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Star Trek: Voyager – The Q and the Grey (Review)

The Q and the Grey is an extraordinary cynical piece of work.

What better way to mark the release of Star Trek: First Contact into cinemas than to ensure that the very next episode of Star Trek: Voyager to broadcast features a guest appearance from one of the most beloved recurring characters to have appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation? After all, the series had just led into the release of the movie with Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II providing a mid-nineties reimagining of the beloved Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Pitching Q.

Pitching Q.

More than that, with Michael Piller gone from the writers’ room, the production staff had laid out a vision for the future of Voyager. The series effectively jettisoned any number of ideas that Piller had fostered over the first two seasons, from tension between Starfleet and the Maquis to the Kazon to Lon Suder to the idea of long-form storytelling to the relationship between Neelix and Kes. Instead, Voyager had decided to pitch itself as the most generic Star Trek ever, with little reference to the central premise of the series from here on out.

Indeed, The Q and the Grey is the second story in a very short space of time to make light of the crew’s journey home by refusing to press a more powerful guest star for assistance. In Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, the ship’s temporally displaced return to Earth was shrugged with only a few lines of dialogue used to explain why this trip halfway across the galaxy could not be exploited to shorten their journey home. In The Q and the Grey, Janeway declines Q’s offer of assistance to get the crew home.

Bold-faced liar.

Bold-faced liar.

“My crew and I will get home,” Janeway informs Q. “We’re committed to that. But we’re going to do it through hard work and determination. We are not looking for a quick fix.” It is effectively the “building character” excuse for why Janeway doesn’t simply ask Q to return the ship home at the end of the story when the dust settles; nobody actually knows why that is, but it is probably best to offer some moral argument. The fact the Q could easily return the ship home, saving the lives of those who will die in the years ahead, is glossed over.

However, that does not matter, because Voyager has largely rejected its central premise. This no longer a series about a crew desperately longing to get home, except when it provides a convenient motivation. This is a Star Trek spin-off that is content to offer reheated leftovers inherited from The Next Generation. In this case, The Q and the Grey feels like a retread of Q Pid, a particularly uninspiring Next Generation episode. Next, Macrocosm will offer its own take on Genesis, another less than iconic Next Generation story.

And your little dog, too.

And your little dog, too.

All of this is building, to Voyager‘s most blatant and obvious inheritance from The Next Generation. The Borg are coming to Voyager, in greater numbers and higher concentration than they ever appeared on The Next Generation, as the show continues awkwardly trying on its older sibling’s clothes. It is disappointing and uninspiring by equal measure, watching Voyager abandon any pretence of its own identity in favour of something safer and more familiar. Then again, this was always a Star Trek show about longing for the comforts of home.

However, The Q and the Grey is not merely unoriginal and uninspired, it is also unfortunate. Kenneth Biller’s script is cringe-inducing and embarrassing, illogical and misogynistic. The biggest issue with The Q and the Grey is not that Voyager has settled for offering a pale imitation of The Next Generation. The problem is that that the imitation is downright terrible in its own right.

It fingers.

It fingers.

To be fair, there are a host of good ideas bubbling beneath the surface of The Q and the Grey. The most interesting effectively stems from the end of Death Wish, wondering what might have happened to the Q Continuum after Quinn committed suicide. It is a rather interesting story hook, because the outcome of the earlier story opens up all sorts of storytelling opportunities. This is very similar to the decision to follow up I, Borg with Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. It is not that the earlier story feels incomplete, merely that it suggests further stories.

This is one of the more interesting aspects of Voyager. One of the most frequent criticism of Voyager is that the show lacks a sense of long-form storytelling or serialisation. This is definitely true, following the dire experiments with long-form storytelling in the second season that led to Investigations. None of the characters on the series really grow over the course of the show’s seven seasons. There are never any character-driven consequences of decisions. There are no stories in which the crew makes measurable and incremental progression to a larger goal.

Puppy love.

Puppy love.

However, Voyager does have a different sort of internal continuity. Voyager may not like serialised storytelling arcs or organic character growth and plotting development, but it does like sequels. Voyager is a highly episodic series, with each story feeling relatively self-contained and relatively consequence-free for the main characters. Still, there a significant number of stories that build upon the conclusion of other stories. These developments are not slow-burning or cumulative or seeded, but they do exist.

The Q and the Grey is an obvious example, serving as a sequel to Death Wish. Later on, Q2 will serve as a sequel to The Q and the Grey. Course: Oblivion is a sequel to Demon. Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II form a sequel to The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. Spirit Folk is a sequel to Fair Haven. These are all episodes that do build upon one another in a a way that feels logical and organic, their basic plot elements stemming from the conclusion to the original story.

"What? I'm getting my sequel hook in here early."

“What? I’m getting my sequel hook in here early.”

This should not be confused with serialisation. In many cases, these sequels actually make very little sense as examples of long-form storytelling. How could doppel!Voyager catch up to real Voyager in Course: Oblivion? Voyager has travelled three years and more than thirty thousand light years since The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, so it seems strange to suddenly bump into the Hirogen again (even if they are nomadic hunters) in Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II.

Still, these sequel episodes demonstrate something about the way that Voyager chooses to tell stories. The series is not necessarily interested in continuity of character in the same way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is. Instead, the series is interested in concepts that can be used to drive plots. Those concepts are generally dangling hooks and questions in terms of plot points, rather than character beats. Indeed, this was arguably the biggest problem with Tom Paris’ arc in the second season; it was driven by plot rather than rooted in character.

"A toast. To ten years of Q guest appearances!"

“A toast. To ten years of Q guest appearances!”

To be fair, the hook dangling from Death Wish is quite delicious. The Q Continuum present themselves as an aloof society existing above it all, detached from the petty affairs of mortals and only intervening on their own terms. Q is himself seen as a rogue and a trickster, his meddling the exception rather than the rule. So what happens when everything that this society thinks that it knows about itself is thrown into chaos? “The Continuum is burning,” Q states. “The Q are in the middle of a civil war.” What does it look like when gods wage war?

The dialogue hints at intriguing possibilities. “The forces of the status quo tried to crush us once and for all, but we fought back,” Q insists. “And now there’s a cosmic struggle for supremacy, and the battle is spreading, causing hazardous repercussions throughout the galaxy.” These are beings who exist beyond any frame of reference. “How exactly did the Q come into existence in the first place?” Janeway asks. Q responds, “The Q didn’t come into existence. The Q have always existed.” He does not suggest Janeway thinks in such three dimensional terms.

The stars are going out...

The stars are going out…

This is very much a conflict that exists beyond human frames of reference. It is a war in heaven, that classic idea of a war on a plane so far above humanity’s comprehension that is consequences ripple across the face of reality. Milton touches upon the idea in Paradise Lost, when the angel Raphael attempts to define Lucifer’s rebellion:

High matter thou injoinst me, O prime of men,

Sad task and hard, for how shall I relate

To human sense th’ invisible exploits

Of warring Spirits; how without remorse

The ruin of so many glorious once

And perfet while they stood; how last unfould

The secrets of another World, perhaps

Not lawful to reveal? yet for thy good

This is dispenc’t, and what surmounts the reach

Of human sense, I shall delineate so,

By lik’ning spiritual to corporal forms,

As may express them best, though what if Earth

Be but the shaddow of Heav’n, and things therein

Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?

It is an idea that is intriguing to contemplate, one that forces the reader’s imagination to expand to encompass it. The Q and the Grey practically invites the comparison by consciously paint the Q as gods. Q suggests that his son could be “a new messiah”, while the Q ultimately procreate by touching fingers in a way that evokes The Creation of Adam.

Everything burns.

Everything burns.

It should be noted that “the war in heaven” was a frequent motif in turn of the millennium popular culture. To be fair, this may be largely down to the fact that high-concept television and fantasy shows were relatively rare before The Next Generation demonstrated what was possible on a weekly television series. Still, this fascination with conflicts bubbling beyond mankind’s perception could also be seen to reflect the anxieties of a society that thought itself to be standing at the end of history. The biggest threats were not literal, but abstract.

Chris Carter was particularly fascinated with the idea, incorporating it into The X-Files and Millennium. In The X-Files, this fascination informed the portrayal of the would-be alien colonists and their rebel opposition in episodes like Patient X and The Red and the Black. In contrast, Millennium portrayed the concept in terms that were at once more literal and more abstract. Angels and demons wrestled for the soul of the world in episodes like Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions, fighting battles beyond human comprehension.

Holo pursuits.

Holo pursuits.

Brannon Braga would hit upon the idea repeatedly while working on the Star Trek franchise. The temporal cosmology suggested by Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, along with the temporal shenanigans of episodes like Relativity, paved the way for the Temporal Cold War on Star Trek: Enterprise. Episodes like Cold Front, Shockwave, Part I and Future Tense defied any sense of logic or coherence, even as they argued that the very fabric of the Star Trek universe was under threat.

When Russell T. Davies brought Doctor Who back to television in 2005, he suggested that the entirety of the nineties had been lost to such an abstract concept. The television series wisely refused to define the mechanics of “the Last Great Time War” in any material detail, instead presenting it as an abstract conflict for the very soul of Doctor Who in which the show’s own continuity was shredded and entangled. History and narrative were broken, with the show suggesting that the franchise’s narrative had been mortally wounded.

That's his Q.

That’s his Q.

In The Minimal Self, Christopher Lasch suggests that these existential anxieties were rooted in response to the looming armageddon threatened by the development of nuclear weapons at the end of the Second World War and by the fixation upon environmental collapse of the sixties and seventies:

It was no simply that this revival of barbarism on a global scale called into question naive conceptions of historical progress and human perfectibility. The self-destructive quality of the violence associated with it appeared to undermine even the premise that ordinary selfishness normally restrains men from indulging their aggressive impulses in complete disregard of the interests of others of the fear of reprisals. The death-wish seemingly underlying the resurgence of mass murder, together with the failure of humanist traditions to anticipate or illuminate it, led to a growing conviction that “contemporary social theory, both capitalist and socialist, has nothing to say,” as Norman O. Brown put it in Life against Death, about the “real problem of our age.”

As such, there was a suggestion that even the basic principles underscoring human existence had been eroded or destroyed in the second half of the twentieth century. Far from reassuring people, the end of the Cold War furthered this crisis by leaving western civilisation facing countless existential threats instead of a single oppositional force.

"Worth a shot, no?"

“Worth a shot, no?”

This anxiety bubbles across Voyager‘s run. While Deep Space Nine felt quite detached from the nineties, Voyager was fairly firmly rooted in the decade. In fact, if one accepts the argument that the nineties ended (spiritually, if not literally) with the attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001, then Voyager wrapped up just before that end point. More than The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, the series was absolutely fascinated with the nineties, taking trips back to the decade in episodes like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and 11:59.

Even in the context of The Q and the Grey, a little bit of millennial anxiety seems to creep in around the edge of the frame. Given that the episode emphasises Q’s status as a god-like figure and hinges upon his plan to impregnate a human woman to usher in an era of peace, the basic plot seems to evoke the late nineties fascination with the Second Coming. After all, many people believed that the turn of the millennium would usher in an era of change. Some Christians believed it would involve the rebirth of Jesus Christ.

"Where's your messiah now, eh?"

“Where’s your messiah now, eh?”

Q’s plan to produce a half-Q half-human child with Janeway is very much framed in these religious terms. “Mating will create a new breed of Q, which will combine my omnipotence and infinite intellect with the best that humanity has to offer,” Q boasts. “What the Continuum needs right now is an infusion of fresh blood, a new sensibility, a new leader, a new messiah.” It is a surprisingly cheeky and provocative line, particularly when paired with other elements of the episode.

Unfortunately, The Q and the Grey never quite manages to live up to any of these interesting ideas. The concept of a “Q Civil War” is fascinating, if only because it exists beyond the realm of human imagination. What weapons would the Q employ against one another? How would this conflict manifest itself on the mortal plane? How would reality buckle and bend under the demands placed upon it? There are any number of interesting ways to present this conflict, to underscore the magnitude of what is happening.

Lighting the way.

Lighting the way.

The portrayal of “the Last Great Time War” in Doctor Who is just one example. Throughout the stewardship of Russell T. Davies, the conflict was presented in abstract terms as a trauma inflicted upon reality itself. References to the Time War were coached in abstract and lyrical terms. In The End of Time, Part II, the Doctor described the final days of the Time War in hellish terms, referring to “the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been-King with his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres.”

None of this is ever depicted on screen, but the phrasing is evocative. It invites the audience to use their imagination to conjure the epic scale of this conflict over time itself. Given what Star Trek has established about the scale and power of the Q Continuum, the Q Civil War should be something similar. Instead, it feels rather mundane. The biggest impact of the conflict on the mortal plane involves a number of stars going supernova prematurely. This is undoubtedly a big deal, particularly for any inhabited worlds around them, but it also feels very lazy.

Putting the matter to bed.

Putting the matter to bed.

Why does the damage done by the Q manifest itself through supernovas? Why not through the destruction of planets or civilisations or galaxies? Why does this have to involve explosions? Surely the Q can wage war in more inventive terms? What about weaponised entropy or time distortions? Given the extent of the Q’s power and influence, why is this damage localised in terms of time and space? For a race that can travel anywhere and anywhen, why do these supernovas only seem to be occurring in the Delta Quadrant and at this precise time?

To be fair, there is a hint of irony to this idea. After all, Voyager is a Star Trek show. What better way to denote a threat to the Star Trek universe than to have the stars literally go out? If the Q Continuum destroy all the stars, can Star Trek still exist in a literal sense? It is not the nuanced of metaphors, but it does work. If Star Trek is about journeying between the stars, it makes sense that the stars themselves serve as guideposts and markers; without them, all is lost. It is a theme to which Voyager returns on a number of occasions, most notably in Night.

Until the stars go out...

Until the stars go out…

The Q and the Grey feels like an appropriate place to pose such an existential challenge. Following the thirtieth anniversary celebrations and the release of First Contact, the franchise entered a decline; in terms of viewership, cultural reach, box office receipts, even quality. It feels appropriate to level this existential challenge in the first episode to air after the release of the film. (On Deep Space Nine, similar ideas played out; The Ascent had Quark and Odo climb to the peak of what looked like the Paramount logo, suggesting the only remaining direction is down.)

Still, the supernovas serve as an overly obvious and literal expression of the damage that the Q are doing to space and time. This is very much the level at which Voyager has chosen to operate. Wars are conflicts that typically involve explosions, and supernovas are just big explosions, so it makes sense that a very big war would have supernovas. It is reductive and condescending, as if The Q and the Grey does not trust its audience to accept that the conflict raging in the Q Continuum might ripple down to the mortal plane as more than just “big explosions.”

Keeping it Civil.

Keeping it Civil.

Then again, there is a laziness that runs through the episode. When Q took the crew to visit the Continuum in Death Wish, the decision to filter millennia of mundanity through the prism of a dusty desert town felt like a clever way to communicate the central themes of the episode. After all, the desert town felt suitably abstract; it was marked by a road that lead everywhere and nowhere, but always right back home. In contrast, the portrayal of the Q Continuum in The Q and the Grey feels decidedly unambitious.

Of course, it is debatable whether Star Trek ever properly capitalised on the potential of a character like Q. However, there has always been a certain visual imagination to the character’s portrayal, a certain sense of mystery and imagination. The portrayal of the “post-atomic horror” was striking in Encounter at Farpoint. The war games in Hide and Q were fairly simple, but they were much more memorable than the conflict in The Q and the Grey. Even the portrayal of Q talking to the Continuum through his shadow in True Q was more visually effective than this.

Feelin' blue.

Feelin’ blue.

The Q Civil War is framed in imagery drawn from the American Civil War. It is suggested that this portrayal is for the benefit of Janeway, a literal representation of an abstract concept. “This is a much more colourful representation for a human of American descent, don’t you think?” Q asks Janeway. “An elegant manor house, a beautiful Southern belle, a dashing Union officer determined to win her affections despite her hatred for Yankee interlopers.” However, the Civil War setting is too specific. It lacks the ethereal wonder that marked the desert way station.

It also makes no real sense. The Q shoot at one another using weapons that look like they were lifted from the set of a Civil War film. They can make one another bleed using these devices. “I can assure you, those are not mere cannonballs and lead charges being fired at us,” Q warns Janeway. “You’d be surprised what innovative munitions can be created by one immortal being who’s set his mind on killing another.” However, they are never presented as anything more or less than “mere cannonballs and lead charges”, even as far as Janeway is concerned.

"Look, if we'd been doing this twenty years later, I'd be dressed as Captain America."

“Maybe it’s for the best. If we’d been doing this twenty years later, I’d be dressed as Captain America.”

“If their weapons can make me bleed, what do you think they’ll do to you?” Q asks. It is an interesting idea. Would they erase Janeway from history? Would they rewrite her back story? Would they destroy here entire genetic structure across the length and breadth of the timeline? On an even more basic level, would they be even more effective on Janeway than they are shown to be on Q? The Q and the Grey never seems particularly interested in answering these questions. An exploding cannonball in the mansion does no more harm to Janeway than to Q.

There is a laziness that creeps through The Q and the Grey, which feels like little more than an excuse for the cast and crew to play dress-up as Civil War soldiers. At the end of the episode, the confederate!Q are ambushed by a combination of the union!Q and the Voyager crew. This brings about an end to the conflict and allows Voyager to ride off into the (non-supernova-ing) sunset. However, the mechanics of all this are left relatively vague and underdeveloped by the script.

General dissent.

General dissent.

How were the Voyager crew able to lead the union!Q to a victory that they could not accomplish on their own terms? Surely the Voyager crew were hopelessly outgunned because the confederate!Q weapons would be so much more effective upon them? How many casualties were inflicted upon the Voyager crew by the confederate!Q? What does the period of Q Reconstruction look like? None of these questions are explored. Instead, it seems like Paris is able to sneak up on the leader of the confederate!Q and force a cease fire because the episode is ending.

Indeed, the looseness of the resolution opens up all sorts of other questions about the Q Civil War. What exactly are the Q fighting about? Q makes reference to the “forces of the status quo” opposing his rebel band, but the specific terms of the conflict are never defined. Is Q fighting for the right to self-determination in memory of Quinn, paving the way for mass Q euthanasia? Is the war rooted in the desire for something more general, like a Q Bill of Individual Rights? What do the union!Q want that the confederate!Q don’t, and how does that change the Continuum?

"The whatever-relative-direction-we-are will rise again!"

“The whatever-relative-direction-we-are will rise again!”

There is a sense that The Q and the Grey is not particularly interested in these questions, which is quite a disappointing development. Death Wish ranks as one of the best Q episodes ever produced because it dares to ask provocative questions about self-determination and societies that find themselves stagnating. In contrast, The Q and the Grey really has nothing new or exciting to say. So instead it settles for being a fun run around in period costumes with Civil War battle scenes. It is a wasted opportunity.

Of course, part of the problem is that the Q Civil War is effectively forced into the second half of the episode to make room for a stunningly misogynistic and ill-judged plot thread focusing on Q’s efforts to seduce Janeway. Even before getting into the actual mechanics of the plot, it is worth noting that Sisko and Picard never had to put up with anything like this. Apparently, the only thing that the Voyager writing staff could think to have Q do on meeting the franchise’s first female lead for the second time would be to try to sleep with her. This is very unfortunate.

"What? Don't women find it sexy when men choose lingerie and then put it on them against their wishes? Call me old fashioned."

“What? Don’t women find it sexy when men choose lingerie for them and then put it on them against their wishes? Well, call me old fashioned.”

It is an incredibly sexist storytelling decision, and one that is disappointing on multiple levels. It is arguably out of character for Q himself. As Atara Stein argues in Minding One’s P’s and Q’s, this feels like a strange reading of a character who had been heavily coded as queer in earlier appearances:

Star Trek’s creators, however, seem to be backpedalling furiously in Q’s most recent Voyager appearance, The Q and the Grey. As Q fan Alara Rogers disgustedly remarked, “he practically had letters on his forehead screaming ‘I AM A GENDERED HETEROSEXUAL MALE.'” Not only is Q trying to seduce Captain Janeway (again, unsuccessfully), in the hopes that human DNA will reform the Q Continuum, but he is also provided with a mate of five billion years’ standing (never mentioned in any previous appearance), performed by a female actress (Suzie Plakson). Eventually Q and his mate produce a baby Q, and Q visits Janeway, baby in tow, while complaining about the “old ball-and-chain.” Despite the apparently heterosexualizing agenda of the series’ creators, there were two quintessentially queer moments. A crewman, trying to discover Q’s intentions toward Janeway, mutters to his companion, “We’ll never get a straight answer out of this guy.” Moments later, Q sidles up to a holographic poolside bar, ordering “one of those fruity drinks.” Nice try, but not enough to deflect the almost universal disapprobation with which this episode was received by Q’s fans on alt.fan.q and elsewhere.

It seems strange that such a hyper-evolved species would think of themselves in such rigidly gendered terms. If Q wants an infusion of human DNA into the Q Continuum, why not approach Jean-Luc Picard? After all, Q stumbled into Janeway by accident in Death Wish, but has treated Picard as the epitome of humanity’s potential.

A confederate of dunces.

A more perfect union.

It is worth pausing to parse Q’s plan to introduce human DNA into the Continuum in the hope of bringing peace and stability. In some ways, this represents the logical endpoint of his character arc as it began in Encounter at Farpoint, a reversal of his accusation that mankind was a “dangerous, savage, child race.” It is in many ways a logical Gene Roddenberry outcome, one that plays upon the idea that mankind are inherently special and wonderful, and that they hold the potential to build a utopian society within their biological make-up. Q seems have bought into that.

In Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek, mankind are repeatedly presented as a hyper-evolved species. The Star Trek franchise seems to take this suggestion at face value, often avoiding tough questions about how exactly mankind transitioned from horrors like the Third World War or the Eugenics Wars into the utopian society depicted in the franchise. At times, it can seem like the invention of the replicator was all that it took to unlock mankind’s potential, rather than any growth or evolution as a society.

Heal thyself.

Heal thyself.

The Q and the Grey rejects this idea that humanity are inherently special and unique in the cosmos by some genetic accident. “Those best qualities of humanity you talked about aren’t a simple matter of genetics,” Janeway states. “Love, conscience, compassion. They’re attributes that mankind has developed over centuries. Values that have passed from one generation to the next, taught by parents to their children.” The key point is that mankind are not special because of some innate quality or biological fluke. Mankind are better because they worked hard to be better.

This is perhaps the strongest single element of The Q and the Grey. A stronger episode would build to that thematic point, and treat it as conclusion to the arc that began when Q put Picard on trial back in Encounter at Farpoint. It is an approach that very much reverses some of the more uncomfortable storytelling choices of the first two seasons of The Next Generation, but which offers a very tangible sense of mankind’s potential. It is a very Star Trek sentiment. Unfortunately, The Q and the Grey is much more interested in Q creepily hitting on Janeway.

"When you’re an omnipotent god-like entity, they let you do it. You can do anything."

“When you’re an omnipotent god-like entity, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

There is something disconcerting in the way that The Q and the Grey pitches itself as a weird romantic comedy and positions Q as a love pest rather than a sexual harasser. Q’s repeated attempts to seduce Janeway are treated as comedy, even when they veer into emotional manipulation. However, there is no way of getting around the sheer power imbalance that exists between Janeway and Q. He can let himself into her quarters unannounced. He can take away everything that she has with a wave of his hand. He can undress her at a thought.

In same ways, The Q and the Grey plays as a nightmare about the way that the world tends to protect and enable serial abusers. Janeway laughs off Q’s advances, and they are played as jokes. However, there is something horrific bubbling below the surface. Q is a massively powerful man who refuses to take “no” for an answer and has the power to bend the universe to his whims. Many victims of sexual abuse and assault will recognise those attributes. This is not a comedy, this is a horror story.

"Grab ’em by the poochie. You can do anything."

“Grab ’em by the poochie. You can do anything.”

Even leaving aside the ickiness of the plot on a conceptual level, the script does it no favours. The Q and the Grey feels like a lost episode of a fifties sitcom that was grafted into a sequel to Death Wish, with only the character names changed. At one point, Q interrupts a quiet moment between Janeway and Chakotay. Jealous, he demands, “What could anyone possibly see in this big oaf, anyway? Is it the tattoo? Because mine’s bigger.” Janeway wryly responds, “Not big enough.” It seems strange to see Star Trek making such crude penis-size innuendos.

To be fair, the cast do the best that they can with the material afforded them. John de Lancie has always been one of the franchise’s best comic performers, able to elevate even the weakest of material. Kate Mulgrew is great to watch, even if the scripts are seldom to her level. The banter between Q and Janeway might not be particularly funny, but the actors invest a lot of energy in the exchanges. As toxic as the basic concept might be, there is a sense that The Q and the Grey might be fun to watch with a sharper script that gave the two leads more to play.

"As Luc would have me."

“As Luc would have me.”

In fact, Mulgrew has repeatedly expressed her fondness for working with de Lancie, suggesting the shooting these scenes is a highly enjoyable experience for both of them:

I love working with him! But it is impossible to film one single minute. He makes me laugh so hard, he is outrageous. He doesn’t respect anybody or anything. He does exactly what he wants to do. He makes me laugh, he is wonderful! He is the most amusing person I know.

There is something to be said for the decision to limit the first half of The Q and the Grey to Q and Janeway bouncing off one another, even if the jokes are not particularly funny.

That's it, Neelix. You give him what-for.

That’s it, Neelix.
You give him what-for.

However, the problem is more than just that the jokes aren’t funny. There is a rather uncomfortable misogyny bubbling through the episode that manifests in a variety of ways. More subtly, this misogyny finds expression in the way that the male crew members feel compelled to stand up for Janeway and protect her from Q, in a way that suggests she cannot stand up for herself. “You, bar rodent, another one of these fruity concoctions,” Q insists. Neelix responds, “Not unless you tell me why you’re bothering Captain Janeway.” It is a very weird dynamic.

However, this misogynistic element really bubbles to the surface when female!Q shows up. Consider how the script chooses to introduce the character, interrupting a moment between Q and Janeway. “What are you doing with that dog?” she demands of her male partner. Dramatic pause. “I’m not talking about the puppy.” In case you missed the subtle “penis-size-as-tattoo-size” innuendo in the earlier scene, this is very much female!Q taking the time to label the franchise’s first female lead as a “b!tch.”

Yep, you heard it right.

Yep, you heard it right.

The episode’s gender politics are very much rooted in the fifties. Just look at how often male characters forcibly grab female characters, without anybody calling out the behaviour; that seems to be just the way that men express emotions towards women in The Q and the Grey. Similarly, the episode grows to great lengths to portray the relationship between Q and female!Q as something that belongs in an old black-and-white sit-com like The Honeymooners. It is a wonder that the episode doesn’t have Q threaten to “sock” her as a punchline.

female!Q is presented as a nagging shrew. “Will you stop overreacting?” Q demands during their reunion sequence. He turns to Janeway, “Always nagging. Now you see why I left her.” Even at the end of the episode, Q is still cracking tired old jokes at her expense. “It’s time to be going,” he admits to Janeway. “The old ball and chain really hates it when we’re late.” The Q Continuum might be a hyper-evolved and omnipotent society, but its gender roles froze at some point in the mid-twentieth century.

"Don't worry. I fully realise that this is a strange and disorientating experience for you, and will engage in a very reasoned and respectful dialogue towards you."

“Do not worry. I fully realise that this is a strange and disorientating experience for you, and will engage in a very reasoned and respectful dialogue towards you.”

The script seems to agree with Q entirely in his assessment of female!Q. Working in engineering, female!Q laments, “I don’t think you understand. It’s imperative that I get back to the Continuum before Q mates with your Captain.” Torres counters, “I understand perfectly. You aren’t the first female who’s ever had a man run out on her.” During a briefing scene outlining how the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, female!Q is still hung up on her lost love. “Tossed aside for someone five billion years younger. If it weren’t so laughable, I’d cry.”

Again, to be fair to all involved, the cast are game. Suzie Plakson returns to the franchise in the role of female!Q, and cleverly decides to portray the character as somebody who wandered in from one of those arch fifties comedies. “You know, I have really had it with this superiority complex of yours,” Torres complains at one point. Without missing a beat, female!Q responds, “It’s not a complex, dear. It’s a fact.” It is one of the best exchanges of the episode, and brilliantly demonstrates the potential of the character and actor. Sadly, that potential is wasted.

Suzie Plakson is the best.

Suzie Plakson is the best.

This would be the only appearance of female!Q, which is quite disappointing. In fact, Plakson herself has acknowledged a sense of regret that she never got to reprise the role in later episodes:

That was an invite. Am I right? Yeah, I think I am. That was an invite, and I was thrilled to do it. Oh my God, I loved playing the Q. People used to ask me which was my favorite, K’Ehleyr or the Q, and I used to say “They just about evened out,” but as the years go by what rises to the surface is the Q. John de Lancie and I were on stage once and talked about this, but I would really have loved to have come back as the Q, because the Q can become or do anything, and I loved playing that sort of narcissistic arrogance. It’s fun and, unless you’re doing something British and drawing room, you don’t really get to do that as an American actor. John and I, had we really gotten a chance to dance, would have had a blast.

female!Q is another great addition to Plakson’s Star Trek resume of one- (or two-) shot characters who tend to linger in the memory of fans.

"Touring the riot scene. Gravely assessing the devastation. Upstanding Q stuff."

“Touring the riot scene. Gravely assessing the devastation. Upstanding Q stuff.”

There is a reason that Plakson never got to reprise the role. The Q and the Grey was a toxic piece of television. The Q and the Grey ends with a rather blatant sequel hook, with Q showing up to name Janeway as the godmother of his young son. “Wait until we ask you to baby-sit,” he teases. “Can’t leave the little guy alone for a nanosecond.” This is practically begging for a follow-up episode that would find Janeway tasked with taking care of young!Q. That episode would eventually arrive during the seventh season, in the form of Q2.

However, the three seasons following The Q and the Grey would not feature a single guest appearance from the omnipotent trickster. This would be the character’s longest absence from the franchise since his first appearance in Encounter at Farpoint, having only previously missed the fifth season of The Next Generation and the first season of Voyager. (The character arguably made up for that with three appearances across the sixth season of The Next Generation and the first season of Deep Space Nine.)

Baby on board.

Baby on board.

Q’s extended absence seems to have been a response to The Q and the Grey. Rick Berman acknowledged that any subsequent appearance from Q would have to be “more serious” than this episode had been. Writer Kenneth Biller would spend the next four years pitching a follow-up that would be repeatedly rejected by Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga. He would eventually get to produce Q2 when he took over as showrunner in the the series’ final year. That sad story would mark the final appearance of a character who had helped to usher in the Berman era.

The Q and the Grey is a disaster, and perhaps the first real example of how Voyager‘s fixation upon (and homages towards) The Next Generation would do long-lasting damage to the fabric and integrity of the Star Trek franchise. It feels entirely appropriate for a story about an abstract war raging beyond mortal conception, doing irreparable damage to the fabric of the universe. Voyager is very much doing that now, albeit in a way that will not manifest completely for another few seasons.

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

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16 Responses

  1. Only you would think to bring in Paradise Lost when reviewing this dreadful episode. Kudos!

    Words cannot describe how awful I find this episode. It was really the beginning of the end of Voyager for me. Now, Voyager was no longer content to tell uninspiring stories, they also had to actively ruin characters and concepts that had come before. Voyager would go on to run the Borg into the ground, Q2 finishes off any dignity the Q had, the Romulans are treated as generic thugs in Message in a Bottle, and the Ferengi become jokes once again in Inside Man. Heck, even Voyager’s own threats become hollow versions of themselves, such as species 8472 in the episode, In the Flesh.

    Some stray observations about why this episode is so awful. Only on Voyager would they travel to the heart of the Q continuum in five minutes of screen time. Another incredibly sexist aspect of this episode is how the female Q is not allowed to be uniform or even have a gun, but is stuck in traditional female civil war garb. If this war is awful, then why is Q dilly-dallying so long with Janeway? Couldn’t he take any woman he wants?

    • Thanks. To be fair, it’s a bit of a stretch. But I do think the Civil War in the Continuum is part of a broader nineties fascination with metaphorical abstract conflicts raging just beyond humanity’s perception.

  2. I can’t say I ever read Q as a coded gay character, though that might be because I tend to associate John de Lancie with ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle’ (a horrible movie but a memorable one.)

    One thing that always puzzled me about this episode was that the Union were apparently the rebels and the Confederates the status quo… Now, I’m not an American but wasn’t it the other way around in history? I can understand why they didn’t want to make the Confederates the good guys but I don’t think the metaphor quite works.

    • Sorry, I just re-read Atara Stein piece more thoroughly and while I still don’t entirely agree with that reading I can see it is more complex than I first thought. Please consider that remark withdrawn!

      (My confusion over the American Civil War remains… well…. confused.)

      • No worries. To be fair, those looking for queer representation in Star Trek generally have to look pretty deep. I think we debated the possible orientations of Malcolm “I totally dated some waitresses” Reed, actually. 🙂

    • Yeah. I considered going into that, but I didn’t have enough time. The review was long enough as is.

      I think The Q and the Grey plays into that theme park history of the American Civil War that is very much part of the reason that the southern states are so politically messed up today. There’s a tendency to divorce the iconography (and even the mythology) from what the conflict actually involved and was actually about that prevents any real reckoning.

      The Q and the Grey is very much a part of that. It’s just a set of trappings where the “good guys” wore blue and the “other side” (because these setting rarely treat the Confederates as equivalent to the “bad” sides in other wars) wear grey. And, like a lot of depictions of the Civil War, The Q and the Grey completely avoids any exploration of the roots of its own conflict either. I wonder how reconstruction goes in the Q Continuum. “The War of Delta Aggression”?

      • The South is just butthurt, they need to deal with it already.

  3. Oh no, the Voyager Q episodes…

    • The last time we saw Q on TNG, he was involved in some grand plot that resulted in the extinction of the human race, until Picard and co. solve it. Next, he’s on Voyager trying to fuck the captain. Hmm, I sense a drop off here…

      Though tbf, I remember the first Q episode on Voyager being good, but I’ll have to rewatch it.

      Also, just curious, why wasn’t Q in any of the TNG films or never come back on DS9 (though on the latter, I’m glad he didnt)?

      • Well, the Abrams era writing staff considered bringing Q into their films.

        As to why he didn’t appear in a TNG film, I can’t see him fitting with the darker colour palette that they seemed to want.
        As to why he didn’t appear in DS9 beyond Q-Less, I suspect the show’s eagerness to stand upon its own two feet contributed to that.

      • What do you mean by darker color palette?

      • Well, the TNG films are notably physically darker than the television show; the lighting, the uniforms, the set design. I think it’s hard to imagine the movies trying something as goofy as Q (with or without the purple lipstick) in that environment. As camp as Insurrection and Nemesis could be at times, none it felt particularly intentional.

      • I couldn’t see Q in DS9’s grey uniforms. Remember how peeved he was in Deja Q with the drab outfit the Enterprise crew had to supply him with? So Q would never be on the side of the Confederates in the Q Civil War. If you want to read something into the war between the blues and the greys, is it to illustrate the differences in the new Starfleet uniforms versus the old ones? Maybe that’s what Q’s freedom faction are fighting for – the right to stay in colour, and that’s what Voyager does as opposed to DS9.

    • To be fair, Death Wish is on the short list of best Q episodes.

      But year.

  4. Although it’s more of a topic on DS9’s fifth season, The Q and the Grey is about impending parenthood. In DS9 this year we get episodes like The Begotten, In Purgatory’s Shadow and Dr Bashir I Presume where characters are either thrust into the role of surrogate parents or sons dealing with difficult fathers (Q2 would follow up on that) but TQATG has to share that with the awkward plot of Q romancing (stalking) Janeway for a good deal of the way before we get to the real meat of the story – the Q civil war.

    And like Things Past, it seems a lesser sequel to a much greater episode. Death Wish at least had some interesting things to say about life and mortality but the Q civil war isn’t that well handled. Who knew it was so easy to win a war? All they have to do is have the Voyager crew join in at the end and hold a General at gunpoint. That’s it. The episode does have a lot of great guest stars (Suzie Plakson can enliven any scene just by showing up) but it’s depressing to see them wasted in a plot that ambles around, first with Q skirt-chasing (which never works, Q-Pid and Q-Less, for example) before finally we come to the most bloodless civil war ever depicted on screen.

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