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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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Star Trek: Voyager – Someone to Watch Over Me (Review)

Someone to Watch Over Me is a decidedly atypical episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

The episode’s subplot, focusing on Neelix and a disorderly alien ambassador, harks back to the old diplomacy subplots of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the crews would be asked to ferry ambassadors around only for terrible things to happen. There are any number of examples of that story template across the two earliest incarnations of the show; Journey to BabelElaan of Troyius, Is There in Truth No Beauty?Lonely Among UsLoud as a Whisper, SarekThe PriceMan of the PeopleData’s DayViolationsLiaisons.

The EMH rose to the occasion.

To be fair, Voyager has done a couple of these episodes before. There are a number of episodes in which the ship acts as a diplomatic courier shipping aliens from one destination to another or welcoming on board representatives of an alien culture; the subplot of Innocence comes to mind, as does the set-up of Remember. However, by and large, these diplomacy-driven subplots are a lot less frequent on Voyager than they were on the original Star Trek or The Next Generation. As such, the Neelix subplot feels very much like a throwback.

However, the primary plot of Someone to Watch Over Me feels very much like an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, an intimate romantic character study about an attraction between two individuals. Someone to Watch Over Me is very much an archetypal love story, one without the flavour of adventure or stakes defines other Star Trek romances like Captain’s Holiday or Counterpoint or Gravity. This is a low-stakes interpersonal attraction, very much in the style of Looking for Par’Mach In All the Wrong Places, His Way or Chrysalis.

A snap decision.

In fact, the basic plot of Someone to Watch Over Me is so archetypal that it can be traced back to number of classical inspirations. This is nothing new. The Star Trek franchise has long borrowed inspiration from various classics; Favourite Son and Bliss owe a great deal to The Odyssey and Moby Dick, for example. However, the choice of influences on Someone to Watch Over Me feels more like Deep Space Nine than Voyager; it draws from Pygmalion and its various adaptations, along with the early eighties comedy My Favourite Year.

The result is a decidedly strange blend of classic Star Trek storytelling that feels fresh and exciting in the context of Voyager. In many ways, Juggernaut was a showcase of Voyager‘s preference for blockbuster plot-driven storytelling. However, Someone to Watch Over Me is something much more compelling and intriguing. Someone to Watch Over Me is a character-driven episode of Voyager, and a very impressive and engaging one at that.

Putting the “ass” in ambassador.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Latent Image (Review)

Latent Image is a powerful allegorical piece of Star Trek, a prime example of how Star Trek: Voyager could occasionally spin gold from its shift towards a more “archetypal Star Trek” template. It is a story that could easily have been told with Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example.

At the same time, Latent Image is a story that touches on many of the core themes of Voyager, many of the show’s key recurring fixations and fascinations. It is an episode about the link between memory and identity, about the importance of preserving history rather than burying it; it touches upon both the metaphorical manipulation of history in stories like RememberDistant Origin and Living Witness and the literal manipulation of the past in stories like Future’s End, Part IFuture’s End, Part IIYear of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II.

Picture imperfect.

However, it filters that experience through Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky’s recurring fascination with themes of identity and self-definition. The writers have often used the artificial characters on Voyager to explore the malleability of self, how easily the sense of self might be eroded or decayed; the EMH grappled with this challenge in Projections and Darkling, while Seven wrestled with it in Infinite Regress. The artificial characters on Voyager frequently seemed on a verge of a nervous breakdown.

Latent Image is notable for wedding these two concepts together, for integrating these two concepts and exploring the manipulation of an individual’s history as the root of an identity crisis. What happens to the EMH in Latent Image is at once an extension of the dysfunction suggested in Projections and Darkling as well as a more intimate exploration of the cultural identity crises in episodes like RememberDistant Origin and Living Witness. Latent Image suggests that memory is the thread that ties identity together. Without that continuity of self, everything unravels.

A bone to pick with him.

As such, Latent Image exists in an interesting space. It is a story that works very well as a high-concept character study, focusing on the nature of the EMH has a computer programme. Although episodes like Pen Pals suggest that Starfleet has the power to remove memories from biological life forms, the plot of Latent Image could not work as well with a character like Kim or Paris. At the same time, it is a broader allegory about how important memories and experiences are in terms of defining who a person is, and how dealing with these memories defines a cultural identity.

Latent Image is a powerful and clever piece of television.

The camera never lies.

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