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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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Star Trek: Voyager – Meld (Review)

This September and October, 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.

Meld is a masterpiece. It is the best episode of Star Trek: Voyager to date. There is perhaps a reasonable argument to be made that it is one of the best episodes that the series ever produced. It is, in many respects, one of the strongest and most compelling exploration of themes that have been bubbling around in the background since Caretaker, offering a more thoughtful and insightful exploration of the nineties culture of fear and anxiety than anything involving the Kazon. It is certainly the best use of Tuvok that the show managed in its seven year run.

Meld is an episode about violence, in its many forms. It is a story about the horrors and arbitrariness of unprovoked violence, but also about the cycles of violence that such actions can create. In many respects, Meld is a more scathing criticism of the death penalty than Repentance, the seventh season episode explicitly written as a death penalty allegory. Unlike many of the surrounding episodes, Meld actually manages to make good use of the show’s Delta Quadrant setting to heighten the dramatic stakes.

"Where's your head at?"

“Where’s your head at?”

In a way, Meld represents a collision of the franchise’s past and future. Meld may be the last truly great Star Trek script written by Michael Piller, the writer who helped to define the modern iteration of the franchise with his work on the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the same time, it is also Mike Sussman’s first story credit on the franchise; Sussman would go on to join the show’s writing staff in its final season and would be one of the few writers to serve a full four seasons on Star Trek: Enterprise.

While the script for Meld is exceptionally well-written, the episode is elevated by a combination of factors. Cliff Bole does great work in bringing a very unconventional Star Trek episode to life. Meld could be seen as a continuation of the second season’s b-movie charms. Following on from the robot wars of Prototype and the body horror of Threshold, Meld plays like a Star Trek serial killer thriller. Bole’s directorial choices are consciously stylised, with delightful little touches like the band of light across Tuvok’s eyes when the body is discovered.

"Funny. I though Braga murdered Darwin last week."

“Funny. I thought Braga murdered Darwin last week.”

The episode also benefits from two mesmerising central performances from guest star Brad Dourif and Tim Russ. Russ was always one of the more under-utilised members of the Voyager ensemble, particularly when his “obligatory emotionally detached character” role was usurped by Seven of Nine in the fourth season. It is a shame, as Russ has a great deal of fun channeling Nimoy in his portrayal of the franchise’s first full-blooded Vulcan regular. Tuvok (and Russ) deserved more attention than the show afforded him.

That said, it is Brad Dourif who steals the show here. Lon Suder is one of the most fascinating guest characters in the history of the Star Trek franchise, and perhaps the only recurring character member of the Voyager crew who made any impression. A lot of that is down to the novelty of a fundamentally violent character in a Starfleet uniform, but Dourif is absolutely brilliant in the part. Dourif might just be the best guest star ever to appear in Voyager, and one of the franchise’s all-time greats.

Beta(zoid) male.

Beta(zoid) male.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect of Meld is the way that it feels very much of its time; it is an episode that firmly engages with a cultural context around Voyager. So much of Voyager seems lost in some sort of weird science-fiction neverland where the fifties and sixties never ended that a well-produced episode that feels of its time is a rarity. Meld is an episode that would feel strange ten years earlier or ten years later, but one which aligns perfectly with the wider context of 1996.

It is a overdue triumph from the Voyager team.

Smile!

Smile!

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