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Star Trek: Voyager – Ashes to Ashes (Review)

Death is inevitable and inescapable. It comes to all in time.

Death provides a sense of closure. It marks an end of a journey. It establishes a boundary that might serve as an outline of a life. Death is the high price of living, the unavoidable reckoning that waits beyond the mortal veil. Death is the final frontier, one which all cross in time. Death is the undiscovered country, from which none have returned and about which all must wonder. Sometimes death comes quickly, sometimes it lurks and stalks its prey, sometimes it is even embrace. Nevertheless, death always comes.

The sad ballad of Lyndsay Ballard.

By the sixth season of Star Trek: Voyager, the Star Trek franchise was acutely aware of its own mortality and the unavoidable nature of its own death. Ratings were in decline, and there was no reprieve in sight. The fans were growing increasingly angry with the franchise’s output, and the press was eager to turn on the grand old man of television science fiction. Ronald D. Moore had been forced to quit the franchise, and Brannon Braga would later confess that this was the point at which all of his creative energy had been exhausted.

This mortality hangs over the sixth season of Voyager. The fifth season had repeatedly fixated on the idea of Voyager as a series trapped in time, an inevitability: the thwarted suicide attempts of Janeway in Night and of Torres in Extreme Risk; the frozen ship and crew in Timeless; the multiple copies of Seven of Nine and Janeway in Relativity; the decaying and collapsing imitations in Course: Oblivion, barely registering as a blip on the “real” crew’s radar; the rejection of millennial anxiety in 11:59; even the crew’s broken counterparts in Equinox, Part I.

Mortal clay.

In contrast, the sixth season returns time and again to the idea of death and decay: the ruined empire in Dragon’s Teeth; the underworld in Barge of the Dead; the ghost story in The Haunting of Deck Twelve; the floating tomb in One Small Step; the memories of a massacre in Memorial; the dead Borg Cube in Collective; the vengeful death throes of the returning Kes in Fury; the EMH’s visit to an aging and frail relative in Life Line; the Borg heads on spikes in Unimatrix Zero, Part I. This is to say nothing of the funereal tone of Blink of an Eye.

Ashes to Ashes is perhaps the most literal articulation of this recurring theme and preoccupation, the episode that most strongly and overtly explores the sixth season’s fascination with death and decay. The episode centres on a one-time guest star, a deceased member of the crew who has been resurrected by an alien species and seeks to return to the land of the living. Inevitably, she discovers that this is not possible. Death cannot be outwitted or evaded. It always catches up.

Whose episode is it anyway?

The botched resurrection narrative is a subset of the sixth season’s meditations on death. Dragon’s Teeth is the story of an entire civilisation that resurrected itself from the ruins of their fallen empire, as nothing more than scavengers and outcasts. Fury finds Kes facing her own mortality, and journeying back in time in a failed attempt to both recapture her youth on board Voyager and to punish those she holds responsible for her sad and sorry life since. Torres returns from the dead in Barge of the Dead, but she can only make peace with her recently deceased mother.

Ashes to Ashes finds a deceased crew member tracking down Voyager, claiming to have been resurrected by a strange alien species known as the Kobali. Ensign Lyndsay Ballard perished during an away mission several years earlier, but this alien seems to know intimate details about both her life and the lives of those on the ship. The crew accept their resurrected colleague with open arms, but it quickly becomes clear that Ballard cannot migrate from the realm of the dead back to the land of the living. Death is a one way trip, no matter how hard she fights.

She becomes death.

Ashes to Ashes is an extraordinarily clumsy piece of television. It is a very poorly structured forty-five minute episode, lacking in clear focus or thematic coherence. Although the story idea is credited Ronald Wilkerson, the script was developed by Robert Doherty. Doherty explained some of the changes he made to Cinefantastique:

In [Wilkerson’s] original story, two of the crew members who died in the pilot episode of Voyager – I believe the original doctor and the original helmsmen — return. We thought they had been dead for six years, but they actually were re-animated. It was a little tough to buy, because we have certainly tried to paint on the show that it’s tough to get through the Delta Quadrant. To make the time issues a little more believable. I think we said Lyndsay was gone two or three years. Ultimately we were just happy to make it a Kim story and invent this person who was very important to him several years ago.

While Doherty’s account of the changes made from the original pitch to the finished script makes a great deal of sense, it draws attention to a number of serious flaws with the episode as it aired. Doherty’s changes might have sidestepped a number of issues with the original story, but they created an entirely new set.

Into the great black void.

Most superficially, is it believable that a character who passed away during the fourth season would find it that much easier to track down Voyager than a character who passed away during the first season? Lyndsay Ballard passed away in the middle of the fourth season, so after the ten thousand light year jump in The Gift. However, she passed away before the three-hundred light year jumps in both Hope and Fear and Dark Frontier, Part II, the two-year jump in Night, the ten thousand light year jump in Timeless, the one thousand light year jump in The Voyager Conspiracy.

This seems like a fairly arbitrary distinction, particularly given how fast and loose Voyager has played with distance over the course of its run. Kazon space seemed impossibly vast between Caretaker and Basics, Part II. The Borg seem to occupy pockets of space between Scorpion, Part I and Endgame, although not all of the space between. The Hirogen have travelled even further than Ballard, returning to menace Voyager after three seasons (and at least eleven thousand light years) in Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II.

Pilot schemes.

However, this is just a cosmetic issue, playing into a recurring problem with how the writing staff on Voyager has plotted the crew’s journey across the Delta Quadrant. The bigger issue is that the audience has no idea who Lyndsay Ballard is, or why they should care about her in any concrete sense. Although Ballard was a member of the crew who allegedly passed away at some point between Hunters and Prey, she has never even been mentioned before, which creates all sorts of strange questions about how many members of the crew are dying off-screen.

To be fair, Ballard’s relative anonymity is largely a result of the decision to have the character die during the fourth season rather than at an earlier point in the run. Quite simply, there were never any developed supporting characters who could have died during the fourth season in order to fuel Ashes to Ashes. There was no recurring guest star who could be convincingly resurrected to tell this story. The character of Lyndsay Ballard has to be a character who died off-screen, and whose death went unmentioned, because there is no pre-existing character that she could be.

Dressed to impress.

For all their flaws, the early seasons of Voyager did make a point to introduce minor recurring characters outside of the core ensemble; Durst who was introduced in Cathexis and killed off in Faces, Jonas who was introduced in Alliances and killed off in Investigations, Hogan who was introduced in Alliances and killed off in Basics, Part II, Suder who was introduced in Meld and killed off in Basics, Part II. This is to say nothing of characters like Joseph Carey who was introduced in Parallax, Vorik who was introduced in Fair Trade and Baxter who first appeared in Eye of the Needle.

In contrast, the later seasons of Voyager tended to avoid either introducing new characters or bringing back previously recurring guest stars. From the fourth season onwards, the recurring cast of Voyager got a lot smaller, and there were much fewer Starfleet officers included. Indeed, characters like Joseph Carey became something of a punchline, appearing in time travel episodes like Relativity or Fury to assure viewers that they had travelled back in time to the early years of the series. As a result, there really is no way to tell a story like Ashes to Ashes using a recurring character from the fourth season.

Wigging out.

As a result, the character of Lyndsay Ballard has to be an original creation for the purposes of this episode, which means that Lyndsay Ballard is essentially introduced postmortem. The audience first meets Ballard after she has been killed and resurrected. As a result, it feels like the most interesting part of her story is actually over by the time that she is introduced in the teaser to Ashes to Ashes, and like it is very difficult to forge a meaningful connection to this random character who was so unimportant to the series that she died off-screen and so unimportant to the characters that she was never mentioned.

This creates a problem for Ashes to Ashes, because it not only has to tell its own story, but it has to retroactively tell the story of the events leading into this story. It is a prime example of how serialisation can work, even in a relatively low-key manner; the way that Durst’s appearance in Cathexis lent his death more weight in Faces, or how establishing Enrique Muniz in Starship Down and Hard Time made his death seem more affecting in The Ship. In contrast, Ashes to Ashes has to introduce Ballard, explain who she was and what the crew’s attachment to her was, and tell its own story, in forty-five minutes.

“We got a discount on the torpedo casings when we bought in bulk.

Producer Kenneth Biller acknowledged how unusual and how unstructured Ashes to Ashes was during an interview with Cinefantastique:

It was an unusual episode for us because it was an episode that focused on the guest character. We tried to make it a bit of a Kim story, by giving Kim a former relationship with this woman. I think Garrett gave a nice performance, and I think the guest actress did a nice job. The Kobali, I thought the makeup people did a really great job on them.

Ashes to Ashes is in many ways a story about Lyndsay Ballard, despite the fact that Ballard has never appeared before and will never appear again.

Smiles apart.

Dating back to Michael Piller’s time on Star Trek: The Next Generation, it had been a rule that episodes should be built around major (rather than guest) characters. There were exceptions of course, such as Hollow Pursuits or Tin Man, but – by and large – Piller insisted that episodes should be built around established characters rather than characters who had never been seen before and might not be seen again. Even when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine branched beyond its primary cast in episodes like Once More Unto the Breach, it tended to focus on recurring characters.

In contrast, Voyager often struggled to focus its episodes on the core cast, in part because so many members of that core cast were under-developed and under-explored. One of the biggest structural issues with the plotting of individual episodes on Voyager is difficulty in maintaining focus across a single episode. Is Alter Ego a story about Tuvok or Harry Kim or the guest star of the week? Is Harry Kim the central character of Demon, and – if so – how come he only holds the episode’s focus for a single act? This is to say nothing of jumbled plot-driven episodes like Worst Case Scenario or Waking Moments.

Grave concerns.

There are moments when Ashes to Ashes suggests that it might be an episode about Harry Kim. This makes a certain amount of sense, as Harry Kim is one of the most under-developed characters on the series, and Voyager tends to give focus to its under-developed characters in fairly generic episodes. Most Torres-, Paris-, EMH- or Seven-centric episodes are specifically tailored to the characters in question. In contrast, Chakotay and Kim tend to be the focal characters of stories that could be about any member of the crew; Nemesis, Unforgettable, The Fight.

So Ashes to Ashes quickly suggests that the story might have something interesting to say about Kim. Ballard pointedly remembers Kim by name when reintroducing herself to the crew. Kim is defined as the character most affected by Ballard’s loss. Kim is the character given a history with Ballard, which admittedly seems strange given that the audience has never seen them interact before. Kim is also given the opportunity to confess his secret love for Ballard, and gets to kiss her before she disappears into the afterlife.

Dead to the touch.

However, Ashes to Ashes never feels particularly interested in Kim’s agency or character within the story. Kim seems to exist primarily as Ballard’s tether to the crew, as a sounding board in scenes with the recently resurrected. Although the audience receives a lot of exposition from Kim, it feels purely functional, a polite acknowledgement of Kim’s position as a series regular by allowing him the appearance of growth or development in the course of a story that is never particularly invested in him.

To be fair, this might be the correct call. After all, the idea that Ballard’s story should be told with an emphasis on Kim would seem very ill-judged. The idea that female characters can be brutalised or killed off to motivate their male counterparts is such a lazy storytelling term that it is known as “fridging.” However, killing off a female character and then resurrecting her and then having her leave again would escalate that unfortunate narrative trope to a ridiculous degree. Despite some clumsy nods in his direction, Ashes to Ashes could (and should) never be the story of Harry Kim.

Feeling herself.

Ashes to Ashes needs to be the story of Lyndsay Ballard. Even if the audience were much more invested in the character of Harry Kim, the simple truth is that the story of a person brought back from the dead will always be more interesting than the story of characters reacting to a character brought back from the dead. Ashes to Ashes alludes to this fact in an early exchange between the two characters. “Sorry,” he apologises. “This is a little strange for me.” Ballard responds, wryly, “Really? It’s been a perfectly normal day for me.” It underscores the fact that the story of Lyndsay Ballard is much more interesting than that of Harry Kim.

However, the story of Lyndsay Ballard should be better told. There is an incredibly clumsiness to how Ashes to Ashes characterises Ballard. Part of this is undoubtedly down to time constraints, but a lot of it is down to simple craft and technique. For example, Ashes to Ashes rushes through its story because it has to cover so much ground in a very limited time frame. Ballard goes from “potentially mysterious alien” to “completely accepted member of the crew” in the space of ten minutes, because the episode has to get to the rest of the story. The Kobali only enter the fray in the final ten minutes or so. It’s all compressed.

“It’s a pleasure to meet with one of the little people.”

Similarly, Ashes to Ashes makes a big deal of how great Ballard is, which only draws attention to how strange it is that nobody every acknowledged her life or death before the episode. It is plausible that Ballard could simply have been a low-ranking crew member who never interacted with the primary cast on-screen because she simply wasn’t especially noteworthy; think of Lavelle and Taurik in Lower Decks, who were implied to have been on the Enterprise for years without anybody noticing. Ballard could easily have been a character like this, a background extra who happens to have been resurrected.

In its strongest moments, Ashes to Ashes seems to hint at this idea. Having dinner with Janeway for the first time, Ballard takes the opportunity to ask a genuinely tough question. “Why did you choose me for that away mission?” Ballard responds, articulating the question that every red or gold shirt must have asked on their death beds. “Why, I suppose I thought you were best suited for the job,” Janeway responds, which is an easy answer to the question. To her credit, Ballard doesn’t let the issue drop.

The pot isn’t the only thing getting roasted.

“No, I wasn’t,” Ballard states. “Dilithium extraction was always Lieutenant Torres’ specialty. And Tuvok had far more experience conducting away missions. But you didn’t send either one of them. Was it because they were closer to you?” It is a very powerful moment, and it hints at a much more interesting episode. Imagine a Star Trek episode that confronts the primary cast with their complicity in the deaths of generations of nameless extras, that critiques the dramatic trope of killing off a nameless supporting character in order to raise the stakes.

Indeed, Ashes to Ashes might have worked better as a story similar in tone to Fury, a tale of righteous anger from a genuinely forgotten and marginalised character, one pointing out how flippantly the Star Trek franchise has treated the characters who populate the backgrounds of shots focused on the primary cast. After all, the “red shirt” was such a well-known Star Trek trope that it was even lampooned by Galaxy Quest two months before Ashes to Ashes was broadcast.

It certainly scans.

However, Ashes to Ashes never allows this argument to progress, instead treating the outburst as an example of how Ballard is having difficulty adapting to her old life rather than as an indictment of the narrative logic that crams “expendable” characters on to away missions simply so that the antagonists of a given adventure might have somebody at whom they can shoot. Ashes to Ashes shies away from something potentially interesting in order to become something more generic.

As a result, the episode works hard to distinguish Ballard from the types of supporting characters casually killed off in episodes like Unity or Innocence. “Thank you for saying those nice things about me,” Ballard remarks to Janeway after the staff meeting that welcomes her home. “To be honest, I never thought you noticed me.” Janeway responds. “My mistake.” This emphasis on Ballard’s greatness is distracting. She seems to spend a lot of time with the senior staff, despite being an ensign. Would her death have been any less tragic or more meaningless if she wasn’t great?

“I mean, I guess you can do whatever it is Carey used to do, maybe?”

Similarly, her connection to Kim feels rather forced and contrived, a clumsy way for the script to establish an emotional connection between Ballard and a character to whom the audience (theoretically) has a much deeper connection. Kim apparently roomed opposite Ballard at Starfleet Academy, and has been carrying a torch for her ever since. The mechanics of this storytelling decision are obvious; the audience should care about Kim, and Kim cares about Ballard, so the audience should care for Ballard by extension. However, the narrative choice only raises other deeper questions.

Does the audience honestly believe that Kim could have been nursing a crush on a college acquaintance for years without it ever coming up? His flirtation with Jenny Delaney in Prime Factors was the source of much gossip, and his attraction to Seven of Nine in Revulsion became a recurring punchline. Harry seems genuinely amazed that Ballard never picked up on his attraction. “You really don’t have any idea, do you?” he asks in disbelief. It seems highly unlikely that Paris or Torres would have been either oblivious or silent about that attraction for the better part of four seasons.

“Now let us never talk of this again.”

The result is that all of this feels rushed, a rather clumsy attempt to retroactively assert Ballard’s importance without actually demonstrating it. Indeed, her characterisation within the episode is fairly bland, often feeling like a pale imitation of “quirky.” She has a wry sense of humour, and maintained a list of things that she was looking forward to doing on reuniting with Voyager, both of which are handled in a very clumsy manner. Ultimately, Ballard is more irritating than endearing.

To be fair, Ballard does get at least one great line. After Janeway burns her pot roast, she explains to Ballard that Tuvok has produced a list of plans to repel a possible Kobari attack, Ballard snarks, “Did he include your pot roast?” It’s a witty one-liner, one that seems almost like something from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or The X-Files or some other more contemporary nineties television series. Unfortunately, Ballard never manages to maintain that level of wit across the episode’s runtime, and instead feels like a parody of a more modern television character. (This is most obvious in the way she “messes” her quarters.)

Sick burn.

These are all scripting issues, and are very much in keeping with how Robert Doherty writes for Voyager. Doherty tends to write fairly generic Star Trek. His first script was Vis à Vis, a fourth season episode routed in a version of Tom Paris’ character that should have been buried with Investigations during the second season. Doherty was also responsible for the fairly broad teleplays to both Riddles and Tsunkatse, neither a triumph of subtle characterisation. Doherty tends to approach the core cast of Voyager as archetypes, which explains why he has such difficulty giving Ballard any real definition in Ashes to Ashes.

All of this contributes to the sense that Ballard could never have remained on Voyager, that Ballard is very much a disposable guest star designed to spur on this particular plot before disappearing into the ether. The only real tension in Ashes to Ashes derives from how the series will dispose of Ballard. She might disappear like the rescued crew members in Equinox, Part II, simply vanishing into the crew and never being heard from again. She might go home with the Kobali. Given that the audience understands that Voyager will likely never bring the character back either way, it’s hard to get too invested in the plot.

“Don’t worry. We both know I won’t be staying.”

Inevitably, Ballard chooses to go back home with the Kobali, to be reunited with her people and to leave her humanity behind. This is not a particularly satisfying conclusion from a narrative perspective, given that the audience feels no tangible connection to the character. The episode asks us to feel some sadness for Kim, the character she leaves behind, but it is hard to feel any tangible emotional loss. Kim survived for more than two years after losing Ballard, without ever mentioning her name. It is too much to believe that this is a tragedy.

Still, Ashes to Ashes is vaguely interesting from a thematic perspective. There is something primal and powerful in the idea of letting something go, of moving on, of facing death and transition with courage and dignity. To quote the title of the finale of The Next Generation, all good things must come to an end. Ashes to Ashes is fundamentally about how Lyndsay Ballard is dead, and how everybody needs to make peace with that fact. The storytelling is muddled, the execution is clumsy, but there is a very interesting and evocative idea buried in there.

Mixed messages.

It also feels like Voyager is perhaps giving voice to some of its own deep-set anxieties. After all, coming to the end of its sixth season, Voyager was much closer to its end than to its beginning. The production team knew that there would only be one more season before Voyager was retired, and the production team were already developing the Star Trek series that would replace Voyager on UPN. By this point in its run, Voyager was cognisant of its own mortality, perhaps suggested by closer connections to home in episodes like Pathfinder.

At the same time, it feels like there is something deeper at play within the sixth season of Voyager. After all, the sixth (and seventh) seasons of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were not as obsessed with entropy and decay as the sixth season of Voyager has been. Something is gnawing at the series, from the inside out. The sixth season of Voyager is very morbid in its sensibilities, preoccupied with notions of mortality and resurrection. It suggests a deeper concern.

In-console-able.

This undoubtedly tapped into fears about the perceived future of the Star Trek franchise. As Greg Fuller pointed out in July 1999, the Star Trek franchise was no longer the cultural juggernaut that it had been during the Next Generation era:

Voyager, on the other hand, has very little that it can brag about. That’s not because Voyager is an awful, unpopular show, but because it’s on an awful, unpopular network. Voyager can only do as well as UPN because of Voyager’s status as a network show. UPN has been losing stations since day one and is now only airing in a little over 60 percent of the nation, meaning that Voyager is competing in a very crowded market with both hands tied behind its back. For its disadvantages, Voyager has still managed to remain UPN’s top show. However, Voyager will never be able to perform near the level of its predecessors so long as it drags the carcass of UPN wherever it goes. That’s not the sign of viewers losing interest in Trek, it’s the sign that viewers aren’t interested in UPN.

In short, the ratings are down. Less people are watching. The bleeding off of TNG’s more casual Trek audience is nearly complete and the shows are losing some of their viewers to competition. What does that mean? Is Star Trek dying? No, Star Trek is not dying, it’s just not a mainstream hit anymore. Things have grown far smaller, but smaller isn’t necessarily bad as long as a show is maintaining minimum audiences, which so far Trek has done.

Fuller’s analysis is grim reading, in spite of his assertion that Star Trek was “not dying.” The ratings were in clear decline, and the franchise had slipped from the public consciousness. The franchise was only four years away from its first desperate retool, following the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise.

Dying to move on.

Despite the measured tone of such observers, it seemed clear to many people that the Star Trek franchise was in trouble. In fact, Rick Berman had privately talked to UPN about the franchise and had “begged them to let it have a few years rest” after Voyager ended in order to build anticipation for the next iteration. Some writers were more public with their opinions, with Next Generation and Deep Space Nine writer Rene Echevarria suggesting, “I think it’s time to give it a rest.”

It’s tempting to read these death and resurrection narratives in the sixth season of Voyager as an appeal to let the franchise rest in peace after Voyager, so that it might be resurrected in a new and different form a few years later. After all, the franchise had faced its mortality before, and emerged ready to take on the world. There had been a five-year gap between the end of the original Star Trek and the start of Star Trek: The Animated Series. There was then another four-year gap between the end of the animated show and the theatrical premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Facing their fears.

This is to say nothing of the eighteen-year gap between the end of the original Star Trek and the launch of The Next Generation. The Star Trek franchise was nothing if not resilient. Perhaps it would have been best to bow out gracefully, while some of the audience was still clapping. The sixth season of Voyager is full of aliens that are dead-but-not-quite, whether returning as Torres does in Barge of the Dead or living on in memory like John Kelly in One Small Step.

Ultimately, the Star Trek franchise would get that rest, but not peacefully. After Voyager, UPN would push ahead with Enterprise. Ironically, Ashes to Ashes guest star Kim Rhodes would even screen test for the part of T’Pol. However, a change in ownership and declining ratings would take their toll on the fifth live action Star Trek series. After two retools that failed to capture the public imagination, Enterprise would become the first Star Trek series of the Berman era to be retired after fewer than seven seasons. The Star Trek brand would then lie fallow for another four years before JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek, returning to television with Star Trek: Discovery eight years after that.

Shades of grey.

Whatever they suggest, the Kobali are a fascinating alien species. In some respects, they feel like a spiritual companion to the Borg, serving as the ultimate in organic recycling. The Borg assimilate individual bodies in order to incorporate them into the Collective, while the Kobali use raw materials assembled from dead bodies in order to procreate. This connection is reinforced by the deathly grey pallour used in the make-up design of both the Borg and the Kobali, along with the use of the Borg as zombies in stories like Star Trek: First Contact and Regeneration.

Of course, the mechanics of how the Kobali work are left decidedly vague. Much like the Ocampa, it is interesting to speculate on the evolutionary path that would have made the Kobali method of reproduction sustainable to the point that they could build a functioning society. This vagueness about the Kobali might be the best way to approach the species, but the script is still very clumsy. Ballard can apparently remember intimate details about Voyager when the plot needs her to, but cannot remember her own father’s name when it is convenient to the plot.

The Kobali are a suitably macabre alien species, and there are all manner of interesting ethical and moral questions raised by their mere existence. Do the Kobali believe in consent when they harvest the dead bodies of other species? How do other species like the Malon or the Vaadwaur treat the Kobali? Is it possible for the Kobali to exist in symbiosis with another alien species? How does the reborn Kobali define themselves in comparison to their host body? Ashes to Ashes never gets room to explore any of these potentially interesting ideas.

It is a shame that the Kobali never reappeared on Voyager, even if they did pop on Star Trek Online decades later. In fact, it is surprising that the Kobali were not of interest to Bryan Fuller, one of the more promising young writers on staff with an obvious interest in death as a recurring theme in his work. After leaving Star Trek, Fuller would work on both Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me. His more recent cultural contributions include the serial killer series Hannibal and the supernatural prestige piece American Gods.

“Lyndsay, you’re dead to me.”

Fuller did express an interest in bringing the Kobali back during the final season of Voyager, as part of the original pitch that developed into Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II. Fuller explained to Cinefantastique:

Fuller recalled initially pitching a story in which the first one or two acts would play out as Titanic, as the ship went down: “The ship is uninhabitable. They get into escape pods, and they launch. Everybody abandons ship. What we realize is that the escape pods all have microfractures in them, and they vent oxygen, and everybody in the escape pods – the entire crew – dies. It was dealing with all sorts of different issues in terms of identity and what happens after death, in a sci-fi context.”

Fuller imagined that the Kobali, from the sixth season episode Ashes to Ashes, would sweep down on the dead crew and reanimate them, which is the way the Kobali procreate. The crew would then have new Kobali lives. Of course, a few crew members, Chakotay, the Doctor, Neelix, and Kim would have been on away missions, and then would have to either rescue the rest of the crew or decide to leave them in their new lives. The idea was not used in that form. Laughed Fuller about the idea of killing off most of the crew, “We were told that it was tasteless to do that.”

This is not surprising. Fuller’s contributions to the Star Trek franchise include the slasher episode Empok Nor and Mortal Coil, the unlikely atheist Christmas Special in which Neelix dies and confronts the emptiness of the afterlife before being revived by Seven of Nine’s Borg technology. Fuller also had the Klingons tie their dead to the hull of their ship in The Vulcan Hello.

Stare into the face of death.

One of the more interesting aspects of the return of Lyndsay Ballard within Ashes to Ashes is that it provides a rare piece of internal continuity within Voyager. The death and resurrection of Lyndsay Ballard suggests a history and continuity that is often lacking from the series, a sense that events leave lasting consequences. Of course, this is undercut by the fact that these events are crudely and retroactively grafted into the fourth season without any foundation or set-up. Nevertheless, it does suggest some nostalgia within Voyager.

Indeed, the continuity references within Ashes to Ashes are surprisingly precise. There are a couple of clumsy elements, such as Ballard failing to remember that Tuvok was promoted in Revulsion, which was several episodes before the crew encountered the Hirogen and so several episodes before Ballard could have been killed. However, these mistakes can be attributed to Ballard’s hazy memory. More impressive is the note that Ballard was killed in “a trap set by a Hirogen hunting party” on “Stardate 51563.”

Strategy session.

That stardate would put the episode between stardate 51501.4 (Hunters) and stardate 51652.3 (Prey), which makes sense in terms of Voyager’s encounters with the Hirogen as a recurring menace. More than that, the stardate positions Ballard’s death during the fourth season, which is perhaps the strongest season in Voyager‘s seven-season run. Even more precisely, the stardate puts Ballard’s death in the midst of one of the longest runs of semi-serialised storytelling in Voyager‘s run, the stretch from Message in a Bottle to The Killing Game, Part II.

Voyager largely avoided continuity, but it did experiment at certain points in the run. The most obvious (and most disastrous) stretch was that between Alliances and Investigations, featuring the traitor Michael Jonas trying to betray Voyager to the Kazon. That long-form story backfired so spectacularly that it seemed to have scared the production team off the idea of telling serialised stories. At the same time, there was a looser and more successful flirtation with continuity during the fourth season. This is often overlooked in discussions of the series.

“Well, at least the walls bring out my pallour.”

Seven of Nine’s journey towards humanity grants the fourth season an arc, running from Scorpion, Part II and The Gift straight through to Hope and Fear. More than that, the Hirogen provide a sense of structure in the middle of the year; they are teased in Message in a Bottle, properly introduced in Hunters, get a big episode in Prey, and then take over the ship in The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. Even Retrospect, an episode that does not feature the Hirogen, still discusses them and still references the events at the end of Prey.

Specifically contextualising the death of Lyndsay Ballard in terms of that rare stretch of continuity feels almost like nostalgia, as if Voyager is seeking to create a connection between those earlier and more successful stories with the rather lackluster and disconnected sixth season. Lyndsay Ballard is treated as an ambassador from one of Voyager‘s most consistent periods, her resurrection serving to bring that past into the present. It is a shame that this connection cannot be strengthened or broadened. In fact, even this sense of continuity is short-lived. In Child’s Play, Seven will claim that she never saw her parents after she was assimilated, contradicting her encounter with her father in Dark Frontier, Part II.

Time to go a little Wild, man.

This is not the only connection back to the fourth season. The subplot in Ashes to Ashes features another none-to-subtle callback to the events of The Raven, as Diana M. A. Relke notes in Drones, Clones, and Alpha Babes:

This sculpture class recalls a scene from Raven, in which Janeway attempts to kindle Seven’s creativity by inviting her to help with a bust the Captain is sculpting. Janeway lectures Seven on the importance of art in the liberation of the imagination and, by implication, the nurturing of individuality. Significantly, this lesson takes place in Janeway’s holodeck simulation of Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop and in the context of all that it signifies in terms of Renaissance humanism. But the Captain fails to get through to Seven, who finds sculpture without utility and hence irrelevant. Now, however, two years later, Seven’s decision to include sculpture in the Borg children’s curriculum suggests that perhaps Janeway’s lesson had not gone unlearned at all.

This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the episode’s subplot, which finds Seven of Nine trying to parent the Borg children taken on board in Collective. Not only is the subplot focusing on the Borg children a rare piece of continuity of itself, it also suggests a logical extension of Seven of Nine’s arc. She was Janeway’s surrogate child, but now she becomes a surrogate parent.

Child’s Clay.

Unfortunately, this thematic echo and the implication of the continuity are the best thing that might be said about the subplot in Ashes to Ashes. The subplot focusing on Seven of Nine is another example of how Seven has become the focus of Voyager, even when the episode isn’t actually about her; it evokes the manner in which Seven found herself learning an important lesson at the end of Dragon’s Teeth or dealing with fandom in Virtuoso. These episodes are not about Seven of Nine, but there is a conscious effort to keep the character in focus.

The story focusing on the Borg children is trite and familiar. Seven inevitably learns that children can be suffocated by structure, and that they thrive when afforded some room to improvise. This is stock lesson about parenting, one that has been repeated countless times and in countless forms. Worf and Sisko worked through various iterations of this lesson on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, often with a little more subtlety. (Shadowplay was about Jake finding the confidence to talk to his father, The Abandoned had Benjamin worrying about his son’s girlfriend.)

Field trip!

The subplot within Ashes to Ashes is transparently stalling for time. It exists to pad out the first few acts of the story, to allow the production team to cut away from Ballard’s reintegration into the crew for some light relief. As with Change of Heart, the subplot wraps up relatively early so that the primary plot can come into focus and receive the necessary dramatic weight without the distraction of a lighter and softer subplot intruding. Seven learns to allow the children some freedom right before the Kobali show up and demand the return of Ballard.

This ultimately only underscores the weird pacing issues with the episode, suggesting that the story only really begins when Q’Ret shows up with ten minutes left on the clock. It seems like what should be the philosophical crux of the episode, about the need to let go and move on after transformative trauma, is only thrown into sharp relief as things are winding down. There is no room to develop or explore any of these big ideas, with the situation escalating to an obligatory fire-fight in what feels like no time at all.

Ashes to Ashes is an interesting story, dead on arrival.

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One Response

  1. As you note, Star Trek Online has a surprisingly long storyline about the Kobali and Vaadwaar fighting, because the Vaadwaar discover the Kobali have found ancient Vaadwaar stasis cells and “resurrected” the dead Vaadwaar without reviving the sleeping ones. Interesting concept that highlights just how Borg-like the race can be. Unfortunately, the game forces the players into siding with the Kobali immediately after raising a million questions about the ethics of their actions.

    As you say, the episode raises a lot of interesting questions but declines to explore them.

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