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Star Trek: Voyager – Muse (Review)

In its own way, Muse marks the end of an era for Star Trek: Voyager, as Joe Menosky’s last solo script for the series.

To be fair, this is not Menosky’s last script credit on the series. Menosky would collaborate with Brannon Braga on the season-bridging two-parter Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II. In fact, those episodes have themes that play directly into Menosky’s interests; the two-parter is a story about dreams and narratives, about worlds that exist beyond the literal and the concrete. More than that, Menosky would work on the writing staff of Star Trek: Discovery, contributing the script to Lethe, one of the season’s stand-out episodes that was also about narratives – albeit internalised ones.

Dropping the mask.

However, Muse still feels like it marks the end of an era. Menosky had been a fixture of the Berman era of Star Trek dating back to the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, making his debut with Legacy and arguably making his biggest impression with Darmok early the following season. Menosky’s involvement with the franchise ebbed and flowed in the intervening years, but his influence was often felt. Indeed, Menosky even contributed a handful of scripts and stories to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, including the teleplay for the underrated Dramatis Personae.

With Menosky’s departure from Voyager at the end of the sixth season, Brannon Braga would become the longest-serving writer working on the Star Trek franchise. His tenure on the television franchise would surpass that of Ronald D. Moore, and of any writer who hadn’t spanned the gap from the end of the original Star Trek to the early seasons of The Next Generation, with the arguable exception of producer Rick Berman. As such, Muse feels very much like the end of an era. It marks the departure of one of the guiding light of the Star Trek franchise, albeit one often overlooked or ignored.

Storyteller.

Muse is an episode that speaks to Menosky’s key interests within the Star Trek franchise, the idea of Star Trek as something akin to a modern mythology. More than any other writer on Star Trek, Menosky is invested in stories that are fundamentally about stories. His influence on Voyager is more subtle than that of Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor or Brannon Braga, but can felt in the recurring idea that Voyager itself is a Delta Quadrant myth. More than any of the other Star Trek series, Voyager feels like it is a story about a collection of archetypes rather than characters.

Menosky first articulated this idea in the closing scene of his otherwise forgettable script for False Profits, but reinforced it in episodes like Distant Origin, Living Witness and Blink of an Eye. It could reasonably be argued that this idea became part of the show’s identity, to the point that it can even be traced through episodes not explicitly credited to Menosky, like Live Fast and Prosper. It seems appropriate that this idea should serve as the central theme of Muse, an episode that might be read as a thesis statement on Menosky’s approach to the franchise.

Acting out.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Live Fast and Prosper (Review)

Live Fast and Prosper is a reasonably adequate mid-tier episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

It is not awful. It has an interesting premise, with some interesting potential for development and exploration. It fits with some of the larger fascinations of Voyager – in particularly recurring themes of identity and narrative, and the intersection of the two. More than that, unlike a lot of Voyager episodes, it has a story that feels somewhat original. This is not a dull rehash of a familiar story, a shiny new exterior hastily assembled over a familiar storytelling engine.

“Get this… whatever it is… to Sickbay!”

At the same time, it is also not very good of itself. Although Live Fast and Prosper has an absolutely ingenious premise, it never seems to push itself beyond that point. It never makes the leap that the best stories make, from an interesting premise into a satisfying execution. Live Fast and Prosper is pretty much exactly the episode that every audience member would anticipate given the one-line plot description of “Voyager encounters a group of con artists who have been impersonating them for shady business deals.”

The result is an hour of television that is solid, if not impressive. Live Fast and Prosper feels like a middling delivery on a fantastic promise, to the point where its status as merely adequate is almost as severe a disappointment as some of the spectacular misfires around it.

Unfamiliar faces…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Good Shepherd (Review)

Good Shepherd is a terrible execution of a potentially interesting premise.

There is something interesting in speculating what the Star Trek universe must look like for those characters who exist outside the senior staff of a given series. This premise has been explored and touched upon in a number of episodes; most notably in the basic premise of Star Trek: Discovery, the primary plots of Lower Decks and Learning Curve, even the sections of Strange New World focusing on Novakovich and Cutler. Still, these are only a handful of episodes in a franchise that spans half a century and over seven hundred installments.

Looking out for her crew…

As such, the basic plot of Good Shepherd is compelling. The teaser visuals the appeal of such a story in a playful and innovative way, with the camera following a command all the way from the top of the ship to the bottom; from Janeway’s ready room to Astrometrics to Engineering to the lowest viewing port on the ship. It is an interesting way of demonstrating how anonymous and disconnected individuals can feel, even on board a ship with a crew numbering around one hundred and fifty. What does it feel like to be anonymous, on a ship as isolated as Voyager?

Unfortunately, Good Shepherd awkwardly bungles the question. In doing so, it fails to provide any satisfying answers.

Running rings…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Child’s Play (Review)

Interesting, isn’t it?

What?

With all their technology, their opportunity to explore the galaxy, the thing they want most is to get home.

A Trek away from the Stars.

Child’s Play is a fascinating episode of Star Trek: Voyager, in that it might be seen as a firm rejection of some of the show’s core conservatism.

Voyager has always been the most conservative of the Star Trek franchise, the series most likely to panic about gang violence for two whole seasons starting in Caretaker or to rail against immigration in Displaced or to voice its anxieties about refugees in Day of Honour. More than that, what are episodes like Remember or Distant Origin or Living Witness or Memorial but expressions of literal anxieties about the erosion of the certainty of history to postmodernism and moral relativism? At its core, Voyager is a series about nostalgia, about the yearning to recapture what once was, how the only journey is the journey home.

“Everything the light touches is your kingdom…”

Child’s Play is interesting as a firm rejection of the idea of the traditional family unit in favour of a more modern (and less rigidly defined) idea of a “found family.” It is a story about how a child’s best interests do not always lie with their biological parents, and about how some of the strongest and most loving bonds in a young person’s life can be forged by chance rather than biology. Child’s Play is essentially an ode to the kind of complicated family dynamics that were entering the mainstream at the turn of the millennium, a staunch defense of a liberal and inclusive definition of family.

More than that, the episode also seems to be making several very pointed jabs at Voyager‘s traditionally conservative outlook.

“I want to be out there…”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Ashes to Ashes (Review)

Death is inevitable and inescapable. It comes to all in time.

Death provides a sense of closure. It marks an end of a journey. It establishes a boundary that might serve as an outline of a life. Death is the high price of living, the unavoidable reckoning that waits beyond the mortal veil. Death is the final frontier, one which all cross in time. Death is the undiscovered country, from which none have returned and about which all must wonder. Sometimes death comes quickly, sometimes it lurks and stalks its prey, sometimes it is even embrace. Nevertheless, death always comes.

The sad ballad of Lyndsay Ballard.

By the sixth season of Star Trek: Voyager, the Star Trek franchise was acutely aware of its own mortality and the unavoidable nature of its own death. Ratings were in decline, and there was no reprieve in sight. The fans were growing increasingly angry with the franchise’s output, and the press was eager to turn on the grand old man of television science fiction. Ronald D. Moore had been forced to quit the franchise, and Brannon Braga would later confess that this was the point at which all of his creative energy had been exhausted.

This mortality hangs over the sixth season of Voyager. The fifth season had repeatedly fixated on the idea of Voyager as a series trapped in time, an inevitability: the thwarted suicide attempts of Janeway in Night and of Torres in Extreme Risk; the frozen ship and crew in Timeless; the multiple copies of Seven of Nine and Janeway in Relativity; the decaying and collapsing imitations in Course: Oblivion, barely registering as a blip on the “real” crew’s radar; the rejection of millennial anxiety in 11:59; even the crew’s broken counterparts in Equinox, Part I.

Mortal clay.

In contrast, the sixth season returns time and again to the idea of death and decay: the ruined empire in Dragon’s Teeth; the underworld in Barge of the Dead; the ghost story in The Haunting of Deck Twelve; the floating tomb in One Small Step; the memories of a massacre in Memorial; the dead Borg Cube in Collective; the vengeful death throes of the returning Kes in Fury; the EMH’s visit to an aging and frail relative in Life Line; the Borg heads on spikes in Unimatrix Zero, Part I. This is to say nothing of the funereal tone of Blink of an Eye.

Ashes to Ashes is perhaps the most literal articulation of this recurring theme and preoccupation, the episode that most strongly and overtly explores the sixth season’s fascination with death and decay. The episode centres on a one-time guest star, a deceased member of the crew who has been resurrected by an alien species and seeks to return to the land of the living. Inevitably, she discovers that this is not possible. Death cannot be outwitted or evaded. It always catches up.

Whose episode is it anyway?

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Star Trek: Voyager – Spirit Folk (Review)

The holodeck is horrifying.

This is nothing new. It has been this way since Star Trek: The Next Generation. The holodeck has been an unsettling concept from almost the very beginning, not least because of the kinds of stories that the holodeck suggests. From the moment that the Enterprise updated the holodeck in The Big Goodbye, there has been a creeping sense that the holographic creations are capable of comprehending the nature of their existence; in fact, that episode ends with the horrifying notion of McNary wondering what would happen to him when Picard turned off the program.

It’s the poster for the least exciting action movie of the late nineties.

This anxiety simmered in the background of the next few holodeck-centric episode, albeit less directly. Both Minuet in 11001001 and the Comic in The Outrageous Okona seemed to grasp their nature as computer constructs designed to serve specific purposes. They lacked the existential angst that McNary expressed in his final moments, but there was still something lurking just beneath the surface. If these entities were self-aware, could their creation and destruction be ethical? In Elementary, Dear Data, Moriarty brought the question to the fore; a hologram who wished to escape his captivity.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine largely stayed away from the holodeck (or the holosuite) for most of its run, barring small recurring gags about the crew’s recreational use of the facilities. Our Man Bashir cleverly side-stepped the issue of holographic self-awareness by casting the lead actors in the role of holographic supporting players. Nevertheless, the introduction of Vic Fontaine in His Way introduced yet another self-aware holographic character, his self-awareness taken for granted and only really articulated in episodes like It’s Only a Paper Moon.

A public (house) meeting.

In contrast, Star Trek: Voyager has only doubled-down on this idea that holographic characters are self-aware. This is most obvious with the EMH, the holographic doctor who struggled for recognition as a person in early episodes like Eye of the Needle and who made a long and gradual journey towards self-actualisation in episodes like Lifesigns and Real Life. However the show engaged with the idea of holographic self-awareness even outside of the EMH, with characters like Dejaran in Revulsion, Leonardo DaVinci in Concerning Flight, the aliens in Bride of Chaotica! and the town in Fair Haven.

To be fair, some of the arguments made by Voyager have been treated with the weight which they deserve. The EMH consciously asserts his personhood in Author, Author, a clumsy but well-intentioned final-season homage to The Measure of a Man. There is a sense that Voyager is capable of treating holograms with the same dignity that The Next Generation afforded Data on his own journey towards self-actualisation. There is something genuinely moving, for example, in the way that the degradation of his program in The Swarm is treated with the same gravity as the neurological decline of a flesh-and-blood character.

Mass appeal.

However, this also creates a strange dissonance in the episodes that don’t use the holodeck for high drama, and instead treat it as the setting for a romp or an adventure. Voyager seems to argue that every hologram is capable of reaching self-awareness, which means that every use of the holodeck to create new characters should be a momentous occasion. In the world of Voyager, every holodeck program, with the right combination of time and experience, can become a sentient being. This means that use of the holodeck should be something treated with weight and respect.

Fair Haven and Spirit Folk are nowhere near as charming as the production team seem to think that they are, but in the broader context of how Voyager approaches holographic characters, they are downright horrifying.

High spirits.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Collective (Review)

Watching Collective, it’s strange to imagine a time when the Borg were considered a credible threat to the larger Star Trek universe.

Collective alludes to this palpable sense of menace in its opening scene. Several members of the crew are playing poker in the Delta Flyer. They are playing in the cockpit, for some reason, rather than in the aft section that would seem to lend itself to such recreational activities. The reason for this storytelling decision comes at the end of the teaser, when something catches Paris’ eye in the middle of one hand. The other members of the away mission follow his gaze, spotting a Borg Cube in the shuttle’s path. Panic ensues. The crew rush to their stations. This, Collective seems to scream, is a big deal.

Baby on Borg.

Of course, this is not actually a big deal. Collective focuses on a Borg Cube that has effectively run aground, a ship that has been disabled. The crew are dead, the result of “a space-borne virus that adapted to Borg physiology” that Child’s Play would reveal to be a form of biological warfare. It should be noted that “the crew discover a disabled Borg Cube” is something of a recurring trope on Star Trek: Voyager, with a similar plot beat employed in both Unity and Scorpion, Part I during the third season. When Kim talks about “bad memories” while skulking through the Cube, it initially seems like he might be referencing the latter.

(Ultimately, Kim is not referring to his traumatic experiences in Scorpion, Part I, which left the character on the verge of death after being attacked by a member of Species 8472. Although the Borg Cube in Collective evokes such memories for the audience, Kim is insulated by Voyager‘s stubborn refusal to acknowledge its own internal continuity. As a result, the memories stoked by the trip to the Borg Cube are generic in nature, of “a haunted house [his] parents took me to when [he] was six.” This is never referenced again. This reveals nothing of Harry Kim. It is just empty filler.)

Dead circuits.

There are plenty of reasons why Voyager keeps stumbling across damaged and derelict Borg Cubes. From a narrative perspective, it allows Voyager to tells stories featuring the Borg without have the crew overwhelmed. Voyager has allowed its characters major victories over the Borg in episodes like Drone or Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, but understands that having a lone lost ship triumph repeatedly over the Borg Collective would strain credulity. So having the ship repeatedly encounter broken-down Borg Cubes allows the series to involve the Borg in these stories while nominally preserving their menace.

However, there is also a sense that there might just be something more at work here, that the sad and story state of the Borg Collective across the seven-season run of Voyager might reflect more than just the demands of the production team. It would seem to hint at a broader sense of social anxieties.

“For the promo!”

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