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Star Trek: Voyager – Renaissance Man (Review)

Renaissance Man is a poor episode of television. However, it is not an especially misguided one.

The flaws with Renaissance Man are largely structural and familiar. They are the flaws that define Star Trek: Voyager, from a storytelling point of few. The plotting is loose. The characterisation is threadbare. There are good ideas, but the manner in which those ideas are developed and explores leaves a lot to be desired. There are flashes of a much better episode, but it is unclear that even the production team realise what those flashes are. The pacing is awkward, with act breaks positioned very poorly. There is an unnecessary secondary climax that muddies the episode.

Leaps and bounds ahead.

However, Renaissance Man largely avoids the more fundamental philosophical problems that have haunted so much of the seventh season before it. Renaissance Man seems cobbled together from stray ideas seeded in earlier episodes of the season, but those ideas are not inherently toxic or bad. Following on from the deeply uncomfortable isolationist and xenophobic triptych of Friendship One, Natural Law and Homestead, there is something refreshing in the fact that Renaissance Man is not explicitly about how people should keep to themselves.

Renaissance Man is underwhelming, but it is not a spectacular misfire. At this point in the season, that counts for much more than it really should.

I, EMH.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Homestead (Review)

Homestead represents the culmination of certain impulses within Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, some of those impulses were baked into the show from the outset. The end of Caretaker immediately and effectively established the central premise of the series. Voyager was to be a story about a crew trying to get “home.” Of course, the question of what “home” actually meant was always up for debate. Perhaps “home” could be the unlikely bond that this crew formed with one another, a strange alliance of misfits who found a way to belong together in a way they never could apart; the idea of “home” at the heart of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, for example.

“Home.”

However, over the following seven seasons, the idea of “home” came into sharp focus. “Home” was not so much about finding an abstract place where a person might belong. “Home” was about returning to a point of origin. “Home” was a not place that could be created or developed, it was a nostalgic ideal. “Home” was not somewhere that could be found on “the final frontier.” In fact, it was the exact opposite. It was a fixed place that was (by definition) as far from the frontier as possible. This theme was heavily articulated in the show’s seventh and final season.

Of course, this very narrow and rigid definition of “home” creates a problem for one member of the cast. Voyager repeatedly and consciously assumes that all of its cast belong in the Alpha Quadrant, because they originated there. It does not matter that Tom Paris never fit in at home, or that the Maquis characters never integrated into Starfleet. It does not matter that Seven of Nine cannot remember Earth. These characters are going back to their point of origin, because that is what “home” means. What, then, of Neelix? How does Neelix get to go “home”?

“Home.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Natural Law (Review)

Natural Law represents another vaguely nostalgic entry in the final season of Star Trek: Voyager.

Most superficially, Natural Law evokes the vague New Age sentiment that defined a lot of the early episodes focusing on Chakotay – episodes like The Cloud or Tattoo. It feels entirely appropriate that Chakotay should be part of the away team to encounter the Ventu, as the presentation of the Ventu evokes a lot of the early approach to Chakotay’s own Native American heritage; a romanticised ideal of a more primitive culture. In fact, it seems entirely plausible that the aliens who build the shield to protect the Ventu – the mysterious “Species 312” – might in fact be the same white-skinned aliens encountered in Tattoo.

“I can see what’s happening, and they don’t have a clue…”

More specifically, though, Natural Law represents a familiar archetypal Star Trek episodes. Although the words are not actually spoken within the episode itself, Natural Law is pretty much a textbook “Prime Directive” episode. It belongs to that familiar subset of stories about the crew encountering a group of primitive aliens affected by a piece of outside technology, and trying to weigh their obligation to help that society with their desire not to directly intervene. The Ventu are a familiar native archetype, albeit one handled with a little more grace and dignity than the inhabitants of Gamma Trianguli VI in The Apple.

There is something very interesting in Natural Law, particularly in the context of the seventh season’s recurring fascination with tying Voyager back to the roots of the Star Trek franchise with references to Kirk in episodes like Q2 and Friendship One. Ironically, Natural Law only underscores how far removed Voyager is from the original Star Trek. Kirk often struggled to justify bending the Prime Directive to liberate societies trapped in oppressive circumstances and kept in arrested development. In contrast, Natural Law strains to justify the washing of the crew’s hands. More than that, Natural Law reveals the true purpose of the Prime Directive has nothing to do with primitive cultures.

The rise and falls…

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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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