smarter than us at every turn. That was a discussion and a concern. Michael liked the story, liked putting us on a planet, and he felt we had to play out the whole Kazon arc. I think we did too much of the Kazon.
The problem with having the Kazon repeatedly outsmart the crew of Voyager is quite obvious. It does not make the Kazon look smart, it makes the Voyager crew look dumb.
This is particularly obvious when it comes to the Kazon strategy of applying “death by a thousand cuts” to the secondary computer core. Based on the exposition, it is the only major system affected by the repeated hit and run attacks, which would suggest that the crew should try to figure out what the Kazon are planning. At the climax, it turns out that the self-destruct is controlled by the secondary computer core and that was the Kazon endgame; disabling the self-destruct sequence allows them to take the ship by force.
This comes as a surprise twist to the audience because the average viewer cannot be expected to know the in-depth workings of a high-tech computer core on a fictional futuristic starship. However, it should not come as a surprise to the Voyager crew. Janeway knows damn well that the Kazon would love to get their hands on Voyager’s technology; that was the entire point of episodes like State of Flux, Manoeuvres and Alliances. Given there is every possibility of a Kazon ambush, and given the attempts to disable the self-destruct, the Kazon plot seems quite obvious.
Of course, Janeway cannot figure this out. If Janeway deduces what the Kazon are planning, the whole episode falls apart. After all, the Kazon do not know enough about Voyager to pull this off on their own. This is very pointedly a “Seska” plot in the same way that the buoy at the start of Manoeuvres was a “Seska” plot. Although there is no way to know for sure, that would strongly suggest Seska is still alive and working with the Kazon, which would prove that the whole cry for help was a ruse. At which point, the Voyager crew would look like even greater idiots.
The Kazon plan in Basics, Part I is clumsy and inelegant. It relies on all manner of contrivances, from Voyager charging straight in without a plan to the crew finding Tierna before he dies. If Janeway had gotten suspicious after the first or second Kazon attack, the plot would have failed. More than that, the ambush seems to require considerable resources from the Kazon. Is Cullah working with the other sects or has the Kazon-Nistrim always been this strong? This is leaving aside the basic question of how Voyager is not long past Kazon-Nistrim territory by this point.
The writing and plotting of Basics, Part I came in for criticism and revision from the cast working on the episode. Kate Mulgrew and Tim Russ were both fairly dismissive of the plotting in an interview with Starlog:
I don’t think our dealing with the presence of the Kazon was as effective as the actual pursuit of our mission to get home would have been. I’m not a writer, but I think that if we keep a laser-like focus on the effort to get home, the tension will build. I also think we have to take more chances, that we have to raise the stakes. … Basics, Part I should have been bup-bup, bup-bup, bup-bup, bup-bup. We should have known what was happening. We’re Starfleet officers. There should have been more control on our part, especially from the captain’s point-of-view.
We had to do some changes on the set to make that work as well as it did.
There is a sense of fatigue underpinning that criticism, as if even the actors are exhausted by the Kazon. This gives a sense of the high-pressure working environment that was the second season of Voyager, where the executive producer is fighting not only his writing staff, but the cast itself.
The fact that Piller desperately wanted to turn the Kazon into a credible threat is not enough to make them an iconic Star Trek race. Basics, Part I should represent a moment of triumph or validation for the Kazon, the point at which they become one of the “great” alien races like the Klingon or the Borg; this is clearly what Piller is building towards. The Kazon hijacking Voyager is a moment akin to the Borg kidnapping Captain Picard; it is proof that this alien menace means business.
However, the Kazon hijacking Voyager never seems credible. The climax of Basics, Part I features the Kazon piloting Voyager with incredible ease, to the point that they are able to land on Hanon IV without breaking a sweat. To be fair, landing Voyager seems like a pretty big deal. Voyager has only landed once to this point in the series, as part of The 37’s. It seems rather incongruous that the Kazon should be able to hijack the ship and land it so easily. These were aliens that struggled with replicators and transporters in State of Flux.
This is even more frustrating considering that the Kazon go to all of this effort to strand the Voyager crew on Hanon IV in order to teach them an important lesson about the necessity of sharing. To be fair, it is a nice theatrical revenge; Maj Cullah gets a suitably grandstanding moment of self-righteousness, taunting Janeway, “A fitting end for a people who would not share their technology. Let’s see if you manage to survive without it.” However, it also feels like an incredible contrivance.
It is highly unlikely that the Voyager crew would be able to retake the ship from Hanon IV, but the fact remains that they know the ship infinitely better than the Kazon. It would seem more pragmatic for the Kazon to massacre the crew and keep a couple of crew members around for technical support. Cullah goes to a lot of effort to make it possible for Janeway and he crew to survive, and to give them a fighting chance to retake the ship. Given the effort taken to capture Voyager, it feels like the Kazon stumbling back into plot-driven stupidity.
It feels like every narrative contrivance is stacked in favour of the Kazon in the hopes of giving them a winning hand. Piller had developed a monomaniacal fixation upon turning the Kazon into a memorable nemesis, even going so far as to liken them to the Klingons. Over the course of the second season, this consistently and repeatedly blinded the writer to terrible decisions. Alliances found Voyager allying itself with unapologetic slavers; the Jonas arc sacrificed character for Kazon-heavy plot. The Kazon didn’t just hijack Voyager, they killed Michael Piller.
It is a shame, because there are some interesting elements to the portrayal of the Kazon in Basics, Part I, but they are drowned out by the fact that the regular cast are made to look like idiots in order to allow Maj Cullah an easy victory. As with the portrayal of the Kazon in State of Flux and Manoeuvres, there is a palpable desperation to their tactics here. After all, the Kazon are easily out-gunned by Voyager, operating at much less advanced level. In their best moments, they feel like guerillas waging war against a much stronger adversary.
In State of Flux, the Kazon were rendered almost sympathetic through the horrifying lengths to which they were willing to go for replicator and transporter technology. Any species so desperate for food and technology that they would beam people into solid walls and cause massive explosions evoke pity and compassion. Similarly, the daring raid on Voyager at the start of Manoeuvres presented the Kazon as a scrappy bunch of low-tech space pirates willing to take tremendous risks for basic technology.
Basics, Part I features a Kazon suicide bomber. Tierna takes a number of huge risks so that he might be positioned on Voyager during the final Kazon attack, detonating a compound within his blood which helps to cripple the ship at that crucial moment. Even getting Tierna on board Voyager involves no small amount of risk. “His hip is broken,” Kes reports. “Showing severe inflammation in the bronchial tissue.” Harry reflects, “If all this was part of a Kazon scheme, he had to be willing to breathe poison for hours before we got there.”
This is the most interesting aspect of the Kazon plot. How did they convince Tierna to do this? Was Tierna motivated by a sense of duty? Is Tierna a true believer? Was Tierna pressured? Is he doing this for his family? Before Tierna kills himself, he appears to make a religious gesture, akin to blessing himself. It is one of the most effective and unsettling aspects of the Kazon plot, even if it is left woefully under-developed. To take all those risks, simply to have the opportunity to blow himself up in a suicide bomb? That involves a level of fanaticism that makes the Kazon scary.
This all suggests a more interesting read on the Kazon, albeit one that arguably feels more relevant to 2016 than to 1996. Although envisioned as an awkward (and deeply problematic) commentary on contemporary Los Angeles gang culture, it is easy to reimagine the Kazon as a commentary on the economic and political realities of modern-day fanaticism. Indeed, the Kazon seem to lend themselves a postcolonial reading. Tierna is a suicide bomber engaged in warfare against a vastly superior military force using the only means at his disposal.
Of course, hindsight colours this reading. To be fair, suicide bombers were hardly a rare occurrence in the mid-nineties; although often suggested by European anarchists, the practice entered the political mainstream with the suicide bombing of the United States barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and the first female suicide bomber was employed as early as 1985. However, such suicide attacks trended downwards towards the turn of the millennium, with many commentators suggesting the tactic was outdated by 2000. However, the practice became increasingly common after 9/11.
As such, it is tempting to read too much into the use of Tierna as a suicide bomber exploiting any means at his disposal to attack a (vastly) superior foe. The tendency is always – whether consciously or unconsciously – to read fiction from a contemporary perspective. This is certainly a valid approach; as long as people are consuming and discussing culture, it remains a vibrant and living organism that can grow and change beyond its original cultural moment. But this approach can lead to some incongruities and draw attention to elements that were inconspicuous at the time.
It should also be noted that any reading of the Kazon as the dispossessed victims of colonialism runs into many of the same issues that dog the portrayal of the Kazon as an analogue to Los Angeles gang culture. Most obviously, the Kazon are still a staggeringly racist caricature of a “primitive” society, presented as stereotypical “savages” in a manner that is grossly offensive when applied to what is supposed to be a metaphor for a largely non-white group. (To say nothing of their darkened skin and distinctive hair.)
Reading the Kazon as fanatics and extremists driven to horrific violence like suicide attacks by the sheer desperation of their postcolonial status quo would be just as racially problematic. There is every likelihood that any attempt to develop the Kazon as low-tech guerilla fanatics would come with a whole host of unfortunate implications and uncomfortable subtext. Nevertheless, Basics, Part I does hint at a more interesting and engaging take on the Kazon than the majority of their appearances would suggest.
However, even Basics, Part I seems rather uninterested in this read on the characters. Tierna’s suicide bombing is not an important glimpse of the workings of Kazon culture. It is instead a plot point designed to justify the Kazon overwhelming Voyager’s defenses. There is a utility to the way that Basics, Part I uses Tierna that suggests Piller was not necessarily attempting to deepen Kazon culture or explore the realities of waging war upon a more technologically advanced foe; it seems likely Piller just wanted a big dramatic moment.
That is perhaps the issue with the Basics two-parter. It is an episode that is very consciously in search of “big” moments and dramatic pay-off, but which never actually earns any of them. As much as Piller’s script for Basics, Part I might emulate the structure of his script for The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, it ultimately lacks its predecessor’s heart. Perhaps that is Voyager in a nutshell.
- 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: