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Star Trek: Voyager – Basics, Part II (Review)

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 II, the second season comes to an end.

In both technical and spiritual terms, 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 ISacred Ground, False Profits, Flashback and Basics, Part II.

Picking over the bones. An apt image for the third season premiere.

Picking over the bones.
An apt image for the third season premiere.

So, Basics, Part II marks the end of the show’s second production season. Even though it was the first episode of the third season to be broadcast, it was the last episode of the second season to be produced. It is very consciously designed to bring the curtain down on a particular era of the show. Basics, Part II marks the end of the line for various threads running through the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. It is the last Kazon story, the last Seska story, the last Lon Suder story, the last Star Trek television script written by Michael Piller.

Basics, Part II seems written in the hope that it might end a troubled era for the show and for the larger franchise. While things undoubtedly got smoother, it remains highly debatable whether the franchise ever properly recovered.

Let sleeping eels lie...

Let sleeping eels lie…

The second season of Voyager was not a particularly pleasant place for anybody involved in the show. There was a massive internal struggle about the direction of the series, with producers Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor vehemently disagreeing about the best way to realise the show’s potential. Piller was the more adventurous and experimental of the two, but one prone to spectacular errors in judgment. Taylor was more conservative in outlook, capable of delivering safe (if unambitious) forty-five minute blocks of television.

The conflict between Piller and Taylor is interesting, because it tends to turn many of assumptions about television production on their head. Talking in abstract terms, it would be easy to paint Piller as the hero of this narrative. Given how frequently Voyager is criticised for its lack of ambition and adventure, Piller had a lot of good ideas about where the future of the show should lie. Piller wanted dramatic conflict between characters, he wanted faster scripts driven by action, he wanted long-form storytelling. These are all good ideas, in theory.

It is a massacre.

It is a massacre.

It should be noted that these ideas can work, under the right circumstances. Piller seemed to want a version of the show that was closer in tone and format to that of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which had successfully embraced long-form storytelling during its forth season that ran in parallel with the second season of Voyager. Piller was clearly on to something, because Ronald D. Moore would find a way to fuse the storytelling aesthetic of Deep Space Nine with the basic premise of Voyager for his relaunch of Battlestar Galactica, to considerable success.

The problem was that Piller had some absolutely terrible ideas. He implemented his ideas in the worst possible ways. Piller was largely responsible for the muddled racial politics of the second season, with his script for Tattoo standing as the worst example. While Alliances was credited to Jeri Taylor, it was very firmly rooted in the toxic politics that Piller had established for the Kazon, leading to a story thread where Janeway decided she could not get along with the primitive Kazon and so allied herself with their former slavers. This was almost as bad as the worst of the original Star Trek.

Doctoring the evidence...

Doctoring the evidence…

This is to say nothing of the decision to base the show’s long-form arc around the Kazon. Even if the Kazon were not a deeply problematic race, they would not be interesting enough to sustain such a story. The Kazon never appeared to be a credible threat to the crew of Voyager, to the point that Basics, Part I makes it seem like Piller has skewed the entire universe in their favour. It seems a surprise that the Kazon have not accidentally crashed or blown up the ship by the time Basics, Part II opens, given their difficulty with the replicator in State of Flux.

The mid-season Kazon arc consisted of nothing but awkward inserts of Michael Jonas covertly conspiring with the Kazon to do something ominous while Tom Paris pretended to be a jackass to smoke him out through convoluted means. There was no real meat to the arc, no reason for the audience to invest in or care about what was happening. Jonas was an obvious bad guy, Paris was just pretending. Neelix (Neelix!) ultimately saved the day. By the time that the arc wrapped up in Investigations, it was more of a mercy-killing than a conclusion.

Taking his bow.

Taking his bow.

In contrast, Taylor offered a safer and more traditional model for Voyager. Taylor tended to favour episodic storytelling and consciously downplayed conflict between the various lead characters. Perhaps Taylor’s most radical creative designs concerned a conscious effort to feminise Voyager – whether through the introduction of (and focus upon) “Janeway Lambda One”, Torres’ sexual fantasies about Chakotay in Persistence of Vision, or even the focus on the relationship between Janeway and Chakotay in Resolutions.

These were relatively novel approaches to Star Trek, and interesting in their own ways. However, Taylor never quite embraced these experimental elements, opting for a more conventional style. Given that most of the enduring criticisms of Voyager attack the show for being too cautious and risk-adverse, it would seem logical to paint Taylor as the villain of this narrative. She was advocating for a safe middle-of-the-road show. However, it is not that simple. Life can seldom be reduced to heroes and demons.

Heal thyself...

Heal thyself…

While Piller had a great deal of difficulty realising his more ambitious vision of Voyager, Taylor proved quite adept at telling small-scale episodic stories within the familiar Star Trek template. Piller’s experiments backfired horribly, resulting in some of the worst Star Trek ever produced. In contrast, Jeri Taylor brought a confidence and professionalism to her vision of the series. There is a legitimate argument to be made that the third and fourth seasons of the show – those overseen directly by Taylor – represent the most consistent stretch of the show’s seven-season run.

However, the war had been fought and won by the time that Piller put pen to paper for Basics, Part II. It was decided that Michael Piller would step aside after the third season premiere, no longer managing the day-to-day running of the franchise he had overseen for more than half a decade. Michael Piller had joined the franchise at the start of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It seemed almost appropriate that he would retire from active service at the start of the third season of Star Trek: Voyager.

Baby on board...

Baby on board…

Basics, Part II is surprisingly candid about the changing of the guard. The metaphors and the commentary are very thinly veiled. In fact, Michael Piller explicitly described it as a thesis statement when interviewed for Braving the Unknown:

The last thing I wrote for Voyager was Basics, and it wasn’t by chance that it was named Basics. And it wasn’t by chance that it was about some very fundamental issues confronting this Starfleet crew. Because it was my message to the franchise to say… the key for success, the way to make this show work, the way to make this franchise fresh, is to stay with the basics that Roddenberry set forth to us to begin with, to do the stories that have themes, to always ask, ‘What is it about?’ Basics was a show about this very high-tech crew stripped of all of their technology, their ship taken away, sent to this prehistoric planet. What do you do if you don’t have your toys? What a great theme. I just couldn’t get enough of stories that had great themes, provocative material that made us think as an audience, “What would I do in that circumstance?” That’s what Roddenberry taught me and that was my last message to the staff of Voyager.

Of course, “basics” represents a “back to basics” approach in a number of other ways too, but we’ll circle back around to that. For the moment, it is enough to observe that the episode was commentary and it was intended as such.

Tuvok always was a straight arrow...

Tuvok always was a straight arrow…

Basics, Part II might have aired directly after Basics, Part I, but the two episodes were not produced back-to-back. Of the four “holdover” episodes produced after Basics, Part I and held back until the beginning of the third season, Basics, Part II was the last to be produced. There were lots of reasons why this decision made sense. Both episodes were written by Michael Piller and directed by Winrich Kolbe, so it made sense to break them up in terms of pre-production and post-production.

Of the four episodes being held back, Basics, Part II was the most ambitious in terms of production value; not only did it involve a lot of location and special effects work, but it also involved a fairly large supporting cast. However, there was also a symbolic importance to holding the production of the episode back to the very end of the production block. Basics, Part II closes this chapter of Voyager. There is something entirely appropriate about positioning Basics, Part II as the last episode produced during the second season.

Worming around...

Worming around…

Of course, there were other pragmatic concerns. Michael Piller had written Basics, Part I very much in the style of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I. Part of that included writing the story without any real sense of how it was going to conclude. Jeri Taylor acknowledged as much in Braving the Unknown:

Did we know, when we wrote the cliffhanger, how we were going to get them out of there? No. I think, by the end of the season, the writing staff was so exhausted and just trying to make it to the end of the season. And you know you’ve got a great cliffhanger, and you’re done, and you want to go off and just sort of sleep for six weeks. And then, you come back and you’re faced with the problem of, ‘What do we do?! How do we get them off of there?’ And that’s one of those corners you paint yourself into. So we had our work cut out for us, when we came back, and we got them off.

While Taylor makes it sound like the production team took the whole summer hiatus to figure out how to approach resolve the cliffhanger, Basics, Part II actually wrapped filming before the break. (A Vision of the Future offers 19 April 1996 as the last day of filming.)

Caving to pressure.

Caving to pressure.

Nevertheless, there is a sense Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II were not actually plotted together as a single story. It seems like they were treated as a standard season-bridging two-parter, with the first part written and produced before the second part was actually plotted. In practice, it seems like a rather strange approach to this particular two-parter. After all, Basics is the only season-bridging two-parter to be shot as part of the same production season. There was a rare opportunity for planning and structuring across the two episodes, that was mostly ignored.

That said, the final act of Basics, Part I is so meticulous in setting up and foreshadowing plot elements from the second half of the story that it seems likely at least some last-minute changes were made to the first part. Those final few minutes of Basics, Part I are quite conspicuous in establishing details that will come back in the second part, from Tom Paris suddenly deciding to abandon ship to the quick shot of the natives to a brief cameo from the cave monster. That final act of Basics, Part I ensures that very little comes out of nowhere in the second part.

"Okay, so we might be a LITTLE lost."

“Okay, so we might be a LITTLE lost.”

The obvious point of comparison here is between Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. Because the two episodes were filmed in two separate production blocks with the summer hiatus between them, there was no necessarily time to revise Scorpion, Part I so that it fit perfectly with Scorpion, Part II. Most notably, Seven of Nine is introduced out of nowhere in Scorpion, Part II because Brannon Braga had only hit on the concept of the character while watching Unity and Jeri Ryan was only auditioning as Scorpion, Part I was broadcast.

Of course, this decision to shoot Basics, Part I as one of four third season episodes at the end of the second season comes with its own set of challenges and obstacles. Most obviously, the episode was consciously boxed in. The fact that Sacred GroundFalse Profits and Flashback had already been filmed meant that Basics, Part II had to end with the crew back on the ship as though nothing had changed with no (major) changes to the cast list. In contrast, waiting several months after the cliffhanger would have allowed the staff more room to come up with radical ideas.

Sorry, Suder.

Sorry, Suder.

In a way, this just cements the idea that Voyager was an inherently conservative show. Deep Space Nine typically used the gap following its season finalés to reconfigure and adjust the subsequent seasons. The decision to reveal Odo as a Founder and add the Defiant to Deep Space Nine in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II was only reached during the hiatus after The Jem’Hadar was aired. The addition of Worf to the cast and the focus on the Klingons in The Way of the Warrior happened only after The Adversary had been broadcast.

In fact, there were rumours upon the broadcast of Basics, Part I that the show might take a big creative gamble and allow the Kazon to remain in control of Voyager for more than a single episode at the start of the third season. Kenneth Biller acknowledged these rumours in Cinefantastique, admitting, “We discussed the idea of having us on a planet for a number of episodes. That has not been ruled out, but it’s not happening now.” Voyager was never going to be that adventurous, and the fact that three episodes of the third season had already been filmed all but confirmed that.

Talk about a cliffhanger.

Talk about a cliffhanger.

Ironically, Deep Space Nine would do something very similar in the gap between its fifth and sixth seasons. Call to Arms would end with the show’s primary antagonists taking control of the eponymous space station, forcing the heroes into exile. Instead of immediately resolving that status quo change in A Time to Stand, the writing staff took the time to play the idea out. The first six episodes of the season all featured the Dominion in control of the station, a creative gambit that Voyager would never have attempted.

Even if the ending was predetermined, Basics, Part II was a notoriously troubled episode of Voyager from a production standpoint. Even allowing for the space afforded by moving the episode to the end of the production schedule, Basics, Part II was undergoing constant writing and re-writing up until the last possible moment. It seemed like the writing staff was constantly revising and reworking the episode up until the moment that it was actually shot. Michael Piller’s legacy was being constantly tweaked and turned.

Mother of mercy...

Mother of mercy…

Martha Hackett has talked about the surreal experience of the major plot changes that were coming in as the production moved closer and closer to the date of filming:

Hackett had read the original draft of the teleplay for Basics Part II, in which Seska lived and baby died. “I got the page changes, so I saw that two days later it had reversed.” She was disappointed, but “these are things that actors don’t have any control over; these are all producer decisions. For someone like me who is a recurring character and not even a series regular, it’s not something you argue about.”

It was not a reassuring sign that so many major revisions were being made to the script so late in the day. It is one thing to tweak some dialogue or add a scene to extend the runtime. It is another to completely alter the ending of a story.

The Lon ranger.

The Lon ranger.

Watching Basics, Part II, it is quite apparent that this is not the episode that Michael Piller wanted to produce. This is not the resolution that he wanted to the cliffhanger that closed the second season. This is most obvious in the clumsy revelation that Chakotay is not the father of Seska’s child, despite all the elaborate set up in Manoeuvres. From a political perspective, this is an opportunity for the show to exorcise Michael Piller. However, from a plotting perspective, this a very odd revelation; Basics, Part I hinged on Chakotay accepting the child as his own.

Basics, Part I even featured a mystical conversation between Chakotay and his deceased father about the importance of letting the child into his heart. The entire Kazon ambush was predicated upon the idea that Chakotay was rescuing his son from Seska and the Kazon, a plot point that is rather bluntly dropped at the end of the story. It seems that the moral of the Basics two-parter is that Chakotay should only be concerned about the safety of a child that is his own flesh and blood. Once it is discovered not to be, it ceases to be his problem.

"It turns out the Klingon ship was only trying to warn him... about the Romulan hiding in his aft cargo hold!"

“It turns out the Klingon ship was only trying to warn him… about the Romulan hiding in his aft cargo hold!”

There is something deeply unpleasant about this. Chakotay’s father explains, “He knows nothing of deception. He is innocent.” He proceeds to tell a heartwarming story about how Chakotay is the descendent of a child born of rape, and how the tribe accepted a child was not responsible for the circumstances of its birth. It seems strange that Chakotay’s responsibility to protect a child only exists as long as he is directly related to it, even if he was not actively involved in its conception.

It is not so much that Chakotay is not the father, but how readily the show seems to treat this revelation as something that lets Chakotay (and the show) effectively “off the hook.” This revelation completely undercuts the central narrative thrust of Basics, Part I. In fact, the revelation is treated as such an afterthought that the audience is never treated to a scene of the EMH telling Chakotay that Seska’s child is not his flesh-and-blood. The baby that drove so much of Basics, Part I is all but forgotten once the EMH reveals his true parentage.

Pesky Seska.

Pesky Seska.

Martha Hackett rather bluntly called out the decision to re-write that piece of back story and character development:

“To not make the child Chakotay’s was a wimpy move,” Hackett said. “If the child is his, it provides a lot more complex stuff for him later on down the line. Like it or not, that is a more complicated experience, so they kind of took the wind out of their own sails.”

She is entirely correct. The revelation helps to ensure that Basics, Part II ends the Seska and Kazon arc on a whimper rather than a bang.

Tribe, tribe, tribe again.

Tribe, tribe, tribe again.

Then again, that is entirely the point. The writing staff very clearly wanted to get pas the Kazon, in a literal and figurative sense. Michael Piller had insisted on keeping the Kazon as part of the show, despite the logical contradictions and the simple fact that they did not work. This makes a great deal of sense; Alliances and Investigations are series (and possibly franchise) lowlights, while there is no way Voyager should spend two years traveling through Kazon space. At the same time, Basics, Part II lacks any sense of grace or finesse in how it closes the arc.

It seems strange that nobody on the surface of Hanon IV even bothers to mention the child. After all, they do not even know the child’s true parentage at this point. It seems like it would be a topic of conversation as the crew attempts to survive, that Chakotay’s failure would weigh upon his conscience. After all, just because the baby is not in immediate danger does not mean that Seska and Cullah are likely to be competent parents. Instead, it feels like Chakotay and the show have washed their hands of the baby before the second part even starts.

"I really don't want to be in charge of laundry when the crew get back."

“I really don’t want to be in charge of laundry when the crew get back.”

This is apparent even in how the revelation is structured. Basics, Part II refuses to make a big deal out of it. The scene is not positioned at an act break, the reveal is not slowly built up over the course of a scene. Instead, the information is just dumped in the most awkward manner possible. In fact, the dialogue feels like it is making excuses. “He’s the first offspring of a Cardassian and a Kazon,” the EMH asserts. Discussing the fact that the baby’s make-up is clearly not that of a Kazon character, he adds, “Perhaps he will develop more Kazon features as he matures.”

There is a reason that this feels like a conspicuous re-write of Basics, Part I. Put simply, it is the production team seeking to wash their hands of everything that Michael Piller had done (and had directed to be done) with Seska and the Kazon. Revealing that Chakotay is not the father of the child allows the production team a clean slate, a way to be completely free of the disastrous legacy and taint of the Kazon. Voyager can continue on its way as if nothing ever happened. If Basics, Part I is about bringing Piller’s plots to a climax, Basics, Part II is about tidying them away.

Tensions boil over...

Chakotay is hot stuff!

Michael Piller was quite aware of what was happening, even if he was powerless to do anything to stop it. He has talked candidly about how his contributions were minimised and erased by the re-writes:

I wanted the child of Chakotay and Seska to die in part II of the second season cliffhanger as a counterpoint to the birth of Ensign Wilder’s baby on the planet, but it was deemed to be thematically too violent and so the baby lived but turned out to be not Chakotay’s after all, which undermined the effectiveness of the story I was trying to tell.  I was a lame duck and leaving, so I couldn’t fight very hard. That’s the only thing I ever remember not getting that I wanted in my entire Star Trek career.

In that way, Basics, Part II could be seen as an exorcism of Michael Piller. It is Voyager casting off the producer’s influence so that it might continue forward charting its own course. (Or following that of The Next Generation.)

Lighten up.

Lighten up.

Perhaps Basics, Part II is best understood as a cull, both literally and figuratively. Chakotay’s son and the Kazon are figurative victims of this cull. Seska and the Kazon would make a brief reappearance in Shattered during the show’s final season, but it is Mortal Coil that contains the most noteworthy reference to the Kazon of the show’s later years; Seven of Nine confirms that the Borg deemed the Kazon “unworthy” of assimilation. The Kazon become a joke, a failure of an antagonist, unworthy even of being rendered fodder for the Borg.

Seska and Lon Suder are more literal victims of the cull, characters killed off because the writing staff has absolutely no interest in using them going forward. In both cases, the characters receive rather ignominious deaths. Seska is killed by an exploding console, the death that Star Trek shows traditionally reserves for extras to prove that the ship is really under threat. Lon Suder is shot in the back by an anonymous Kazon, denied any interaction with any member of the regular cast. There is a ruthlessness to these deaths.

Putting it all together...

Putting it all together…

Martha Hackett was not happy with the circumstances of Seska’s demise:

“I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘This must be a mistake. Maybe they’ll change their minds,’ but they didn’t. However, you know what, that’s show business. I’ll admit I was disappointed. I think the character’s death was wimpy. If Seska had to go then someone should’ve done away with her, preferably Janeway or Culluh. She shouldn’t have died as a result of Voyager being blasted, especially as she was standing so near to her baby, who would have been killed, too. I’m not a writer, though, so I can’t second-guess their decisions nor those of the show’s producers.”

Hackett is speaking with the candour of an actor who just lost a recurring gig, but she’s not wrong. It’s an underwhelming finish to an underwhelming arc.

Going west...

Going west…

Still, writing out Seska and the Kazon makes a great deal of sense, even if the particulars are a bit rough. The Kazon never quite worked. At best, they were are boring and borderline racist. At worst, they facilitated stories like Alliances, where Janeway decided that she got along much easier with former slavers than freed slaves. While the Vidiians had worked surprisingly well as recurring (if under-developed) antagonists, it seemed like every attempt to deepen and develop the Kazon only served to make things worse.

There were lots of reasons why the Kazon did not work, but there was always something tone-deaf about the basic idea of doing “street gangs… IN SPACE.” The Kazon emerged from Los Angeles of the mid-nineties, a city caught in the rip of an urban panic that was often coded in explicitly racial terms. This was a city still coming to terms with the legacy of the Los Angeles Riots and the Rampart scandal and the O.J. Simpson trial. The Kazon amounted to a bunch of middle- and upper-class white writers trying to engage with gang culture, and so seemed inherently ill-judged.

"This used to be such a nice neighbourhood..."

“This used to be such a nice neighbourhood…”

Insulated by history, it is easy to forget just how big an issue these gangs were in the context of nineties Los Angeles. Indeed, they were even a source of casual conversation between crew members during the filming of Basics, Part II. In Visions of the Future, Stephen Edward Poe captures a conversation between special effects artist Wil Thoms and art department member Charlie Russo:

Wil Thoms straddles a bench, facing Charlie Russo. Wil is telling Charlie about his latest run-in with “those little punks” – teenage gang members – who are trying to take over the neighbourhood where Wil lives in the San Fernando Valley. Gang problems have been increasing the last few years, and so has Wil’s antigang crusade.

Despite threats on his life and attacks on his property, Wil has been resolute in his activism. He has been successful in getting some of his neighbours to join his efforts, and as a result the street he lives on is safer and quieter than it once was.

“But those little punks don’t give up,” he tells Charlie. “They just moved to the next street over.” Wil and his neighbours are now expanding their efforts to enlist the aid of the homeowners on the surrounding streets. “They have no right to interfere with our lives,” he says emphatically. “No right.”

This was the context in which the Kazon were designed, and it is easy to see how such an approach could lead to some of the uncomfortable racial subtext that permeates the Kazon episodes. It is probably for the best that Basics, Part II marks the end of the Kazon as a recurring concern for Voyager, even if that ending is less than graceful.

Killer instinct...

Killer instinct…

More frustrating is the decision to kill off the character of Lon Suder. As created by Michael Piller working on an idea from Michael Sussman, Lon Suder embodied a lot of the fears about random violence that could be found in the Kazon. However, Suder was free of the problematic racial subtext that made the Kazon so deeply uncomfortable. It also helped that the character was played by Brad Dourif. Suder is easily the most recurring guest star of the show’s first three seasons, much more engaging than Carey or Hogan or Seska or Cullah or Jonas.

Suder poses a challenge to Voyager. He is a character who would be an episodic concern on any other Star Trek show, including Deep Space Nine. However, the very nature of Voyager means that he is not a problem that can be handed off. With Suder, Voyager faces a profound existential question: how do they deal with a problem like this? Suder’s punishment and rehabilitation cannot be handed off or pushed downstream; it has to be tackled immediately. As with the integrations of the two crews, this is a fascinating storytelling opportunity.

Bubbling beneath the surface...

Bubbling beneath the surface…

(It could be argued that the character of Suder is cynical or dark, a rejection of the utopian and idealism of Star Trek. This is a rather superficial reading. Instead, Suder challenges the franchise’s utopian ideals. How do you deal with a violent offender when you cannot make them somebody else’s problem? Is it possible for a community to redeem and reform even the most brutal of prisoners? Suder’s redemption arc is as inherently optimistic as anything in the first three seasons of Voyager, and very much a forerunner for Seven of Nine’s journey.)

Unfortunately, Jeri Taylor had no interest in developing that arc any further. Suder was very clearly a loose end, and Basics, Part II treats him as such. Suder gets his big heroic moment saving the ship, and is promptly shot in the back for his trouble. There is no indication that anybody other than Tuvok and the EMH mourn his loss. Unsurprisingly, the episode does not have Janeway acknowledge that she misjudged him in Basics, Part I, when she questioned his trustworthiness and his rehabilitation.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

Voyager just wants to be done with Piller, and that means it just wants to be done with Suder. As Piller confessed to Captains’ Logs Supplemental:

It’s a real wipeout. Jeri never cared for Suder and had no interest in developing him any further, so there was no point in keeping him alive. And a dramatic arc is fully realized by having his death occur at the end of part two. He heroically sacrifices himself for the ship.

It might have been more satisfying to see Suder fully redeemed, running an arc similar to Ro Laren on The Next Generation or Garak on Deep Space Nine.

Suder yourself...

Suder yourself…

It should be noted that Brad Dourif is great as Suder. Indeed, it could legitimately be argued that Suder has the most complete character arc of the whole Basics two-parter. Dourif was fantastic in Meld, playing an unhinged and detached killer in the mould of Hannibal Lecter. In Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II, Dourif twists all of that around to portray a more sympathetic side to the serial killer. The most emotional scene in the entire two-parter is Suder having a breakdown after murdering a Kazon, clearly wracked with guilt and anxiety.

It is a surprisingly complex scene, where Suder is not upset about the act itself; he is clearly upset at his emotional response to it. In some respects, Suder’s arc mirrors that of Chief O’Brien on Deep Space Nine. O’Brien is constantly afraid and ashamed of what he has done, the idea that he might still be a soldier rather than an engineer. In Basics, Part II, Suder faces the possibility that all of his calm and restraint might slip in an instant, that he is and always will be a killer. It is a nice way to mine tension from the story, given the retaking of the ship is all but assured.

"This does seem a little familiar, now that you mention it."

“This does seem a little familiar, now that you mention it.”

Although less noteworthy than the deaths of Seska and Suder, the Basics two-parter marks the end of the Piller era in another way. Basics, Part I marks the second and last appearance of Henry Darrow as Kolopak, Chakotay’s father. Darrow had previously appeared in Tattoo, and makes a small appearance in Basics, Part I to counsel his son during a meditation ritual. The fact that this is Darrow’s last appearance signals a change in direction for Chakotay for the seasons ahead.

Piller had been largely responsible for imbuing Chakotay with a decidedly New Age philosophy. Piller was responsible for Chakoty-centric episodes like The Cloud and Tattoo, stories that tended to treat the character’s Native American heritage as a collection of mystical stereotypes populated by vision quests and sky spirits. The portrayal was as offensive in its own way as Piller’s approach to the Kazon, and it is a good thing that Chakotay’s conversation with his father serves to close the book on this interpretation of the character.

(Over the remaining five seasons of the show, the writing staff make a conscious effort to avoid exoticising Chakotay’s Native American heritage. The medicine wheel from Cathexis never makes a second appearance. When Chakotay does find himself communicating with an alien species on a strange plane of existence in The Fight, the episode eschews the sort of Native American imagery associate with the Piller era for something less cliché. Even when Captain Ransom goes on his own vision quest in Equinox, Part II, it is with the use of technology rather than through meditation.)

Live and let lava...

Live and let lava…

However, while Basics, part II exists largely to draw down the curtains on the Michael Piller era, it is still very much a Michael Piller script. When Piller talks about using the two-parter to argue that the writing staff should “stay with the basics”, he is talking about more than just the first principles of writing for television. Basics, Part II seems to bring Michael Piller’s vision of Voyager a full circle. The episode essentially harks back to what Michael Piller wanted Voyager to be, playing almost as a repeat of various elements and beats from Caretaker.

Piller wanted Voyager to effectively take Star Trek back to “basics.” The show was intended to represent a clean break from the increasingly-developed world of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, allowing the writing staff the opportunity to get away from the trappings of politics and familiar species. The idea was to replicate the sensibility of the original Star Trek, an idea that found expression in a number of different ways across the first two seasons of Voyager. Piller wanted Voyager to evoke the original show.

A number of design choices consciously echoed the original Star Trek, from the bright primary colour costuming of Time and Again to the set design of The Thaw. Stories like Time and Again and Cathexis seemed to reflect fifties paranoia about nuclear energy and communist infiltrators. There was a renewed interest in horror storytelling, with episodes like Phage and Cold Fire recalling the sort of horror that seemed to be waiting for Kirk in episodes like The Man Trap and Charlie X.

However, there was also a sense that Voyager was consciously evoking the classic series’ frontier mythology for itself. Like Kirk, Janeway operated on the bleeding edge of the frontier, without a framework to support her. It was no coincidence that Caretaker took Janeway and her crew to a desert world that evoked the setting of so many classic westerns. Part of the issue with Kazon was the way that Caretaker explicitly coded them as generic “savage” aliens, based on the racist portrayals of Native Americans in classic westerns.

Basics, Part II features a lot of this sort of imagery, almost carried over from Caretaker. As with Caretaker, Janeway and her crew find themselves stranded a long way from home. In Caretaker, that home is the comfort and security of the Alpha Quadrant; in Basics, Part II, it is the comfort and security of Voyager itself. In both Caretaker and Basics, Part II, Janeway finds herself on a desert world having to confront a less technologically-advanced civilisation.

Piller consciously plays up these parallels. In Caretaker, the Kazon have captured Kes and taken her as a slave. In Basics, Part II, Kes is also kidnapped by the local tribe; Chakotay is offered another woman “in trade.” Piller trades in unfortunate clichés, the idea of the tribal “savage” who kidnaps a fair-skinned and blonde-haired woman in order to demonstrate their savagery.  Basics, Part II plays out Piller’s vision for the series in miniature, a metaphorical return to many of the ideas espoused in Caretaker.

In that respect, Basics, Part II feels like a criticism of Voyager. Piller seems to be arguing that the production team have abandoned many of the ideas that made Caretaker so appealing to him. Certainly, there is a sense that Piller has a very esoteric vision of Voyager; the last thing the show needs is more stereotypes of “primitive” cultures designed to make Janeway and her crew seem more advanced or evolved. However, Piller also seems to be arguing that the show completely abandoned the challenge that the Delta Quadrant was supposed to represent.

For Piller, this challenge seems to mean more action-driven storytelling with a decidedly trashier aesthetic. It seems like Hanon IV is drawn entirely from the covers of pulpy science fiction novels. The planet seems to have everything, from “primitive” natives to man-eating monsters to erupting volcanoes. Basics, Part II does not strand the crew on an alien world so much as in a cheap fifties page-turner. The climax of the episode features Chakotay bounding across lava to rescue a trapped native so he might earn the respect of her tribe.

Piller’s vision of Voyager was deeply problematic, embracing all the more uncomfortable aspects of the western genre in a rather unquestioning fashion and wallowing in old-fashioned pulp science-fiction conventions. It is debatable whether Piller’s approach to Voyager could ever have worked, or whether it would have been much worse than the version of the show that would emerge during the more tranquil third season. However, it is also clear that Piller never truly got a chance to implement his vision for the show, often wrestling with his own staff to realise his goals.

So Michael Piller had to go, his version of Voyager left as nothing more than a pencil sketch that had been erased and redrawn so often that it was barely recognisable. Piller’s vision of Voyager would never manifest itself, but his continued attempts to force it into being simply prolonged Voyager‘s search for its own identity and sense of self. If Basics, Part I positioned Piller as a counterpart to Chakotay, a father confronted with a child he had never expected, then Basics, Part II suggests that Piller is really Seska.

For Voyager to survive, it seems, Piller had to go. So Seska dies at the end of the episode. The baby is bundled up by Maj Cullah and taken away. Piller’s version of Voyager is cast out once and for all. As harsh as this might seem, it appears to have been necessary. With Piller gone, the writers’ room became a lot less contentious and adversarial. Writers were less prone to snap at each other in the fan press. (At least until Ronald Moore showed up.) The production team could actually focus on the show, instead of arguing in circles.

However, it seems likely that a clean break was impossible. The bell could not be unrung. Those contentious seasons would cast a long shadow. When Piller took control of The Next Generation following a turbulent set of seasons, he oversaw a changing of the guard so that many of the writers on the later seasons were new. In contrast, the core of the writing staff on Voyager was already established by this point. For the rest of the run, the loudest voices in the writers’ room would be veterans of these turbulent first two seasons.

It is interesting to wonder whether these conflicts and disagreements were indirectly responsible for the series’ more conservative aesthetic going forward. The second season of Voyager had tried to innovate in its second season, but those experiments had led to a lot of antagonism and frustration without any appreciable success. Knowing what happened behind the scenes, it is entirely understandable that the production team was left with little taste for adventure following Basics, Part II.

It seems likely that all of this contributed to the sense of disconnect that Ronald D. Moore would find when he joined the writing staff four seasons later. A veteran of both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, Moore found that the writers’ room on Voyager to was not conducive to doing good work:

I think that the product that you are getting now is also a reflection of the way the show is produced. Certainly the spirit of Deep Space Nine, and what we were trying to do, and what we believed in, informed what we put out. You could say that Deep Space Nine was too inside, and it was too complex. It got too much inside of its own head to be accessible to people who just approached the show for the first time, but that is a reflection of deep passion and commitment to the show. Whereas Voyager is so scattered internally, the way it’s put together, that in a large measure, the product is very scattered, and doesn’t have cohesiveness. In terms of the arc of the relationships and the working environments, it was just like a parabola. It started tense, difficult, but, ‘We are all in this. Let’s just keep the show going somehow, and it does matter. It doesn’t matter if Gene likes us or not, it doesn’t matter if Michael is mad at us today; we are going to get the show on the air, so come on.’ TNG was about learning the craft. We were all trying to do the best thing, and sensing that it was getting better, and watching the ratings go up, and watching more public acclaim, and watching it become its own piece of Americana, and eventually eclipsing the original series to a large extent in the popular imagination. Deep Space Nine was this real sense of, ‘We’re here. Let’s do the best show we possibly can, and let’s push the concept as far as we possibly can.’ I was hearing stuff about Voyager all along. Then to go to Voyager and just to find out that on a personal level that the environment was not conducive to doing good work. The environment was chaotic and fraught with other issues that just didn’t have anything to do with the work. It just became another job. That’s never what I had experienced, and it was very disappointing. We’re talking just about the work environment. That’s aside from all the reasons that I left.

Although Basics, Part II draws down the curtain on a turbulent and traumatic phase of the show’s history, it is a simplification to suggest that it was all plain sailing from this point forward. The wounds had been inflicted. The scars would linger.

Still, at least the journey would be a lot less turbulent from here on out.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the third season of Star Trek: Voyager:

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17 Responses

  1. While I agree that the fourth season was a high point in Voyager, I cannot see how that applies to the third season. It had no direction, and the number of bad episodes it has are staggering. Basics part II, False Profits, Sacred Ground, The Q and the Grey, Macrocosm, Coda, Blood Fever, Darkling, Rise, Favorite Son, Real Life, and Displaced are all bad verging on terrible episodes. There are also several just forgettable episodes like Alter Ego or the Swarm. It is true that this was the season when Voyager settled into its status quo, but I do not not think that is cause for celebration.

    • To be fair, part of that is likely down to the fact that season two is so soul-destroying terrible than any status quo and stability is to be welcomed.

      Part of that is also down to the fact that I actually don’t hate all of those episodes. I actually don’t hate Sacred Ground and I like Macrocosm in a “goofy, pulpy, illogical sci-fi” sort of way. (I think I was fond of Darkling for the same reasons.) I haven’t seen Blood Fever in quite a while, but I remember liking Coda at the time. I’m also fond of Future’s End. And I think that the third season is a point where the genericness of Voyager kind of works. The Chute and Remember are very archetypal generic Star Trek stories with structural issues that stem from bigger issues of Voyager, but I think they do that broad “Star Trek as allegory” quite well.

      I think that on the whole, it’s good/bad ratio is no better or worse than the fifth through seventh seasons, but I think it hits the tone better. If that makes sense.

  2. I will say this for it, voy had the greatest assemblage of female characters in a franchise where the vast majority of women are appalling at best.

    Taylor can take credit for some of that.

    And like Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman or that bubblegum Supergirl show out now, the writing is depressingly sub par for such a beloved series.

    • There is something very strange about Voyager, which has one of the most diverse Star Trek ensembles but an astonishingly terrible track record of writing for them. Let’s have a Native American character, so we can spout new ageisms! Let’s have a recurring female antagonist who is smart and deadly, so she can become baby crazy! Then again, there was warning. Caretaker was largely told from the perspective of the one white guy on the primary cast.

      (I’m discounting Picardo and Phillips, because they are both quirky supporting performers in the pilot.)

    • Is Voyager a beloved show? I think it’s often thought to be the dark horse of the Trek stable but it might get stiff competition from Enterprise now.

      • Yep. I think Enterprise is more polarising, but I think Voyager’s lacklustre nature is a rare piece of Star Trek fandom consensus.

        That said, I know people outside of fandom who genuinely love Voyager, and who think of it when they think about Star Trek. Which I think I touch upon in later reviews, when I talk about Taylor making Voyager the most generic of Star Trek shows.

  3. Because I lived in a TV-free household for a couple of decades, I’m watching Voyager for the first time. My understanding of the show — both what’s on the screen and what was happening behind the scenes — is deepened immeasurably by your reviews, and I thank you for them.

    • Thanks Cory! I hope you enjoy. Plan is do Enterprise season four in May, TOS season three in July, and then jump back into DS9/VOY in August, hopefully.

      • I’m really looking forward to your TOS-3 reviews!

        I haven’t seen Enterprise. Some friends told me, “Anyone who likes Vulcans shouldn’t watch Enterprise, because that show makes all the Vulcans assholes.” I adore Spock, and I like Tuvok, so I’ve been holding off on watching Enterprise. (Well, and because it takes me forever to get around to watching video, even though I READ voraciously.)

        What do you think? Are my friends right?

      • I am probably the wrong person to ask.

        I strongly believe that Vulcans have been consistently portrayed as assholes, with Spock being the one big exception and Sarek only softening after Kirk brings his son back from the grave. Look at Amok Time. T’Pring schemes to get Spock to kill his best friend. T’Pau consciously omits the fact that Kirk will be fighting Spock to the death. In Journey to Babel, Sarek is hella racist and obnoxious, which later shows down play by suggesting that his whole “Tellarites argue just to argue” bit is a feature of their race rather than an attempt to belittle and diminish a fellow delegate.

        The Vulcans probably do best on TNG, where all Sarek’s entourage do is passively endanger the ship and the obnoxious Vulcan ambassador turns out to be a Romulan spy. But nobody suspects her, suggesting that this is not unreasonable behaviour for a Vulcan.

        However, DS9 and VOY go full asshole Vulcans. DS9 has the poorly-reasoned terrorist Vulcan from The Maquis, the hyper-competitive Vulcan from Shakaar, the Vulcan bully from Take Me Out to the Holosuite and the psychotic Vulcan from Field of Fire. Voyager has Tuvok. And I love Tuvok, but he is not necessarily a pleasant person. In Prime Factors, he organises the mutiny against Janeway because he assumes that he knows best. In Meld, he makes it clear that he still considers the Maquis dangerous. In Investigations, he admits to helping orchestrate a sting operation that involved lying to Chakotay for months to the point that Chakotay got smacked across the jaw by Paris. In Worst Case Scenario, it is revealed Tuvok had a secret plan to train the crew for a possible Maquis mutiny. Some of these decisions are reasonable and defensible. There’s an argument to be made Tuvok is just doing his job. But these are not decisions that demonstrate respect for his crew or his superiors.

        I think Enterprise continues on that trend, logically extrapolating from the portrayal of every Vulcan who is not Spock dating back to the second season of TOS. But I’ll readily admit I’m in the minority on this.

        To be honest, there are stronger reasons not to watch Enterprise. Most obviously, the first two seasons (the second season in particular) are not consistently good. (Not even “very good.” They rarely hit the “good” threshold.) If you are very attuned to continuity, which I’ll admit I’m not really, they will drive you up the wall. I adore the third season of the show, but it spends its first half trying to figure out what it is doing and gets very grim, even if I think it ends on the right notes. (It is very much in the tone of the second half of DS9, albeit obviously grounded in the War on Terror.) I am less fond of the fourth season than most, but it is certainly the safest choice for a long-standing Star Trek fan.

        I’d maybe try dipping your toes into the water. Try a few episodes from the first and second seasons, if you want. Continuity is fairly light between them, so you should be able to wade in or out. Broken Bow is not a good pilot, but it’s a fair representation of what the first two years are. From the first season, I like episodes like Breaking the Ice, Cold Front, Dear Doctor and Shuttlepod One. Of those, Shuttlepod One is probably the least controversial. With the second season, I like Minefield and Dead Stop as a loose two-parter. I like Judgment, Regeneration and Cogenitor. Although, again, Cogenitor is probably the least controversial.

      • Paris didn’t give Chakotay a smack in the jaw Darren in Lifesigns, just a push to the floor. Although Chakotay slugged Dalby in Learning Curve.

      • Apologies! I get my Chakotay discipline scenes confused!

  4. One problem with the Kazon, well, another to pile on the list, is the inconsistency of the threat they pose.

    These are scrappy, desperate people, but they have the usual “Big Spaceship” every other race had, so in practice, facing them is the same as facing any other species, they’re just dumber.

    Maybe they could have used their characteristics to make something a bit different. Instead of regular space combat, they fight dirty, they lay ambushes, use fake distress calls etc. You can never trust what’s happening when they’re involved. They don’t have regular ships that are a bit weaker, they have smaller craft that are nothing on their own, but you have to face 100 of them that make a powerful swarm.

    The awful racial parts would still have needed to have been taken out, but at least they’d have an interesting gimmick.

    • They’re just dumber, but they’re also pathetic. And not in the same desperate way that made the Vidiians so interesting. Just… sad.

      • Yeah, that’s the kind of thing I talking about that, use it. They’re sad and pathetic, but you have enough of them, then you’re in trouble.

        They know how bad they are so they find ways to get around it.

  5. Basics represents the end of an era for Voyager as we move beyond Kazon and Vidiian space and begin a new phase for the show. The third season truly feels like the first season of Voyager where the ship is actually making progress towards the Alpha Quadrant; having the Kazon be a constant threat was something that dogged Voyager throughout its first two seasons and like you’ve said before Darren, there were times when it seemed like the ship wasn’t getting anywhere. The final shot of Voyager warping home is the exact one from the end of Caretaker, and I wonder if that’s meant to be symbolic now that the Kazon are out of the picture. Is this truly the first time that Voyager is finally going home?

    I think Basics missed an opportunity to do a Die Hard riff with Suder and the Doctor trying to outmanoeuvre the Kazon. But since they’re such terrible bad guys, it wouldn’t have the same satisfaction value. Like Gul Dukat in The Sacrifice of Angels, even after Culluh takes control of Voyager, he can’t keep a hold of it. But there’s not the same sense of tragedy. You actually feel for Dukat when victory is snatched from his grasp, and he’s the bad guy. With Culluh, it’s like “well duh”.

    I really hate the way Hogan was disposed of. He was not just some redshirt along for the ride and to have him swallowed up by some alien snake like a castoff from Dune does a great disservice to Trek as a whole. The best thing I can say about it is it paved the way for Distant Origin.

    Although Voyager would never again attempt long-form storytelling, the only other times I can recall examples of the events of an episode bleeding into another were Scorpion and The Gift and Message in a Bottle and Hunters. They were rare examples of Voyager trying to experiment with less episodic storytelling and were not monumental failures like what S2 tried to do.

    I’ve often wondered if the Kazon with their ridges and misogyny are meant to be a blend of two Alpha Quadrant species, the Klingons and the Ferengi. It seems that in the absence of some truly interesting Delta Quadrant races, the writers have to fall back on the races we already know.

    You said four seasons instead of four episodes again Darren. For some reason, that picture of Hogan at the cave entrance looks more like Joe Carey. Life can seldom be reduced to Heroes and Demons; is that a joke Darren? Was Fuller meant to be Suder Darren? It’s ironic that Chakotay’s tribe didn’t use bows and arrows. Is it just me or does the alien medicine man resemble Henry Darrow? Is this the first time Ayala speaks? Why build camp next to a volcano? Didn’t the Voyager crew worry that Tom might not come back?

    • Ha! I just noticed the “Heroes and Demons” line above the picture of the EMH. I’m not sure whether that was intentional or not. I might take the credit anyway. 🙂

      That’s a very good observation about Basics, Part II borrowing that shot from Caretaker.

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