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Star Trek: Voyager – Muse (Review)

In its own way, Muse marks the end of an era for Star Trek: Voyager, as Joe Menosky’s last solo script for the series.

To be fair, this is not Menosky’s last script credit on the series. Menosky would collaborate with Brannon Braga on the season-bridging two-parter Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II. In fact, those episodes have themes that play directly into Menosky’s interests; the two-parter is a story about dreams and narratives, about worlds that exist beyond the literal and the concrete. More than that, Menosky would work on the writing staff of Star Trek: Discovery, contributing the script to Lethe, one of the season’s stand-out episodes that was also about narratives – albeit internalised ones.

Dropping the mask.

However, Muse still feels like it marks the end of an era. Menosky had been a fixture of the Berman era of Star Trek dating back to the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, making his debut with Legacy and arguably making his biggest impression with Darmok early the following season. Menosky’s involvement with the franchise ebbed and flowed in the intervening years, but his influence was often felt. Indeed, Menosky even contributed a handful of scripts and stories to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, including the teleplay for the underrated Dramatis Personae.

With Menosky’s departure from Voyager at the end of the sixth season, Brannon Braga would become the longest-serving writer working on the Star Trek franchise. His tenure on the television franchise would surpass that of Ronald D. Moore, and of any writer who hadn’t spanned the gap from the end of the original Star Trek to the early seasons of The Next Generation, with the arguable exception of producer Rick Berman. As such, Muse feels very much like the end of an era. It marks the departure of one of the guiding light of the Star Trek franchise, albeit one often overlooked or ignored.

Storyteller.

Muse is an episode that speaks to Menosky’s key interests within the Star Trek franchise, the idea of Star Trek as something akin to a modern mythology. More than any other writer on Star Trek, Menosky is invested in stories that are fundamentally about stories. His influence on Voyager is more subtle than that of Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor or Brannon Braga, but can felt in the recurring idea that Voyager itself is a Delta Quadrant myth. More than any of the other Star Trek series, Voyager feels like it is a story about a collection of archetypes rather than characters.

Menosky first articulated this idea in the closing scene of his otherwise forgettable script for False Profits, but reinforced it in episodes like Distant Origin, Living Witness and Blink of an Eye. It could reasonably be argued that this idea became part of the show’s identity, to the point that it can even be traced through episodes not explicitly credited to Menosky, like Live Fast and Prosper. It seems appropriate that this idea should serve as the central theme of Muse, an episode that might be read as a thesis statement on Menosky’s approach to the franchise.

Acting out.

Menosky’s departure was a big deal. The writer had been a fixture of the franchise for the better part of a decade, and his work had been hugely influential. In particular, writer Bryan Fuller articulated this sense of loss to Cinefantastique:

He’s just such an amazing guy, and such a prolific writer, in a way that no one else is on the staff. He has such a wide range of talent. It’s going to be difficult to go on without him, but we will.

Fuller has described Menosky as “a mentor” to him, and it’s telling that Fuller brought Menosky back as the only other veteran Star Trek writer to work on Discovery. (In this light, it may also be revealing that Menosky departed Discovery shortly after Fuller left.)

Restaging a familiar story.

Menosky has been a major influence on Voyager, shaping a lot of what the show became from its third season onwards. This is perhaps most obvious in his contributions as Brannon Braga’s writing partner on the epic sweeping two-parters like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II or Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. Menosky is a writer whose interests and whose style informs Voyager as a television show, almost as much as those of showrunner Brannon Braga.

To be fair, there might be some criticisms that can be made of Menosky’s influence. Menosky’s interest in myth and archetypes might have contributed to the very broad quality of Voyager, the show’s lack of specificity when it comes to character and narrative. Both Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga consciously pushed Voyager towards a generic and vague “Star-Trek-ness” in contrast to the more distinct flavour of Deep Space Nine. Menosky’s recurring interest in writing stories that are fundamentally about what it is to be Star Trek may have contributed to Voyager‘s lack of a unique identity within the Star Trek canon.

Performing per forma.

At the same time, Menosky did help to provide Voyager with an identity. The blockbuster storytelling obvious in his collaborations with Braga (in episodes like Timeless and Dragon’s Teeth) was part of what distinguished Voyager from The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. More than that, Menosky was one of the series’ strongest writer on its core themes of identity and history; Remember, Latent Image, 11:59. That identity was more abstract and less pronounced than the identity of Deep Space Nine, but Menosky was one of its key architects.

As such, it makes sense that Menosky should be given the opportunity to write what amounts to a closing statement before departing, providing a summary of how he approached the series (and the larger franchise) before taking his bow. After all, Michael Piller has talked about how he intended for Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II to serve as his own appeal for a “back to basics” approach on Voyager. As Deep Space Nine was winding down, Ronald D. Moore used Tacking into the Wind (his last solo script credit) as an opportunity to wrap up threads in his writing reaching back to Sins of the Father, one of his first scripts.

Meanwhile, on Voyager…

Muse feels like an epilogue to Menosky’s work with the franchise, a fond farewell from one of its most influential voices, closing the book on his time working with the Berman era of the franchise. Muse is a story about mythology and stories, a meditation upon the art of writing, a reflection on what it means to actually write for Star Trek. There is something endearingly philosophical about the episode, which feels much more lyrical and abstract than Voyager is often allowed to be.

To be fair, Muse has its share of problems. The episode suffers from a number of structural issues that hinder the development of its core ideas. This is most obvious with the addition of a subplot that seems to exist both to extend the episode runtime and to give the bulk of the primary cast something to do. This is not a problem unique to Muse. Even in its most experimental season, Deep Space Nine often struggled with pacing episodes like Honour Among Thieves or Change of Heart due to the need to include scenes focusing on the show’s credited leads in stories that might have benefited from a tighter focus.

This sort of storytelling is not everyone’s cup of tea.

More than that, Voyager has generally been a narratively conservative show. One of the show’s big recurring fears is the idea that a view might stumble on an episode of Voyager and not immediately know that they are watching an episode of Star Trek. Many of the more experimental episodes like Voyager are undercut by a need to conform to formula and to provide subplots that reinforce the archetypal “Star-Trek-ness” of the story being told; the intimate story about memory in The Swarm is intercut with a story about an alien menace, the family drama of Real Life is grafted on to an “anomaly of the week” plot.

There is an element of that to the sequences set on board Voyager in Muse. It often feels like the episode might have worked a lot better had the production team decided to keep the focus on Torres on the planet surface; indeed, a braver episode would have been told entirely from Kelis’ perspective, with Torres disappearing at the end into the the ether. However, even accepting that there was simply no way that Voyager could construct a story featuring only one (or even two) of its credited leads on only one (heavily altered) standing set, the ship-based subplot feels like a spectacular miscalculation.

The Laughing Vulcan.

Torres and Kim have been lost. Voyager is unable to find them. The crew is working around the clock. There is every possibility that they are dead. Paris is snapping angrily at Janeway in meetings, threatening to take out a shuttle by himself to look for his lost lover and best friend. All of this makes a certain amount of sense. However, none of this accounts for the decision to build an entire subplot about the fact that Tuvok is very tired, culminating in a sequence where Paris playfully teases him about the fact, apparently having forgotten that Torres and Kim may be lost forever.

There is something incredibly tone deaf in the execution of the subplot. Of course Tuvok is exhausted; he has been working around the clock. However, this seems a strange focus for a story like Muse. Most obviously, Tuvok has most likely been through situations like this before; when Seven of Nine was abducted by the Borg Queen in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, when Chakotay was lost in Nemesis, when Paris and Kim were arrested in The Chute, when Paris and Torres were captured by the Vidiians in Faces. Why is this situation different?

Staging a revolution.

However, accepting that this situation might somehow be a special case, and that Tuvok has been pushing himself beyond his limits to recover Torres and Kim, how is this a comedy subplot? Surely every other member of the senior staff should pushing themselves to their limits as well? Episodes like Resistance, Alter Ego and Juggernaut have suggested that Tuvok was a mentor to both Kim and Torres, but he is neither character’s strongest relationship on Voyager. Why isn’t Janeway also exhausted? Why isn’t Paris pushing himself to the brink? More than that, why is Paris mocking Tuvok for pushing himself to exhaustion?

Still, accepting that the subplot within Muse is a spectacular misfire, the episode still has a lot to offer. Although it is not Menosky’s last work on either the Star Trek franchise or even on Voyager itself, it does feel like a script the puts a cap on a lot of the writer’s recurring themes and ideas. It is a story about stories, opening with the familiar expository log entry as delivered by a greek chorus and developing into an adaptation of a disastrous away mission performed in an alien amphitheater. Naturally, this is not just a story; it is a fictionalised account of the poet’s encounter with Torres in the woods.

“We are not a-muse-d.”

Fuller explained the mechanics of the episode to Cinefantastique, confessing that Muse was in many ways an episode about Star Trek:

The episode that Joe wrote called Muse is a Torres story, and it is just absolutely delightful. It’s kind of our version of Shakespeare in Love. It’s one of my favorite episodes of the season, because it is so rich. It is all about Star Trek storytelling, and you get to see B’Elanna in a new light.

Fuller is entirely correct. Muse is unashamedly about the art of writing for Star Trek.

Kelis in Love.

As an aside, it is interesting that Fuller compares Muse to Shakespeare in Love. John Madden’s playful postmodern historical romantic comedy had become a surprise hit in 1998, winning the Best Picture Oscar ahead of Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. It was a potent cultural force. This would not be the only time that Voyager borrowed heavily from contemporaneous cinema. While Deep Space Nine preferred to nod towards classic Hollywood, Voyager tended to have a more modern sensibility; Vis à Vis riffed on Face/Off, Prey prefigured Alien vs. Predator, Random Thoughts recalled Strange Days.

The choice of Torres as a focal character is also interesting. In some ways, it demonstrates Menosky’s tendency towards writing archetypes as much as characters, to the point that it is easy enough to imagine a version of Muse that would work just as well as Chakotay or Kim in the lead role. Chakotay and Kim are the show’s Swiss Army Characters, after all. They are the most hazily defined characters on a show populated by hazily defined characters, often the first choices to be slotted into episodes without strong specific character hooks; UnforgettableThe Fight, One Small Step, Ashes to Ashes.

Those sorts of stories don’t phaser in the slightest.

Muse affords Rosario Dawson something more than the stock “Torres wrestles with her emotions, specifically anger” or “Torres wrestles with her Klingon heritage” stories that arrive almost once-a-season; Faces, Dreadnought, Blood Fever, Day of Honour, Extreme Risk, Juggernaut, Barge of the Dead. The use of Torres in Muse is charming. She gradually warms towards Kelis, allowing herself to be seduced by his enthusiasm. There’s a nice character arc there, a journey from aggressive opposition, to grudging partnership, to genuine concern. When she eventually smiles at him, and when she later intervenes on his behalf, it feel earned.

However, despite the charming (if archetypal and broad) character arc, Muse works best as a metaphorical meditation on the nature of storytelling. This is most obvious in the fact that the episode is literally about a storytelling producing work for an audience, with Kelis repurposing the logs of the crashed Delta Flyer to inspire his own writing, and how that writing evolves from a direct translation at the start of the episode to bolder fan fiction featuring the insane twist that Seven of Nine is really “Queen of the Borg.”

Borg on board.

It should be noted that Kelis is effectively engaging in the art of fan fiction here, translating premises and archetypes from one setting to another. After all, in the modern world, “coffee shop fic” is a specific subgenre of fan fiction which imagines iconic characters in the setting of a coffee shop. It is the process of taking recognisable elements of a story making them unique, as Charlotte Geater argues:

We see people in comics, and in films, and everywhere. We all wrestle with feelings and we can recognise them in stories when we see them. We don’t need for them to be sanctioned. It doesn’t matter what the writer intended, or what the artists intended. More importantly, it doesn’t matter how Disney wants me to interact with the stories that they bankroll.

It should be noted that the Star Trek franchise was one of the first entertainment franchises to push the boundaries of ownership in terms of this repurposing. In the late nineties, Viacom engaged in an aggressive “cease and desist” campaign against many fans for using recognisable elements on their websites. In recent years, Paramount seemed to reach a detente with fan films and productions, until Star Trek: Axanar pushed too hard and ruined it for everybody.

Crossing the B’Elanna.

There is something very interesting and revealing in this, in the way that Kelis takes a familiar story and repurposes it as his own. In some ways, it prefigures the modern franchise era of popular culture, where popular consciousness is dominated by reimaginings of existing intellectual property that uses old ideas to articulate new thoughts; remakes and reinventions of properties like Battlestar Galactica, Westworld, 21 Jump Street, Miami Vice, along with belated sequels to films like Blade Runner and Star Wars.

To be fair, the Star Trek franchise was ahead of the curve in that regard, one of the first franchises to build such a complicated and popular shared universe built on intricate connections and references. Deep Space Nine and Voyager can obviously be appreciated on their own terms, but they exist in conversation with the franchise’s history and legacy in ways that provide a sense of greater meaning and context. In a way, many Star Trek writers are effectively doing what Kelis is attempting, stitching together past story elements to create an original narrative.

The end is (engi)neer…

There is a legitimate concern about the way in which modern culture has embraced nostalgia, in which it seems to have moved away from new ideas and towards familiar comforts. However, documentarian Kirby Ferguson argues that this is just how storytelling works:

All our creations have precursors, just like all people have parents. Without these other works, we’d be painting on the walls of caves. Needless to say, the property metaphor has also been a boon to creativity because it allowed many of us to make a living. I’m not a radical and don’t propose eliminating intellectual property. I just think we need to be aware that, in important ways, ideas are not like property.

There is something legitimate about works of art that exist in conversation with earlier pieces; Chimera exists primarily as a commentary on the Star Trek franchise’s very poor treatment of LGBTQ issues, while Course: Oblivion is engaged with the episodic nature of Voyager.

Into darkness.

More to the point, episodes like Blink of an Eye and Muse are stories about Star Trek, and cannot be properly considered without acknowledging the weight of the thirty-odd years of continuity leading up to them. Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness are both feature films that ask questions about what it means to be Star Trek during the War on Terror. In doing so, they raise important questions about continuity of identity and ideas from one stretch of history into another. If the popular imagination felt one way at one moment, what is revealed by exploring how it feels at another moment?

As such, Kelis’ appropriation of the story of the Delta Flyer is an interesting story about reinvention and reimagining. Kelis takes a story from another time and place, and then gradually makes it specific to his own culture. He begins by literally lifting dialogue directly from Torres’ log entry, and then begins a process of reworking particular elements. Eventually, using elements from the story of Voyager, Kelis constructs a story that speaks directly to his patron about the folly of warfare and destruction created by cycles of violence.

Of chorus it is.

This is very similar to how stories work in the real world, where familiar elements can be lifted from their initial context and become something radically different when reinvented. Voyager itself might just be an extension of the premise of the original Star Trek series, but it is also a show that reflects its own time and place. It uses these existing archetypal elements to speak to its own cultural moment and context. Episodes like Memorial mean something different at the end of the twentieth century than they would have during the height of the Cold War.

There is something intriguing and compelling about how these familiar elements can be given new meaning through this process of reimagining and reinvention. This is particularly true of something as broad and archetypal as Star Trek, which is in many ways an extrapolation of American self-interest into the distant future. How is that self-image affected by factors like the end of the Cold War or the start of the War on Terror. Even using a similar set of codifiers, Voyager and Into Darkness have very different things to say about the American experience, by virtue of arriving at different times.

A shot in the dark.

Muse even teasingly suggests that every good artist a good critic; if not of art, then of the larger world. When Torres explains that she is trying to fix the Delta Flyer, Kelis wryly observes, “From the looks of it, you’re not doing so well.” Torres snaps, “Are you a poet or a critic?” However, Muse suggests that the two functions are inevitably interlinked. After all, Kelis’ masterpiece at the climax of the story was created in part as a criticism of the larger political system and of his patron’s role in perpetuating suffering and strife.

At the same time, Muse argues that although the context of these stories can change – Voyager becoming a sailing ship rather than a space craft, the long-simmering tension between Janeway and Seven repurposed as a metaphor for a contemporary political crisis – the underlying mechanics of storytelling remain relatively consistent. Muse features characters ruminating on basic story construction and the difficulty in translating fairly simple real-life events into satisfying narrative frameworks.

Can Kelis hold a candle to his inspiration?

When Torres points out that it is entirely possible for Voyager to just swoop in and rescue her at the last minute, which is what actually happens in her story thread, Kelis responds by pointing out why that (perfectly reasonable chain of events) would be frustrating to an audience. “Where is the mistaken identity, the discovery, the sudden reversal?” he demands. “Mistaken identity, a character who is someone else. Discovery, the moment when that identity is revealed. Reversal, a situation that turns from good to bad in a blink of an eye.”

This prompts a criticism from one of his actors, “Find the truth of your story and you won’t need all those tricks. I don’t know how things are done across the Eastern Sea, but here poets have become lazy. They rely on manipulation to move their audience. It wasn’t always that way.” There is something delightfully ironic in this. On the one hand, the actor’s criticism plays like a parody of broad nostalgia for simpler times; after all, even Shakespeare adhered to those dramatic principles. On the other hand, it seems to prefigure criticisms of twenty-first century entertainment (including Discovery) as too heavily reliant on twists.

Acting on impulse.

Muse has a very romantic idea of the role of storytelling works, and the capacity to change the world with the right narrative at the right time. When Kelis discovers that his people are marching towards another war, he vows to do everything that he can to prevent the destruction and begs Torres to help him. “We Eternals aren’t supposed to take sides,” Torres warns him. Kelis replies, “I’m not asking you to fight. I need a way to change his mind.” He elaborates, “I believe the right kind of play can turn the mind from violent thoughts. The perfect play might even stop a war.”

This is a very idealistic interpretation of the writer’s role in popular discourse, but it is not without merit. Studies suggest that feature films can have a profound impact on the way that certain viewers approach big political or social questions. There has been an argument made that the media has the capacity to sway public opinions on issues like gay rights by normalising ideas that were once deemed incompatible with the existing social framework. Even beyond these big sweeping political or social issues, there is evidence to suggest that art can change an individual’s life in small and meaningful ways.

War of the worlds.

This is true of Star Trek itself, a television series that has had a profound impact upon the modern world in manners both large and small. The franchise inspired an entire generation of technologists and futurists, but it also helped to demonstrate to women and people of colour what was possible:

In the post performance Q&A, Nichols revealed that she was asked by NASA to recruit women and minorities for the space shuttle program.

She relayed her response to NASA with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “I am going to bring you so many qualified women and minority astronaut applicants for this position that if you don’t choose one… everybody in the newspapers across the country will know about it.”

Nichols credited Star Trek with the success of her recruiting efforts. “Suddenly the people who were responding were the bigger Trekkers you ever saw. They truly believed what I said… it was a very successful endeavor. It changed the face of the astronaut corp forever.”

Women of colour like Whoopi Goldberg and Mae Jemison were inspired by the mere sight of Uhura on their television screens, regardless of how the show treated the character in episodes like The Changeling or Plato’s Stepchildren. It is no exaggeration to say that Star Trek changed the world.

Greekin’ out.

Muse is an ode to the power of words and stories to change minds, to shape the cultural discourse. “You can’t change somebody’s way of life with a few lines of dialogue,” Torres protests. Kelis responds, “Yes, you can. It’s been done before. Do you know what this place used to be a hundred years ago? A temple, and this was the altar stone. Every year a victim would be sacrificed on it in honour of winter. And then one year, nobody remembers exactly when or why, a play took the place of the ritual, and no one had to die here again. Why can’t my play take the place of a war?”

To be fair, there is something just a little bit self-congratulatory in all of this, particularly in the specific context of Voyager. After all, the Star Trek franchise was in decline, and so was highly unlikely to ever produce an episode of television that might the same cultural reach as something like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. More than that, Voyager had a tendency to be quite reflexive and reactionary, the Star Trek franchise largely squandering its opportunity to say something bold or profound under Rick Berman by shying away from important contemporary issues like homosexuality.

Romancing the stone age. (Well, bronze.)

Similarly, there is a sense that Muse is indulging some of the franchise’s self-importance. Torres reacts with horror to the idea of interpersonal relationships between the characters, to the idea of emotion-driven storytelling. Instead, she favours spectacle, such as a sequence in which Seven betrays Janeway. “It’s much better than all that kissing,” she muses. This seems to be a defense of Voyager‘s long-standing aversion to character development and interpersonal relationships, most obvious in the writing staff’s refusal to develop the dynamic between Janeway and Chakotay and their indifference to Torres and Paris.

This is a very condescending approach to art, a very prescriptive argument about what art can be that dismisses art that might involve “all that kissing.” It is an incredibly self-important assertion, and it might even be gendered; it pointedly discounts romance in favour of action. It also overlooks the fact that these elements are not mutually incompatible. Deep Space Nine was able to tell ambitious and epic political narratives, while also focusing on more intimate interpersonal dynamics and developing relationships among the major characters. Muse is very much defending Voyager‘s lack of interest in its characters.

Writing him off.

Indeed, there’s an aspect of Muse that plays almost as a commentary on writing for Voyager, when Kelis is confronted with performers who struggle with his material. After all, Vulcans and Borg exist outside their frame of reference. As far as they are concerned, these entities may as well not exist. As a result, Kelis has to couch his actors on how to perform as alien entities that act in manners that do not fit with their expectations of how people behave and which exist far beyond their own frame of reference.

“I can’t blame my performers,” Kelis tells Torres. “These Eternals on Voyager are difficult to understand.” He elaborates, “This Tuvok, for example. He’s not like anybody I’ve ever met. No emotions? How is that possible?” Torres offers a handwave that every executive producer has ever offered any struggling Star Trek writer in this situation. “It just is.” There is something very insightful in this, in the observation of how different it must be to write for Star Trek than it would be to script for Law & Order or N.Y.P.D. Blue.

Way(mire) off base.

In fact, there’s something prophetic in Muse. The episode foreshadows Star Trek: Enterprise in a number of interesting ways, most obviously in the casting of actors Joseph Will and Kellie Waymire. Those two performers would play two of the handful of recurring minor characters on Enterprise, appearing in early episodes like Strange New World, Dear Doctor, Vox Sola and Two Days and Two Nights. However, the larger discussion about what it was like to write Star Trek foreshadows some of the difficulties that Brannon Braga would face in trying to put together a team of writers for Enterprise.

When building a writers’ room for Enterprise, Braga made a conscious effort to avoid familiar faces. Instead, Braga sought to hire talented writers without any grounding in Star Trek. His idea was that good writing was good writing, and that the Star Trek aspect of the writing could be taught to these new recruits. Braga actually managed to attract a number of impressive writers. André and Marie Jacquemetton would win three Emmys for their work on Mad Men. Fred Dekker was a frequent collaborator with Shane Black. However, as the first season of Enterprise attests, it was hard to teach these writers to write Star Trek.

Network notes.

Braga confessed his difficulties managing that (relatively) inexperienced staff in The Fifty-Year Mission:

It was a large staff of ten people, and Star Trek was notoriously difficult to find writers for, because it was a hard show to write. I don’t even want to say hard; it’s unique, and it just had a specific voice, and I had this writing staff that was new to the genre. Out of ten people, I think just a couple survived that first year.

These difficulties can be attested by the fact that Braga has at least a story credit on eighteen of that first season’s twenty-five episodes. That is a lot.

Bushwhacked.

Muse touches on the idea that writing for the fictional world of Star Trek is different than writing any other form of drama, with its own particular rules and its own distinct language. It’s easy to imagine Menosky relating to Kelis as a writer, as the young scribe struggles to articulate concepts like Vulcans or the Borg without no prior knowledge of either. In fact, Kelis doesn’t just have to understand these concepts and translate them for the audience, he also has to explain them to his performers.

Kelis objects to Jero’s overwrought melodramatics in the role of Tuvok. “The land of Vulcan has no laughter, and it has no tears,” Kelis asserts. “It is a very quiet place. Calm, just like Tuvok.” It’s an interesting argument. “I can’t believe that,” Jero responds. “The audience won’t believe it either. They’ll either think Tuvok is an unfeeling monster, or that I am a bad performer.” Kelis pushes the point, “They’ll realise that beneath your unfeeling exterior is a heart that’s breaking, silently, and in more pain than any of us can possibly understand, because that’s what it is to be Vulcan.”

An audience with the autarch.

These sorts of discussions are common between actors and writers in film and television, with actors longing to understand their character’s motivation beyond what’s on the page. That is especially true on a show like Star Trek. Indeed, Menosky was a writer who seemed particularly in tune with the Voyager cast. Appropriately enough, Tim Russ singled out Menosky as his default point of contact in an interview with Cinefantastique:

I usually am on the phone with them before the final draft is done, if I can get them to give that information. Sometimes they’re reluctant, because a few of us will want our hands in the pie as it’s being put together. I definitely talk to the writers. If it’s Brannon [Braga] script, I talk directly to him. Generally I go to Joe Menosky. If it’s a Jeri [Taylor] script or if it’s one of the other writers I go to Jeri and ask for some changes to be made. And I usually get them. You manage to come to some kind of compromise. They’re writing for the whole story and all of the elements that come together, and their attention is in different places. They may have overlooked something specific to your character

As such, there’s no small irony in the fact that Kelis has the greatest difficulty writing for Tuvok in an episode with a pointedly clumsy Tuvok-related subplot, and that Kelis has his strongest argument about characterisation with the actor playing Tuvok, when Tim Russ was especially prone to discuss his character with Menosky. Of course, it should be noted that other actors would also consult Menosky, particularly Robert Picardo.

A tough act.

Indeed, there’s something playfully “meta” and self-aware about Muse, and the way in which Menosky layers his script so that Kelis’ play mirrors what is unfolding in the world around it – even unaware to the writer itself. Kelis writes Seven of Nine as a character betraying Janeway, while the actor Layna plots to betray Torres. Seven of Nine might be “the viper in [Janeway’s] nest”, but Layna is “the viper in [Kelis’] nest.” The character Seven of Nine declares, “I, Seven of Nine, have no intention of finding B’Elanna Torres.” At the same time, Layna attempts to blackmail Torres into disappearing.

At the episode’s climax, Layna even tries to expose Torres as an alien to the play’s patron, but the quick thinking of another actor folds that beat out of real life into the play itself. “The lead actress, in a fit of jealousy, brands her rival an Eternal,” declares the chorus, improvising effectively. “Our patron rises to his feet to stop the play.” Reality becomes fiction. In this way, it is rendered harmless. The patron smiles, reading this betrayal and double-cross as nothing more than a crack in the fourth wall, canny audience participation. “Nicely done. I almost believed you.”

In dialogue.

Menosky is being playful, and there is something infectious in the way that he structures the layers of the story to echo back on one another and outside the confines of the narrative. Scenes of Paris arguing with Janeway on Voyager give way to scenes in which Kelis imagines Seven of Nine giving comfort to Paris, inviting the audience to wonder if the episode might have played better were all those exposition scenes on Voyager merely imagined by Kelis. Even beyond that, the tension between the staged versions of Seven of Nine and Janeway might be a commentary on the tension between Kate Mulgrew and Jeri Ryan.

At the same time, there is something a little cliché and a little awkward in the way that Menosky casts Layna as the villain of Muse, motivated by her clearly unrequited love for Kelis. Part of this simply the awkward cliché of a writer scripting a self-aware love story in which a beautiful young actor’s sole defining trait is her adoration of a character who can be read as an author avatar. Part of this exists within the episode’s general contempt for the idea of characters having rich and vivid emotional lives, suggesting that such feelings are below a real writer, and solely the domain of volatile (and hazily defined) women.

A fresh angle.

Similarly, the climax of Muse is a little hazy on how exactly Kelis plans to use his words to stop a war between the patron and his rivals. Part of this is down to little attention Muse pays to the political situation, beyond the idea that the patron “has been insulted by his enemy to the north.” Without any context for the fighting, there can be no context for the resolution. That said, this isn’t really a problem. Muse is not about this specific conflict or this specific crisis. It is a broader tribute to the culturally transformative power of art.

At the same time, the episode largely writes around the mechanics of how Kelis’ words are supposed to change his patron’s mind. To be fair, this is an issue with all writing about great writing; how is Muse supposed to produce a string of words beautiful enough to stop a war on demand? As a result, the closing sentiment of Muse hues towards the generic. “These stories will continue for as long as we have the breath to tell them,” Kelis contends. “And as long as our patrons remain wise and compassionate. And Voyager will continue on her journey to the gleaming cities of Earth, where peace reigns and hatred has no home.”

Don’t hate the player…

On the one hand, this is a commendable sentiment. It speaks to the power of Star Trek in the simple act of imagining a future where mankind is (mostly) at peace and has (mostly) conquered its demons. This is a very broad “this is what Star Trek is” statement, which seeks to encapsulate the appeal of the franchise in the broadest possible terms within a few simple lines. The very act of imagining a peaceful future makes that future more tangible and attainable than it might otherwise be.

However, there is also something very shallow and reflexive in this. It is not an argument for the enduring power of Star Trek from first principles, but instead an argument for the enduring power of Star Trek by reference to the popular perception of the enduring power of Star Trek. It is pointedly short on specifics, which is perhaps reflective of some of the larger issues with the Berman era as a whole. During the Berman era, the Star Trek franchise repeatedly celebrated and asserted its position as a socially progressive force on the right side of history.

Shipping.

However, it did so while consciously avoiding any actively progressive social positions. The franchise would only casually and fleetingly acknowledge the struggles of homosexuals and transexuals for recognition, in ambiguous episodes like Rejoined. The franchise steered clear of articulating how exactly this utopia had been constructed in terms of politics and economics, despite that being the entire point of Enterprise as a television series. A franchise that lauded the progressive (if complicated) stances of episodes like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or Plato’s Stepchildren was unwilling to take similar stances itself.

Still, Muse could not possibly answer all of these challenges. It does not attempt to do so. Instead, it serves as a broad celebration of the very idea of Star Trek, and a reflection on the process of writing for Star Trek. There is an infectious joy in Muse, perhaps best illustrated by how often Muse allows Rosario Dawson to smile. Torres is a character in large part defined by negative emotions; her anger, her resentment, her self-loathing. As such, there is something wonderful in watching her enthusiasm for the mere act of creation. (Seeing Torres smile on Voyager is like seeing Sisko smile on Deep Space Nine. It feels earned.)

Smiles and smiles to go.

Mike Vejar’s direction is also notable. As a rule, the Berman era of Star Trek could be quite flat from a visual perspective, with lots of very conventional angles and a host of familiar set-ups. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the demands of shooting twenty-six episodes a year, with directors punished for running behind schedule and so encouraged to shoot conservatively unless absolutely necessary. Part of this was also down to the general aesthetic of the Berman era, which didn’t trust elements that intruded too forcefully into the fictional world.

The Berman era consciously alienated a number of stylistically confident television directors. Directors like Kim Manners and Rob Bowman worked on the early seasons of The Next Generation, but did not become franchise fixtures. Instead, they would redefine what was possible in television direction by working on The X-Files. Interestingly, Mike Vejar was a director who had worked on the first season of The Next Generation, but did not return to the franchise until the fifth season of Deep Space Nine a decade later.

This mission is a write-off.

To be fair, the Berman era could embrace a strong directorial voice when the script absolutely demanded it. Among Vejar’s first credits on returning to the Star Trek fold were Bryan Fuller’s two stories for the fifth season of Deep Space Nine, the horror-tinged The Darkness and the Light and Empok Nor. Both episodes adopt the tone of a gothic horror movie, which lends itself to a heightened stylistic approach. Vejar helped to create a rich and evocative atmosphere in both cases, creating episodes that looked and felt markedly different to a lot of the Star Trek released around them.

Conceptually, Muse is a much more sedate episode. It is an episode that could easily have been shot in a much flatter manner, using more conventional angles and with more familiar framing. Instead, Vejar gives Muse a unique texture, ensuring that the episode feels markedly different from stories like Good Shepherd or Fury. There is some great use of lighting, particularly inside the crashed Delta Flyer. There are some wonderful uses of depth of field, particularly in conversations between characters and during staged scenes. There is some striking framing that makes use of the episode’s wonderful sets. Muse looks great.

A flyer finish.

Muse is an imperfect episode in many ways, most obviously in its subplot focusing on the rest of the cast and in the clumsiness of its climax. However, it’s also a fun and intriguing piece of television that speaks to the power of stories and the power of Star Trek. Although Joe Menosky is not yet done with Voyager, this feels like a fitting bow from one of the franchise’s most enduring and influential voices, the writer taking to the stage to articulate how he sees his work. It’s hard not to be moved by that.

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