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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 – Bliss (Review)

Bliss is a textbook example of Star Trek: Voyager doing textbook Star Trek.

The episode feels like a stew composed primarily of leftovers, the residue of past meals thrown together to serve up something lukewarm and familiar. Bliss is not necessarily a bad episode of television, per se. It is rather lifeless and generic, but it is hardly the weakest episode of the season or the series. Instead, Bliss is the kind of episode that fades gently from memory, a hollow confection that doesn’t taste particularly nice, but which at least offers something to chew over.

Good Sheppard.

Bliss is a cocktail of familiar Star Trek plot elements. At the centre of the story is the sort of gigantic monstrous space entity that haunted earlier tales like The Immunity Syndrome or Datalore, a reminder of how weird and dangerous space can be. The “pitcher plant” in Bliss recalls the parasites from Operation — Annihilate! or the space vampire from The Man Trap. It feels like something almost Lovecraftian, a “beast” with tendrils that reach into the minds anybody near enough so that it might lure them to their doom. It is unfathomable to those caught within its grasp.

Qatai exists in opposition to this malign entity, caught in an immortal struggle with a force more vicious and more powerful than he could ever be. The EMH compares Qatai to Ahab, acknowledging the debt that Bliss owes to Moby Dick. Of course, the Star Trek franchise is populated with stories built upon that classic template; Obsession, The Doomsday Machine, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Nemesis, Star Trek. It is hard to think of a more generic source of inspiration for an episode of Star Trek.

The show could use a shot in the arm.

Even beyond that, Bliss touches on plot ideas and elements that will be familiar to most Voyager viewers. As with episodes like Eye of the Needle or False Profits, the crew are tempted by a phenomenon that seems to promise the possibility of getting the crew home quickly. As in Hope and Fear and The Voyager Conspiracy, Seven of Nine becomes preoccupied with the notion that she is the only member of the crew with an objective perspective that allows her to see the truth. As with The Cloud or One, this might be deemed an “anomaly of the week” episode.

The result is something the feels very much like a representative distillation of Voyager, the statistical mean of the series derived to a decimal point. Bliss is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Voyager as a television show. It is neither truly great or truly awful, it is merely there.

Coming down to Earth.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Infinite Regress (Review)

As with One from late in the fourth season, Infinite Regress is an episode that uses Seven of Nine’s cybernetic mind as a vehicle for psychological horror.

Producer Brannon Braga has always been interested in constructing psychological thrillers within the science-fiction framework of Star Trek, using the franchise’s pseudo-science trappings as a way to explore themes of mental deterioration or disconnect. Frame of Mind is probably the first example, but there are many others. Braga is very interested in having his characters question the nature of their reality, of trapping them within their own minds, of undercutting their sense of self. That interest bled into the shows around him.

Self-image.

Star Trek: Voyager presented the writers with an artificial computer-generated character who could more readily combine the writer’s fascination with psychological thrillers and the franchise’s engagement with advanced technology. The EMH was a character whose mind was comprised entirely of computer protocols and software code. His mind could be unfurled on monitors, buffered in memory, fragmented on the hard drive. Episodes like Projections, The Swarm and Darkling suggested a character prone to psychosis, reinforced by Dejaren’s breakdown in Revulsion.

However, the addition of Seven of Nine to the cast in Scorpion, Part II seemed to provide the the Voyager writers (and Braga in particular) with character who could function as an even more effective vehicle for these sorts of stories. Seven is a fusion of human and machine, an organic brain augmented by technological components. She is a character whose mind is in many ways already divided, whose sense of self is understandably fragile. As such, Seven is ideally suited to stories like Infinite Regress.

Mind your step.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Hope and Fear (Review)

Hope and Fear is a reasonably solid conclusion to the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, the episode has a number of very clever ideas. There are a number of creative choices in Hope and Fear that feel entirely appropriate for the final episode of what has been a relatively strong season. Various concepts and ideas are brought back into play, from Janeway’s alliance with the Borg in Scorpion, Part II through to her conversion of Seven of Nine in The Gift and up to the secret coded message from Starfleet suggested in Hunters. It makes sense to bring all of these ideas back into play for the grand finale.

The fourth season comes to a head.

More than that, it makes sense to build the episode around the dynamic between Janeway and Seven. One of the recurring tensions in the fourth season, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, has been the debate about the prominence of Seven of Nine. In the year since she was introduced, Seven has effectively become one of the three most important members of the cast. There is a credible argument to be made that she is the most important member of the cast, an anxiety played out in One. As such, it is logical to build Hope and Fear around Janeway and Seven.

At the same time, there is a certain clumsiness to the plotting of the episode. There is a very rushed quality to the story, which never really takes the time to develop or explore these big revelations and twists. Hope and Fear races towards its conclusion as if it has been sucked into quantum slipstream, a very disorienting and disjointed effect. Certain character arcs feel under-explored, and certain gaps in the plot logic are brushed aside. Hope and Fear feels like a story that deserved a bigger canvas.

The hard cell.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Omega Directive (Review)

The Omega Directive plays like Star Trek: Voyager is trying to push itself.

It is an episode which finds Janeway acting secretively and unilaterally, casually brushing aside the Prime Directive in service of some hidden agenda. This is a very big deal. On the original Star Trek, it frequently seemed like the Prime Directive was something for Kirk to outwit. However, since Star Trek: The Next Generation, the franchise has taken the rule to have a lot more moral weight. Even more precisely, since Caretaker, Janeway has emphasised that it is not her place to intervene directly in the affairs of alien civilisations.

The be-all and end-all.

So there sound be something very shocking about Janeway keeping secrets from her crew and forsaking the moral principle that had been the cornerstone of her first few years in command. Given how conventional Voyager has been, how carefully the show has pitched itself as the most archetypal of Star Trek shows, this should be a pretty big deal. What would get Janeway to consciously (and even enthusiastically) cross those lines? How far would she go? What else is she concealing from the people around her? It should be a powerhouse episode of television.

However, The Omega Directive falls flat. Part of the problem is timing, with The Omega Directive sandwiched between Inquisition and In the Pale Moonlight in terms of the overall franchise chronology. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had been transgressing and subverting franchise norms for years at this point. The Omega Directive feels like something relatively small-scale, juxtaposed against the activities of Section 31 or Sisko’s complicity in murder. The Omega Directive thinks that it is playing in the same league, but it is not even the same sport.

An explosive new development.

More than that, there is a clumsiness to The Omega Directive. The episode touches on a number of interesting ideas, but the story’s thematic weight is quite consciously removed from the core premise. The Omega Directive works best as a weird episode touching on Borg spirituality, and on the question of the Collective’s motivations, but the episode invests so much energy in the black-ops norm-shattering framing device that these elements do not feel like satisfying pay-off. The core themes of The Omega Directive feel like they belong in another episode.

The Omega Directive is a wasted opportunity, its underwhelming subversive trappings distracting from what might have been a compelling meditation on faith and belief.

That healthy blue glow.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Retrospect (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager is a very nineties show. Sometimes that is endearing. Sometimes it is not.

Retrospect is an episode that made a great deal more sense in the context of the nineties. It was still troublesome and reactionary, structuring its central allegory in a way that was deeply problematic. However, Retrospect made a certain amount of sense when considered in light of the McMartin Preschool scandal and the satanic panic driven by regression hypnosis in the early part of the decade. Retrospect is very clearly an attempt to turn that talking point into a twenty-fourth century allegory about witch hunts and persecution.

Assimilate this…

However, there are a number of poor choices made over the course of the episode. The most obvious is build the episode around the character of Seven of Nine. There are any number of reasons why this would be written as a Seven of Nine episode, given that she is the breakout character of the fourth season. However, episodes like The Gift and The Raven have made a conscious effort to portray Seven of Nine as an abuse surviving living with genuine trauma. To put her at the centre of an episode about false allegations of abuse feels ill-judged.

Similarly, the emphasis on the subject of these accusations and his ruined life feels more than a little tone-deaf, even in the context the nineties satanic panic. Retrospect is not an episode about Seven of Nine processing abuse or even coping with distorted memories. It is ultimately the story about how the falsified accusations of abuse (from a character who is a verified abuse victim) can serve to destroy the lives of innocent men. Indeed, the emphasis on the EMH as a proxy for Seven of Nine downplays her own agency in this plot.

Memory Beta.

These aspects are troubling even in the context of an episode about the dangers of using hypnotherapy as the basis of these charges. However, the scandal has slipped from public consciousness in the years since Retrospect was initially broadcast. When the audience hears about women false accusations against men, it evokes the long-standing myth that men are frequent victims of falsified reports about sexual assault that ruin lives. This was creepy and uncomfortable subtext was obvious at time of broadcast, but has only become more pronounced in the years since.

Retrospect would have been a very clumsy and ill-judged allegory in the context of the mid-to-late-nineties. Decades removed from that original context, it seems almost reprehensible.

Blinding flash of the obvious.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Prey (Review)

Prey is a fantastic piece of television, and stands as one of the best standalone episodes of the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager.

It is an episode built around a very simple premise, pitting two of Voyager‘s more memorable alien creations against one another and throwing a nice character arc into the midst of this epic conflict. Prey is an exciting thriller built around the established characteristics of both the Hirogen and Species 8472, using two very distinctive cultures to tell a compelling and engaging story with the regular cast thrown into the fray. “Lone Hirogen hunter pursues lost member of Species 8472” is a great hook for an episode.

Here come the big guns.

However, Prey goes even further than that. The basic plot is intriguing on its own terms, but Prey cleverly grounds the story in what we know about these characters and their dynamic. As much as Voyager is caught in the crossfire of this horrific situation, the crew are also forced to make tough decisions. How will Janeway react to a wounded member of a hostile (and nigh-invulnerable) species? How will Seven of Nine respond when asked to save the life of a creature that participated in a brutal war with the Borg Collective?

This is intriguing stuff, largely anchored in what the audience already knows of the characters and delivered with top-notch production values and a great sense of pacing. Prey is an episode that plays to all the strengths of the fourth season, from the appeal of the Hirogen and Species 8472 through to the chemistry between Kate Mulgrew and Jeri Ryan.

There’ll be hull to pay.

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