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Star Trek: Voyager – Repression (Review)

There is something almost obligatory about Repression, as if the production team have arrived at the point in every season where they are obligated to do a Tuvok-centric story but without any particularly strong ideas for that Tuvok-centric story. It is there because Tim Russ is a credited lead and Tuvok is part of the ensemble, and because there is a twenty-six episode season order to fill. It is not there because any writer thought that there was a story that needed to be told with Tuvok, some part of his psyche that needed to be illuminated.

The seventh season is populated with episodes like this, stories built around particularly characters in the most archetypal of fashions. Star Trek: Voyager is frequently criticised for recycling premises from other Star Trek series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the show is less often criticised for simply repeating itself. The supporting characters on Voyager don’t really have arcs, often simply having a handful of stories that the series dutifully cycles through on rotation.

“Another fine mess(hall) you’ve gotten us into, Tuvok…”

On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a marathon of character-centric episodes would reveal the slow and gradual evolution of the cast. Julian Bashir changes and evolves over his time on the series, from the generic any-character-will-do narratives of The Passenger and Melora into the weirder and more awkward Distant Voices through to his emergence as a distinctive person in Hippocratic Oath, Our Man Bashir and The Quickening. Bashir is not the same character in What You Leave Behind that he was in Emissary, and watching a chain of episodes based around Bashir would explain and explore that growth.

In contrast, a character-centric marathon on Voyager would be a much more frustrating experience, as the characters inevitably go through the same motion and repeat the same plots. This is particularly true in the seventh season episodes, where the obligatory character-focused episodes underscore how little these characters have actually and fundamentally changed since the first season. In Nightingale, Harry Kim is still insecure and lacking in experience. In Lineage and Prophecy, B’Elanna Torres is once again wrestling with her Klingon heritage. In Drive, Tom Paris is once again the careless flyboy who learns about responsibility.

“The more things don’t change…”

At the same time, Tuvok has always represented a very particular challenge for the writers, in that he doesn’t even really have an archetypal story in the same way that Torres or Kim or Paris does. Tuvok doesn’t have a “lesson” that he needs to learn over and over again, or a default factory setting that he can fall back to in order to learn that lesson. At least at the end of Extreme Risk or Juggernaut, Torres had learned that she should not let her more destructive impulses guide her actions, even if she would forget it and learn again. This allows for a character arc that can be repeated and reiterated. In contrast, Tuvok was generally well-adjusted and well-balanced.

As a result, stories featuring Tuvok tend to take something away from him and watch him struggle to return to normality. As a Vulcan, Tuvok is often stripped of his Vulcan reserve and forced to recover it. The results can be interesting and compelling, with Meld and Gravity ranking among the best episodes that Voyager ever produced. However, these episodes can also feel very trite and formulaic, often reducing Tuvok to a passenger in stories nominally focused on him: he drives a lot of the plot in Random Thoughts, but Torres in the focal character; Riddles is about something that happens to Tuvok, but focuses on Neelix.

Looking at things from a new perspective.

Repression is notably the show’s last Tuvok-centric story. It is also perhaps the most archetypal. As with episodes like Nightingale or Lineage, it is a collection of familiar tropes for a supporting cast member trotted out one last time before the show crosses the finish line. Repression is an episode that has clearly been assembled from a variety of earlier episodes focused on Tuvok, right down to plot points and individual scenes or costume choices; it is Random Thoughts meets Meld, with an extended final-act homage to Worst Case Scenario. All of which reduces Tuvok to a passenger in his own story.

This is a shame, as Repression works about as well as any episode built around its core premise has any right to it. Like Drive before it, there’s a certain pulpy thrill to its core premise that fits comfortably within the heightened retro sci-fi surroundings of Voyager. The story of a detective who is investigating himself, spreading subversive ideas through telepathic assault, Repression is a patently absurd bit of television which feels very much of a piece with earlier stories like Cathexis or Macrocosm or Darkling or In the Flesh. It works much better as a trashy late-night B-movie than as a character-centric narrative.

There’ll be Meld to pay for this.

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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 – Gravity (Review)

Gravity is a powerful story, all the more effective for its relative simplicity.

Tuvok has been one of the most overlooked and ignored regular cast members on Star Trek: Voyager. The later seasons tend to neglect Harry Kim and Chakotay, but they had been given considerable focus in the earlier years of the show. Chakotay had been a major focus in The Cloud, State of Flux, Cathexis, Initiations, Tattoo, Manoeuvres and Basics, Part I. Kim had taken centre stage in Emanations, Prime Factors, Non Sequitur and The Thaw. In contrast, Tuvok remained relatively anonymous, more of a supporting player than a narrative focal point.

Vulcan on a ledge.

In hindsight, this appears a rather strange choice. Tuvok is the first full-blooded Vulcan character to appear as a regular on a Star Trek show. Spock is easily the most iconic character in the franchise, to the point that he would be the torchbearer for the JJ Abrams reboot and his family still haunts Star Trek: Discovery. As such, having a fully Vulcan character should have led to all manner of interesting stories. After all, Tuvok was introduced in Caretaker as a spy working undercover in the Maquis. There should have been a lot of material to mine in the set-up.

However, for most of the run of Voyager, Tuvok seemed cast in a supporting role. He was the investigator in episodes where the crew were falsely accused, as Paris was in Ex Post Facto or Torres was in Random Thoughts. He was a reliable sounding board for other characters, as with Kes in Cold Fire or Neelix in Rise or Seven of Nine in The Raven. He was even effectively employed as a mind-controlled monster in episodes like Cathexis and Repression. Tellingly, most of the handful of episodes focusing on Tuvok focus on events where he is not himself; Tuvix, Riddles.

Vulcan love slave.

This is a shame, as there is a lot of fertile ground to explore within Vulcan psychology. Logic is never as clean or simple as Spock made it sound. Existence is full of logical contradictions and inconsistencies. The two best Tuvok-centric episodes of Voyager tend to focus on these inconsistencies. Meld is an episode in which Tuvok asks questions for which there can be no answer, and in which his insistence that the universe is an ordered and logical structure pushes him to some very dark places. Gravity explores the long-standing myth that Vulcans are emotionless.

Gravity is a surprisingly influential episode of Voyager, an episode that explores the implications of an idea which the larger Star Trek franchise had taken for granted for more than thirty years. It is an episode that feels unique in the larger context of Voyager, one build as much around character as action. It is story about love and repression, one rooted very much in who Tuvok is. It might just be one of the best Vulcan-centric stories in the franchise.

Tuvok lightens up.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Random Thoughts (Review)

Random Thoughts is another example of Star Trek: Voyager as generic issue-driven Star Trek.

Random Thoughts is a fairly standard political-commentary-as-science-fiction-allegory plot, with the crew encountering a race of telepaths who have built a utopian society through the careful regulation of thoughts. When Torres is implicated in a very rare violent crime, the crew find themselves embroiled within mystery to determine the origin of the violent thought and the means of its transmission. Along the way, there is a hefty dose of commentary on a broad range of themes.

Scrambling the subversives.

Scrambling the subversives.

In theory, Random Thoughts is very much of a piece with Nemesis or Scientific Method, other fourth season episodes less interested in character and more driven by commentary. However, Random Thoughts is a good deal more muddled. The allegory at the centre of the story is a mess, in part because the script is so intentionally vague. Are these violent thoughts a metaphor for violence in media? Are they a commentary on heat speech? Are they an analogy for drug addiction? What about non-heteronormative sexuality?

Random Thoughts never seems to decide on one central metaphor, and so casts an exceptionally broad net. The problem is that these issues are radically different from one another, and the all-encompassing nature of the central analogy robs the episode of any nuance or sophistication. An episode advocating for the legalisation of drug use is radically different from an episode against the criminalisation of heat speech. It is very difficult to work out exactly what Random Thoughts is saying, let alone what it wants to say.

Whisked away.

Whisked away.

This muddled storytelling plays out in other ways. Random Thoughts is a mess episode, in terms of storytelling and structure. The plot wanders in various different directions, shifting focus from one member of the ensemble to another; for a story about Torres’ emotions, Torres is afforded very little agency. The narrative also diverts along pointless tangents, with obvious filler scenes like Paris and Chakotay discussing a rescue that never happens or Seven of Nine stopping by the Ready Room to discuss the moral of the episode.

There is something distractingly unfocused about Random Thoughts.

Secure in his convictions.

Secure in his convictions.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Raven (Review)

Seven of Nine is something of a mixed blessing for Star Trek: Voyager.

In some respects, the character is a transparent ratings ploy designed to refocus media attention on and attract young male viewers to a television series facing major audience attrition. The series already has enough trouble serving the under-developed members of its ensemble like Chakotay, Tuvok and Kim. The arrival of Seven of Nine only compounds this issue, with the character serving as a focal point in five of the first six episodes of the fourth season. Seven of Nine is a very cynical addition to the cast, an awkward band aid applied to a patient with a chronic condition.

Enlightening.

Enlightening.

However, there is no denying that Seven of Nine works as a character. Even is early in the fourth season, Seven of Nine is more intriguing and compelling than most of the primary cast. As early as The Gift, Jeri Ryan demonstrated that she was one of the strongest members of the ensemble. Seven of Nine might be an awkward combination of the Spock and Data archetype with blatant fan service, but she already has a stronger character and a clearer arc than the vast majority of the regular cast. The production team know what they want from Seven, which is more than can be said of Chakotay, Tuvok or Kim.

Indeed, The Raven further solidifies the character’s purpose and arc in the larger context of Voyager. Indeed, The Raven very cleverly and very literalises Seven of Nine’s character arc, doing so in a way that integrates her into the larger broader themes of Voyager. With The Raven, Seven’s journey to reclaim her lost humanity is rendered as a literal homecoming. Like everybody else on the ship, Seven is ultimately trying to find her way back home.

"I shall become a bat... er... a human."

“I shall become a bat… er… a human.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Alter Ego (Review)

Following on from the aborted promise of a new beginning in Fair Trade, things get back to normal.

Alter Ego is another episode of Star Trek: Voyager that feels like it might have been wholly repurposed from an earlier Star Trek show. On the surface, it is a fairly standard “holodeck run amok” story in the style of earlier episodes like Heroes and Demons or Projections. However the contours of the plot recall a very specific (and very good) episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. As Alter Ego seems to suggest that a holographic character has achieved sentience and threatens to destroy the ship, it recalls the far superior Ship in a Bottle.

Forced attraction.

Forced attraction.

There are differences, of course. Ship in a Bottle is a far stronger episode, one of the best holodeck stories ever produced. More than that, the climax of Alter Ego reveals that the holodeck programme has not become sentient but is instead being used as the avatar of an outside force. Still, this twist is confined to the last act of the episode, and so it feels more like an embellishment than a revision. For the bulk of its runtime, Alter Ego plays as a pale imitation of a much stronger piece of television.

It does not help matter that Alter Ego‘s novel twist on that central premise is to paint its central guest star as a psychotic stalker with a crush.

A whole ball of crazy.

A whole ball of crazy.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Innocence (Review)

This February and March, 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.

One of the remarkable things about the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager is the way that they seem to hark back to the aesthetic of classic Star Trek.

There is a palpable goofiness to some of the ideas in the second season that feels very much in keeping with the mood and tone of the classic sixties series. There’s a surprising amount of high-concept science-fiction allegory running through the first two seasons of the show, with the writer playing with concepts not too far removed from the space!Romans of Bread and Circuses or the half-black half-white allegories of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. There are points where Voyager seems to drift away from literalism and wander into sci-fi wackiness.

Kids these days...

Kids these days…

There were elements of this to be found in the first season, with Caretaker awkwardly literalising the franchise’s wild west metaphor by having Janeway’s first planetfall occur on a desert world with a primitive aggressive population. The Kazon and the Vidiians seemed like they escaped from pulpy science-fiction serials, with the show even going so far as to present the Vidiians as body horror space nazis in episodes like Phage and Faces. This is to say nothing of the Cold War paranoia of Cathexis or the primary colour atomic anxiety of Time and Again.

However, this tendency really kicked into high gear during the second season, with the crews’ dreams conspiring to kill them in Persistence of Vision, Chakotay meeting his people’s space!gods (er… “sky spirits”) in Tattoo, Voyager embroiling itself in a “robotic war” in Prototype and Paris “evolving” into a salamander in Threshold. There was a sense that the show was embracing the sort of high-concept sci-fi weirdness that Star Trek: The Next Generation had spent so much of its run trying to avoid, and had only really embraced in its final years.

Bennet, we hardly knew ye.

Bennet, we hardly knew ye.

That is particularly apparent in this stretch of episodes towards the end of the second season. Innocence has a species that ages backwards, enjoying a simple allegory without getting too caught up in the internal logic of the situation. The Thaw is arguably a much greater visual tribute to the style and tone of the original Star Trek than Flashback could ever claim to be. Tuvix is a classic transporter accident story, reversing The Enemy Within. These pulpy elements of Voyager would never quite go away, but they would never be as pronounced as they were in the first two years.

Innocence is a weird and goofy little story that works best as a modern fairy tale. It is arguably proof that the Star Trek franchise probably works better as metaphorical allegory than straight-up science-fiction.

Eye see...

Eye see…

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