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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.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Critical Care (Review)

Critical Care is the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager attempting to be archetypal Star Trek.

To be fair, Voyager had done this before. When Jeri Taylor took over the show during its third season, she steered it away from the disaster of the Kazon arc and towards a more conventional style of Star Trek storytelling. Many of the episodes of the later seasons could easily have been repurposed for Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Star Trek: Enterprise without changing much beyond the characters’ names; think of Warlord, Scientific Method, Random Thoughts, Waking Moments.

What’s up, Doc?

This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Indeed, many of the best episodes of Voyager had this broad and generic quality to them, offering something resembling an archetypal distillation of Star Trek for audiences. Remember and Memorial were both stunning explorations of cultural memory and Holocaust denial that could arguably have worked with any Star Trek cast. Blink of an Eye was a beautiful science-fiction parable that was more about Star Trek itself than Voyager. Even Nemesis could have easily worked with Riker or O’Brien or Tucker as easily as it did with Chakotay.

However, there are also points when these attempts to create “archetypal Star Trek” feels cynical and exploitative, the writing staff very cynically offering audiences something that is designed to meet as many of the vaguely defined aesthetic qualities of Star Trek, but without any substance underneath it. This happens repeatedly during the seventh season of Voyager, when it seems like the production team understand what Star Trek looks and feels like enough to offer a passable approximation, but don’t understand the underlying mechanics enough to replicate that ineffable feeling.

“Don’t worry, we’re almost home.”

Like a lot of seventh season episodes, Critical Care is couched in the trappings of Star Trek but without any substance to group it. On the surface, Critical Care is classic “social commentary” storytelling, the type of allegorical narrative exemplified by stories like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or The High Ground. It is an episode about the horrors of contemporary healthcare, transposed to a distant alien world where Voyager can draw some very broad parallels for the audience watching at home. This is, on a very superficial level, what Star Trek is to a large number of fans.

Unfortunately, these touches do not add up to anything particularly insightful or compelling, Critical Care providing observations on contemporary American healthcare that amount to “this is pretty bad, isn’t it?” without anything resembling actual engagement. The result is a shell of an episode, a missed opportunity, and a pale imitation of the franchise’s best social commentary.

“What is up, Doc?”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Repression (Review)

There is something almost obligatory about Repression, as if the production team have arrived at the point in every season where they are obligated to do a Tuvok-centric story but without any particularly strong ideas for that Tuvok-centric story. It is there because Tim Russ is a credited lead and Tuvok is part of the ensemble, and because there is a twenty-six episode season order to fill. It is not there because any writer thought that there was a story that needed to be told with Tuvok, some part of his psyche that needed to be illuminated.

The seventh season is populated with episodes like this, stories built around particularly characters in the most archetypal of fashions. Star Trek: Voyager is frequently criticised for recycling premises from other Star Trek series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the show is less often criticised for simply repeating itself. The supporting characters on Voyager don’t really have arcs, often simply having a handful of stories that the series dutifully cycles through on rotation.

“Another fine mess(hall) you’ve gotten us into, Tuvok…”

On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a marathon of character-centric episodes would reveal the slow and gradual evolution of the cast. Julian Bashir changes and evolves over his time on the series, from the generic any-character-will-do narratives of The Passenger and Melora into the weirder and more awkward Distant Voices through to his emergence as a distinctive person in Hippocratic Oath, Our Man Bashir and The Quickening. Bashir is not the same character in What You Leave Behind that he was in Emissary, and watching a chain of episodes based around Bashir would explain and explore that growth.

In contrast, a character-centric marathon on Voyager would be a much more frustrating experience, as the characters inevitably go through the same motion and repeat the same plots. This is particularly true in the seventh season episodes, where the obligatory character-focused episodes underscore how little these characters have actually and fundamentally changed since the first season. In Nightingale, Harry Kim is still insecure and lacking in experience. In Lineage and Prophecy, B’Elanna Torres is once again wrestling with her Klingon heritage. In Drive, Tom Paris is once again the careless flyboy who learns about responsibility.

“The more things don’t change…”

At the same time, Tuvok has always represented a very particular challenge for the writers, in that he doesn’t even really have an archetypal story in the same way that Torres or Kim or Paris does. Tuvok doesn’t have a “lesson” that he needs to learn over and over again, or a default factory setting that he can fall back to in order to learn that lesson. At least at the end of Extreme Risk or Juggernaut, Torres had learned that she should not let her more destructive impulses guide her actions, even if she would forget it and learn again. This allows for a character arc that can be repeated and reiterated. In contrast, Tuvok was generally well-adjusted and well-balanced.

As a result, stories featuring Tuvok tend to take something away from him and watch him struggle to return to normality. As a Vulcan, Tuvok is often stripped of his Vulcan reserve and forced to recover it. The results can be interesting and compelling, with Meld and Gravity ranking among the best episodes that Voyager ever produced. However, these episodes can also feel very trite and formulaic, often reducing Tuvok to a passenger in stories nominally focused on him: he drives a lot of the plot in Random Thoughts, but Torres in the focal character; Riddles is about something that happens to Tuvok, but focuses on Neelix.

Looking at things from a new perspective.

Repression is notably the show’s last Tuvok-centric story. It is also perhaps the most archetypal. As with episodes like Nightingale or Lineage, it is a collection of familiar tropes for a supporting cast member trotted out one last time before the show crosses the finish line. Repression is an episode that has clearly been assembled from a variety of earlier episodes focused on Tuvok, right down to plot points and individual scenes or costume choices; it is Random Thoughts meets Meld, with an extended final-act homage to Worst Case Scenario. All of which reduces Tuvok to a passenger in his own story.

This is a shame, as Repression works about as well as any episode built around its core premise has any right to it. Like Drive before it, there’s a certain pulpy thrill to its core premise that fits comfortably within the heightened retro sci-fi surroundings of Voyager. The story of a detective who is investigating himself, spreading subversive ideas through telepathic assault, Repression is a patently absurd bit of television which feels very much of a piece with earlier stories like Cathexis or Macrocosm or Darkling or In the Flesh. It works much better as a trashy late-night B-movie than as a character-centric narrative.

There’ll be Meld to pay for this.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Drive (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager has always had a pulpy sensibility, perhaps more than any other Star Trek series outside of the original.

There is something very retrograde about Voyager, something that harkens back to the plotting of old B-movies. The Communist paranoia of Cathexis or In the Flesh, the goofy science-fiction high-concepts of The 37s or Innocence or Tuvix or Rise or Macrocosm, the monster movie stylings of Threshold, the exaggerated campy horror aesthetic of Darkling or Revulsion or Alice. Even older science-fiction staples like the body-swap episodes Vis á Vis, Body and Soul or Renaissance Man. There is a reason why Voyager felt so comfortable doing an episode like Bride of Chaotica!

Photo finish.

With all of that in mind, Drive seems lie a perfect fit for Voyager. It is admittedly an absurd premise, a story about a racing tournament organised by four alien species as a testament to the fragile peace that they have built. Inevitably, Paris gets involved with the Delta Flyer. Inevitably, the crew uncover a wave of shady double-dealing that involves sabotage, attempted murder and terrorism as part of a plot to destabilise the entire region. It is completely and utterly ridiculous, feeling like the kind of low-budget trash that an audience member might stumble across flicking through the channels very early one weekday morning.

And yet, there’s a certain charm to it. Drive is a deeply flawed episode, with all manner of serious plotting and character issues. However, there’s also a sense that the production team are enjoying themselves. At a point when so much of Voyager feels like it is going through the motions, there is a certain appeal in a piece of pulpy entertainment that relishes its own existence.

The event wasn’t marr(i)ed.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Imperfection (Review)

With Imperfection, the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager can begin in earnest.

After all, Unimatrix Zero, Part II was the second-half of the almost-obligatory season-bridging two-parter, the conclusion to Unimatrix Zero, Part I. As the second episode of a two-parter, the season premiere had been written by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky. Those two writers would be mostly absent from the final season. After a decade of contributions dating back to include Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Joe Menosky was taking a break from the franchise. Meanwhile, Brannon Braga was busy working with Rick Berman on the upcoming launch of Star Trek: Enterprise.

The episode never really gets inside Seven’s head.

As such, Imperfection is an episode that is much more indicative of the seventh season of Voyager. It offers a much more concrete example of what Voyager will look like during the final stretch of the journey home. It reflects the tone and aesthetic of Voyager under its latest showrunner, with Kenneth Biller stepping into the role that Brannon Braga had vacated to plan for Enterprise. While Imperfection is still very much a product of the same show that had broadcast The Haunting of Deck Twelve or Life Line, there is something subtly different within it.

Of course, Imperfection isn’t really the start of the seventh season. It was the fourth episode of the seventh season to be produced, following Drive and Repression. It was just awkwardly bumped up the broadcast order, resulting a variety of glaringly obvious continuity issues that the production team never even bother to acknowledge. Of itself, this suggests the tone that is being set for the seventh season.

Some cheek.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part II (Review)

To be fair, the clue is in the title.

It is hard to overstate just how big a cultural impact The Matrix had. The film was the fifth highest grossing movie in the United States, the fourth worldwide and the highest-grossing R-rated film of 1999. The Matrix immediately entered the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time at in the twentieth position, and only climbed from there. The Matrix was the first movie to sell more than one million copies on the the nascent DVD format.

Can’t see the forest for the trees.

More than that, The Matrix became a cultural shorthand. Phrases from the film (and its production) entered the popular lexicon; “I know kung-fu”, “the woman in the red dress”, “the red pill”, “bullet time.” Quentin Tarantino named it as one of his favourite movies of the previous quarter-century. The film lives on a context beyond its original production, its language coopted by fringe groups like incels or men’s rights activists or the alt-right. This just speaks to the impact that the film had upon an entire generation of young men.

To be fair, The Matrix did not necessarily articulate anything new, instead bringing together a wealth of science-fiction tropes with an Asian-influenced action aesthetic. After all, it was just one of a wave of films dealing with similar thematic ideas around the same time; The Thirteenth Floor, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenZ, Harsh Realm. Even Star Trek: Voyager had riffed on similar ideas in stories like Projections or Course: Oblivion. Nevertheless, The Matrix seemed to speak to a particular millennial anxiety at the end of the nineties.

Love across light years.

The Matrix was the story of a future in which humanity had been enslaved, in which human bodies were treated as batteries for a vast and uncaring system. In order to keep humanity docile, this system fed mankind a shared illusion of life at the end of the twentieth century. This illusory world was reality for those dreamers trapped within it, touching on various anxieties about reality and unreality in the context of the late nineties. The Matrix packaged up a host of ambient fears about capitalism, virtual reality, illusion and the end of history in a clever and exciting action film.

It seems inevitable that Voyager would offer its own take on this concept. After all, the series had been playing with similar ideas dating back to its own first season. The fragility of reality and the dangers of convincing simulation are a recurring motif. Indeed, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are not even the only episodes that draw heavily from The Matrix. There are shades of it to Work Force, Part I and Work Force, Part II. Nevertheless, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are undoubtedly the most overt examples of this.

Unimatrix reloaded.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Season 6 (Review)

The sixth season of Star Trek: Voyager was not an easy season, by any measure.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had come to an end during the previous television season. Paramount had made a conscious decision not to launch a new Star Trek television series to fill the gap on the airwaves. This was a rather ominous decision. When Star Trek: The Next Generation had finally wound down in the mid-nineties, Paramount had committed to having two different spin-offs on the air at the same time and springboarding the cast and crew on to the big screen with Star Trek: Generations less than a half a year later.

In contrast, the silence following the end of Deep Space Nine was deafening. Following the critical and commercial disappointment of Star Trek: Insurrection, it would be four years before the Next Generation cast returned to the big screen in Star Trek: Nemesis. At the same time, there was increasing concern about declining ratings for the larger Star Trek franchise in both the fan and mainstream press. Although there were already plans in place for the series that would become Star Trek: Enterprise, it was decided that no new series would premiere before Voyager ended.

Voyager had never been more alone than it was during its sixth season.

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