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Star Trek: Voyager – Unforgettable (Review)

Unforgettable has perhaps the most ironic title in the Star Trek canon.

The episode is very generic in nature, very much in keeping with the style of Star Trek: Voyager. It is a love story centring on the character Chakotay, although he seems to have been selected as the focus of the episode by chance. There is nothing about Unforgettable that would not work as well as an episode built around Harry Kim or Neelix or even Tuvok. It is an episode with an alien of the week, with a strange society that leads to a dilemma that can be neatly resolved within the forty-five minutes allotted to the episode, leaving no lasting mark on the series.

Forget me not…

Unforgettable has any number of interesting ideas. The Ramuran are an interesting high concept, an alien race with the power to erase themselves from the memories of those they encounter. That should be an interesting story hook, particularly given Voyager‘s recurring fascination with memory and identity. This is also an episode built around a guest appearance from cult icon Virginia Madsen. Madsen is a fantastic guest star for Voyager, an actor who really deserves a meaty and memorable role, like Andy Dick was afforded with Message in a Bottle.

Unfortunately, none of these ideas coalesce. Unforgettable is a bland romantic episode that moves a glacial pace towards an inevitable outcome, either unable or unwilling to exploit either its clever concept or its top-tier guest star to tell a memorable story. Unforgettable is ultimately anything but.

Memories are made of these.

What is Unforgettable about? Not in the stock “this happens, and then that happens, and so this happens” way. What is Unforgettable actually about? What story is it telling? The episode is about an alien who arrives on Voyager seeking asylum. She claims to know the crew, despite the fact that they cannot remember her. She claims to love Chakotay, despite the fact that he cannot recall ever seeing her before. She is worried that her people will track her down and take her home, against her wishes. As Janeway agrees to protect, Chakotay falls in love again.

Star Trek arguably has a long history of bungling love stories. All too often, these love stories can feel awkward and tone-deaf. It is difficult to generate chemistry between a regular and a guest star, particularly when casting on a weekly television schedule. It is also difficult to get the audience to invest in an episodic love story, because the love interest of the week will inevitably disappear by the end of the episode. It is a problem that affects episodes like Melora, Second Sight, Rules of Acquisition, Profit and Loss and Meridian.

Getting back on course.

Star Trek might unfold in the distant future, but it still speaks to the human condition. For a Star Trek romance to work, it needs to capture some relatable aspect of how people connect with one another. Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places is a sex farce that plays with the idea of class divide and social aspiration in romance. The romantic subplot in Day of Honour is about the difficulty of connecting with somebody who closes themselves off. Even His Way captures the sense of a long-buried and undeclared romantic crush.

So, what is the point of the love story in Unforgettable? Why build a love story around the very clever idea of an alien that prevents people from forming long-term memories? There are any number of stories that could be told using the Ramuran, so why tell this one? What is the relatable aspect of the romance between Kellin and Chakotay? How does his inability to remember her and her later inability to remember him comment upon the romantic condition? Why does the audience care?

Remember me.

To be fair, Unforgettable seems to come close to figuring out what it is trying to do in the final act. When Kellin is hit be the “neurolytic emitter”, she begins to lose her memories of Chakotay. “Promise me,” she pleads. “If I forget why I’m here, if I forget you, do what I did and you tell me all about us, and you’ll help me to remember.” There is something very powerful in that idea, in the belief that two people in love will find one another against impossible odds (and even beyond their conscious memory) so long as they truly love one another.

In fact, that late-episode development seems to tease the idea of Unforgettable as a science-fiction twist on The Notebook. Leaping forward from that plot twist and that development, it could easily become a metaphor for love between people affected by psychiatric or memory disorders. What must it be like to love somebody who cannot remember that love? If that person cannot remember that love, then does that mean that the love never existed? Are they a different person? Can love conquer all? These are all big meaty ideas.

“Yes, my mood lighting does match my uniform.”

Unfortunately, Unforgettable arrives at this point far too late. The episode is practically over by the time that this development sets in. Chakotay breaks that promise almost immediately, if only because the episode is almost over and Kellin will not be joining the cast as a regular. It feels like a horrible waste of what could have been an engaging and affecting love story, using a science-fiction framing device to explore a clever romantic plot. Lifesigns did something similar in the second season, using holograms to explore the question of beauty and self-image.

The closing scene between Chakotay and Neelix hints at another reading of the episode, as Chakotay laments that he could not convince Kellin to fall back in love with him. “I don’t think you can analyse love,” Neelix reflects. “It’s the greatest mystery of all. No one knows why it happens or doesn’t. Love is a chance combination of elements. Any one thing might be enough to keep it from igniting. A mood, a glance, a remark. And if we could define love, predict it, it would probably lose its power.”

“Don’t worry, I can’t even remember the last time the writers paid me any attention.”

It is a nice speech and it hints at a number of interesting ideas, most notably the suggestion that love is not preordained and that people are rarely “destined” to be with one another. However, it is undercut by the fact that it comes up in literally the last minute of the episode, and also by the fact that Kellin had already successfully reignited the romance once. What is the point there? Some people are meant to be together, but only some times? Chakotay is more attracted to Kellin than Kellin is to Chakotay? Love conquers all, but only two out of three times?

After all, there are other ways to tell that kind of story in a science-fiction setting. If Voyager wants to tell a story about how many variables affect two people who might fall in love, then it seems like fodder for a parallel universe story rather than a memory-wipe story. Sliding Doors would be released two days after the broadcast of Unforgettable, and would explore that theme through a science-fiction conceit in a much more insightful and clever manner than the episode in question.

Mad(sen’s) man.

To be fair, Unforgettable suffers because Virginia Madsen and Robert Beltran share very little chemistry. There is no sense of a spark between Kellin and Chakotay. There is never a sense that the two characters are meant to be together, or even that they find one another attractive. This is arguably a long-standing issue with Beltran as a performer. Beltran does not have an easy chemistry with many of his co-stars. That is arguably what made his chemistry with Mulgrew so special.

However, there is also a sense that Unforgettable has arrived at the point where Beltran has stopped caring about the role. Beltran was never the most engaged or engaging performer in the Voyager cast, but historical he was capable of turning in a reasonably solid performance within certain predefined parametres. Beltran handled himself quite well in stories like Worst Case Scenario or Nemesis, performances that contrast with his more relaxed and lethargic work in later seasons.

Kellin time together.

In The Fifty-Year Mission, Beltran puts his disillusionment with Voyager towards the start of the fifth season:

It was around the fifth year that I just thought, “God, I can’t wait till this show is over.” I was just living for the end of the show. I wanted out. The scripts are the main reason. The tension was another. Seven years is a long time on any show, and when the writing isn’t what you want it to be and there are character conflicts and actor conflicts it make it that much more unpleasant. I was ready to get out.

This makes sense. The behind the scenes tensions involving the cast exploded with the addition of Jeri Ryan.

“Neelix, I want to you be honest with me. Do I have more or less screen presence than the bowl of fruit on the edge of the frame?”

However, there is also a sense that the production team have no real idea what they want to do with Chakotay as a character. Like a lot of characters and concepts on Voyager, Chakotay had a fairly solid foundation. He was a rebel who had been an officer, who found himself serving under the woman assigned to bring him to justice. That would be enough to make a compelling character. However, as with a lot of the potential established in Caretaker, that aspect of the character was quickly brushed aside.

The early seasons of Voyager focused on Chakotay’s new age spiritual beliefs, very much in line with the interests of producer Michael Piller. Stories like The Cloud, Initiations and Tattoo were designed to emphasise Chakotay’s (generic) Native American heritage. Similarly, episodes like Resolutions and Coda were designed to play up the romantic tension between Chakotay and Janeway. This was never enough to build a compelling character, but it did give Robert Beltran some material to play.

While on the subject of things with more screen presence than Chakotay…

Ultimately, both of these aspects of the character were jettisoned by the fourth season. The new age spirituality went first, largely brushed aside when Michael Piller left at the end of the second season. Basics, Part II tidily wrapped up a long-running character-driven plot focusing on Chakotay’s relationship to the treacherous Seska and the possibility that she had used his DNA to create a child. Similarly, the introduction of Seven of Nine in Scorpion, Part II radically altered the cast dynamics. Chakotay had been Janeway’s strongest relationship, but he usurped by Seven of Nine.

As such, there was a sense that the writers had no idea what to do with Chakotay. The fourth season struggles with the character. Episodes like Waking Moments, Mortal Coil and The Omega Directive afford Chakotay lower-key character moments still anchored in his new age spirituality. The more overtly Chakotay-focused episodes like Nemesis and Unforgettable are essentially built around Chakotay as “stock Star Trek protagonist”, the kind of stories that might have been built around Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

A well-red companion.

In contemporary interviews, Beltran acknowledged the shift away from the relationship between Janeway and Chakotay. In an interview with Cinefantastique, Beltran acknowledged that he might be getting more romance of the week plots, but that he wanted something meatier:

Most of that relationship was me and Kate. Kate and I didn’t even know there were people looking at our relationship that way until way into the first season. It wasn’t consciously done in the beginning, it just sort of happened. They tried to run with it. They tried to run with it. I heard they wanted to free Chakotay up for more sexual liaisons.”

Beltran noted, “Not having the Janeway-Chakotay relationship, maybe I can go back being the Maquis warrior that I used to be, what I started the show to be. I think that’s what I’d like to see.”

With all of that in mind, it is perfectly understandable that Beltran would become increasingly disillusioned with Voyager. His performances grow increasingly relaxed and low-key from the fourth season onward. It becomes increasingly clear that Beltran is not really trying any more.

Make a note of it.

The romance in Unforgettable just does not work, which is a shame. It sabotages an otherwise interesting premise. The Ramuran are a very intriguing alien species, a culture that effectively erase themselves from the memories of those they encounter. It is a ridiculous idea on a purely rational or scientific level, in the same way that warp speed or fluidic space might be, but it is fun to play with. The Ramuran require a healthy suspension of disbelief, feeling like the same sort of wacky sci-fi concept as the gigantic viruses in Macrocosm or the dinosaurs in Distant Origin.

“You see, the memories of my people can’t be held in the minds of other races,” Kellin explains. “When we encounter others, which we do infrequently, they remember us for a few hours, but then the memories fade away. We’re completely forgotten by the next day.” It is a clever idea, even if she over-explains it by blaming “a sort of pheromone which blocks the long-term memory engrams of others.” By massive evolutionary coincidence, the Ramuran are also immune to tricorders and transporters. “We’re impervious to those sort of devices.”

Taking their relationship to the next phaser.

(At the same time, there is something very clever in the way that Ramuran technology is consciously designed to emulate and enhance this biological quirk; they have cloaked ships and reference-erasing computer viruses. “When you live a covert existence, you develop technology to enhance it,” Kellin explains. it is a very interesting extrapolation of the Ramuran psychology, the idea that a culture builds technology determined as much by social and cultural (and biological) factors as by external drivers.)

The Ramuran feel like a concept that should be put to better use. Voyager is a television show very much engaged with the idea of memory and identity, and the connection that exists between the two. This is reflected in numerous ways. It can be seen in the show’s obsession with time travel, a very literal literal manipulation of history. However, it is also seen in episodes that touch on themes of cultural history and personal memory, like Projections, Remember, Random Thoughts, Living Witness or Latent Image. The Ramuran feel very much like an extension of this.

A blaster from the past.

Indeed, the Ramuran arguably also integrate into the more conspiratorial and paranoid mindset of Voyager. More than the other Star Trek shows, Voyager seems to suggest hidden histories and buried secrets in episodes like The 37’s, The Omega Directive and The Voyager Conspiracy. An alien species that have the power to erase themselves from memory or history would be a very engaging adversary for those kinds of stories. Voyager repeatedly plays with the idea that characters cannot trust their memories; the Ramuran evoke that fear overtly.

As with the space-ship-riding dinosaurs in Distant Origin or the pseudo-historical hijinks of da Vinci’s day out in Concerning Flight, there are aspects of Unforgettable that evoke the lighter (and breezier) science-fiction trappings of Doctor Who. Years after Unforgettable, Steven Moffat would introduce an alien race known as “the Silence” that could erase themselves from a person’s long-term memory. Those memorable and distinctive monsters hint at the unrealised potential of the Ramuran.

A different outlook.

Unforgettable is unforgivably dull, squandering a killer hook. When Kellin first arrives, it is impossible to know whether the crew can trust her. That is a compelling tension, the challenge of trying to determine whether Kellin can be trusted without the framework of memory to support that trust. Instead of allowing that ambiguity to linger, Unforgettable instead indulges in a number of awkward exposition-driven flashbacks that confirm everything that Kellin has said. It is very boring to watch, and it undercuts a potentially intriguing premise.

These issues are compounded by the fact that Unforgettable is never particularly interested in the Ramuran themselves. Unforgettable (and its characters) accept the Ramuran at face value, even when their culture seems downright horrific. Kellin is introduced as a “tracer”, a hunter who tracks those Ramuran who would try to explore the universe. She searches for them, finds them, wipes their memories, and returns them home. It is a very unsettling culture, one that effectively relies upon brainwashing its citizens and preventing them from leaving.

“It’s on a par with a night of heavy drinking…”

Kellin is very frank and unapologetic about that. Reflecting on how she caught a fugitive, she reminds Chakotay, “We put him in the brig. Once I used the neurolytic emitter on him, he was only too happy to be going home again.” When Chakotay inquires about that term, she helpfully explains, “We use it on runaways. It wipes their memories of the outside world.” Kellin doesn’t question the technology, which arguably makes sense. Kellin grew up in a culture where this is the norm. However, none of the Voyager crew bat an eyelid at this behaviour.

There is a strange dissonance at play here. Janeway agrees to grant Kellin amnesty, accepting that Kellin should not be forced to go home against her will. However, Janeway also agreed to help Kellin track down another fugitive who wanted the same thing. To be fair, Kellin actually asked for asylum, but it seems strange that Janeway would so willingly surrender a fugitive from the Ramuran authorities. It is hard to reconcile with her more humanitarian actions, like her attempt to rescue both the Hirogen and Species 8472 in Prey.

An adventure he won’t soon forget.

There is a sense that Unforgettable itself does not recognise how horrific Ramuran culture might be. When Chakotay confronts Curneth in the brig, the script allows him to make an unchallenged defense of his work. “The laws on our world are very specific about that,” he insists. “No one may leave. No one may reveal anything about us to the outside world. Kellin has violated both of those edicts. Returning her will serve as a deterrent to others who might think of leaving.” It is very Orwellian.

“Did it ever occur to you that the fact that so many people want to leave might mean that there’s something wrong with your society?” Chakotay responds, which is the weakest possible counter-argument that he could make. Curneth somewhat fumbles the response, reflecting, “We have a strong and cohesive society because of our efforts to keep it that way. A few runaways among millions hardly indicates a problem.” Chakotay glosses over the obvious response that an unjust policy is still unjust no matter how few people it might affect.

Picking up the pieces.

Instead, Chakotay accepts the numerical argument at face value. “If there are so few, why not let them go?” he wonders. Curneth responds, “That would suggest that we don’t care about them. What a terrible message.” This act of totalitarianism is instead presented as an act of compassion. Chakotay seems to accept this point. He is downright polite when he escorts Curneth to the transporter room to take Kellin home. “I wish you both the best,” he suggests, which seems surreal when surrendering a woman to a man who just caused massive brain damage.

Unforgettable never even touches upon the idea of how creepy and invasive the Ramuran desire for privacy might be. What if people don’t consent to having their memory wiped? Handily, Janeway seems to accept the Ramuran right to erase the crew’s memory and to tinker with Voyager’s computer. “I’ve implanted a computer virus to eliminate any reference to our being here,” Curneth explains. “By tomorrow afternoon, you’ll have forgotten everything. It will be as though we never existed. It’s better that way.”

Unforgettable fire.

All of this feels like a massively squandered premise. More than that, it features a massively squandered guest star. Virginia Madsen is a fairly recognisable actor with a long and rich filmography. She was also a massive Star Trek fan when she took the role:

That was a dream come true, because I was a huge Star Trek fan. I mean, I still am, but I was a fanatical Star Trek fan. I had a giant life-sized cutout of [William] Shatner well into my 20s. And my first live-in boyfriend was like, “Darling, are you really going to bring Shatner into our new home?” I was like, “Oh, uh… just for fun?” “No, no, I don’t think that’s a good idea…” I’m just kidding. But not much.

That was the earliest call time I’d ever had on a show. It was at 2:43 a.m., because I had to put on those… well, they were kind of like Vulcan ears. But it was cool! I got to be on the bridge during a battle, doing the thing where you bob and weave, I got to beam in and beam out, I had my own phaser, I had my own quarters, I went to sick bay and was scanned by a tricorder, and in one scene that got cut out? I went into a Jefferies tube, thank you very much.

Madsen is a cult icon owing to her work on films like Candy Man, but she would also go on to earn an Academy Award nomination for Sideways. Madsen’s profile, ability and enthusiasm deserve a much better story with a much stronger script. There is nothing in Unforgettable into which Madsen might sink her teeth.

“Don’t worry, this is still way more developed than the relationship I end up in by the end of the series.”

Unforgettable is perfectly forgettable.

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9 Responses

  1. You did a great job of breaking the episode down. You’re right, the concepts behind the show are very interesting. Loved your take on the wiring.

  2. I’m rather curious of what you think could have been done to save Chakotay’s character. After all, many fans, myself included, bemoan how Voyager just gave up on the characters that were not working, Chakotay and Harry Kim come to mind, but rarely think about what could have been actually been done to fix them. The only thing I can really think of when it comes to Chakotay would be to have developed his relationship with Janeway and have them become romantically involved. That would not be a long term fix, however.

    • To save the character after squandering the potential inherent in the premise?

      I’d go with what Beltran said, make him a warrior again. Or in other words develop the tensions with Janeway that were brought up in episodes like the Scorpion two-parter over how to approach their mission to get home. It makes sense given that the show dispenses with the hints of a romantic relationship.

      • Yeah, but the problem with that is that he has been so peaceful for basically four seasons, it would feel really jarring to suddenly have him be a warrior again. I think it would have felt forced in the same way the occasional efforts to make Paris the bad boy again did. Also, by this point Janeway had become quite a warrior herself, so I really don’t know if there would have been much of a contrast between Chakotay and Janeway.

      • Yeah, Chakotay’s big issue was that he was squeezed out of his potential roles by Janeway and Seven. Janeway is the badass now, so he cannot play that role. Seven is the most important figure orbiting Janeway, so Chakotay cannot bask in her light.

      • That’s probably the clearest way to do it. Create an inciting incident, and have Chakotay and Janeway split over it, and create a fracture.

    • You could have contrast between him and Janeway, you just need to have a consistent characterisation for both of them. As you mention, she becomes more of a warrior, we have episodes like Scorpion where she makes morally questionable choices. Run with that, she’s a bit more ruthless, more the warrior, where he becomes more the diplomat and moral center of the show.

    • I don’t know. You’re limited by both the concept and the performer.

      You can’t play into the New Age elements that Piller baked into the character, but you can’t disregard them completely either.

      There’s also the fact that Beltran is not the most versatile performer. He isn’t good at romance, as Unforgettable and arguably even Resolutions demonstrate. However, he is quite good at doing confrontational, as his performances in episodes like Learning Curve, Worst Case Scenario, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II demonstrate. But you can’t do the Maquis stuff, because Voyager disregarded that very early and DS9 has killed them off completely.

      As such, it would probably have made sense to play up the tension between Janeway and Chakotay, and maybe even introducing a recurring point of contention between the pair. The problem is that Seven of Nine arguably replaces Chakotay as Janeway’s strongest single relationship, and it’s another relationship that’s adversarial in nature.

      The best thing to do might be to insert Chakotay into the dynamic between Janeway and Seven. In some ways, it’s really just placing more emphasis on an established beat. Chakotay’s distrust of the Borg, dating back to his experience in Unity. (It could even reflect that fact that Chakotay was repeatedly betrayed by his Maquis crew, with Paris helping Janeway find him, Tuvok being a spy, and Lon Suder being a psychopath; that would give anybody some trust issues.) There are certainly shades of it in later episodes, like his betrayal of Janeway’s bargain in Scorpion, Part II or his concerns about Seven in One.

      However, imagine pushing those a bit further. Janeway wants to trust Seven, Chakotay really doesn’t. You’d have an interesting trinity there, a warped family unit, and you’d even get to energise it every once in a while when Seven does something controversial. You’d get some nice Janeway/Chakotay beats in episodes like Prey or Hope and Fear. It would even keep the shippers on board, by positioning Janeway and Chakotay as a dysfunctional mother/father team.

      Of course, Chakotay probably still wouldn’t get too much screentime, but at least he’d be wired into the show’s new core dynamic in a way that plays to Beltran’s strengths. It would certainly be more productive than what resulted.

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