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Star Trek: Voyager – Drive (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager has always had a pulpy sensibility, perhaps more than any other Star Trek series outside of the original.

There is something very retrograde about Voyager, something that harkens back to the plotting of old B-movies. The Communist paranoia of Cathexis or In the Flesh, the goofy science-fiction high-concepts of The 37s or Innocence or Tuvix or Rise or Macrocosm, the monster movie stylings of Threshold, the exaggerated campy horror aesthetic of Darkling or Revulsion or Alice. Even older science-fiction staples like the body-swap episodes Vis á Vis, Body and Soul or Renaissance Man. There is a reason why Voyager felt so comfortable doing an episode like Bride of Chaotica!

Photo finish.

With all of that in mind, Drive seems lie a perfect fit for Voyager. It is admittedly an absurd premise, a story about a racing tournament organised by four alien species as a testament to the fragile peace that they have built. Inevitably, Paris gets involved with the Delta Flyer. Inevitably, the crew uncover a wave of shady double-dealing that involves sabotage, attempted murder and terrorism as part of a plot to destabilise the entire region. It is completely and utterly ridiculous, feeling like the kind of low-budget trash that an audience member might stumble across flicking through the channels very early one weekday morning.

And yet, there’s a certain charm to it. Drive is a deeply flawed episode, with all manner of serious plotting and character issues. However, there’s also a sense that the production team are enjoying themselves. At a point when so much of Voyager feels like it is going through the motions, there is a certain appeal in a piece of pulpy entertainment that relishes its own existence.

The event wasn’t marr(i)ed.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part II (Review)

To be fair, the clue is in the title.

It is hard to overstate just how big a cultural impact The Matrix had. The film was the fifth highest grossing movie in the United States, the fourth worldwide and the highest-grossing R-rated film of 1999. The Matrix immediately entered the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time at in the twentieth position, and only climbed from there. The Matrix was the first movie to sell more than one million copies on the the nascent DVD format.

Can’t see the forest for the trees.

More than that, The Matrix became a cultural shorthand. Phrases from the film (and its production) entered the popular lexicon; “I know kung-fu”, “the woman in the red dress”, “the red pill”, “bullet time.” Quentin Tarantino named it as one of his favourite movies of the previous quarter-century. The film lives on a context beyond its original production, its language coopted by fringe groups like incels or men’s rights activists or the alt-right. This just speaks to the impact that the film had upon an entire generation of young men.

To be fair, The Matrix did not necessarily articulate anything new, instead bringing together a wealth of science-fiction tropes with an Asian-influenced action aesthetic. After all, it was just one of a wave of films dealing with similar thematic ideas around the same time; The Thirteenth Floor, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenZ, Harsh Realm. Even Star Trek: Voyager had riffed on similar ideas in stories like Projections or Course: Oblivion. Nevertheless, The Matrix seemed to speak to a particular millennial anxiety at the end of the nineties.

Love across light years.

The Matrix was the story of a future in which humanity had been enslaved, in which human bodies were treated as batteries for a vast and uncaring system. In order to keep humanity docile, this system fed mankind a shared illusion of life at the end of the twentieth century. This illusory world was reality for those dreamers trapped within it, touching on various anxieties about reality and unreality in the context of the late nineties. The Matrix packaged up a host of ambient fears about capitalism, virtual reality, illusion and the end of history in a clever and exciting action film.

It seems inevitable that Voyager would offer its own take on this concept. After all, the series had been playing with similar ideas dating back to its own first season. The fragility of reality and the dangers of convincing simulation are a recurring motif. Indeed, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are not even the only episodes that draw heavily from The Matrix. There are shades of it to Work Force, Part I and Work Force, Part II. Nevertheless, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are undoubtedly the most overt examples of this.

Unimatrix reloaded.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Season 6 (Review)

The sixth season of Star Trek: Voyager was not an easy season, by any measure.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had come to an end during the previous television season. Paramount had made a conscious decision not to launch a new Star Trek television series to fill the gap on the airwaves. This was a rather ominous decision. When Star Trek: The Next Generation had finally wound down in the mid-nineties, Paramount had committed to having two different spin-offs on the air at the same time and springboarding the cast and crew on to the big screen with Star Trek: Generations less than a half a year later.

In contrast, the silence following the end of Deep Space Nine was deafening. Following the critical and commercial disappointment of Star Trek: Insurrection, it would be four years before the Next Generation cast returned to the big screen in Star Trek: Nemesis. At the same time, there was increasing concern about declining ratings for the larger Star Trek franchise in both the fan and mainstream press. Although there were already plans in place for the series that would become Star Trek: Enterprise, it was decided that no new series would premiere before Voyager ended.

Voyager had never been more alone than it was during its sixth season.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part I (Review)

Once again, Star Trek: Voyager takes its cues from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Next Generation bridged its sixth and seventh seasons with Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. That season-bridging two-parter was focused on discord within the Borg Collective, with the crew coming into contact with a group of drones that had separated themselves from the hive mind. It was a somewhat underwhelming two-parter, and is unlikely to rank alongside anybody’s favourite episodes (or even favourite two-parter) from the run of The Next Generation.

Things come to a head.

Even then, Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II had a lot of weight behind them. Glossing over the quality of the episodes themselves, they marked the big reintroduction of the Borg into The Next Generation following their appearance in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. The only episode to feature the Borg in the three years between those two-parters was I, Borg, meaning that the return of the Borg at the end of the sixth season of The Next Generation was a big deal.

As such, this seems like a strange cue for Voyager to take from The Next Generation. After all, Voyager doesn’t have that same luxury of built-in anticipation. Voyager bridged its own third and fourth seasons with Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, but the Borg have been a steady fixture of the series since then. Ignoring the addition of characters like Seven of Nine and Icheb to the core cast, the Borg have played important roles in episodes like Hope and Fear, Drone, Dark Frontier, Part I, Dark Frontier, Part II, Collective and Child’s Play.

Picking their brains.

That is a lot of focus, particularly in the context of a television series like Voyager, where there is less continuity from episode to episode. Including hallucinations, dead bodies, screen images and holograms, the Borg appear in twenty-three episodes of Voyager, as compared to six episodes of The Next Generation. By way of contrast, the Hirogen appear in between nine and ten episodes, depending on how one counts Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. The Malon only appear in four episodes.

All of this is to say that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II feel like a rather blatant rip-off of an already underwhelming two-parter, but without the core appeal. Voyager has reached the point where the appearance of the Borg is a source of dread, but not for the reasons that it should be.

She’s had some bodywork done.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Life Line (Review)

Life Line brings Star Trek: Voyager‘s daddy issues to the fore.

Voyager always existed in the shadow of Star Trek: The Next Generation, never quite breaking free in the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine managed to do. Voyager always felt shaped by and indebted to The Next Generation, always longing to affirm its heritage. Barclay appeared in Projections. Riker made a cameo in Death Wish. Geordi popped up in Timeless. Deanna Troi paid a visit in Pathfinder. The Ferengi from The Price popped up in False Profits. Q was a recurring character. The Borg were a recurring threat.

All my holo-children.

Voyager always saw itself as the spiritual successor to The Next Generation, the rightful heir to what was at the time the crown jewel in this iconic science-fiction franchise. However, this aspiration was not borne out in any quantifiable sense. The reviews for Voyager were decidedly more guarded than they had been for The Next Generation. The ratings were appreciably lower. The cultural impact was greatly diminished. If Voyager had positioned itself as the next in line to the throne, it was a disappointment by any measure.

The sixth season of Voyager is keenly focused on the idea of memory and legacy. It often feels like the series is reflecting on its legacy, cognisant of the fact that the end is rapidly approaching. Indeed, this preoccupation with mortality plays out even within Life Line, which is an episodes that finds the EMH journeying back to the Alpha Quadrant in order to save the life of his dying creator. Doctor Lewis Zimmerman was a pioneer when Voyager launched almost six years earlier; now, he is a bitter and disillusioned old man wasting away in seclusion.

Father yet to go.

There is something very pointed in this, in the idea of a son returning home to a dying father, to be met with disappointment and disdain. There is a funereal tone running through sixth season episodes like Barge of the Dead, Dragon’s Teeth, One Small Step, Blink of an Eye, Muse and Fury. It feels like Voyager is confronting the fact that it has declined over the slow withering death of the larger Star Trek franchise. The end is near, and Voyager has presided over it. Fury went so far as to request a do-over on the entire run of the series, resetting six years of continuity.

Life Line touches on these ideas, allowing one member of the regular cast to journey home and to try to make peace with a deeply disappointed father figure.

Creator hate.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Fury (Review)

Normally, the return of an old cast member to an established show is a cause for celebration, akin to a belated family reunion.

The obvious examples involve the appearances of cast members from other shows on later spin-offs. Think of the reverence and sincerity with which Star Trek: The Next Generation treated Spock and Scotty in episodes like Unification, Part I, Unification, Part II and Relics. Think about the delight with which Star Trek: Voyager greeted Geordi LaForge in Timeless or Deanna Troi in Pathfinder. Even when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine subverted expectations with Jonathan Frakes’ appearance in Defiant, it was still joyful. If anything, Star Trek: Enterprise went too far in accommodating Troi and Riker in These Are the Voyages…

Self-control.

Even within individual shows, the return of long-absent cast members is often treated as an opportunity to celebrate that character, and perhaps even to acknowledge past missteps involving them. Yesterday’s Enterprise brought back the character of Tasha Yar, and used the opportunity to rewrite her mean-spirited and pointless death in Skin of Evil. When mirror!Bareil visited in Resurrection, the episode became a meditation upon how the character’s intrinsic decency was strong enough to transcend dimensions and to define even the worst version of himself.

This approach to the return of established characters makes a great deal of sense for a wide variety of reasons. Most obviously, the production team have gone out of their way to recruit these actors for this specific purpose; it makes sense that these episodes should serve as a celebration of their contributions to the franchise. Even beyond that, it is safe to say that almost any lead character on a Star Trek series has something resembling a fan base; think about the ominously-named “Friends of Vedek Bareil.” Why bring back a character, and attract in those fans, just to do something horrific?

That healthy blue glow.

All of this serves to make Fury all the more perplexing. Fury is an episode of Voyager that effectively resurrects the character of Kes, a regular on the first three seasons of Voyager who departed the series in The Gift at the start of the fourth season. The return of Kes is a strange choice, in large part because the production team often struggled with what to do with the character while she was part of the core cast. Still, there are any number of interesting possibilities. And there is the possibility that, like Yesterday’s Enterprise or Resurrection, the production team might use the occasion to say something interesting about Kes.

Unfortunately, Fury is a spectacular mess of an episode with half-developed character motivations and a highly surreal premise that undercuts a lot of the appeal of bringing Kes back in the first place.

Having its cake and eating it too.

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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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