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Star Trek: Voyager – Thirty Days (Review)

Thirty Days is a fascinating misfire.

Thirty Days is build around a number of interesting ideas. In terms of character, there is the framing device that finds Tom Paris sentenced to spend one month in the brig after an act of crass insubordination, suggesting a relapse into the “bad boy” persona that was largely forgotten after Ex Post Facto, barring the occasional revival for episodes like Vis á Vis. It also hints at questions of discipline on the ship, something around which Star Trek: Voyager has skirted in the past in episodes like Prime Factors and Manoeuvres. There is a compelling story here, somewhere.

Watching Thirty Days can feel like…

In terms of science-fiction plot elements, Thirty Days features the first ocean planet in the history of the Star Trek franchise. That is interesting of itself. What wonders lurk within an ocean world? What would life look like had it never left the sea and set foot on land? There is something decidedly pulpy and magical about a planet that has no surface of which to speak, instead comprised of waves and tides. Even with the flimsiest of plots, this element alone should provide fodder for an exciting installment.

Unfortunately, Thirty Days fumbles both of these interesting elements, falling victim to a recurring issue with the plotting on Voyager. The pacing is awkward, the plot points are under-developed, the framing device is hackneyed. The script for Thirty Days seems far more concerned about hitting the forty-five minute mark than it does with using these elements to tell a compelling story. The result is a bit of a wash.

Water conservation.

Unsurprisingly, and like Timeless before it, Thirty Days began as an image rather than a story. As Kenneth Biller explained to Cinefantastique, the episode began as a pitch with which the writers fell instantly in love:

Scott Miller brought us this idea a couple of years ago of an ocean in space. Brannon and Joe and I fell in love with the image. Unfortunately, we never quite figured out the best way to tell a story about it. The show ended up being ten minutes short, so the whole subplot of Paris being in the brig and telling the story as a flashback was something we added after the episode was shot. That ended up being the most interesting thing. I thought the special effects were great and the ocean was intriguing.

The image of the floating ocean is certainly evocative. It is also easy to understand the difficulties translating “ocean in space” into a functioning forty-five minute episode of television. The ocean planet is an element of a story, but is not a story of itself.

Sea-ing the universe.

At the same time, it is something fresh and exciting in the larger context of the Star Trek franchise. “Any idea how the ocean came into existence?” Janeway asks the delegation from the Monean Maritime Sovereignty. “In my experience, it’s a unique phenomenon.” This makes sense. After all, the Star Trek franchise has been around for over thirty years at this point in the run, producing more than twenty broadcast seasons of television.

In that time, the franchise has done almost everything. space!Romans! Stunt men in monkey costumes! More space!Romans! Flying space!Lincoln! Even more space!Romans! Big-earred space!trolls! Evil all-consuming cyborgs! Giant flying snowflakes in space! It is astounding that it took the franchise thirty-one years, twenty-two seasons of live-action television, and more than five hundred individual episodes before they hit upon the idea of doing “an ocean in space.”

Making quite a splash.

It is particularly striking because the idea of an “ocean planet” is such a staple of pulp science-fiction. Pulp literature is filled with worlds that essentially floating balls of water, whether populated by aquatic species or by oxygen-breathers who have colonised the depths. Early science fiction like Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, Poul Anderson’s Sister Planet and C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra treated Venus as a gigantic ocean, perhaps reflecting the thick layer of clouds that obscured its surface from early astronomers.

Science eventually determined that Venus did not have oceans; if there ever had been oceans on the planet, they were long gone. So writers looked beyond the solar system to imagine ocean worlds. Science-fiction came to be populated with these blue worlds: Tiamut in The Snow Queen, the eponymous mysterious planet in Solaris, Nidor in The Shrouded Planet, Thalassa in The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, Alpha in Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov, even Kamino in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones or Miller’s Planet from Interstellar.

Diving deep.

The appeal of ocean planets is quite obvious, providing a thematic union between the the under-explored depths of our own planet and infinite wonder above our heads. As Elizabeth Howell noted, there are a number of parallels between space exploration and deep sea exploration:

Spaceflight and deep-ocean diving share many similarities, as this mission demonstrated. The early days of the space program had communications blackouts as spaceships flew between stations; this proved to be a near-disaster for the Gemini 8 crew in 1966 when their spacecraft spun out of control during a period with no voice connection to the ground.

Also, sustaining life is no less challenging in the water as it is in space. Humans require oxygen, pressure and a comfortable environment where they work. Crews in space have faced serious problems with all of these matters before – Mir suffered a partial depressurization in 1997, and the early days of the Skylab space station were rather hot until the astronauts could deploy a sunshade.

It should be noted that there is considerable debate within the contemporary scientific community about the utility of deep space exploration as compared to deep sea exploration. Many would argue that the planet still has meaningful secrets to reveal to its inhabitants, if they are willing to look for them.

Wetting his appetite.

More than that, there is a tendency to talk about space as a vast ocean. The Star Trek franchise is particularly prone to this. Moby Dick is a recurring touchstone for the franchise across its fifty-year history, from Obsession to The Doomsday Machine to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to Silicon Avatar to Star Trek: First Contact to Bliss to Star Trek: Nemesis. One of Nicholas Meyer’s great innovations with the franchise was to reconfigure the feature films as more nautical in theme, consider the opening scenes of Star Trek: Generations.

As such, it is not surprising that Star Trek would eventually feature an ocean planet. It is more surprising that it took Voyager so long to tell this sort of story. After all, Voyager has long had an interest in pulp fiction and classic sci-fi trappings, from the alien abduction narrative of The 37’s to the robot wars of Prototype to the rather outdated Cold War paranoia of episodes like Cathexis and In the Flesh. Given the vintage science-fiction trappings of the Captain Proton! holo-program, which appears early in Thirty Days, a water planet is a good fit.

Voyager over troubled waters.

Like Macrocosm or Scorpion, Part I, Thirty Days is an episode that largely exists because of the advances that have been made in computer-generated imagery since Star Trek: The Next Generation launched almost twelve years earlier. It seems likely that at least part of the reason that no crew has ever visited a water world is because the technology simply did not exist to convincingly render it on a television budget before this point.

While the computer-generated imagery in Voyager is undoubtedly dated, Thirty Days makes reasonable use of its computer-generated imagery. The special effects in Thirty Days were never going to accomplish verisimilitude, but they do not aspire towards it. There is something rather uncanny about the ocean planet and its deep-sea imagery, something that lends itself to a computer-generated rendering.

“Actually, our forefathers were big fans of Janelle Monae.”

As Jonathan Romney argues, modern audience will have difficulty grasping just how great a leap the computer-generated imagery represented in terms of storytelling possibilities:

Over time, CGI creations have become increasingly precise and life-like. We’ve seen giant robots, dinosaurs and shape-shifting mutants, all rendered with photorealistic exactness and composed from multitudes of pixels (a pixel, or picture element, is a single dot on a screen, the fundamental ‘atom’ of digital imagery). We’ve witnessed every shade of apocalyptic weather and terrestrial or galactic cataclysm. Where CGI once gave us discrete images persuasively implanted (or ‘composited’) into realistic filmed space – as with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park – today entire environments are partly or wholly simulated, with human actors sometimes the only elements in a scene to have been captured photographically, as in the fantasy worlds of the Harry Potter film series and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Such marvels belong to a visual domain that not long ago seemed impossible on screen, but is today taken for granted by viewers who’ve grown up with little exposure to pre-digital cinema. The miraculous has become the norm. Special effects apart, digital techniques are now standard in cinema, with production and exhibition on celluloid relegated to the industry’s margins. Traditional animation, too, has been largely superseded by its digital successor in the wake of Pixar’s breakthrough Toy Story.

It is impossible to imagine modern cinema without computer-generated special effects, but it is also difficult to imagine how game-changing they were in the context of the nineties.

Friends in low places.

Of course, one of the big challenges with computer-generated imagery is the difficulty presented by the so-called “uncanny valley”, the difficulty recreating digital representations of objects for which the viewer has a very clear frame of reference. In some respects, the best uses of computer-generated imagery were those that avoided the temptation to recreate “reality”, and instead exploited the technology to create hyper-stylised and abstract visual representations.

There are any number of successful examples. The animation company Pixar has largely steered clear of photorealism as a way to avoid the “uncanny valley”, favouring a more stylised and cartoonish visual aesthetic. In movies like James Cameron’s Avatar and Luc Besson’s Valerian, there is a conscious effort to use computer-generated imagery in a way that largely minimises the audience’s frame of reference by embracing the impossibility of the animation style. “Suddenly, only imagination became the limit,” remarked Besson of the imagery in Avatar.

The life aquatic.

Thirty Days does something largely similar. A world made of water is something that could never be realised on a television budget, given that Waterworld cost over one hundred and seventy million dollars to produce. It is also something for which the viewer has no frame of reference. As such, it is an effective use of the show’s special effects budget. Indeed, Michael Westmore’s design for the Moneans plays into this idea, with make-up designed to give the aliens very smooth and shiny skin that looks rather uncanny while still remaining a practical effect.

However, Thirty Days struggles as a story. There is something rather tonally jarring about how Thirty Days chooses to introduce the idea of the water planet and explain Paris’ affection for the concept. Given what the audience already knows about Thomas Eugene Paris, it makes perfect sense for him to harbour an abiding affection for the water world. However, it makes the most sense for that affection to be rooted in his love of pulp twentieth century science-fiction. There has to be some sort of Captain Proton! adventure about journey to the depths.

The jet pack set.

Instead of anchoring Paris’ nautical interest in an established aspect of his character, Thirty Days instead insists on adding a whole completely new side to the long-established character. “When I saw that ocean today, it reminded me of the first time I read Jules Verne,” he says, referring to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. “I must have read it twenty thousand times. I was obsessed with stories about the ocean. All of my friends were busy with their holoprogrammes. I had my head buried in Captains Courageous, Moby Dick.”

This seems a rather strange choice. Even allowing for how literate Star Trek characters tend to be, it is a minor surprise that Paris should have actually read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Moby Dick. He seems far more likely to have seen a holographic recreation of the classic Richard Fleischer adaptation, which would be much more in keeping with what the audience knows of Paris, even just in the context of introducing the flashbacks with Paris riding a jetpack in black-and-white.

Twin paradox.

To be fair, Janeway at least clocks the nature of his interest as somewhat out of character. “So your interest in history includes the nineteenth century as well?” she asks, which seems like a fairly seismic shift. Will Paris’ next holographic programme be an adaptation of Verne or Wells? Instead of clarifying his interest in all forms of genre fiction, Paris specifies the type of nineteenth century fiction that interested him. “Ancient sailing ships were always my first love. I had it all planned. Finish high school, join the Federation Naval Patrol. But my father had other ideas.”

Again, this is a rather clumsy bit of retroactive continuity, in that it seems to suggest that Paris essentially washed out of Starfleet Academy because he was piloting the wrong kind of ship. While it makes sense on the level of plot logic, it runs counter to a lot of what the audience understands about who Paris is as a person. It always made sense for Paris to quite Starfleet because he had difficulty following orders, not because he’d rather be navigating a naval cruiser. More than that, Paris’ aptitude for three-dimensional flight seems at odds with his desire to sail a two-dimensional ocean.

Ranking as the least impressive thing that Paris has ever done.

In many ways, this is a microcosm of the issue with Thirty Days, which falls into the fairly typical Voyager issue of being far more driven by plot than by character. Voyager is a show that always seems more invested in what is happening than to whom it is happening. And this is obvious in the plotting and structuring of Thirty Days, which falls into the sort of Voyager plotting that might be best described as the “and then…” school of plot structuring.

There are plenty of episodes that suffer from this approach to plotting, as if the writers are constructing scripts in the fashion of Victor Frankenstein, stitching together leftover ideas and half-formed plots in order to pad out a script. Alter Ego begins as a story about Harry Kim falling in love with a hologram, before devolving into Fatal Attraction starring Tuvok. Worst Case Scenario is a story about authorship and creative compromise that becomes a “holodeck runs amok!” episode. Demon is a story about resource scarcity that involves clones and living planets.

Can you eel it?
Can you eel it?
Can you eel it?

The plot of Thirty Days is a sequence of events that happen. They are focused on Tom Paris, but never delve into his character. Events seem to happen in order to keep the plot moving, to keep the episode playing until it hits that forty-five minute mark. This is most obvious with the framing device that was clearly added to the script after the fact, but also in the extended “dive” sequence in the middle of the episode, in which the Delta Flyer takes a trip to the centre of the planet, is menaced by a giant sea monster, and then returns with findings that spur another development.

There are interesting ideas to be found in the central plot of Thirty Days, but none of them are really developed. For example, Thirty Days sets up this interesting discussion about creationism, with Riga suggesting that there is some debate about the nature and origin of the water world at the centre of the episode. “Our clerics teach that the ocean was a divine gift from the creators to protect and sustain us,” he explains to Paris. “But, in my opinion, the most plausible explanation is that the ocean formed naturally, much the same way that a gas giant does.”

Core concerns.

With that in mind, the discovery of a gigantic device at the core of the planet holding the ocean together should spark a major debate within Monean society. Would the clerics accept this discovery as validation of their beliefs that the ocean was the work of a divine hand, or would they dismiss the idea that their gods would use anything as feeble as a malfunctioning computer? Would scientists be tempted to tinker with the device, and to begin inquiries about who left it behind and why? The discoveries in Thirty Days should fundamentally alter Monean society.

However, Thirty Days then pivots to become a story about climate change, as Paris discovers that the Moneans are effectively destroying their habitat through their processes of industrialisation and mechanisation, a clear metaphor for mankind’s own troubled relationship with their environment. Paris suggests that the Moneans need to fundamentally re-examine their relationship with the planet, and they refuse. As with Night, it is clear that the fifth season of Voyager is very engaged with the idea of global warming and these bigger issues.

Matters come to a head.

Unfortunately, much like Night, the plot of Thirty Days glosses over the implications of this plot development by suggesting that the obvious solution to the modern environmental crisis is to invent magic technology that will reduce (or eliminate) the long-term damage to the world. It is a logical extension of the technological determinism that runs through the Star Trek franchise as a whole, which tends to suggest that technological advances alone will be enough to change human nature and patterns of behaviour.

When Paris discovers that the Moneans are destroying their environment, it seems like some tough decisions might have to made, much like when Janeway discovered that the Malon were dumping their waste on the other end of a spacial anomaly in Night. However, as with the Malon in Night, Janeway offers the Moneans an easy solution to their crisis. “I’ve also drawn up some designs for an oxygen replication system,” Torres suggests. “It’ll allow you to create free oxygen without extricating it from the water. It won’t solve your problems overnight, but it’s a start.”

Captain Proton to the rescue!

There is something very frustrating in this choice, on multiple levels. On a simple storytelling level, it makes both the Malon and the Moneans seem absurd for rejecting this magic technology out of hand. After all, most modern business and political interests would have a hard time turning down renewable and environmentally friendly energy if the change were that simple. At the very least, it would seem easier to convince voters and interest groups to embrace these sorts of solutions if they were that easy, if energy could be created “free.”

However, the environmental politics of Night and Thirty Days are also frustrating even beyond the story logic problems that they create. They suggest that these sorts of easy fixes to environmental problems actually exist, glossing over the profound changes in behaviour that are necessary to ensure sustainability. It is a very frustrating approach to environmentalism, making the false promise to viewers that their lives might be unaffected by these advances or revolutions, that they need only wait for magic technology to save them.

The whole system is Riga-ed!

Then again, this attitude is very much in keeping with the way that Voyager approaches these issues. The series has a fondness for meaningless technobabble, which somewhat frustrated guest star Willie Garson while filming the episode:

That’s the only job I’ve ever done that I have no idea of what I was talking about. It might as well been written phonetically in Chinese. I was playing a character from another planet that was made out of water. And it was all in Star Trek language, and I had never seen any episode of Star Trek in any incarnation, even the original series. I had never seen a moment of it. I had a line and I’d ask them to explain it to me, and they would start to say…’well, in 1971 this meant…’ and I was like, ‘I can’t.’ It’s the only job where I’ve ever been like that.

As such, it makes that Voyager would come to treat technobabble as a potential solution to these problems confronting entire societies and cultures. However, this approach to writing does not make for satisfying drama.

Torpedoing Paris’ plan.

(That said, the most satisfying dramatic beat in Thirty Days is the decision to stop Paris before he can destroy the refineries. Most Star Trek episodes would offer an optimistic and upbeat conclusion, suggesting that at least Paris accomplished something before he was demoted and thrown in the brig. There is something deliciously cynical in the way that Thirty Days effectively and brutally invalidates Paris’ mutinous actions. It is a very bleak story beat, which makes more effective and more memorable than the alternative would have been.)

The framing device in Thirty Days was added at the last minute, with Janeway sentencing Paris to thirty days in the brig for his crime. It is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the episode, on several levels. Most obviously, it touches on the sort of issues that Voyager has spent five years avoiding, questions of discipline and authority on a ship that is stranded seventy thousand light years from Starfleet Command with a crew made up of rebels and scientists. How exactly does Janeway enforce her command? How does Janeway keep her officers in line?

Solitary prisoner.

In early seasons, Voyager studiously avoided these questions. Janeway refused to punish the mutineers in Prime Factors and declined to hold the Vidiians accountable for their crimes in Phage. When Chakotay rebelled against Janeway in Manoeuvres, he got a stern talking-to and an acknowledgement that he was too senior to punish. When Lon Suder was sentenced to life imprisonment in Meld, he did not appear again until his redemption-by-death in Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II. In many ways, this was Voyager avoiding a lot of the promise of its potential.

The fifth season has made a half-hearted attempt to re-engage with these ideas, the season constantly looking backwards to the show’s origins with a critical eye. Night finds Janeway wondering if she made the right call in Caretaker. Relativity puts Seven of Nine on the ship before it even launches. Equinox, Part I confronts Janeway with another ship and crew stranded by the Caretaker and forced to compromise.

Tough cell.

The fifth season even makes a few token gestures to explore the circumstances that make Voyager unique in the context of the larger Star Trek franchise. Once Upon a Time explores what the ship’s adventures might look like to the first child born on the ship. Nothing Human touches on the situational ethics of Janeway’s position and the question of how much leeway individual crewmembers have to object to her decisions. Neither episode goes as far as it might, but they at least touch on ideas that had been left unexplored by earlier seasons.

Thirty Days confronts Janeway with mutiny by a member of her senior staff, and allows her to respond to it. To be fair, this is largely a token gesture; Paris’ demotion does not really affect him in any meaningful way, and he will be back at the helm by the teaser to Counterpoint. This is Voyager attempting to offer the “illusion of change”, to suggest dramatic consequences without actually following through on them. This does not make for satisfying drama, but it does represent a conscious improvement on the show’s earlier refusal to even hint at the possibility of consequences.

A little bit of arrest and arrelaxation.

It is worth noting that Janeway’s punishment of Paris seems particularly draconian. Because Voyager has no prison population, Janeway is essentially sentencing Paris to a full month in solitary confinement. More than that, she makes it clear that Paris is to remain physically and emotionally isolated from the crew. “Sorry,” Neelix apologises at one point. “No non-essential conversation with the prisoner.” Paris is not allowed to leave his cell. Kim spends weeks begging to visit him. Torres is not allowed communicate with him.

“Did the words cruel and unusual mean anything to her?” Paris demands at one point. He is joking, but he is not unreasonable. The United Nations has suggested that long-term solitary confinement is equivalent to torture. Fifteen days of solitary confinement can lead to lasting psychological harm. The Canadian Medical Association journal reports that solitary confinement can lead to “anxiety, depression, perceptual distortions, paranoia and psychosis.”

Not the hero we deserve…

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with telling this sort of story. Indeed, Janeway’s brutal punishment of Paris in Thirty Days is very much in keeping with Brannon Braga’s no-holds-barred approach to the character, as suggested by her decision to go ahead with a medical procedure on Torres without the latter’s consent. However, the problem with Thirty Days is that the episode never explores any of this. Torres should be on the verge of mutiny over this. Chakotay should be standing up to Janeway. Even Paris should be coming apart.

Instead, Thirty Days suggests a new “hard ass” approach to Janeway as a character without exploring any of the long-term implications of these decisions. It is a very crass storytelling choice, one that feels shallow and superficial. It is not a choice that tells the audience anything meaningful about these characters, or which adds any sense of nuance or complexity to the world of the series. It is a creative choice that has the appearance of being daring or controversial without actually dealing with any of the fallout.

They couldn’t Delaney this reveal any longer.

Indeed, the decision to build Thirty Days around an act of rebellion by Tom Paris feels rather trite. Voyager has often struggled to strike a convincing balance with Tom Paris, essentially a more extreme version of the early identity crisis facing William Riker on The Next Generation. Is Tom Paris an untrustworthy renegade, as suggested by episodes like Caretaker or Ex Post Facto? Or is Tom Paris just a kinda dull guy who likes twentieth-century chic, as suggested by episodes like Lifesigns or Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II?

Voyager never really made a convincing case for Paris as a rebel without a cause. McNeill was not particularly energised by this aspect of the character. In fact, that rebellious streak was at the heart of the spectacularly disastrous second season arc that culminated in Investigations, which should have been enough to kill that conception of the character. Still, the idea of Paris as a rebel would occasionally creep back in during episodes like Vis á Vis, in spite of both McNeill and the production team’s clear lack of interest in (or ability to convincingly execute) it.

Captive audience.

In an interview with Starlog, Robert Duncan McNeill suggested that Thirty Days was a small attempt to restore some sense of rebelliousness to the character:

“We’ve really struggled to make sure that his maturing, his taking on of responsibility and his letting go of the rebelliousness, came across as realistic. We didn’t want him to be a weaker character. We wanted him to be a stronger, wiser one. And we’ve been pretty successful. We’ve struggled to find places and ways to keep him a bit on the sarcastic side. You see that in small ways, in the dialogue he has in the briefing room, in the way that he talks to the Captain or the other characters. There’s a carefree quality about him that allows for many light moments and jokes and sarcasm. For some reason, we also saw much of that when he was in the Holodeck. He finds irony in situations, and that has become a real trademark of the character. He has a perspective on the ship’s adventures that’s a little different from some of his crewmates. There’s still some detachment at the core of who he is. Despite this development, he’s a team player and is willing to take responsibility. And he’s still willing to break rules if he really believes in something. That quality is still there, but it’s there for important reasons.”

However, it never feels earned. Much like Paris’ midlife crisis in Vis á Vis, his mutiny in Thirty Days feels like a forced (and regressive) plot development rather than a convincing character beat.

Ship shape.

Thirty Days is a misfire of an episode, a wasted opportunity that starts with so many potentially interesting ideas only to end up dead in the water.

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4 Responses

  1. I understand that water is also one of the most difficult things to animate convincingly in CGI. I first saw the Incredibles with an animator friend and each time he saw water in that film he cursed, “damn them and their money.”

  2. Am I the only one that got a Phantom Menace vibe when the eel attacks the underwater craft? It is probably a coincidence, but it is eerie how similar the scenes are.

    As for the episode itself, I think it suffers from having so much filler. For example, we have Voyager attacked only for it to be all fine after the commercial break. Voyager is also attacked by the water aliens only for them to be then at least initially friendly. All of this feels designed to make the episode run for the proper length of time, which is probably indeed the case. This episode additionally suffers from mediocre guest stars. The actor who plays the politician is quite bad, and the actor who plays the scientist alien is not much better. They are so dry and passionless that it is hard to summon much interest. Also, I find it rather hard to believe that the delta flyer can submerge deeper than the aliens’ ships even though the aliens have been living there for many years. I agree the episode is a missed opportunity because the world is indeed a striking image.

    • Yep, the episode suffers from that “oh, f**k, we’ve got forty-five minutes to fill!” panic that permeates so many of the middling and forgettable Voyager episodes, where instead of developing a single idea, the production team just try to overwhelm the audience with plot beats and developments.

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