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Star Trek: Voyager – Live Fast and Prosper (Review)

Live Fast and Prosper is a reasonably adequate mid-tier episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

It is not awful. It has an interesting premise, with some interesting potential for development and exploration. It fits with some of the larger fascinations of Voyager – in particularly recurring themes of identity and narrative, and the intersection of the two. More than that, unlike a lot of Voyager episodes, it has a story that feels somewhat original. This is not a dull rehash of a familiar story, a shiny new exterior hastily assembled over a familiar storytelling engine.

“Get this… whatever it is… to Sickbay!”

At the same time, it is also not very good of itself. Although Live Fast and Prosper has an absolutely ingenious premise, it never seems to push itself beyond that point. It never makes the leap that the best stories make, from an interesting premise into a satisfying execution. Live Fast and Prosper is pretty much exactly the episode that every audience member would anticipate given the one-line plot description of “Voyager encounters a group of con artists who have been impersonating them for shady business deals.”

The result is an hour of television that is solid, if not impressive. Live Fast and Prosper feels like a middling delivery on a fantastic promise, to the point where its status as merely adequate is almost as severe a disappointment as some of the spectacular misfires around it.

Unfamiliar faces…

Live Fast and Prosper essentially takes a very simple story premise and hits all of the expected marks. It is debatable as to whether this represents an improvement on the problems that dogged Voyager in its middle seasons, when episodes like Alter Ego, Worst Case Scenario and Demon often felt like three or four different one-line story pitches frantically crammed together into a single episode so that the writers wouldn’t have to develop them individually.

The audience’s mileage may vary. Live Fast and Prosper is a story developed from a single clever idea, delivered in a straightforward manner without any real depth. Alter Ego, Worst Case Scenario and Demon are episodes constructed from a variety of wildly different and interesting premises, often thrown together frantically in order to pad out the runtime. Which approach is better? Live Fast and Prosper is more satisfying as a whole, but is sedate to the point that it might be comatose. Alter Ego, Worst Case Scenario and Demon are chaotic, but at least maintain momentum.

Pros and cons.

Despite being a story focusing on a group of con artists, Live Fast and Prosper moves very much in a straight line from beginning to end. There isn’t even an arc; the episode takes the shortest and most direct path from its opening scene to its denouement. There are no complications, there are no surprises, there are no unexpected reversals. Everything goes exactly according to plan. Although Live Fast and Prosper follows the familiar con artist movie trick of concealing the final con from the audience, the game is so obvious that the audience can pick it up as it unfolds.

This is frustrating. This is partially because the best stories about con artists position themselves as elaborate games with the audience, a battle of wits that is immensely satisfying when played on fair terms. However, this is also frustrating because there are any number of points in the story when Live Fast or Prosper might have branched out to follow an unconventional path, there are several points at which the characters take massive risks with huge potential downsides, but the story ensures that all of these gambits pay off.

The Voyager crew haven’t a prayer.

This is perhaps most obvious in the final con, in which Janeway cunningly conspires to have Dala escape from custody and lead the ship to all of her ill-gotten gains. This is a logical plot beat in any con artist movie, when the hustled becomes the hustler, when the heroes manage to defeat a previously canny opponent at their own game. However, the best twists on this familiar storybeat manage to stay several steps ahead of the audience, or at least find a way to keep pace with the more genre-savvy viewers.

Live Fast and Prosper is not nearly as quick on its feet as it believes itself to be. Janeway’s clever final con involves several elaborate ruses: Neelix tricks Dala into thinking that she has escaped from the ship, hijacking the Delta Flyer; Tom Paris hides in the Delta Flyer, while Dala flies it to a rendezvous with her crew; the EMH then impersonates Dala while the con artists collect their loot. These are all very risky steps in a complicated masterplan, and there are any number of points where the plan might go off the rails if Dala and her crew don’t act exactly as Janeway expects.

Hand shake down.

When Dala steals the phaser off Neelix, what if she were to set it to “kill” rather than “stun”? When Dala escapes the ship, what if she uses any method other than the Delta Flyer, like another shuttle craft? When the EMH manages to impersonate Dala, what happens if her crew get suspicious? How does the EMH know enough about Mobar and Zar to play along without giving the game away? There’s a sense that Live Fast and Prosper would work better by allowing the audience in on Janeway’s con, and ratcheting up suspense as it goes along.

After all, it is not as though Janeway’s elaborate shell-game should fool any audience with any sense of genre savvy. Any casual audience member who has ever watched Voyager before should find it odd that Neelix is wearing a phaser when he visits Dala in the brig, because guests in that section of the ship (and particularly Neelix) are rarely armed; the only reason that Neelix has a phaser is so that Dala can steal it from him. Even if “the mark hustles the con artist” wasn’t an expected development in stories like this, the game is up from that introductory scene.

Taking his (Nee)lix.

Similarly, Dala’s escape from the ship is painted in such broad terms that it is either terrible writing or an obvious dramatic misdirect. (Then again, Voyager is arguably the weakest written show in the franchise, so either possibility is on the table.) The sequence is over incredibly quickly, with no effort to build tension and no sense of how the protagonists are reacting to the escape. Even the shot before the act break, with Tuvok informing Janeway that Dala has escaped, is awkward stunted and cropped so as to preserve a painfully obvious reveal that this is Janeway’s plan.

There is something very lazy in the scripting of Live Fast and Prosper, even reflected in the small subplot focusing on Tom Paris and Neelix. The two characters who were initially conned by Dala have an extended conversation about whether they lost their “edge” before being humiliated by the EMH to reinforce the point. They both go on to play major roles in Janeway’s elaborate final con. In the end, the episode suggests that the pair have reclaimed their edge, tricking the EMH with a variation of the trick that they played earlier in the episode.

The plan works well on the Fly(er).

On paper, this is a fairly clear character arc; the characters fail, the characters doubt themselves, the characters prove themselves, and the characters validate themselves. However, like everything else in Live Fast and Prosper, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Is it a bad thing that Paris and Neelix lost their “edge” when that “edge” led to episodes like Parturition or Investigations? How exactly do Paris and Neelix regain their lost edge? They are part of the elaborate con, like Tuvok and EMH, but not any more essential. Did they concoct the ruse?

In both its primary and secondary plots, Live Fast and Prosper provides a rough outline of a familiar story template, a list of beats that need to be hit. Live Fast and Prosper feels like a collection of elements assembled in such a way that they physically resemble an episode of television while sorely lacking the connective tissues that bind satisfying stories together. The audience can watch Live Fast and Prosper and intuit how this story is supposed to work, but that isn’t nearly as satisfying as seeing those elements actually click into place and work like they are supposed to.

“Well, I guess I’m done for this episode.”

Still, despite the difficulty that Live Fast and Prosper faces in cohering into a satisfying narrative, it is an intriguing episode of Voyager. Part of what is so frustrating about the mediocre execution of the premise is the waste of an interesting the core premise. Live Fast and Prosper imagines a group of opportunistic hustlers branding themselves as the crew of the USS Voyager in order to dupe alien civilisations into surrendering their wealth and their resources. “Posing as a Starfleet captain, selling memberships to the Federation,” Janeway reflects. “Too bad we didn’t think of it, Tuvok.”

In some ways, this feels like a logical extension of a recurring theme on Voyager, the idea that Janeway and her crew have become something of a mythic force within the Delta Quadrant. Voyager has been quite explicit that the Delta Quadrant is radically different than the Alpha Quadrant, that its power structures are distinct and uncanny. The region is populated by hunters and scavengers, by capitalists and predators. There is nothing like the Federation or Starfleet in this section of the galaxy, which makes the lost ship an object of fascination and interest.

Oh geez, it’s the Feds!

Unsurprisingly, writer Joe Menosky has been majorly engaged with this big recurring theme; even before working on Voyager, Menosky dealt with the idea of myth and story in episodes like Darmok and Masks. It was Menosky who slipped the idea of Voyager-as-legend into the closing scenes of False Profits, and who reiterated it in the Voth’s pursuit of the ship in Distant Origin. Voyager was a historical scapegoat in Living Witness, something to reach towards in Blink of an Eye, and a source of stories in Muse.

Live Fast and Prosper was not written by Menosky, but it fits within that framework. Dala recognises the power of Voyager as a story, and seek to profit from that tale; like those manufactures of the “Sky Ship Friends” in Blink of an Eye. Dala does not even set foot on Voyager itself until mid-way through the episode. Instead, she is able to construct an appealing and infectious myth largely from stories told by Neelix over a meal in the Delta Flyer; she even repeats his stories at various points, referencing “the farm in Indiana” or defeating “the Borg, the Hirogen, Species 8472.”

Gotta have faith…

In her own way, Dala is contributing to a Delta Quadrant that is populated by duplicates and facsimiles of Voyager. The con artists join a long line of replacements and surrogates; the replica of San Francisco constructed by Species 8472 in In the Flesh as a direct response to the existential threat reportedly posed by Voyager, the perfect doppelgangers created by the “silver blood” in Course: Oblivion, the exact counterparts created in Deadlock. This is to say nothing of time-travelling copies in episodes like Timeless, Relativity or Endgame.

What distinguishes the con artists in Live Fast and Prosper from the other clones and copies is their relative imperfection. After all, the teaser ends on the punchline of Dala introducing herself as “Captain Kathryn Janeway” from “the Federation Starship Voyager”, with the audience not being taken in by the questionable hairstyles, the obviously out-of-place forehead ridges, the not-quite-right uniforms. Compared to previous impersonators, Dala and her crew leave a lot to be desired; they are obviously frauds and fakes.

Make way for Janeway.

As actor Kaitlin Hopkins explained to Cinefantastique, there is a very conscious and deliberate attempt to evoke the uncanny with Dala and her crew:

I play an alien in this episode who is a con artist. I pretend to be the Captain, and I pretend to be a cleric, and I pretend to be different people in different situations. I created Dala, the con artist — a little rough around the edges, petulant, edgy. I impersonate Captain Janeway to the best of Data’s ability, based on what she knows. Some of it is accurate, some of it is a little off, a little wrong, which is I think kind of funny. [Dala has] never actually met [Janeway]; it can’t be too accurate an impersonation: My communicator is too big; the outfit is not exactly the same; and the wig is not quite right. I am piecing together bits of information and data — it’s sort of an odd approximation of Captain Janeway.

There is some small irony in casting Hopkins, who previously guest starred on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as one of the first Vorta to be influenced by Jeffrey Comb’s portrayal of Weyoun.

Double trouble.

Dala and her crew are a cheap imitation and substitute. They are a crass approximation of Janeway and her crew. “Most of your technology is outdated,” Varn reflects on touring the heap of junk that Dala has rebranded as her own “Delta Flyer.” Later on, Varn is somewhat underwhelmed with the advanced Federation technology provided by Dala and her crew. “The photon torpedoes you gave me are worthless. No better than plasma flares.”

It is perhaps telling that Dala treats the idea of the Federation as an opportunity for franchising rather than as some lofty ideal. She extorts money from local ships in order claim membership, and those members even occasionally find themselves in competition with one another. “In the middle of the battle, the Polonians warned me to cease hostilities or face destruction at the hands of your Federation,” Varn protests. “You allowed my enemies to join!”

Bald lies.

All of this seems rather pointed. The sixth season of Voyager is very engaged with the idea of what it means to be Star Trek. In particularly, the season seems to be contemplating the idea of the end of the franchise. The sixth season of Voyager often seems reflective and morbid in assessing the state of the Star Trek franchise as a whole, perhaps even contemplating the long-term future of this iteration of the franchise. These dark thoughts find expression in ideas like the undead alien civilisation in Dragon’s Teeth or the undead crewmember in Ashes to Ashes.

However, there is more to this anxiety than fear of cancellation. Episodes like The Voyager Conspiracy and Pathfinder navigate the complicated relationship between Voyager and contemporary television; The Voyager Conspiracy is a truly bitter screed against the idea of serialisation, while Pathfinder appears to be consciously riffing on the basic premise of The Sopranos. Perhaps Live Fast and Prosper can be read in that light, as a reflection on where Voyager and Star Trek stood in the pop culture landscape at the turn of the millennium.

“Sci-fi? More like why-fi, am I right?”

The nineties were something of a golden era for science-fiction and fantasy television, as critic Noel Murray has argued:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files get most of the ink — and deservedly so — when it comes to any discussion of ‘90s science-fiction/fantasy television. But honestly, the geek tribe was well-served throughout the decade. Star Trek: The Next Generation hit its creative stride, produced a pair of spin-offs, and found a viable space-opera competitor in J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 (which, notably, was pitched by its creator as “a novel for television” years before critics started talking about The Sopranos that way). Syndicated television also offered Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys., while superhero fans could watch terrific animated adaptations of Batman and Superman. Add in the likes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Young Indiana Jones, Eerie, Indiana, The Powerpuff Girls, Pinky and the Brain, Liquid Television, and Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, and there was a Comic-Con’s worth of nerdy coolness on the air nearly every day.

Murray is just picking the headline examples here. Television science-fiction had never been as ubiquitous as it was during the second half of the nineties.

The gold standard.

This was a dramatic shift from popular culture as it existed in the late eighties, when Star Trek: The Next Generation had premiered. Of course, there were popular eighties science-fiction television shows; the miniseries V was an event unto itself, even if it failed to translate that cultural impact into a sustainable audience for the weekly television show that followed. The Next Generation arrived on television at a point when there were relatively few prime-time science-fiction series being produced.

It is hard to properly articulate just how big of a deal The Next Generation was in that period from the late eighties into the nineties. There is a solid and convincing argument to be made that the Star Trek franchise was at its creative, cultural and commercial peak with the seven seasons of The Next Generation. Certainly, the audience figures and cultural impact for Deep Space Nine and Voyager never came close to matching The Next Generation.

“That sure is a lot of science-fiction shows.”

The success of The Next Generation inspired a wave of imitators, as Jeffrey Sconce points out:

The success of the Star Trek series in first-run syndication reflected the changing marketplace of television in the 1980s and 1990s. As the three major networks continued to lose their audience base to the competition of independents, cable, and new networks such as FOX, Warner Brothers, and UPN, the entire industry sought out new niche markets to target in order to maintain their audiences. The Star Trek franchise’s ability to deliver quality demographics and dedicated viewership inspired a number of producers to move into science fiction during this period. These series ranged from the literate serial drama, Babylon 5, to the bizarre police burlesque of Space Precinct. Also successful in syndication were “fantasy” series such as Highlander and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

That increased interest in science-fiction was obvious while The Next Generation was on the air, but became inescapable in the years that followed.

Cracking under the pressure.

The late nineties witnessed an explosion in prime-time science-fiction storytelling. A lot of those show were transparently influenced by the success of The Next Generation. Space: Above and Beyond was in part commissioned by Fox to get the drop on a rumoured Star Trek spin-off that would be set at Starfleet Academy. Sliders was overseen for part of its run by Next Generation veteran Tracy Tormé. Two decades after the fact, Babylon 5 is still subject to rumours that it may have inspired (or been ripped off by) Deep Space Nine.

This is to say nothing of the wave of genre shows that shared similar core elements and conceptual frameworks to the Star Trek franchise; Earth-2, Lexx, Farscape, Crusader, Stargate SG-1, Earth: Final Conflict, Space Precinct, Total Recall 2070, Space Rangers, Andromeda. Very few of these shows succeeded, but they were all competing for the same audience that had tuned in religiously to watch The Next Generation.

“I mean, we’re clearly the real Star Trek. Don’t listen to what those people at Deep Space Nine have been saying.”

Indeed, one of the narratives about the relative decline of the Star Trek franchise at the dawn of the twenty-first century was that Deep Space Nine and Voyager had been forced to compete in a much more populated market place than The Next Generation, one dominated by imitators and clones. As Robert Wilonsky argued early in the sixth season:

The death, or at least the slowing, of the franchise was perhaps inevitable all these years later — especially since Next Generation and DS9 still appear in daily syndication alongside now-daily Voyager reruns. (It’s hard to tell the old episodes from the new, since they all look so much alike.) And the Sci-Fi Network, home to several Trek-alikes that have begun to diminish the franchise’s impact, reruns The Original Series every afternoon.

Star Trek, quite simply, breeds like Tribbles.

“When Star Trek was like an island unto itself, during those years when it was in reruns, there was a specialness to it,” says Tracy Tormé, a writer on Next Generation during its first two seasons and a friend of Roddenberry’s during the Star Trek creator’s final days. “It ran a couple of years, there had been a couple of movies, but there was still a uniqueness to it. The danger you run into when you have as many spinoffs and so many episodes to come down the pike, it loses its special quality. You can’t help it. There’s so much more to watch. That could be part of the problem — it’s the over-saturation.”

It wasn’t enough that Star Trek was competing with itself, with Deep Space Nine and Voyager wrestling in the shadow of their beloved elder sibling. The problem was compounded by the fact the contemporary television market was saturated by science-fiction television inspired by The Next Generation, imperfect and flawed copies of a familiar formula. How could Star Trek stand out?

What’s cup, doc?

This is perhaps the source of the anxiety articulated by Paris and Neelix in the mess hall. “Neelix, what has happened to us?” Paris wonders. “I know exactly what you mean,” Neelix agrees. “I’ve been over it a thousand times.” Paris responds, “Why didn’t we see this coming?” He continues, “I mean, if it’d been Harry, I could understand it. He trusts everybody. But you and me?” Neelix nods, “We’ve dealt with our share of shady characters.” Paris concedes, “I think maybe, maybe we’ve lost our edge.”

This crisis of identity arrives at a point where the larger Star Trek franchise is grappling with its self-image, and the question of what exactly it means to be Star Trek. Is Star Trek anything more than just a brand name? Is it a collection of signifiers and tropes, similar to those clumsily constructed uniforms and the exaggerated communications badges? Is there something that distinguishes Janeway from an impersonator like Dala?

“Don’t worry. Nemesis has a secret weapon. A cameo from me.”

To a certain extent, the franchise was awkwardly chaffing against these trappings and expectations. Star Trek: Insurrection had arguably been the most conventional Star Trek feature film of the Rick Berman era, with a script by Michael Piller that felt like an awkward two-part episode of The Next Generation and with direction by Star Trek veteran Jonathan Frakes. The box office failure of the film seemed to inspire Berman to look outside the familiar Star Trek signifiers with Star Trek: Nemesis, a film written by writers new to the franchise and directed by a stranger.

It is worth noting that Star Trek: Enterprise was in planning while Live Fast and Prosper was in production. Episodes of Voyager like One Small Step and Friendship One seem to set the stage for Enterprise. Brannon Braga has talked about feeling exhausted during the production of the sixth season of Voyager, and was only truly invigourated when he seized on the opportunity to create something that he believed would be radically different than Voyager.

Yeah, nobody wants to hear this.

Much like Nemesis, it occasionally felt like Enterprise was developed in large part to strip away a lot of those broad Star Trek signifiers. Although vetoed by the network, Braga had originally wanted the first season of Enterprise to be set on Earth. Similarly, the archetypal Star Trek time travel mumbo-jumbo “temporal cold war” was a studio dictate. Even the two words “Star Trek” were dropped from the title of Enterprise, although they were eventually added back in with Extinction.

There is a sense watching the final seasons of Voyager, the first two seasons of Enterprise and the feature film Nemesis that the production team were worried that Star Trek had been reduced to nothing more than a collection of signs and symbols that could be assembled and imitated without any identity underneath. Dala and her crew are just con artists impersonating Janeway, but what does it say about Voyager that she can gather enough information to construct a convincing approximation in the space of a few hours?

“We’ve got faith.”
“Faith of the heart.”

Of course, while this anxiety clearly bubbles to the surface in Live Fast and Prosper, it does little too excuse the role that the final seasons of Voyager, the first two seasons of Enterprise and the feature film Nemesis played in perpetuating this decline and in hollowing out the franchise. Rick Berman and, to a lesser extent, Brannon Braga still had the opportunity to do something bold and innovative with the franchise, as Ira Steven Behr had done with Deep Space Nine. While Voyager might articulate its melancholy, it does little to attack the underlying issues.

In fact, Live Fast and Prosper seems specifically structured to let Voyager prove its own worth by going toe-to-toe with one of its imitators. This wish fulfillment is a recurring theme of the sixth season; The Voyager Conspiracy seems like an angry screed against long-form storytelling, while Pathfinder seeks to completely integrate Voyager with the far more popular Next Generation. In allowing Janeway and her crew to outwit Dala, there is a sense that Live Fast and Prosper is asserting that Voyager still has the edge in contemporary television science-fiction.

You can always have Paris.

This is a little disingenuous. The art of the con in Live Fast and Prosper is clumsy and awkward. Janeway’s plot is hardly innovative or clever, relying on Dala making a number of obvious mistakes and assuming a great deal of good fortune. To the audience watching at home, Janeway does not defeat her imitator because she is smarter or more resourceful; Janeway wins the day because the script believe she should. This is perhaps an example of how the later seasons of Voyager pay lip-service to the show’s flaws and anxieties without actually confronting them in any meaningful way.

Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II seem to challenge Janeway’s moral absolutism, only to celebrate it. Collective is consciously designed to introduce a literal next generation of children on to a ship that will in theory be travelling through space for decades, but introduces the idea of children through a lazy standalone plot rather than through any organic long-form development. Good Shepherd is built around oft-neglected characters beyond the bridge crew, but ultimately exists only so those overlooked and ignored characters can validate Janeway’s sense of self-worth.

Nuts and bolts.

Nevertheless, accepting the issues and the insecurities baked in Live Fast and Prosper, there is something endearing about an episode of Voyager built around an industrious crew of con artists. From the outset, Voyager was a series that longed to recapture the pulpy aesthetic of the original Star Trek, to the point that Caretaker literalised the franchise’s space-western stylings with a Native American supporting character the horribly racist colonial archetypes of the Kazon.

Voyager has always had a trashy and pulpy side that fits better with the tone of the original Star Trek than with any of the spin-offs. It easier to imagine episodes like Tuvix, Innocence, The Thaw and Darkling as long-lost episodes of the original Star Trek than it is to picture them as stories that could have worked on The Next Generation. This is to say nothing of the retro science-fiction vibe of stories like The 37’s, Prototype or Macrocosm, let alone the communist paranoia of Cathexis or the flower-child anxieties of Cold Fire.

Talaxian Hustle.

The original Star Trek presented a universe that was more chaotic and random than any of the spin-offs that followed, a galaxy populated by rogues and monsters more than empires or alliances. In some ways, Voyager harks back the surreal adventures of the original Star Trek, a nostalgia perhaps best evoked by Janeway in Flashback. After all, Voyager is a show about journeying home, its gaze constantly fixed on the past.

(This is not to downplay the connection between Deep Space Nine and the original Star Trek, as evidenced by the use of the mirror universe in Crossover or of the three iconic Klingons in Blood Oath. The writing staff on Deep Space Nine were drawn to the tone and aesthetic of the original Star Trek, albeit in a more specific manner than the broad nostalgia of Voyager. This obvious in their thirtieth anniversary celebrations; Deep Space Nine literally edited its characters into a beloved episode, whereas Voyager bungled continuity with the last film to star the original cast.)

“Oh, Varn it all to heck!”

It is difficult to imagine The Next Generation constructing a convincing story about con artists. The world of The Next Generation was too carefully regimented and structured to tolerate such rebels. Riker’s initial characterisation as a devilish rogue was quickly downplayed after the first season, becoming a point of contention in episodes like The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, The Best of Both Worlds, Part II and Second Chances. When The Next Generation wanted to introduce a lovable rogue, the result was The Outrageous Okona.

In contrast, the original Star Trek could regularly feature outlandish rogues. Harcourt Fenton Mudd was a recurring character, appearing in Mudd’s Women and I, Mudd. More than that, the character is almost as much of a marker of the original Star Trek as Khan Noonien Singh, receiving a shout-out in Star Trek Into Darkness and becoming a recurring player in Star Trek: Discovery. The decision to build an entire episode around a bunch of failed con artists speaks to Voyager‘s pulpier side.

Enemy mine.

(Again, it should be conceded that Deep Space Nine had already done something similar. Quark was always something of a hustler. While his early reckless characterisation in episodes like Invasive Procedures would be toned down in later seasons, stories like The Ascent and The Sound of Her Voice emphasised Quark’s roguish attributes. Similarly, Deep Space Nine frequently focused on criminals and reprobates; Vortex, A Simple Investigation, Who Mourns for Morn?, Honour Among Thieves. However, the stakes tended to be higher than they are in Live Fast and Prosper.)

It is perhaps revealing that so much of Live Fast and Prosper feels like it could have been lifted from an episode of the original Star Trek. The teaser and the opening act involve Dala visiting a mining colony. Although mining colonies are a staple of the larger Star Trek franchise, they have a particularly strong association with the frontier aesthetic of the original series; The Devil in the DarkThe EmpathThe Cloud Minders. Dala subsequently claims that a “storm” is approaching her ship in orbit, more specifically recalling the opening of Mirror, Mirror.

“To be honest, the flaps on the film franchise uniforms just looked more comfortable.”

Mobar helps convince the miners of their good intentions with a story about the planet “Narva.” He explains, “The settlers on the Narva colony were exposed to toxic levels of omega radiation. The entire adult population was killed.” Dala adds, “We’re doing all we can for the children.” Although obviously a cynical lie, the story recalls the premise of the episode Miri. Interestingly enough, Miri would serve as a touchstone for Terra Nova, an early episode of Enterprise.

In some ways, the decision to build Live Fast and Prosper around a group of con artists fits with a broader cultural moment. Voyager is a series very firmly anchored in its time and its place, and Live Fast and Prosper is a tiny part of a much broader re-engagement with the concept of the con artist in millennial popular culture. The early years of the twenty-first century witnessed a boom in con-artist-related cinema; Snatch in 2000, Ocean’s Eleven, Heartbreakers, Heist, Nine Queens and 21 in 2001, Catch Me If You Can in 2002, Confidence and Matchstick Men in 2003.

The con is on.

In ‘Con me if you Can’: Exploring Crime in the American Cinematic Imagination, Rodanthi Tzanelli, Majid Yar and Martin O’Brien suggest that this engagement with the con artist speaks to a set of cultural anxieties that were very relevant during this transitional phase of American popular history:

Indeed, as Rafter suggests, crime films as a whole can be seen to make use of, exemplify and give voice to wider assumptions, concerns and anxieties about social life, social disorder and social change. One recurrent theme of the ‘con crime’ genre has been that of the individual’s perceived vulnerability in a mass, urbanised and increasingly anonymous society, a world in which competition is rife, trust is fragile and honesty is in short supply.

Voyager has engaged with these millennial anxieties before. Good Shepherd is an episode that is very firmly rooted in a broader and cultural sense of existential ennui, a story about characters who feel disconnected and overlooked in that sort of “mass, urbanised and increasingly anonymous society.”

Trust is a two Janeway street.

The idea of con artists impersonating the Voyager crew and confusing the Delta Quadrant about what is real and what is fake plays into Voyager‘s broader thematic anxieties about what is genuine and what is counterfeit. Voyager often frames these questions in more serious terms, but the crew has grappled with questions of reality in stories like Projections and Spirit Folk. As such, Live Fast and Prosper feels like a more playful extrapolation along similar themes, focusing on a Delta Quadrant that cannot be sure whether it is dealing with the real Janeway or not.

More broadly, the con artist feels very at home within the larger cosmology of the Star Trek universe. The Star Trek franchise is largely about projecting the self-image of the United States into the distant the future, imagining a science-fiction landscape informed and shaped by cultural concerns and iconography. The con artist is part of a rich American cultural tradition, and so fits neatly within that framework.

It’s a brigged game.

Critic Philip French has argued that the con artist speaks to distinctly American ideals of individualism and self-determination:

The con man isn’t unknown in European literature and popular culture – there’s Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull, Confidence Man, for instance, and the hero’s father in John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy. But from Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man through Huckleberry Finn to The Sting, he’s had a peculiar grip on the American imagination. In the US context, he’s as much a chameleon as a charlatan, as much a benefactor as a criminal, and is an extreme case of the fluidity of the national character and the freedom to recreate the self.

With that in mind, there is something reassuring in the in the way that Live Fast and Prosper finds some room for the con artist in the utopian future of the Star Trek universe.

Fake Tuvok, we salute you.

Live Fast and Prosper is a light episode. It certainly doesn’t deliver on a lot of the appeal of its core premise. Nevertheless, it is an interesting addition to the sixth season of Voyager, a season of television that seems to playing with questions of identity and integrity that lend themselves to a story like this.

5 Responses

  1. Wasn’t the con men’s ship the recycled and modified set of the Defiant bridge? Sad to see its last breath here…

    Other than that I have very warm feelings for this show which must be lauded for its funny premise and its rather routinely done execuction. I liked the dialogue of Neelix with the fake Janeway in the arrest cell, though it is not clear if he meant it seriously that it is effectively easy to be a saint in Voyager-like paradise.

    The trick in the end to let her escape using a phaser seemed a little unethical, am I wrong?

  2. Neelix’s stove seems to be the second most disfunctional piece of technology on the ship, next to the holodeck. My stove is literally more advanced and reliable. There have been too many plots centering on techno-babble problems with Neelix’s kitchen, which should a place with tech at the level of a boot or fork for the world of Star Trek Voyager.

    I actually kind of liked the dynamic between Paris and Neelix in this episode. They seem like natural allies, both having shady backgrounds and lives outside of Starfleet, but also enjoying the softer more secure lives they have now. The bond they have in this episode works much more than having them fight over a 3-year-old girlfriend in the first few seasons.

    I enjoyed how the fake Tuvok seemed to almost lose himself in his role, to the point he begins to make suggestions that actually align with Federation and Vulcan morality. It would have been fun to have him repent and become the real Tuvok’s student or something. Sadly, he breaks away from those impulses and tries to shoot his icon. So, I guess his enthusiasm was just for ‘comedy’. It seems like a wasted opportunity.

    • “I actually kind of liked the dynamic between Paris and Neelix in this episode”

      I think the single biggest thing that could have helped this episode was inserting a scene of Paris and Neelix strategizing on how to run a counter-con. Not revealing too much except that they havea plan, and hint that the Doctor and the captain and bridge would all have to be “in” on it.

      They must have thought that such a scene was too cliche. But the whole resolution of the plot was, as the review points out, a cliche (of con-artist films).

      The way they did it, allowing the audience to think the imposter-Janeway had so conveniently easily overpowered security, so easily hijacked a shuttle, and (this one beyond any belief) easily escaped without the bridge lifting a finger, it all felt too contrived — unless it was a con. Which it was. But the audience didn’t know it was a con, yet, and most I assume just thought the escape a groan-worthy plot device.

      If the episode had beefed up the con-man-tagteam between Paris and Neelix and allowed the B Plot to merge with the A Plot *in full view of the audience* (via a “let’s figure out how to con the con-artists” scene), I think it would’ve been more effective.

  3. Surprised to see no mention that this was directed by Lavar Burton.

    (But there is a tangential reference to a Star Trek movie directed by Jonathan Frakes.)

    The review sees problems in this episode and blames the script, but some of the tangible criticisms seem attributable to direction choices.

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