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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 – One Small Step (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager marks the end of the future.

Many fans would point to Star Trek: Enterprise as the moment that the larger Star Trek franchise turned its gaze backwards and embraced a sense of broad nostalgia for a future that was already behind that explored in the original series. After all, the last television series of the Berman era took the franchise back to its roots and paved the way for both J.J. Abrams’ pseudo-reboot in Star Trek and for Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman’s prequel in Star Trek: Discovery.

First (and Last) Flight.

However, this overlooks the importance of Voyager in signposting this shift. In some ways, Voyager represents the end of the final frontier. Chronologically speaking, Endgame is the last episode of the larger Star Trek franchise, the future beyond the finale explored only in Star Trek: Nemesis and as part of the back story to the rebooted Star Trek. Chronologically speaking, Voyager represents the last television series within the Star Trek universe. However, Voyager very carefully and very consciously seeds the nostalgia that would later envelope the franchise.

This is obvious in any number of ways. Voyager is a show that is literally about the desire to return home rather than to push forward. Caretaker established the show as an extended homage to fifties pulp storytelling. The politics of the series – reflected in episodes as diverse as Real Life, Displaced and Day of Honour – were decidedly conservative. Even the genre trappings of the series were often framed in terms of mid-twentieth century pulp fiction; the space lift in Rise, the broad allegory in Innocence, the atomic horror of Jetrel.

We come not to praise Voyager, but to bury it.

However, all of this is rooted in a very conscious yearning on the part of Voyager to connect to its roots. Numerous small scenes across the seven-season run of the show hint at this sentiment; Janeway discussing the romantic past in Flashback, the literal journey home in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, the retrofuturism of Tom Paris’ various holoprogrammes, Janeway’s fascination with her long-lost ancestor in 11:59. There was a sense that Voyager was a series as intent on journeying backwards in time as much as space, even outside of its time travel obsession.

One Small Step stands out as one of the most obvious and blatant examples of this nostalgia within Voyager, in many ways feeling (like Friendship One in the subsequent season) like an attempt to seed the literal prequel that would materialise in Enterprise.

It turns out that John Kelly crossed over into a subspace anomaly drawn by Jack Kirby.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Fight (Review)

“No, make them stop!”

The Fight is a disaster. To be fair, it’s not the worst episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It is not as overtly racist as second season offerings like Tattoo or Alliances, even if there is still something deeply uncomfortable about the way in which the show approaches Chakotay’s Native American heritage as a gateway to pseudo-mysticism. It is neither as xenophobic as Displaced nor as misogynist as Retrospect, although its approach to mental health is… questionable. Mostly, though, it is just a bad episode of television, not a spectacularly awful one.

Don’t worry. Jason Alexander will be here next week, if you can make it until then.

The problems with The Fight are somewhat typical of Voyager. It is an episode that decides to invent a new character trait in a regular character in order to justify the plot, revealing a lot of details about Chakotay that had never been suggested before and which will never be mentioned again. It is also overly reliant on techno-babble, with dialogue referencing nonsense like a “trimetric fracture” and a “paralateral rentrillic trajectory.” There is a pointless framing sequence designed to extend the runtime. There is nothing insightful about the characters or their world.

However, the biggest issue with The Fight is how it squanders a potentially compelling idea. Like Once Upon a Time before it, it is a great example of Voyager trying to write around a risk idea and effectively writing anything interesting out of the finished product.

Chaos and them.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Unforgettable (Review)

Unforgettable has perhaps the most ironic title in the Star Trek canon.

The episode is very generic in nature, very much in keeping with the style of Star Trek: Voyager. It is a love story centring on the character Chakotay, although he seems to have been selected as the focus of the episode by chance. There is nothing about Unforgettable that would not work as well as an episode built around Harry Kim or Neelix or even Tuvok. It is an episode with an alien of the week, with a strange society that leads to a dilemma that can be neatly resolved within the forty-five minutes allotted to the episode, leaving no lasting mark on the series.

Forget me not…

Unforgettable has any number of interesting ideas. The Ramuran are an interesting high concept, an alien race with the power to erase themselves from the memories of those they encounter. That should be an interesting story hook, particularly given Voyager‘s recurring fascination with memory and identity. This is also an episode built around a guest appearance from cult icon Virginia Madsen. Madsen is a fantastic guest star for Voyager, an actor who really deserves a meaty and memorable role, like Andy Dick was afforded with Message in a Bottle.

Unfortunately, none of these ideas coalesce. Unforgettable is a bland romantic episode that moves a glacial pace towards an inevitable outcome, either unable or unwilling to exploit either its clever concept or its top-tier guest star to tell a memorable story. Unforgettable is ultimately anything but.

Memories are made of these.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Nemesis (Review)

Nemesis is a great example of Star Trek: Voyager pitching itself as generic Star Trek.

This is a story that is not unique or particular to this crew. In fact, the story could easily be adapted to service characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or even Star Trek: Enterprise. In some respects, Nemesis might even work better if Robert Beltran were swapped out for Jonathan Frakes or Colm Meaney or Connor Trinneer. There is very little in the script that relies on the particularities of this show or the nuances of its characters.

The Rifleman...

The Rifleman…

While this lack of a distinct identity is a problem for Voyager as a television series, it does lead to some great episodes. Many of the best episodes of Voyager could easily be ported to or from any of the other shows. It was an approach that really came to the fore during the third season, when Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga made a conscious choice to steer the show away from its focus on a crew stranded far from home and towards a more generic Star Trek sensibility.

At its best, this leads to very strong allegorical storytelling. Episodes like Remember and Distant Origin are very much archetypal Star Trek episodes, extended science-fiction metaphors with a strong moral core that evoke the Star Trek beloved by so many of its fans. Nemesis is very much an episode constructed in that tradition, a metaphorical exploration of the dehumanisation of soldiers through combat training and conditioning. It is a powerful and thought-provoking piece of social commentary and a superb piece of Star Trek.

A hard shoot.

A hard shoot.

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

Scorpion, Part II demonstrates the real strength of the blockbuster two-part episodes scattered across the run of Star Trek: Voyager.

Generally speaking, the two-part episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation suffered from a sense of disharmony. The two parts seldom felt integrated, often feeling quite disconnected from one another. This was most obvious in the cliffhangers bridging the seasons, when the writing staff would take time away from the office before returning to write the second part. Michael Piller famously had no idea what he was going to do with The Best of Both Worlds, Part II when he wrote The Best of Both Worlds, Part I.

Droning on.

Droning on.

Even for the two-part episodes within a given season, there tended to be a disjointedness. Chain of Command, Part I is very much set-up for Chain of Command, Part II, with the second part feeling much stronger (and more substantial) than the first. Birthright, Part I leads into Birthright, Part II, but also features an entirely unrelated subplot that is dropped completely in the second half. Arguably, The Next Generation only really figured out how to properly balance two-parters in its final season, with Gambit, Part I, Gambit, Part II and All Good Things…

In contrast, Voyager does a much better job of balancing its two-parters so that they feel like two halves of a movie rather than an extended first act followed by a compressed second and third act. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II established that template, but Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II demonstrates that it can applied as readily to season-bridging two-parters as to mid-season sweeps episodes. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II integrate beautifully to form an impressive Voyager television movie.

Venting frustration.

Venting frustration.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Resolutions (Review)

This February and March (and a little bit of April), we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

So, shipping.

Times change surprisingly quickly. It is fair to say that Star Trek: Voyager emerged in a different world than the original Star Trek. However, it also emerged in a different world than Star Trek: The Next Generation. In a way, the show had acknowledged as much through its experiments with serialisation earlier in the second season. Michael Piller was trying to keep the franchise at the bleeding edge of contemporary television, realising that the medium was not the same as it had been when Jean-Luc Picard emerged at the end of the Reagan era.

Reach out...

Reach out…

Resolutions nods towards a different type of change in the way that television storytelling worked, particularly conversations about television storytelling. Although it could be argued that Star Trek helped to popularise the notion of romantically (or sexually) pairing off television characters through the practice of “slashing” Kirk and Spock, the notion of “shipping” had begun to enter the mainstream during the mid-nineties. The raw sexual chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files played no small part.

Resolutions is essentially about “shipping” Janeway and Chakotay.

... and touch somebody.

… and touch somebody.

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