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Star Trek: Voyager – Think Tank (Review)

Think Tank is a fairly stock episode of Star Trek: Voyager, a fairly generic plot built around an intriguing premise and bolstered by a notable guest star.

Think Tank has an interesting idea at its core, bringing the ship and crew into conflict with the eponymous organisation. The so-called “think tank” are a collective of eccentric individuals who solve problems across the galaxy. Naturally, these aliens tend to exact a very high price for their problem-solving skills. There is a potentially compelling story to be told here, an interesting puzzle box of an episode about competing interests and lateral thinking. It helps that Korrus, the nominal spokesperson of the group, is played by a very against type Jason Alexander.

By George, I recognise that alien!

However, the problem with Think Tank is that the episode works very hard to undermine any of the unique aspects of the story being told. Think Tank should be a unique experiment, an episode unlike any other in the larger Star Trek canon. Instead, Voyager whittles the nugget of the idea down to another threat-of-the-week story in which Janeway is menaced by a pair of alien interests that will never appear again. The result is the germ of a clever idea buried beneath a very stock Star Trek plot.

To be fair, it is possible to skillfully employ this narrative framework to support an intriguing concept; Counterpoint and Latent Image are both bold stories that feature one-and-done appearances from new alien threats, in service of interesting and novel stories. However, Think Tank embraces the generic narrative built around its core idea, leading to a very indistinct installment. Think Tank lacks the willingness to think outside the box.

Of Kurros it is.

Think Tank makes a big deal about puzzles and lateral thinking. The group at the heart of the episode market themselves as problem solvers, and Think Tank tries to frame their work in rather abstract terms. Kurros and his colleagues seem genuinely excited at the prospect of puzzle-solving, making a big deal of the intellectual nature of their pursuits. To hear Kurros describe the group and their interests, the collective is invested in big existential questions.

Kurros talks about how the group was drawn together by a shared interest in solving problems through intellectual rigour. “Bevvox founded our group more than one hundred years ago, after wandering the galaxy on his own for a few millennia,” Kurros explains of the group’s founder. Discussing the organisation’s synthetic member, Kurros summarises, “The mind of mathematician and the soul of an artist. I’m afraid he’d much rather be modelling a fractal sculpture than analysing the data of our latest astronomical scan.” This is all very intellectual, on paper.

Think tank tank.

As with a lot of Voyager, the basic idea behind Think Tank seems to reflect the cultural fascinations of the late nineties. It taps into a renewed interest in puzzles and riddles that swept through American popular consciousness in the second half of the last decade of the twentieth century. A lot of these toys and puzzles weren’t particularly new, but the public embraced them with a renewed vigour and interest.

Early in the episode, Janeway reveals that the crew are caught up in a similar fad, the game “Sheer Lunacy.” Janeway is trying to solve the puzzle, while Kim claims to have come closest. Towards the climax of the episode, Seven manages to defeat the device. The design of the object evokes any number of puzzle fads; the buttons and the bright lights evoke the game “Lights Out” that was released in 1995, while the multiple faces on puzzle recall the design of the Rubiks Cube that was still so popular that computer scientists were writing algorithms to solve it.

Light relief.

There was a renewed fascination with puzzle games at the turn of the millennium. Alexey Pajitnov had designed Tetris in the eighties, but was recruited to Microsoft in the nineties to look at designing puzzles for the networked age:

The picture puzzle game tested recently in Microsoft’s computer lab is one offering in a collection of logic, word and image puzzles called Mind Aerobics. The collection was released earlier this month on the company’s on-line service, which charges subscribers a monthly fee. Later, the puzzles may also be placed on a stand-alone Web site, available to anyone with Internet access.

The intent of Mind Aerobics is not to lure people into hour after hour of play but, as its name suggests, provide users with 20 or 25 minutes a day of intense ”exercise for the brain.”

One mental workout is a picture puzzle called Rotascope. It appears on the screen as a fractured circular image, fragments of a picture, scrambled in concentric rings. The player chooses from three levels of difficulty. At level three — the hardest — there are five concentric rings of distorted pieces of a picture.

One space is vacant, allowing the pieces to be moved, sorted and rearranged. It is straightforward at first, pieces slipping into place, points racking up. It seems simple. It is not. The path to completion can be torturous — point, click, drag, faster and faster. Almost got it. No, not quite. Time’s running out. . . . Welcome to the compulsive pleasure of puzzle games.

The puzzles are being offered on line because that is where the computing audience is heading. ”Soon everyone who uses computers will be on the Net,” Mr. Pajitnov said. ”So if I want to establish the puzzle, expose as many people as possible to this intellectual pleasure, I have to get them on the Net.”

Of course, this interest in mental stimulation and puzzles would continue into the twenty-first century. Wayne Gould famously spent over half a decade trying to (re)import the Sudoku from Japan after falling in love with it during a visit in 1997. Nintendo would make big deal of marketting “brain training” video games in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Puzzle box.

There are multiple reasons for this renewed interest in puzzle games towards the end of the twentieth century. Most cynically, electronics companies were able to circumvent public (and parental) anxieties about the corrosive power of video games by marketting their products as stimulating puzzles that could improve a person’s mental dexterity. At a time when computers were becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous, puzzles offered a friendly and wholesome olive branch to those worried about the influence of shoot-’em-ups and simulators.

More practically, the development and spread of the internet allowed for the quicker spread of information and made it possible for puzzle fanatics to form networks and shared interests. Although the Rubik’s Cube had existed since the early eighties, the World Cube Association was only founded in 2004. Similarly, pop science embraced these puzzles. Puzzle games became a way for mathematicians to make their profession seem interesting to the broader public; computer scientists revelled in the opportunity to demonstrate mechanical processing power through games.

Does not compute.

Indeed, Think Tank alludes to these aspects of the late nineties obsession with puzzle games. The collective at the heart of the story are effectively networking, combining their brain power to solve any problem. “This device allows the members of our group to communicate telepathically,” Kurros explains to Seven and Janeway, indicating the processor at the centre of the room. No two members of the collective seem to speak the same language, but they can interface through that network. Tellingly, Janeway defeats the organisation by disabling the interface.

There is something very compelling in this idea, which almost plays as a metaphor for the mechanics of the world wide web. The internet is arguably a more casual and consensual variation on the Borg Collective, a union of thoughts and ideas from millions of people across the world. The internet arguably has more processing power than any computer on the planet, even if how they choose to use that power might not be especially constructive.

Think about it.

It has been suggested that the internet has made it impossible to construct a television show built around a fair play mystery, if only because so many minds working in unison will inevitably reach the correct answer before the weekly television show can reveal its central twist. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy acknowledged how quickly the internet “solved” Westworld:

“When you’re working on a show like this where there are layers and there are details and you try to make every piece count, you’re hoping that people will engage on that level,” says Nolan. “In our wildest dreams, we didn’t expect the level of fan engagement and dialogue, which is why you do it.” He singles out with a laugh “that moment when they figured out the plot twist for episode 10 42 minutes into episode two.”

Explains Joy, “It wasn’t like there were surprises that we’re trying to keep from the audience consciously; we were trying to lead a path of breadcrumbs. We anticipated that a small group of the audience might discover it, that that will be part of the game that we were playing with these die-hard fans. What we didn’t anticipate was that they would go to social media and talk about it and they would get circulated so that it hit a wider base of people who have an online presence and pick that up.”

In some ways, Kurros and his organisation are like a more ambitious (and only slightly creepier) version of Reddit, an place for individuals to come to mind and to throw their brains together to help figure out core problems.

Ifs and Bots.

More than that, Think Tank hits on the recurring fear of mechanisation and automation that runs through the Star Trek franchise, although that fear tends to be downplayed in the spin-offs. In many respects, Voyager picks up the baton for the original Star Trek with this particular theme; Kirk and his crew frequently found themselves at odds with computers that threatened to render humanity redundant, in episodes like What Are Little Girls Made Of?, I, Mudd and The Ultimate Computer.

However, while Kirk worried about a more literal form of automation – androids and robots stealing human jobs – Janeway grapples with a more existential anxiety. Voyager repeatedly suggested that the Borg represented a fear of mechanisation and networkisation. In Unity, Janeway worries about a subset of Borg setting up their own pocket collective. Scorpion, Part I drew a clear line between the mechanical anvil in Leonardo Da Vinci’s study and mechanised horror of the Borg Collective. One suggested that Seven of Nine could automate the entire ship.

Not a man to cross.

In Think Tank, Janeway seems to genuinely mistrust computers to solve problems. When Seven advises her that the solution to “Sheer Lunacy” is “quite simple”, Janeway declines her assistance. “No, I want to figure this out myself.” When Kurros shows up in the form of a holographic (or “isomorphic”) projection, Janeway is skeptical of him. Janeway ultimately defeats Kurros by sabotaging his network, by cutting his processing power. “They can’t understand you,” Seven taunts him.

Think Tank becomes the story of the triumph of organic ingenuity over the brute force of networked calculations. Tellingly, the eponymous group discuss the probability of any given outcome to percentage figures. “Our calculations indicate a ninety six percent chance the Borg will still be ours,” they report at one point. Later Kurros warns Janeway, “If you do not convince Seven of Nine to join us now, the destruction of your ship is ninety nine point eight percent certain.” Naturally, human ingenuity seizes victory in the face of those overwhelming odds.

Stratego.

However, the biggest issue with Think Tank is that it is a very straightforward episode. Repeatedly over the course of the story, intelligent characters insist that the right decision is “quite simple”, but that is only because the problems are ridiculously simple. While Kurros and his group are an interesting concept, the basic idea of Think Tank is boilerplate Voyager. Once again, the crew find themselves menaced by a hostile alien species. Once again, the crew are forced to outwit their opponents.

The Hazari are stock Voyager antagonists, a collection of vaguely defined enemies with monstrous makeup to underscore the threat that they pose. Their design and purpose evokes that of the Vidiians, the Malon or the Hirogen. There is a kernel of a good idea there, but they are basically a plot function that exists to raise the stakes. In fact, at one point, Janeway even describes the Hazari as “the best hunters in the quadrant”, having seemingly forgotten the events of the fourth season.

“To be fair, the Hirogen weren’t particularly good at what they did.”

To be fair, there is something vaguely intriguing in the idea of a race of “bounty hunters with a work ethic.” However, there is never really any opportunity to explore that aspect of the species. The Hazari are quite pointedly muscle in the episode. They exist to hunt down Voyager, and then to turn on Kurros at the end of the episode. Anything else is redundant. In that sense, they are similar to any number of one-shot Voyager aliens, from the eponymous hostiles in The Swarm to the Mokra in Resistance. A story element, but not a story of themselves.

These elements can work in the background of an episode. In Counterpoint, the Devore Imperium is never really anything more than a bunch of space Nazis, but the plot works because the focus is placed on the dynamic between Janeway and Kashyk. In Latent Image, the crew are attacked by an anonymous alien species in a manner that spurs the plot, but the focus of the episode remains centred on the EMH. Think Tank suffers because it devotes so much energy to the pursuit of Voyager by the Hazari.

Whether kneel or far.

After all, this is hardly the most compelling problem. Janeway has been in countless situations like this before. A bunch of angry alien bounty hunters is hardly a riddle that should require outside help to solve. The events depicted in Think Tank feel very much like every other week on the series. As a result, it seems strange that Kurros and his colleagues should be needed to solve this particular problem. They might have been of more use in planning the heist in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II.

Think Tank tries very hard to frame this stock plot in terms justify the presence of a galactic think tank. “I have come to offer our help with your Hazari paradox,” Kurros boasts. “Is it an escape route or is it a trap? Do they know that you know that they know? It is the best kind of puzzle. Pure tactics, psychology.” This feels like a rather disingenuous description of the situation. The crisis has as much to do with technology and resources as any logical puzzle. This surrounding story feels like an awkward fit for Kurros; this is not a “puzzle” in any sense of the word.

Floating ideas.

There is perhaps an explanation for this. Discussing the episode with Cinefantastique, Joe Menosky argued that the episode was consciously pitched toward younger potential fans:

“I always often think, if I were nine years old now, would I think this was cool? I am very, very conscious of creating and sustaining the next generation of Star Trek fans. I am really conscious of the perfection of a really good, standalone episode. Think Tank is very much in that realm, this idea of a quirky group of extremely talented aliens who hire themselves out to people for strange payments in order to solve their problems. If I was nine or ten years old I would think, that’s really cool, and I wish I was on that ship.”

This comment about the episode is quite revealing, on multiple levels. It explains a lot about how the writers on Voyager approached the series.

“Sorry, I’ve got to beat the next level of Candy Crush.”

Most obviously, it reveals that the writers on Voyager were pitching the show towards younger children. (Writers in general, like most adults, tend to underestimate the cognitive abilities of children.) Voyager was essentially being designed as “family” television that could be watched with a young child in the room. This explains the relative simplicity of the plots and the eagerness of the trend hopping. (Think Tank would find a companion piece the following season with Tsunkatse.) It also explains the emphasis on child characters like Naomi Wildman or the Borg children.

More than that, it also provides some context for the anxieties bubbling through the fifth season as a whole. In its fifth season, Voyager seems very worried about the future. The show seems genuinely anxious about what the future might hold for the Star Trek franchise, in light of declining ratings and falling box office receipts. The Star Trek franchise had been on top of the world only a few years earlier, but it was clearly down to earth. The writers on Voyager seemed aware of their responsibility to cultivate a new generation of Star Trek fans.

He can haggle about price until he’s blue in the face…

Of course, this was ultimately self-defeating. Kids watching television at the end of the nineties were not looking for cool standalone shows. Star Trek: The Next Generation had ushered in a new era of genre television, but other shows had quickly pushed beyond that. The next generation of science-fiction fans were not looking for more episodic alien-of-the-week storytelling. Those young teenagers were watching (and wrapped up in) shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or The X-Files.

The future of the Star Trek franchise undoubtedly lay in that direction. If the production team wanted to court a new generation of fans, it needed to understand what younger viewers wanted from television. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ubdoubtedly skewed a little older, given its recurring engagement with politics and religion and sixties swing bands, but it was a show that was much more vital and energetic and alive in its storytelling. It was a television series that understood what the future of the franchise needed to look like.

Planet go boom now.

If Think Tank is aimed at children, it is very patronising. It reflects Voyager‘s increasing emphasis on blockbuster storytelling, as demonstrated by the success of action-driven two-parters like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II or The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. With advances in computer-generated imagery, it was becoming easier and easier to tell these large-scale narratives on a television budget. Think Tank opens with a planet exploding, which establishes a sense of scale for the adventure that follows.

All of this undercuts the idea that the episode is supposed to be about puzzles and problem-solving. More than that, none of the problems facing Janeway in Think Tank particularly rely on problem-solving skills. Instead, they are all handily solved through the magic of techno-babble. The exploding planet traps Voyager in “a cloud of metreon gas.” The warp drive is useless. However, Janeway can reroute the power to the shields, and combust the gas, blowing the ship clear of the cloud and allowing them to escape.

Best laid plans…

It’s not an elegant or clever solution. It relies on the properties of fictional metreon gas, on the design of Voyager’s fictional power grid, on Voyager’s fictional shields just happening to be strong enough to survive the blast while leaving enough warp power to escape. All of these are elements dictated by the writer and unknowable to the audience, which means that the puzzle is a cheat. It is something that looks like a problem to be solved, but one with which the audience cannot engage.

All of the twists in Think Tank that don’t rely on techno-babble are thunderingly obvious. It is clear from the outset that the Hazari have been hired by Kurros, if only due the law of narrative conservation. At one point, the script cuts from Janeway working with the Hazari to lure Kurros into a trap to a sequence of the Hazari contacting Kurros to deliver Voyager. This is treated as an act break. Janeway explicitly plotted with the Hazari to betray Kurros, and then the Hazari set themselves up to betray Kurros. That is not a particularly clever twist, nor an engaging act break.

“Well, we could try [teching] the [tech]?”

(Even the individual scenes are written in an incredibly patronising manner. After Seven declines to join Kurros and his collective, there is a short scene of the group conferring. Kurros is the only member of the group who speaks English, so it would be possible to do this scene without any dialogue. However, the script insists on using voiceover to have the other members of the group affirm how evil they are. It is completely redundant and undercuts some of the sense of “otherness” around the various members of Kurros’ group.)

It is possible for Voyager to tell a clever story with twisty elements to it. Counterpoint is a great example, an episode built around ambiguity and betrayal. Unlike Think Tank, Counterpoint never over-explains itself. It never casually reveals a twist, only to end an act by showing everything proceeding according to plan. Counterpoint trusts its audience to keep pace with the plot and the characters, and has a surprising amount of nuance. Think Tank just bluntly over-explains itself.

“I am only an isomorphic projection, and so I do not notice how cold your leather is.”

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Think Tank is the guest appearance from Jason Alexander, who is perhaps best known for his work on Seinfeld. Alexander had been a long-term Star Trek fan, and had been eager to make an appearance in the franchise:

I had put the word out that I wanted to be part of the Trek world. Each of the series would come to me and either the dates were not good for me or, more often than not, they wanted me to play a human — and kind of a George-like human. I told them the big departure for me would be to play an alien. I did so much histrionics as George, I was kind of hoping I’d wind up as a Vulcan so that I’d get to play some great intellect. It was finally Voyager that understood that and called with the perfect part.

Alexander is very clearly playing against type in Think Tank. He plays Kurros as a very restrained and inscrutable individual, with a certain Luciferian quality to him. There’s a stillness to Alexander’s portrayal that makes for a marked contrast with his work on Seinfeld.

Alexander the very good.

While it’s not a particularly meaty role, and Alexander is clearly outside his comfort zone, there remains something intriguing about Kurros. In particular, the episode makes a clever choice to have Kurros communicate with the crew in the form of a holographic (or “isomorphic”) projection rather than over the viewscreen. This allows Alexander to share the physical space with the cast, which works reasonably well during the episode’s action beats.

Kurros’ collective is quite interesting of itself. The story of Think Tank is credited to Brannon Braga and Rick Berman, and the menagerie featured seems to prefigure the Xindi from the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise. There is a sense of weirdness to the group. Fennim is presented as the sort of exotic man servant from pulp fiction, the archetype explored by Sembene on Penny Dreadful. There is a computer-generated whale, a floating jellyfish, a gigantic blinking paper weight. There is something endearingly odd about this group.

Bridging two very different cultures.

In some ways, the organisation serves as another example of the mirroring that occurs across the fifth season as a whole, with Janeway repeatedly confronted by reflections of her ship and her crew; the new matriarchal Borg Collective in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, the colony ship in The Disease, the duplicates in Course: Oblivion. In their own weird way, the members of Kurros’ organisation are just another mirror image, as the fifth season builds towards the arrival of Captain Rudolph Ransom in Equinox, Part I.

Like Voyager itself, this group is an eccentric collection of unique individuals cobbled together to form a crew. “They are an unusual Collective with a compelling mission,” Seven explains at one point, a description that could very easily be applied to Voyager itself. Kurros himself acknowledges that they are “a small group of minds, but [they] have helped hundreds of clients.” Janeway has helped at least dozens of societies as she ventures across the Delta Quadrant, an outsized impact from a single lost ship.

“I prefer the term xenoservant, by the way.”

Janeway approaches Kurros as if dealing with a counterpart, trying to gauge where he stands by reference to her own principles. “Well, we have a non-interference protocol, our Prime Directive,” she states. “I’m curious where you draw the line.” Kurros responds, “As you know, there is no shortage of conflict in what you call the Delta Quadrant. Many of our clients are at war. To be frank, we will assist in the neutralisation of fleets, starbases, even planets. But we will not participate in the decimation of an entire species, nor will we design weapons of mass destruction.”

This seems roughly equivalent to the way that Janeway operates. Janeway has wandered into conflicts and taken sides, such as against the Malon in Night or the Etanian Order in Rise. While she arguably returned a weapon of mass destruction in Infinite Regress, she also made a point to prevent potential proliferation of a possible weapon of mass destruction in The Omega Directive. It is very clear that Think Tank is attempting to mirror this collective with the Voyager crew.

Errand of mercenaries.

In some respects, then, Think Tank plays into a recurring debate that unfolds across the fifth season as a whole. The fifth season repeatedly brushes up against the idea of the situation ethics, the question of what Janeway is willing to do to get her crew home. In particular, fifth season episodes repeatedly ask Janeway whether she would be willing to violate the autonomy of one of her crew members in order to protect the ship as a whole.

In Nothing Human, Janeway authorises the EMH to conduct a medical procedure upon Torres without her consent. Janeway rationalises this decision by arguing that Voyager simply cannot afford to lose a crewmember as essential as its Chief Engineer. Similarly, Latent Image reveals that Janeway wiped the memory of the EMH after he went through a nervous breakdown, arguing that the EMH was much too vital to the crew to be allowed the time to process the trauma on his own terms.

Puzzling possibilities.

However, the fifth season has seen Janeway move away from that utilitarian approach, primarily through her relationship with Seven of Nine. In Latent Image, a conversation with Seven of Nine convinces Janeway to allow the EMH to work through his experiences. In Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, Janeway refuses to allow Seven of Nine to sacrifice herself to the Borg Queen to protect the ship, putting the entire crew in jeopardy to rescue one lost crew member.

Think Tank does something similar. Kurros offers a very pragmatic deal to Janeway, suggesting that she can save her crew by sacrificing Seven of Nine. As the Hazari bear down on Voyager, Kurros makes this bargain explicit, “Your confidence is unfounded, Captain. Reconsider. Order Seven of Nine to join us.” In theory, it is a simple utilitarian choice, to sacrifice one member of the crew to protect all the others. It is a Delta Quadrant Trolley Problem. Nothing Human and Latent Image seem to suggest that Janeway might have considered this option.

“Malon. Huh, they must really hold a grudge. We haven’t run into them for months.”
“Careful, Captain. You’re tempting fate.”

Janeway inevitably refuses to sacrifice Seven of Nine to protect the rest of the crew. In a nice touch, Janeway allows Seven of Nine to consider the offer on its own terms. “Captain, I appreciate your giving me this choice,” Seven states. Janeway responds, “You’ve earned it. And remember, if you do choose to go, make sure it’s what you want, not what you think is best for Voyager.” It is a nice illustration of how much Seven has grown in her time with Janeway. It has been a long time since Seven questioned if Janeway would respect a future choice to leave in The Gift.

When Seven declines Kurros’ invitation, Janeway supports her wholeheartedly. It is a decision entirely consistent with Janeway’s behaviour in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. At the same time, there is something uncomfortable in the fact that Janeway was willing to violate the rights of both Torres and the EMH in pursuit of what she deemed to be the best interests of her crew, but is unwilling to consider sacrificing Seven of Nine for the greater good. It would appear that Janeway does play favourites among her crew.

“Well, at least the review doesn’t say that the episode tanked.”

In theory, all of this exists to set up a contrast between Janeway and Ransom in Equinox, Part I, to suggest that Janeway is a leader who has rejected utilitarian ethics in favour of a broader humanism. Indeed, several of Ransom’s compromising decisions are set up in such a way as to explicitly parallel those made by Janeway during the fifth season. Nevertheless, the execution is too broad and clumsy. It never seems like Janeway has an especially strong or consistent moral compass. It just seems like she has a stronger connection to Seven than any other member of her crew.

Think Tank is an interesting premise reduced to a perfectly average episode of Voyager.

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