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Star Trek: Voyager – Bliss (Review)

Bliss is a textbook example of Star Trek: Voyager doing textbook Star Trek.

The episode feels like a stew composed primarily of leftovers, the residue of past meals thrown together to serve up something lukewarm and familiar. Bliss is not necessarily a bad episode of television, per se. It is rather lifeless and generic, but it is hardly the weakest episode of the season or the series. Instead, Bliss is the kind of episode that fades gently from memory, a hollow confection that doesn’t taste particularly nice, but which at least offers something to chew over.

Good Sheppard.

Bliss is a cocktail of familiar Star Trek plot elements. At the centre of the story is the sort of gigantic monstrous space entity that haunted earlier tales like The Immunity Syndrome or Datalore, a reminder of how weird and dangerous space can be. The “pitcher plant” in Bliss recalls the parasites from Operation — Annihilate! or the space vampire from The Man Trap. It feels like something almost Lovecraftian, a “beast” with tendrils that reach into the minds anybody near enough so that it might lure them to their doom. It is unfathomable to those caught within its grasp.

Qatai exists in opposition to this malign entity, caught in an immortal struggle with a force more vicious and more powerful than he could ever be. The EMH compares Qatai to Ahab, acknowledging the debt that Bliss owes to Moby Dick. Of course, the Star Trek franchise is populated with stories built upon that classic template; Obsession, The Doomsday Machine, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Nemesis, Star Trek. It is hard to think of a more generic source of inspiration for an episode of Star Trek.

The show could use a shot in the arm.

Even beyond that, Bliss touches on plot ideas and elements that will be familiar to most Voyager viewers. As with episodes like Eye of the Needle or False Profits, the crew are tempted by a phenomenon that seems to promise the possibility of getting the crew home quickly. As in Hope and Fear and The Voyager Conspiracy, Seven of Nine becomes preoccupied with the notion that she is the only member of the crew with an objective perspective that allows her to see the truth. As with The Cloud or One, this might be deemed an “anomaly of the week” episode.

The result is something the feels very much like a representative distillation of Voyager, the statistical mean of the series derived to a decimal point. Bliss is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Voyager as a television show. It is neither truly great or truly awful, it is merely there.

Coming down to Earth.

On paper, Bliss should be a great deal of fun. It is an episode in which Voyager gets eaten by a giant space monster that has been messing with the crew’s minds, and the ship’s only hope of salvation lies in the hands of an insane old monster hunter played by W. Morgan Sheppard. That should at least be entertaining and exciting, pulpy and ridiculous. It is a very silly idea for a story, but there is nothing wrong with a little silliness from time to time. After all, this is a television series that only recently produced Bride of Chaotica!

To be fair, Morgan is very clearly the highlight of Bliss. Morgan is a veteran character actor, with a host of high-profile and memorable screen roles across a host of science-fiction franchise. Morgan has appeared in everything from Babylon 5 to Doctor Who. More than that, he has popped up across the length and breadth of the Star Trek franchise, having appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and making a small appearance in the JJ Abrams reboot.

Voyager is a lot like the Delta Flyer’s course: so simple that even a child could plot it.

Sheppard has admitted a fondness for the way in which science-fiction roles afford him the opportunity to step outside himself:

Yes, I love having to stretch, like Soul Hunter in Babylon 5, Qatai in Star Trek Voyager… Klingon fans like my Commander on Star Trek VI because Nick Meyer, a marvellous director, let me play the character. Max Headroom got me to the US and Blank Reg is one of my favourite roles. … It’s never ‘just another job’. I really enjoy the Star Trek challenges, as you have to play characters a little larger than life, and find an empathy for their alien selves.

Sheppard certainly rises to the occasion. It is telling that Sheppard is such a memorable and essential part of the Star Trek canon, despite only playing a handful or roles years apart from one another.

… there is nothing I shall want.

As Qatai, Sheppard is great fun. In particular, Sheppard bounces off his three co-stars very well, something quite apparent in the first time that shares a set with them; Qatai pokes at Naomi to be sure that she is real, and comes very close to touching Seven of Nine before stopping short with a knowing nod. When Naomi refers to the entity as a “monster”, Seven is quick to correct her. However, Qatai is quick to endorse Naomi’s choice of words. “No, the girl’s right,” he bluntly tells Seven. “He’s a monster, and the only way out is to destroy him.”

W. Morgan Sheppard works particularly well with Robert Picardo. Part of this is just the juxtaposition of the two characters; Qatai is a very serious man who very earnestly believes in what he is doing, while the EMH cannot wait to offer a snarky one-liner to puncture that earnestness. However, there is also a sense that Picardo and Sheppard bounce well off one another because they have very similar performance styles. Both Picardo and Sheppard are very good at broad and exaggerated banter, while plays well in the context of an episode about giant space monster.

Qatai: Monster Slayer.
Now, there‘s a spin-off.

When Qatai warns the EMH that Voyager is being digested by the entity, the EMH wryly responds, “And who might you be, the local monster expert?” Qatai is too serious and too committed to be drawn out by this flippant dialogue. He simply replies, “As a matter of fact I am.” After working with the EMH for a while, Qatai suggests a possible future together. “I could use a crewmate like you,” Qatai offers. “The beast would have a difficult time manipulating a hologram’s desires.” The EMH cynically counters, “An Ishmael to your Ahab? No, thank you.”

In some ways, the episode’s handling of Qatai is a major problem. Most obviously, Bliss is an episode that could use a lot more of W. Morgan Sheppard. The teaser opens with Qatai charging into battle against the space monster, but the character is largely absent from the first half of the episode. He only reappears once the crew have gone into their coma. Even then, Bliss does not know how to properly use its guest star. Qatai banters well with the surviving crew, but the script moves him off the ship at the climax, which means putting Sheppard at a remove from the action.

The beast below.

These issues with the handling of Qatai tie back into a recurring problem with how Voyager structures its scripts. Like Alter Ego or Displaced or Worst Case Scenario or Demon, Bliss is an episode that cannot settle on a single story. The episode is essentially a game of two halves, swapping genre and story around the midpoint. The first twenty-odd minutes of the episode are a conspiracy thriller in which Seven of Nine is the only sane person on the ship. The second half is a much more conventional “outwit a giant space monster” story.

The issue is that Qatai clearly belongs in the “outwit a giant space monster” story, and so he has to sit out most of the conspiracy thriller. However, the fact that Bliss is trying to be these two different stories means that neither story has any time to breath. Both halves of the episode feel very generic, because there simply is not time to properly develop these storytelling templates into something more nuanced or sophisticated. The result is that Bliss feels like two very generic half-stories crammed into forty-odd minutes of television.

“We’re just looking for plot holes.”

These two halves draw upon a wealth of Star Trek tropes and influences. Indeed, both halves of Bliss offer an example of Star Trek as something akin to an American mythology, drawing upon and recontextualising iconic stories within the franchise framework. This is most overt with Qatai himself, who is so transparently a twist upon the character of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick that the EMH even feels obligated to give voice to the comparison in the transporter room.

The struggle between Qatai and the entity is one of obsession and revenge. Qatai blames the organism for the death of his family on a colony ship, ascribing intelligence and intent to the anomaly. Much like Ahab projects this sort of canny intelligence on to the white whale that crippled him, Qatai treats the entity as a familiar acquaintance. He refers to it as “the beast”, and more intimately as “he.” Qatai knows it. “It appears to operate on highly evolved instinct,” the EMH states. “I haven’t detected any signs of sentience.” Qatai responds, “Oh he’s intelligent, all right.”

Once more unto the beast, dear friends.

The teaser and the closing scene provide a sense of context for all this, suggesting Qatai’s long-standing obsession with the creature. “Surprised?” he yells at the start of the episode. “What’s wrong? Can’t figure out why I’m still not running, ha? Can’t read my thoughts? Go ahead, attack, take my ship. Damn ship.” Like Ahab, Qatai sees himself as an adversary of this large and powerful organism. Much like the agency and intent of the white whale in Moby Dick remain ambiguous, it is never entire clear whether the entity in Bliss is even aware of Qatai’s existence.

(Bliss even goes so far as to reinforce this comparison during the sequences in which Janeway pilots the ship into the entity. The organism is filmed in such a way as to suggest a gigantic space whale. Its jaws seem to close around Voyager like those of the whale from the story of Jonah. Qatai talks about the entity as something more like an animal than the living nebula in The Cloud, referring to its “primary neural plexus” and its “digestion chamber.” The literal belly of “the beast.”)

All’s Melville that ends Melville.

Moby Dick is perhaps the most obvious influence on Bliss. After all, Moby Dick is a classic of American literature and well-loved classic. More than that, it is arguably an essential part of the texture of the Star Trek franchise, informing episodes and films dating back to the second season of the original series. Whenever Star Trek makes a literary allusion, it seems like Moby Dick is a safe bet. In fact, Lily Sloane is able to identify the parallels between the plot of Moby Dick and the events of First Contact without ever having read the book.

At the same time, there are other influences at play on Bliss. Most notably, the first half of the episode owes a very clear debt to The Odyssey. Again, this is not a particularly deep cut, given that The Odyssey is one of the cornerstones of western literature. More than that, The Odyssey is obviously thematically resonant with Voyager. Both are stories about crews that find themselves stranded a long way from home, engaging in a series of episodic adventures under a leader who promises to get them home no matter what the cost.

Janeway dreams of a world in which Favourite Son never happened.

Voyager has repeatedly alluded to The Odyssey over the course of its run, perhaps most notably in the reframing of the classic siren narrative in Favourite Son. In that episode, Harry Kim found himself tempted to lay down his burdens and abandon his journey to live on a planet surrounded by beautiful women who ultimately turn out to be deceitful and predatory. There is arguably something of The Odyssey in the recurring structure of Voyager as a chain of unrelated adventures and mishaps as the crew continue on their journey, encountering aliens along the way.

The first half of Bliss evokes the tale of the lotus eaters from The Odyssey. While journeying home, Odysseus finds an island populated by people who eat and drink of the lotus. This addictive compound traps them in dreams and threatens to ensnare his crew. The entity in Bliss does something similar, luring passing ships and using fantasy to subdue their crews. Indeed, the repeated slow panning shots of the unconscious crew in Bliss evoke W. Heath Robinson’s illustrations of the lotus eaters from Jeanie Lang’s adaptation of The Odyssey.

Resting in peace…

In many ways, Bliss typifies the ways in which the Star Trek franchise has come to position itself as something akin to a popular mythology, a framework through which archetypal narratives might be replayed and reimagined, reframed and recontextualised. In Myth in Quotations and the Star Trek Franchise, Djoymi Baker argues that this is a feature of the Star Trek franchise dating back to The Wrath of Khan:

The Star Trek of the 1960s may quote non–Star Trek myths, but a popular culture mythology based around the series itself had not yet begun. By contrast, the Star Trek of the 1980s and beyond is aware of its own place within the history of popular culture, an awareness activated whenever it quotes itself. Within such a context, to retell a story appropriated from an outside source is to simultaneously and necessarily retell the Star Trek story in a new guise. When the Star Trek of the 1980s and beyond quotes an external myth, it is automatically at the very least a twofold endeavor, because it is aware not only of its source material, but also of its own status as (and deliberate construction of ) a form of popular mythology. Star Trek not only contextualizes outside myths within Star Trek’s fictional realm, but also attempts to contextualize its own mythology through that quotation.

As such, this dual framing in Bliss serves as another expression of the pop nostalgia that was beginning to take root in the Star Trek franchise of the nineties, a variation on the mid-life crisis of Star Trek: Insurrection or the retro charm of Bride of Chaotica! After all, when Bliss quotes Moby Dick, it is also quoting The Wrath of Khan and The Doomsday Machine. When Bliss quotes The Odyssey, it is putting Voyager in a consciously mythic framework.

Admirable Admirals.

Nostalgia looms large in Bliss, serving as a threat to Voyager and the crew. The ship is tempted by the appearance of a wormhole that promises to take them home, which is itself a form of nostalgia. Voyager has always been a show about yearning to return to the familiar. However, the temptations offered to the crew are pointedly nostalgic. Janeway gets a letter from her ex-fiancé, informing her that he is romantically available once again. “Apparently his engagement was broken off.”

The fantasies in Bliss tease the crew with the possibility of reset buttons and do-overs. Chakotay is offered “a full pardon and reinstatement to Starfleet”, even though there has never really been any indication that Chakotay would actually want a reinstatement to Starfleet. When the EMH revives Torres, he discovers that she is living in a fantasy world where her life has been reset to what it was before Caretaker. She gasps, “The Maquis, they’re alive!” She confesses to them, “Starfleet thinks you’ve all been killed.”

Holding a wake.

Bliss offers the characters the opportunity to recapture a nostalgic past, to pretend that all the horrible things in between never happened. Mark never assumed that Janeway was dead. Chakotay never quit Starfleet and became a terrorist. The Jem’Hadar never brutally murdered the Maquis. The appeal of such a fantasy is intoxicating. The EMH tries to reason with Torres, to snap her out of it. “B’Elanna, focus on my voice.” Qatai understands the allure of such a fantasy. “She doesn’t want to. They never want to.”

Bliss arrives at a point where the nostalgia is clearly building within the Star Trek franchise. In many ways, Voyager would be the last Star Trek series to push the franchise forward within its fictional universe. Appropriately enough for the last Star Trek show of the nineties, Voyager was perhaps the end of (future) history for the Star Trek franchise. Star Trek: Enterprise, the JJ Abrams reboot and Star Trek: Discovery would all attempt to take the franchise back to some idealised nostalgic past.

Carry on carrying on.

In Bliss, both Seven and Naomi are immune to the influence of the entity because they do not shared the nostalgia felt by the rest of the crew. Seven is surprised to find Naomi hiding out in the cargo bay because she feels uncomfortable with the crew’s euphoria at returning to Earth. “You do not share your mother’s desire to return to Earth?” Seven asks. Naomi responds, “Voyager’s my home. If we go to Earth, I’ll have to leave the ship.” This is arguably true of Seven of Nine as well.

Indeed, the closing scene of the episode seems to reinforce this idea, suggesting that the only reason why the crew would want to return to Earth is out of some sense of nostalgia. Having apparently learned nothing from almost being eaten by a giant space monster, Samantha Wildman orders her daughter to look at pictures of Earth and learn to love it. “Does studying this image increase your desire to go there?” Seven asks. “Not really,” Naomi responds. Seven nods. “I concur. It is unremarkable.” There is nothing to recommend Earth beyond its familiarity.

Homeless alone.

Bliss almost seems like a cautionary tale, expressing the interesting back-and-forth that plays out about nostalgia during the fifth season as a whole. The fifth season is bookended by Night and Equinox, Part I, both episodes that find Janeway contemplating the decisions that she has made since being stranded in the Delta Quadrant. The crew encounter fake versions of Earth in In the Flesh and Bliss. The Maquis come back into focus in Extreme Risk and Nothing Human. Seven of Nine visits the launch of Voyager in Relativity.

Characters are haunted by the memories of previous lives across the fifth season. Tuvok remembers his awkward teenage years in flashback in Gravity. Seven of Nine recalls her assimilation in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. Janeway takes a trip down memory lane in 11:59, remembering a distant relative. Voyager has always been a show about moving backwards, but the fifth season in particular appears to have its eyes locked on the past. It feels like the nostalgia that will soon take over the franchise is gestating, and Bliss is very anxious about that.

Getting past it all.

Music critic Simon Reynolds has talked about how he believes that popular music has stagnated in the twenty-first century, as fans and artists began to wallow in a past that was more readily accessible to them:

It’s been building for a while; many of the developments I look at in Retromania can be traced back to the ‘90s, even the ‘80s. But the 2000s was when everything came to a fruition: as the decade proceeded, there was a mounting sense of crisis and deadlock. In some ways Retromania is a history of the Noughties as a “like name, like nature” decade where “nought” happened: there was a bustle of micro-genres, a steady turnover of new artists, but no major new movements in music on a par with punk, hip hop, or rave. Instead, all the real innovative energy was in the way musical data was distributed, stored, shared, archived. From YouTube to file-sharing, it’s simply possible now to drown in the past, without any financial cost, in a way that it never was before. So you get young fans and musicians who have heard a staggering amount of music by the age of 20, the kind of learning that would have once taken a lifetime of listening to absorb and a small fortune to pay for. Knowledge that was once hard to come by, scattered across books that were often obscure or out-of-print, is now out there for everybody to access. The question is whether this generation has been able to process all this music and knowledge, to digest it or even feel it in any kind of meaningful way. Much of this decade it felt like music culture has been shell-shocked by this sudden “affluence”. But perhaps the generation that has grown up knowing nothing else but the digiculture conditions of super-abundance and atemporality, perhaps they’ll be better placed to cope with it and make something out of it?

The Star Trek franchise played out these anxieties on the cusp of the new millennium, with Insurrection and Voyager both alluding to a recoverable cast that would be fully explored in Enterprise and the Abrams reboot.

“Well, Paris will never make Lieutenant at this rate.”

Bliss also taps into a number of other recurring themes within the larger context of Voyager. In particular, the first half of the episode is built as something akin to a paranoid conspiracy thriller. Seven of Nine and Tom Paris are away from Voyager as part of a routine survey operation, only to return and discover that things are not quite right. Seven of Nine notices that the crew are behaving strangely, acting recklessly when confronted with an opportunity that is obviously too good to be true.

Seven tries to raise her concerns with the rest of the crew. She grows increasingly concerned that something happened while she was away from the ship, hacking into Janeway’s log entries in order to find some answers. She approaches Paris in the mess hall, bluntly inquiring, “Have you noticed anything unusual about the crew’s behaviour since we returned?” Although it initially seems like Paris might also have noticed how ridiculous the situation has become, it quickly becomes clear that he has been affected by whatever is going on.

This cargo bay is secure Seven ways from Sunday.

This paranoia is very much in keeping with the cultural concerns of the late nineties. As Charles Homans argues, the nineties were the decade when conspiracy theory truly entered the mainstream:

Why did Americans’ belief in ever-more-implausible conspiracy theories grow steadily in the 1980s and especially the ’90s — decades when Americans had less to worry about than at any other point in the country’s modern history?

Context matters here: The ’90s was the decade of Oliver Stone’s J.F.K., The X-Files and late-night Roswell documentaries — the decade in which conspiracism, safely removed from the exigencies of the Cold War and domestic upheaval, became a form of kitschy entertainment. It was an antipolitics well suited to a cultural era that favored irony and disillusionment and put quotation marks around words like “believe.” Richard Linklater’s 1991 film, Slacker, one of Generation X’s founding documents, has a very funny scene in which an awkward young man buttonholes a woman in a bookstore in what appears at first to be a pickup attempt, but turns out to be a numbing disquisition on Kennedy assassination theories.

It’s perfect — a conspiracy theorist might say a little too perfect — that Alex Jones began his career in the mid-’90s from the same Austin cable-access facility where Linklater edited Slacker. (Linklater, a fan, later cast him in two movies.) Jones may have risen to prominence with his post-Sept. 11 claims that the United States government blew up the World Trade Center, but his worldview really belongs to the conspiracism of the previous decade, with its comic-book universe of black helicopters and New World Order eugenics plots. In this universe, the Clintons constitute a galaxy of their own: Jones insists that Hillary is a “quadruple international spy,” a “demon” incarnate and a gravely ill epileptic whose handlers are trying to keep alive long enough to win the White House for Tim Kaine, a “puppet” who will “cover up for all the previous crimes the globalists have committed.”

This interest in conspiracy theory permeates Voyager, with its recurring interest in manipulated cultural memory and secret histories in episodes like Remember or Distant Origin and in more intimate stories like Latent Image.

Down the rabbit hole.

Bliss flirts repeatedly with this idea of conspiracy theory, the notion that there is a secret truth to the world that might be exposed through cynicism and paranoia. It is no coincidence that Qatai refers to the predatory space-faring entity as “the beast”, the religious-tinged paranoaic’s label for the New World Order. That particular nickname was explicitly mentioned in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, when Chakotay and Torres found themselves at the mercy of a militia.

Appropriately enough, Bliss is the archetypal conspiracy theory narrative, in which “the beast” has tricked people into living in an imaginary world while it devours them. This is a recurring motif of a lot of nineties conspiracy-tinged narratives like The Invisibles by Grant Morrison or The Matrix by the Wachowski siblings. The idea is that the entire world is a lie designed to trick people into conforming, turning even the most brilliant minds into food for the system. Only truly special individuals can see through that illusion.

Logging her concerns.

Bliss touches on this anxiety when Qatai first encounters Seven. The alien is unable to trust his own sense, his own perception of reality. When Seven suggests that he should lower his shields, Qatai responds, mockingly, “You won’t fool me that easily.” Seven insists, “I assure you we are not a deception.” Even as his ship is falling to pieces around him, and even after years of fighting the entity, Qatai cannot accept his own sensory experience. “Oh, how convenient, an enormous starship comes to my rescue. You might try a more subtle approach.”

Bliss hits upon another recurring trope, positioning Seven of Nine as the character with the ability to see through these deceptions. Voyager routinely suggests that Seven of Nine has a very paranoid and cynical world view, perhaps the cast member who most pointedly reflects the values and the world view of the nineties. Perhaps this is because Seven of Nine was a late addition to the cast, making her more up-to-date. Perhaps it is because Seven of Nine was once a Borg drone, and her processing power makes her an ideal stand-in for the paranoia of the internet age.

“Janeway on the bridge, mofos!”

In Hope and Fear, Seven’s cynicism allowed her to see through Arturis’ ruse. While the rest of the crew accepted Arturis and the Dauntless at face value, Seven repeatedly expressed skepticism about the situation. Seven was ultimately vindicated. In Latent Image, Seven was the only regular character to be insulated from the conspiracy to wipe the EMH’s memory, and even played a vital role in exposing what happened. In The Voyager Conspiracy, Seven’s heightened awareness develops into apophenia.

Bliss feels like Voyager in a microcosm, a veritable smorgasbord of the show’s interests and storytelling. It is a lot of stock ideas, recycled and thrown together in such a way as to fill forty-five minutes of television in a way that is relatively inoffensive. It is an episode that doesn’t say anything new, so much as reiterate a number of plot and thematic elements from other Star Trek stories. In its own weird way, Bliss seems to provide a justification for the nostalgia of which it is wary. Certainly, it doesn’t seem like the future is full of promising and exciting ideas.

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3 Responses

  1. I just like that “telepathic pitcher plant” is used repeatedly, not just in this episode, as a term on Voyager. With no irony.

    It’s odd to see Sheppard called a “legend” in the sci fi world. Which he undoubtedly is. But he was given such thankless roles to play; especially compared to his son Mark.

    • I think that’s maybe what makes him a legend.

      The Schizoid Man and Bliss are not good episode, but Sheppard is one of the franchise’s most memorable guest stars. It is one thing for an actor to shine with good material. It is another to make that sort of impression with… nothing, really.

  2. “It is rather lifeless and generic, but it is hardly the weakest episode of the season or the series. Instead, Bliss is the kind of episode that fades gently from memory, a hollow confection that doesn’t taste particularly nice, but which at least offers something to chew over.”

    Experiences may vary, I still remember watching this episode when it was originally broadcast. By no means a masterpiece, it was a fun way to kill an hour on TV. I get a kick out of stories where the cast end lured in via hallucinations and slowly digested. Not enough shows can justify that premise. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is X-Files’ Field Trip, where Mulder and Scully, plus 2 guest stars get digested by mushrooms, and you get to question reality and see absurd scenarios play out. Overall, a fun, silly hour of television, something that the show Enterprise would really struggled with.

    Heck, Archer is so irrational that I think it would be difficult to notice a difference between normal Archer, and hallucinating Archer. That and the crew is so undeveloped, I don’t think the writers could have even come up with a lure for the Enterprise crew. What’s Reid going to see? A giant floating pineapple cake in space? Is Tucker going to see a deep fried catfish? Is Archer going to see the Xindi homeworld?

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