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Star Trek: Voyager – Equinox, Part I (Review)

Equinox, Part I works better than it should.

Equinox, Part I is sustained by three important factors. The most obvious is the premise itself. Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II tell a story that is baked into the DNA of Star Trek: Voyager, and it is surprising that it took the production team five years to tell it. Secondly, Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II have the luxury of a fantastic supporting cast with John Savage and Titus Welliver playing the two most senior officers on the eponymous ship. The third factor is a sense of momentum, with Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II moving at a tremendous pace.

A Captain’s Ransom.

These three factors compensate for a lot of potential flaws. Equinox, Part I is an episode of television that spends forty-five minutes consciously building towards its cliffhanger. There is nothing wrong with this approach. Many of the best Star Trek cliffhangers, especially season finales, are structured as relentless build-up. The Best of Both Worlds, Part I builds to Picard’s assimilation and Riker’s command. Call to Arms builds to the Dominion retaking the station and war being declared. Equinox, Part I builds to the reveal of what Rudolph Ransom did.

Equinox, Part I is an episode that works as sheer and unrelenting build-up.

Too many captains.

Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II flow from the premise of Voyager in a number of interesting ways. Most superficially, Equinox, Part I features the first mention of the Caretaker since Night, which provides an interesting book-end to the fifth season. It is surprising that the Caretaker has been such a fringe figure in the mythology of Voyager, given his introduction in the first episode of the series and his importance to the overall mythology. The Caretaker is only mentioned on a handful of occasions across the seven-year run of Voyager.

The Prophets occupy an equivalent position in the mythology of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and they served as major players from Emissary through to What You Leave Behind. The Prophets play a key role in the core arc of Deep Space Nine, in episodes like Rapture, Sacrifice of AngelsThe Reckoning, Image in the Sand, Shadows and Symbols and Penumbra. However, the Prophets also play important roles in episodes that are not explicitly about furthering that arc. They play a part in episodes like Prophet Motive. They are always present.

A Rudy good Captain.

In contrast, the Caretaker seems like an underutilised aspect of Voyager‘s core mythology. The character’s mate was discovered in Cold Fire, but his actions are only fleetingly mentioned as background material in episodes like Projections, The Voyager Conspiracy, Muse and Endgame. There is a reason for this. In A Vision of the Future, writer Stephen Poe acknowledges that the Caretaker was originally intended as a “get out of jail free” card for the series:

In the corporate world this is known as CYA – Cover Your Ass. The “entity” is a nice little “out” to have lying in the weeds out there somewhere, just in case they need it. If viewer feedback, surveys, and focus groups indicate the series needs to make a fundamental shift, well, they can make contact with this other entity and get home faster than viewers can switch channels.

This explains the production team’s reluctance to explore the implications of the Caretaker, although it seems at odds with the use of Q as a recurring character in episodes like Death Wish, The Q and the Grey and Q2; it is well-established that Q is just as capable of getting the ship home with a click of his fingers, but it seems like Janeway never bothers to ask him.

A conversation with himself.

At the same time, the Caretaker seems like a bit of a wasted plot device. The entity plucked Voyager out of the Alpha Quadrant and dumped it in the middle of the Delta Quadrant. What else did the Caretaker abduct? Where else did the Caretaker abduct these aliens from? Just how far could the Caretaker reach? Just what else is floating in the Delta Quadrant, lurking the darkness? The Caretaker is thousands of years old, so what else has the character done in those millennia? What consequences accrue from his actions?

Equinox, Part I uses the Caretaker as a convenient plot device, much like Dreadnought did in the second season. Still, it is an interesting acknowledgement of the show’s history, taking the audience (and the characters) back to the events of Caretaker. The fifth season of Voyager is arguably more focused on the series’ history than any other season; Night finds Janeway reflecting on her decisions since Caretaker, Extreme Risk deals with the destruction of the Maquis, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II reveal the real first contact with the Borg, Relativity revisits Voyager’s launch.

A hole load of trouble.

As such, Equinox, Part I feels like a logical conclusion to the fifth season from a thematic perspective. When Voyager finds another Starfleet vessel afloat in the Delta Quadrant, it provides a strong connection back to Caretaker. This connection is affirmed when the two captains ask each other how they came to be stranded in the Delta Quadrant. They both land on the same name at the same time, “Caretaker.” The Equinox did not drop through a wormhole like the Ferengi in False Profits, nor did it wander into the unknown like the Klingons in Prophecy.

The Equinox has the same origin as Voyager, rendering its name (and the episode’s title) distinctly ironic. The word “equinox” suggests two oppositional forces in equilibrium; a perfect balance between day and night, between light and dark. As such, Equinox, Part I suggests that Captain Rudolph Ransom and the crew of the USS Equinox represent shadow counterparts to Captain Kathryn Janeway and the crew of the USS Voyager. Voyager represents the best in people, Equinox represents the worst. Thrown into the same situation, one prospers while the other collapses.

In darkness dwells.

Equinox, Part I stresses these similarities. “The Equinox is a Nova class ship,” Janeway explains to Chakotay and Seven. “It was designed for planetary research, not long range tactical missions.” This recalls the fact that Voyager itself was originally intended for a short-term recovery mission, a fact repeated as recently as Relativity. Similarly, Janeway categorises Ransom as a scientist. “He was an exobiologist, promoted to Captain after he made first contact with the Yridians.” This recalls Janeway’s own history as a scientist-turned-captain, again emphasised in Relativity.

This manifestation of the Equinox as Voyager’s shadow-self represents the culmination of another key theme running through the fifth season of Voyager. Closely connected to the nostalgia permeating the season, the fifth season is populated with alternative versions of Voyager and her crew. Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II reimagines the Borg Collective as a matriarchy designed to help Seven of Nine actualise, The Disease features a generational ship on a long journey, Course: Oblivion features a literal copy of Voyager and its crew.

It’s probably best not to force (field) the issue.

As such, Equinox represents the ultimate counterpart to Voyager. It is a ship that operated from the same core premise, that of a lone Starfleet science vessel lost in the Delta Quadrant. However, it developed in a completely different direction. As Brannon Braga explained to Cinefantastique, this was the hook from which Equinox, Part I evolved:

“We knew we wanted to do a cliffhanger,” said Braga. “We decided that we were not going to take the ship home, which is not precluded from happening. I had this image, a ship of people who were stuck in the Delta Quadrant almost as long as we have been, maybe a bit longer, but they have not responded the same way. They’ve done some very, very bad things, including mass murder.”

The Equinox crew have done horrific things in order to survive, made awful compromises in order to stay afloat. Equinox, Part I hints at these decisions quite early in the episode, consciously building toward a series of shocking revelations. The discovery of the Equinox is originally cause for celebration on Voyager, but that joy quickly turns sour as Ransom’s sins come to light.

Here there be monsters.

The contrast between Voyager and the Equinox draws attention to a central tension within Voyager itself. One of the big issues with Voyager from the outset has been the show’s narrative conservatism. Voyager is a series about two crews trapped on the opposite side of the galaxy, with Starfleet and the Maquis forced to work together to get home across seventy thousand light-years of potentially hostile space. This mix of officers and terrorists are embarking upon a long journey, with most estimates suggesting that it will take the ship around seventy years to get home.

In theory, this should make Voyager unique. It should serve to distinguish the ship from the other Star Trek settings. After all, Janeway is not a captain on a mission of exploration, she is a leader trying to get her crew home. That crew includes aliens and terrorists, people who never served in Starfleet and who washed out of the Academy. Combined with the fact that Janeway is a relatively inexperienced commanding officer, one with more experience in the science  than the command division, Voyager should be a very unconventional Star Trek series.

Was it really that hard, Rudy? I mean, you weren’t even the captain who got landed with a bunch of terrorists.

However, from the outset, Voyager has been very clear that it aspires to be “business as usual” in terms of Star Trek storytelling. By the time that Parallax began, the Maquis were wearing Starfleet uniforms and the holodecks were working. The first season made it very clear that the Maquis would be expected to fall in line with Starfleet discipline and that Starfleet’s principles would not be compromised. State of Flux revealed the character of Seska to be a subversive element, but immediately cast her off the ship. Learning Curve had the Maquis learning to be Starfleet officers.

Janeway has always followed Starfleet protocols, even in the depths of the Delta Quadrant. The Prime Directive prevented any hints of compromise in Prime Factors, while Janeway diverted Voyager off-course to follow through on a secret protocol in The Omega Directive. At the same time, Voyager very seldom gave its characters any reason to question their principles. Outside of plot-driving fuel shortages in episodes like Phage or Demon, or occasional references to “replicator rations”, the Starfleet crew never seemed to want for anything.

Commanding attention.

The writers pulled their punches, never throwing the ship into a crisis that required compromise or sacrifice. The ship was torn apart in Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, but the damage was conveniently reset at the end of the two-parter. The mutiny in Worst Case Scenario was purely holographic. The plot always bent in such a way as to justify the show’s strange creative choices; Parallax insisted that the holodeck’s energy grid was incompatible with the rest of the ship’s systems, Prime Factors revealed the alien technology was incompatible with Voyager.

In some ways, Voyager had it easy. Equinox, Part I acknowledges this repeatedly through the survivors from the other vessel. “Such a clean ship,” reflects Gilmore as she tours Voyager. “I mean, I’m used to falling bulkheads and missing deck plates.” Later, Ransom bristles at Janeway’s indigence. “It’s easy to cling to principles when you’re standing on a vessel with its bulkheads intact, manned by a crew that’s not starving,” Ransom states. Janeway dismisses his criticism. “It’s never easy.” However, there is some sense of truth to Ransom’s argument. Janeway doesn’t know what desperate is.

“If I’d ended up on Battlestar Galactica, they’d understand.”

This is a theme that echoes through the fifth season. The fifth season marked Brannon Braga’s first season as showrunner on Voyager, despite exerting a heavy influence on the direction of the show through scripts like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. Braga had long envisaged a gritty approach to Voyager, a storytelling style with more moral ambiguity and compromise than the earlier seasons had allowed. Although Braga never quite got to realise that vision, traces of it bled through in a handful of early fifth season episodes.

Indeed, traces of Rudolph Ransom can be seen in some of Kathryn Janeway’s decision-making in Nothing Human or Latent Image. In Nothing Human, Janeway subjects Torres to a medical procedure against her will for the good of the ship; Ransom does something similar to Seven of Nine in Equinox, Part II. In Latent Image, it is revealed that Janeway deleted some of the EMH’s memory files in order to preserve his utility to crew; it is revealed that Ransom did something similar to his own EMH near the climax of Equinox, Part I.

“Well, except for that time I forced a crew member to undergo surgery against her will and reprogrammed my EMH. But nothing that you could empathise with, Rudy.”

However, Equinox, Part I never acknowledges Janeway’s moral ambiguity. Indeed, the episode paints Janeway as a paradigm of virtue that is very much in keeping with her by-the-book characterisation during the Piller and Taylor years. “I’d like to ask you something, captain to captain,” Ransom inquires early in the episode. “The Prime Directive. How often have you broken it for the sake of protecting your crew?” Janeway responds, “Broken it? Never. Bent it on occasion. And even then it was a difficult choice.”

It should be noted that Janeway’s moral certainty is hard to square with the character as overseen by Brannon Braga. Janeway has been party to all manner of morally questionable decisions; from allying with the Borg in Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, to providing the Hirogen with holodeck technology in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, to surrendering a weapon of mass destruction (and potentially genocide) to an alien species in Infinite Regress. As such, Janeway’s moral certainty in Equinox, Part I seems somewhat hypocritical.

Betraying core principles.

Then again, Janeway’s position is very much in keeping with the conservative streak that runs through Voyager. As Diana M. A. Relke argues in Drones, Clones, and Alpha Babes, it could reasonably be argued that the conflict between Janeway and Ransom in Equinox, Part I is in someways a metaphor for the culture wars waging in American popular consciousness during the nineties:

Similarly stranded in the Delta Quadrant, the Equinox has fared poorly – and not just because the ship is technologically less well endowed than Voyager. The Equinox has suffered terrible losses, not the least of which is the moral compass of its Captain, Rudy Ransom. Ransom remembers what the Prime Directive is – indeed, it still weighs on his conscience, although it no longer informs his leadership. He exploits his crew’s disciplined respect for the chain of command: like Doctor Crusher, they obey hem because he’s the Captain. Thus has he overriden their scruples and involved them in slaughtering aliens, whose corpses are then converted into a powerful fuel for enhancing the performance of their warp engines and speeding up their return to Earth. When Janeway discovers that Ransom has betrayed every Federation principle she has struggled to uphold, she is so furious that their argument degenerates into the polarised one of rigid moral absolutes versus complete moral relativism, the issue at the very heart of the American culture wars. In essence, theirs is a nasty conflict between humanism at its worst and postmodernism take to its amoral extreme – an interesting departure from Picard’s ongoing debate with Q in TNG.

Voyager tends towards rigid moral absolutes. One of the more consistent recurring anxieties running through the seven seasons of Voyager is a fear about the Holocaust slipping from living memory; this is a fear reflected in episodes like Remember and Memorial. Episodes like Distant Origin and Living Witness rail against postmodernist attempts at historical revisionism, insisting that the past is absolute, no matter how malleable it might appear.

“Don’t worry. Voyager has worked so hard to build a recurring cast that I am absolutely certain that we will be seeing these characters for years.”

Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II play as a broad condemnation of the very idea of moral relativism, structured as a retroactive defense of every decision that Janeway has made. Ransom is not a ghost of Christmas Past, but a spectre of Christmas Might-Have-Been. Ransom is a cautionary tale of the dangers inherent in moral compromise. Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II suggest that any moral compromise just paves the way for further moral compromise, and that the slippery slope is a sheer drop.

Equinox, Part I establishes that Ransom and Janeway deviated quite early in their journey. Comparing notes, Ransom admits that the Equinox crew “haven’t seen so much as a Cube since the day we arrived.” There is no mention of the Kazon, but it seems like Ransom was plagued by a different war-like species on his arrival in the Delta Quadrant. “Have you ever run into the Krowtonan Guard?” he asks. “That’s how we spent our first week in the Delta Quadrant. They claimed we violated their territory. I gave the order to keep going. I lost thirty nine.”

What the Burke is up with this guy?

In Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II, broken social norms are the twenty-fourth century equivalent of Pringles. Once Rudolph Ransom pops, he just can’t stop. Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II suggest that even the most harmless of deviations from standard operating procedure can lead to horrific consequences. Tellingly, Janeway’s first real sense that something is wrong on the Equinox comes when Lieutenant Maxwell Burke refers to him as “Rudy.” This is the first broken social norm, and Janeway makes a point to draw attention to it.

“I couldn’t help but notice your crew calls you by your first name,” Janeway observes. Ransom responds, “When you’ve been in the trenches as long as we have, rank and protocol are luxuries. Besides, we’re a long way from Starfleet Command.” Janeway is not convinced, perhaps because it runs counter to life on Voyager. “I find that maintaining protocol reminds us of where we came from and hopefully, where we’re going.” It is this conversation that sets Janeway and Ransom at odds with one another.

Note to self: execute Chakotay the moment he starts calling me ‘Kat.’ Need to send a strong message to the crew.

Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II suggest a weird equivalence between this relaxation of command protocol and everything that is exposed after that point. Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II suggest that a willingness to abandon a rigid chain of command leads to anarchy, suggesting that Ransom started down the path to mass murder the moment that he allowed his first officer to call him “Rudy.” In the world of Voyager, there can be no compromise. Even the slightest deviation from established procedure is a horrific transgression.

All of this plays as an implicit defense of the Voyager‘s conservatism; as though, were Janeway to allow the Maquis crew to exist outside of the rigid Starfleet hierarchy, Voyager would only be a few weeks away from building an engine powered by dead aliens. By this logic, Voyager adheres so strictly to Starfleet (and Star Trek) conventions because they are the only things that prevent human beings from acting like animals. This is arguably a much more cynical view of humanity than that suggested by Deep Space Nine.

Modelling alternatives.

Rudolph Ransom’s rapid descent into moral oblivion is very much in keeping with the outlook of Voyager as a television series. More than any other Star Trek series, Voyager is inherently conservative. The brutal condemnation of moral relativism in Equinox, Part I is in keeping with that conservatism. As Jonathan Merritt notes:

Moral relativism has been a conservative boogeyman since at least the Cold War. Conservative stalwarts like William F. Buckley claimed that liberals had accepted a view that morality was culturally or historically defined—“what’s right for you may not be right for me”—instead of universal and timeless. It’s true that the ethical framework was en vogue, particularly in places of higher education. Liberal college professors stocked conservatives’ arsenals with copious quotes to back up the claim that a squishy, flimsy understanding of morality had taken root in America.

Voyager tends towards an absolutist view of morality, a belief that any moral compromise will lead to disaster. This argument was reinforced in episodes like Alliances, where Janeway briefly considers bending the Prime Directive in order to make peace with the Kazon. Inevitably, all of Janeway’s worst instincts about the Kazon are validated and her earlier refusal to compromise is vindicated.

A panel of experts.

It should be noted that Voyager was broadcast during the late nineties, during a particularly heated phase of the culture wars. Equinox, Part I aired in May 1999, only a few months after the Impeachment of President Bill Clinton. This was a highly emotional period in American politics. Clinton himself has suggested that his impeachment was rooted in morality, a condemnation of his extramarital affair. Those conservatives prosecuting Clinton in the court of public opinion claimed to be acting on behalf of a “moral majority.”

When Bill Clinton survived the impeachment proceedings, some conservative activists were disheartened and claimed that this loss represented a slide in moral decay. Paul Weyrich contended that American culture “has decayed into something approaching barbarism.” However, other conservative voices were invigourated. Shortly after the impeachment hearings, Texas Governor George W. Bush was building his presidential campaign around a doctrine of “compassionate conservatism.” Bush would go on to win the 2000 Presidential Election.

“And this is the best UPN reception you can get, Seven?”

It is interesting to contrast the absolutist morality of Voyager with the more relativist approach of Deep Space Nine. Although Deep Space Nine was never as cynical as most of its detractors would claim, its morality was a lot more nuanced than that of Voyager. Perhaps the most obvious example is In the Pale Moonlight; the episode’s most chilling implication was that Sisko was only retroactively trying to impose moral certainty upon his actions, to cover for the fact that he had waded far deeper into moral compromise than he originally intended. Sisko did not know his own limits.

Often, Deep Space Nine confronted characters with tough moral choices that had no clear “right” answer. Sisko had to choose between murdering a squadron of Jem’Hadar in cold blood and sacrificing his own men in Rocks and Shoals, Bashir had to weigh the question of sacrificing more lives in the short-term to save more lives in the long-term in Statistical Probabilities, Worf had to choose between letting Dax die and saving a Cardassian defector in Change of Heart. These are harrowing choices, much more daunting than any choice that Janeway faces on Voyager.

“Why, you have a trustworthy face. Let me tell you about this really cool thing that may be of interest to you, member of unscrupulous and murderous crew.”

However, Deep Space Nine rejects the idea that these tough moral choices lead directly to a moral event horizon. The characters on Deep Space Nine might make moral compromises, but they pointedly reject crude utilitarianism. When Bashir discovers that rogue elements of the Federation have attempted genocide against the Founders in When It Rains…, the rest of the cast are horrified. In What You Leave Behind, the Dominion War ends with an act of compassion and reconciliation, with Odo delivering the cure to the Female Changeling.

As such, it is interesting that Voyager should produce Equinox, Part I just as Deep Space Nine reaches the end of its run. The season finale represents a firm rejection of the ethical nuance of Deep Space Nine. According to Equinox, Part I, the moral universe can be cleanly divided between Captain Janeway and Captain Ransom. There is no ambiguity between them, no shades of grey to divide them. The production team attempt to add some moral shading in Equinox, Part II, but the follow-up struggles in part because it runs so firmly counter to the moral certainty of its predecessor.

“I mean, have you even thought about the environmental implications of this fuel? You monster.”

Of course, Equinox, Part I had a troubled production. It arrived at the tale end of a chaotic season. As Joe Menosky explains to Cinefantastique, the episode was written very quickly and against a very tight deadline:

Explained Menosky, “By the time we got to the end of the season, we were all really exhausted. We didn’t know what in the world we were going to do for the last episode. Brannon and Rick Berman worked out some of this episode. We probably had a week to go before prep, before Brannon came up with an idea that was workable. I just had no hope for it at all. It had the feeling of elements stitched together without a driving point of view [with a] haphazard and clunky structure and story.”

Television production is a tough business, particularly coming to the end of a twenty-odd episode season. The production team on Voyager knew these difficulties first-hand; the bulk of Someone to Watch Over Me was filmed before the ending had even been written.

Heart of darkness.

This haziness is quite apparent watching Equinox, Part I. The season finale is very much an exercise in mood and tone more than story. This is no bad thing. The writers on Voyager have a tendency to focus on plot and action ahead of concerns like theme and character, which can lead to some disjointed storytelling. Often, Voyager seems to cram too much plot into forty-five minutes of television, often twisting and turning along the way. Voyager very seldom allows its plot points room to breath, instead moving along to the next reveal or the next development.

Equinox, Part I is very much an exercise in mood and tone, something reinforced through David Livingston’s direction and Jay Chattaway’s score. The early sequences on board the Equinox capture a sense of unease and creeping dread, a feeling that something horrific has happened on this ship even before the details become clear. Equinox, Part I is ominous and claustrophobic, playing like a horror movie even when the aliens are off-screen. The sets are flood with dry ice, lit sparingly in shades of green, and shot from dutch angles.

Shedding some light on the matter.

Equinox, Part I introduces the Equinox as a ship of the damned, establishing a subtly different tone than the deep-space madhouse featured in Equinox, Part II. Despite the fact that it is a Federation ship, the Equinox looks and feels completely alien. It is dark and foreboding. Debris is everywhere. Even the touchscreens are smeared with dirt and grime. It is closer to the aesthetic of something like Alien or Battlestar Galactica than the usually sterile surroundings of Star Trek.

The plot of Equinox, Part I is fairly simple and straightforward, but the episode works in large part because of its tone. There is an immediate sense that something is “off” about the Equinox and her crew. It initially seems like post-traumatic stress disorder, but it keeps building. Even before the details of their atrocities are revealed, the Equinox crew are conspiring and scheming. “If Janeway’s any indication, these people will never understand,” Ransom warns Burke, without specifying exactly what it is the Voyager crew will not understand.

A Lessing well learned.

Indeed, this sense of tone causes more difficulties reconciling Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II. Most obviously, Captain Rudolph Ransom feels like a different character in either half of the two-parter, a plot function bent into whatever shape the story demands. In Equinox, Part I, Ransom is wholeheartedly committed to his cause and bitterly self-righteous. Ransom casually steals a chip from Burke’s lunch while being vague and sinister. Ransom rebukes Burke for eyeing up Voyager’s female crewmembers. “Once we get back to Earth, there’ll be plenty of women.”

Equinox, Part I uses Ransom as a way to establish tone and drive the episode’s central mystery. He is not a particularly nuanced character, in spite of John Savage’s performance. Ransom is a man hiding a secret, and a man willing to do whatever it takes to complete his mission. The version of Ransom introduced in Equinox, Part I has no time for self-doubt or introspection, even though his soul-searching would make more sense during the slow-burn investigations of Equinox, Part I than during the high-stakes chase of Equinox, Part II.

(Ran)som man for one man.

Watching Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II back-to-back, it is quite clear that the two episodes were never conceived as a single story. Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II both feel loose and improvisational. As Menosky explained to Cinefantastique, the episode was largely written on the fly:

“We clarified the structure halfway through the writing of it. Instead of sitting down and outlining it, and then writing it, we just wrote it. We didn’t even know really where we were headed. We would just write a scene and think what would be cool to come next. We wrote it in a way that was very satisfying creatively, in terms of how the episode and the story actually spun itself out. By the end of the episode, I was really happy with it. It completely surprised me.”

This loose approach to plotting is obvious when Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II are watched back-to-back, but are also quite evident even within Equinox, Part I. The very late introduction of evil!EMH in Equinox, Part I is quite clearly a desperate write-around to break Ransom out of captivity.

No need to get bent out of shape.

As a result, there are any number of plot threads seeded in Equinox, Part I that do not pay off in Equinox, Part II. The relationship between Burke and Torres suggests an interesting source of tension in Equinox, Part I, but it disappears into the background for all but one short scene in Equinox, Part II. The script for Equinox, Part II needs to come up with a post hoc justification for why Ransom cannot simply warp away into the distance at the end of Equinox, Part I. The overall plotting of the two-parter is inelegant to say the least.

However, Equinox, Part I is structured in such a way that it hangs together quite well. For the most part, the plot developments feel organic: the ease with which Burke suggests trapping the aliens in this dimension hints that the Equinox crew have a lot of experience in that area; Gilmore insists that certain technology could not be adapted for Voyager; despite Ransom’s casual allusion to a “wormhole”, it seems unlikely that the Equinox could have made it this far this quickly under its own power. As a result, the episode’s twists fit logically within the framework established.

“Computer, set lighting to mood.”

Production on Equinox, Part I was reportedly quite frantic. In an interview with Cinefantastique, guest star John Savage acknowledged that the on-the-fly nature of the scripting was part of the appeal for him:

They needed a captain. They didn’t have a story yet, and I was excited. It evolved, and every day, a new set of pages. I found quite an interesting moral struggle in the story. It wasn’t simple, and it was very supported.

There are cases where this approach to storytelling can be disastrous. Deep Space Nine had felt a similar crunch during the middle of its final season with Prodigal Daughter, Field of Fire and The Emperor’s New Cloak. However, Equinox, Part I seems energised by this seat-of-the-pants approach.

Where there’s alien residue…

It helps that writers Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky ported over a lot of the core elements from Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. This makes sense. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II provided the best season-bridging cliffhanger of the seven-year run of Voyager, if not the best two-parter of the entire series. If Equinox, Part I was to be produced under pressure and to a deadline, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II could provide a fairly solid structural template for the story being told.

Equinox, Part I borrows a great deal from Scorpion, Part I. Both episodes feature a new computer-generated menace attacking from another dimension, creatures that seemingly have the capacity to kill with a single swipe. (Equinox, Part I suggests that the touch of the aliens is fatal; the creatures become a lot less fatal in Equinox, Part II, once the primary cast start coming into contact them.) Indeed, the sense of dread permeating the away team mission to the Equinox in Equinox, Part I recalls the same tension during the mission to the Borg Cube in Scorpion, Part I.

Warped perspectives.

Although Equinox, Part I never matches the momentum or tension of Scorpion, Part I, it does have one key advantage. As Menosky conceded to Cinefantastique, the episode has the luxury of a great supporting cast:

For Menosky, the show’s saving grace was a bigger cast. Noted Menosky, “One of the things that is very typical to this series is two alien guest stars, two new sets, maybe a couple of opticals, or the exterior of the planet. When you see that over and over again, it gets really tiresome to watch, and tiresome to write. One thing this did have going for us is that we had four major speaking roles. We had John Savage, who is a really good actor, and other good actors.  As a result we could have interesting character dynamics. You could follow threaded, character arcs in a way that felt bigger than a single episode.”

To be fair, Gilmore and Lessing are pretty bland; the two disappear into Voyager’s lower decks at the end of Equinox, Part II. However, the two major guest characters in Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II are played by John Savage and Titus Welliver.

It’s a crewl world out there.

Savage and Welliver do an excellent job fleshing out characters that are not particularly well-defined by the script. Savage lends Ransom a more introspective quality than is typically afforded Starfleet captains, a stillness and a quietness that serves to distinguish him from actors like Shatner, Stewart, Brooks, Mulgrew and Bakula. Savage is also noticeably shorter than Shatner, Stewart, Brooks and Bakula; this particularly clear when he is standing next to Welliver. The result is to suggest that Rudy Ransom is quite different from most of the other Star Trek captains.

Savage is essentially a character actor, as demonstrated by his long and distinguished career in supporting roles. Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II struggle to provide a clear sense of Ransom’s character. He spends so much of Equinox, Part I as an ominous and mysterious figure that his change of heart in Equinox, Part II comes out of left field. However, it is to the credit of John Savage that the character works as well as he does. Savage suggests that there is a lot going on inside Ransom, even if the scripts never convincingly externalise that.

A commanding performance.

Given both the quality of Savage’s performance and the intriguing concept driving the character, it makes sense that Rudolph Ransom has become a popular character outside of his two television appearances. Savage announced plans to reprise the role in a fan film, Equinox: Night of Time, in January 2014. The fans even hoped to present the fan film to CBS as a potential pilot for a spin-off series. Ultimately, the idea went nowhere. In March 2016, it was announced that Savage would be reprising the role on audio rather than on film.

Equinox, Part I is a mess of an episode, but one held together by a quality supporting cast, an intriguing premise, and a sense of sheer momentum to the cliffhanger. It doesn’t work perfectly, but it works enough.

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11 Responses

  1. Like much of Voyager, I’ve not seen these since they originally aired. At the time part one aired, I found myself thinking that it would have been nice if Voyager had acknowledged and faced some of the hardship that the Equinox alludes to. I’m not saying that we have Janeway and company abandon the Starfleet ideals they’re trying to live up to and maintain, but at least have given some lip service to the idea of when and if the Prime Directive can or should be broken.

    • Yep. The big issue with Equinox is that it makes this contrast binary, when it should be more nuanced and complex. Ransom isn’t a rogue or a renegade. Ransom is a mass murderer, and Equinox equates that with him allowing his crew to call him “Rudy.”

  2. Two very good episodes. I wish that Voyager had showed us the crew and ship getting this battered and tested for a couple of seasons at least. Year Of Hell and these episodes give us a taste of what this series could have been like if done right.

  3. This was the kind of obvious idea which fandom really responded to; it was Voyager’s last great gasp, the final time Trek fandom was actually enthusiastic about the program and talking it up (then part 2 aired).

    This is good by Voyager standards (damning with faint praise) but would have been absolutely stellar if the writing had been willing to confront the fact that Janeway has (as Darren has noted) committed various immoral and anti-PD acts for the sake of her crew. Instead hiding behind the Prime Directive, I would have liked to see Janeway draw a line in the sand that, for all the compromises she had made, she would never go as far as Ransom. Instead, utter hypocrisy and absolutism. Much like ‘Alliances,’ the script makes the error of treating Janeway and the Prime Directive as infallible.

    • That’s fair. The concept is simplistic, to the point it’s surprising that it took the show five years to do this story. And you’re right about the moral simplicity here. It’s black and white. It’s either “all Prime Directive, all of the time” or “engine run on dead aliens.” There is no middle ground. It’s clumsy and it’s awkward. And it feels like the Voyager writers trying to justify their conservative approach to narrative. “See, Janeway couldn’t let the Maquis wear their own uniforms, or she’d be building an engine powered by dead aliens.”

  4. Darren, have you seen ST: Discovery? I don’t want to spoil too much, but a major plot element that comes up in the series is eerily reminiscent of the plot of Equinox.

    I doubt that the writers were using Equinox as inspiration, and I have a feeling that it’s more likely that it’s just a case of Star Trek having 800+ episodes and eventually every possible plot point has been done to some degree (for example, from the trailer, Ep 5 of Discovery looks like it will be quite similar to a well-known TNG episode).

    Overall I liked Equinox, since it’s really a very clever premise. As always, it’s too bad that Voyager never really came back to it later on (for example, when they communicate with Starfleet, you’d think they could mention ‘By the way, most of Equinox’s crew never made it, just in case you were looking for them too. Did anyone else get pulled in by the Caretaker who we should keep our eyes out for?’).

    • Yep. I mean, I think the smartest thing that Discovery did was to shift focus away from the bridge crew and pick a focus character outside the clique. That means you can tell old stories in a new way. I mean, Magic to Make the Sanest Man go Mad is not an original concept by any measure, but the spin on it feels fresh within the Star Trek franchise, particularly the ease with which the show and the characters accept the trope and use it to tell a character-focused story. It’s not original, but it’s also a far cry from the awkward recycling that was so common on Voyager and Enterprise.

      • I haven’t seen the 2 most recent episodes, but Magic to Make the Sanest Man go Mad was the first Discovery episode that I would give an ‘A’, even if it’s a rehash of older concepts, since it’s a really creative and engaging episode that is fundamentally about the character relationships (the ‘magic’ in the title is (I think) Burnham coming to terms with developing feelings for someone). It reminds me of the DS9 time travel episodes, where the focus wasn’t on the ‘sci-fi’ element but instead on the character stories that it enabled.

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