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Star Trek: Voyager – The Haunting of Deck Twelve (Review)

It seems strange that Neelix was not a larger part of Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, Neelix never disappeared into the ensemble to the same degree as characters like Chakotay, Kim and Tuvok. However, the series often struggled with how best to approach the character and how to make him work. It is notable that the production team went to the effort of writing Neelix off the show shortly before the seventh season finale, sending him to live with a colony of (very far from home) Talaxians in Homestead and consigning him to a cameo in Endgame. The character was often just there, his role hazy and undefined.

A Briefing With Death!
Errr, I mean, Neelix.

Of course, there were reasons for this. Neelix had been drafted on to the crew as an expert on the Delta Quadrant in Caretaker, and it made sense that this role would become increasingly redundant as time went on. By Fair Trade, Neelix was largely redundant, his knowledge exhausted. More than that, the early seasons of Voyager anchored Neelix’s character development to an abusive relationship with two-year-old. The toxicity of Neelix’s relationship with Kes in episodes like PhageTwisted and Parturition made it hard to invest in Neelix as a character worthy of attention or effort.

However, across the seven seasons of Voyager, there is a strange sense that Neelix is perhaps the single character most perfectly adapted to Voyager. He is the character who has developed in the direction that is perhaps most compatible with what Voyager has become, both in how it tells its stories and what it uses those stories to talk about. More than any other character on Voyager, Neelix is the character with the deepest roots in Delta Quadrant history and the character who is most firmly committed to oral traditions of storytelling, both recurring motifs within Voyager.

Smoke and mirrors.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Fury (Review)

Normally, the return of an old cast member to an established show is a cause for celebration, akin to a belated family reunion.

The obvious examples involve the appearances of cast members from other shows on later spin-offs. Think of the reverence and sincerity with which Star Trek: The Next Generation treated Spock and Scotty in episodes like Unification, Part I, Unification, Part II and Relics. Think about the delight with which Star Trek: Voyager greeted Geordi LaForge in Timeless or Deanna Troi in Pathfinder. Even when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine subverted expectations with Jonathan Frakes’ appearance in Defiant, it was still joyful. If anything, Star Trek: Enterprise went too far in accommodating Troi and Riker in These Are the Voyages…

Self-control.

Even within individual shows, the return of long-absent cast members is often treated as an opportunity to celebrate that character, and perhaps even to acknowledge past missteps involving them. Yesterday’s Enterprise brought back the character of Tasha Yar, and used the opportunity to rewrite her mean-spirited and pointless death in Skin of Evil. When mirror!Bareil visited in Resurrection, the episode became a meditation upon how the character’s intrinsic decency was strong enough to transcend dimensions and to define even the worst version of himself.

This approach to the return of established characters makes a great deal of sense for a wide variety of reasons. Most obviously, the production team have gone out of their way to recruit these actors for this specific purpose; it makes sense that these episodes should serve as a celebration of their contributions to the franchise. Even beyond that, it is safe to say that almost any lead character on a Star Trek series has something resembling a fan base; think about the ominously-named “Friends of Vedek Bareil.” Why bring back a character, and attract in those fans, just to do something horrific?

That healthy blue glow.

All of this serves to make Fury all the more perplexing. Fury is an episode of Voyager that effectively resurrects the character of Kes, a regular on the first three seasons of Voyager who departed the series in The Gift at the start of the fourth season. The return of Kes is a strange choice, in large part because the production team often struggled with what to do with the character while she was part of the core cast. Still, there are any number of interesting possibilities. And there is the possibility that, like Yesterday’s Enterprise or Resurrection, the production team might use the occasion to say something interesting about Kes.

Unfortunately, Fury is a spectacular mess of an episode with half-developed character motivations and a highly surreal premise that undercuts a lot of the appeal of bringing Kes back in the first place.

Having its cake and eating it too.

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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. Just one with murder and cannibalism thrown in.

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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