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Star Trek: Voyager – Warhead (Review)

If Relativity featured a time bomb, then Warhead focuses on a smart bomb.

Star Trek: Voyager is a fascinating television show. It is a television show very firmly rooted in the listlessness of the nineties, reflecting cultural anxieties and uncertainties; these millennial anxieties reflected in stories like 11:59. At the same time, it is also structured as something more overtly nostalgic than the other Star Trek spin-offs, a conscious throwback to the retro science-fiction of the forties and the fifties; this sensibility reflected in the nuclear parables of Jetrel or The Omega Directive, the infiltrator narratives of Cathexis or In the Flesh.

“Yes, that is a rocket in that pocket of rock, and yes it is happy to see us.”

In many ways, Warhead represents a perfect fusion of these two approaches. Warhead is a story that is strongly anchored in uncertainties about the legacy of the Second World War, the tale of a sentient weapon of mass destruction with the capacity to cause untold destruction that exists beyond the capacity of human reason. Warhead is also a philosophical parable about identity and determinism, a discussion about what it means to have a sense of self and whether an individual’s reality is shaped by their design and their programming.

The result is a strange hybrid story that captures two of the competing facets of Voyager in a single forty-five minute episode.

Explosive drama.

In purely practical terms, Warhead is very much the fifth season’s answer to Demon. It is quite transparently a late-season attempt to save budget through the construction of a bottle show. After all, the fifth season of Voyager had been quite ambitious in its storytelling, with blockbuster episodes like Timeless, Dark Frontier, Part I, Dark Frontier, Part II and Juggernaut. Even seemingly smaller episodes like Relativity still relied on lots of special effects and the construction of elaborate sets. With the season finale around the corner, the budget needs to be balanced.

Warhead is quite light on guest stars, much like Demon had been; guest stars McKenzie Westmore and Steve Dennis are both credited in the end credits rather than the opening credits. Much like Demon used series regulars to portray the alien “silver blood”Warhead is cleverly written so that Robert Picardo gets to play the sentient bomb. Warhead uses standing sets, much like Demon had done; in both episodes, the only trip outside of the ship is to the iconic “planet hell” sets on the Paramount sound stages.

“Don’t worry, Ensign. The last time you were in charge of an away mission… oh, we don’t talk about that.”

In fact, the similarities between Warhead and Demon run deeper than these familiar budget-saving techniques. Both Demon and Warhead are stories about Harry Kim, particularly his efforts to establish himself as a decisive leader on the ship. “You love these night shifts; your chance to play Captain,” Tom reflects in the teaser. “Just promise me one thing. When you reach the top, you’ll remember all the little people you climbed over to get there. You won’t make them work night shifts?”

Of course, both Demon and Warhead understand that the idea of “Harry Kim learning to be a leader” is not interesting enough to sustain a full forty-five minutes of television. Ironical, writer Ken Biller seems irresistibly drawn to the plot, even commissioning Nightingale when he stepped into the role of showrunner during Voyager‘s final season. Nevertheless, both Demon and Warhead allow themselves to be drawn away from Kim’s character arc towards interesting ideas.

Harry rose to the occasion.

Both Demon and Warhead are undercut by budgetary concerns. Demon and Warhead look cheap, although at least the script for Warhead remains more keenly focused on its core ideas than Demon; one the biggest issues with Demon was the sense that nobody on the staff had any idea what the episode was supposed to be about. In contrast, Warhead remains focused on the eponymous weapon. The big issue with the episode is that it is very difficult to construct a compelling episode around a guest star that is a lump of plastic with a few light emitting diodes.

Still, Warhead does a better job developing its interesting ideas than Demon does. In particular, the episode establishes its core themes with a wonderful teaser hook. Answering a mysterious distress call, Kim and the EMH beam down to a planet surface. There is no sign of organic life, although they do find a piece of technology lodged in a rock. It signals to the EMH, who decodes its message. “It says it’s injured. It needs our help. It’s asking why it can’t see, or feel its arms and legs. It’s terrified.”

Near missile.

The entire first act of Warhead is built around the idea that the eponymous weapon believes itself to be a person; an individual with a sense of sight rather than a sensor relay, with arms instead of a tractor beam, with legs instead of an engine. It is an interesting idea, one that invites the audience to ask interesting questions. How is the entity processing sensory inputs? What could cause such a profound identity crisis in this organism? Even if the creature doesn’t have eyes or arms or legs, surely it is still alive?

More than that, the opening act poses interesting questions about the nature of reality. Apparently, the missile is processing information that suggests it to be an organic creature, even if the audience can objectively determine that the creature is an artificial entity. The warhead hints at a very familiar philosophical thought experiment, the question of how the self relates to objective reality, and whether objective reality can be said to exist outside the self. It is a fairly familiar existential dilemma, and one upon which the Star Trek franchise has occasionally touched.

“My name is Dan O’Mite. You may recognise me from episodes such as Think Tank. I have huge range; I can stand upright or lay on my side.”

It is also very much in keeping with Voyager‘s position as a late nineties Star Trek series. The late nineties found these familiar philosophical questions creeping into the mainstream through major cinematic releases like The Matrix, Dark City, eXistenz, The Thirteenth Floor and The Truman Show. As Hubert Dreyfus argued, late nineties pop culture served as springboard to millennia of broad philosophical inquiry:

The Matrix raises several familiar philosophical problems in such fascinating new ways that students all over the country are assigning it to their philosophy professors. In so doing, they have offered us a great opportunity to illustrate some of the basic insights of existential phenomenology. The Matrix might seem to renew Descartes’s worry that, since all we ever experience are our own inner mental states, we might, for all we could tell, be living in an illusion created by a malicious demon. In that case, most of our beliefs about reality would be false. But there is a way of understanding The Matrix that denies the mediation of mental states and shows those living in the Matrix to be in direct touch with Matrix reality. The Matrix world is public and objective, not a private subjective dream. Still, there is clearly a sense in which the Matrix world, while not merely mental, is not real either. There is after all a demon—the AI intelligences and their computer—that has in some sense fooled all those who accept the reality of the Matrix world. Thus, the film’s account of our situation is even more disturbing than Descartes’s claim that we are each confined to our own mind. The Matrix world is a vivid illustration of Descartes’s additional prescient claim that we could never be in direct touch with the real world (if there is one) because we are all what we would now call brains in vats.

In the opening act of Warhead, the eponymous device is presented as an archetypal “brain in vat.” It is a conscious entity tapped inside a metal container that believes itself to be a person. The episode suggests an interesting contrast with the EMH, which a similar entity; it is a computer program that manifests itself in something approaching a recognisable human form, a computer in a skin suit.

A flicker of hope.

Voyager is prone to raise these questions about the nature of reality, to suggest that the world is not as the characters perceive it to be. The series tends to do this through its artificial characters, with the EMH having psychological breakdowns in episodes like Projections or Darkling or Latent Image, while Seven of Nine undergoes similar crises of identity in episodes like One or Infinite Regress. On Voyager, it frequently seems like the mechanical organisms have been built to inherit their creators’ neuroses.

(Speaking of neuroses, one of the episode’s best gags is the weapon’s strange fixation on its physical appearance after the EMH reveals it to be an artificial life form. The weapon is very phallic in design, but also seems to be incredibly insecure. When the EMH describes the weapon as “cylindrical”, it seems to balk. “Oh, you’re quite sleek, actually,” the EMH offers. “You’re welcome.” When Kim designs a holographic body for the device, the EMH reassures it, “Ensign Kim’s configuring your physical parameters as we speak. I’m sure you’ll be quite handsome.”)

“What’s long, hard and full of explosive potential?”

In keeping with this idea, it is telling that the crew’s repeated attempts to outwit the bomb in Warhead both hinge on blurring the lines between what is real and what is not. In their first attempt, the crew attempt to conceal the bomb’s nature from the artificial life form. When the EMH suggests asking the bomb for assistance in disarming itself, Chakotay replies, “If it’s programmed to detonate, there’s no telling how it will react.” Janeway agrees. So the crew comes up with a plan to separate the artificial intelligence from its explosive components.

Once the bomb has taken control of the ship, the crew make another attempt to take advantage of its limited perspective to catch it off-guard by faking damage from an enemy mine. There is no mine, it is an elaborate ruse. “I know my way around a dermal regenerator,” Neelix boasts. “I should be able to simulate a convincing wound.” Janeway instructs the crew to put on a good show. “Commander, blow out the plasma relays on deck six.” This is purely to convince the bomb that the ship has it a mine. Reality and perception, at odds with one another.


Of course, none of the philosophical concepts raised by Voyager (or The Matrix or The Truman Show) are particular novel or innovative. Any casual student of philosophy will have explored these ideas in a great deal of depth. As Slavoj Zizek argued in his own assessment of The Matrix, they spoke to a deeper and more fundamental set of human anxieties:

My Lacanian friends are telling me that the authors must have read Lacan; the Frankfurt School partisans see in the Matrix the extrapolated embodiment of Kulturindustrie, the alienated-reified social Substance (of the Capital) directly taking over, colonizing our inner life itself, using us as the source of energy; New Agers see in the source of speculations on how our world is just a mirage generated by a global Mind embodied in the World Wide Web. This series goes back to Plato’s Republic: does The Matrix not repeat exactly Plato’s dispositif of the cave (ordinary humans as prisoners, tied firmly to their seats and compelled to watch the shadowy performance of (what they falsely consider to be) reality? The important difference, of course, is that when some individuals escape their cave predicament and step out to the surface of the Earth, what they find there is no longer the bright surface illuminated by the rays of the Sun, the supreme Good, but the desolate “desert of the real.”

While these uncertainties are a timeless aspect of the human condition, they were only emphasised by a variety of social and cultural and technological innovations in the nineties. The development of the internet allowed people to build and connect in virtual worlds; conspiracy theory insisted the world was not the real world; millennialism suggested that the world might be about to end, inviting people to ask what lay beyond.

A ticking time bomb of fury.

There is also a sense that these anxieties existed in response to the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union had led to “the unipolar moment”, to the United States standing triumphant at “the end of history.” Of course, the end of the Cold War also meant that there was no longer a single enemy against which the United States might define itself, no philosophy to which it could stand in opposition, no antagonist that would allow it to rest comfortable in its own morality.

At the end of the Cold War, the United States found itself unchallenged and forced to determine its own identity without reference to any oppositional force. This allowed (or forced) the United States to figure its own identity and purpose by reference only to itself. The foreign and domestic policies of the United States were no longer defined in contrast to those of the Soviet Union, but could instead be fully determined by reference to the United States’ own political and cultural identity. This uncertainty seemed to resonate through nineties pop culture.

He looks like he’s about to go off.

In Warhead, the bomb chooses to define its identity by reference to its design and function. Taking over the EMH, the bomb bristles with anger when it discovers that Janeway tried to separate its intelligence from its destructive capacity. “We were trying to help you,” Janeway tries to explain. “Until you discovered my true nature!” bomb!EMH protests. “Then you tried to deactivate me.” Janeway tries to reason with it. “Just your explosive components, not you,” she clarifies. bomb!EMH responds, “There’s no distinction. I am what I am.”

bomb!EMH adopts a very simplistic existential philosophy, akin to the logic employed by Howard Payne in Speed. Payne is a mad bomber who claims to understand the existential purpose of a bomb in very straightforward terms. “A bomb is made to explode,” Payne argues at one point in the film. “That’s its meaning. Its purpose. Your life is empty because you spend it trying to stop the bomb from becoming. And for who? For what? You know what a bomb is, Jack, that doesn’t explode?” In many ways, Warhead just lets the bomb make the argument itself.

A rocky road to redemption.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Kim tries to convince the bomb!EMH. The bomb!EMH replies, “It’s what I was programmed for.” He elaborates, “I can’t stop being a weapon.” Kim tries to argue that fulfilling that identity means the destruction of the self. “Look at yourself. You’re already much more than that. You’ve got a body now, eyes to see with. The second you detonate, that’ll all be over.” The bomb!EMH is unmoved. “That’s the nature of what I am.”

The bomb!EMH defines himself by his function. “We can give you your own holo-matrix,” Kim argues. “You can exist for as long as you want. Accomplish anything you set your mind to.” The bomb!EMH simply replies, “The only thing I want to accomplish is the destruction of my target.” Indeed, the episode suggests that this is why the bomb is so reluctant to check its memory banks and accepts it recall function; that would mean acknowledging that it had no purpose and no function.

Brief concerns.

When the bomb!EMH takes control of Voyager, Janeway exploits this sense of purpose as negotiating leverage. “Now alter course or I’ll detonate!” the bomb!EMH insists. Janeway responds, “If you do that, you’ll never reach your target, will you?” When the bomb!EMH refuses to treat Seven, Janeway insists that it will mean a delay reaching the target. It could be argued that the bomb’s tethering of identity to utility plays into some of the recurring fascinations of the fifth season as a whole.

Episodes like Nothing Human and Latent Image had played into the idea of Janeway as a commander who defined her senior staff by their function; that Torres and the EMH were too functionally valuable to Voyager to be allowed to express any individuality that might conflict with that function. This theme would be taken to extremes with Captain Rudolph Ransom in Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II who treats Seven and the EMH as resources rather than individuals.

Cooking up an excuse.

Of course, there is some bitter irony in the episode’s conclusion. Although bomb!EMH is eventually convinced that he was correctly ordered to abort the mission, there are more than thirty active bombs en route to the target. Although Kim has convinced bomb!EMH of his own autonomy and freedom of choice, bomb!EMH opts to return to the fleet of missiles. Once safely away from Voyager, the bomb denotes. In doing so, it destroys the other missiles and prevents another war. The bomb fulfills its purpose, and realises its identity, but on its own terms.

These strong central theme of identity crisis is very much in keeping with Voyager‘s status as a piece of nineties television, a reflection of millennial cultural anxieties. However, there is something else simmering beneath the surface. As much as Voyager is a show rooted in the nineties, it also has a very retro sensibility. Voyager often nostalgically harks back to the mood and tone of the middle of the twentieth century. Although set in the twenty-fourth century, Voyager often feels more consciously retro than Star Trek: Enterprise.

The EMH is not himself lately.

This nostalgia is reflected in any number of ways. Caretaker established Voyager as a series about taking Star Trek back to its “wild west in outer space!” origins, complete with the awkward racial politics of the Kazon. Episodes like Cold FireThreshold, Macrocosm and Darkling have a decidedly b-movie aesthetic. Tom Paris’ holoprograms in episodes like Lifesigns, Vis à Vis, Night, Bride of Chaotica! and Repression all hark back to the middle of the twentieth century.

space!Fascists in episodes like Resistance and Counterpoint consciously recall the Nazis. Episodes like Phage and Remember evoke the Holocaust. Stories like The 37’s, Rise and Distant Origin feel like they could have been lifted from the kind of pulp science-fiction magazine featured in Far Beyond the Stars. The creepy infiltration narratives of episodes like Cathexis and In the Flesh hark back to Cold War paranoia. As a result, Voyager frequently feels like the most retro and nostalgic of Star Trek series.

A shocking betrayal.

In this context, Warhead quite overtly draws upon the fears of developments in military technology dating back to the forties. Warhead is an episode where Voyager finds itself literally hijacked by a self-aware bomb, evoking President Eisenhower’s anxieties about the emergence of the “military-industrial complex” after the Second World War, articulated in his farewell address to the American people:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Eisenhower’s rhetoric conjures up images of an aggressive military psychology run amok, posing a clear and present danger to the function of American democracy. Were that threat to be anthropomorphised, it would look a lot like the sentient bomb in Warhead. It is something dangerous and volatile that has effectively usurped control of something supposedly idealistic and hopeful. (After all, Star Trek is an extrapolation of American liberal idealism.)

Getting the all-nuclear in sickbay.

Star Trek has long been fascinated with the military legacy of the Second World War, of the intertwined nature of scientific progress and military advances. The franchise has returned time and again to the idea of the atomic bomb as a metaphor for that tension, most obviously as the Genesis Device in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. On Voyager, episodes like Jetrel and The Omega Directive have confronted the legacy of the atomic bomb.

The device in Warhead is not explicitly or implicitly a nuclear weapon. Its destructive capacity is never treated as its defining attribute. However, the characters in Warhead repeatedly identify the device as “a weapon of mass destruction.” It is in many ways positioned as a grotesque counterpart to the utopian liberalism of the Star Trek franchise, built upon many of the technologies that Star Trek takes for granted – like warp drive and artificial intelligence – to create something that is designed to kill rather than to explore.

Weapons of mass distraction.

This taps into one of the core fears of the atomic, the idea that mankind has somehow created a weapon that is so powerful as to render its creator redundant. This is the ultimate nuclear anxiety, the fear that humanity’s ingenuity has built a device so powerful that it can completely destroy the entire species. The bomb in Warhead is so advanced that it does not need any assistance from its creators. Tellingly, Warhead never features any individuals involved in this conflict; Janeway never gets to meet a Druoda or a Salinan. The bombs are capable of waging war on their own.

“This particular series has a class eleven intelligence factor,” boasts Onquanii of the device. “It’s warp-capable, fully armoured, self-guiding. It has a maximum range of eighty light years. It can fly through an ion storm or an armada of hostile ships and still find its target.” There is a sense that the Druoda have built a weapon that is so skilled at the art of warfare that the Druoda themselves are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. There is nothing more than the bomb itself.

The Measure of a Missile.

This fear simmered through popular consciousness in the wake of the Second World War, with the realisation that the United States and the Soviet Union had built weapons capable of destroying the planet hundreds of times over. Various philosophies of war emerged, suggesting that the bomb had taken on a life of its own beyond any capacity for human control. There were any number of doctrines that seemed designed to minimise human decision-making in the atomic process; “mutually-assured destruction”, “the dead hand”, even the spectre of automation.

This anxiety found expression across popular culture in the later years of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most iconic example remains Doctor Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s pitch black comedy about how a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications lead the United States and the Soviet Union to accidentally blunder into nuclear annihilation. However, this is far from the only such example. Warhead owes a rather conscious debt to John Carpenter’s debut film, Dark Star, in which a sentient bomb realises that its purpose is to explode.

Harry’s command style bombs.

As Stephen Dedman notes in May the Armed Forces Be with You, science-fiction has long been wary of the idea of intelligent and self-aware weapon systems as a metaphor for man’s capacity to build systems more intelligent and more powerful than mankind itself:

Most depictions of computers that controlled weapons of mass destruction, though, argued that this was probably a bad idea, as in WarGames or the Terminator franchise. In Dark Star, Lieutenant Doolittle, in command of a starship crew that owes more to Dr. Strangelove than Star Trek or 2001 (“Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up”), has to reason with a smart bomb that, while single-minded, may be more intelligent than he is.

The device in Warhead is arguably an example of that fear in action. In some ways, it feels like an allegory from the classic Star Trek, a blend of the anxieties about impersonal warfare in episodes like A Taste of Armageddon blended with the fear of automation that informed episodes like The Ultimate Computer.

Holo threats.

It is not too difficult to imagine a version of Warhead written for the original Star Trek, in which James Tiberius Kirk finds himself tasked with outwitting a weapon of mass destruction. There are certainly shades of this story to classic episodes like The Changeling or The Doomsday Machine. In many ways, Voyager harked back to the aesthetic of classic Star Trek, in terms of its storytelling and its interests. Warhead is far from Voyager‘s only episode about self-aware weapons of war; the second season featured episodes like Prototype and Dreadnought.

At the same time, Warhead filters that classic fifties anxiety through a more modern perspective. Warhead is undoubtedly a metaphor for the anxiety created by the nuclear bomb, for the fear that mankind has fashioned a weapon that is too powerful. However, there is also a sense that the episode’s central metaphor fits comfortably in the context of the late nineties. This is a nuclear analogy that applies just as readily to the aftermath of the Cold War as it does to the aftermath of the Second World War.

“Let’s make an arms deal!”

As Brannon Braga explained Cinefantastique, the episode was informed by anxieties around the collapse of the Soviet Union:

“It’s a post-Cold War analogy in some ways. I was watching Frontline on PBS, and they did this story on the Russian arsenal of nuclear warheads, and how they are basically up for grabs. Anything could happen to these damn things. They could be launched accidentally, they could be sold on the black market, and that’s what spawned the idea. It’s a tour de force for Bob Picardo, because he gets to play the bomb. The bomb transfers itself, its neural matrix, into the holomatrix, and Bob takes on the persona of the bomb.”

There is a suggestion in there that these weapons are more dangerous than ever, because they are no longer beholden to clear ideological objectives.

A short fuse.

Much like the nuclear analogy in The Omega Directive, the concept of Warhead hints at the risk of nuclear proliferation. Without the antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union to create a rigid political framework, there was a sense that everything could be up for grabs. Most notably, Warhead hinges upon the idea that the weapons at the centre of the story no longer have any clear purpose. Somehow, they are more dangerous for this lack of direction and authority.

Similarly, Onquanii seeks to acquire the weapon and to exploit it. He does not seek to procure for any ideological reason, but is driven by pure opportunism and greed. “Oh, my business is salvage, not war,” he assures Janeway after volunteering to help rid Voyager of the weapon in return for the weapon itself. “I’ve no intention of deploying it.” The crew is not convinced. “But you might sell it to someone who does,” Chakotay protests. “I imagine you’d stand to make quite a profit.”

He’s got a warhead for business.

As such, Warhead hints at the idea of nuclear black market. This was a very real fear following the collapse of the Soviet Union:

‘It is happening. The plutonium black market is here,’ said Thomas Cochran, an expert in nuclear weapons at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. ‘The Russian problem is by far the most serious. People have an incentive to make money. There is clear evidence that stuff is leaking out.’

Officials in Moscow deny a leakage of nuclear materials. But Russia is the only part of the former Soviet Union with nuclear reprocessing facilities, although Ukraine has nuclear warheads on its territory.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Atomic Energy and the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, the successor to the KGB, insist Russia’s plutonium and weapons-grade uranium, whether in warheads, storage bunkers or nuclear reactors, is secure. The counter-intelligence service yesterday spoke of disinformation and accused the West of trying to discredit Moscow and undermine its status as a nuclear power.

Unlike Britain and other Western producers of plutonium, Russia does not use an accounting system, known as MUF or Material Unaccounted For, to keep track of its nuclear materials. It relies on the physical security of its plants. Even Western methods allow up to 3 per cent of production to go missing. ‘The Russians would not know even if there was anything missing,’ said Damon Moglen of Greenpeace, in Paris. ‘You have a sea of plutonium. These are just droplets.’

During the nineties, there were reports of unscrupulous individuals smuggling nuclear materials out of Russia in order to sell them to the highest bidder.

Better deton-late than deton-never.

There were reports of organised crime infiltrating the Russian military in order to steal nuclear materials that could be sold abroad. According to at least one source, al Qaeda attempted to procure nuclear weapons in Sudan at some point between 1993 and 1994. Apparently the material was tested by al Qaeda in Cyprus and found to be “genuine.” In December 1998, Clinton launched military strikes against Iraq, stating, “Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons.”

Nuclear proliferation was a serious concern during the nineties, largely prompted by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Warhead is framed against that particular backdrop, informed by that particular brand of nuclear anxiety. Star Trek stories like Warhead typically build towards a late twist, typically a reveal that the war is long over. In Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, Bele and Lokai return home to discover that the war they were still fighting had ended long ago through apocalypse. Prototype features robots still waging a war started by their extinct creators.

“Maybe you can stick this in the talking bomb at the climax, for full sixties effect?”

The twist in Warhead is slightly different. Unlike Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or Prototype, the episode does not reveal that the Druoda or a Salinans are extinct, even though Janeway never gets to meet a representative of either species. In fact, it seems like the Druoda or the Salinans are thriving. The eponymous bomb receives a direct message from “the Strategic Command Matrix” to abort its strike. Scans suggest that the “military installation” on Salina Prime is still manned. This brutal war did not end in annihilation, but in peace.

As such, Warhead is explicitly about the fear that these weapons of mass destruction are still a threat, even in times of peace. Their very existence represents an existential threat to the peaceful coexistence. There is always the possibility of malfunction or error, or even the simple fear that these devices might slip out of the control of their original designers. Warhead is very much intended as a nuclear parable for the aftermath of the Cold War, a slight update on an anxiety rooted in the Second World War.

“We really work navi-great together, you know?”

The premise of the episode is even a clever play on the descriptor “smart bomb”, much like Braxton’s “temporal disruptor” in Relativity is a play on the descriptor “time bomb.” The term “smart bomb” applies to any guided missile, and the concept can trace its roots back to the Second World War. However, it was arguably popularised during the Gulf War in the early nineties:

Operation Desert Storm involved the combat debut of stealth technology, GPS for navigation, missile warning systems, more advanced surveillance plane radar, and large amounts of precision-focused laser-guided bombs, Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson, Director of Requirements for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, told Scout Warrior in a special interview earlier this year.

“We saw the first glimpses in Desert Storm of what would become the transformation of air power,” he said.

The Gulf War redefined the concept of warfare for the nineties. Many conflicts during the decade were defined by the use of tactical air superiority and targeted strikes to minimise American and Allied casualties; air strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan, intervention in Yugoslavia, enforcement in Iraq. Of course, the success of these remote strikes and advanced targeting systems were subject to scrutiny; some claimed that they were exaggerated.

“All these bomb related jokes are making me really ticked off.”

As such, Warhead feels like an update of the classic allegorical Star Trek storytelling for the nineties. In broad strokes, Warhead is a twist on the core premise of A Taste of Armageddon, a story about how modern warfare has depersonalised the act of killing. Much like the inhabitants of Eminiar VII and Vendikar, the Druoda and the Salinans have found a way to wage war remotely and with a minimal of direction. The Druoda and the Salinans have build literal war machines that take any individual judgment or decision out of warfare.

Warhead is big and broad Star Trek, a great example of Voyager pitching itself as the most archetypal iteration of the franchise. Warhead is a thought experiment that hits all manner of interesting ideas about warfare, interlacing them with a more existential dilemma about function and purpose. Of course, the episode suffers from the fact that it is clearly a late-season bottle episode designed to preserve budget, and from the fact that its primary guest star is an inanimate object with a few blinking lights.

Defusing the situation.

While Warhead suffers a great deal from its execution, it is much more successful late-season bottle episode than Demon. That is hardly the highest of praise, but Warhead does a much better job wrestling something interesting out of its big ideas, while still being confined by the same limitations.

2 Responses

  1. I had some pretty strong Star Trek TOS vibes in this episode, with all the Cold War doomsday device metaphors. It also had about the right level of special effects for a TOS outing. It could have been done with the bomb inhabiting Scotty or someone else, with a few added technobabble phrases.

    Picardo does an interesting job of interpreting how a bomb hologram’s personality would be different from a doctor’s. He’s quite explosive, screaming every few seconds, lol.

    One curiosity. Does ‘night shift’ even mean anything in space? It looks like they lower the lights and have a skeleton crew for 8 hours. It seems like it’s probably the best time to have a duty shift in some ways.

  2. This episode again stresses the weird anxiety the Star Trek franchise has toward technology and AI – they really on it while being terrified of it. There is nonsense that in the future people and machines have harmoniously integrated; they are quite distinct, with humans superior and machines inferior. Having psychotic or dangerous machines actually works in the favor of this dynamic, illustrating how machines should never have equal status. I think the really terrifying thought for Star Trek would be a machine that simply supersedes humanity in every respect, like how the Vision was set up at first in the MCU. The insistence that humanity is fundamentally special seems at times to hint at some insecurity about that.

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