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Star Trek: Voyager – Counterpoint (Review)

Counterpoint is a spectacular episode of Star Trek: Voyager, a highlight of the fifth season and of the seven season run in general.

Counterpoint is meticulously constructed, put together with a great deal of care and consideration. This is most obvious in the plotting and characterisation in the episode, in the way that the focus of the story remains constant while peeling back the layers on the characters involved. Too many Voyager episodes indulge in a contrived sequence of “… and then…” plotting, while Counterpoint is an episode that understands what it is about and is content to explore its ideas and its characters to their logical conclusions.

Playing it pitch perfect.

Counterpoint benefits from two superb central performances. Mark Harelik is one of the strongest one-shot guest stars to appear on Voyager, playing Kashyk as an endearingly ambiguous figure caught half way between a conventional romantic lead and a fascist thug. However, Counterpoint works best as a showcase for Kate Mulgrew as Kathryn Janeway. Mulgrew has always been one of the strongest members of Voyager‘s primary cast, but the production team always struggled to play to her strengths while building a consistent character.

Counterpoint is an episode that plays perfectly to the strengths of all involved, creating a symphony where all of the orchestra is playing both in key and in time with one another. At this point in the run, Voyager should be producing episodes like this with much greater consistency.

Near kiss.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Thirty Days (Review)

Thirty Days is a fascinating misfire.

Thirty Days is build around a number of interesting ideas. In terms of character, there is the framing device that finds Tom Paris sentenced to spend one month in the brig after an act of crass insubordination, suggesting a relapse into the “bad boy” persona that was largely forgotten after Ex Post Facto, barring the occasional revival for episodes like Vis á Vis. It also hints at questions of discipline on the ship, something around which Star Trek: Voyager has skirted in the past in episodes like Prime Factors and Manoeuvres. There is a compelling story here, somewhere.

Watching Thirty Days can feel like…

In terms of science-fiction plot elements, Thirty Days features the first ocean planet in the history of the Star Trek franchise. That is interesting of itself. What wonders lurk within an ocean world? What would life look like had it never left the sea and set foot on land? There is something decidedly pulpy and magical about a planet that has no surface of which to speak, instead comprised of waves and tides. Even with the flimsiest of plots, this element alone should provide fodder for an exciting installment.

Unfortunately, Thirty Days fumbles both of these interesting elements, falling victim to a recurring issue with the plotting on Voyager. The pacing is awkward, the plot points are under-developed, the framing device is hackneyed. The script for Thirty Days seems far more concerned about hitting the forty-five minute mark than it does with using these elements to tell a compelling story. The result is a bit of a wash.

Water conservation.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Nothing Human (Review)

Nothing Human is very much an example of Star Trek: Voyager doing archetypal Star Trek, those abstract morality plays with elaborate prosthetics that offer commentary on contemporary conundrums.

Nothing Human is essentially a story about scientific ethics, about the question of what to do with information that was gathered through amoral means. Is knowledge tainted by the mechanisms through which it was acquired? Is the use of that research an endorsement of the means through which it was conducted? At the very least, does employing such information erode the user’s moral high ground? Does the use of such data make them a hypocrite, demonstrating a willingness to reap the benefits of such monstrous work, but without getting their hands dirty?

Something inhuman.

These are tough questions, with obvious applications in the modern world. These are the sorts of abstract ethical queries that are well-suited to a Star Trek episode, and there is something very endearing in the way that Nothing Human often comes down to two characters debating scientific ethics in a room together. To be fair, Nothing Human is a little too cluttered and clumsy to be as effective as it might otherwise be, its conclusions a little too neat, its developments just a little bit too tidy.

However, Nothing Human is a great example of the way in which Voyager tried to offer a version of Star Trek reflecting the popular perception of it. Nothing Human is a little clumsy in places, but it is an episode that is very much in line with what casual viewers expect from Star Trek in the abstract.

A Cardie-carrying monster.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Infinite Regress (Review)

As with One from late in the fourth season, Infinite Regress is an episode that uses Seven of Nine’s cybernetic mind as a vehicle for psychological horror.

Producer Brannon Braga has always been interested in constructing psychological thrillers within the science-fiction framework of Star Trek, using the franchise’s pseudo-science trappings as a way to explore themes of mental deterioration or disconnect. Frame of Mind is probably the first example, but there are many others. Braga is very interested in having his characters question the nature of their reality, of trapping them within their own minds, of undercutting their sense of self. That interest bled into the shows around him.

Self-image.

Star Trek: Voyager presented the writers with an artificial computer-generated character who could more readily combine the writer’s fascination with psychological thrillers and the franchise’s engagement with advanced technology. The EMH was a character whose mind was comprised entirely of computer protocols and software code. His mind could be unfurled on monitors, buffered in memory, fragmented on the hard drive. Episodes like Projections, The Swarm and Darkling suggested a character prone to psychosis, reinforced by Dejaren’s breakdown in Revulsion.

However, the addition of Seven of Nine to the cast in Scorpion, Part II seemed to provide the the Voyager writers (and Braga in particular) with character who could function as an even more effective vehicle for these sorts of stories. Seven is a fusion of human and machine, an organic brain augmented by technological components. She is a character whose mind is in many ways already divided, whose sense of self is understandably fragile. As such, Seven is ideally suited to stories like Infinite Regress.

Mind your step.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Timeless (Review)

The one hundredth episode of any television show should be a cause for celebration.

After all, one hundred episodes exists at a number of interesting points in the life of a show. It tends to arrive late in the fourth season or early in the fifth season of a twenty-odd-episode-a-season series, meaning that any television show making it to that point has amassed some cultural cache. By that stage, most of the original contracts are expiring (or close to expiring) and so there is at least some sense as to how secure the future is. One hundred episodes also marks the series as viable for syndication; one hundred episodes airing five days a week can fill substantial airtime.

Ice to see you again.

To be fair, the other Star Trek series tended to mark the occasion with some low-key celebrations. The one hundredth episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was Redemption, Part I, which was primarily notable for reasons behind the camera; both a set visit from Ronald Reagan and the end of the fourth season that had so frustratingly eluded the original series. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine marked both its one hundredth hour (The Ship) and its one hundredth episode (… Nor the Battle to the Strong) as “business as usual.”

However, Star Trek: Voyager turns its one hundredth episode into an epic event. It is the perfect distillation of the “Voyager as blockbuster Star Trek” aesthetic championed by Brannon Braga: a truly jaw-dropping computer-generated action scene, with Voyager crashing on the surface of an ice world; a high-stakes time-travel plot, with a killer hook; a guest appearance from a beloved Next Generation actor. Timeless is an incredibly ambitious piece of television that practically screams “this is a very special occasion!” to the audience at the top of its lungs.

LaForging ahead.

And, yet, for all of that, there is something decidedly funereal about the episode. The episode opens with the memorable shot of the eponymous starship buried under the ice on some forgotten and unnamed world. The crew are long dead, but the ship itself remains preserved and trapped in amber. While Timeless might eventually end with future!Kim changing the timeline and shaving ten years off the journey, the episode’s most iconic images are destructive: Voyager crashing and bouncing, the familiar sets encased in ice.

This is not a birthday party, it is a wake.

Seven and the EMH never saw eye-to-eye.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Once Upon a Time (Review)

Once Upon a Time is another example of thwarted ambition on Star Trek: Voyager.

The original pitch for the episode was incredibly ambitious and narratively experimental, a Star Trek story told exclusively from the perspective of a child character trying to make sense of a world from which the adults are trying to protect her. In many ways, it recalls the original pitch for Macrocosm, an episode that Brannon Braga had originally hoped to write as a piece of silent television. However, like that earlier episode, the original plan for Once Upon a Time was vetoed in favour of something far more conventional.

Toyetic, isn’t he?

In many ways, this conservatism was a reminder of just how far Voyager was being left behind, of how the dominant production strand of the Star Trek franchise was failing to keep pace with the changing media landscape around it. Genre television had been a hotbed for experimentation in the nineties. Twin Peaks changed television, allowing the medium to embrace surrealism and weirdness in a way never seen before. Series like Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine returned serialisation to prime time, after it had fallen out of fashion.

Over the course of the decade, genre shows were willing to push the boundaries of what was possible in television, proving dynamic in a way that would be hugely influential for the more high-brow “prestige” series that followed. Even shows like The X-Files, Space: Above and Beyond and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer indulged in the occasional experimental episodes like The Post-Modern Prometheus, Triangle, Who Monitors the Birds?, Hush and Once More With Feeling. There was a revolution taking place in television during the nineties.

It’ll never catch on.

Of course, that particular television revolution was already in its final days as the decade drew to a close. The next big innovation in television storytelling was just around the corner, with The Sopranos only a few months away from broadcast. Once that happened, the television revolution would shift away from science-fiction and horror shows on free-to-access broadcasters and towards more critically-respected genres on more prestigious (and exclusive) networks. Voyager would have been late to the party anyway, but instead decided to skip it anyway.

Once Upon a Time is an ambitious premise watered down to mediocre execution. It is Voyager in a nutshell.

Why, I Flotter…

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Star Trek: Voyager – In the Flesh (Review)

In the Flesh is a curiously nostalgic episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Nostalgic in a number of different ways. Most obviously, it opens on what appears to be Earth, bringing the Voyager crew to something resembling home. The campus recalls visits to Starfleet Command in earlier episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine like The First Duty, Homefront and Paradise Lost. There is even a prominent guest appearance from Boothby, the groundskeeper who was referenced as early as Final Mission. When it is eventually revealed to be a ruse, it is explained as a ruse orchestrated by old villains Species 8472.

Picture imperfect.

However, In the Flesh feels nostalgic in a deeper sense, extending even beyond the Star Trek canon. There is something very retro about the threat presented here, about a top secret facsimile of a distant world being used to train infiltrators in a deep space cold war. In the Flesh feels like a piece of fifties paranoia, with specific creative choices evoking film noir storytelling and even the aesthetic of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Night of the Living Dead. The most prominent guest star is Ray Walston, a veteran of cult sixties sci-fi show My Favourite Martian.

To be fair, Voyager has always had a strong nostalgic streak for pulpy fifties and sixties science-fiction, but it is strange to see it so pronounced. In its own weird way, it fits with the general nostalgic tone of the fifth season as a whole.

Look at the “8” in their eyes.

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