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Star Trek: Voyager – Good Shepherd (Review)

Good Shepherd is a terrible execution of a potentially interesting premise.

There is something interesting in speculating what the Star Trek universe must look like for those characters who exist outside the senior staff of a given series. This premise has been explored and touched upon in a number of episodes; most notably in the basic premise of Star Trek: Discovery, the primary plots of Lower Decks and Learning Curve, even the sections of Strange New World focusing on Novakovich and Cutler. Still, these are only a handful of episodes in a franchise that spans half a century and over seven hundred installments.

Looking out for her crew…

As such, the basic plot of Good Shepherd is compelling. The teaser visuals the appeal of such a story in a playful and innovative way, with the camera following a command all the way from the top of the ship to the bottom; from Janeway’s ready room to Astrometrics to Engineering to the lowest viewing port on the ship. It is an interesting way of demonstrating how anonymous and disconnected individuals can feel, even on board a ship with a crew numbering around one hundred and fifty. What does it feel like to be anonymous, on a ship as isolated as Voyager?

Unfortunately, Good Shepherd awkwardly bungles the question. In doing so, it fails to provide any satisfying answers.

Running rings…

The teaser is perhaps the most interesting and compelling aspect of the episode, a canny visualisation of the chain of command that underscores the idea of disaffection within an efficient workplace environment. Star Trek: Voyager was never the most experimental or innovative television series, but there were moments when the series was willing to experiment with a more visual style of storytelling than the stock Berman era template established by Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In some ways, this more visual style was best reflected in the sort of blockbuster storytelling employed by the big event stories like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, Timeless or Dragon’s Teeth. These were stories that tended to communicate plot through big bombastic visuals. At the same time, even quieter episodes like Counterpoint were willing to experiment with a looser televisual style than the dialogue- and exposition-heavy approach that the Berman era tended to favour.

There goes the science.

Of course, these sequences were the exception, rather than the rule. This is why the teaser to Good Shepherd is particular notable. The sequence is clumsy and imperfect in a number of ways; it might work better with longer takes, or with a more circuitous route between the top and the bottom of the ship. Nevertheless, it is a sequence that relies on visuals rather than dialogue to communicate a central idea. Watching the characters carry the data from the top of the ship to the bottom underscores how isolated Harren is from Janeway, despite serving under her.

The teaser visualises the idea of “six degrees of separation”, that every human being on the planet is connected to any other person by less than six degrees of separation. It is an idea that demonstrates how interconnected human interactions can be on a planet that has over five hundred million kilometres of surface area. Voyager itself is obviously much smaller, but the principle applies. Janeway tells Chakotay that she wants continuous scans; Chakotay talks to Kim; Kim to Seven; Seven to Celes; Celes to Torres; Torres to an engineer; that engineer to Harren.

Seven has some interesting performance (astro)metrics.

The roots of this theory can be traced back to the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram in the late sixties, but has been used to illustrate that people are more closely connected to one another than it may initially appear:

It’s known as the small-world experiment. In it, packages were sent to hundreds of participants like the wheat farmer, as Milgram tried to determine just how many degrees of separation exist between any two people. In the 51 years since he published his results in 1967 (the same year he took over the social psychology doctoral program at City University of New York), the answer Milgram came up with — six — has become a commonplace truism and a Kevin Bacon–flavored parlor game. “It was really the first thing to experimentally demonstrate a phenomenon which is one of the most important properties of the social network of the world, which is that we’re all just a few steps from each other,” said Jon Kleinberg, a Cornell University computer scientist who studies networks.

Milgram’s experiment also helped to launch the field of network theory, leading to insights into other important features of an evermore connected world. Today, Milgram’s study can help us understand how diseases can tear through a continent in a matter of days, how a seemingly isolated financial tremor can send markets tumbling across the world, and how fake news from Russian trolls can go viral and transform an American election overnight.

Indeed, later studies and data seem to have supported Milgram’s initial findings. Using email, Microsoft determined that most people are six-point-six degrees away from one another. Facebook narrowed the gap to three-point-five.

A sick obsession.

This experiment was of great interest during the sixties, but became even more timely during the nineties and into the new millennium. It has been suggested that Milgram was mapping what might be termed “network space”, an abstract concept that provides a frame of reference for social relationships between individuals rather than simply spatial or geographical mapping. The game “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” is a prime example of this, mapping actors to one another through the films in which they have appeared together.

This was obviously more relevant at the start of the twenty-first century, at a point in time when the internet was making it easier and quicker for humans to make and maintain contact over huge distances. It was possible for human beings to have social, commercial and political interactions with people they would never meet face-to-face. To continue the example above, the perfect illustration of this might be the speed with which the idea of “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” spread through cyberspace in April 1994.

Tal order.

In theory, this sense of shared connection and community should make the world seem smaller and more intimate. However, this was not the case. In fact, it often seemed like the increased connection of the internet age created a deeper sense of disconnect. Although the connection between people was easier to quantify, they often felt more disconnected and isolated. As Thomas MacMillan argues:

While Milgram had concluded his small-world study by invoking a sense of universal togetherness, network theorists have since pointed out that there are downsides to living in such a connected world — if we don’t stay mindful of the fact that we’re all in this together.

Consider the AIDS epidemic, Watts said. “Why did people not care about it? It was far away.” For many Americans, AIDS was something happening in Africa or to gay men or intravenous drug users, and people failed to appreciate it until it became impossible to ignore.

A danger of a small world, Watts said, is that even though we’re now globally connected, we evolved in small tribes and are thus doomed to fail to fully consider anything beyond our immediate social circle. We care about our friends, and we kind of care about our friends’ friends, but “anything more than two degrees is just some random person,” he said.

It should be noted that this was not just a feature of the internet age. The philosopher Durkheim had coined the word “anomie” to explain the rise in suicide rates in urban populations, suggesting that individuals felt disconnected and remote in city landscapes, despite being in closer physically than they would have been in the countryside. The internet era just pushes that idea to an extreme.

First report of call.

This is very much the core of Good Shepherd, a story about Janeway’s efforts to connect with the disaffected and the disenfranchised among her crew. Following a report on crew efficiency from Seven of Nine, Janeway realises that three members of the ship’s compliment have “slipped through the cracks.” She makes a pointed effort to reconnect with these three individuals who have made a pointed effort to isolate themselves and cut themselves off from the rest of the ship.

There is a sense that Voyager has failed these characters, as a community and as a family. “They’ve never been on an away mission,” Janeway muses, reading the data provided to her. “Mortimer Harren, William Telfer, Tal Celes. None of them.” Chakotay offers excuses for that disappointing fact. “Harren never volunteers. Celes can’t get past the proficiency requirements. And Telfer always seems to get a note from his doctor.” Janeway responds, “Something’s got to be done about this.”

“To be fair, at least these three weren’t eaten by giant monsters while gathering fire wood on a distant planet.”

Chakotay seems ready to give up on Harren, Tefler and Celes. “What can we do?” he asks Janeway. “There are always a few who don’t make it past their first year on a starship. Normally, they’re reassigned. But in our case, maybe we should relieve them of duty and let them pursue their own interests. It certainly wouldn’t hurt general efficiency.” This raises an interesting question, one that seems to tie into the unique premise of Voyager, and one hinted at in earlier episodes like Meld. What happens to crew members who cannot contribute to the ship’s mission home?

Of course, it should be noted that Good Shepherd presents as unique case. Unlike Suder in Meld, Harren, Tefler and Celes are not an active threat to the crew. Unlike the trainees in Learning Curve, these crew members graduated from Starfleet Academy. Good Shepherd focuses on crew members who would likely have moved on to other projects, but who have been stuck on a starship for six years by virtue of the events of Caretaker. Nobody could have planned for a situation like this, and so the existing support structures have been removed.

To the literal lower decks.

Harren is a great example of this, toiling away in obscurity at the literal bottom of the ship. “I signed on to Voyager because I needed a year of hands-on experience,” he tells Janeway. “It was a requirement for getting into the Institute of Cosmology on Orion One. If we hadn’t gotten lost in the Delta Quadrant, I’d be there right now.” There is something intriguing in this set-up, something very compelling in the basic premise. Good Shepherd seems perfectly positioned to interrogate some very profound existential questions about what life does to long-term plans.

Once again, Voyager feels very much like a product of its time. It is tapping into some of the broader cultural anxieties of the late nineties and the turn of the twenty-first century. Voyager was very engaged with the question of what happened after the end of the Cold War, at what Francis Fukuyama termed “the end of history.” This anxiety was literalised in episodes like Living Witness and Relativity, but it also tapped into deeper more philosophical questions about what the characters were trying to accomplish, and what their purpose was.

Heal thyself.

These anxieties anxieties found expression in contemporary pop culture, such as the cult success of David Fincher’s Fight Club, tapping into a broad sense of unease and ennui. Discussing the appeal of that story to a younger generation, Kent Oluf Hytten contends that it tapped into a broader restlessness:

There is a deep sense of not belonging or feeling estranged/alienated in this race for commodities, a hopelessness in living in a world with no purpose and meaning. Humans are almost like machines trained to do something and nothing besides that. There is also the worrying of a worker who knows that his employer does not care about him outside the sphere of work, to the employer, the worker is merely a tool with which to help the construct of commodities.

Good Shepherd focuses on a group of characters who have seen their life plans evaporate due to circumstances outside of their control, perhaps capturing a broader anxiety in American popular culture at the turn of the millennium.

No time for self-reflection.

An entire generation of young people had watched the established world order crumble in the nineties, to be replaced with what George H.W. Bush had promised would be “the new world order.” There was no longer a Cold War to provide a neat ideological framework within which they might develop. The economy was strong enough that their lives were not to be defined by struggle. The world seemed safe and stable, in the midst of what Charles Krauthammer described as “the unipolar moment.”

To many of the people coming of age in this environment, there was no longer a clear direction to follow. It might even have seemed like the arc of history had reached its conclusion. Without any sense of forward momentum, these individuals felt listless. As a result, they could feel disconnected and disengaged. In Good Shepherd, the issue is not that Harren, Tefler and Celes are unqualified for their posts and their responsibilities. Instead, the problem is that these three young officers are not engaged. They are not trying. They have resigned themselves.

What’s pasta is present.

This captures a broader sense of millennial anxiety among young adults in the late nineties and into the new millennium. As Ted Halstead noted in August 1999, there was a concern about lack of social engagement among the younger generation:

Although political and civic engagement began to decrease among those at the tail end of the Baby Boom, Xers appear to have enshrined political apathy as a way of life. In measurements of conventional political participation the youngest voting-age Americans stand out owing to their unprecedented levels of absenteeism. This political disengagement cannot be explained away as merely the habits of youth, because today’s young are markedly less engaged than were their counterparts in earlier generations. Voting rates are arrestingly low among post-Boomers. In the 1994 midterm elections, for instance, fewer than one in five eligible Xers showed up at the polls. As recently as 1972 half those aged eighteen to twenty-four voted; in 1996, a presidential-election year, only 32 percent did. Such anemic participation can be seen in all forms of traditional political activity: Xers are considerably less likely than previous generations of young Americans to call or write elected officials, attend candidates’ rallies, or work on political campaigns. What is more, a number of studies reveal that their general knowledge about public affairs is uniquely low.

In this respect, Good Shepherd might be seen as something of a companion piece to the episode Collective. In that episode, an away team encountered a group of young drones who had been abandoned by the Borg Collective. In Good Shepherd, Janeway is confronted with three members of her own crew who have been similarly abandoned.

“Just sayin’.”

In this context, it is perhaps interesting that Seven of Nine is the character who brings this failure to Janeway’s attention through her “shipwide efficiency analysis.” The sixth season has made good use of Seven of Nine as a mouthpiece through which it might criticise Janeway and Voyager. In The Voyager Conspiracy, Seven of Nine seems to critique the show itself as an obsessive fan. In Child’s Play, Seven of Nine angrily criticises the reactionary bias that Janeway shows towards Icheb’s biological parents rather than his unconventional family on the crew.

Good Shepherd seems to hint at the idea that Janeway has in some way failed Harren, Tefler and Celes. “Three people have slipped through the cracks on my ship,” Janeway tells Chakotay early in the episode. “That makes it my problem.” Janeway’s attitude evokes the policy of “no child left behind”, which President George W. Bush would announce as a central issue of his presidency less than a year after Good Shepherd was broadcast. Indeed, Janeway’s personal mentorship of these wayward crew members perhaps taps into George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”

“It builds character.”

At the same time, there is something just a little bit uncomfortable in Janeway’s solution to the problem posed by Harren, Tefler and Celes, which speaks to the broader conservatism of Voyager as a television series. On discovering that these three officers are not pushing themselves within the established framework of the Starfleet chain of command, Janeway’s immediate response is to reinforce that chain of command by taking all three officers on an away mission with her. Janeway’s immediate response to their difficulties fitting in is to force the issue.

Janeway never stops to consider the possibility that these characters might work best outside of the established Starfleet hierarchy, despite the fact that both Neelix and Seven exist outside that rigid framework. More to the point, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had devoted considerable effort to exploring life outside of Starfleet. Jake Sisko became the first human regular in the franchise not to pursue a career in Starfleet in Shadowplay. Odo and Kira worked for the Bajoran militia. Garak was a spy and a tailor. Quark ran the bar.

“I mean, c’mon. They made a senior officer out of me.”

Indeed, Voyager had arguably touched on this point with Lon Suder in Basics, Part I, when Janeway was confronted with the question of how an individual might contribute to the ship’s mission without being part of the crew. Luckily for Janeway, Lon Suder was killed off in Basics, Part II, so she did not have to answer that question. If Voyager can function without Harren, Tefler and Celes doing jobs that they really don’t want to do, then what harm is there in allowing them that freedom?

In some ways, this is broaching an issue at the heart of Star Trek, particularly in the era of The Next Generation. After all, the Star Trek franchise unfolds in a post-scarcity economy. By and large, there is no need for characters to work in order to provide for themselves. Of course, the economy of this utopia is quite hazy, to the point that there have been several books written about it. The franchise has largely avoided articulating its economic philosophies; perhaps because they would be too complicated to explain, perhaps because they may be seen as socialist.

“Don’t bother me. I’ve almost got a working theory of the Federation economy.”

Despite the fact that the basic premise of Voyager should be designed to avoid these sorts of questions, Good Shepherd consciously foregrounds them. In doing so, it taps into an interesting question. The reality of the modern economy is that eventually work may become obsolete for a lot of the population due to factors like automation and skills. However, as Derek Thompson argues, there are broader cultural and psychological issues at play:

Work is really three things, says Peter Frase, the author of Four Futures, a forthcoming book about how automation will change America: the means by which the economy produces goods, the means by which people earn income, and an activity that lends meaning or purpose to many people’s lives. “We tend to conflate these things,” he told me, “because today we need to pay people to keep the lights on, so to speak. But in a future of abundance, you wouldn’t, and we ought to think about ways to make it easier and better to not be employed.”

Frase belongs to a small group of writers, academics, and economists—they have been called “post-workists”—who welcome, even root for, the end of labor. American society has “an irrational belief in work for work’s sake,” says Benjamin Hunnicutt, another post-workist and a historian at the University of Iowa, even though most jobs aren’t so uplifting. A 2014 Gallup report of worker satisfaction found that as many as 70 percent of Americans don’t feel engaged by their current job. Hunnicutt told me that if a cashier’s work were a video game—grab an item, find the bar code, scan it, slide the item onward, and repeat—critics of video games might call it mindless. But when it’s a job, politicians praise its intrinsic dignity. “Purpose, meaning, identity, fulfillment, creativity, autonomy—all these things that positive psychology has shown us to be necessary for well-being are absent in the average job,” he said.

In some ways, Janeway’s insistence that these crewmen learn to find fulfillment in their preassigned roles speaks to the cultural difficulty of imagining a life without the framework of the professional roles. Following the election of Donald Trump, coal miners refused retraining, preferring to remaining in their existing jobs. Those jobs were largely economically unsustainable, however these same workers largely reject the idea of a welfare safety net.

In theory…

Janeway never stops to ask what Harren, Tefler and Celes could offer outside of the established command hierarchies. Harren is very interested in theory, so why couldn’t he simply be given the freedom to pursue his interests, possibly with the assistance of Seven and Icheb? There should be at least some theoretical principles that could conceivably shorten the journey home, improve efficiency, or just make the trip more pleasant for all involved. As long as Harren wasn’t a drain on resources, and as long as he wasn’t needed elsewhere, what would be the harm?

On the subject of Janeway’s decidedly conservative approach to the challenge posed by these three officers, it should be noted that Good Shepherd also includes a rather mean-spirited dismissal of “affirmative action” policies at Starfleet Academy. Insisting that she is dangerously underqualified for the mission, Celes confesses to Janeway, “The conflict on Bajor worked in my favour. The Federation was so eager to have Bajorans in Starfleet that my instructors gave me the benefit of the doubt. So did you, when you accepted my application.”

No. Really. Voyager actually included a pot-shot at “affirmative action hires.” This freakin’ show, sometimes.

That aside is one of the most callous and cynical pieces of Star Trek ever written, very in line with some of the show’s more reactionary impulses as demonstrated in other episodes; the handling of immigration anxieties in Displaced or the paranoia about scheming refugees in Day of Honour. Indeed, the throwaway reference to affirmative action in Good Shepherd is very much of a piece with Voyager‘s long-standing tradition of awkward racial politics, dating back to early Kazon-centric episodes like Initiations or Alliances.

The ugliness of that line is compounded by placing it in the mouth of a Bajoran character. Ensign Ro established the Bajorans as analogous to refugee populations and dispossessed minorities, especially the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust. This metaphor has been deepened and expanded by bother Deep Space Nine and by Voyager, in episodes like Duet or Nothing Human. There is something inherently distasteful in Celes’ implication, and Janeway’s refusal to contradict it, that she got a free ride because of the mass murder of her own people at the hands of the Cardassians.

Letting the matter lie.

The use of a Bajoran character to make this point about affirmative action is distasteful for other reasons as well. Racial politics are always messy and awkward, but it should be noted that the Jewish population within the United States has a strained relationship with the policy of affirmative action. It has been argued that Jewish Americans are among the minorities that has been actively disadvantaged by the policy, as so the metaphor at the heart of this broad aside feels especially clumsy and ill-judged.

(There is already something uncomfortable in the way that Celes seems to have changed her name in order to better integrate. Traditionally, the Bajoran family name precedes the personal name. However, Good Shepherd makes it clear that “Tal” is the character’s personal name and that “Celes” is her family name. Ro Laren acknowledged this compromise in Ensign Ro, telling Picard, “Most Bajora these days accept the distortion of their names in order to assimilate.” Celes seems to have some internalised identity issues that Good Shepherd never confronts.)

Working undercover.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, “affirmative action” was seen as something confrontational; it was a battle in the contemporary culture wars. As Jennifer Hochschild argued, the public debate was highly charged:

Why have advocates on all sides of the debate over American racial policy seized on affirmative action rather than, for example, wage discrimination or the quality of schooling in inner cities as the battleground for deciding what race means in the United States today? After all, affirmative action neither affects many whites nor comes close to solving the deepest problems of African Americans. So why is it “the highest pole in the storm”? Partly because opposition to affirmative action is one of the few remaining respectable vehicles for seeking to maintain white domination. No public figure can any longer argue, as one could fifty years ago, in favor of lesser schooling for black children or different wages for the same work based on one’s gender and race. In that sense, “ascriptive Americanism” lost the public debate to liberalism in the last third of the twentieth century. But even if part of one’s motivation is to resist black competitive success, one can oppose affirmative action in the name of values that all Americans publicly claim to share.

It is no surprise that Good Shepherd should include such a casual broadside against perceived “affirmative action”, given the general tone of the episode around it.

Trying the tricorder.

Still, the biggest issues with Good Shepherd have nothing to do with the episode’s muddled politics and outlook. The script is clumsy and awkward. It is an episode that introduces three new characters, and tries to give them an arc within the forty-five minute episode of television. This is no small task, particularly while delivering on all the demands of a regularly plotted episode, and while also casting three new actors and hoping that they have the talent and chemistry to make the script work.

Good Shepherd suffers from a number of problems related to the challenge that it sets itself. The dialogue is terrible, with characters bluntly providing exposition about themselves rather than illuminating character through dialogue. Harren is established as nerdy and prickly, but constantly reasserts that fact with terrible lines like, “Nothing disagrees with me more than having to put theories into practical use, but there’s no choice, so pay attention to what we’re doing here.”

Underwood under pressure.

None of the characters within Good Shepherd behave like real people. Consider the big argument between Tefler and Harren, which is implied to have later inspired Harren to risk his life for the Delta Flyer. “Don’t you ever get lonely down there?” Tefer challenges Harren. “In the company of my own thoughts?” Harren responds. “Never.” Tefler counters, “I don’t believe that. Spend some time with us when we get back. You might enjoy yourself.” Herren dismisses the idea, “A hypothesis that would require testing.” This is really terrible writing and characterisation.

The casting of the episode is similarly underwhelming. Good Shepherd casts a number of recognisable faces, but none that make any real impression. Jay Underwood was a teen actor who made an impression in films like The Boy Who Could Fly before finding himself starring in Roger Corman’s unreleased Fantastic Four film. Zoe McLellan would enjoy a distinguished career after her work on Voyager, appearing as a regular on both J.A.G. and N.C.I.S.: New Orleans. She would even star with Scott Bakula in the latter. However, she makes little impression here.

Rage within the machine.

Indeed, the most notable guest star in Good Shepherd is Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who has a small cameo interacting with Janeway early in the episode:

I’m a huge fan of Star Trek, and through knowing one or two people, got the chance to appear in one episode of Star Trek: Voyager [playing a crewman], and was a bad guy in the film Star Trek: Insurrection. I did have some lines in the former, but none in the latter. In fact, if you didn’t know I was in it, then you’d miss me. I was so heavily made up. Am I serious about acting? Not really. My criteria are: is it Star Trek, or do I know someone involved? The actor Vince Vaughn is a friend of mine, which is how I got a part in the movie Made. I would never audition for a role.

Morello makes a worth addition to the annals of surreal Voyager guest stars, alongside Joel Ransom, the Rock, Jason Alexander and John Savage. However, it speaks to the episode that his presence is the most memorable.

Rest assured.

It should be noted that Good Shepherd is one of several sixth season episodes of Voyager to be built around a character outside of the primarily cast. This represents a conscious shift away from the storytelling ethos that Michael Piller established in the third season of The Next Generation, insisting that every episode should tell the audience something interesting about one of the primary cast. The sixth season of Voyager regularly focuses on guest stars; Barclay in Pathfinder, Lyndsay Ballard in Ashes to Ashes, the trio in Good Shepherd.

Of course, it is entirely possible to build convincing and exciting narratives around one-shot guest characters. Whispers is a fantastic piece of television, despite being a story about a botched duplicate of Miles Edward O’Brien. Course: Oblivion is one of the best episodes that Voyager ever produced, despite focusing on facsimiles of the primary cast. That said, it should be noted that these episodes were all canny enough to use established leads, trusting the regular cast to carry the premise.

A rocky road to redemption.

Good Shepherd tries to compensate for the challenge of creating and casting three new characters by shifting the narrative weight on to Janeway. The episode is structured as an episode about Janeway trying to connect with these officers under her command; to instill in them a sense of duty and obligation, whether they want to or not. This is a smart choice, given that Mulgrew is one of the best performers in the cast, and she tends work well when channelling frustration or anger. The scene between Janeway and Harren actually works remarkably well.

However, the decision to focus the episode on Janeway also undercuts the story being told. Good Shepherd opens with Seven of Nine holding the crew to account for failing these three young officers. By all accounts, the story should be about the crew helping those three characters to integrate and to feel comfortable. The journey needs to belong to those three characters. As Chakotay points out, there are no stakes for the primary cast in this story. The only stakes that matter are for Harren, Tefler and Celes.

Yep, we read the script as well.

The emphasis on Janeway undercuts this dynamic. Suddenly, Good Shepherd is not a story about three young officers finding a common purpose, it is instead a story about how awesome Janeway is for taking the time to notice three of the “little people.” Any episode focusing on characters forgotten or overlooked by the primary cast would, by its nature, cast those characters in an unflattering light; Riker comes across as a bit of a jerk in Lower Decks, to pick one example. However, Good Shepherd seems to accept this unflattering portrayal of Janeway, and still makes it her story.

Harren, Tefler and Celes might be wrestling with their own existential anxieties, but Good Shepherd makes it clear that they are merely vehicles for Janeway’s heroic arc. At the climax of the episode, they all refuse her order to abandon ship and to leave her to die. “We might not have contributed much on Voyager, but what we do here matters,” Celes states. “We’re the crew here, and the crew does not abandon its Captain.” It seems like Janeway’s mission is successful once these characters are willing to flatter her ego by denying her heroic sacrifice to protect them.

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make me feel good about not knowing your names.”

This ignores the fact that Janeway’s big redemption should be to sacrifice herself for these crew members. The entire plot is based around the assumption that Janeway has failed and neglected these three individuals over the course of the six-year mission. In her effort to remedy that situation, Janeway then enlisted them in a mission in which none of them wanted to partake, which inevitably placed their lives in danger. By the metrics provided by Good Shepherd, Janeway is a terrible commanding officer. Her self-sacrifice is her only real shot at redemption.

Instead, Janeway is presented as a hero for visiting the lower decks of the ship, which have never appeared on screen before and look like Jefferies Tubes that are tall enough that people might walk through them. This just invites the audience to wonder about how many people have been toiling in these industrialised surroundings for the past six years, never acknowledged or discussed. Indeed, the ship even seems to have magically grown a window at its base in order to allow for the shot that closes the teaser; for the rest of journey, these people toiled in darkness.

“Mission accomplished.”

These problems are compounded by the fact that the audience knows that it is highly unlikely to see any of these characters again. It is a pleasant surprise when Tal Celes shows up in The Haunting of Deck Twelve, but the audience understands that the outcome of Good Shepherd will have no long-term impact. Janeway ignored these three characters for six years, and will go back to ignoring them for the remaining year of their voyage home. This is deeply unsatisfying, narratively speaking.

The implication that Good Shepherd is ultimately about vindicating and saluting Janeway is cemented in the closing scene with Chakotay, when the episode’s arc is neatly framed in her terms. “What happened?” Chakotay asks. “The good shepherd went after some lost sheep, and ran into a wolf,” Janeway answers. “Did she find them?” Chakotay inquires. “I think she did,” Janeway smiles. The sequence is very telling. The closing shot is on Janeway and Chakotay, rather than on the three officers that Janeway endangered on her quest for self-actualisation.

“Oh, you’re the affirmative action hire, then?”

Good Shepherd suffers somewhat from the generic nature of the threat of the week. Like Voyager episodes like The Swarm or Real Life, there is a sense that the character-driven primary plot is not enough to sustain audience interest in the story. As a result, the episode is given a vaguely-defined pseudo-scientific threat against which the crew might rally and offer reassuring technobabble. In this case, there is a bunch of strange stuff that happens involving “dark matter”, which is hazily explained and articulated.

It is never made entirely clear what is happening. A strange creature attacks the ship, embeds itself in Tefler, then crawls out of him and tries to hack into the environmental controls of the ship. This prompts a disagreement between Harren and Janeway about the creature’s intent. “It’s tapping into our systems,” Harren observes. “Wait,” Janeway responds. “It may be trying to communicate.” Harren panics, “It’s into our environmental controls. We’ve got to stop it.” Harren then draws a phaser and vapourises the creature.

“It may be trying to communicate.”
“Sir, it’s tapping into the nineteen nineties music selections.”
“Kill it now.”

This is an interesting beat for a number of reasons. Most notably, the episode makes it unclear whether Harren or Janeway is correct. The broad humanism of the Star Trek franchise suggests that Janeway is entirely correct, but it is hard to fault Harren for reacting defensively. This is a creature that hijacked Tefler’s body without his consent and was trying to change the environmental conditions within the shuttle. Even if it was just trying to create an environment more hospitable to itself, there was little evidence that it would have given a second though to the shuttle crew’s reaction to that environment.

More to the point, Harren is explicitly an inexperienced officer. He has never been on an away mission. He has likely never had a direct encounter with many of the strange aliens that Janeway encounters on an almost daily basis. His reaction to the situation is panicked and insubordinate, but it is worth noting that he himself made the point that he was not suited to this environment and that he didn’t want to go on this away mission. His murder of the creature is at least partially Janeway’s responsibility, despite her moral indignation at the act.

A pilot scheme.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Janeway self-righteously demands, avoiding the question of why she assembled an unqualified and resistant crew for an away mission that would isolate them from the ship for an extended period of time. “It was trying to kill us,” Harren responds. Janeway insists, “You don’t know that.” Of course, the audience understands that Janeway is likely correct in this situation. Not based on any empirical evidence, but simply on the narrative laws that govern the Star Trek universe. It seems unfair to hold Harren account for failing to realise what narrative into which he has been drafted.

Good Shepherd intentionally leaves the details of the creature vague, although it is implied that the attack on the shuttle at the climax is a direct response to Harren’s murder of the creature, as much as cause and effect can be determined from the events depicted on screen. Nevertheless, Janeway manages to evade the now-explicitly-hostile aliens and save her crew, the shuttle recovered by Voyager while floating dead in space. When Chakotay inquires as to what happened, Janeway responds in metaphor, likening the creature to the “wolf” menacing a flock of sheep.

Tefler gets it in the neck.

Perhaps reflecting Joe Menosky’s credit on the finished teleplay, Good Shepherd suggests that the aliens might be best explained as an allegory. Despite Seven of Nine’s early assertion that “religious metaphors are irrelevant”, the script is couched in them. Janeway explicitly references the story as told in The Gospel According to John, while the title is an allusion to the version of the tale found in The Book of Psalms. While Voyager was never as explicitly religious as Deep Space Nine, the series did occasionally draw in Christian archetypes, particularly in Janeway-centric stories like Coda.

Interestingly, Tefler’s experience with the creatures could be seen as something approaching a demonic experience. “It was dark,” he explains of his abduction. “God, I could feel breathing all around me.” The use of the word “God” is quite pointed, given how rarely it is used colloquially in Star Trek dialogue. “I couldn’t see,” he continues. “I tried to say something, but there wasn’t enough air. I tried to move, but something was pressing down on me.” While this might also evoke the alien abduction experience explored in Schisms, it does have a slight religious connotations.

“This would be a great time to float some ideas.”

Indeed, Tefler’s interaction with the creature could be said to resemble demonic possession. At one point, the creature starts manipulating his body like puppet. “It’s activating my motor neurons,” he warns his crew mates. “I can’t make it stop.” Shortly after this point, the creature “births” itself from his neck. It looks like a grotesque worm or a severed tentacle. It is something from a horror movie, very much of a piece with other computer-generated aliens on Voyager like the giant viral agents in Macrocosm.

Ultimately, the nature and intent of these creatures remains a mystery that is never explained or articulated. This is an interesting development, particularly as it foreshadows the direction that Brannon Braga would take the franchise during the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise. In early episodes like Fight or Flight and Silent Enemy, the series places an emphasis on the unknowable horror of the cosmos. The unexplained alien menace in Good Shepherd could be seen as something of a forerunner of this later approach, albeit one not yet amplified by the War on Terror.

Good Shepherd is an interesting premise, squandered on an underwhelming and unfocused script.

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