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Star Trek: Voyager – Vis á Vis (Review)

Well, it was nice while it lasted.

The fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager had a nice little strand of continuity running through the fourth season, from the discovery of the relay stations and first contact with the Hirogen in Message in a Bottle through to the reaching of an accord with the Hirogen in The Killing Game, Part II. That six-episode run had demonstrated a remarkable attention to detail on the part of the production team. Even the relatively stand-alone episode Retrospect alluded to the ending of Prey and the threat of the Hirogen lingering from Hunters.

Ch-ch-changes…

However, Vis á Vis represents a return to business as usual for the series. It is a light stand-alone episode that completely eschews any sense of continuity or character development. Credited to production assistant Robert J. Doherty, Vis á Vis feels like a weird throwback to the middle of the second season, a retrograde character-driven episode rooted in a version of Tom Paris that has not existed since Investigations at the absolute latest. The result is a weird body-swapping episode where the regular cast member seems out of character to begin with.

Vis á Vis is an outdated Voyager episode, even beyond the lame body-swap premise.

Grease is not the word.

To be fair, Vis á Vis is in keeping with the fourth season of Voyager in some respects. As Dan Butler accepted in contemporary news coverage, incorporated into Braving the Unknown, the episode could be seen to owe a debt to a certain blockbuster from the previous year:

The character’s name is Steth. He’s sort of romping around the universe. It’s sort of an homage to Face/Off, the movie with Nicholas Cage and John Travolta.

Face/Off had been a massive hit, Paramount’s second biggest box office success story of the year in question. (Titanic was Paramount’s biggest success story.) Following Hard Target and Broken Arrow, the film had helped cement Hong Kong action legend John Woo in American cinema.

A gut-wrenching experience.

The fourth season of Voyager has a decidedly blockbuster sensibility. Although the series itself still lacks a clear or unique identity, the individual episodes have an incredible sense of scale. This reflects Brannon Braga’s ambitions for the series, to craft breathtaking high-concept science-fiction on a television budget. Voyager reflected a lot of contemporary nineties pop culture, with even the Second World War action of The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II feeling of a piece with films like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.

More specifically, the influence of blockbuster cinema could be keenly felt on the fourth season of Voyager. The work of Roland Emmerich seemed to be a touchstone for the spectacle of Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, while Prey allowed Brannon Braga to pitch his own Star Trek adaptation of the long-gestating Alien vs. Predator. With that in mind, it makes sense that the writing staff on Voyager would be interested in producing a twenty-fourth century version of Face/Off.

Drinking it all in.

There are several problems with Vis á Vis. The most obvious issue is that it is just boring. Body-swapping and possession stories are a dime-a-dozen in the larger Star Trek canon. Voyager alone has already done Cathexis and Warlord, and will later do Body and Soul. There are even variations in the doppelganger plots of episodes like Live Fast and Prosper or Inside Man, and perhaps even in the EMH’s subplot in Equinox, Part II. This is to say nothing of episodes from other iterations of the franchise; The Enemy Within, Mirror, Mirror, Whom Gods Destroy…, and so on.

The issue is not that the basic premise of Vis á Vis is a tired old cliché, the problem is that Vis á Vis cannot really justify returning to the idea. What is so specially about this story that it justifies returning to such a stock plot thread? Vis á Vis never really makes a convincing argument. The episode’s plot is painfully generic and its pacing is almost glacial. The body swap only takes place about halfway through the episode, which means that the actual “fun” part of the plot is crammed and rushed into the final few acts without room for innovation or experimentation.

Tom’s Wrath of Khan cosplay was controversial.

There is never enough time to get a sense of who or what Steth is. The first half of Vis á Vis spends a lot of time with Steth, but it quickly becomes clear that this is only a mask that the creature is wearing. Everything is a performance. Steth is not really a fun-loving alien pirate, he’s actually a body-stealing alien parasite that has to change bodies every once in a while or else risk reverting back to his previous self. As a result, the first half of Vis á Vis feels downright disingenuous, investing a lot of time in developing a character who doesn’t actually exist.

There is an interesting concept between Steth, in a sort of “gee, space sure is weird!” sort of way. The parasite certainly seems like a novel alien in a universe populated by bipedal humanoids who speak English and have opposable thumbs. Steth is something different, something uncanny. He (or it) is a predator and parasite that hopes from body to body, stealing lives and experiences. He (or it) is an emotional parasite, one that seems to feed off the opportunities and relationships of its current host body.

Facing up to himself.

There is something positively horrific (and almost Lovecraftian) about Steth. When Voyager finds the parasite’s last victim, he promises to try to recover the consciousness of the prior host. The EMH ponders, “Who knows if that’s the end of it? We have no idea how long she or he has been switching identities.” It seems possible that Steth has left a daisy-chain of broken and stolen lives across the Delta Quadrant, an entity that can steal a person’s identity while trapping them inside a foreign body. That is the stuff of nightmares.

There is a lot that could be done with the existential horror of this premise. Just look at the use of Sid on Legion, a character with a similar ability. Instead, Vis á Vis offers the most generic takes on the concept. There is never any sense of the horror that Paris must feel on waking up inside somebody else’s body, nor any sense of the magnitude of the violation inflicted upon both Paris and Torres. Indeed, Steth’s assault of Torres is used as cheap emotional leverage at the climax. “Oh, Tom? Be sure to send my best regards to B’Elanna, hmm?”

A Stethical dilemma.

(The mechanics of Steth’s transformation are curiously generic. Repeatedly in the episode, Steth seems to be on the verge of transforming back into an earlier iteration of himself. Steth needs to find a new host before his “genome reverts to it’s previous form.” However, does that only happen to Steth? What about the other party to the transition? Do they also revert if Steth remains in one form long enough? To be fair, the lack of thought given to this concept would be less frustrating if it were a stronger episode.)

Instead, Steth is treated as a fairly stock con man. Towards the climax of the episode, Paris even frames Steth in decidedly mundane terms. “We’re dealing with an alien who’s some sort of identity thief,” Paris urges Chakotay, from Steth’s body. This is another example of Voyager firmly rooting itself in the nineties. After all, identity fraud was recognised as the fastest growing crime in the United States during the nineties. This made sense, given the cultural changes taking place at the same time.

Well, there goes Tom’s credit rating.

Between 1980 and 1990, the number of credit cards more than doubled and the amount of credit card spending multiplied by five. With the growth of the internet and the development of the information economy, it became a lot easier for criminals to usurp the identity (and spending power) of ordinary citizens. Paranoia over identity theft even led to a spike in the sale of personal shredders over the nineties:

The popularity of personal shredders has increased tremendously in the past few years, said Jean Papagni, a Staples spokeswoman. After the NBC News report in November, she said, there was an uptick in sales, then steady sales throughout the holidays and into tax season.

Fear of so-called identity fraud — said to be the nation’s fastest-growing type of consumer fraud — is reason enough for some people to buy shredders, said Todd W. Henreckson, director of the General Binding Corporation’s Shredmaster division, in Northbrook, Ill.

”The public’s becoming paranoid — and not in an unreasonable nature — about their personal identity,” he said.

Even more than the plot reference to (and disappointing lack of follow through on) Face/Off, Vis á Vis is dated by the decision to treat Steth as little more than the con man who digs around in the garbage. There is a sense that the writing staff might have written an identity theft story without completely understanding the concept of identity theft, circling back around for Live Fast and Prosper.

It didn’t come up on the show, but the majority of Voyager’s shuttles were lost to Janeway’s scenery-chewing.

To be fair, this is the closest thing that Vis á Vis has to a hook on Steth. The alien parasite changes personality significantly over the course of the episode, although that might largely be down to the performance of the actor playing him. In particular, Steth is very different as channelled through Dan Butler, Robert Duncan McNeill or Kate Mulgrew. Butler does the best that he can with the material, playing Steth as a little creepy and just boring enough to slip under the radar. Mulgrew promptly starts helping herself to the scenery, rehearsing for Living Witness.

This is perhaps the second most obvious problem with Vis á Vis. The joy of a body swap episode is in watching a regular character push beyond the audience’s expectations. Repeatedly over the course of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the production team got considerable mileage out of getting Brent Spiner and Marina Sirtis to play against type. In Power Play, they even added the incongruity of Chief Miles O’Brien as a “heavy.” William Shatner’s manic and heightened energy largely powered episodes like Turnabout Intruder.

Working it out.

Even on Voyager, body swap episodes worked best when they afforded the cast an opportunity to play against type. Jennifer Lien might not have been the strongest member of the ensemble, but Warlord coasts quite far on the idea of the timid Kes reimagined as a power-mad hypersexualised body-hijacking tyrant. Body and Soul is a showcase for Jeri Ryan, one of the stronger members of the ensemble. Darkling allowed Robert Picardo to indulge his hunger for scenery.

Vis á Vis is a body-swap story involving Tom Paris. Robert Duncan McNeill can be a charming actor, in the right role and with the right material. McNeill projects a broad all-American quality that makes him a perfect fit for a subversive narrative like The First Duty or for a nostalgic adventure like Bride of Chaotica! However, McNeill is far from the most versatile actor in the ensemble. Indeed, the first two seasons of Voyager frequently ran into trouble trying to present Paris as a rogue in episodes like Ex Post Facto or Lifesigns. It is not a good fit for McNeill.

Not everybody’s cup of tea.

As such, a body-swap episode doesn’t really play to McNeill’s strengths as a performer, much like the second season arc didn’t play to McNeill’s strengths as a performer. Indeed, the biggest issue with McNeill playing Steth-as-Paris is that the character never feels significantly different than the regular version of Paris. Sure, he drinks on duty and assaults Seven of Nine, but there is nothing in McNeill’s performance that suggests this is a fundamentally different character. Compare it Lien in Warlord, Picardo in Darkling, Ryan in Body and Soul.

Even within Vis á Vis, McNeill is outclassed. Dan Butler does a much more convincing job as Paris-as-Steth, borrowing a few of McNeill’s mannerisms to lend the performance a strange authenticity. (There is a wonderful McNeill-esque sigh as Paris-as-Steth explains the situation to Chakotay, to pick one small example.) When playing Steth-as-Janeway, Kate Mulgrew doesn’t channel either McNeill or Butler, but she still neatly delineates this version of the character by hijacking a shuttle and steering it gleefully into camp. Unfortunately, it is too little too late.

“Let’s face it, Chakotay, this would kinda be an upgrade.”

To be fair, McNeill himself touched on the issue in an interview with Starlog, acknowledging that Steth did not feel distinct enough from Paris:

I wish Vis á Vis had gone further than it did. I thought the idea of somebody switching bodies was such a great premise and as an actor, selfishly, I just wanted to do some scenery chewing. But I felt that the show just didn’t reach that level. In an effort to preserve the plot twist that Steth wasn’t the real Paris, they made him so much like the real Paris that it wasn’t as dramatic as I wished it could have been. I had suggested that we expose him a little earlier so that he could really enjoy the chase. ‘Yeah, I’m not the real Tom Paris, and what are you going to do about it?’ I would have loved for him to have taken Janeway hostage. It would have been a great opportunity for the fans to see the body of Tom Paris, the person they’re used to seeing as Tom, doing things that were completely out of character. I wish it had gone further, but it was still an interesting show.

McNeill gets at a more fundamental flaw with the episode, one beneath the problems with Steth and the issues with his performance. What is the point of this?

Mapping it all out.

Vis á Vis is clearly meant to be a character-driven episode, one fundamentally rooted in Tom Paris as a member of the Voyager crew. In fact, Vis á Vis is an episode that is specifically tailored to Tom Paris as a character rather than to Robert Duncan McNeill as a performer. The only problem is that the episode feels like it is tailored to a version of Tom Paris that has not existed since the late second season, if he ever really existed at all. The entire plot of Vis á Vis hinges on something approaching a midlife crisis for Tom Paris.

“You’re lucky,” Steth assures Paris at one point in the episode. “You’re part of a family, part of a structure. You have rules to guide you. You don’t have to worry about making a lot of choices. I usually go to bed at night not knowing what the next day has in store, what trouble I might get into. You don’t have to worry about those things. You’re very settled.” However, Paris seems frustrated with his comfort. “I remember those days. I used to be a lot like you. Going anywhere, doing whatever I wanted, making my own rules.”

“Mind if I join you? It feels like a while since we’ve even been passive aggressive to one another.”

On a certain theoretical level, this makes sense. Caretaker introduced Tom Paris as something akin to a troublemaker, a failed renegade now spending his days in a New Zealand prison colony. Paris was supposed to be restless and reckless. He was the son of Admiral Owen Paris, but he never integrated into Starfleet. He joined the Maquis, but he chafed under Chakotay’s leadership. Paris was supposed to be unreliable, a renegade given an unlikely second chance when thrown halfway across the galaxy and forced to fit into the crew.

However, this characterisation never really stuck. In particular, producer Jeri Taylor and actor Robert Duncan McNeill actively resisted this read on the character. Michael Piller tried to pitch Paris as a rebel, having him create the dingy French tavern in The Cloud and suggesting that he had an affair with a married woman in Ex Post Facto. However, Piller never got to realise his scruffy and rebellious Paris, largely due to resistance from the rest of the writing staff. As such, Paris has been a fairly conventional character for most of Voyager‘s run.

We’ll always have Paris.

Tellingly, the characterisation of Paris in Vis á Vis harks back to the much maligned “Kazon” arc that ran through the second season. In that arc, Paris went undercover as a renegade, getting himself thrown off the ship following a series of rash confrontations with Chakotay in episodes like Meld and Lifesigns. Ultimately, it was all revealed as a smokescreen to help expose a Kazon spy, which made it perfectly clear that Paris wasn’t really a rebel. That arc was universally reviled, and would seem to exist as a model of what not to do with Paris.

Nevertheless, Vis á Vis leans into the comparison, right down to throwing Paris into conflict with senior officers. “Is there something wrong, Tom?” Chakotay asks. “Anything bothering you?” Paris tries to shrug it off, ineffectually. “Nothing is wrong,” he insists. “Since when is not wanting to spend time with the Doctor a capital offence? You’d have to throw the whole crew in the brig for that one.” There is an argument with a senior officer on the holodeck, like in Meld. There is a confrontation with Chakotay, like (but significantly milder than) Lifesigns.

Engineering a conflict.

It is not a particularly convincing narrative arc for Paris. The episode asks the audience to take his midlife crisis seriously, when it was all played as a ruse two seasons earlier. Even on its own terms, Vis á Vis never makes a compelling argument for Paris’ ennui. Paris claims to be antsy about the creature comforts of life on Voyager, but Vis á Vis repeatedly stresses that he retreats into those comforts. He hides on the holodeck, the ultimate twenty-fourth century luxury. There is no indication that Paris would ever want a return to his wandering youth.

Indeed, Vis á Vis makes a very valid argument for Paris as a man who is settled and grounded. Indeed, his obsessions seem more like a middle-aged father having a midlife crisis than those of a young man worried about giving up his dreams. Paris retreats to a holographic garage to work on imaginary car, stopping just short of calling it a “man cave.” He hides from Torres by playing golf with Kim, obsessing over the pastime to the extent that he is designing his own clubs. Vis á Vis suggests that Paris is not a rebel, he is positively middle-class.

A hole other problem.

Unfortunately, Vis á Vis never seems to realise any of this. It suggests that Paris is yearning for adventure and excitement, ignoring the fact that working on a car and playing golf are the very opposite of the life that Steth would seem to offer. Paris might not want to spend time with the EMH or with Torres, but that doesn’t mean that he wants to go riding through the cosmos as a galactic test pilot. It undercuts the emotional arc of the episode, which would not be such a big deal if the episode did not devote so much time to that emotional arc.

There is also a clumsiness to Vis á Vis that harks back to the earlier seasons of Voyager. It is the first script from Robert J. Doherty, but it feels very stilted and arch. There is no life in the teleplay, which often feels like a reheated selection of Voyager clichés. This is most notable in the dialogue, with its emphasis on meaningless technobabble and stock science-fiction beats. In particular, Vis á Vis feels disproportionately interested in the mechanics of Steth’s imaginary propulsion technology.

This alien will be the Steth of him…

“It’s a hypothetical propulsion system,” Paris explains. “Starfleet engineers have been dreaming about it for years. In theory, it can literally fold the fabric of space allowing a ship to travel instantaneously across huge distances.” That might make sense in the context of a story about Voyager trying to use that technology to shorten their journey home, like in Threshold or Day of Honour. However, this thread never goes anywhere. There are a few mentions of the technology, and a lot of technobabble, but no pay-off.

It seems almost as though Vis á Vis intends for the audience to be invested in the fictional technology for its own sake. In some ways, this is an extension of the technological determinism suggested by The Killing Game, Part II. If holographic technology could save Hirogen society, then maybe “coaxial warp drive” was something worth pursuing on its own merits. It does not matter that these were fictional concepts with little basis in physics. Voyager occasionally fixates on fictional technology as an end of itself, rather than a means to an end.

Free wheeling.

Doherty’s script also has a decidedly tin ear for dialogue. Voyager had a tendency to pitch itself as the most generic of Star Trek shows, and that extends to the dialogue, which is very fond of the old style “put technobabble in terms the audience might understand, but also draw attention to how weird that must sound to people who actually live in the world, preferably in as stilted a manner as possible.” This leads to various awkward conversations that sound unlike anything that anybody has ever said to anybody else.

Reflecting on the tech problem of the week, Paris observes, “What you need is a carburettor.” When Steth wonders what he could possible mean, not being from Earth and all, Paris explains, “It’s a device that’s hundreds of years old. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it yesterday.” Steth is shocked by the idea. “Wait,” he instructs Paris. “Hundreds of years old? Surely that couldn’t be of any use to us now.” Dan Butler is game, but it plays like a weirdly tech-focused “show me this thing you call love…” moment. It is a wonder Steth doesn’t utter, “Gee whiz, Tom…”

Getting his engine going.

Vis á Vis feels very much like a step in the wrong direction, and not just for its central character. As much as Vis á Vis teases the idea of Tom Paris regressing, the truth is that Voyager has allowed itself to slip backwards.

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