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Star Trek: Voyager – Life Line (Review)

Life Line brings Star Trek: Voyager‘s daddy issues to the fore.

Voyager always existed in the shadow of Star Trek: The Next Generation, never quite breaking free in the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine managed to do. Voyager always felt shaped by and indebted to The Next Generation, always longing to affirm its heritage. Barclay appeared in Projections. Riker made a cameo in Death Wish. Geordi popped up in Timeless. Deanna Troi paid a visit in Pathfinder. The Ferengi from The Price popped up in False Profits. Q was a recurring character. The Borg were a recurring threat.

All my holo-children.

Voyager always saw itself as the spiritual successor to The Next Generation, the rightful heir to what was at the time the crown jewel in this iconic science-fiction franchise. However, this aspiration was not borne out in any quantifiable sense. The reviews for Voyager were decidedly more guarded than they had been for The Next Generation. The ratings were appreciably lower. The cultural impact was greatly diminished. If Voyager had positioned itself as the next in line to the throne, it was a disappointment by any measure.

The sixth season of Voyager is keenly focused on the idea of memory and legacy. It often feels like the series is reflecting on its legacy, cognisant of the fact that the end is rapidly approaching. Indeed, this preoccupation with mortality plays out even within Life Line, which is an episodes that finds the EMH journeying back to the Alpha Quadrant in order to save the life of his dying creator. Doctor Lewis Zimmerman was a pioneer when Voyager launched almost six years earlier; now, he is a bitter and disillusioned old man wasting away in seclusion.

Father yet to go.

There is something very pointed in this, in the idea of a son returning home to a dying father, to be met with disappointment and disdain. There is a funereal tone running through sixth season episodes like Barge of the Dead, Dragon’s Teeth, One Small Step, Blink of an Eye, Muse and Fury. It feels like Voyager is confronting the fact that it has declined over the slow withering death of the larger Star Trek franchise. The end is near, and Voyager has presided over it. Fury went so far as to request a do-over on the entire run of the series, resetting six years of continuity.

Life Line touches on these ideas, allowing one member of the regular cast to journey home and to try to make peace with a deeply disappointed father figure.

Creator hate.

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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 – 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: Deep Space Nine – Doctor Bashir, I Presume (Review)

Doctor Bashir, I Presume is a strange little episode.

It directly follows In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light, a two-part story in which it was revealed that Doctor Julian Bashir had been abducted by the Dominion at some point during the fifth season and replaced with a changeling infiltrator. Although the maths can be a little difficult to work out, it is suggested that Bashir was replaced by a changeling at some point before Rapture. With that in mind, it seems strange that the very next episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine should reveal that the recently returned Julian Bashir is himself an imposter.

"Oh, shiny."

“Oh, shiny.”

However, even on its own terms, Doctor Bashir, I Presume is a very odd piece of television. The hook of the episode is a guest appearance from Robert Picardo as Lewis Zimmerman. Picardo is making a crossover appearance from Star Trek: Voyager where he played the EMH, who had also made an appearance in Star Trek: First Contact. Picardo is a fine dramatic actor, but the character is notable for being comic relief. Doctor Bashir, I Presume begins as a light-hearted quirky piece, turning sharply at the half-way point to become a gritty science-fiction family drama.

All of this is quite jarring. However, Doctor Bashir, I Presume works surprising well. A large part of that is down to how strange the episode is, often feeling like an intimate family drama about recrimination and disappointment set against the backdrop of a massive science-fiction franchise.

A selfie with himself.

A selfie with himself.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Darkling (Review)

There is something to be said for the pulpier side of Star Trek: Voyager, the aspect of the show that plays like a cheesy sci-fi b-movie.

Brannon Braga is very much the driving force behind this aspect of the show, as evidenced by his scripts for the belated Cold War body-swapping horror of Cathexis or the psychological nightmare of Projections or the trashy psychedelic terror of Cold Fire or even the weird evolutionary anxieties of Threshold and Macrocosm. These sorts of episodes often feel like they belong in a late night movie slot reserved for forgotten horror flicks from the fifties and sixties. Of course, Braga is not alone in this; episodes like Meld and The Thaw also fit the pattern.

Blurred lines.

Blurred lines.

Of course, these episodes do not always hit the mark. Charitably, it could be argued that they land about half the time and misfire spectacularly about one third of the time. However, there is something strangely compelling about these episode. They feel distinct from what audiences expect from Star Trek. Even if they are arguably just an extension of late Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes like Sub Rosa or Genesis or Eye of the Beholder, they feel like something different from the show’s more conventional “let’s do archetypal Star Trek” plotting.

Darkling is an episode that doesn’t quite work, but which is oddly endearing in its dysfunction. It is a ridiculous central premise executed in a deeply flawed (and occasionally uncomfortable) manner. However, there is something weirdly compelling about wedding the show’s science-fiction premise to gothic horror through the fractured psyche of a computer program.

Patchy.

Patchy.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Swarm (Review)

This February and March (and a little bit of April), 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.

The Swarm helps to solidify the Jeri Taylor era, even as it is shuffled in among relics of Michael Piller’s tenure.

Much like The Chute before it, The Swarm has a great central premise built around the classic model of using the franchise to tell allegorical stories. The episode has a great hook and a great central performance, along with a strong sense of theme that makes it easier to relate to the whole thing. In The Chute, Kenneth Biller touched on issues of punishment and incarceration. In The Swarm, Mike Sussman tells a sweet story about caring for a loved one whose mental faculties are degrading. (This was a theme to which Sussman would return tangentially with Twilight.)

Talking to himself...

Talking to himself…

However, that strong central premise is also betrayed by several severe structural problems that hold the episode back from greatness. The Chute was a few rewrites away from greatness, its final act existing primarily to close out an hour of broadcasting rather than to tie together the preceding forty minutes of television. The Swarm grafts its emotionally compelling story of mental collapse onto a fairly generic “evil alien” narrative that somehow challenges to become the episode’s primary plot thread.

As with The Chute, there is a sense that The Swarm is codifying what will become standard practice for the series from this point forward. The biggest issue with The Swarm is the decision to undercut the episode’s emotional arc by having the series reset the EMH’s reset. In what arguably makes it the perfect example of the issues that will plague Star Trek: Voyager from here until Endgame, the show literally presses a reset button on a reset button. The Swarm is a meta-reset, if you will.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Projections (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Projections is really the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager that feels like it is the right script coming from the right staff writer. At the start of the show’s first season, it seemed like writing assignments were handed out almost at random, with no real acknowledgement of the relative strength of any of the writers involved.

Brannon Braga is one of the best science-fiction high-concept writers in the history of franchise, but he was assigned the character-driven second episode Parallax and the issue-driven Emanations; Michael Piller’s personal strengths were always more firmly aligned with character development, so it felt strange to see him writing the time travel adventure Time and Again and the anomaly of the week in The Cloud.

All by myself...

All by myself…

Pushing the boundaries of a writing staff is something worth doing – forcing various members of the team to ease themselves out of their comfort zone – but it felt counter-productive to do this during the first season of a new Star Trek show. After all, the first season is about putting the best foot forward, and many of the early scripts for the show feel like they were handed to the wrong writers during the development process.

With Projections, it feels like Brannon Braga finally has a Voyager script that plays entirely to his strengths as a writer. It is arguably his most character-driven script on the franchise to date, but it also anchored in a pretty fascinating existential dilemma. In many respects, it is a spiritual companion to Frame of Mind, a sixth season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generationpreoccupied with questions about what reality actually might be.

Everything falls apart...

Everything falls apart…

Following on from Heroes and Demons, Projections is only the second episode of Voyager to focus on the character of the Doctor. However, much like Heroes and Demons, it demonstrates the versatility of the character and the range of the actor. Projections is a very clever script that relies on its central character to really carry it across the line. At this point in Voyager‘s run, Robert Picardo seems to be one of the few members of the ensemble who could really pull it off.

The result is one of the (if not the) strongest episode of the show’s first two seasons – somewhat appropriate, given the way the show straddles the gap between the first and second seasons.

He's not all there...

He’s not all there…

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