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Star Trek: Voyager – Human Error (Review)

Human Error is a staggering act of creative cowardice.

Star Trek: Voyager is in the literal home stretch of its final season; only seven more episodes remain. By this point in its final season, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was mapping out an impressive and ambitious epic tying together seven years of threads into something loosely resembling a single tapestry; the “final chapter” was kicking into high gear with Strange Bedfellows. While Star Trek: The Next Generation was less assuredly wrapping things up, as Star Trek: Generations loomed, there was an air of finality and closure to stories like Journey’s End or Firstborn.

What a dish.

Voyager shows little real sign of progress in the final stretch. There is the occasional piece of housekeeping, such as the awkward decision to get Neelix off the ship in Homestead. There are occasional flashes of thematic reflection on the end of the journey, as in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II. There are also episodes asserting the show’s place within the larger franchise, espousing hollow takes on familiar franchise storytelling in episodes like Critical Care or RepentanceVoyager even shows flashes of anxiety about the franchise iteration that will replace it, in episodes like Friendship One.

Watching the seventh season of Voyager, there is never any doubt that this will be the final season. There is a funereal atmosphere running through the season, that awkward sense of an exhausted athlete grasping desperately for the respite of the finish line. Watching the seventh season of Voyager, fatigue hangs in the air; it is abundantly clear that nobody involved expects an eighth season. However, it is equally obvious that nobody involved with the show has any idea what to do with the seventh season itself.

Not feeling herself.

On its own terms, Human Error is a disappointment in a manner similar to a lot of late Voyager episodes. The premise is highly derivative of a number of relatively recent episodes. As with Imperfection, Seven of Nine experiences a technological malfunction that may kill her due to her Borg implants. As with Someone to Watch Over Me, Seven of Nine experiments with her humanity. As with Pathfinder (and much earlier Hollow Pursuits), a character finds themselves escaping from reality into holographic fantasy. As with Fair Haven, a lead character falls in love with a holographic partner.

Human Error is dull and drab in terms of plotting. Its structure is fairly conventional. It’s secondary plot is underdeveloped, unnecessary and distracting. Its resolution is trite, with Seven of Nine naturally redeeming her earlier failures by saving the crew at the last possible minute using techno-babble and hazily-defined stakes. All of this is pretty standard Voyager plotting. It is not an aberration. There is very little to be said about these elements of the episode. These have been problems with the show for years, and Human Error is not even the most egregious example of any of them.

More like Chako-bae.

The big problem with Human Error is lack of conviction. Human Error is an episode with a premise that requires and demands proper development and exploration. It is an episode that lays down a marker, one that exists primarily so that it can be honoured over the final stretch of the season. Despite the problems within the episode itself, Human Error gambles in a big way on how the rest of the season builds off it. Naturally, Human Error loses this bet, its set-ups never honoured by the episodes that follow. This deals the episode a fatal blow, undercutting it brutally. Human Error is dull and drab, but also pointless.

To be clear, Human Error is not making an unreasonable request of the seven episodes that follow. The premise flowing from Human Error isn’t especially ambitious in the context of early twenty-first century television. Both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine have built skilfully off individual episodes like Human Error, using these set-ups as stepping stones to build something more impressive. Even Voyager has employed that sort of storytelling before, albeit to mixed effect. There is no reason for Human Error to crash so spectacularly, beyond a complete disinterest from Voyager itself.

Don’t bottle it.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Workforce, Part II (Review)

Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II form an interesting two-parter.

A large part of this is purely structural, and down to the role that they play within the larger arc of the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager. One of the most common, and biggest, criticisms of Endgame is that the episode doesn’t actually offer any meaningful pay-off to the seven-year journey. The characters never actually get set foot on Earth, never get to come home. The final shot of the series is the ship itself approaching Earth, with no sense of what it was like for those characters to return to the home that they had sought for more than half a decade. To be fair to Endgame, the finale does open with a flash-forward that features a crew reunion decades after their return, but that timeline is erased by the events that follow.

Chakotay or the highway.

Season finales tend to offer some indication of what happens to the characters after the end of the television series, an assurance to the audience that their journey is over and that their lives will work out. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, What You Leave Behind resolved the Dominion War in its opening sixty minutes before spending thirty minutes wrapping up various plot threads. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, the future timeline in All Good Things… hinted at potential futures for the characters. Even on Star Trek: Enterprise, the much-maligned These Are the Voyages… featured the characters bringing the ship home to be decommissioned so that Archer could lay the groundwork for the Federation.

In contrast, Voyager just stops. There is no real consideration of what happens to the crew; Admiral Owen Paris never gets to meet his granddaughter, the Maquis never get their pardons, Janeway never reunites with Mollie. There is no sense of how they settle into life after their adventure, no question of what happens to them when they aren’t defined by their seventy-thousand-light-year journey across the galaxy. Oddly enough, this complete absence in Endgame makes Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II feel much more important in the larger context of the season.

Over the moon about it.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Workforce, Part I (Review)

Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II form an interesting two-parter.

To a certain extent, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II are overshadowed by the other “event” stories of the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager. Notably, with the exception of the season premiere Unimatrix Zero, Part II, the late-season two-parter was the only multi-part seventh season story to air as a conventional two-part story, with the two halves broadcast one week apart. Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II had aired on the same night as a television movie, similar to how The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II had been broadcast during the fourth season. Endgame would air as a two-hour special episode, in the manner of other Star Trek series finales like All Good Things… or What You Leave Behind.

Labouring under false pretenses.

As such, there is something very traditional about Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, a two-parter that feels more like old-fashioned two-part Star Trek stories than many of the episodes around it. It recalls some of the mid-season two-parters from Star Trek: The Next Generation, like Birthright, Part I and Birthright, Part II or Gambit, Part I and Gambit, Part II. Unlike episodes like Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, it never feels like Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II were conceived as an “event” story. Instead, it feels like the story developed organically and that the production team realised that the story justified two separate episodes rather than being designed to provide a sense of scale or spectacle.

The seventh season of Voyager invests a lot of time and energy in chasing the sensibility of “classic” Star Trek storytelling with clumsy issue-driven narratives like Critical Care or Lineage or Repentance. Often this feels cynical and crass, particularly given how hard those episodes strain to avoid saying anything potentially controversial or divisive. As such, there is something refreshing in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, which feel very much like “old-fashioned” Star Trek storytelling in format as well as content.

Not all there.

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New Podcast! The Pensky File – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 5, Episode 23 (“Blaze of Glory”)

I was thrilled to be asked back to join The Pensky Podcast to discuss Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I joined Wes as their coverage of the fifth season winds down, discussing the Maquis- and Michael-Eddington-centric Blaze of Glory.

I’ve talked before about how the fifth season of Deep Space Nine might be the best season of Star Trek ever produced. As a result, a lot of the really great episodes in the season tend to get a bit of a short shrift when we talk about them, overshadowed by the bigger and even better episodes around them. Blaze of Glory is one of those episodes that is often overlooked, wrapping up several recurring plot threads so the show can focus on its priorities going forward.

This was a fun discussion. Wes and I talk about the episode, about the Maquis, about Sisko’s arc, about tomatoes, about what Eddington really used the cloaking devices for, and about proper seasoning. All very important, totally relevant stuff.

You can find more from The Pensky Podcast here, and listen to the podcast by clicking the link or just listening below.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Void (Review)

The Void feels like a belated mea culpa on the part of Star Trek: Voyager.

It is unfair and an exaggeration to say that The Void finally delivers on the potential of Voyager. After all, there have been several earlier episodes that flirted with following the basic premise of the show to its logical conclusion; Alliances, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, Night, Counterpoint, Equinox, Part I and Equinox, Part II. Of course, many of those episodes ultimately ended with a repudiation of that premise, a retreat back to the safety of a familiar formula. Voyager has always been a television show terrified of the implications of its own starting point.

Conflict aVoidant.

Nevertheless, there is a strong sense that The Void looks and feels a lot more like Voyager should have looked and felt from the outset. It is the story of explorers trapped in a strange environment with limited resources, facing tough choices in order to survive, and desperate to forge alliance to keep them afloat. The eponymous “void” feels like a metaphor for the Delta Quadrant itself, the teaser playing like a truncated version of Caretaker. An intrepid crew plucked from familiarity and thrown into a hostile world of scavengers and pirates, stripped of their comforts.

Of course, The Void ultimately retreats from this premise. Much like the eponymous anomaly is just a pocket universe, this exploration of the show’s premise is just an episodic diversion. If it took Voyager six-and-a-half seasons to find a way to explore its core premise, it only takes forty-five minutes to wrap a bow around it and return to business as usual. The Void is a fluke and an aberration. Even ten episodes from away from the finale, Voyager can only briefly imagine how things ever might have been different.

In the Void, here’s a ‘noid…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Prophecy (Review)

The big surprise with Prophecy is not that Star Trek: Voyager is doing a Klingon-centric story, despite being set on the other side of the galaxy. The big surprise with Prophecy is that it took the series so long to get around to it.

Of course, there are lots of very good reasons why Voyager should never have had to resort to a Klingon-centric story. After all, Voyager is a series about a ship stranded half-way across the galaxy. The whole premise of the series is to get away from the familiar and established Star Trek aliens, to take a break from the familiar and iconic races like the Romulans or the Klingons, and to introduce new aliens like the Kazon, the Vidiians, the Hirogen, the Malon. Caretaker threw the crew into the Delta Quadrant to give the show a clean break.

Klingon in there!

However, the pull of the familiar is strong. Voyager wasted little time in building episodes around familiar alien menaces; Eye of the Needle featured a Romulan, Death Wish featured Q, False Profits featured two Ferengi, Blood Fever reintroduced the Borg as a potential menace. Few Star Trek aliens are as iconic as the Klingons. Even the most casual of audience members knows the name “Klingon” and probably has an understanding of how the culture works. Next to Vulcans – and even then, arguably just Spock – Klingons are Star Trek to casual viewers.

Indeed, Prophecy is far from the first time that Voyager has indulged its fascination with Klingon culture. Torres was split into human and Klingon halves in Faces. Holographic Klingons played significant roles in episodes like Day of Honour, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. Ronald D. Moore only worked on Voyager for a very short time, but – with the assistance of Bryan Fuller – helped to send Torres to the Klingon afterlife in Barge of the Dead. Indeed, even Endgame will feature recurring actor Vaughn Armstrong as a secondary Klingon character.

“You can’t make a mess in here, this is the mess hall!”

All of which is to say that while Voyager took its time to do an episode built around a major guest cast of new flesh-and-blood Klingon characters, the series had a long-standing interest in these most memorable and distinctive of Star Trek aliens. In its own weird way, the inclusion of such an overtly Klingon-centric episode plays into the seventh season’s weird fixation on the perceived “Star-Trek-ness” of Voyager, a strong desire to assert the aspects of Voyager that connected it to the larger Star Trek canon.

However, as with a lot of these recurring “Star-Trek-y” elements in the seventh season of Voyager, there is a strong sense with Prophecy that the production team have no greater understanding of the Klingons than their long-standing connection to Star Trek lore.

Today is a good day to try.

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“The Undiscovered Country… the Future!”: Star Trek VI and the Unexpected End of History…

Early in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon offers what appears to be a fairly dramatic misreading of Hamlet.

Opening a dinner between the representatives of the Klingon High Council and the senior staff of the Enterprise, Gorkon raises his glass of Romulan Ale in salute. “I offer a toast,” he states. “The undiscovered country, the future.” By most accounts, this isn’t what Shakespeare meant when he allowed the Danish Prince to monologue about “the undiscovered country.” The dialogue is quite explicit that Shakespeare was talking about death rather than the future. Hamlet is reflecting upon the possibility of “something after death, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” To be fair to Gorkon, this may be a simple translation error; after all, the Klingon Chancellor boasts that “you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

However, increasingly, The Undiscovered Country suggests that Gorkon’s toast is not a simple misreading of the Bard. In the most obvious of senses, Gorkon himself gets to travel to “the undiscovered country” almost immediately after the dinner, murdered by two assassins in Starfleet uniforms as part of a plot to destabilise the possibility of peaceful relations between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. Indeed, even within the larger context of the Star Trek franchise, there is a sense that the future of the Klingon Empire is inexorably associated with death. Gorkon’s peace with the Federation sets in motion the gradual decay and decline of the Klingon Empire that runs through stories like Heart of Glory, Sins of the Father, The Way of the Warrior, Tacking Into the Wind.

However, watching The Undiscovered Country more than a quarter of a century removed from its original context, that seeming misstatement seems increasingly deliberate and calculated. The Undiscovered Country is perhaps the most under-appreciated of the Star Trek films, in large part due to how it consciously and deliberately twins the notions of “death” and “the future”, insisting that perhaps the past must die so that the future might live. In the world of The Undiscovered Country, death is still frightening and mysterious and uncharted. However, it is also a necessary part of growth and evolution. In the years since the release of The Undiscovered Country, it seems like more franchises could take that idea to heart.

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