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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 – 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 – Lineage (Review)

Lineage is an extremely odd piece of television.

On one hand, it continues the engagement with archetypal social-commentary-driven Star Trek that defines so much of the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager. Of course, Voyager has always defined itself as archetypal Star Trek, but it is particularly pronounced during the final season. Producer Kenneth Biller seems eager to offer fans a series that superficially embraces the recognisable elements of Star Trek. There are a number of Prime Directive stories like Natural Law and Friendship One, for example. The idea of the Federation as an ideal comes up in stories like Drive and The Void, for example.

Tom has the talking pillow.

There are also a number of episodes that adopt the classic issue-driven format that fans and even casual audiences have long associated with Star Trek, the sort of “science-fiction as a mirror on society” stories that can trace their roots back to episodes like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield… The seventh season of Voyager wrestles with the healthcare system in Critical Care and the death penalty in Repentance. More than that, it explicitly calls back to one of the highlights of the form when Author, Author stages a late-season remake of The Measure of a Man.

On the surface, Lineage belongs as part of that tradition. It is a story about genetic engineering and designer babies, two hot-button issues at the turn of the millennium, a palpable anxiety rippling through the popular consciousness in projects as diverse as Space: Above and Beyond or Gattaca or The Sixth Day. There was a real and tangible fear about what this sort of genetic tampering would do to society, and the set-up of Lineage promises to explore the implications of an idea with which the franchise had been grappling since Space Seed in the late sixties.

Duvet really know how much you care?

However, as with Critical Care, there is a sense that the production team want the credit (and the attention) for dealing with a hot-button issue without the possible political back draft that would come from actually taking a strong stance on the point. Lineage pays lip-service to a broader cultural debate around things like genetic engineering and designer babies, but it consciously veers away from anything potentially contentious to focus on a really tonally surreal soap opera that involves the casual violation of the EMH’s programming and an absurd stand-off in Sickbay without any emotional reality.

The result is something of a surreal roller coaster that doesn’t work in any meaningful way, veering dramatically in terms of tone and theme while completely abandoning any sense of nuance or complexity in favour of heightened melodrama. The result is deeply unsatisfying, but fascinating as a hodge-podge of different ideas thrown together to structure an episode.

Baby on board.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Flesh and Blood, Part II (Review)

In its seventh season, Star Trek: Voyager gets nostalgic.

It happens naturally when long-running shows begin the process of wrapping up. It is inevitable that the production team will look back with affection and sincerity towards the early years of their shared adventures. The seventh season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine even made a number of strange callbacks to the first season. Chimera offered a very late-in-the-game return to “the hundred”, the Founders that were sent out into the void like Odo had been. What You Leave Behind featured Sisko fulfilling the task for which he has been chosen in Emissary.

“Star Trek was never about shooting stuff with big guns,” argue a certain strand of modern Star Trek fans.

That nostalgia simmers and bubbles through Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. However, there’s a sense that Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II don’t quite understand what they are evoking. Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II hark back to the earliest seasons of Voyager in a number of surprising ways, providing a neat bookend to some of the core anxieties that have been bubbling through the series since Caretaker.

Unfortunately, Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II seem to be doing this almost unconsciously. This is not an exorcism or an exploration, but an unexpected repetition. Voyager is still haunted by memories of the show’s turbulent early years, and it is clear that Voyager has no better understanding of itself now than it did then. The result is deeply unsatisfying and frustrating.

East of Iden.

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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 – Virtuoso (Review)

Virtuoso is an interesting companion piece to Blink of an Eye.

Blink of an Eye was in many ways an exploration and reflection of Star Trek as a multimedia franchise, looking at the way in which the franchise has touched and shaped contemporary culture in the thirty-odd years since its inception. As part of this, the episode touched on fandom in a variety of ways, whether the abstract fandom of those individuals inspired by the series to accomplish great things or the more specific fandom including merchandise. Blink of an Eye was very much an episode about loving Star Trek.

Music to our ears.

As a result, Virtuoso feels like a very strange choice to directly follow Blink of an Eye. The two episodes are not connected by plot, outside of the basic idea that the EMH might spend an extended period of time on an alien planet without access to Voyager. After all, Star Trek: Voyager had committed itself to producing standalone episodic storytelling. However, Virtuoso is also something of a metaphor for Star Trek fandom, a look at what it is to love a piece of popular entertainment and to eagerly embrace it.

Unfortunately, the proximity to Blink of an Eye does no favours for Virtuoso, emphasising the script’s weaknesses and tone-deafness. Virtuoso is an episode that feels very pointed and cynical in its portrayal of fandom, very broad and very unpleasant. It is a clumsy and muddled piece of television, on that struggles to hit the right notes.

Small pleasures.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy (Review)

With Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy, Star Trek: Voyager is back to business as usual.

The first episode produced after the departure of Ronald D. Moore, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is in many ways an archetypal Voyager story. Equinox, Part II was the second part of a season-bridging two-parter; Survival Instinct was a dark fable about consequences and trauma that was the last script credited to on the franchise’s most beloved writers; Barge of the Dead was a surreal and ambiguous adventure into the Klingon afterlife. As such, it is strange that an episode that opens with a playful operatic number about Tuvok’s pon farr should mark a return to normality.

“My Delta Quadrant TripAdvisor review is going to be scathing!”

Nevertheless, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is a very neat standalone episode with a clear beginning, middle and end. It is built around the character of the EMH, leaning into actor Robert Picardo’s comedic chops. It is very much in keeping with Voyager‘s recurring fascination with the notion of fractured reality as expressed in Projections or Deadlock or Retrospect, and also in using a technologically-derived character to literalise the process of a psychological breakdown as in Darkling, Infinite Regress or Latent Image.

Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy story has its own themes and ideas, and everything is neatly resolved by the closing credits. It is a reminder that the serialisation that defined Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would remain the exception, rather than the rule, that it would not be inherited by its surviving sibling. Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy could almost be watched at any point in the show’s run, although the involvement of Seven of Nine would suggest the final four seasons. Nevertheless, the episode never feels particularly tethered to this moment or this season.

Fantasy figure.

However, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is also an example of how this approach can work. Voyager received (and deserves) a lot of criticism for failing to evolve with the times, for allowing the Star Trek franchise to fall behind the curve of contemporary television science fiction. However, the series was occasionally capable of demonstrating the merits of standalone episodes, the appeal of being able to transition from one self-contained story to another twenty-six times in the course of a season.

Of course, the issue was that a lot of Voyager episodes were bland and forgettable. However, every once in a while the series would produce a self-contained episode that demonstrated the appeal of this narrative model; Remember, Distant Origin, Concerning Flight, Living WitnessSomeone to Watch Over Me. Appropriately enough, coming after another turbulent period in the history of the show, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is another fine example of this capacity to construct satisfying and engaging stand-alone narratives.

Painting a pretty picture.

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