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Star Trek: Voyager – Waking Moments (Review)

Waking Moments feels very much like a first or second season episode of Star Trek: Voyager that somehow entered production in the middle of the fourth season.

A lot of this is down to the simple texture of the episode. Waking Moments centres around a decidedly “weird” alien species, a touch that recalls the early mysteries of Delta Quadrant life suggested by episodes like Phage, The Cloud, Heroes and Demons, Cathexis and even Emanations. These are aliens that do not conform to standard Star Trek logic, stalking their prey through dreams rather than with advanced technology. In fact, the emphasis on dreams in Waking Moments harks back to the vague New Age sentiment of Michael Piller’s time on Voyager.

No, Chakotay. Hunters and Prey are next week.

No, Chakotay. Hunters and Prey are next week.

In fact, Waking Moments returns to a very New Age cliché version of Chakotay. Following on directly from Mortal Coil, Chakotay is once again repeating “ah-koo-chee-moya” and talking about “vision quests.” He mentions his father as a connection to his Native American heritage for the first time since Basics, Part I, and even evoked Tattoo in discussing his rejection of shared activities in his youth. Waking Moments feels like an episode that was originally written while Michael Piller was overseeing the show, but has finally made it to air.

Of course, Waking Moments feels rather retrograde in other ways. It is a very clumsy ensemble piece that treats tired old plot twists as innovative and exciting, moving along at a leaden pace without any sense of what makes this story interesting or compelling in its own right. Waking Moments is a surprisingly tiring piece of television.

An artist's impression of the audience watching Waking Moments.

An artist’s impression of the audience watching Waking Moments.

Waking Moments is the first episode credited entirely to André Bormanis. Bormanis served as the science advisor to the franchise, starting with the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and continuing through Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He had pitched a number of stories while working in that capacity, and Jeri Taylor had shown considerable interest in his work. He had written the teleplay for Fair Trade during the third season of Voyager, working from an original story by Ronald Wilkerson and Jean Louise Matthias.

Bormanis would go on to become a potent creative force on the Star Trek franchise. After Waking Moments, Bormanis would contribute three more story ideas and two more teleplays to Voyager. His work was relatively well-received by the production team, especially Brannon Braga. He would join the writing staff at the start of Star Trek: Enterprise and would be one of very few writers to work on all four seasons of the show. This is quite an impressive resume for a writer who began as a scientific consultant.

Snore's the pity.

Snore’s the pity.

However, Bormanis is simply not a great writer. Perhaps a reflection of his background as a scientific consultant, Bormanis struggles with character definition and development. His scripts tend to be driven by the demands of plot, offering the cast very little to play with. This was perhaps most apparent with his script for Fair Trade, which bungled a character-driven story focused on Neelix. It can also be seen in his later work. Silent Enemy‘s biggest character beat is that Reed likes pineapple. Horizon is a character drama that fails because it has no characters.

This is also true of Waking Moments. This is an episode that really should provide an insight into the characters and their relationships. After all, what are dreams but a window into a character’s psyche? What better way to get a sense of who these characters are and what drives them than to look at their dreams? Waking Moments is the perfect vehicle for some character-driven introspection. Unfortunately, Voyager does not work that way and André Bormanis does not work that way.

Dream on.

Dream on.

The hints of character in Waking Moments are either thunderingly obvious or completely nonsensical. Tom Paris has a nightmare in which his piloting is not enough to save him, which is the most simple nightmare that a pilot could have. Is this really the essence of who Tom Paris actually is? Paris isn’t afraid of letting Janeway down? He isn’t afraid of messing up his relationship with Torres, like he has messed up so many opportunities for a happy life? Paris isn’t afraid that he has lost his edge after these years living with the same group of people?

What about Janeway? What is Janeway’s greatest fear, according to Waking Moments? Janeway’s biggest anxiety is that she might not get her crew home. Her nightmare finds the crew mummified and covered in cobwebs. “You didn’t get them home in time,” Neelix states. This feels like a very reductive glimpse at Janeway’s psychology. As with Paris’ fear of crashing, this revelation treats Janeway as a plot function. Janeway is the commanding officer and lead character on Voyager, and so it follows that her biggest fear is not completing the mission baked into the show.

Web of mistrust.

Web of mistrust.

And then there is Tuvok’s nightmare. Tuvok imagines himself reporting to duty naked. This is a very cliché nightmare, but also a very human nightmare. Tuvok is not human. Tim Russ touched upon that in an interview with Star Trek: Voyager Magazine:

“A human would be embarrassed by that, no question,” the actor says. “To a Vulcan, though, embarrassment isn’t something they would bother feeling. They wouldn’t allow themselves to feel that. And, in fact, Vulcans probably don’t have the same hang-ups humans have about being naked. So my take on that, as the actor playing a Vulcan, was to find a way to make that moment work. I decided to play the improper aspect of that, to show Tuvok’s reaction to being out of protocol, to being out of uniform in a setting where he’s supposed to be in uniform. I also had to deal with Tuvok’s response to the reaction of others. He knows it’s out of order for the humans around him, that his nakedness makes the others uncomfortable, and that was interesting to play. We never had a chance like that to look at the societal differences between the cultures in so specific a way. I hope we get to do more of that.”

There is a recurring sense on Voyager that Tim Russ cared much more about Tuvok as a character than the writing staff did. Tuvok’s nightmare at the start of Waking Moments is a very cheap gag. Like the gratuitous make-out scene with Seven of Nine, that joke says more about the intended audience than any of the characters involved.

Naked ambition.

Naked ambition.

This sort of broadly-drawn and generic ensemble piece harks back to the earlier seasons of Voyager. This is an episode that provides most of the cast with something to do, even if that something rarely contributes to the audience’s understanding of the characters or to the forward movement of the plot. This sort of ensemble storytelling is very much at odds with the work done in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, when each of the characters approached the story from their own perspectives and with their own miniature arcs.

In Waking Moments, character is very much secondary to plot. However, the plot is incredibly predictable and awkwardly slow. The teaser is surprisingly long and very ineffective, jumping across four separate nightmares that dabble in the generic. It takes Janeway twelve minutes to realise that something is amiss, before finding Harry Kim asleep in his bed. There is an entire subplot about Janeway’s attempt to retake the ship in a dream, which contributes nothing to the actual forward movement of the episode.

What dream may come...

What dream may come…

The twists are incredibly predictable. From the teaser, it is very obvious that Voyager is putting a Star Trek twist on Nightmare on Elm Street, the beloved mid-eighties horror film. From the outset “dream fakeout” is the most obvious twist imaginable, the realisation that a character believes themselves to have woken up, but instead still finds themselves trapped within a dream. Given the premise of Waking Moments, the audience is on guard for that twist from the outset. The fact that the script takes so long to hit such an obvious beat is exhausting.

As with a lot of Voyager, there is a disappointedly half-assed quality to Waking Moments. The plot moves in the directions most convenient for the story that the show wants to tell, with minimal complications and no real buttressing of important plot points. This is most notable when it comes to the alien creatures themselves. The idea of aliens haunting the dreamscape is fascinating stuff. It should make a wonderful horror episode. Indeed, it is the kind of story that Bryan Fuller would have executed with considerable flair.

More like Choketay? Am I right?

More like Choketay? Am I right?

The dream sequences in Waking Moments are very prosaic. They are very stock and familiar. They never capture that uncanny quality of dreams, that strange detachment and vast imagination. Despite the fact that Waking Moments is an episode explicitly about dreaming, its dream sequences never seem as ethereal or abstract as those featured in The Raven or Mortal Coil. Everything is depressingly literal. The most impressive dream finds a deer running along the corridors of Voyager.

More than that, the episode never explains why Chakotay is so sure that the aliens have corporeal form. “For centuries, you’ve come and found us in a state that you call sleep and tried to destroy us,” the dream alien states. However, whose “state that you call sleep” is he referring? Is he referring to sleeping visitors wandering into the dreamscape and causing harm? Or does he mean aliens finding his sleeping species and massacring them as they rest? Chakotay invests a lot of faith in the latter, despite the fact that the alien proves far from trustworthy.

Dream catcher.

Dream catcher.

“From what the alien told me it sounds like they have corporeal form but they communicate through their dreams,” Chakotay tells Janeway. Later, he tells the EMH, “They exist somewhere in our reality as physical beings, but they must be asleep, unable to defend themselves against what they call waking species.” These seem like huge logical leaps, particularly given the existence of species in the Star Trek universe that do not conform the humanoid expectations. Indeed, the aliens in Waking Moments would be more interesting as sentient dreams or ideas.

After all, the idea of an alien species evolving just to spend its life sleeping and exploring the dream world seems surreal. Surely the body is just redundant at that point? Waking Moments fleetingly acknowledges the contrivance. “I wonder, do they ever wake up?” Chakotay ponders. “How did they evolve this way?” The answer, of course, is because the writers chose for them to have evolved that way. It feels very lazy, the narrative following the path of least resistance.

Over the moon.

Over the moon.

This is disappointing, because the basic premise of a Star Trek episode built around dreams has a great deal of merit, perhaps even evoking the psychedelia of Where No One Has Gone Before. André Bormanis was inspired by his own experiences with lucid dreaming:

I used to have lucid dreams… I have not had them for a number of years now. I was thinking about a possible story for Chakotay. Given that he has a Native American heritage I thought this would be a good area for him. I pitched it to Jeri Taylor and then I sat down in the writers room and we broke the story. Ken Biller helped a lot on the script.

Dreams can be a fascinating storytelling tool, if only because they can allow writers to comment upon the nature of stories. After all, Neil Gaiman built his seventy-odd-issue-run around that central metaphor, using dreams as a metaphor for storytelling.

"Don't worry. I had to take stimulants just to get through the script."

“Don’t worry. I had to take stimulants just to get through the script.”

In some ways, the fascination with lucid dreaming in Waking Moments recalls the New Age engagement of the earlier seasons of Voyager. This connection is reinforced through the emphasis on the character of Chakotay, who was treated as a collection of New Age clichés during the first two seasons of Voyager. In fact, the use of Chakotay as a spirit guide in Mortal Coil and a dream walker in Waking Moments seems quite jarring, as if the character has just been rolled back to an earlier and more primal state of existence.

“I’ve been able to have a lucid dream by using the same technology I use for a vision quest,” Chakotay explains to Janeway early in the episode. When Chakotay does embark upon this lucid dream, he uses a very specific form of the refrain employed in episodes like Initiations. He offers, “Ah-koo-chee-moya. Far from the sacred places of my grandfathers, far from the bones of my people, I seek to sleep, to meet the one who has visited us in our dreams.” One wonders if there is a formal generic Native American prayer for realigning the plasma manifolds.

Tapping out.

Tapping out.

In keeping with the New Age trappings of the character, lucid dreaming was a pop cultural fascination during the nineties. In fact, the work of Stephen LaBerge at Stanford University’s Sleep Research Center only really came to prominence towards the end of the eighties, couched in stock New Age rhetoric:

LaBerge maintains that lucid dreaming “has considerable potential for promoting personal growth and self-development, enhancing self-confidence, improving mental and physical health, facilitating creative problem solving and helping people progress on the path of self-mastery.” This belief, he says, enables him to trudge on with research despite early skepticism within the scientific community and the seemingly endless personal financial struggle to fund his work.

Renowned sleep researcher Dr. William Dement of the Stanford’s Sleep Research Center describes LaBerge as “very intelligent and more dedicated than most people. Without that dedication he wouldn’t have survived, because he is working in an area outside the biomedical and psychological mainstream. LaBerge is taking the state of dreaming to a new level of potential for man to exploit.”

The fact that Voyager would devote an entire episode to the concept of lucid dreaming reflects the series’ nineties sensibilities. Voyager feels very much of its time and of its place, firmly anchored in the concerns and interests of California during the nineties. Lucid dreaming is a small step for the New Age spirituality of Sacred Ground.

Dream Warriors.

Dream Warriors.

However, Waking Moments uses the basic concept of lucid dreaming to tie into other contemporary nineties anxieties. Repeatedly over the course of the episode, characters are asked to question the nature of their subjective reality. The line between dream world and real world blurs, time and again. “This is more than a dream,” the alien warns Chakotay. “It’s my reality.” When Chakotaya awakens in Sickbay, he panics. “Commander Chakotay, you’re awake,” the EMH advises him. Chakotay is flummoxed. “Am I?” he demands. “Are you sure?”

Trapped in a shared dream, the crew come to realise that things are not as they appear. When Chakotay disappears, Kim panics. “The aliens must have transported him somewhere,” he insists. Tuvok is more reasonable, observing, “Or perhaps he did wake up.” He elaborates, “It’s possible he was dreaming all of this.” Janeway follows the thread. “Wait a minute. If Chakotay was dreaming and he woke up, what are we doing here?” Tuvok answers, “Perhaps we’re dreaming as well.”

"This episode is turning into a bit of a nightmare."

“This episode is turning into a bit of a nightmare.”

Waking Moments never exploits this paranoia as well as it might. However, there are a few interesting observations. “Maybe this is all one person’s dream,” Neelix reflects at one point. “For example mine, and none of you are really here.” Torres asserts that she is very much a real person, but it would be interesting to wonder what tricks that might play on a person caught in that situation. What must it be like to be unable to distinguish reality from illusion? What would it feel like not to know whether you were yourself real?

Indeed, Waking Moments touches upon the idea of a shared collective dream, with the crew eventually trapped within the same dream about hostile aliens taking over the ship. “Not only are they dreaming, they’re all having the same dream,” Chakotay explains to the EMH. “It wasn’t just my dream, it was a communal dream.” The EMH elaborates upon that theory, “Everyone’s REM patterns are identical. They’re experiencing the same images, each from his or her own point of view.”

Familiar patterns.

Familiar patterns.

Within the dream, it is Seven of Nine who pieces the theory together. “Collective unconsciousness,” she states. “The Borg share a collective consciousness. These aliens may have somehow inducted a state of collective unconsciousness.” It is a fascinating idea, suggesting that the Voyager crew have found themselves all trapped within a virtual space created by their shared neural link. Voyager would go on to explore a literal Borg Collective Unconsciousness in Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II.

Of course, Waking Moments is far from the first or last time that Voyager plays with the question of subjective and distorted reality. The EMH went through an identity crisis in Projections, while the episode Course: Oblivion will focus entirely upon a set of doppelgangers. Voyager would repeatedly flirt with postmodernist theory, whether through the distortion of history in episodes like Remember, Distant Origin and Living Witness, or through the countless clones and imitators and alternate reality replacements for the crew.

"This dialogue could use a punch-up, eh?"

“This dialogue could use a punch-up, eh?”

This reflected a broader cultural trend towards the end of the twentieth century. Perhaps reflecting anxieties about the world’s only superpower at the turn of the millennium, pop culture engaged repeatedly with the question of what was real and what was fake. Ada Louise Huxtable argued that it extended even beyond film and television:

Distinctions are no longer made or deemed necessary between the real and the false; the edge usually goes to the latter, as an improved version with defects corrected — accessible and user-friendly. As usual, it is California that sets the trends and establishes the values for the rest of the country. Only a Californian would observe that it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the real fake from the fake fake. All fakes are clearly not equal; there are good fakes and bad fakes. The standard is no longer real versus phony but the relative merits of the imitation. What makes the good ones better is their improvement on reality.

The real fake reaches its apogee in places like Las Vegas, where it has been developed into an art form. Continuous, competitive frontages of moving light and color and constantly accelerating novelty lead to the gaming tables and hotels. The purpose is clear and the solution is dazzling; the result is completely and sublimely itself. The outrageously fake fake has developed its own indigenous style and life style to become a real place. This is an urban design frontier where extraordinary things are happening.

Within the realm of film and television, virtual and fake realities were a recurring fixation of late nineties popular culture; Harsh Realm, The Truman Show, The Matrix, Fight Club, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenz, Strange Days. Waking Moments is nowhere near as bold as any of these, but it touches on the same root anxieties.

Sleeping ugly.

Sleeping ugly.

At the end of the Cold War, it frequently felt like nothing could be taken for granted. This “unipolar moment” was unprecedented in global history, with the United States unchallenged in the political sphere. With the fall of the Soviet Union, some observers even believed that the United States stood at the end of history. One of the biggest thematic differences between Deep Space Nine and Voyager is that Voyager actually believes that it stands at the end of history while Deep Space Nine knows better.

In episodes like Future’s End, Part IFuture’s End, Part II and Relativity, Voyager argues that the twenty-ninth century will reflect the political order of the twenty-fourth, static and unchanged. Indeed, even the basic structure of the show reflects this philosophy. Voyager might be a television series about a crew trying desperately to get home, but there is never a sense of forward momentum from episode to episode. The ship might be flying through the cosmos at several times the speed of light, but there is never any sense of progress. It is trapped in amber.

"You snooze, you lose!"

“You snooze, you lose!”

Perhaps this is why the dream sequences in Waking Moments fall so flat, why they feel so generic. Voyager already exists in something akin to a dream state. Chakotay already inhabits a world where events are disconnected and decompressed, where there is never any sense of time passing even as the seasons tick by, where there is seldom any effect lingering from any given cause. Voyager is a ship where nothing ever changes, where none of the characters ever really grow, where everything is just as clean and sterile as it was in Caretaker.

This might be why Voyager flirts so regularly and so repeatedly with the theme of heightened unreality. The television series already exists in an unreal space, rejecting the advances in long-form narrative storytelling being made by contemporaries like The X-Files, Babylon 5 or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. The entire show has a surreal dreamlike quality to it. It makes sense that the characters would occasionally slip behind that curtain into a world of illusion and fantasy.

Can't let it lie.

Can’t let it lie.

Even within Waking Moments, the series demonstrates its stubborn refusal to embrace serialisation or long-form storytelling, its embrace of the disconnected dream-like quality of its completely standalone stories. Waking Moments finds Torres suddenly wearing a very obvious (and very large) uniform jacket for no reason that is ever discussed on screen. The jacket never appears before Waking Moments and it never appears after Hope and Fear. No other character, male or female, ever wears a similar jacket.

There is a reason for this. Roxann Dawson was pregnant during the production of the fourth season, and the jacket was used to disguise that fact. It is a very clumsy storytelling choice, and the laziest possible way to write around an actor’s pregnancy. The X-Files consciously sidelined Gillian Anderson during her pregnancy, and wrote around her bump. Deep Space Nine wrote Nana Visitor’s pregnancy into its fourth and fifth seasons, in a rather awkward manner that accomplished the goal of keeping Kira part of the story without have to shoot around the bump.

Spearheading the investigation.

Spearheading the investigation.

However, the Voyager writing staff had no interest in trying to improvise their storytelling around Dawson’s pregnancy. As Brannon Braga told Cinefantastique, the primary worry was that acknowledging the pregnancy would inevitably lead to continuity between episodes:

“There were long discussions about whether to use it. We actually talked about possibly doing a runner where Torres was pregnant. We thought it might be alien. What we realised is that we don’t like to do serialised stuff. We like each episode to stand alone as much as possible. We knew that if we got Torres pregnant, it would take over the show. You would have to keep talking about it. Then the baby would be born. We’d have a baby on Voyager, and before long, the show would become a little too domestic. So we opted to just ignore it. She had on some bad costumes to hide the pregnancy. We went through the same thing with Gates McFadden.”

As with a lot of the big creative decisions on the later seasons of Voyager, this was largely driven by laziness. The Voyager writing staff had little energy for improvisation or lateral thinking. After all, there is a very obvious story to tell here, particularly given the blossoming romance between Paris and Torres.

This looks a little more like Janeway's dream.

This looks a little more like Janeway’s dream.

(There is something frustrating about the creative team’s lack of courage in this matter. The unwillingness to grasp the nettle with Dawson’s pregnancy leads to a surreal situation where Roxann Dawson is pregnant and B’Elanna Torres is not during the fourth season of Voyager, but B’Elanna Torres is pregnant and Roxann Dawson is not during the seventh season of Voyager. It would have saved everybody involved a lot of trouble had the production team simply been willing to take the opportunity that had been provided by the unanticipated pregnancy.)

Waking Moments is a disappointing episode of Voyager, albeit in ways that are entirely predictable. It reflects many of the core weaknesses of the show, from an ensemble too underdeveloped to support a simple episode through to a fixation of generic and predictable plotting following the path of least resistance. Waking Moments is a snooze-fest.

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2 Responses

  1. That’s a good observation about Tim Russ. He took his role as a Vulcan very seriously (going pretty deep into what makes a character like that work; he’s apparently a very cerebral fan of sci-fi) and I think it shows in the delivery, even though the character is massively underwritten.

    • Russ actually has a bit of a history of standing up to the production team on the point, of arguing for and against certain decisions made concerning the character. (I want to cite Blood Fever and Alter Ego as examples, but I’m not 100% sure.)

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