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Star Trek: Voyager – Friendship One (Review)

Friendship One finds Star Trek: Voyager trapped between its own past and the future of the larger Star Trek franchise.

Of course, there’s no small irony that that future would take the form of Star Trek: Enterprise, a prequel set almost a century before the original series and (to date) the television series set at the earliest point in the larger continuity. This gets at something very strange about the seventh season of Voyager, where it seems to be looking both back at and forwards to the past. In some ways, it is the ultimately literalisation of the “end of history” ambiance that pervades the series, articulated in stories like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. There is no future. There is just the past.

What ship can cause antimatter annihilation and has room for two people?
A friendship?

So Friendship One seems caught between two different versions of the past. In its most obvious sense, it is trapped in Voyager‘s own idea of the past. It is an atomic-era creature feature about the horrors of radiation, a pulpy fifties schlock-fest that feels of a piece with everything from Jetrel to The 37’s to Cathexis to Macrocosm to In the Flesh to Bride of Chaotica! This is the future as it looked in the fifties, the atomic (rather than “post-atomic”) horror. However, it also gestures very strongly towards Enterprise, even accidentally encapsulating some of the core anxieties of the fourth Star Trek spin-off in an eerily prescient manner.

The result is an episode that feels like it is suffocating in its own past, with no idea of how to chart a course forward.

Does anything really (anti)matter?

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Non-Review Review: What We Left Behind

Part of what is so remarkable about What We Left Behind is the way in which it feels more like a testament (and love letter) to how series producer and documentary co-directory Ira Steven Behr saw the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine than an exploration of the show itself.

This is not a surprise. Indeed, the poster for the documentary notably features Behr holding the eponymous space station in the palms of his hand, as much trying to figure it out for himself as offer it to the audience watching. Behr jokes that the documentary began production in 2012, but spent three years trying to figure out its identity and its angle. With its release in 2019, this puts Behr in the paradoxical position of having lived with What We Left Behind for almost as long as he lived with Deep Space Nine itself.

There isn’t too much in What We Left Behind that a dedicated fan won’t already know about the show’s production and history, but that’s not the point. An early sequence in the documentary exists largely in order to caution the viewer against interpreting the accounts offered in the documentary too literally. Repeatedly, actors and writers contradict themselves and each other. At one point, Robert Hewitt Wolfe casually recalls the finer details of Shadows and Symbols better than Hans Beimler, who actually wrote the episode. “I wasn’t even on the show at that point!” Wolfe jokes.

However, the documentary comes back time and again to the second season episode The Wire in order to explain these competing accounts and contradictory stories. They all hint at some greater truth.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Author, Author (Review)

Author, Author is a deeply cynical piece of Star Trek.

Author, Author is arguably as bleak as anything that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ever produced. It is a story about how shallow and how self-centred the primary cast of Star Trek: Voyager can be, but also a showcase of how little the Federation has actually evolved in the twelve years since Star Trek: The Next Generation tackled the same themes in The Measure of a Man. Indeed, with production wrapping up and the series winding down, Author, Author seems to acknowledge the flip side of the “end of history.” There is no sense of material progress. Things have not improved. Things have not changed.

Doctor Demented.

Author, Author literalises this within its own narrative. Author, Author suggests that little has changed in the Federation’s worldview since The Measure of a Man, while also insisting that nothing will change in the immediate future. Author, Author acknowledges that The Measure of a Man was a desperate punt of a thorny issue, but also frames its own narrative as exactly the same kind of punt. The closing scene of the episode places any long-term consequences of the story four months in the future. In doing so, it places them squarely outside the purview of Voyager in particular and Berman era Star Trek in general.

The only problem with all of this is that Author, Author often seems entirely unaware of how unrelentingly cynical and bleak it is.

Write on!

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Star Trek: Voyager – Q2 (Review)

Q2 is an episode very much in keeping with the ethos of Star Trek: Voyager, particularly at this point in its run.

It isn’t just the strange nostalgia that permeates the episode, opening with an extended oral presentation from Icheb on the heroic exploits of James Tiberius Kirk from the original Star Trek and extending through to the unnecessary return of a beloved recurring guest character from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Nor is it the awkwardness with which Q2 affects a half-hearted compromise in its final act, with the series paying lip service to the fact that its omnipotent (and mostly friendly) guest star could get the crew home with a click of his fingers, while refusing to do that because it would break the series.

“Q2 ratings are way up!”

The essential Voyager-ness at the heart of Q2 is much more profound than all of that. It has to do with how the series treats is returning guest star. Q has been a part of the Star Trek universe dating back to Encounter at Farpoint. John de Lancie has been a recurring guest star on the franchise for thirteen-and-a-half years. Although de Lancie has aged relatively well, and although suspension of belief easily allows for it, even Q himself seems much older between his first and last appearances in the television franchise.

However, Q2 takes a character who was introduced as an immortal and all-powerful trickster god in The Next Generation, and transform him into a stressed middle-aged parent by the end of Voyager. This is a very Voyager approach to characterisation and development. It is how the series has approach many of its characters. In Caretaker, Chakotay was a rebel, Paris as a rogue, and Neelix was a free-wheeling trader; within the show’s first season, all of those rough edges have been filed off. The decision to do that with a character who is effectively a trickster god speaks a lot to the central philosophy of Voyager.

Not kidding around.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Human Error (Review)

Human Error is a staggering act of creative cowardice.

Star Trek: Voyager is in the literal home stretch of its final season; only seven more episodes remain. By this point in its final season, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was mapping out an impressive and ambitious epic tying together seven years of threads into something loosely resembling a single tapestry; the “final chapter” was kicking into high gear with Strange Bedfellows. While Star Trek: The Next Generation was less assuredly wrapping things up, as Star Trek: Generations loomed, there was an air of finality and closure to stories like Journey’s End or Firstborn.

What a dish.

Voyager shows little real sign of progress in the final stretch. There is the occasional piece of housekeeping, such as the awkward decision to get Neelix off the ship in Homestead. There are occasional flashes of thematic reflection on the end of the journey, as in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II. There are also episodes asserting the show’s place within the larger franchise, espousing hollow takes on familiar franchise storytelling in episodes like Critical Care or RepentanceVoyager even shows flashes of anxiety about the franchise iteration that will replace it, in episodes like Friendship One.

Watching the seventh season of Voyager, there is never any doubt that this will be the final season. There is a funereal atmosphere running through the season, that awkward sense of an exhausted athlete grasping desperately for the respite of the finish line. Watching the seventh season of Voyager, fatigue hangs in the air; it is abundantly clear that nobody involved expects an eighth season. However, it is equally obvious that nobody involved with the show has any idea what to do with the seventh season itself.

Not feeling herself.

On its own terms, Human Error is a disappointment in a manner similar to a lot of late Voyager episodes. The premise is highly derivative of a number of relatively recent episodes. As with Imperfection, Seven of Nine experiences a technological malfunction that may kill her due to her Borg implants. As with Someone to Watch Over Me, Seven of Nine experiments with her humanity. As with Pathfinder (and much earlier Hollow Pursuits), a character finds themselves escaping from reality into holographic fantasy. As with Fair Haven, a lead character falls in love with a holographic partner.

Human Error is dull and drab in terms of plotting. Its structure is fairly conventional. It’s secondary plot is underdeveloped, unnecessary and distracting. Its resolution is trite, with Seven of Nine naturally redeeming her earlier failures by saving the crew at the last possible minute using techno-babble and hazily-defined stakes. All of this is pretty standard Voyager plotting. It is not an aberration. There is very little to be said about these elements of the episode. These have been problems with the show for years, and Human Error is not even the most egregious example of any of them.

More like Chako-bae.

The big problem with Human Error is lack of conviction. Human Error is an episode with a premise that requires and demands proper development and exploration. It is an episode that lays down a marker, one that exists primarily so that it can be honoured over the final stretch of the season. Despite the problems within the episode itself, Human Error gambles in a big way on how the rest of the season builds off it. Naturally, Human Error loses this bet, its set-ups never honoured by the episodes that follow. This deals the episode a fatal blow, undercutting it brutally. Human Error is dull and drab, but also pointless.

To be clear, Human Error is not making an unreasonable request of the seven episodes that follow. The premise flowing from Human Error isn’t especially ambitious in the context of early twenty-first century television. Both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine have built skilfully off individual episodes like Human Error, using these set-ups as stepping stones to build something more impressive. Even Voyager has employed that sort of storytelling before, albeit to mixed effect. There is no reason for Human Error to crash so spectacularly, beyond a complete disinterest from Voyager itself.

Don’t bottle it.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Workforce, Part II (Review)

Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II form an interesting two-parter.

A large part of this is purely structural, and down to the role that they play within the larger arc of the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager. One of the most common, and biggest, criticisms of Endgame is that the episode doesn’t actually offer any meaningful pay-off to the seven-year journey. The characters never actually get set foot on Earth, never get to come home. The final shot of the series is the ship itself approaching Earth, with no sense of what it was like for those characters to return to the home that they had sought for more than half a decade. To be fair to Endgame, the finale does open with a flash-forward that features a crew reunion decades after their return, but that timeline is erased by the events that follow.

Chakotay or the highway.

Season finales tend to offer some indication of what happens to the characters after the end of the television series, an assurance to the audience that their journey is over and that their lives will work out. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, What You Leave Behind resolved the Dominion War in its opening sixty minutes before spending thirty minutes wrapping up various plot threads. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, the future timeline in All Good Things… hinted at potential futures for the characters. Even on Star Trek: Enterprise, the much-maligned These Are the Voyages… featured the characters bringing the ship home to be decommissioned so that Archer could lay the groundwork for the Federation.

In contrast, Voyager just stops. There is no real consideration of what happens to the crew; Admiral Owen Paris never gets to meet his granddaughter, the Maquis never get their pardons, Janeway never reunites with Mollie. There is no sense of how they settle into life after their adventure, no question of what happens to them when they aren’t defined by their seventy-thousand-light-year journey across the galaxy. Oddly enough, this complete absence in Endgame makes Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II feel much more important in the larger context of the season.

Over the moon about it.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Workforce, Part I (Review)

Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II form an interesting two-parter.

To a certain extent, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II are overshadowed by the other “event” stories of the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager. Notably, with the exception of the season premiere Unimatrix Zero, Part II, the late-season two-parter was the only multi-part seventh season story to air as a conventional two-part story, with the two halves broadcast one week apart. Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II had aired on the same night as a television movie, similar to how The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II had been broadcast during the fourth season. Endgame would air as a two-hour special episode, in the manner of other Star Trek series finales like All Good Things… or What You Leave Behind.

Labouring under false pretenses.

As such, there is something very traditional about Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, a two-parter that feels more like old-fashioned two-part Star Trek stories than many of the episodes around it. It recalls some of the mid-season two-parters from Star Trek: The Next Generation, like Birthright, Part I and Birthright, Part II or Gambit, Part I and Gambit, Part II. Unlike episodes like Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, it never feels like Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II were conceived as an “event” story. Instead, it feels like the story developed organically and that the production team realised that the story justified two separate episodes rather than being designed to provide a sense of scale or spectacle.

The seventh season of Voyager invests a lot of time and energy in chasing the sensibility of “classic” Star Trek storytelling with clumsy issue-driven narratives like Critical Care or Lineage or Repentance. Often this feels cynical and crass, particularly given how hard those episodes strain to avoid saying anything potentially controversial or divisive. As such, there is something refreshing in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, which feel very much like “old-fashioned” Star Trek storytelling in format as well as content.

Not all there.

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