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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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Star Trek: Voyager – Spirit Folk (Review)

The holodeck is horrifying.

This is nothing new. It has been this way since Star Trek: The Next Generation. The holodeck has been an unsettling concept from almost the very beginning, not least because of the kinds of stories that the holodeck suggests. From the moment that the Enterprise updated the holodeck in The Big Goodbye, there has been a creeping sense that the holographic creations are capable of comprehending the nature of their existence; in fact, that episode ends with the horrifying notion of McNary wondering what would happen to him when Picard turned off the program.

It’s the poster for the least exciting action movie of the late nineties.

This anxiety simmered in the background of the next few holodeck-centric episode, albeit less directly. Both Minuet in 11001001 and the Comic in The Outrageous Okona seemed to grasp their nature as computer constructs designed to serve specific purposes. They lacked the existential angst that McNary expressed in his final moments, but there was still something lurking just beneath the surface. If these entities were self-aware, could their creation and destruction be ethical? In Elementary, Dear Data, Moriarty brought the question to the fore; a hologram who wished to escape his captivity.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine largely stayed away from the holodeck (or the holosuite) for most of its run, barring small recurring gags about the crew’s recreational use of the facilities. Our Man Bashir cleverly side-stepped the issue of holographic self-awareness by casting the lead actors in the role of holographic supporting players. Nevertheless, the introduction of Vic Fontaine in His Way introduced yet another self-aware holographic character, his self-awareness taken for granted and only really articulated in episodes like It’s Only a Paper Moon.

A public (house) meeting.

In contrast, Star Trek: Voyager has only doubled-down on this idea that holographic characters are self-aware. This is most obvious with the EMH, the holographic doctor who struggled for recognition as a person in early episodes like Eye of the Needle and who made a long and gradual journey towards self-actualisation in episodes like Lifesigns and Real Life. However the show engaged with the idea of holographic self-awareness even outside of the EMH, with characters like Dejaran in Revulsion, Leonardo DaVinci in Concerning Flight, the aliens in Bride of Chaotica! and the town in Fair Haven.

To be fair, some of the arguments made by Voyager have been treated with the weight which they deserve. The EMH consciously asserts his personhood in Author, Author, a clumsy but well-intentioned final-season homage to The Measure of a Man. There is a sense that Voyager is capable of treating holograms with the same dignity that The Next Generation afforded Data on his own journey towards self-actualisation. There is something genuinely moving, for example, in the way that the degradation of his program in The Swarm is treated with the same gravity as the neurological decline of a flesh-and-blood character.

Mass appeal.

However, this also creates a strange dissonance in the episodes that don’t use the holodeck for high drama, and instead treat it as the setting for a romp or an adventure. Voyager seems to argue that every hologram is capable of reaching self-awareness, which means that every use of the holodeck to create new characters should be a momentous occasion. In the world of Voyager, every holodeck program, with the right combination of time and experience, can become a sentient being. This means that use of the holodeck should be something treated with weight and respect.

Fair Haven and Spirit Folk are nowhere near as charming as the production team seem to think that they are, but in the broader context of how Voyager approaches holographic characters, they are downright horrifying.

High spirits.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Barge of the Dead (Review)

There is some small symmetry in Barge of the Dead.

When Bryan Fuller first pitched to Star Trek, he pitched to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The first idea that he sold was The Darkness and the Light, which felt like something approaching a gothic serial killer horror about a deformed killer stalking his victims using the franchise’s hyper-advanced technology. That original idea was heavily re-written by franchise veteran Ronald D. Moore, who also brought a more substantial thematic weight to the story by focusing on themes of violence and retribution.

Barging in.

In contrast, Barge of the Dead is the last television story that Ronald D. Moore would pitch for the franchise, coming at the very end of his time on Star Trek: Voyager. The episode has its roots in an earlier pitch by the writer, the original idea for Soldiers of the Empire. However, Moore would depart the franchise before he could finish work on Barge of the Dead, and so the writing of the script fell to Bryan Fuller. Much like Moore had subtly shifted the emphasis of The Darkness and the Light to his own thematic interests, Fuller embraces his own sensibilities in reworking Barge of the Dead.

Moore had re-written Fuller’s last story, and Fuller would re-write Moore’s last story. There is some sense of poetry in this.

Tom’s idea of a romantic evening certainly needed some work.

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Star Trek: Discovery – Battle at the Binary Stars (Review)

In some ways, Star Trek: Discovery will always be overshadowed by what might have been.

It is not the first Star Trek series to face this particular hurdle. Both Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise spent the majority of their runs in competition with phantom versions of themselves. Voyager was supposed to be a show about two rival crews, one a bunch of explorers and the other a group of terrorists, forced to work together when stranded alone on the other side of the galaxy. Enterprise was supposed to be a show about the building of the familiar Star Trek universe, a tale about how mankind got “from there to here”, to quote the theme music.

The great Star Trek Beyond.

Both series struggled to live up to that premise. Voyager abandoned any question of compromise and culture clash in Parallax, the very second episode of the series. For the rest of the show’s seven seasons, Captain Kathryn Janeway oversaw a fairly typical Starfleet crew on a fairly typical Star Trek mission, with rare nods to the original premise in episodes like Learning Curve, Alliances, Worst Case Scenario, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. Similarly, most of the first two seasons of Enterprise were stock Star Trek, even if the third and fourth seasons were a bit more ambitious.

In contrast, Discovery is competing against a slightly different shadow self. That shadow self appears in the opening credits of the show week after week, in the “created by” credit assigned to Bryan Fuller. Fuller departed early in the creative process of Discovery following disagreements with CBS, to the point that he identifies his most meaningful contributions to Discovery as Captain Philippa Georgiou and Commander Michael Burnham, one of whom is dead by the end of Battle at the Binary Stars.

No Khan do.

Indeed, Bryan Fuller’s contributions to Discovery really end with these two episodes. Fuller is credited on the script for The Vulcan Hello, along with producer Akiva Goldsman. Fuller is also credited with the story to Battle at the Binary Stars, even though the teleplay was written by replacement showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts. In some ways, then, it feels strangely appropriate that The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars serve as something of a self-contained prologue setting up the thirteen episodes that will follow.

The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars mark the end of Bryan Fuller’s short-lived Star Trek.

Empirical research.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Gravity (Review)

Gravity is a powerful story, all the more effective for its relative simplicity.

Tuvok has been one of the most overlooked and ignored regular cast members on Star Trek: Voyager. The later seasons tend to neglect Harry Kim and Chakotay, but they had been given considerable focus in the earlier years of the show. Chakotay had been a major focus in The Cloud, State of Flux, Cathexis, Initiations, Tattoo, Manoeuvres and Basics, Part I. Kim had taken centre stage in Emanations, Prime Factors, Non Sequitur and The Thaw. In contrast, Tuvok remained relatively anonymous, more of a supporting player than a narrative focal point.

Vulcan on a ledge.

In hindsight, this appears a rather strange choice. Tuvok is the first full-blooded Vulcan character to appear as a regular on a Star Trek show. Spock is easily the most iconic character in the franchise, to the point that he would be the torchbearer for the JJ Abrams reboot and his family still haunts Star Trek: Discovery. As such, having a fully Vulcan character should have led to all manner of interesting stories. After all, Tuvok was introduced in Caretaker as a spy working undercover in the Maquis. There should have been a lot of material to mine in the set-up.

However, for most of the run of Voyager, Tuvok seemed cast in a supporting role. He was the investigator in episodes where the crew were falsely accused, as Paris was in Ex Post Facto or Torres was in Random Thoughts. He was a reliable sounding board for other characters, as with Kes in Cold Fire or Neelix in Rise or Seven of Nine in The Raven. He was even effectively employed as a mind-controlled monster in episodes like Cathexis and Repression. Tellingly, most of the handful of episodes focusing on Tuvok focus on events where he is not himself; Tuvix, Riddles.

Vulcan love slave.

This is a shame, as there is a lot of fertile ground to explore within Vulcan psychology. Logic is never as clean or simple as Spock made it sound. Existence is full of logical contradictions and inconsistencies. The two best Tuvok-centric episodes of Voyager tend to focus on these inconsistencies. Meld is an episode in which Tuvok asks questions for which there can be no answer, and in which his insistence that the universe is an ordered and logical structure pushes him to some very dark places. Gravity explores the long-standing myth that Vulcans are emotionless.

Gravity is a surprisingly influential episode of Voyager, an episode that explores the implications of an idea which the larger Star Trek franchise had taken for granted for more than thirty years. It is an episode that feels unique in the larger context of Voyager, one build as much around character as action. It is story about love and repression, one rooted very much in who Tuvok is. It might just be one of the best Vulcan-centric stories in the franchise.

Tuvok lightens up.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Mortal Coil (Review)

In its own weird way, Mortal Coil effectively amounts to a Star Trek: Voyager Christmas Special.

It unfolds in the lead up to the Talaxian festival of Prixin, which Neelix describes as “the Talaxian celebration of family. We observe it every year on Voyager.” Bringing friends and family together on an annual basis with ritualised food preparation and salutations, it serves as analogous to Thanksgiving or Christmas. Indeed, this sort of thinly-disguised Christmas celebration is a science-fiction stable. Perhaps “Life Day” from Star Wars Holiday Special is the most obvious example. To solidify this Yuletide sensibility, Mortal Coil aired the week before Christmas.

Choking on his Borgophobia.

They just keep killing Neelix.

There is something decidedly wry about the one and only Star Trek Christmas Special. (And no, the Christmas Party in Dagger of the Mind doesn’t really count.) This is after all an episode in which a regular character loses his faith in the existence of an afterlife and attempts to commit suicide in a transporter room. It is a strange choice for a seasonal story. In some ways, it feels very much like a Bryan Fuller script, a subversion of the traditional Christmas narrative. After all, Fuller has talked about Hannibal as an exploration of heterosexual male friendship. Just one with murder and cannibalism thrown in.

Mortal Coil is a fascinating episode, albeit one that feels decidedly clumsy in its execution. The episode hesitates and wavers on what it wants to say, offering a wishy-washy conclusion to a very powerful premise. Still, Mortal Coil is intriguing for its oddness.

I met a man who wasn't there.

I met a man who wasn’t there.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Sons and Daughters (Review)

If A Time to Stand and Rocks and Shoals demonstrate the raw potential and ambition of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, then Sons and Daughters demonstrate its shortcomings.

The fourth and fifth seasons of Deep Space Nine rank among the very best seasons of Star Trek every produced. These two seasons demonstrated a striking level of consistency. There were undoubtedly terrible episodes, like Shattered Mirror and The Muse in the fourth season or The Assignment and Let He Who Is Without Sin… However, these episodes tended to be quite concentrated. Even other episodes that didn’t quite work, like The Sword of Kahless, Sons of Mogh, A Simple Investigation or Ferengi Love Songs, were more bland than outright bad.

Let me be your father figure...

Let me be your father figure…

The sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine lack that consistency. They are even more ambitious than the two seasons directly prior, pushing harder in bolder new directions and resulting in brilliant television like Waltz, Far Beyond the Stars, In the Pale Moonlight, Treachery, Faith, and the Great River, The Siege of AR-558, It’s Only a Paper Moon, Chimera, Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges and Tacking Into the Wind. The sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine were breathtaking and highly enjoyable on their own terms.

In fact, there is a very credible argument for ranking the sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine among the best seasons of the franchise. They represent the last great narrative leap forward until the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise. These two seasons are driven by a desire to take risks and try new things, to make ambitious gambles knowing that they might not pay off. These are certainly virtues to be encouraged, even without that laundry list of spectacular television.

The lost art of parenting.

The lost art of parenting.

However, with that level of ambition, the sixth and seventh seasons were also much more variable in terms of quality. They contained a lot more misfires than the previous two seasons. This is not just the obvious high-profile failures like Profit and Lace or The Emperor’s New Cloak, but also a lot more episodes that disappoint without hitting quite that level of awfulness; One Little Ship, The Reckoning, Time’s Orphan, Prodigal Daughter, Field of Fire, Extreme Measures. There is a sense that the number of bad episodes increases noticeably.

Sons and Daughters is perhaps the first example of this trend. It is an episode that is not soul-destroying terrible, but it simply does not work in the way that it is intended to work. Sons and Daughters is not only the weakest episode of the six-episode opening arc, it is also the first episode to be written by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson as members of the series’ writing staff. The two facts might not be unrelated.

All (Mar)tok tok tok.

All (Mar)tok tok tok.

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