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Star Trek: Voyager – Inside Man (Review)

Inside Man is a curious episode.

It is a seventh season episode that feels very much like a first season episode. To be fair, this is perhaps par for the course with any long-running series approaching a definite ending. Both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine got a little nostalgic in their final seasons. The Next Generation neatly bookended Encounter at Farpoint by picking up on the dangling thread of Q’s trial of humanity in All Good Things…, while Deep Space Nine revisited first season ideas like the “one hundred” in Chimera or Quark mistakenly thinking that he was replacing Zek in The Dogs of War.

“I’d counsel against that.”

Star Trek: Voyager was always going to be a little bit more nostalgic than most, given that the nature of the show involved a long journey back towards the familiar and the recognisable. The closer that Voyager got to home, the stronger the urge to look backwards. The seventh season of Voyager evokes the early seasons in a number of ways, such as the manner in which Repression tries to resurrect the Maquis conflict and even brings in a guest star last seen in Learning Curve or the surprise return of Joseph Carey as a guest star in Friendship One.

However, Inside Man has its own very strange nostalgia at its core. The episode builds on sixth season episodes like Pathfinder or Life Line, even including a number of recurring guest stars from those earlier episodes. However, its tone and its plot elements feel like they belong a much earlier script. Inside Man is an episode that treats the Ferengi as semi-serious antagonists who would murder more than a hundred people for a profit, which ignores a lot of their development on Deep Space Nine and jumps right back to their characterisation in early Next Generation episodes like The Last Outpost or Peak Performance.

“I mean, to be fair, they also couldn’t outwit the Kazon.”

However, at the core of the episode is a plot device that the series largely moved past in its second season, and one which feels strangely out of place on what amounts to the home stretch of Voyager. The plot of Inside Man revolves around a promise to get the ship and crew home ahead of schedule, the kind of promise that was frequently dangled in front of the crew in earlier episodes like Eye of the Needle, Cold Fire and False Profits. While it would be teased in later episodes like Hope and Fear or Bliss, it was never with the same intensity.

The irony with these earlier stories was that the audience understood, on some level,how unlikely it was that the ship and crew would be getting home. After all, the entire premise of Voyager was that it was a starship stranded on the far side of the galaxy, isolated from familiar support systems. To bring the ship home would represent a complete betrayal of the premise, even more than downplaying the tension with the Maquis or completely ignoring questions about which set of rules the crew would follow. If Voyager brought the ship home in a random episode in those first seasons, it would be a catastrophic admission of defeat.

Just a Reg-ular Barclay.

In Inside Man, a slight variation on the same central tension exists. Any audience member with any level of televisual literacy would understand that the ship and crew would be returning home at the end of the seventh season; this was the end of Voyager, and that ending had to involve the fulfillment of the show’s basic premise. However, given the show’s conservatism, it was highly unlikely that the crew would be getting home in such an early episode and certainly not as part of a plot involving the Ferengi. Inside Man is the most obvious sort of shell game, where there’s nothing hidden under any of the cups.

However, what’s most striking about Inside Man is that the script seems almost self-aware. The episode is glib and wry, repeatedly seeming like an extended joke being played by the savvy audience and the smirking writers on the series itself. Inside Man is based around the promise that the crew might be returning home, but is immediately established to the audience as nothing more than an empty hustle. The cruel irony (and the most wry punchline) is that the characters themselves remain in the dark even after the con is long over.

Getting into her head.

To fair, in a very broad sense, there is an argument to be made for bringing the ship and crew home at some point before the final episode, just in terms of basic storytelling. Of course, the finale has to be a big event-driven episode, and the biggest possible event for Voyager will be to get the crew home at the end of their seven-year journey. Television production and broadcast realities demand that Endgame be the episode wherein the crew return to the Alpha Quadrant, much like those same realities dictate that the Dominion War resolve itself in What You Leave Behind rather than six episodes earlier.

At the same time, the crew have spent so long pining for the Alpha Quadrant that there is considerable dramatic value in getting to witness what that means to them firsthand. What happens to the crew when they get home? What is the first thing that Janeway does? Where does Tuvok go? What does Starfleet do about Chakotay and Torres? How does Harry Kim deal with his reunion with Libby? How does Seven of Nine integrate on a planet that has been attacked by the Borg twice with the previous twelve years? These are interesting questions that merit exploration.

Parisian rendezvous.

Building Endgame around the last leg of the journey to the Alpha Quadrant robs the audience of these meaningful moments. As actor Richard Herd has noted, the structuring of the episode means that Tom Paris’ reconciliation with his father Owen Paris, seeded from Caretaker through Persistence of Vision and Thirty Days, is effective consigned to a single meaningful glance:

My only frustration with Voyager is I was hoping, at the end, in the very last episode, when I finally had a chance to see my son, that we’d have had a few sentences. I was hoping to say, “It’s been so long” or “Welcome home, son.” But we never had that opportunity to talk, just to stare at each other. When I was looking at him, all I was doing was looking at a piece of masking tape on the wall that they could match with Robbie’s eyeline.

This is illustrative of a major problem with how the seventh season of Voyager approached the idea of the crew getting home. There was simply no time or attention devoted to the question of what happens afterwards or what any of this journey would actually mean to these characters after being absent from the lives of their friends and families for seven years.

Home alone.

The fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise understood the importance of processing long-term consequences. Home, the third episode of the final season, was effectively dedicated to decompressing everything that had come before, of exploring what it was like for a crew to return home from a long and punishing voyage. Voyager could have done with an episode like that, to underscore the actual emotional weight that had been lifted from the shoulders of this crew. Of course, production realities meant that the series could never have been afforded to end on a coda rather than a climax.

Even allowing for these constraints, it might have been possible for a canny and ambitious production team to find a way to offer both meaningful closure and dramatic stakes within the finale. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is both a fond farewell to the original Star Trek crew and an exciting political thriller in its own right. The “final chapter” of Deep Space Nine made a point to provide closure to various threads even before the Battle of Cardassia in What You Leave Behind, such as allowing Martok to become High Chancellor in Tacking Into the Wind.

“So… what are you going to do when we get home?”
“I… I hadn’t really thought about it.”

Even then, the Dominion War ended around the two-thirds mark of What You Leave Behind, allowing ample time for the crew to have meaningful farewells and to suggest a status quo extending beyond the confines of the series. What You Leave Behind devoted most of its second half to small character-driven scenes, such as touching on what Worf would do next and how Bashir would deal with O’Brien’s absence. There was even time for a celebratory trip to the holosuite, populated not only by the cast and crew, but also by much of the production team.

In contrast, Voyager had little time for the idea of actually wrapping anything up. From beginning to end, Endgame is a conventional blockbuster adventure in the style of Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II or Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. Although it might have been a more dramatically sacrificing choice, it is hard to imagine the production team ever getting the crew home before the crescendo of the final act. There are some small nods to the idea that this is the end of an era, such as Neelix’s absence or the birth of Miral Paris, but no substance.

“So… why are they still wearing the old uniforms?”

However appealing the concept might have been, and however much sense it might have made, it was very clear that the crew were never going to get home before the end of Endgame. In fact, George Brozas – the writer of another “will the crew get home early? also Ferengi!” episodes, False Profits – conceded:

They were never going to get home until the show ended. I think that was pretty clear. If they had gotten home, wouldn’t we just have more of The Next Generation, just on the Voyager sets? I loved Picard and his crew as much as any fan; but I think setting Voyager in a completely new and unexplored territory was key to its DNA. I don’t think the notion of getting them home before the final show of the final season was ever mentioned.

Of course, it could be argued that Voyager ultimately was little more than “more of The Next Generation, just on the Voyager sets”, especially by this point in the run. Inside Man features one returning regular and another recurring guest star from The Next Generation, with copious continuity references.

“The message boards love this idea.”

So Inside Man could never have ended with the crew getting home, so it feels like one weirdly extended mean-spirited joke on the show itself. To be fair, there are glimmers of self-awareness creeping in at the edge of the frame, much as there was when Tom Paris acknowledged the hoary old trope of “Kim falls for a dangerous alien woman” in Drive. Here, Paris openly mocks the suggestion that the crew might possibly manage to get home through holo!Barclay’s proposed “geodesic fold.”

“Our shortcuts have a tendency to blow up in our faces,” Paris tells Kim. “Remember Arturis and his quantum slipstream drive? Or how about the telepathic pitcher plant that made us think we were on our way home right before it tried to eat the ship?” It is a very fair point. Kim replies, hopefully not believing his own hype, “This is the best opportunity we’ve had.” Paris retorts, “Yeah, which is why we’ll probably end up in the Gamma Quadrant.” Indeed, the episode’s final scene set on Voyager finds Torres and Paris openly mocking Kim’s gullibility.

“I’m a holographic telegram. A holo-gram, if you will.”

Of course, this discussion doesn’t really make a lot of sense in terms of the world within the show. After all, Kim should be able to point to any number of short cuts that the crew took which managed to work; Kes’ propulsion of the ship at the end of The Gift, the anomaly in Night, the experiment in Timeless, the Borg transwarp coil in Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, the catapult in The Voyager Conspiracy. Sure, none of these shortcuts got the ship all the way home, but they demonstrate that there is precedent for shortcuts existing within the Delta Quadrant. In fact, it seems they pay off as often as they don’t.

It only makes sense to be so utterly cynical if talking about this particular genre of Voyager episode rather than talking about the general idea of a shortcut home, if examining the episode from a perspective that can safely categorise it as a companion piece to False Profits, Hope and Fear and Bliss rather than as something more akin to Night, Timeless or The Voyager Conspiracy. This self-awareness is almost endearing, as if the writing staff are making a point to clue the characters into a grim joke that many members of the audience have long understood.

Profit motive.

That said, there is a point when the joke at the heart of Inside Man feels a little mean spirited, particularly when told at the expense of the characters. The basic plot of Inside Man hinges on the arrival of a holographic version of Reginald Barclay who boldly promises to get the crew home within the space of a few days. The audience (and Paris) understand that this is too good to be true, as does any member of the audience who understands how a series like Voyager operates. Inevitably, it is revealed as a hoax. A trio of opportunistic Ferengi are planning to (indirectly) murder the Voyager crew and steal Seven of Nine’s nanoprobes.

However, for most of the episode, the bulk of the primary cast remain completely oblivious to the obvious swindle being pulled. It is remarkable to watch, and Inside Man very pointedly know what it is doing. holo!Barclay is a remarkable creation, particularly as brought to life by Dwight Schultz. holo!Barclay is a crude hustler, one step up from a carnival barker asking random members of the public to step right up and try their hand at a (supposedly) honest game of chance. Schultz plays holo!Barclay as a shameless confidence man, who talks fast and moves faster. A twenty-fourth century P.T. Barnum, he even performs party tricks.

Making a good impression.

To be fair, the writers on Voyager tend to love this sort of larger-then-life swindler archetype. holo!Barclay is perhaps the ultimate extension of characters like the con artists featured in Live Fast and Prosper or even Gar in Critical Care. It’s a mesmerising performance, in large part because it allows Schultz to play so strongly against type, but also because of how eagerly it leans into the ridiculousness of the presence. Watching holo!Barclay operate, it’s no longer a surprise that Gar could steal the EMH in Critical Care; it’s a wonder that he didn’t take anything that wasn’t bolted to the floor.

The transparent nature of holo!Barclay’s ruse is not a bug. It’s a feature. Inside Man seems to exist primarily as a monument to the gullibility of the Voyager crew. holo!Barclay’s manipulations are shockingly obvious to any individual with any capacity for critical thinking, but the crew are easily overwhelmed by his charm offensive. That charm offensive largely consists of flattery and kind words. Repeatedly, characters seem to come close to questioning what exactly is going on, but holo!Barclay is always able to distract them. Usually by playing to their ego.

“I mean, I could be hanging out with the cast of The Next Generation right now. But I’m here, with you. That’s how awesome you are.”

“If this were any other ship, I’d have my doubts,” he explains when outlining his (somewhat vague) plan. “But this is Voyager, the Miracle Ship. You’ve survived six years in the Delta Quadrant. You’ve evaded the Kazon, the Vidiians, the Hirogen, you’ve even faced down the Borg. I think, with a little teamwork, we can pull off one more miracle and take Voyager home.” That seems enough to get past any of the crew’s defenses or skepticism, allowing holo!Barclay to continue about his fiendish scam with minimal resistance.

The same thing happens repeatedly with individual crew members. Seven of Nine is suspicious of holo!Barclay, so he distracts her with flattery. “When a Borg Cube enters a transwarp conduit, it’s subject to extreme gravimetric shear,” she suggests at one point. “To compensate, the Borg project a structural integrity field ahead of the Cube. By modifying Voyager’s deflector, we may be able to do the same.” holo!Barclay doesn’t hide how impressed he is. “No one at Starfleet would have thought of this,” he gushes.

Flattering up the goose for the slaughter.

However, holo!Barclay almost seems to exist outside of the show itself. “You don’t have any idea, do you?” he asks Seven. “I didn’t mention this earlier. I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. You are the one who people are most looking forward to seeing.” Seven is skeptical.  “That’s difficult to believe,” she states. “I was Borg.” holo!Barclay responds, “You were Borg. But you escaped, and despite incredible odds, you managed to reclaim your humanity. No one’s ever done that before. You’re famous.” holo!Barclay pitches to Seven based on her status as the breakout character on Voyager.

Even when the characters on Voyager come close to figuring out holo!Barclay’s game, he manages to cannily wrongfoot them with the most superficial of pleasantries. The EMH pushes Torres to run a complete diagnostic on his programme, which turns up no evidence of Ferengi tampering. The EMH immediately caves. “I’m a big enough hologram to admit when I’m wrong,” he states. “I’m sorry I doubted you.” holo!Barclay continues his ridiculous performative pandering. “If anyone is owed an apology, it’s you,” he states. “I should’ve been more sensitive. Friends?” The EMH replies, “Friends.”

The golf between them.

To be clear, this hustle is beyond ridiculous. More than that, Inside Man is very much aware that it is ridiculous, to the point that the characters on Earth seem dumbfounded that the crew should fall for such an obvious ruse. “Captain Janeway knows better than to take her ship into such a dangerous anomaly,” observes Owen Paris. “If the Ferengi did alter my hologram, then it might, might be possible for him to have taken over the ship,” Barclay observes. Harkins seems unconvinced. “One hologram against an entire crew?”

Barclay offers a very bleak assessment of the situation. “He may have found a way to incapacitate the crew, or to commandeer the ship’s systems, but either way we’ve got to get the Carolina to close the fold,” Barclay observes of his holographic doppelgänger. This is true after a fashion, in that holo!Barclary has subdued the crew with compliments. It recalls the wonderful cut in In Purgatory’s Shadow, in which Bashir laments whatever fiendishly evil acts his counterpart could be committing, only to reveal that the Founder impersonating Bashir has made some sandwiches for O’Brien and Dax; killing with kindness.

A lobe off his mind.

Inside Man often feels like a joke being played on Voyager itself. The crew are essentially convinced to pilot the ship directly into an incredibly lethal stellar phenomenon at the behest of a bunch of Ferengi. These Ferengi are not even the kind who appeared on Deep Space Nine, but the ridiculous and pathetic figures from episodes of The Next Generation like The Price or Ménage à Troi. The production design of their ship reinforces this idea; the three operate from a Ferengi Marauder, which was never seen on Deep Space Nine, and operate using the sort of spherical technology associated with Next Generation era Ferengi.

There is something very mean-spirited in all of this, particularly in how Inside Man makes a point to emphasis who easily Janeway and her crew were taken for a ride. At one point, holo!Barclay does cheeky mocking impressions of Janeway in the mess hall. At the end of the episode, Inside Man makes a point to stress how oblivious the crew were to everything that happened, even after the fact. The crew would have gladly ridden to their doom had Barclay and Starfleet not intervened to save them, and they will remain completely oblivious about what exactly happened until the next mail drop.

Barc-ing-up-the-wrong-ley…

After all, the crew refuse to even consider the possibility of sabotage or ill-intent, even after holo!Barclay attacks Seven and tries to abscond with her in an escape pod. “Seven thinks our proximity to the fold degraded his matrix, but if you ask me, it was a recursive error in his logic subroutine,” Torres reports. That small beat at the end of the episode is the cherry on the humiliation sundae, at least from the perspective of an audience that has watched the episode. It really makes the crew look like chumps.

(It also raises a few glaring plot holes and questions. If the crew think that holo!Barclay simply malfunctioned, then what about the entire plan to get the crew home through the “geodesic fold”? If the threat was a result of signal degradation or poor programming, then why would the crew doubt the underlying science? Surely the best thing to do would be to remain in position and wait for the next update from Starfleet to make another attempt? Then again, that punchline might seem too cruel, the crew waiting around a month to discover that they were conned by the Ferengi.)

“Nothing to see here.”

Inside Man arguably plays best as a pitch black comedy where the writing staff are mocking Voyager itself. It is the story of a bunch of characters without the awareness or common sense to make the value judgment that flying face-first into a red giant. It is the story of a bunch of explorers who can silence any doubt or insecurity with another appeal to their vanity and ego. It is a darkly funny twist on the morbid obsession that run through sixth season episodes like Dragon’s Teeth or Ashes to Ashes or Barge of the Dead, where the crew aren’t so much observing death as charging towards it head-first.

As the morbidity that pervades so much of the sixth season, there is something very self-aware in all of this. It feels like Voyager engaging with the idea that it might have effectively presided over the decline of the Berman era of the Star Trek franchise, reflecting the declining ratings and the growing public backlash. Voyager had been on the air for seven years, and in those seven years television had changed dramatically. However, Voyager had repeatedly refused to evolve and to provide the franchise with what it needed to survive in a cut-throat media landscape. Voyager had just continued flying straight into that red giant.

“Don’t worry. I’m sure this will be the last time that we see the Ferengi for… at least a season.”

It is revealing that Inside Man arguably places an even greater emphasis on the importance of the Next Generation cast to Voyager than earlier episodes like Death Wish or Timeless or Pathfinder or Life Line. In Inside Man, the crew of Voyager are so oblivious to the threat confronting them that Barclay and Troi have to save them without even making contact. The crew of Voyager are completely oblivious to the work being done by the cast of The Next Generation to keep them afloat. Voyager is only still surviving because of The Next Generation, at least according to the internal logic of Inside Man.

Like Pathfinder before it and These Are the Voyages… after it, it could fairly be argued that Inside Man is an episode of The Next Generation that is masquerading as an episode of Voyager. After all, the only character who has an arc in the episode is Reginald Barclay. While Inside Man does heavily feature the primary characters rather than doppelgängers or holograms, as in episodes like Living Witness or Course: Oblivion, those characters are largely impotent. Barclay and Troi have much greater agency within the narrative than any of the credited leads.

Beach’s own.

As Bryan Fuller confessed to Cinefantastique, the original plot of the episode was much more focused on the investigation conducted by Troi and Barclay:

It might have been a little more interesting to have Deanna Troi and Barclay on their own adventure. One thing that I pitched out was to have them infiltrate the Ferengi black market. That way we could see Deanna Troi in a different role. Every time we see her, we see her as a counselor. If I was Marina Sirtis and I had to come back to Star Trek and spout ’80s pop psychology, I wouldn’t be looking forward to it as much as if I had something a little more fun to do. Be we made it more of a personal story with Barclay as opposed to an adventure story with the two of them.

Even the version of the episode that made it to air is still very Barclay- and Troi-centric. Troi even gets to weaponise her counseling skills against Leosa.

“Does this sand feel hot to you?”

Inside Man even makes a point to overtly reference various Next Generation characters who are not appearing in the episode. Both Pathfinder and Life Line included references to Jean-Luc Picard, but neither episode slowed down for an extended conversation in which Troi and Barclay reflected on how great their old friends are. On the beach, the pair stop to name-drop a couple of the more memorable and iconic characters from The Next Generation, as if to tease the audience with the potential for a crossover.

“The last time I saw you, you were laughing, telling jokes,” Troi observes. “You even sang a duet with Data.” Barclay recalls, “It was Commander LaForge’s birthday party.” Troi reflects, “You were a completely different Reg that night.” Barclay nods. “Well, things were better then,” he concedes. “For one thing I’d just finished the matrix for my hologram and I showed Geordi some of the specs that night. He said he was proud of me.” It’s a very weird plea for validation, invoking the name of a character who isn’t appearing in the episode to effectively sign off on Barclay’s work in a field that doesn’t actually exist.

Where there isn’t a Will, there isn’t a way…

In fact, William Riker arguably serves as a supporting character in Inside Man, despite Jonathan Frakes’ complete absence from the production. “Where’s Commander Riker?” Barclay asks Troi early on. “He doesn’t arrive until Friday,” Troi answers. When she volunteers to help, she assures Barclay, “I’ll be back here before Will arrives.” At the end of the episode, Barclay is even invited on a double date. “Will’s bringing a friend for you. Her name’s Maril. You’re going to adore her.” It’s a very strange emphasis on a character who never appears.

Even in the sequences set on Voyager itself, there’s a strange sidelining of the Voyager cast. In its own weird way, Inside Man plays as a gonzo inversion of Pathfinder. In Pathfinder, the real Reginald Barclay retreats into a holographic fantasy of life on Voyager. In Inside Man, the real Voyager crew receives a visit from a holographic fantasy version of Barclay. Even then, there’s a recurring sense that the Voyager crew aren’t real to holo!Barclay, who conspires to “liquefy” them and reaches his hand through Seven’s skull as if it isn’t really there.

“Everything is perfectly fine.”

Indeed, there is perhaps something clever in the idea that Barclay is the protagonist of both narratives in Inside Man, as both the holographic doppelgänger on Voyager and the real-world engineer in San Francisco. It often feels like Inside Man is a story being told from the perspective of holo!Barclay, of how this imitation cunningly and skilfully manoeuvred the primary cast, without ever thinking of them as anything more than props in his own narratives and pawns in his proverbial game.

Voyager repeatedly comes back to the question of reality, particularly through the prism of holographic characters as explored in episodes like Projections or Revulsion or Spirit Folk or Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. In his own horrific way, the cynical sociopathic holo!Barclay featured in Inside Man is the latest addition to the long list of simulacra featured in Voyager; from the duplicates in Deadlock to the holograms in Worst Case Scenario to the con artists in Live Fast and Prosper. Like the photonic aliens in Bride of Chaotica!, it seems like holo!Barclay never perceives his flesh and blood colleagues as real.

“Seriously. When we get home, you should try the convention circuit.”

This lends Inside Man a very grim and bleak sense of humour, effectively inviting the audience to laugh at a horrific punchline masterminded by a computer simulation who seems to understand the internal logic of this television series better than any of the credited leads. It’s a very bitter and acerbic take on Voyager, particularly in the final season. It’s very funny, but it’s also deeply unsettling.

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2 Responses

  1. I love Holo!Barclay’s disingenuous, drippy smile. And such cold eyes, too. Dwight would make a great heavy.

    Perhaps the TNG regulars (Schulz, DeLancie, Sirtis) knew this series was lacking and could use a little razzle-dazzle.

    • He’s great. holo!Barclay deserves a better episode, and a stronger cast to play against. His brutal and barely foiled attempted mass-murder practically seems unsporting given how clueless the Voyager cast are here.

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