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Star Trek: Voyager – The Fight (Review)

“No, make them stop!”

The Fight is a disaster. To be fair, it’s not the worst episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It is not as overtly racist as second season offerings like Tattoo or Alliances, even if there is still something deeply uncomfortable about the way in which the show approaches Chakotay’s Native American heritage as a gateway to pseudo-mysticism. It is neither as xenophobic as Displaced nor as misogynist as Retrospect, although its approach to mental health is… questionable. Mostly, though, it is just a bad episode of television, not a spectacularly awful one.

Don’t worry. Jason Alexander will be here next week, if you can make it until then.

The problems with The Fight are somewhat typical of Voyager. It is an episode that decides to invent a new character trait in a regular character in order to justify the plot, revealing a lot of details about Chakotay that had never been suggested before and which will never be mentioned again. It is also overly reliant on techno-babble, with dialogue referencing nonsense like a “trimetric fracture” and a “paralateral rentrillic trajectory.” There is a pointless framing sequence designed to extend the runtime. There is nothing insightful about the characters or their world.

However, the biggest issue with The Fight is how it squanders a potentially compelling idea. Like Once Upon a Time before it, it is a great example of Voyager trying to write around a risk idea and effectively writing anything interesting out of the finished product.

Chaos and them.

Much like Once Upon a Time, The Fight began as a story idea by Michael Taylor. Taylor had joined the writing staff at the start of the fifth season, off the back of very distinguished work on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Taylor had been responsible for the script that became The Visitor and had polished the script that became In the Pale Moonlight. In both cases, Taylor’s scripts had been heavily rewritten by veteran staffers, but both episodes demonstrated a willingness to experiment and to push the boundaries of what could be a Star Trek episode.

Taylor would do good work on Voyager. His credited scripts include Counterpoint and Bride of Chaotica!, which are two of the strongest episodes that Voyager ever produced. However, there was always a sense that Taylor was pushing Voyager further than the production team wanted to go, that his ideas were more ambitious than the executive producers would support. After all, Taylor would go on to work on Battlestar Galactica with Ronald D. Moore.

“Tactical advice from an Academy groundskeeper?”
Tuvok can be a jerk, but he ahs a bit of point here.

Taylor’s pitch for Once Upon a Time had been breathtakingly bold, but had quickly been watered down to a very conventional piece of television. The Fight developed along similar lines. Interviewed by Cinefantastique, Joe Menosky explained that the original pitch was ambitious and exciting:

There was a guy living in the 21st century, and feeling himself become unhinged, because there are aliens trying to make contact. We were telling that story simultaneously with Chakotay suffering a mental breakdown as a result of a first contact happening in our Voyager time. That was the story that Mike Taylor wrote. It was an extremely well-written document. I don’t know if he actually put footnotes in it, but he might have, it was so detailed, and so intellectual. Rick Berman read the story, and he could not believe it. He just went off on, ‘These goddamn people like Mike Taylor, you need a subscription to the Journal of the American Medical Association to understand his goddamn story.’ Rick just threw it out.”

This is deeply frustrating. Voyager was a show that had largely stagnated, and which was soon going to be the standard bearer for Star Trek on American television. It needed to distinguish itself from all the imitators. It needed bold ideas. Instead, the show was just allowed to coast on stock Star Trek conventions.

Working together, hand-in-glove.

The basic plot of The Fight is fascinating. Voyager stumbles across a stock “anomaly of the week”, like any number of episodes from The Cloud through to Bliss. This anomaly traps the ship in what Seven of Nine describes as “chaotic space.” In keeping with the idea that the Delta Quadrant is a rough and random section of the galaxy, Chakotay even goes so far as to suggest that “chaotic space” represents something equivalent to the twenty-fourth century version of the Bermuda Triangle; ships enter, but they don’t leave.

Still, getting past that convenient plot device, The Fight is built upon an interesting idea. It turns out that “chaotic space” is not empty. In fact, “chaotic space” is inhabited by aliens that are so radically different from human beings that there is no easy way for the crew to interact with them. Still, the creatures try to make contact with Chakotay, and they do so in a way that triggers a violent series of hallucinations. Chakotay’s encounters with the aliens seem to drive him to the point of madness.

Reality breaks down.

There is something intriguing in this idea of an alien species so far outside mankind’s frame of reference that to interact with them is to invite madness. It evokes the idea of “outsideness”, perhaps popularised in the weird science-fiction and horror fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As H.P. Lovecraft wrote in Notes on Writing Weird Fiction, the unknown is exciting:

There will always be a small percentage of persons who feel a burning curiosity about unknown outer space, and a burning desire to escape from the prison-house of the known and the real into those enchanted lands of incredible adventure and infinite possibilities which dreams open up to us, and which things like deep woods, fantastic urban towers, and flaming sunsets momentarily suggest. These persons include great authors as well as insignificant amateurs like myself—Dunsany, Poe, Arthur Machen, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare being typical masters in this field.

This is very much a logical extension of the Star Trek premise. The opening narration to Star Trek famously promised “strange new worlds”, and what could be stranger than something that exists outside mankind’s capacity for comprehension?

Total K.O-os.

The Star Trek franchise had flirted with Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. In the show’s earliest days, it frequently seemed like the universe was haunted. Very few of the earliest episodes of Star Trek feature space-bound human-like civilisations; the introduction of the Romulans in Balance of Terror and the introduction of the Klingons in Errand of Mercy are very much the exceptions. Instead, early episodes of Star Trek suggest that the universe is a graveyard populated by monsters; the salt vampire in The Man Trap, the Gorn in Arena, the Horta in The Devil in the Dark.

Those early episodes of Star Trek tended to feature aliens that had evolved well beyond mankind; the Talosians in The Cage, Gary in Where No Man Has Gone Before, the Thasians in Charlie X, Trelane and his parents in The Squire of Gothos. Robert Bloch even made reference to Lovecraft’s “Old Ones” in scripts like What Are Little Girls Made Of? and Catspaw. Insanity frequently seemed contagious; it spread across the cosmos in Operation — Annihilate! and a scream echoed in the void in The Immunity Syndrome.

Getting in his head.

There were frequent suggestions that alien species operated beyond mankind’s capacity to perceive them. The Kelvans put away their tentacles to disguise themselves as humanoid in By Any Other Name. In an even more overt acknowledgement of Lovecraft’s mythology, the Medusans exist so far beyond mankind’s capacity to recognise them that to look upon them is to go mad in Is There in Truth No Beauty?

While early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation like Encounter at Farpoint, Where No One Has Gone Before or Where Silence Has Lease would play up the weirdness of outer space, the later Berman era shows tended to treat space as something more generic and something safer. Space was populated by aliens that tended to look human, and who could serve as windows into the human condition. Space was where mankind for anomalies and empires, with the weirdness generally kept within narrowly confined parameters.

Sure bet.

One of the interesting (and perhaps underrated) aspects of Voyager is the willingness to embrace the weirdness of science-fiction. The show approached the Delta Quadrant in a number of ways that distinguished it from the Alpha Quadrant in The Next Generation or the Gamma Quadrant in Deep Space Nine. Some of these differences were political in nature, with the Delta Quadrant largely treated as the deep space equivalent of the developing world, home to fiefdoms and unstable governments rather than empires and power brokers.

However, Voyager also made a conscious effort to frame the Delta Quadrant as something a little bit weirder and more bizarre than the Alpha Quadrant or Gamma Quadrant had become. Star Trek: First Contact retroactively suggested that Q had taken the Enterprise to the Delta Quadrant in Q Who?, the section of space that he described as “wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross.” It is highly debatable whether Voyager ever managed to live up to that premise, but it did try.

Spaced.

The production team tended to describe the Delta Quadrant somewhere weird and wonderful. Early in the run, Jeri Taylor explained that the greatest difficulty in playing up that weirdness was the issue of budget:

“Many of our choices do come down to money,” Jeri Taylor later confirms. “Everybody in the audience is hoping, ‘Wow, we’re going to the Delta Quadrant! We’re gonna see really weird aliens! There’ll be cabbage people, and beast people!’ The problem is, making those things believable is extremely expensive. We do not have a feature film budget; we cannot do the kinds of things that happen in Jurassic Park. Because of this, we end up with humanoids with bumps on their foreheads. That’s not a limitation we ourselves have set; it’s one we strive to get around and usually can’t.”

Nevertheless, even the early seasons of Voyager tend to emphasise the weirdness of the Delta Quadrant, often harking back to the tone and the weird science of the original Star Trek: the monstrous Vidiians in Phage and Faces, the floating truck in The 37’s, the reverse-aging in Innocence, the hyper-stylisation in The Thaw, the basic premise of Threshold.

“Don’t beat yourself up. That’s his job.”

As computer-generated imagery became cheaper, the production team amped up the weirdness. In The Fifty-Year Mission, Brannon Braga insists, “to me the Delta Quadrant should be the weirdest f$!king place in the world and weird sh!t should happen.” Janeway fought gigantic viral agents in Macrocosm. When they were introduced in Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, Species 8472 were immediately one of the most strikingly alien designs in the history of the franchise.

As such, it makes sense that Voyager would embrace something as weird and eccentric as an alien species that exist so far beyond mankind’s comprehension that to engage with them is to invite madness. It feels logical that Voyager should stumble into a section of space where everything they know no longer applies. “We are too alien for you,” the creatures state in Chakotay’s hallucination. “We are too strange for you.” It feels like an idea that is genuinely fascinating and worthy of exploration.

Feeling boxed in.

Unfortunately, other realities kick in. Despite Lovecraft’s considerable critical and cultural reputation, it should be noted that the writer has very rarely been adapted from prose to film or television. As Don G. Smith points out in H.P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture:

So what is Lovecraft’s film legacy? It may not be very significant, because Lovecraft’s more philosophically challenging and chilling viewpoints have rarely been adequately translated to the screen. That, of course, could be said of most horror-science fiction authors. Screenwriters generally are shooting for a mass audience; therefore, their work cannot be very cerebral. Demographics suggest that the vast audience for horror-science fiction films are adolescents; requiring that screenplays advance the action and keep the jaded moviegoer entertained as he nuzzles with his girl and eats popcorn. This was not true in the twenties, thirties, or forties, but it became a fact beginning in the late fifties and has remained so ever since with only a few notable exceptions.

For example, no Lovecraft film to date has adequately captured the author’s materialistic sense of the universe and his view of humanity’s smallness and insignificance in the face of a vast, indifferent universe. A few have tried, but they only suggest. Only a few films inspired by Lovecraft, but not based directly on his writings, have done so.

Lovecraft has inspired a lot of film and television, but his work is rarely adapted directly. Even those films and shows that claim to be inspired by Lovecraft’s writing tend to have been heavily revised and reworked in order to fit the conventions of cinematic horror. Reanimator is great fun, but it is unlikely to win any awards for fidelity.

A familiar ring.

Quite simply, Voyager is not a show with the appetite or the skill to present something so fundamentally uncanny or unsettling on television. Broadly speaking, the Rick Berman era tended to be quite conservative in terms of visual style and aesthetic. While Bryan Fuller’s scripts for episodes like The Raven, Retrospect and Mortal Coil might feature some effective dream imagery, generally speaking the dream worlds in episodes like Waking Moments or Bliss felt underdeveloped.

In defense of The Fight, there are a few fleeting moments of brilliance. Robert Picardo gives it socks during the central extended dream sequence, playing the role of Chakotay’s buried fear and anxiety. Picardo is one of the strongest actors in the ensemble, but he can also cut loose when the occasion calls for it; Darkling comes to mind. Picardo chomps on the scenery with reckless abandon. It is a pleasure to watch, adding to the sense of the uncanny.

Well, at least somebody had a good time this week.

Similarly, there is something very interesting in the way that the aliens try to stitch together a message to Chakotay, using snippets from his short-term memory rather than trying to address him directly. In some ways, it evokes the culture of remixing and sampling that was emerging during the nineties, the reformatting of existing artistic statements into something bold and new. The crosscutting of these conversations is a lot quicker than most of the editting in the Berman era, which sets up a nice tempo for the vision. The rhythm feels unnatural for Star Trek, which is good.

The reveal of “Kid Chaos” is also effective. The oddly-shaped boxing ring is just weird enough to add a level of abstraction to the process, and there is something haunting about an empty boxing robe. When the creature turns to face Chakotay, his hood is empty, reflecting the stars of chaotic space. There are certainly ways to heighten that uncanniness even further, with the computer-generated outline of something resembling a face feeling slightly unnecessary, but it does capture the weirdness of the basic premise.

Things come to a head.

Unfortunately, the rest of the episode is nowhere near as inspired. According to Cinefantastique, the development of the episode was a mess with far too many cooks involved in the process:

Menosky wrote the script, which incorporated the idea of first contact necessitating a mental breakdown, along with an idea of Robert Beltran’s about Chakotay boxing. After filming, they were short, so they added a sickbay frame. None of it made any sense. Said Menosky, “I’m confused when I watch it, so I can’t imagine the audience not being confused.”

These changes and additions help explain why The Fight was shifted so radically in the production order. It was actually filmed before Bliss, but pushed back much later in the year.

Massaging the script into shape.

As weird as the aliens might be, a lot of the episode feels very conventional in terms of plotting and styling. While there are individual aspects of the central vision that work very well, Chakotay’s nightmare feels just a little bit too much like the visions from the Prophets on Deep Space Nine. The golden hues are turned way up, the backgrounds are populated by familiar characters acting in unfamiliar ways, there is a sense that the characters are speaking to fundamental truths long buried by the heroes. The vision is weird, but it should be even weirder.

The problem is compounded by how Menosky chooses to approach these visions from a character perspective. Voyager has often struggled to define its secondary characters, to figure out what makes Kim or Tuvok or Chakotay tick. There is a sense that Voyager doesn’t really have a sense of who these characters are, even five years into the journey. The Fight tries to ground its weird alien mystery in character, but it cannot be bothered to explore any aspect of Chakotay that has already been suggested or defined.

A man alone.

Instead, The Fight adds two new elements to Chakotay’s background and history, two elements that had not been suggested by any prior appearance and which will never be mentioned at any point after The Fight. In terms of character motivation and psychology, The Fight introduces a history of mental illness into Chakotay’s family. On paper, this is interesting. There are certainly interesting stories to be told about characters confronting hereditary illnesses. More than that, mental health is a subject worthy of exploration and destigmatisation.

However, The Fight is not actually interested in twenty-fourth century mental health. It is not particularly invested in how this revelation informs Chakotay’s character. After all, there are number of interesting questions to be asked about a character like Chakotay with a history of mental illness in his family. He quit Starfleet to join the Maquis, becoming a terrorist. Did he ever worry that he was being affected by his grandfather’s condition? Did the knowledge of that potential time bomb inform his attitude towards Lon Suder?

“Suder, who the hell is Suder?”

The Fight just wants to use this detail as a plot element. The aliens can only communicate with Chakotay because he carries his grandfather’s gene, which is worryingly close to various unfortunate stereotypes about how psychiatric illnesses serve to make people “gifted” or “special.” As Simon Cross explained in Signs and Symptoms of the Mad Genius:

Plato first told us how poets possess furore poeticus that defied reason; that a poet’s inspiration was a form of divine or ‘good’ madness. By the time of the Renaissance, the creative authority or the nonconventional artist privatised this strand of thinking with the idea that melancholy was the true price of creativity and genius. The Restoration poet John Dryden then added further weight of expectation when he said, ‘Great wits are sure to Madness near alli’d/And thin partitions do their Bounds divide.”

This association continued into the modern era in the romantic doctrine that to produce great art, the artist is necessarily sapped of health, mental or physical. Thus, England’s romantic prophet-in-chief, William Blake, invoked furore poeticus as the font of artistic motivations that gave form to his ‘visions’. Lord Byron equally valorised his own mad experiences, famously remarking, ‘We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.’

The Fight works very hard to justify its twist on this idea with pseudo-science techno-babble, even if the EMH refers to it with the incredibly detailed label of “the crazy gene.” The aliens are apparently activating the gene in order to speak to Chakotay, which is just a science-fiction twist on a stock (and offensive) cliché.

Fight Doctor.

The Fight is not particularly invested in what that genetic conditions means to Chakotay. To be fair, Chakotay talks about his grandfather, and even flashes back to spending time with him. Chakotay expresses anxiety about becoming a “crazy old man”, a fear that is echoed back to him through the fight doctor in his hallucinations. However, this history of mental illness is very much a plot contrivance specific to this episode. It is never discussed again, never explored, never incorporated into a holistic approach to Chakotay’s character.

This history of mental illness only exists because it is convenient for the episode in question. It is a plot justification that allows for some broad drama, but nothing that actually affects or shapes Chakotay as a character. The best character drama is that which can be developed and explored. When The Next Generation started pulling dark secrets and hidden relatives out of the woodwork in its seventh season, the production team knew that it was time to draw down the curtain on the series.

Hardly a white knuckle ride.

Similarly, Chakotay’s sudden obsession with boxing arrives out of left-field. Apparently the idea came from Robert Beltran himself, who suggested the idea over dinner with the writers and producers:

Actually the boxing episode, there was Ken [Biller], Brannon [Braga] and Joe [Menosky], we were having dinner and they were asking me what I would like to do and with holodeck with Chakotay. And I gave them some ideas and they said, “Nah, nah, we already did this or that on Next Generation.” And then they said, “What about a boxing episode?” And I said, “I like boxing, OK, let’s do that. Just give me about two months heads up so I can get in really good shape, so I can look like a real boxer.” And they said “Okay, we will do that.” But then one day I get a call saying they were doing the boxing episode the next week. [laughs] It was an episode I really liked, but I didn’t feel the bare-chested thing would be a smart thing to do because I was in good shape, but not boxing shape. Those guys are in incredible shape. I was working with former World Champ Carlos Palomino who I had seen box and was a great fan of, a Mexican fighter. His body and mine were a little different.

To be fair to Menosky, it is hard to imagine a holographic boxing episode ever working particularly well, but it does suffer from being grafted on to this core concept. It feels like a concept heaped on top of another concept, suffocating the weirdness of these strange alien visitors.

Floored.

While Chakotay’s interest in boxing has never been mentioned before and will never be mentioned again, it makes a certain amount of sense given a few scattered details about Chakotay’s previous life. Chakotay was eager to throw down with Dalby in Learning Curve, and demonstrated an interest in sumo wrestling in Latent Image. A better script would be able to tie those ideas together in a way that felt organic or interesting, treating this as a logical development rather than having it arrive out of nowhere at the start of the episode and disappeared into oblivion at the end.

It is worth comparing Chakotay’s interest in boxing to the character development on Deep Space Nine. Sisko’s interests in baseball and cooking extend across the entire run of the series. Bashir’s fascination with historical holosuite programmes really comes to the fore in the fourth season, but carries through to the end of the series in a manner that feels organic. Worf’s appreciation of Klingon opera comes up repeatedly. Odo’s appreciation of pulp fiction gets mentioned several times. That is how you build character.

No quarter given.

Instead, all of the potentially compelling character development in The Fight is purely utilitarian in nature. The Fight reveals nothing about the character of Chakotay. Instead, The Fight bends and distorts the character of Chakotay in order to tell the story that it wants to tell. It is a very cynical and disingenuous approach to storytelling and character building, one that underscores the laziness of how Voyager approaches its core cast. This laziness is all the more frustrating because of the wasted potential of the original premise.

Even the framing device demonstrates laziness. The in media res introduction to The Fight seems hackneyed and stilted, a desperate attempt to raise the stakes and to pad out the episode runtime. It is the easiest possible way to bulk up the episode, even if it feels like a cliché that adds nothing meaningful to the story being told. The Fight could have been more effective if it used that time to flesh out Chakotay’s character, to contextualise the character reveals in the episode, integrating them into his back story. Instead, The Fight takes the path of least resistance.

The Chakotay is of Voyager…

The Fight is an expression of many of Voyager‘s worst impulsed, wrapped up in a limp execution of a compelling idea. Like so many episodes of Voyager, and like Voyager itself, The Fight is the laziest possible execution of a potentially intriguing idea.

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2 Responses

  1. >Rick threw it out.

    What this ship needs is a Cam Mitchell. “They’re sensitive, intelligent people who respond positively to quality entertainment!”

    Why am I not surprised Robert pitched this episode so he could hang out with his favorite boxers? More power to him, I guess.

    • Yeah, I mean, Beltran is a bit of a jackass in the final years of the show, but it’s kinda hard to begrudge him using his one or two episodes a year to do stuff he actually enjoys doing.

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