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Star Trek: Voyager – Riddles (Review)

Riddles is very much a stock episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Like Barge of the Dead and Alice before it, Riddles is a character-focused episode of the sixth season that largely retreads character dynamics that feel thorough explored by this point in the show’s run. One of the big issues with Voyager is that it never got past more than a single line of biography for many of its lead characters; Torres is angry, Paris is a restless rebel, Tuvok is logical, Kim is inexperienced. Indeed, in the case of Chakotay, the series even dropped that one-line character synopsis after Michael Piller departed and never bothered to draft a new one.

Stopping to smell the roses.

Riddles is a Tuvok-centric episode that brushes up against the fact that Voyager doesn’t really know (or care) that much about Tuvok beyond the existence of his pointy ears. Tuvok is a Vulcan, and so his stories tend to be about logic and the challenges that it presents. This is not a bad thing, with Tuvok’s repression and logic providing the basis for Meld and Gravity, two of the best episodes of Voyager ever produced. However, Riddles is somewhat underwhelming. It feels like the story has been done before. More than that, this feels like a particularly stock iteration of that story.

Riddles is not a bad episode of Voyager by any measure. It is also not an especially good episode of Voyager either. Instead, Riddles is a perfectly familiar episode of Voyager.

Putting the pieces together.

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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.

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: Voyager – Rise (Review)

Rise is in many ways a very typical episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

It is an episode that certainly has an interesting premise. For all its myriad flaws, Voyager tended to have a genuine interest in playing with science-fiction concepts. At its worst, this attitude manifested itself through the various “anomaly of the week” stories that followed a familiar pattern of the ship encounter some sort of strange phenomenon with predictable results. Often this phenomenon involved time travel or interstellar dust clouds, a trend that could be traced back to early episodes like Time and Again or The Cloud.

That crashing feeling.

That crashing feeling.

However, Voyager did occasionally use its interest in science-fiction storytelling to construct interesting stories. Deadlock might have set a damning precedent for the show, but it was compelling television. Blink of an Eye is a very clever little story. In true Star Trek fashion, Voyager would even use these science-fiction ideas to construct engaging allegories like the exploration of holocaust denial in Remember or the meditation on creationism in Distant Origin.

These concepts gave the series a sense of texture. They served to distinguish the show from its siblings. For example, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was generally less interested in science-fiction high concepts than in characterisation and politics. When those sci-fi elements did show up, they were usually to torture O’Brien in episodes like Whispers, Visionary, Hard Time and Time’s Orphan. Of course, Deep Space Nine had sci-fi concept-driven stories like Playing God or One Little Ship, but they tended to stand out more from the series around them.

Up on the roof's the only place I know...

Up on the roof’s the only place I know…

Rise has a suitably high concept, a core idea that could easily have been lifted from the pages of the same pulp magazines that inspired The Cloud Minders. The episode is essentially a paranoid thriller unfolding within a confined space, but that confined space just happens to be a giant elevator that stretches from the surface of the planet into orbit. The premise is ridiculous, feeling like it was lifted from forties or fifties periodicals with giant insects and half-naked men on the cover. In other words, it feels of a piece with Innocence or The Thaw or Tuvix.

It is too much to argue that Rise has a brilliant concept, but it at least has an intriguing one. While it might be hard to use the basic elements of Rise to construct a classic, it should be relatively straightforward to construct a thrilling episode of television. Unfortunately, Rise simply does not work. More than that, Rise does not work for the most boring of reasons. As with a lot of Voyager, the episode is an interesting premise undercut by both a deeply flawed (and half-hearted) execution and the show’s own long-standing structural weaknesses. This happens all too often.

A dark moment for the series.

A dark moment for the series.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Fair Trade (Review)

In theory, Fair Trade is precisely the episode that Star Trek: Voyager needs right now.

From the outset, the show has struggled with several major problems. Superficially, Voyager has struggled to distinguish the Delta Quadrant from the Alpha Quadrant, to the point that the Kazon felt like low-rent Klingons and the various aliens-of-the-week seemed largely indistinguishable from the aliens-of-the-week featured on the sibling shows. More fundamentally, the show failed to conjure an air of mystery and intrigue about the region. Everything about the show felt too safe, right down to the characters. This was a show where terrorists became model officers.

Venting plasma...

Venting plasma…

Fair Trade feels like it should offer the perfect remedy to all of this. The opening scenes find Voyager brushing up against “the Nekrit Expanse.” It is a region of space that is pointedly different and alien. Neelix has no idea what lies beyond. The sensors cannot penetrate it. Voyager is forced to dock at a local space station to take supplies, one crowded with aliens of multiple species engaged in shady dealings. More than that, the episode hinges on the neglected character of Neelix. It returns to early undeveloped suggestions the Neelix is not all he claims to be.

However, in practice, Fair Trade is disappointing. The episode lacks the courage of its convictions, both as a script of itself and as clear demarcation within the third season. It is a show rich with promise that offers up any number of intriguing ideas, but lacks the courage necessary to follow through on them.

In a bit of a Wix.

In a bit of a Wix.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Warlord (Review)

Warlord is another example of Star Trek: Voyager pitching itself as the most generic iteration of Star Trek.

At its core, Warlord is an example of the old Star Trek staple, the body-swapping personality-swap episode. There are dozens of examples from across the length and breadth of the franchise, asking regular performers to play different characters. The loosest definition would include William Shatner’s work in The Enemy Within or Roxann Dawson’s work in Faces. A more narrow sampling would include episodes like The Turnabout Intruder or The Schizoid Man. There were plenty of these episodes before Warlord, and there will be plenty after.

"A toast, to that most reliable of plot devices..."

“A toast, to that most reliable of plot devices…”

It is not a bad device, in theory. After all, playing the same character for twenty-odd episodes a year can be exhausting for a performer. Many actors relish the opportunity to shake things up, to put a new spin on an old role. (Chris Pine has only played Kirk three times, but already relishes the opportunity to see the character “go dark.”) It can be refreshing for the audience as well, giving them the opportunity to see exciting new sides of familiar characters. Warlord certainly has an intriguing enough hook in that regard: casting Jennifer Lien as a psychotic dictator.

The extent to which a given possession episode work is largely a matter of execution rather than concept. By that measure, Warlord comes up very short.

Make love, not Warlord.

Make love, not Warlord.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Investigations (Review)

This February and March, 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.

Investigations is a misfire. It is a spectacular misfire.

Investigations is the episode that pretty much single-handedly killed any chance of Star Trek: Voyager embracing long-form storytelling once and for all. The first season had enthusiastically embraced an episodic structure, but the second season had played with the idea of playing out an arc across the majority of the season. Tying together the Kazon with the idea of a traitor on Voyager and the redemption of Tom Paris, the production team decided to attempt something relatively novel for Star Trek.

Kill me. Kill me now.

Kill me.
Kill me now.

It is worth stressing just how experimental this kind of story was. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had played with the idea of serialisation. Threads like the Romulan and Cardassian invasion of the Gamma Quadrant were carefully seeded through episodes like Defiant and Visionary, but there was not the same tension and momentum afforded to the arcs of Michael Jonas and Tom Paris in the second season. The Romulans and the Cardassians were not discussed in every episode leading up to Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast.

At the same time, Deep Space Nine eased into serialisation in a way that allowed for failures and miscalculations that did not publicly humiliate the show. Bajoran politics could be quietly eased into the background when they weren’t quite working, characters like Primmin and T’Rul could be dropped when they weren’t what the show needed. The second season of Voyager was perhaps a bit too bold in its attempts at long-form storytelling, creating a situation where there was no way to pull back from an arc that wasn’t working.

"Well. That escalated quickly."

“Well. That escalated quickly.”

It became quite clear early on that the Paris and Jonas arc was not working. Episodes like Threshold and Dreadnought ground to a halt so that the audience could get yet another scene of Jonas selling out Voyager to the Kazon; treachery that never seemed to actually go anywhere. At the same time, Paris’ rebellious behaviour was tackled in a superficial manner in episodes like Meld and Lifesigns, with no real exploration of the interesting side of such a sting operation.

Investigations serves to bring the arc to a close, but in a manner that feels perfunctory rather than compelling. It is resolved out of a sense of tired desperation rather than any real inspiration. There is a feeling that the production team have determined this to be a failed experiment, of which they will never speak again.

See? I told you EVERYBODY's thought about it.

See? I told you EVERYBODY’s thought about it.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Parturition (Review)

This February and March, 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 Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

One of the more interesting aspects of the second season of Star Trek: Voyager is its stubborn refusal to give up on elements that simply do not work.

Time and again, and often at the behest of producer Michael Piller, the second season returns to concepts that were problematic and troublesome in the first season. The obvious goal is to fix those problems so that those elements can be successfully reintegrated into the surrounding show. This is why the second season returns to concepts like the Kazon as a threat and Tom Paris as a rebel and Neelix as a character with a useful function on the ship. This is not a bad approach. If the first season of a show is about experimentation, then the second season is about calibration.

Two men and a lizard lady...

Two men and a lizard lady…

It is hard to begrudge Michael Piller this approach. After all, it had worked quite well on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In particular, it took Deep Space Nine about three years before it figured out how to make characters like Bashir, Dax and Quark capable of carrying their own episodes without making the audience want to bash their heads against a large blunt surface. It is not unreasonable to take the same approach to dealing with the elements of Voyager that are not working.

There is a very significant difference, though. The problematic elements of Voyager have little to do with execution; they are fundamental problems with the concepts. The Kazon do not work as a threat because they are one of worst alien species that Star Trek ever produced, rooted in some rather unpleasant racial stereotypes tied to contemporary Los Angeles gang culture. Tom Paris does not work as a rebel and womaniser because Robert Duncan McNeill works better as a charming goof. Neelix’s romance with Kes is toxic because she is a child and he’s possessive.

Cooking up a storm...

Cooking up a storm…

As such, it feels like the second season of Voyager spends a lot of time fixing problems that are fundamentally unfixable. One of the great aspects of the premise of Voyager is the fact that the show is in a constant state of movement. Unlike the cast of Deep Space Nine who are fixed in a single place, the cast of Voyager are constantly moving forward. It is possible for Voyager to jettison the parts that are simply not working. (Cue lazy joke about the size of Kazon space.)

Parturition is an example of this phenomenon, as Voyager tries to “fix” the toxic relationship between Neelix and Kes, while offering Tom Paris some small semblance of character growth. Unfortunately, it seems very attached to the idea of Neelix and Kes as a romantic couple and Tom Paris as a playful romantic rogue, which means that the best that it can hope to do is to not make the underlying problems any more obvious. While Parturition is nowhere near as bad as Elogium or Twisted, it still feels like a series treading water.

It's time for the Delta Quadrant's favourite fifties sitcom, "Last Tango With Paris."

It’s time for the Delta Quadrant’s favourite fifties sitcom, “Last Tango With Paris.”

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