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Star Trek: Voyager – Memorial (Review)

Memorial is a great example of Star Trek: Voyager doing a generic Star Trek story.

The episode has a very basic premise that allows for the construction of a science-fiction allegory, the kind of storytelling associated with the franchise dating back to early adventures like The Devil in the Dark or Errand of Mercy. Despite its unique premise and set-up, Voyager had largely embraced the archetypal mode of Star Trek storytelling in its third season. A lot of Voyager episodes feel very broad and very generic, and could easily be adapted for another series – whether inside or outside the franchise.

The real devil in the dark.
Spoiler: It’s us.

There any number of episodes that are not rooted in the specific premise of Voyager, that could easily have been reworked or reinvented for another crew at another point. The Chute was a harrowing story about the horrors of mass incarceration and its capacity to turn people into animals. Nemesis was a meditation on killology, in the way that militaries turn soldiers into killing machines. Scientific Method was a treatise on the horrors of animal testing. Random Thoughts was paranoia about “political correctness gone mad” translated into forty minutes of television.

Memorial belongs to a very specific subset of these episodes, something of a bridge between the more generic Star Trek storytelling to which Voyager aspires and a slightly more specific area of thematic interest. Voyager is a series very much engaged with the idea of memory and history, perhaps befitting the Star Trek series that straddles the twentieth and twenty-first century. Episodes like Remember, Distant Origin and Living Witness are all archetypal Star Trek stories, but they are built around ideas of particular interest to Voyager.

The past never remains buried.

As the title implies, Memorial belongs to that very specific subset of episodes. It is easy to imagine a version of Memorial starring James Tiberius Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Lafayette Sisko or Jonathan Beckett Archer. It is a generic Star Trek episode that could work with any crew, perhaps meaning something slightly different in each context. (On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it would be an “O’Brien must suffer!” episode. In fact, Hard Time is quite close.) However, it is an episode that engages overtly with ideas that are of great interest to Voyager.

Memorial is about the importance of memory and history, even in a world where time seems to have lost all meaning.

Standing watch over history.

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New Podcast! Primitive Culture #19 – Star Trek: Voyager, History and Nostalgia

Over the Christmas Break, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the wonderful Duncan Barrett and talking about Star Trek: Voyager. Duncan is a historian, and I’ve had the pleasure of quoting some of his work on the blog in the past. He hosts Primitive Culture, with Tony Black and Clara Cook, a show wherein the hosts discuss certain historical-related items of interest in the Star Trek canon.

Duncan was in Ireland for part of the break, and so we took the opportunity to have a sit down to talk about the unique approach that Voyager had to the ideas of history and nostalgia within the Star Trek canon, how it viewed both the past and the future. We particularly focused on episodes like Distant Origin and Living Witness, along with a broad discussion of particular themes. It was a fun discussion, and you can listen to it below or directly via Primitive Culture‘s homepage on trek.fm.

Star Trek: Voyager – 11:59 (Review)

The thing about experiments is that they don’t always work, but that doesn’t mean they should never be attempted.

Much like Someone to Watch Over Me, 11:59 represents a new departure for Star Trek: Voyager. It is an episode unlike any other episode in the run of series, unfolding primarily on early twenty-first (or, as one character wryly points out, maybe late twentieth) century Earth. As with Someone to Watch Over Me, there is a sense that 11:59‘s closest spiritual companion is an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There are any number of superficial similarities between 11:59 and Far Beyond the Stars, another time-travel-to-close-to-modern-day-Earth-episode-without-the-time-travel.

Countdown.

Sadly, the experiment does not quite work out. Someone to Watch Over Me is one of the most charming episodes in the seven-season run of Voyager, while 11:59 is more than a little dull. Far Beyond the Stars is one of the most powerful and evocative episodes of Star Trek ever produced, while 11:59 is a competent piece of television that is almost immediately dated. For all that 11:59 represents a bold departure for Voyager, there is a sense that the episode has very little to actually say. It exists, but it never seems to exist for a particular reason. 11:59 is a frustrating piece of television.

However, none of this matters too much. Voyager has been such a safe and conservative show that any creative risk feels worthwhile, that any departure from the established template feels worth of celebration on those terms alone. 11:59 is an unsuccessful experiment, but it is an experiment nonetheless. For a series as risk-adverse as Voyager, that is remarkable.

“Time’s up.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Dark Frontier, Part I (Review)

The fifth season of Star Trek: Voyager arrives at a point when the Rick Berman era of the Star Trek franchise has hit its midlife crisis.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is coming to an end, bring down the curtain on a seven-year period where there were always two franchise series boldly going simultaneously. Star Trek: Insurrection had been released into cinemas as a snapshot of that midlife crisis, where Michael Piller’s last script for the franchise found the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation desperately chasing their own youth and vitality on a planet with a fountain of youth.

Seven gets back in touch with her roots.

On the fifth season of Voyager, it seemed like the show turned inwards. The scripts for the fifth season are surprisingly retro and nostalgic in tone; Janeway’s reflections on the events of Caretaker in Night, the return of the Maquis and the Cardassians in Nothing Human, the indulgence of retro thirties sci-fi in Bride of Chaotica!, Tuvok’s childhood flashbacks in Gravity, the “telepathic pitcher plant” in Bliss, Seven’s trip back to the launch of Voyager in Relativity, Janeway’s investigation of her ancestor in 11:59.

However, there was a fundamental problem with all of this introspection. Voyager was a television series that had long struggled to define a unique identity, too often feeling like a half-hearted reheat of the leftovers from The Next Generation. It was very hard to turn the focus inwards when there wasn’t a lot unique or distinctive about Voyager. This is a show that was much closer to its end than to its beginning, and it still lacked any true sense of identity or self.

There’s coffee… I mean transwarp coils in that there Borg Sphere.

Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II serve as an example of this nostalgic indulgence, both in form and plot. It is a two-parter consciously designed to recapture the success of broadcasting The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II on the same night in the late fourth season. It is also a television movie that is very clearly patterned off the story for Star Trek: First Contact, borrowing key story beats and clear characters from that memorable Next Generation film.

However, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II also demonstrate the shallowness of Voyager‘s own internal memory. This is a story built around an act of narrative archeology within the larger Star Trek universe, touching on the secret history of humanity’s true first encounter of the Borg. However, that history is ultimately illusory, built around what feels like a misremembrance of one of the franchise’s most iconic alien species. As Voyager turns its gaze backwards, it discovers that it has no real history.

Drone warfare.

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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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Star Trek: Voyager – Living Witness (Review)

Living Witness is a fantastic piece of television, and a great example of what Star Trek: Voyager does best.

Living Witness is in many ways archetypal Star Trek, a story that uses the franchise framework to construct a powerful allegorical story that comments upon contemporary anxiety. It is a story that could easily have been told on any of the other franchise series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Enterprise, but it is a story told well. Living Witness is one of the highlights of the fourth season, and one of the strongest episodes from the seven-season run.

Command and conquer.

In many ways, Living Witness is the culmination of themes and ideas that have been bubbling through Voyager from the outset. Some of these elements are less than flattering, with the episode’s racial politics evoking the clumsiness with which the Kazon were handled. However, there is also a fascination with idea of history and how history functions in a world rooted in postmodernism and recnstruction. At the end of history, is the past up for grabs? Are facts anything more than pieces to be manoeuvred on a political chessboard?

Given this archetypal quality of Living Witness, how it reflects the themes and pet interests of Voyager, there is some irony in the fact that the episode does not actually feature a single regular character from Voyager. The regular cast appear as holographic representations of themselves, exaggerations and distortions. When the EMH appears almost half-way through the episode, he is explicitly identified as “a back-up programme”, and thus distinct from the version of the EMH who will appear in Demon or One.

Core principles.

In some ways, Living Witness confirms one of the more interesting aspects of Voyager, the fact that the characters are themselves largely irrelevant to the show and that the series is much more compelling as a framework to explore archetypal ideas. Living Witness is just one of several episodes that treat the regular characters as a secondary aspect of the show, almost as guest stars who have crossed over into a completely different series. Living Witness is very much of a piece with stories like Distant Origin or Course: Oblivion, or even Muse or Live Fast and Prosper.

Living Witness is a story about the thin line between history and mythology. In doing so, it consciously reframes Voyager as a story within a story, as concept more powerful as an archetype than as a material object. Living Witness images the ship and its crew as history elevated to mythology.

Any which Janeway but loose.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Killing Game, Part I (Review)

In some ways, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II feel like a perfect companion piece to Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II.

As with Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II during the third season, these two two-part episodes are very much larger-than-life archetypal Star Trek storytelling. While Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II riffed on Star Trek IV: The Voyager Home, and Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II borrowed liberally from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II draw from a broader pool of franchise iconography for a Star Trek: Voyager spectacular.

A cut above.

As with Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II or Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are very much concerned with themes of memory and history. Much like Henry Starling or Annorax, the Hirogen are presented as villains waging a war upon history. They have no history or culture, usurping that of the crew and distorting it to serve their own whims and desires. Of course, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II features no literal time travel, merely holographic.

However, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II is more than just archetypal Voyager. These preoccupations with memory and history are wrapped up in a whole host of broad and iconic Star Trek idea. Although the two-parter features a number of different plot threads, including the recreation of a classic Klingon conflict, the bulk of the action unfolds in a holographic simulation of the Second World War. Once again, the Star Trek franchise returns to that conflict as a formative and defining moment.

For the world is hollow and I have touched the sky.

Indeed, the two-parter even makes a point to weave the franchise’s core humanism into its sprawling epic pseudo-historical conflict. As much as The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are driven by spectacle, writers Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky are careful to integrate classic Star Trek themes into the episode. While the story begins with the Voyager crew defeated and subjugated by the Hirogen, it ends with a peaceful settlement. Janeway grants the Hirogen a chance to save their people. Coexistence seems possible.

As such, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II feels like an intentionally broad smorgasbord of Star Trek themes and iconography. It feels very much like the culmination of the journey that Voyager has been on since the start of the third season, with the production team aspiring to produce a show that might not have its own distinct texture or identity but which retains an archetypal “Star-Trek-ian” quality.

Evil alien space Nazis!

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